Ep. 111 - John Brennan

Update: 2017-01-09


John Brennan, the outgoing CIA Director, talks with David Axelrod about the consequences that could arise from devaluing the intelligence community, the Russian hack into the Democratic National Committee’s computers, the many geopolitical challenges in the Middle East, and much more.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at Today The The The The and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod the the one of the education her she very quickly as a new aid in the White House is just how fraught the world is in terms of potential threats and challenges it was a comfort to me that my one of my colleagues was John Brennan who was the homeland security advisor to the president and now the C I A Director Director Brennan came by the Institute of Politics the other day of the night before actually met with Donald Trump and the leaders of the intelligence community to discuss the Russian hacking story and we sat down to talk about his his life his career and some of the very interesting turn of the uh the uh the John Brennan the director of the C I A welcome thank you for swell for coming to the Institute of Politics and thanks for your friendship over the years we were colleagues in the White House but I didn't know then what I because of the research that I was given before this conversation that we had this thing in common which is where both the sons of immigrant parents tell me about your daddy's from Ireland yes my dad Owen Brennan who passed away last week oh no I'm so sorry in fact and going to be is his wake and funeral is this weekend New Jersey live to ninety six and a half tremendous inspiration role model for me was a blacksmith and farrier came to his country at the age of twenty eight nineteen forty eight I love this country found a wonderful woman raised a family had to work ethic that was second to none and integrity and moral character that I show it can be half the man my father was an inspiration to me when you grow up in Jersey City I was born in Jersey City I grew up in Hudson County New Jersey First West New York and North Bergen which is right across from Manhattan I I have this is another week we have here because my grandparents lived in Jersey City cesspool of time in Jersey City going to Greenspan's daily by Greenspan's in Jersey City a tale of escalators I know ask you that jumping jack to her and I I was so surprised about that just because um I've met you later in life in the knees are a little freaky now well after three hip replacements on one knee replacement a number of surgeries I don't have the same jumping people had back then but yet the one point I was able to dunk and the six foot that's because yes baseball was my love when I was young always hope to have an NBA career I think um I may have decided that that might not be in the offing but you know I still just love the game was a guy he was a little thus Billy Cunningham much or as Miss High School in Brooklyn who was also huge leap are way beyond his size another Irish guy another Irish sleeper and Catholicism was very fundamental in your Well I was raising a very strict Catholic family but a very strong Irish Catholic family my result was a blue collar lower middle class neighborhood but my father was and construction but they would save up the money so they could send me to Catholic school and so I had Franciscan Sisters in elementary school and Christian Brothers in high school and graduates and college for diversity and I joke that I was was beaten and rated by many of the Catholic Church but it was a tremendous education experience for me was disciplined but was also a real investment and the moral fiber of students and I was I was gonna be the first American pope that was what I really wanted to do up until a high school as I was playing to going to seminary and then decided that that was not for me but I don't have that actually tough to get that job the gifts that they don't just give it out and I don't have the faith they have shown but a belief that I have the spirituality as well as the moral compass that I developed because of my family my parents my my early schooling that something that continues to be my north star I should've ass I don't leave your family with us but my mom is ninety five and my married for sixty four years and she is in New Jersey still and I have an older sister younger brother who are in the area with my mother lives and my mother father live together an assisted living facility but she was the daughter of Irish immigrants while her grandparents when we can smile and so it was Irish both sides lot of singing and dancing and yes that was good that I um you know you are our friend Denis McDonough was with us a few weeks ago and I talked about the new pope who suggests to it yes and and tennis loud what that meant to him does it has that view for you interacted with the pope well yes I was invited to the White House for the when the pope came to serve money and then I was introduced to him and I remember vividly when I was on the line and then when I cut up to the pope and president introduced me as the job Brent rector see a legacy the Pope's eyebrows go up a little bit and then the president's mealy said Tuesday it rained so the Pope gave a smile a warm handshake but yeah the Jesuits had a number of Jesuits at Fordham University and especially on the philosophy courses theology courses do they really did a lot in terms of my intellectual curiosity and really stimulated thought Ah I find that it was to be a tremendous tremendous into lax on them and so I there's a special I think affinity to judge which for those who are trained to see qualities in him that you recognize from those days from the people who were your mentors well they do in terms of the the the interest of mankind as well as he is somebody who is is not attracted by grand jury and worldly goods and material goods and really I think try to share with the concept that we are all children of God and we need to take stock of what is happening in our world and I remember a number of my by Jesuits in college who really opened up my eyes to the world and coming out of my northern New Jersey New York environment and made me understand that I am just one person of billions and worse of all in this together so the Pope is a very present when I want to I want to follow that train of thought but it's one more question about him when you kiss to your analysis I know he's deeply involved for example on the Cuba issue and was an impetus for some of the work that the president did in terms of getting rid of the Pope addressed to both of them were activists and even then giving the pope little more credit because I think Dennis would insist but do you guys when you do your analysis I mean you look at the Pope as sort of a geo political figure do you evaluate his impact if if he is weighing in on something and if he is look to for his his thoughts his involvement in something he yes he is a world figure and if the Catholic Church of the Vatican gets involved in some type of situation or crisis whatever but it's not something that you know we focus on terms of lyrical poet clicking it's about me assure you but also you talked about this your eyes being open there I'm interested in how you made this journey you began to study different a different part of the oh had that that's a long way from Hudson County it is my cousin was in a ID and he was the Food for Peace Officer in Indonesia and he invited me to go out there in the summer of my freshman year of college was able to convince one of my political science professors to allow me to do tutorial so at least get some credit for going out there and selling my toys and I traveled out to Indonesia was out there for about two months oh and did it the paper on oil and politics in Indonesia travel across Java motorcycle across Java then went to Bali spent a week there and and this my first time out the country from Ireland and it really did open my eyes to different cultures to for religions and also gave me a sense of just how huge this world is and how diverse this which stimulated then my wanderlust and that's when I went to her conversing Cairo my junior year was at Fordham because I went back after today she went back to the jersey was commuting back and forth for them and my professor and sophomore year brought in a brochure it was for the marking of us in Beirut has been to go there but that was the year of the Civil War that the UB was closed down so I then went to Mark years in Cairo never been to Middle East before my interest and the region and the people in the language and that's why I pursued are back in graduate school studies and led to my postings then in the Middle East so whenever but you weren't doing that with a mind toward working for the C I know I just was trying to learn as much they could about the world and I just enjoyed seeing new things and experiencing new cultures and new environments and when I was in disclosing the program if you were to Texas I got married a young age twenty two I think my wife was the concern is getting too comfortable as a graduate student I and so I had the had an application for the C I A because I saw an advertisement in The New York Times that I sent in my resume for instance the head overseas travel the state will pursue graduate studies and if you have an interest in the C I A said the supplication and so is this that my wife was concerned that I wasn't pulling my weight as he sits in that application to CIS which they did and I didn't know what I was going to encounter but they offered me a job because they did have some Arabic an overseas experience I didn't know what I wanted us started the agency operations and then had the opportunity to serve an interim assignment in the athletic side and I felt that was a better match for me so I spent most my career at the agency on the Alex sighed and went back and forth between operations so it was so so analyzing raw data and interpret to mean its meaning reading reports that were sent in to Langley from the State Department and others and from intelligence that we acquired from sources and evaluating that and then writing reports for the president is influencing yeah and putting it together I found that something that I enjoyed enjoyed writing a joint briefing and I had the opportunity to go out pretty early my agency career serving a rotation with the State Department at the American Embassy in Jetta Saudi Arabia back in the early eighties the embassies were agenda that Riyadh was out there for two years my wife and I went out there for children and I went to a six month tutorial Our the myopic was pretty good time and just travel a lot went with well for the tribes for the week did a lot of hiking camping went down to Yemen and just really enjoyed experiencing life outside of New Jersey yes you can get as far from northern New Jersey to as That you when you when you first join the C I A C I A had had a rough decade in the seventies because of some of the scandals surrounding President Nixon and there was a whole re evaluation of how intelligence was done and managed and overseen of that did that give you any pause had you where that was this was at the recent exit actually had some former O C I A officers who would speak at UT and some of them were quite critical of the agency still peaking on one time and that was after the church and had committee hearings that look at some of the sea activities that needed to be cleaned up and that's when the Congress decide to have oversight committees in both the House Senate and appropriately so so I was attracted to CA because so was two for the time I had interests in CA because when I was young I found out that Nathan hell the Americas first bite was hanged on September twenty second in seventeen seventy six I was born on September twenty second nineteen fifty five so when I was a history book I saw that he was hanging that they did just that my eyes and maybe you know I will be a sae i lyk hell hope they will have the same and yeah that was consistent with the Graham actually when you um you talk to when you spoke to our students a few minutes ago you talked about the fact that one of your early mentors Robert Ames was was killed in the embassy attack in Beirut in nineteen eighty three that we talk a little bit about it but this is special person whose book was written about him two years ago so called good spot but Kiper and he was somebody who worked in Middle East was a very good at her best work with Palestinians lived in Yemen he was an operations officer for most of his career and then again his career he became the head of the analytic office that was possible for the new recent South Asia that was the office that I was in before it went up so maybe the first time when I was studying Arabic for those six months I would frequently go into the office the weekends and you be there and he would test me my Arabic and it was he was a master artist I was a rather young novice harvest at the time and it really came to respect admire him and so when he was forty nine and he was on travel to the Middle East and he was at the embassy in Beirut he was in the stairwell when the bomb went off the truck bomb and he was killed instantly in six months before retirement and his his wife and family then were left without Bob and his star is one of those on the oil was one of this one I'm seventeen and every year we have our memorial ceremony many other family members of those stars come back year after year to year and a cops wife and sons come back so he is somebody who made such an imprint on me because he was such a specialist in intelligence he was a tremendous harvest and he was somebody who I think had the integrity and professional talent that I want to emulate you we had by the way I'm also fairly recently Steve Kerr the coach of the Golden State Warriors and you know his father Malcolm Kerr was assassinated in in the eighties and a an admirable public servant and his in his own rice as it had to due process that then did that was at the first kind of loss that you experienced yeah I was living in the embassy in my office when the names of the killed coming across cable and I saw Robert Ames somebody at the Embassy who also was named Robert James Bobby it would be out there because he's back at headquarters and when I found that it was it was a tremendous shock awe and it made very real conflict the violence the bloodshed that was going on because he was the first person that I knew personally who died at the hands of terrorists I have known many others since then but that was a very profound events in my life in that it made me think of to redouble my interest in the Middle East because of the example he set for me as a royal this the Middle East was then it's in many ways more so now I think it's fair to say um weren't worse is all going you I'm asking you this now because you have deep expertise in this region but you know there's enormous anxiety for obvious reasons and I'm wondering what you foresee I forsee more challenges ahead for Ceci foresee more violence and bloodshed the Middle East is going through a very very difficult phase of its history and the Arab Spring I thought you know brought before a lot of issues that need to be addressed because that was repression and so many of these countries authoritarian rulers who didn't take into account the interests of their citizens corruption still runs rampant in many many countries and we should not be just addressing the symptoms of the problems the violence the terrorism extremism we really have to get to those underlying factors in addition that contribute to them so is the institutions of governance is the cannot be forced me to take place so that there can be opportunities for individuals to take to be part of a market economy to be able to have the opportunity to vote for their their government leaders the need to be able to have this type of education schooling that they need in order to gain the skills spate of mine economy their judicial systems need to be revamped so I know that there's a lot of focus and C I A does focus a lot because that's the responsibility on preventing those terrorist attacks and we try to strengthen the security intelligence services which is very important but you have to look behind in the pointy end of the spear behalf to have the reforms the reforms economic reforms it this disparity in wealth continues to exist up there when I see the growth in terms of the numbers of people increasing urbanization and so the next decade or more is going to be a very very challenging for a lot of these countries to take a short break be right back with director John Brennan rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender it's important to work with someone you can trust leisure best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision skip the bank of the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty you know I listen to you and I thoroughly agree with you but the mood of Americans is very much or many Americans very much in word of looking out there is a sense that this is their problem and why we have to get involved in it that the issue of resources and how much there's the age ol' thing about foreign aid and which is less than one percent of the budget but most Americans think it's a quarter of the budget so at a time when u sae u say that things are I mean you must have this concern about the fact that we have to make more investments at a time when people are inclined to make less yeah I think we have to recognize that this is a tremendously interconnected world and what happens overseas has impact on us here in the states both in terms when S security as well as our economy and we cannot isolate ourselves and those oceans to not protect us from the influence of foreign events and developments Ed and I think about American exceptionalism in a different way than a lot of people people of the conceptions I don't think we're certainly any better than us but we have had exceptional good fortune because of this great bountiful country resources and history experience and we are the world's lone superpower we really are and as a result of that exceptional good fortune I think we have exceptional responsibilities to do what we can to try to bring some wants a piece in order to rest the world and so retract thing from that American involvement overseas and try to just focus on ourselves I think Mrs. two things One is this is the fact that we cannot isolate ourselves from global events they have direct impact on us number two if we're going to continue to be the world's greatest democracy into a power we need to make sure that we do what we can in order to help the rest of the world because we are citizens of this world and I I don't think that we should turn away from the problems that are beyond our borders because we are a country made up of people who've come from many many parts the world on and I think we need to do our part and I think our part is larger than other countries you talk about the need for for cover for good governance and other reforms in many of these countries but we asked you all have sectarianism that is that often overwhelms the the desire to impose for governance or at least the goal of of governance and that we've seen raging in the region it seems more intense now the autocratic one thing they seem to be able to do was repressed that and so have you overcome that yes it's saying we look at it and the global stage right now there is both the rise and demise of nationalism national identity there are a number of countries where there is tremendous growth of nationalism from the standpoint of we don't want all our identity our nationality to be deluded know that here you know absolutely yes and we see in Europe as well In this the reaction to no more flows of immigration whatever but a lot of other countries you have a demise of that national identity right now I look across the Middle East as well as African South Asia there are more people who identify with their tribe or religion with their ethnic group and not with the concept of being a Yemeni being a Libyan they are struck with the are something else or there are Shia or a Sony and that just feeds these tensions the sectarian and other tensions that really undermine the concept of nation state so you're seeing a pole in different directions here and I am concerned that people are giving up on the nation state concept in love these countries there's going to be more conflict because people are going to try to stake out what their interests are as part of that subgroup that some national group all the same time you have this increasing nationalism that is more and more antagonistic to those groups so I look out over the next decade or two that with the rise and demise nationalism I think is going to come in to attract more attention and particularly with the flows of people populations and it's not just becos of conflict and civil strife I look at the displacement because of lack of economic opportunity increasing displacement of people because our our coasts are being reclaimed as a result of climate change exactly was going to lead to greater population flows we need to be looking at how we're going to give people a reason to stay where they are and to be able to develop opportunities in their countries and be able to work together as as as governments let me just returned your biography for saying this is related to this discussion Iraq and that you are at the C I A during the run up to the war in Iraq and you to address this with the audience you just spoke to have students here there are those who would argue I think the president has made the argument that the decision to go there of and he made you probably read his speech remarkable speech we use a state senator at the time of woe and he said that he was worried that this would unleash sectarian forces and a war of undetermined length and cost and consequences um I know that at it the Prez elect has been critical of the intelligence at that time but you yourself were critical and you said that there are times when policymakers who want to achieve a goal cherry picked intelligence to try and support that goal it is that what happened there I think that there were individuals that Bush must ration who were determined to have this Iraq policy an invasion of Iraq because they felt as though Saddam Hussein a real threat to
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Ep. 111 - John Brennan

The Axe Files with David Axelrod