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'Undaunted': Former CIA Director On Things He's Proud Of And Things He Regrets

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Over more than 30 years working in intelligence, John Brennan has accumulated his share of things he is proud of and things he regrets. On the latter, Brennan will refer you to a moment from before he rose to run the CIA under President Obama, a moment from the days that followed Sept. 11, when the CIA ran a rendition and interrogation program for suspected terrorists. John Brennan says he did not object as forcefully as he should have and that he considers that his most egregious failure.

JOHN BRENNAN: I wasn't in the chain of command at the time. I was the deputy executive director. But I just felt that that program was not something that the CIA should be engaged in. So I think it was ill-equipped and ill-prepared to carry out the program. Yet it still saluted and carried it out.

KELLY: Brennan writes about the program in his new memoir, out today. It is titled "Undaunted." I asked him to describe for me the moment he really took in what the agency was doing.

BRENNAN: Yeah. In "Undaunted," I talk about the first time I really had a sense of the details of the program when I read a cable from the field that provided some, you know, graphic details of the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, who was suspected to be a senior member of al-Qaida. And when I read the cable, I was revulsed. And I decided then that I was going to express my concerns to my boss - Buzzy Krongard was executive director - and to George Tenet.

KELLY: Then-director of the CIA.

BRENNAN: At the time - yes, George. And George told me that he was very concerned that al-Qaida was pursuing weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological, nuclear capabilities. I don't want to make a moral judgment about their decisions. I just felt as though there may have been other ways that we could have carried out that duty of trying to elicit information.

KELLY: With the benefit of hindsight, what do you wish you'd done?

BRENNAN: With the benefit of hindsight, I think I would have tried to talk more to people about it, see whether or not I could have done something to maybe reduce the severity of some of those enhanced interrogation techniques. I guess I rationalized to myself that this program was considered legal. I recognized that throughout the course of my CIA career that the CIA was involved in some things that I didn't agree with, that I had concerns about. But the CIA had an obligation to carry out its responsibilities whenever they were legally directed to do so.

KELLY: You refuse to this day to use the word torture - to call what the CIA did torture. Why?

BRENNAN: I think very clearly that the program was determined by the Department of Justice that it did not constitute torture. Now, people can criticize those Department of Justice memos, and I do.

KELLY: And they've been revoked. I mean, the program is no longer legal.

BRENNAN: Well, they have been. But at the time, it was determined in the executive branch that that program was lawful. So any CIA officer who was operating within the confines of that program I do not believe should be considered to have engaged in torture. They were involved in a detention/interrogation program with enhanced interrogation techniques being applied. Those individuals who operated outside of those four corners of that program should have been held to account, and many of them were. So, again, the term torture has a lot of legal implications attached to it, both domestically as well as internationally.

KELLY: You write in the memoir - and I'll quote you. You write, over time, I would realize the mistake I made, and I would vow never to remain silent again. Would I be wrong, John Brennan, to draw a direct line from then - your regret that you didn't speak out more forcefully - to your decision now to speak out against a sitting president - this president?

BRENNAN: Well, absolutely. I've tried to remember that lesson that I was not going to hold my tongue, that I was going to speak out. And some people may think it's inappropriate or it's wrong, but my silence at that time I vowed never to repeat because if I see something that is being done that I believe is inconsistent with our values, with our principles, with our ethics, I am going to speak out. And Donald Trump, I believe, has trampled all of those principles and values in terms of, you know, his performance in office.

KELLY: Do you think it's made a difference? Do you think it's changed this president's behavior in any way?

BRENNAN: No. I decided to speak out 'cause I didn't want to cede the social media environment, the Twittersphere, to him. I was hoping that other people would speak out as well. I could tell early on that Donald Trump was unfit for office and that he didn't have the character and the principles. I was one of the early detractors of Donald Trump. And since then, I think that the ranks have swelled significantly, including, importantly, the people who worked in his administration.

KELLY: You're talking about people like Jim Mattis...

BRENNAN: Yes, and Tillerson - Secretary of State Tillerson and others who have spoken out against him. And so I just would encourage more individuals, especially those within the Republican Party, to set aside any type of party loyalty or personal loyalty if what is happening to the country is really detrimental to our security, to our prosperity and to our future.

KELLY: Let me turn you specifically to the election, now less than a month away. The current leaders of U.S. intelligence are warning about election security threats from Russia again, also from China, from Iran. The president's attorney general and his national security adviser say China poses a bigger threat to the U.S. election than Russia. Understanding you are on the outside now looking in, but do you agree?

BRENNAN: Well, if I were at CIA or in the White House right now, I'd be concerned about both, as well as other countries in terms of what they might try to do to influence the outcome of the election. But what I'm concerned about most are the information operations that are out there that we saw the Russians engage in in a quite extensive and intense fashion in 2016 - that they tried to shape the perspectives of the American voters. China also, I'm sure, is engaged in those types of things by placing articles, putting personas into the social media environment, advocating maybe a different U.S. policy toward China. So the information operations foreign services engage in are ones that really can shape attitudes of American voters and change votes at the voting booths.

KELLY: How worried are you about how these next few weeks are going to go?

BRENNAN: I am worried. I am worried about the implications of Donald Trump's COVID illness; how his medications might affect his ability to carry out the duties of the office, the presidency; how he's going to, I think, engage in probably a protracted battle trying to bring the issue of who won the election into the courts; what he might do between Election Day and Inauguration Day. He's still going to have the powers of the presidency. Will he continue to try to be as disruptive as possible? Who knows what else are up the sleeves of those involved in trying to get him reelected? I think he has demonstrated he's willing to stoop to any tactic to preserve his hold on power because I believe he really fears no longer being protected by the powers and the authorities of the presidency - that once he leaves office, he may be subject to legal vulnerabilities.

KELLY: Director Brennan, thank you.

BRENNAN: Thanks so much, Mary Louise. Good talking to you again.

KELLY: And you. John Brennan is former director of the CIA and the author of "Undaunted: My Fight Against America's Enemies, At Home And Abroad." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.