Former CIA Director John Brennan Talks Intelligence and Hotspot Conflict Zones

As part of the Flathead Valley Community College's Wachholz College Center Speaker Series, Brennan discussed America’s most high-profile security threats, as well as the wars in Gaza and Ukraine

By Anusha Mathur
John Brennan served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from March 2013 to January 2017. Photo by Gage Skidmore

For John Brennan, retirement allows him to express opinions about the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and ongoing global conflicts with fewer filters than ever before. This week, during a Nov. 7 webinar hosted by Flathead Valley Community College, he shared his perspectives with young people.

Brennan began his talk with an overview of the CIA’s purpose and addressed controversial tactics used by the agency in the past. He then offered his professional opinion about the threat levels posed by major world superpowers, including Russia and China, as well as an assessment of the Israel/Hamas war.

“What I’ve tried to do in the past nearly seven years since I’ve retired is share some of my experiences, lift the shroud a bit off of the secret world of intelligence and talk about some of the challenges that we see taking place around the globe,” said Brennan, whose presentation was part of FVCC’s Wachholz College Center Speaker Series. “And unfortunately, too much violence has been going on.”

Brennan worked at the CIA for 25 years, serving as director from 2013 to 2017 and chief counterterrorism advisor to President Obama. During his time at the CIA, Brennan was most directly involved in analyzing clandestine information collected globally through espionage and compiling this intelligence for the White House. During the Clinton administration, he delivered a daily brief to President Clinton and Vice President Gore.

“CIA analysts put this information together into assessments and sends it forward to the President and national security team to make sure that our leadership understands what the threats, the opportunities, and the challenges are to U.S. national security interests around the globe,” Brennan said. “Every day from Monday to Saturday, that analysis goes into the President’s Daily Brief.”

During his time at the CIA Brennan also became a figure of controversy, as he came under fire for defending the CIA’s enhanced interrogation tactics during the Bush Administration in the aftermath of 9/11. In 2009, Brennan said that “tactics such as waterboarding were not in keeping with our values as Americans;” however, after the U.S. Senate released a report in 2014 investigating the torture, Brennan defended the CIA’s actions.

“Our reviews indicate that the detention and interrogation program produced useful intelligence that helped the United States thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives,” Brennan said in 2014 at CIA headquarters.

In the FVCC talk, Brennan explained his reasoning and the complications of dealing with terrorism after 9/11.

“I think a lot of people at the CIA, and myself included, believe that those tactics never should have been employed because they’re inconsistent with American values,” Brennan said. “But after the 9/11 attacks, when the embers were still smoldering up in New York, there was a sense that we needed to do everything possible to prevent the follow-on attacks by Al-Qaeda.”

Brennan grounds his understanding of global conflicts in history. When discussing the wars in Ukraine and Gaza as well as ongoing tensions between China and Taiwan, he began by providing a summary of how historical events inform the current political climate in these hotspots.

He characterized the Russian military as “woefully inexperienced” at integrating ground, air, and naval capabilities, therefore making them uncoordinated in their military attempts to seize Ukraine, especially once the U.S. and European Union provided aid to Ukraine. He considers the current situation in Ukraine as a stalemate, as Ukraine’s most recent counter offensive made minimal gains.

“Russia controls nearly 20% of Ukrainian territory and their fortifications are very strong,” Brennan said. “I think we’re going to continue to see a little bit of back and forth on those frontlines, but right now as we’re approaching the winter period, we’re not going to see a big change in the battlefield disposition.”

A poster showing some of the speakers involved in the Wachholz Center’s WCC Speakers Series. Courtesy FVCC

Brennan also drew parallels between conflicts across the globe. He likened the dynamic between Russia and Ukraine to China and Taiwan but emphasized key differences.

“Unlike Putin, who is much more of a gambler with his movement to Ukraine, Xi Jinping plays a chessboard in a very cunning and clever manner,” Brennan said. “Xi Jinping does not want to vanquish Taiwan in the way Putin basically has vanquished Ukraine. Xi Jinping wants to be able to absorb Taiwan’s technical capabilities, advanced computer chip production capabilities, and technological prowess. He would like to swallow Taiwan, but do it in a non-confrontational, non-militaristic, non-violent way, if he can.”

Unlike some international relations experts, Brennan does not see the U.S. and China as headed on an inevitable collision course.

“Yes, we have a lot of tensions there and a lot of areas of conflict,” Brennan said. “There are some issues that I think are going to be really difficult for us to be able to sort out, particularly on the cyber and technological front. But there are issues related to trade, diplomacy and other types of things that I think we can find ways to deconflict and even to cooperate.”

Brennan concluded his talk by discussing the ongoing conflict in Gaza from an intelligence perspective. Brennan said that he and many others in the intelligence community were extremely surprised by Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7, adding that the attack reflects the fact that Hamas’s militant, terrorist core has grown in size, intensity and violence.

“I was shocked when I saw what had happened because I worked very closely with the Israelis over the years and I know that they have some of the best intelligence capabilities in the world,” Brennan said. “Clearly [Israeli intelligence organizations] were asleep at the switch. But also, I think Israeli policymakers really discounted the potential for Hamas to rise up in this very militaristic fashion against Israel.”

Brennan also discussed a topic at the center of global debate surrounding Israel’s response to the attack – whether Israel has overstepped international laws of war. He explained the four widely accepted principles of war – military necessity (doing what is necessary to protect your citizenry), proportionality (not using disproportionate force), distinction (distinguishing between combatants and civilians) and humanity (avoiding unnecessary or undue suffering).

“Israelis have basically an impossible task – to destroy Hamas’s terrorist-making capability, kill the militants and the leaders of that Oct. 7 terrorist attack, recover the more than 200 hostages that Hamas took, and at the same time, avoid civilian casualties,” Brennan said. “When I look at the footage of what’s happening in Gaza, it’s clear that the Israelis have a greater tolerance for civilian casualties when they carry out the strikes … one could argue that the Israelis are certainly going beyond what many countries would believe is tolerable in terms of the laws of war. Israel has announced that it’s probably going to have an extended presence in the Gaza Strip, which I believe is definitely the case; there’s no way that they’re going to go in there and just leave and allow Hamas to reconstitute itself.”

The McClaren Hall stage in the Wachholz College Center at the Flathead Community College Center in Kalispell. Photo courtesy FVCC

Brennan also touched on a range of issues he considers among the fastest-growing international challenges: cyber security, rising coastal sea levels, climate change, increased migration, rising authoritarianism, disinformation, and hyperpolarization. He argued that in an increasingly interconnected and technologically advanced global landscape, the CIA plays a more important role than ever, and the U.S. needs to stay engaged internationally.

“I do get rather defensive when I hear people criticize the CIA, which is why I swung back rather hard at a number of individuals who disparaged the work of the CIA,” Brennan said. “We’ve made mistakes, but the CIA officers are really trying to do the best they can to keep their fellow citizens safe.”

He impressed upon students attending the webinar the importance of giving back to their country in the form of public service. He reflected upon his own fascination with history and geography in his youth to make his case.

“I would pour through encyclopedias, history books, atlases and maps because I was trying to figure out what life is all about, what this country called America is, and what it represents and stands for,” Brennan said. “Look at this beautiful country; it’s so large, has bountiful natural resources, large arable land, navigable rivers, long seacoasts. It’s the melting pot of the world, the world’s technology driver, and source of education, opportunity and potential. I think with those extraordinary good fortunes comes extraordinary responsibilities.”

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