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CIA director says Iran must do more in fight against ISIS

June 29, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
CIA Director John Brennan sat down with Judy Woodruff to discuss the repercussions of the Istanbul attack and whether the U.S. was vulnerable to similar attacks. He was asked about Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments that Iran has been helpful in the fight against ISIS. “They need to do more,” he said. He also weighed in on the Benghazi report and the impact of Brexit on intel gathering.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to my interview with America’s top spy, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan.

I spoke with him this afternoon at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Director John Brennan, thank you very much for talking with us.

JOHN BRENNAN, Director, CIA: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the administration, you and others have said that this attack in Istanbul has all the earmarks of an ISIS attack. What are the odds that they can pull off something like that in the United States?

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, I think it’s much more difficult for them to carry out something like that in the United States.

First of all, Turkey is a lot closer to their core, to the Syria-Iraq theater. And there are a lot of steps that they would have to go through in order to be able to carry out something like that, where they have deployed fighters, whether or not these are individuals who came from inside Syria or Iraq, but they are close to that area.

And we have the benefit of an ocean between us, as well as some very, very comprehensive efforts that have been undertaken since 9/11 to help protect this homeland.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does the fact, though, that they continue to be able to pull off these kinds of attacks give you any better understanding of what is lacking in either the U.S. approach or the approach of U.S. allies in fighting ISIS?

JOHN BRENNAN: It gives me better insight into their determination to continue to kill as many innocent men, women and children as possible.

And it also, I think, demonstrates that we really have to be on our guard against all different types of attacks, particularly since individuals who try to carry out these attacks are suicide bombers and shooters. That makes it very difficult for law enforcement security agencies to be able to stop them from carrying them out.

I don’t think we’re ever going to have a situation where we are immune from this type of violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Of course, the core of what’s behind so much of ISIS activity has to do with the war in Syria, the civil war going on there that’s brought in so many different elements.

Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that Iran had been helpful in the fight against ISIS. Is that how you see Iran’s role there?

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, I think the Iranians have a vested interest in doing what they can to prevent the growth of ISIS in that area, because ISIS has a very strong anti-Shia dimension to it, so there are some things that the Iranians can do and even some things that the Iranians have done that have helped to inhibit the further growth of ISIS.

But there are a lot of things that Iran does that tends to facilitate terrorism, and they still are the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, on balance, would you say Iran is more helpful in the fight against terrorism or less?

JOHN BRENNAN: On balance, I think they have to do more. I think they have done some things, but they need to demonstrate their commitment to helping defeat these terrorist organizations and being able to work with regional states, their neighbors and doing it in a way that is really going to be designed to destroy these organizations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The attack in Orlando by the young man who said he was inspired or was — pledged allegiance to ISIS, there is no direct connection that’s been shown yet to ISIS. Is this the new normal for seeing what we call these lone wolf attacks in the United States?

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, it’s certainly one of the more worrisome features of this phenomenon of ISIS, which has been able to use the Internet and to exhort and incite individuals to carry out attacks in its name.

So there needn’t be a direct connection. And, unfortunately, as we saw in Orlando, individuals can take it upon themselves and with the availability to weapons or access to material, they can carry out these attacks. This is something that not just the FBI and intelligence agencies are challenged with. It’s also the local police communities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is there — is intelligence up to this challenge, or are we in a whole new frontier?

JOHN BRENNAN: This is really — it needs to be almost an all-of — not just an all-of-government, but an all-of-nation effort, and not just here in the United States, but other places as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that necessarily involve profiling?

JOHN BRENNAN: No, I don’t think it does.

It doesn’t mean that any individual of any particular faith or background or ethnicity is more prone to doing this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.K. vote to leave the European Union, the Brexit vote, you have said that this won’t have any material effect on intelligence-gathering partnership with the U.K., with Great Britain, or with Europe.

And yet it certainly is creating political turmoil. Are you saying it won’t have any effect on the ability of the U.S. and its allies to work together against the many threats?

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, it certainly won’t have any effect or adverse effect on the U.S.-British intelligence and security cooperation and partnership. That is going to stay strong.

There will be some complications associated with how are they going to move from being part of the E.U. to being outside of the E.U. as far as border agreements and other types of arrangements, whereby they’re going to try to protect the flow of people and goods, because they have been part of the E.U.

So they are going to have to establish some new structures. But as far as intelligence cooperation between ourselves and the United Kingdom, that is going to remain exceptionally strong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A question about the report that was issued yesterday by the House of Representatives’ special committee looking into Benghazi, Libya, attack in 2012.

Among other things, it singled out what it called a lack of proper assessment of the threat level in Benghazi and at other U.S. installations at the time of the attack. Is that a fair criticism, and, if it is, what’s been done since then to make the situation better?

JOHN BRENNAN: Oh, I don’t believe it’s a fair criticism.

These situations, these types of assaults and attacks against the compounds frequently take place in a very dynamic environment. And I think it was no secret to anybody that the situation in Libya was rather tenuous. And so I think that the agency and the rest of the intelligence community had highlighted that, in terms of the strategic concerns and warnings that we had.

It’s very difficult to get the tactical intelligence. But we always try to take lessons away from these types of incidents, particularly when there was tragic loss of life on the part of U.S. personnel and others that were there.

So, with each of these incidents, I think what we do is to make any type of adjustments that we believe are necessary in terms of our processes and procedures. But I’m very proud of what the agency officers heroically did that night in Benghazi, and it could have been much worse, except for the work that we and others did at that time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Director, what are your counterparts in other countries saying about the rhetoric of Donald Trump, the potential that he may be the president of the United States? Do you hear any reaction from them?

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, without addressing the particular comments of any individual, I do see a real concern on the part of my counterparts about some of the commentary that is taking place that is related to the growth of terrorism and various proposals in terms of how to address it.

So, there is quite a bit of attention being paid by our partners, by our allies, by our adversaries about what is happening in the political circles here.

But my job is to make sure that they’re reassured that the intelligence relationship between the CIA and their services are going to remain strong, irrespective of what happens in a presidential campaign. It’s one of the most important things about the agency is that we need to continue to soldier on, irrespective of what political party or what candidate might prevail in an election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Director, thank you very much.

JOHN BRENNAN: Thank you, Judy.