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Now we begin a series of conversations with top officials in the Obama administration, as its eight years in office come to a close.
John Brennan has served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency since March of 2013. It's an agency he knew well before his tenure as director. He was a station chief overseas, and an analyst and executive in the agency for 25 years.
I began our conversation by asking about the status of the intelligence community's report on Russia's hacking of the election.
JOHN BRENNAN, Director, Central Intelligence Agency:
The report is in its final throes of production. And so the report will be shared with the president, who ordered up this comprehensive review, within days.
And the DNI, Jim Clapper, is the one who is leading this effort on behalf of the intelligence community. And so it's been a very, very rigorous and diligent review to make sure that we have full appreciation of all the intelligence that's relevant.
And I think that the story in there, the intelligence in there will be exactly what the president asked for, a comprehensive and thorough review about what happened during our recent election and Russian involvement.
Will it prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Russian officials were trying to interfere with the U.S. election?
Well, I think, as Jim Clapper and Jeh Johnson said as early as December, that there was clear evidence that the Russians were interfering in the election.
And so I'm not going to reveal the contents of that report, because it is still under seal, and it will be provided to the president and to others, as appropriate. But it will address what Russia was doing, how it was doing it, and how we know that.
I ask because, as you know, there are many doubters out there.
One of your former predecessors, one of your predecessors at the CIA, Jim Woolsey, said in an interview just this morning that it wasn't just the Russians. He said there were other countries likely involved. He mentioned China, Iran. Are you convinced it was just Russia?
Well, we know that a number of countries are involved in the digital domain and doing things in terms of collecting information and exposing information.
But this report focuses on what Russia specifically did in the election. And so I think that the intelligence carries the analysis and the assessments in it. And I will leave it to the president and others to then make decisions about how that report is going to be handled, and what information will be shared and with whom.
Are you ruling out hacking by other countries?
There is a lot of activity that is out there, but one of the things that we want to make sure we understand is what might some of our adversaries be doing to disrupt one of the foundation tenets of our democracy, which is our presidential election?
But let me — I want to continue with the doubters, because Donald Trump himself has been questioning this, saying, how do you know it's the Russians? He's pointed to the fact — in fact, he said a number of times now that the CIA has been wrong before. He keeps referring to the allegations that there were weapons…
Yes, Iraq weapons of mass destruction, which was wrong.
And in the aftermath of that, there was a total review of the review process and the analytic process and the assessments that are done within the intelligence community, with a number of steps that were taken to make sure that we are going to be as accurate as possible. And so it's been light-years since that Iraq WMD report has been done.
And there has been tremendous, I think, further development of our analytic capabilities, as well as our intelligence collection capabilities. There is no intelligence community worldwide that has the capabilities, the expertise, the analytic capability as the U.S. intelligence community.
And so I would suggest to individuals who have not yet seen the report, who have not yet been briefed on it that they wait and see what it is that the intelligence community is putting forward before they make those judgments.
And you were telling me that President-elect Trump will see this report before the public does.
The president-elect will be entitled to receiving briefings, the report itself, if President Obama says that that's what should happen.
But, absolutely, as the incoming administration and the incoming president, he will be entitled to the full report.
Let me ask you about WikiLeaks.
The organization that produced these leaks about the Democrats in this in this — in the election, founded by Julian Assange, he told me in an interview last fall, he reiterated just in the last couple of days that WikiLeaks didn't get this information from the Russians or from any state actor. So, how does that square with what you're saying?
Well, he's not exactly a bastion of truth and integrity.
And so, therefore, I wouldn't ascribe to any of these individual making comments that it is providing the whole, unvarnished truth. Again, this report is going to include what it is that we know about what happened, what was collected, what was disclosed, and what the purpose and intent of that effort was.
Will it make clear what the connection was between the Russians and WikiLeaks, how WikiLeaks got it?
Again, I'm not going to get ahead of this report coming out. These are things that will be addressed and are addressed in the report.
The intelligence community, officials in the intelligence community have told reporters that it wasn't just the Democrats. It was the Republicans. Republican National Committee was also hacked. Was it? And, if so, why wasn't that material leaked?
Again, I am not going to get ahead of the release of this report to the president and to others.
But there is active collection that goes on in that cyber-realm by a number of our adversaries and a number of countries. And so I don't think one should think that certain elements or entities are protected from that type of collection. But there's collection and then there's also disclosure.
And so what it is that we do is try to find out what people are doing, who is responsible for it, and what their intention is, and how they're seeking to use it to advantage themselves and to disadvantage U.S. national security.
Do you think the motive of the Russians was to help Donald Trump?
Again, that's one of the things that will be addressed inside the report. I'm not going to address that in advance of its release.
And if I ask you about whether the Trump campaign was hacked, the answer would be?
I would say that's a question to ask the Trump campaign, and those agencies that are responsible for domestic intelligence and homeland security.
And what about Trump businesses since he became a prominent candidate for president?
Again, that is something for others, not for the CIA director to address.
So, I ask because people are pointing out the fact that there are buildings with Trump on them, the Trump label on them, located all over the world.
Are those buildings now a target because Donald Trump is the next president?
Well, I think there are a lot of identifiers of the United States and the U.S. government, some that are very iconic.
And I think the Trump name is something that is associated more and more today because he's been elected our president that identifies with the United States, the United States government.
So, it's one of the things that I think those responsible for security of those facilities, as well as for the systems and networks, need to take into account, that, in this day and age where there are so many ways to damage buildings, infrastructure, systems and networks, they need on put in place the appropriate safeguards to protect themselves from these types of attacks, whether they be kinetic attacks or cyber-attacks.
Is it the CIA's or the intelligence community's fault that this happened, or is it the individual political organizations that were hacked? Is it their responsibility?
Well, I think there are so many ways to get into the digital domain right now and to collect information.
And that's one of the things that I really hope that the next administration picks up on what the Obama administration did, was to try to better secure our digital environments. And it's one of the things we as a country, I don't think, have come to terms with, just how vulnerable we are to these types of attacks from adversaries, whether it's to collect information, personal identifying information, or it's to bring down infrastructure, or to prevent our military services from carrying out their duties.
So, this is something that I think is going to be sort of the wave of the future in terms of what it is that we as a country need to do in order to protect ourselves, our future, our prosperity.
And that environment right now still is very vulnerable to nation states, to organizations, to hacktivists, to individuals who have the talent and the capability to navigate inside of systems and networks and disable or destroy them.
But my question is, should the intelligence community have prevented this, have seen it coming and stopped it?
The intelligence community has a responsibility to provide our policy-makers, as well as officials with law enforcement, homeland security responsibilities, the best intelligence we have about what adversaries' capabilities and intents are.
And that's what we do. We try to make sure they understand what types of attacks we could be seeing in the cyber-realm, what they might be trying to accomplish, under what scenarios might they be able — might they leverage those capabilities.
A lot of countries have the ability to do damage in that cyber-domain. They decide not to do it because they know that there would be steps taken against them.
My question, though, still is, was it the intelligence community's responsibility to prevent this from happening?
No, not the intelligence community's responsibility.
We share responsibility with the rest of the government. But it's not just the government that has responsibility. We're talking about a digital environment that is 85 percent owned by the private sector, owned and operated by the private sector. So, the government's ability to protect that system from those penetrations is limited.
That's why there needs to be a national consensus on what the role of the government is going to be, the law enforcement community, what the FBI is supposed to be doing. We have seen these battles raging about what the bureau is able to do with the various devices and with this unbreakable encryption.
Well, we need to come to terms with this reality that, in the 21st century, these systems are going to be used to advance the human condition, but they're also going to be used by our adversaries, whether they be terrorists, proliferators, pedophiles, or others. And what are we going to allow the government to do to protect those systems?
Did the CIA, did the intelligence community underestimate Vladimir Putin?
Underestimate? No, I think we always felt as though he was somebody who had a very assertive and aggressive strain.
We see what he's done in places like Crimea and Ukraine and in Syria. He tends to flex muscles, not just on himself, but also in terms of Russia's military capabilities. He plays by his own rules in terms of what it is that he does in some of these theaters of conflict.
So I don't think we underestimated him. He has sought to advance Russia's interests in areas where there have been political vacuums and conflicts. But he doesn't ascribe to the same types of rules that we do, for example, in law of armed conflict.
What the Russians have done in Syria in terms of some of the scorched-earth policy that they have pursued that have led to devastation and thousands upon thousands of innocent deaths, that's not something that the United States would ever do in any of these military conflicts.
Did the United States, did the intelligence community miss the fact that Russia was going to get involved in Syria? That wasn't known ahead of time.
Oh, well, it was.
Russia has had a 50-, 60-year investment in Syria. They have had military bases there, military advisers and facilities. They ratcheted up the support to the Bashar Assad regime, as the opposition gained strength and as the Syrian regime continued to be degraded by the opposition forces.
So, we could see the Russians were not going to abandon a long-term ally. They were going to invest more in protecting that ally. There have been negotiations going on to try to get the Russians and others to understand that Bashar Assad is part of the problem. He's not part of the solution.
But they decided to double down and to bring in their latest weaponry, both in terms of fixed and rotor-wing aircraft, tanks, APCs, other types of things. So they have a major investment in Syria. And the opposition was — as good as they were putting up a fight against the regime, they were fighting the Syrians. They were fighting the Iranians. They have been fighting Hezbollah, as well as the Russian military.
So the odds were stacked against them. But the Russians decided that they were not going to allow the Free Syrian Army, the opposition, that have legitimate grievances against the Assad regime to prevail. Unfortunately, the Russians painted the entire opposition as terrorists.
And that's why they undertook this very bold, and, in my mind, in many respects, reckless military action to mow down so many Syrians.
But could the situation in Syria have been better by any degree had the U.S. gotten more involved?
You know, 20/20 hindsight is quite — you know, it's illuminating, looking at it in the rear-view mirror in terms of what could have happened, based on the things that did happen.
There has been an unfortunate turn of events over the last several years. When the Syrian revolution started, the Arab spring, there was no such thing as ISIL. ISIL was al-Qaida in Iraq and it was just less than 1,000 individuals. There was a wave then of developments inside of Syria and Iraq that resulted in current-day Syria.
No one could have envisioned that, in terms of the series of events that took place. So, do we lament what has happened in Syria? Absolutely. If we had a chance to do it over again, would there have been some adjustments and changes? I can't speak for policy-makers. I'm not a policy-maker.
But when I look back, in light of the way things evolved, I think that there could have been some adjustments to some of the policies, not just by the United States, but by other countries, in order to address this question earlier or, and not allow the ISILs and the Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaidas to gain momentum and steam and taking advantage of the destruction of that country.
So, not getting involved turns out to be something that's regretted?
Well, I think the way that the situation unfolded was — is regrettable.
CIA Director John Brennan.
Tune in tomorrow night for part two of our conversation, where we look ahead to the U.S. relationship with Russia in the Trump administration.
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