NPR logo Transcript: NPR's Interview With CIA Director John Brennan

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Transcript: NPR's Interview With CIA Director John Brennan

CIA director John Brennan says he has "absolutely the best job in the world." Ariel Zambelich/NPR hide caption

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Ariel Zambelich/NPR

CIA director John Brennan says he has "absolutely the best job in the world."

Ariel Zambelich/NPR

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Let me start with this week's news with cyber and the legal showdown unfolding between Apple and the FBI over this San Bernardino iPhone. Should Apple be forced to help the FBI unlock this phone?

CIA DIRECTOR JOHN BRENNAN: Well, on that particular case, it is being worked now through the courts. But from the standpoint of the government's responsibility to keep its citizenry safe, I think there needs to be a very healthy debate and discussion about what the government should be able to do and access when it comes to electronic communications.

You know, for many years, I think there has been a fairly well-established principle that the government, when it has the appropriate basis, or a court order, will be able to have access to information that is important to determine guilt-innocence, or what needs to be done in order to protect the citizens.

So for example, when I think about electronic communications, it is sort of a unique environment. But at the same time, what would people say if a bank had a safe-deposit box, or a storage company had a storage bin, that individuals could use and access and store things, but the government was not going to be able to have any access to those environments? And so criminals, terrorists, whatever, could use it.

So what is it about electronic communications that makes it unique in terms of it not being allowed to be accessed by the government when, again, the law, the courts, say that the government should have access to it? So these are things that need to be worked through.

KELLY: Is that a yes, that you think Apple should be forced to help the FBI in this case?

BRENNAN: I think that the FBI clearly has a legitimate basis to try to understand what is on a phone that is part of a very active investigation; again, consistent with what their responsibilities and authorities are. So, again, this is being worked out through the courts. But I do believe that electronic communications, like other means of communication, or means of storage, should have the opportunity for the government, when there is a legitimate basis, to access it.

KELLY: One argument that's been made against that view is that if Apple is forced to open — or any other tech company, we're not just talking Apple — if any other tech company is forced to open a phone for American law enforcement, what's to prevent China, Iran, other countries from asking for the same thing?

BRENNAN: Apple is a U.S. company. Apple is providing a service to citizens. It operates within the United States.

KELLY: But half their customer base is — half of their customer base is outside the U.S.

BRENNAN: Well, that's right.

KELLY: Lot of people in China with an iPhone.

BRENNAN: And depending on where one operates, they're going to have to conform with the laws of those countries, or else make decisions about not providing their services or products in those countries. And so I think the United States has a long established tradition of making sure that privacy rights and civil liberties are protected, while at the same time, the security of the American people are protected.

And that's where this balance is coming in right now, in terms of how does that apply to the digital domain, which is a new environment for many. And so I think our laws or practices need to keep up with the technological advances. But I don't think, personally, that there should be a place where terrorists or criminals, or whomever is trying to violate the law, would have total safe harbor.

What the government is asking right now is for the companies themselves to be able to access information that they can then provide to the government. So these references to back doors, I think these are just, you know, misrepresentations of what it is that the government is interested in.

KELLY: What about the security risk posed by making people's data more vulnerable, which this could well do? You had your personal e-mail hacked last year, so I'm assuming you're sympathetic.

BRENNAN: Very, very different, in terms of individuals who are violating the law by hacking into individual communications or e-mail systems from what the government is asking companies who provide these products and services to do so that they have the ability themselves to decrypt, access information that their products and services enable. And so it's a much different concept in terms of what the government wants to be able to do to fill its responsibilities, as opposed to criminal hackers, and others, who are, again, violating the law.

KELLY: Is there anything about this court order that gives you pause, as you weigh that fine line between security and privacy?

BRENNAN: I think as the government has said, and Jim Comey of the FBI and others have said, really looking for a way to make sure that that balance is struck between privacy and civil liberties, and the government's responsibilities. So, you know, Jim and others are not calling for a sort of wholesale access to things. He's saying under the right conditions, with the right bases, that these companies need to be able to provide, or to respond, to lawful court orders. That's all that they're asking for.

KELLY: Right after the Paris attacks, you gave a speech in which you called for an end to "hand-wringing," your word, over government spying. And many in the audience...

BRENNAN: That's not — I didn't say, "hand-wringing" over government spying. That's not what I said. I said there's been a great debate about what's been going on, and so a lot of hand-wringing about what the government's role and responsibility should be in this cyber environment. It's something that we really need to be able to come to terms with.

So I don't, you know, support government spying. What I'm saying is that the government's role in this digital environment right now, the 21st century, needs to be better understood, just the way there is common appreciation and recognition and support for the police on the city streets, in terms of the activities that take place at airports and ports to keep the country safe. These are different domains, whether it be the maritime domain, or the aviation domain. And now we're talking about the cyber domain. So what is that government's role?

And people cannot say that the government does not have a responsibility to make sure that that domain is kept safe and secure, so that the country itself is not going to be threatened.

KELLY: Sure. Is there some specific capability you lack that you would like to have?

BRENNAN: In the cyber environment?

KELLY: Sure.

BRENNAN: The technological changes are taking place at a warped speed. So we here at CIA, we recently set up a fifth directorate for the first time in 50 years, a new directorate, and that's the directorate of digital innovation, so that we can understand all of the opportunities and challenges associated with that digital environment.

So I'm not a technological expert by any means, but I recognize that more and more human transactions and interactions take place in that cyber environment. And it profoundly affects all of our ways of life, and it affects the intelligence mission. So I want to make sure that for CIA to be able to fulfill its responsibilities in the years ahead, we understand what the pitfalls are, what the opportunities are, so that we are able to master that environment consistent with our authorities, so we can carry out our respective missions.

KELLY: I want to make sure that I'm clear on what exactly you were calling for in that speech that you gave right after the Paris attacks, because we've heard from a lot of government officials on both sides of the Atlantic, including you, discussing how encrypted communications perhaps prevented spy agencies in both France and the U.S. from stopping that attack. Is there some specific capability, that if you had had it, those attacks could have been thwarted?

BRENNAN: Well, what I think I and others are saying is that terrorists have taken full advantage of these technological advancements. So they've been able to go to school and understand how they can communicate, in a secure fashion, in areas and in ways that may be walled off from government access.

KELLY: Can you be specific?

BRENNAN: Well, it's terrorists who are communicating right now with different types of, you know, applications.

KELLY: Messaging apps?

BRENNAN: Yes, different things that, you know, they have found ways to circumvent the various security measures that have been put in place by governments around the world. So, again, this cyber environment is one that we're all adapting to. And terrorists have adapted to it as well. And what I'm saying is that that cyber environment should not provide the safe harbor for terrorists and others who are trying to do harm, and conduct violence against citizenry around the world.

So we have to come to terms with what the government's role and responsibilities are there, and how those who provide those services and products are going to need to work with the government. This is not something that the government alone can do. The Worldwide Web is owned and operated, 90 percent, by the private sector. So this really needs to be a private-public sector partnership, so we're able to work together for the common good.

So those who claim that the government is just looking to be able to have this surveillance capability and access information, you know, across the board, that is the furthest thing from the truth. The government wants to fulfill its responsibilities in that domain, just the way the government has to fulfill its responsibilities in the physical domain. And our laws, our various government practices, have really not kept up with, gain, the technological advances of the 21st century.

So when I refer to "hand-wringing," I'm talking about people who are saying, "Well, the government should not get involved in this. This is a unique environment."

No, it's not. It's an environment that people interact with, whether it be from a communication, social interaction, education-information, guidance, direction, incitement. This is the environment where people are operating right now. So the government's role needs to be understood.

KELLY: And when you say the government needs to keep up with this environment, which I'm sure, I think very few people would disagree with, I guess my question — I want to make sure I'm giving you space to answer it — is, is there something specific that you would like to be able to do that right now, because of certain laws that have been put in place, you can't do?

BRENNAN: I would like the government to have the ability to gain access to information that is in these electronic various devices that can be used to further their investigations, whether it be guilt or innocence of individuals. This is not just to find those who are guilty; it is also to provide insight into who is innocent.

So I want the government to be able to fulfill its responsibilities, whether it's a defense attorney, or a district attorney, or the FBI, or CIA, or others, to be able to operate consistent with their authorities, consistent with the law, consistent with what social norms are as far as the government's role and responsibility there. This has policy, legal, technological, and other implications.

But just to say no to the government, "No, you're not going to have access to this environment," I think is very short-sighted, and also I think it doesn't take into account the very serious threats that this country faces in how criminals, terrorists, proliferators, others, can take advantage of that type of attitude.

KELLY: And right now, it feels as though you are being told no in certain areas that you're trying to pursue?

BRENNAN: I think this is what is happening right now in this — in this country and around the world; trying to determine exactly what's that proper balance, allowing the government to fulfill its responsibilities, while at the same time, adhering to our principles of privacy and civil liberties.

We don't want to give those up. That is what this country is founded upon. This is one of the foundational principles of the United States. So we don't want to forgo that. What we want to do, though, is balance that with the government's responsibility to keep its citizens safe.

KELLY: Stay with terrorism; what is the state of ISIS?

BRENNAN: State of ISIS is that it has been pushed back in a number of areas inside of Iraq, as well as in Syria. That is where it has grown up over the last several years. It has lost, I would say, between 10 and 20 percent of its territory inside of those areas, as various forces have worked to push it back.

But it also has grown in many countries outside of the Iraq-Syria theater. So we see Libya, Nigeria, and places like Yemen, and also spreading into South Asia and Southeast Asia. So ISIS is still very much pursuing a strategy of global expansion. It's pursuing a strategy of violence. It has conducted some horrific, horrific attacks, as well as unspeakable acts of violence against individuals.

So it is very much a global concern. I will say that in my experience, there is greater global attention now to ISIS than there was to al-Qaida after 9/11, because I think people felt as those al Qaida was really focused on the United States and the West, while ISIS has a much broader array of targets. It has a very strong anti-Shia aspect to its engine of terror.

It also is going into areas where al-Qaida never even ventured. So I think it's seen as more of a threat, not just to individuals, but also to economic, and commercial, and other types of interests globally. So when people come to visit me, my counterparts, they want to talk about what we can do together.

So I see a much more enhanced global effort right now to try to push back against ISIS; first of all, because it's much larger than al-Qaida ever was.

KELLY: A lot larger than al-Qaida ever was. And when you say you feel like there's more global attention, that's what you're seeing among, say, your counterparts and other intelligence agencies around the world?

BRENNAN: Yes, because ISIS has found its way into various cracks and seems in countries that are undergoing political and economic challenges, ungoverned spaces. So whether or not you're talking about, again, Egypt, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or Indonesia, you see ISIS recruiting individuals, and gaining support. And so the security intelligence agencies that we work with are really looking for information, as well as training, and capabilities that they can use against this organization.

KELLY: For you personally, you were here at CIA in the days after the 9/11 attacks, and dealt with al-Qaida, do you feel that this concern that ISIS poses, perhaps a greater threat is justified?

BRENNAN: It's a much different type of threat. ISIS is more of a phenomenon. Al-Qaida was a rather structured, hierarchical organization that was very disciplinary in many respects as far as focusing on large attacks, again, against the West, carrying out attacks against our embassies and other areas.

ISIS is more of a movement. It has sort of taken the hearts and souls, minds of individuals. It's set up as false caliphate, and it has attracted thousands, upon thousands of individuals who have been misled by this narrative. And so I am very concerned about what ISIS is doing undercutting and undermining the fabric of societies, undercutting governments, again, taking advantage of some of these ungoverned spaces that have evolved and developed, truly since some of the Arab Spring manifestations throughout the Middle East. So it is something that I think is going to take a number of years to be able to address.

KELLY: I'm interested — you just spoke there about ISIS in the present tense, al-Qaida in the past tense.

BRENNAN: Well, I was talking about al-Qaida in the aftermath of 9/11. Al-Qaida still is a very capable organization. It's much smaller, it's been neutered in many areas. But it still has a fair amount of capability when you look at Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Qaida still exists inside of Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. And then you have al-Qaida Core in Pakistan-Afghan area.

So it's still a lethal organization. It has been contained in many respects. It has been bloodied and damaged. But it's still out there.

KELLY: I know your job is to plan for the worst-case scenario. In the service of adding some perspective, I just want to remind people that statistically, an American is more likely to be killed by ordinary gun violence than by al-Qaida or ISIS, or any other terrorist organization.

Libya, U.S. warplanes last week hit an ISIS camp between Tripoli and the Tunisian border. Did they get their man, Noureddine Chouchane?

BRENNAN: Well, I think the results of that event are still being assessed. But I think it just underscores that the United States, and our partners and allies, will take action when we believe it is necessary. We've seen, particularly in that part of the world, the bloody massacre on the beaches of Tunisia, and how ISIS and some of the other organizations in that area, really just try to kill as many people as possible.

So actions that the United States takes, these are based on very good intelligence, and are designed to eliminate the threat to life and limb.

KELLY: The White House came out on the record yesterday and confirmed the strikes, and confirmed who the target was. As you work through and try to identify, did you get him, I understand the people who viewed the video at the Pentagon say the buildings were completely destroyed, making it unlikely you're going to get DNA evidence. So what happens now?

BRENNAN: Well, again, what you do, is you try to collect additional intelligence, and find out what you can about who was there. You know that they were terrorists, and want to try to identify the individuals. So, again, this is still in the early stages, in terms of the assessment of exactly who might have been killed during that strike.

KELLY: Watching for martyrdom video maybe?

BRENNAN: Well, I think some of the individuals who were there didn't realize they might become a martyr so quickly.

KELLY: Do you have anything you can share in terms of — in terms of any confirmation on this?

BRENNAN: No. As I said, it's still very early. And I think what we try to do is to be very careful in terms of any type of statements about what were the results of such actions.

KELLY: Let me do one or two more on terrorism, and then I want to turn you to Iran and Syria, all the fun stuff. If you captured the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, tomorrow, where would he go? Where do you put him?

BRENNAN: Well, I think if he were to be captured, as his name suggests, al-Baghdadi, he's an Iraqi. We work very closely with the Iraqi government and the security intelligence services. And depending on where he was captured, I think whatever prevailing legal systems were there at the time, it would be addressed that way. So a lot of these individuals are put into the judicial system, or the penal system of the country where they're captured. Yes.

KELLY: Zawahiri, would he go into — well, you tell me where you think he is?

BRENNAN: Well, again, depending on if he were to be captured, depending where he was captured, the conditions, the circumstances, who did the capturing, I think that would determine the course of how he would be handled, how he would be debriefed, how he would be prosecuted, how he would be just handled.

KELLY: The CIA would be comfortable with having that being done under — hypothetically saying — Pakistani government?

BRENNAN: CIA would be very comfortable with however this is handled, consistent with the legal authorities, and again, the circumstances of the arrest or capture.

KELLY: I guess it leads to a broader question, which is for CIA officers operating in the field right now, given everything that's come before, waterboarding, enhanced interrogation, torture, whatever you want to call it, are there clear legal guidelines now for what can and can't be done if you capture and detain somebody and want to interrogate them?

BRENNAN: Well, yes. First of all, President Obama signed executive orders shortly after he came into office that basically prohibit the CIA from having a detention-interrogation program. The CIA's program had already been closed before then, but there is an executive order that says that the CIA cannot do that.

And so we work with our partners around the world. We provide them intelligence and leads. And sometimes we will assist them in terms of their ability to debrief individuals, and to gain important intelligence. But CIA doesn't have the authority at this time for a detention-interrogation program.

KELLY: When I asked about what would happen, where would Baghdadi go if you captured him, you said, well, "If he were captured," and I want to follow up on that, because it does seem as though we're seeing fewer terror suspects being detained and interrogated, more being targeted and killed. What's lost from an intelligence point of view when that happens?

BRENNAN: Well, I would maybe challenge the premise. There are a lot of terrorists who are being killed on battlefields of Syria and Iraq, as well as other areas, Yemen. But also, there are a lot of individuals who have been captured, arrested, have been detained, have been debriefed. A lot of times, some of those things do not make the headlines like a strike will.

But I think there is a effort to try to capture as many individuals as possible, because of the intelligence take that you get, whether or not it's from the debriefings of an individual, or the material, the electronic media, whatever, that the individual might have on them at the time, so that you can sort of unlock some of those secrets that they have.

KELLY: So the strategy in place, in an ideal world, you would still prefer to capture, interrogate...

BRENNAN: Absolutely.

KELLY: ... somebody, even though it's incredibly complicated where you put them now, and how you interrogate them?

BRENNAN: See, I don't think it's incredibly complicated. I think sometimes there are challenges, again, depending on the circumstances. But usually, we work in concert with our partners around the globe: law enforcement, security intelligence agencies. And again, depending on where they're captured, arrested, will determine how they go.

But we always look for opportunities to capture individuals, to arrest them. There is a determination made whenever the U.S. government decides to conduct a direct action against individuals, that there is not the option to capture them. And that calculus takes into account what the risks might be to the forces that would be used to capture. But as you well know, the U.S. military has engaged in some spectacular activities in terms of capturing individuals, and being able to bring them to an environment where they can be debriefed.

KELLY: Was there an effort made to capture this Tunisian, Noureddine Chouchane?

BRENNAN: There is always the calculus to determine whether or not it can be done securely, safely, taking into account what the risks are. When a determination is made that it's not feasible to conduct some type of activity like that, what is the next option? And if the feeling is that individuals pose a serious risk to civilians or to people in the area, then other direct-action options are pursued.

KELLY: We are speaking with CIA Director John Brennan at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

Let me turn you to Iran. Last year, right after the nuclear deal was reached, you gave a speech up at Harvard. And you expressed confidence that CIA would be able to detect new covert activity. You said, and I'm quoting you, "We've gone to school on Iran's nuclear infrastructure." How so?

BRENNAN: I think over the past number of years, as attention really focused on Iran's nuclear activities, CIA was fulfilling its responsibilities as far as intelligence collection and assessments and analysis. And through the course of the last decade or so we have learned a lot about various means and ways that Iran, as well as other states that are interested in proliferation, pursue those objectives in terms of acquiring materials, expertise, what is the type of capabilities that we need in order to advance the program.

And so as a result of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], there is a very comprehensive, and even intrusive, IAEA inspection regime.

KELLY: JCPOA is the technical name of the Iran nuclear deal, and you're referring to the international nuclear inspectors...

BRENNAN: Exactly; that the agreements that Iran signed onto provide the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] access to a variety of sights. We at CIA, and our intelligence partners here, really need to make sure that we do our job to see whether or not there is any attempt by the Iranian government to circumvent those limitations, restrictions, that they have agreed to. So the intelligence work is not over in any respect. We need to continue to monitor, evaluate, make determinations, as well as provide input to the president, others, about how well Iran is adhering to that. So we're going to use the decades-long experience we've had following and watching the Iranian program to inform our assessments.

KELLY: Are you confident that if Iran cheats on the nuclear deal, U.S. intelligence will know?

BRENNAN: I'm confident that the CIA, along with our intelligence partners, both here in the United States and abroad, are going to do their utmost to catch Iran if it decides to cheat.

KELLY: Syria; President Bashar al-Assad clinging to power, how long might he continue clinging? What's your assessment?

BRENNAN: Well, clearly, since the Russians have come in in a major way, in terms of providing military support, I think he feels more confident that he's going to be able to endure. I think that it is quite clear that Bashar al-Assad staying in power is one of the reasons why the conflict in Syria continues to kill so many people, and take such a destructive toll in that country. That's the reason why a lot of foreign fighters have gone into Syria, and have joined ISIL, and other organizations.

But it is clear that the types of things that Bashar al-Assad has done against his people, in terms of chemical weapons attacks, as well as just unspeakable acts of violence, in my mind, and in the minds of many, may others, and this government, he has lost his eligibility, his legitimacy, to rule Syria, and to be part of Syria's future. So the sooner he is able to depart power, I think the sooner we're going to get onto a stable path forward, in terms of bringing peace, and order, and stability back to Syria.

KELLY: Sounds as though you think his hand is strengthened now from where it was six months ago due to the Russian involvement.

BRENNAN: Well, clearly, I think the Russian engagement has allowed his forces to withstand the opposition that has been trying to bring him down. But I think his departure is inevitable. And I do think the sooner he goes, the better off the Syrian people are going to be, the better off the region's going to be, and the sooner we're going to be able to bring this violence to an end.

KELLY: It has been widely reported that starting in 2013, the CIA has run a program arming and training Syrian rebels, also widely reported that that program has been scaled back. Is that true?

BRENNAN: I'm not going to talk about anything that the CIA might be doing in that area. But the U.S. government has made it very clear that it supports the opposition, moderate opposition inside of Syria. State Department and others provide assistance to those individuals. And we're trying to do, as a government, is to make sure that those individuals who are trying to reclaim their freedom, their liberty, their security and safety, are going to be part of this process going forward, in terms of political process, that will bring a government to Damascus that's going to be representative of the Syrian people, and make sure that the legitimate concerns and grievances of a lot of elements of the opposition are going to be addressed.

KELLY: Mike Rogers, the Republican congressman who, until last year, chaired the House Intelligence Committee, he has said that the pipeline of supplies that was going to Syrian opposition was so weak that it's driven some potential U.S. allies into the arms of Islamists. Is he wrong?

BRENNAN: Well, there are a lot of various means of providing support to the opposition. And given that the opposition is a patchwork of moderates, as well as extremists, as well as terrorists, there is a need to make sure that any type of support that comes from the outside, whether it be from the United States or other countries, is going to support those moderate elements within the opposition, and not the extremists and terrorists.

So it is challenging for a number of those outside supporters to make sure that you are able to starve the terrorists, but at the same time, sustain the moderates.

KELLY: How good a window does CIA have into what's going on in Syria? And I ask, because as you just alluded to, it is such an extraordinarily complex situation. You're not going to tell me what the CIA may or may not be doing there, but is it even clear who exactly you would be intervening to support at this point?

BRENNAN: Well, this conflict, unfortunately, has been raging now for five years inside of Syria. And over the past five years, the CIA has tried to fulfill its responsibilities in terms of getting a picture of what's going on inside the country, in various parts of Syria. We don't have an embassy there, but that doesn't mean that the CIA is not able to pursue its foreign intelligence collection responsibilities. We work in many, many different ways, and we are increasing our ability to gain insight and access to Syria.

KELLY: How are you increasing it?

BRENNAN: Well, as a result of what has been going on over the last five years, I think what we try to do is to have some type of cumulative increase in our capabilities, in terms of access to that country through various means, whether it be partners, or those that we work with and support.

KELLY: Russia. When you look at President Putin, what is your assessment of his — no problem. I'm pausing while the director is handed a note. You good?

BRENNAN: I'm good.

KELLY: One or two on Russia. President Putin, when you look at him, what's your assessment of what his ambitions are? What's he up to?

BRENNAN: Well, I think he is somebody who is trying to advance Russia's interests on the world stage. I think he believes that Russia is a superpower, and it needs to have influence, not just in the near abroad, which involves those areas that border Russia, but far beyond it.

So we see the very aggressive actions that he's taken in Ukraine, because he sees that area as almost a zero-sum game with the West. And I think he was concerned about which way Ukraine was leaning. And it clearly was leaning westward. That's why he took the actions that he did. I think he has found that he's in a bit of a quandary now inside of Ukraine, in terms of realizing his objectives.

Now in Syria, he's had a relationship with the — Russia has had a relationship with the government in Damascus for the past 50 years, has invested a lot of money, and a lot of military support. And so what he's doing inside of Syria is trying to protect his interests with a client state.

And so Mr. Putin is very assertive, very aggressive. He pursues Moscow's agenda in a variety of means. He does it with his intelligence and security services when he wants to hide his hands, but also, he's doing it rather overtly right now, obviously, with the introduction of thousands of Russian military personnel and sophisticated weaponry inside of Syria.

KELLY: You've talked about that you've had a number of phone calls with your Russian counterpart, talking about how to advance cooperation. And specifically, you said you're cooperating on ISIS. Are you cooperating on Syria with the Russians, with Russian intelligence?

BRENNAN: Well, right now, there is active negotiations underway in terms of whether or not there can be a cessation of hostilities in Syria. And so there's active engagement between the United States and Russia in many different channels.

We are very concerned. Russia's concerned about the growth of ISIS, and what it is that we might be able to do together. There are several thousand Russian citizens that have made their way into Syria and Iraq to support these forces of terrorism. We worked very closely with Russians over the years when they had the Olympics in Sochi. We worked very closely with them to try to prevent terrorist attacks, and very successfully.

And so I see that our counterterrorism cooperation needs not only to endure, but also grow and be enhanced in the future, because we face very similar challenges. Now, it's very unfortunate that Moscow and Putin continue to support Bashar al-Assad. I think they would unlock the future of peaceful Syria if they are able to work with us and others to find a way to have new leadership in Damascus.

KELLY: I'm just curious how those conversations unfold through intelligence channels when you're both working for presidents who are backing very different end-games in Syria.

BRENNAN: That's why I said there are common counterterrorism efforts that are underway, common concerns about these terrorist groups. So that's a very factual, informative exchange. What is it that we can do together? If we get information about threats to Russian citizens or diplomats, we will share it with the Russians. And they do the same with us.

But at the same time, as you point out, there are significant policy differences that can chill that exchange that takes place, even in intelligence channels.

KELLY: Let me turn you, as we start to wind our way toward the finish line here, toward a couple of big-picture, mission-of-the-agency questions. President Obama has signaled that one of his remaining ambitions is returning the CIA to its traditional roots — espionage, stealing secrets — reversing this trend we've seen toward a paramilitary force.

BRENNAN: We don't steal secrets. Everything we do is consistent with U.S. law. We uncover, we discover, we reveal, we obtain, we elicit, we solicit. All of that.

KELLY: What is your take on returning the CIA towards its traditional...

BRENNAN: It's interesting when you say "returning CIA to its traditional roots," because the CIA roots are rooted in the Office of Strategic Service, the OSS. During World War II, which was part of the military, paramilitary organization, did a lot of things in the collection of those secrets.

And throughout the course of our history — in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and so on — there has been a paramilitary dimension to CIA, as we have supported a number of efforts around the world, at the direction of the National Security Council, and when authorized by the president. And so I do think that there needs to be a balance between what we do on the paramilitary front, and what we do on the traditional collection-of-foreign-intelligence front.

We have several missions, obviously; covert action when president authorizes it, which is where the paramilitary aspect comes in. There is the collection of foreign intelligence. There is all sorts of analysis. There's counterintelligence. There's working with our liaison partners to be able to build up their capabilities, as well as their professionalism.

So a lot of times, these missions are mutually reinforcing, they complement each other. And so given the threats that this country has faced, the last 15 years, from terrorism, I do think that there's an understandable concern that maybe we're focused too much on that area, in terms of the fight against terrorism.

But I can tell you that the CIA is fulfilling its responsibilities on collecting intelligence and trying to understand the world in all of its various forms. But the challenges are many, the resources are finite. But that's why we here at CIA are trying to make sure we're able to build capability and capacity, be a very agile organization, so we can address those missions.

KELLY: But would you disagree that the line between traditionally what the CIA has done and special-ops military, that that line has blurred since 9/11?

BRENNAN: I think there's been a greater call for the CIA to fulfill some missions that have a paramilitary dimension to it. So you're right. Within the first two weeks after 9/11, the CIA boots that were on the ground first in Afghanistan, it was CIA blood that was spilled first in Afghanistan, because CIA is frequently asked to do things that other organizations may not be able to do maybe as quickly, or as stealthily as we are.

And so given that terrorists will hide in the far-off corners of the world, the CIA is frequently tapped on the shoulder and is told to go out and fulfill its mission to keep its fellow Americans safe. And when we receive the duly-authorized directives from the president that are lawful, and that are consistent with our authorities, we here at CIA will salute and will fulfill those responsibilities.

KELLY: As somebody with a 35-year track record in the intelligence business, you've got presumably, with a new president coming in from one party or the other in January of 2017, what would you like to do with the last — the remaining just short of a year that you've got here?

BRENNAN: Well, I don't know when I will leave CIA. There are three people who determine that; the president, whether it's this one or the next one, myself, and my wife, who's been my partner for the last 37 years. She gets a vote in this, and I think will vote.

KELLY: As she should.

BRENNAN: Yes. And so I have absolutely the best job in the world. I work with some amazing people, the most dedicated, talented people I've ever had the opportunity to work with. Work on issues of great consequence to this country that I love, and that we're trying to do our best to keep this country safe.

So when I think about an incoming administration, a new president, what I want to do is to make sure that whoever is elected office, and the team that comes in, they understand what CIA is doing, what we need to continue to do to keep this country safe, so that they're able to distinguish between that which is sometimes misrepresented in the media — and the stories about what the CIA is doing have sort of been rogue capacity — and the real truth.

So I'll make sure this agency is able to be very agile to address all of the array of challenges we face; not just terrorism, but proliferation, instability, a lot of other factors that are really having an influence on U.S. national security interests. I want to make sure that this agency is able to operate in the 21st century; that's why this new directorate of digital innovation. I want to make sure the agency is able to understand how that environment affects our mission.

I want to make sure our people are trained well so that they can go to far-off corners of the world. We need to be more expeditionary, in my mind, because of instability around the world. Through the remainder of this year...

KELLY: Meaning out in the world, not here at Langley?

BRENNAN: Well, what I mean is that a lot of times, our diplomatic facilities provide, you know, opportunities for us to have a presence. We need to make sure that CIA fulfills its responsibilities, irrespective of what type of diplomatic presence might be in country.

KELLY: Did you just open the door a tiny crack to staying on in the next administration? You might be open to it?

BRENNAN: I think I have a daily contract with the president. I serve at his pleasure, hopefully not at his displeasure. But as I said, this is the best job in the world. I'll never have another job like this. I could not think of something that would top this. So this is the capstone of my professional career. And so as I said, three people will make this decision collectively, and I think any one of them will have the opportunity to veto my continuing, or deciding that I should stay.

KELLY: We've just spent a long time talking about terrorism, Iran, Syria, nuclear issues. Is there any aspect of your job that's fun?

BRENNAN: Well, I think so much of it is fun. It really is. It's really fun to engage with new CIA employees. Every month, I will administer the oath of office to a new batch of CIA officers. We do it in front of a memorial wall down in our lobby.

And I engage with them, I talk to them about the tradition that they're being asked to uphold, the legacy of the stars on the wall, and the individuals that those stars represent, who gave their last full measure of devotion to this country. But also, I engage with them in questions and answers.

And I can tell you that the enthusiasm, and the energy, and the expertise, and the dedication of individuals who are newly-minted CIA officers, is palpable. I enjoy that back-and-forth. It seems like just yesterday that it was close to 36 years ago that I was administered the oath of office here at CIA. The time goes by so quickly.

And so what I see is whatever amount of time I have left here at CIA, whether it be one year or 10 years, I want to make sure that the next generation of CIA officers are equipped to deal with the challenges that they will face. I tell them I'm very envious, because the world is a real challenge right now from a national security standpoint. It is the time when intelligence can thrive, when intelligence and CIA are looked to by the president, and by the American people, to help keep this country safe.

So I enjoy my work. I enjoy working with people. I enjoy opportunities to travel and engage with partners around the world; those who are really dedicated to trying to bring some type of peace and tranquility to a world that is beset by so much violence.

KELLY: Let me ask you a related question, which is this: We were talking about I write spy thrillers when I'm not interviewing people like yourself. And so I'm always in search of a good plot twist. And I'm curious, you landed here in 1980. You must have seen some crazy stuff. What's the best spy story you can share, something that happened to you?

BRENNAN: Well, I've had the opportunity to serve overseas a couple of times...

KELLY: You were station chief in Riyadh.

BRENNAN: ...in different capacities. And I've had the opportunity to be in meetings with heads of government, heads of state, kings and queens, and prime ministers, and others, and just to be part of history. And I feel — I pinch myself a lot.

KELLY: Still?

BRENNAN: Still, absolutely. So when I welcomed the head of the Russian FSB [Federal Security Service], Alexander Bortnikov, to the CIA last year. And I walked with him across the lobby, across our infamous CIA seal there. It was rather surreal, that the head of the FSB and the head of the CIA were walking together.

I think it shows that despite those policy differences and political differences we might have, there are some things that bind together intelligence professionals, security professionals. So there is just so many things. One of the regrets I have is that I can't share with you some of the great stories, the successes. But when I go out overseas, and I go to places, like in Afghanistan, Iraq, whatever, able to meet people who are on the real front lines who are taking risks, because it's the right thing to do, to me, that is just so energizing.

And I know the American people will be just so proud of the women and men who come from the 50 states and territories who are trying to keep this country safe. So it's a wonderful, wonderful experience for me to have the opportunity to serve now in CIA a second time. So I'm trying to give back to this great organization what I derived during my first 25-year career here.

KELLY: Before I let you go, just one last thing I want to ask you about, and it's your desk. The first time I interviewed you was in 2004. You were, at the time, running what has since evolved into the National Counterterrorism Center. And you showed me under your desk, and you had half a dozen hard drives lined up. One was FBI database, CIA database, NSA, DOD, because they didn't talk to each other.

So if you, trying to coordinate the country's counterterrorism efforts, wanted to see what the latest information was on somebody that intelligence was tracking, say in Libya, you had to toggle between all these hard drives. What's it look like under your desk today?

BRENNAN: I don't have that many hard drives at all. The National Counterterrorism Center is an amalgam of many different organizations. So it has the networks and access to all these different organizations. The intelligence community has come a long, long way over the last decade. And Jim Clapper, the director of the National Intelligence, deserves a lot of credit, trying to make sure that the different organizations are able to interact and interoperate as seamlessly, as quickly as possible.

And so a lot of adjustments have been made on some of the technological features that we each have, so that we are better coordinated and orchestrated in terms of the I.T. environment that we operate within. We're still moving forward. The cloud environment has given us even new options and opportunities.

So I think this is going to continue to be an iterative process as we go forward. We need to be able to move electrons at the speed of light. We need to be able to have them be correlated as quickly as possible, and to gain that access. We are, in many respects, overwhelmed with data. We need to organize it. We need to be able to access it in a manner that makes it digestible to us. So we've come a long way since you first visited me, Mary Louise, over a decade ago.

KELLY: So I've got to ask, how many hard drives under your desk today? Or is it all up in the cloud? How does it work?

BRENNAN: Well, it's a sort of combination of the two. I still have some hard drives in my office, but they have been consolidated, and they're operating very, very well.

KELLY: I'm glad to hear it. Director Brennan, thank you.

BRENNAN: Thank you very much, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Appreciate it.

BRENNAN: Thank you.