The Cable

CIA Director Paints a Gloomy Picture of the World, but a Rosy One of His Spy Agency

John Brennan said fighting terrorism today requires close relationships with foreign spies.

Central Intelligence Agency(CIA) Director John Brennan speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations March 13, 2015 in New York. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Torturing prisoners. Misleading Congress. Spying on close allies. Failing to predict Vladimir Putin’s shadow invasion of Ukraine.

The CIA’s reputation at home and abroad has suffered enormous blows over the last several years, but on Friday its director, John Brennan, tried to put a positive spin on where the agency is today.

Brennan emphasized the strong relationships the CIA shares with governments all around the world. And part of the CIA’s cooperation with foreign partners is helping their spy services improve upon their own professionalism and ethics, Brennan told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

His remarks show an effort by the spy agency to finally turn the page on a string of bad news stories it’s had trouble leaving behind.

Last summer, Germany expelled the CIA station chief at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin following revelations  in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the U.S. was spying on Germany and had bugged the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Brennan acknowledged the setbacks created by the disclosures, but blamed the leakers — Snowden, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning — for harming its relationships with international partners.

“Unauthorized disclosures in recent years by individuals who betrayed our country have created difficulties with liaison services that we have had to overcome,” Brennan said.

Despite the damage caused by these leaks, Brennan said that during his two years as CIA director, he’s seen a “steady stream of my foreign partners who emphasize how much they want to work with us.”

But that’s not the only issue dogging the CIA.

In December, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a long-awaited report on the CIA’s use of torture during the George W. Bush administration. It showed the CIA’s interrogation techniques — like waterboarding — were more extensively used than the agency had portrayed publicly and detailed particularly brutal and disturbing cases of prisoner abuse, including one where a detainee was threatened with a power drill. The report also revealed that the CIA had misled the White House and Congress on the effectiveness of its extreme techniques.

The CIA also admitted last summer to improperly hacking into the Senate committee’s computers while staffers were putting together the report.

Brennan, though, said he led a disciplined and professional agency exporting its best practices overseas.

“To be sure, if we are to work with a broad range of services around the globe, we must also focus on enhancing professionalism and commitment to the ethics of intelligence,” he said. “We advocate core principles and practices that are indispensable to any intelligence agency, like shunning involvement in the political process, maintaining strict independence and objectivity, and adhering to international norms.”

Brennan described a world of growing instability, comparing today to the eruption of conflict that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union or the series of wars that marked the period of decolonization in the 1960s.

“Rising instability leads to a growth in ungoverned spaces; a spike in humanitarian crises; a surge of refugees, weapons, and fighters across borders; and an emphasis on security over democratic principles among conflict-weary publics,” he said.

None of the questions posed to Brennan by Charlie Rose or the audience on Friday concerned the Senate report. Instead, they were mostly about the Islamic State and the threat posed by terrorist groups like it.

Brennan said it was crucial that the agency maintain close relationships with overseas partners to slow the “emergence of a terrorist threat that is increasingly decentralized, difficult to track, and difficult to thwart.”

This is especially true when it comes to the difficulties of tracking the roughly 20,000 foreign fighters from more than 90 countries that have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight, he added. Brennan said there still were “a significant number of individuals traveling to Iraq and Syria to join up” with the militant group.

Brennan offered a mixed assessment of the Islamic State, arguing that there are “significant indicators” that the militant group’s “engine is suffering” while still acknowledging that it is clearly not “out of steam.” Instead, he said that the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, is a “phenomenon that has snowballed in terms of its resonance and appeal.”

“This will be a long-term struggle,” he said. “ISIL will not be rolled back overnight.”


Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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