Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

CIA Director John Brennan Weighs In On Russian Hacking, Syrian Conflict


Last night, CIA Director John Brennan sat down with a team from NPR. He weighed in on Russian hacking, the future of Syria and his plans for life as a civilian. Here's NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Walking in, Brennan's aides warned us - he's not going to talk about Russia. In fact, he did talk about Russia for nearly 20 minutes. For the record, the director of the CIA says there's very strong consensus about Russian hacking. Whether or not that was always the case, Brennan says the CIA, the FBI and other spy agencies do agree, both about Russia's actions and its motives.

JOHN BRENNAN: I certainly believe that, that there is a strong consensus.

KELLY: Was there ever not?

BRENNAN: Well, sometimes in the media there is claims, allegations, speculation about differences of view. Sometimes I think that just feeds concerns about, you know, the strength of that intelligence and...

KELLY: In this case, it was reports of tension between FBI and CIA.

BRENNAN: Yes, and differences of view.

KELLY: As to the question of how the U.S. should respond to Russian meddling, Brennan says it would be a mistake to hit back with a cyber counterattack. Just because America's enemies act in ways, quote, "beyond the pale," doesn't mean the U.S. should.

BRENNAN: I think we need to remember what we're fighting for. We're fighting for our country, our democracy, our way of life. And to engage in the skullduggery that some of our opponents and adversaries engage in I think is beneath this country's greatness.

KELLY: Switching gears to Syria, we asked whether the battle for Aleppo, which drew to a close this week, might mark the beginning of the end of war in Syria.

BRENNAN: No, I don't believe so. Aleppo's destruction of, Aleppo's fall is not a sign that there is going to be an end to this conflict because I am convinced that many, many of those oppositionists, the ones who are trying to reclaim their country for their families will continue to fight.

KELLY: Brennan declined to discuss the role the CIA has played in arming rebels in Syria. He did describe Syria as the most complex situation he's faced in his career, also the most heartbreaking.

BRENNAN: I think we always like to say that we wish that we would have been able to make a difference in a way that would have prevented the slide in the situation there. We also have to recognize though that as great a country - as powerful a country as the United States is, we have in many areas limited ability to influence the course of events.

KELLY: Towards the end of the interview, we asked about a country that does not get as much public attention as Syria - that's North Korea.

Where does North Korea and its nuclear ambitions rank in the list of things that keep you awake at night?

BRENNAN: It is certainly in the top five.

KELLY: What would be the others, if I may?

BRENNAN: (Laughter) Well, I have - there are about 20 or 30 of the things that are in the top five that compete.

KELLY: There are a lot of ties there, Brennan says. He turned serious when discussing North Korea's current trajectory, which he says needs to be disrupted. He says it can't be allowed to keep adding to its nuclear stockpile and adding to its ballistic missile capabilities. Brennan is careful to stress he is not advocating military strikes, but...

BRENNAN: The pressure on North Korea in terms of sanctions and other types of actions is only destined to increase in the future.

KELLY: Is there a Stuxnet for North Korea?

BRENNAN: (Laughter) Next question.

KELLY: Stuxnet is the cyber worm the U.S. and Israel develop to sabotage Iran's nuclear program. As you heard there, CIA officials don't like to talk about it. Brennan breaks into a smile, however, when asked about his plans for the morning of January 21. After 36 years in the intelligence business, work Brennan says he's loved and cherished, he is looking forward to sleep. Also, he might write some fiction - a spy thriller, we asked. No, says Brennan, something different. Watch this space. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

SHAPIRO: And you can find the transcript of our interview with Brennan, including his full comments on Russia at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.