Former CIA Director John Brennan discussed the role of ethics in the CIA and criticized President Donald J. Trump’s administration for its mishandling the North Korean crisis and its overall demeanor at a Oct. 25 lecture and Oct. 26 lunch.
During his visit to the University, Brennan discussed the role of ethics in what he called an “agency that relies on deception.” More than 125 people attended the Oct. 25 lecture at the Woodruff Health Sciences Administration Building (WHSCAB) Auditorium and about 30 people attended a lunch in the Center for Ethics Oct. 26.
Brennan served as director of the CIA from March 2013 until the end of President Barack Obama’s term. He worked at the agency for 25 years, and was appointed director after former CIA Director David Petraeus’ resignation. Prior to his appointment as director, he served as chief counterterrorism officer for Obama.
During the Oct. 25 talk, Brennan said he would rather risk being fired than do something with which he did not morally agree, such as taking part in the brutal torture that occurred in Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.
“There are ethical standards, and there are individual decisions. … I was never asked to do something that was counter to my personal moral compass,” Brennan said. “I think any individual who believes they are given a direction that is inconsistent with the spirit of this country, they need to make a decision to step away, or to say, ‘I refuse to do that; fire me if you want.’”
Brennan said that he often faced ethical dilemmas when he worked as a counterterrorism adviser for the Obama administration.
“I had to bring [Obama] decisions on whether or not to authorize a counterterrorism action that I knew was risky or that was going to take legal action against a terrorist target that we were not 100 percent on,” Brennan said. “President Obama was relying on me to give him recommendations, which he would endorse, and these were life or death decisions. I agonized over it. We’re not perfect.”
During his tenure as CIA director under Obama, Brennan became known for creating the Disposition Matrix, a database that manages information about suspects on the CIA’s kill list. Brennan is also a key architect of the CIA’s drone program, according to The Washington Post.
“Intelligence saves lives,” Brennan said. “Drones have been used for years by the U.S. … and with great surgical precision, they are be able to put ordinates on a target within inches. Therefore, those capabilities allow the U.S. military to be as precise as possible to avoid any type of civilian casualties.”
In the past, however, the former CIA director has misrepresented the harm caused by drone strikes. In the summer of 2011, Brennan claimed that there had been “zero collateral deaths” from covert U.S. drone strikes in the past year, according to The New York Times. But the Times found that a major U.S. drone strike had caused the deaths of 42 Pakistanis, most of them civilians, three months before Brennan’s statement. Brennan later revised his statement to say that Americans could not confirm any deaths.
Brennan also suggested that U.S. presidents should be required to receive approval from “an independent, non-partisan entity” before they can assume the Oval Office. Candidates should receive some sort of “housekeeping seal of approval” and meet basic qualifications before they can be elected, Brennan said.
“There is a crying need for individuals who are experienced, who have knowledge under the Constitution [and] in U.S. history,” said Brennan, who has criticized President Donald J. Trump’s leadership qualities and policies.
During the lunch, Brennan further criticized the Trump administration for its handling of international affairs and advised the president to stop tweeting about policies involving North Korea.
Brennan said the U.S. should increase pressure on North Korea through sanctions or by demonstrating military capabilities. He added that officials should take the dialogue out of the public viewpoint.
When the Wheel asked Brennan in an interview what advice he would give Trump, Brennan grimaced.
“Realize that you’re the president of the United States,” Brennan said. “Realize you have responsibilities and that you shouldn’t dishonor the office.”
Brennan also expressed concern for the direction that Trump’s newly appointed CIA Director Mike Pompeo is taking the agency, stating that the administration and Pompeo were acting like “insecure 14-year-old boys.”
He pointed to how Pompeo said the CIA will become “more more vicious.” Brennan said that the Trump administration is trying to propagate that it is tough by using intimidating tactics.
Brennan often praised “American exceptionalism,” which he believes reflects the incredible capabilities and abundant natural resources of the U.S. He noted, however, that the perception of the U.S. has taken a turn for the worse in the international arena.
“There was an inherent goodness that the U.S. was founded upon,” Brennan said. “I take American exceptionalism very seriously. … There is a sense now that the U.S. will no longer go out of its way to protect the suffering, the repressed — that the U.S. will do those things only if it benefits itself.”
When asked what book he found most valuable, Brennan said the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
He also reminisced about a time when he used literature to advise Obama.
“I pulled out a quote from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’: ‘Some people are so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one,’” Brennan said. “The classics … get to the heart of human interaction and examine some of the factors that drive human behavior.”
Daniel Gursoy (20C) said that one of the impressive aspects of Brennan’s Oct. 25 speech was his outright honesty, a quality that Gursoy said today’s political climate lacks.
“I would have never suspected him of being one to encourage insubordination by subalterns,” Gursoy said. “That being said, Mr. Brennan only encouraged in the sense that he said it is acceptable to refuse an order if it is an anathema to the basest personal principles held by that person.”
Josh Kaplan (21C) said he attended Brennan’s talk because he had hoped that Brennan wasn’t like the average politician, but would, instead, speak from the heart about pressing issues.
“I try to stay engaged politically, but sometimes it can be overwhelming hearing stories on the news every day about a different tragedy,” Kaplan said. “I hoped Brennan would remind me that politicians are still people — I left feeling motivated by his advice to stay involved on the local level to affect real change.”