On Wednesday, June 29, 2016 John Brennan, the CIA Director, was a guest at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He led off with some prepared remarks, answered some questions from Judy Woodruff, and then from the audience. Below is a recap of the one hour event.

Istanbul Airport Bombings. The CIA Director says he knows of no group that has claimed responsibility but believes that ISIS was responsible. He says there are a variety of reasons of why suicide attacks are successful – one being there are less means of defending against someone who is committed to die in the action. Small groups are able to maintain operational security; the smaller the number of individuals involved in an attack the easier it is to keep the operation secret.

Islamic State

He is frustrated that our effort against ISIS has not been successful in reducing the terrorist groups’ ability to conduct terrorist attacks. He stated that ISIS has the ability to continue to propagate its narrative. He has concern about the momentum that ISIS has outside of Iraq and Syria. The group has tens of thousands of individuals in many parts of the world. They have good communications security. The movement of people and goods in this modern, global society is extremely fluid. ISIS has taken advantage of the openness of our western societies as well as the usefulness of the Internet to spread their message and recruit members.

Sinai Affiliate of ISIS

This Egyptian terrorist group is now aligned with ISIS. The US will continue to work with Egyptian intelligence agencies in defeating this group.

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Brexit

He has some great concerns about the United Kingdom departing the European Union (EU). The departure of Britain from the EU won’t adversely affect the UK / US relationship. He believes the ties between the US and UK will become stronger in regards to collective security.

Sharing Intelligence Information

There is an inherent difficulty in sharing information with European partners. There are now 27 members of the EU and interaction with all the intelligence security services is complicated. The advantage goes to the terrorists that can freely travel across open European borders without Visa or passport requirements.

Internal Domestic Security

The U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are fairly successful in preventing terrorist activity here in the United States. One concern is the ‘Lone Wolf’ who has been self-radicalized by either domestic or international terrorist groups. Sharing of information by U.S. agencies has gotten much better over the past several years. This has helped protect the country; vulnerabilities that existed prior to 9/11 have for the most part been mitigated. The CIA Director worries about ISIS’s ability to penetrate our nations’ security and its ability to recruit ‘Lone Wolfs’ to carry out attacks in their name. While our physical defenses are much better, the Internet provides ISIS an avenue to attack us.

Syria

President Assad seems to be able to hang on to power. He was on the ropes last year at this time; however, the Russians stepped in to prop up the regime. Brennan says Assad has lost all legitimacy as the leader of Syria and will eventually have to go. The Syria problem will need to be resolved politically and will certainly involve the Russians. Brennan remains pessimistic about the situation in Syria. “Dogged determination” of our diplomats is probably the only recourse of the United States at this point in time.

Iran

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Iran is very big factor in countering ISIS (a terrorist group with anti-Shia posture). However, the Iranians still sponsor terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. So there is work to be done here.

Saudi Arabia

He commented on the review and release of the famous 28 pages of the 9/11 investigation. He thinks that it is important that the information is released at some point but worries about the interpretation of the information. He believes that the U.S. needs to continue to work very closely with the Saudi government. He says we need to continue open and candid discussions about areas where the U.S. and the Saudi’s are not in agreement.

Iranian – Saudi Rivalry

The Iranians and Saudis have been going at it for quite a long time. There are some long-standing issues and the current problems of Iraq and Syria add fuel to the fire. The two countries need to come to an accommodation with each other. Hopefully moderates in Iran will come forward and pursue a non-antagonistic relationship. It was hoped that the nuclear deal with Iran would tamp down tensions in the area.

China

This nation is a growing power in all respects – politically, economically, and militarily. In addition, China’s use of the Internet for nefarious cyber activities and its activities in the South China Sea are worrisome. He commented on the growing threat of mainland China towards Taiwan – the relationship is yet to be determined given the new administration and leadership in Taiwan.

Cyber Security

The reliability and vulnerability of the digital domain is a concern. Speed and agility are needed to successfully defend the cyber environment. Cyber attackers come at you with an ever-changing array of attacks. There currently is a lack of an over-arching strategy of defense. Private industry has a huge role to play; the government cannot do it all. This is a subject that gives Brennan a big headache.

Nuclear Insecurity

Greatest threat is posed by North Korea. Pursuit of a nuclear weapons program by the North Koreans is a big worry.

References:

You can view the one-hour discussion with the CIA Director, A Conversation With John O. Brennan, on YouTube.com posted by the Council on Foreign Relations at the link below:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIQDqxl9FtM

CIA Director Brennan Speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations. The CIA directors prepared remarks can be read online on the CIA’s website.