By Marion Filler
If the 700-or-so people who came to John Brennan’s talk in Morristown on Sunday expected to hear an angry man, they would have been disappointed.
Yes, President Trump had the former CIA director’s security clearance yanked, despite his 33 years of experience in the intelligence community.
But Brennan, speaking at the Mayo Performing Arts Center as part of the Drew Forum series, described himself as an “avowed non-partisan” and an “equal opportunity offender,” and offered a thoughtful analysis of the forces he contends are transforming America and the rest of the world.
Brennan’s insights were gleaned during a career that included stints as Director of National Counterterrorism Center, Homeland Security Advisor, and C.I.A. director from 2013-2017.
Though Brennan left the C.I.A. at the end of the Obama presidency, during his tenure he oversaw the investigation of possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Along with other agencies, the C.I.A. concluded that Russia had engaged in a systematic effort to influence the election for Donald Trump.
Highly critical of Trump, Brennan at one point called him “treasonous” — resulting in the removal of his security clearance.
A joint statement by 12 former top-ranking members of the intelligence community from both sides of the aisle, including William Webster, George Tenet, David Petraeus and James Clapper, protested the action, even though they did not necessarily agree with Brennan’s conclusions.
“We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool, as was done in this case,” the statement said, adding that “this action is quite clearly a signal to other former and current officials” to stay silent.
Trump, meanwhile, has continued to contradict and disparage intelligence agencies that have disagreed with his claims regarding Iran and North Korea, recently saying they are “extremely passive and naive” and suggesting they “should go back to school.”
Brennan noted several areas of concern for the future:
**Globalization and the subsequent rise of populism
“If you live in affluent areas and are able to take advantage of educational opportunities and are technically skilled, things are going along well for you,” he said.
However, if you live where those advantages are not available, you are understandably resentful and want to return to the manufacturing plants that no longer exist. He believes that “these challenges will accelerate as globalization continues.”
**The Digital Domain and cyberspace.
“When I got to the C.I.A. in 1980, we didn’t have a personal computer – everything was in hard copy,” Brennan recounted.
Control over the internet is a dilemma for the government because, according to Brennan, 85 percent of the internet is privately owned.
What should the government’s role be to secure the safety and speed of the internet and to monitor it for threats? What should the N.S.A., the F.B.I., the C.I.A. do to see attacks coming? How should the laws be applied?
“We have not yet come to grips with these issues,” he said.
The unfettered speed of worldwide communication has shattered the status quo of the late 20th century, Brennan said.
“Before the internet, if there was a coup in Africa, a C.I.A. official would be typing up a cable in something that resembled Morse code to send to Washington to let us know there was a coup going on. Now you’d have a CNN camera crew on the scene following the coup on television.”
Governance is tough, he said, because of the competing and often polarized needs of constituencies. Governments have less and less time to react to problems, so when the demands and complaints become more complex than they can handle, some leaders follow an all-too-familiar path.
“They would opt to collapse the institutions of government, the independence of the press, they would opt to undermine the independence of the judiciary, they would try to control the environment and would try to take care of their cronies and the people who support them and their tribe. That is the definition of authoritarianism and autocracy,” Brennan said.
Brennan’s most subtle swipe at Trump took the form of a rhetorical question.
“Maybe we should be thinking about credentials for some to run for public office…Anybody can run for office and I do think that ordinary citizens should be able to say, yes, that person has the background, credentials and experience, the ethics, the principles, the outlook, the vision to hold that office.”
Applause drowned out the end of the sentence.
**The perceived withdrawel of the U.S. from the world stage
“There are questions if the U.S. should be in the world’s most successful military alliance, NATO. If the U.S. is really going to stand up … and insure there will be global security, as opposed to just American security.”
China and Russia did not go unnoticed in the dynamic. Brennan described President Xi Jinping as a “strategic, long-term thinker, a three-dimensional chess player. Vladimir Putin is more of a tactician than a strategist, more of a checkers player. He sees the opportunity and jumps.”
Both are eager to fill the void left by the U.S.
Brennan ended on an optimistic note.
“There is tremendous opportunity to be an American in the 21st century,” he said, recalling the words of his father, an Irish immigrant who arrived in Hoboken in 1948 at the age of 28.
“Never ever take for granted what it means to be a citizen of this country. He worked long and hard to come here, America was a beacon of light and opportunity.”
Brennan was told, “don’t just think about yourself,” words that motivated his decision to work for a government that has transformed the world.
“So, tell youngsters to disregard all the political chatter that’s coming out of Washington and encourage them to pursue public service in any number of ways – all sorts of community service,” he said.
We are all part of a global community, he concluded.
“Think about the course of your life and what you want to give back to this country. “This is an exceptional country and we have exceptional responsibilities as well.”
The Drew Forum series continues at the university in Madison on Feb. 27, 2019, with political strategist and commentator Ana Navarro, and concludes on April 9 with former Ohio governor and presidential candidate John Kasich.