Former Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan, FCRH ’77, shared his considerable insights into North Korea, Russian interference in U.S. elections, ongoing cybersecurity concerns, and various Middle East conflicts during an October 18 event at Fordham Law School. It was a public welcome of Brennan in his new capacity as the Center on National Security’s distinguished fellow for global security.
Brennan, who served as C.I.A. director from 2013 to January 2017, participated in an hourlong conversation with Washington Post columnist and best-selling author David Ignatius to mark his Center on National Security fellowship. Earlier in the day, Brennan met with Fordham Law faculty and taught two classes.
Brennan’s fellowship is consistent with Fordham Law’s commitment to training students to engage with national security issues in the intelligence community, law enforcement, and government, and the Law School’s long tradition of public service, Dean Matthew Diller said in his welcoming remarks. Diller praised the Center on National Security, a nonpartisan educational think tank directed by Karen J. Greenberg, as the “centerpiece” of the School’s internationally recognized efforts in the field.
“When we spoke several months ago, Director Brennan explained to me the urgency he feels about educating the next generation—and the public more generally—about the role of the United States as a beacon of democracy and freedom around the world and the challenges we face,” Diller said. He also highlighted Fordham University’s strong contributions to the intelligence community, both in the form of Brennan and William J. Casey, a 1934 Fordham University graduate who served as CIA director under President Ronald Reagan.
Brennan spent 33 years in public service and worked under six presidents—three Republicans and three Democrats—prior to coming to Fordham Law. He observed that the tone coming from the Trump White House is “inconsistent with what this country is all about and the signals we should be sending to the global community.” Further, he declared the justifications Trump offered last week for not certifying the Iran Nuclear Deal were “either willfully ignorant on the issues or willfully misleading.”
Trump’s decisions to reject the previous administration’s agreements—on the Iran Deal and others such as the Paris Agreement and Trans-Pacific Partnership—have longtime U.S. allies and partners questioning the value of America’s word and lamenting that Trump’s America First policy strategy actually means “America first, second, and third,” Brennan said. Meanwhile, U.S. adversaries such as China and Russia are eyeing new opportunities to step into the leadership void. Trump’s anti-Iran Deal stance also lessens the likelihood North Korea would make a nuclear deal with the Trump administration, or any subsequent administration, because it sees that deal could be ripped up as soon as the new president arrived, Brennan explained.
Brennan also called into question the wisdom of Trump’s use of Twitter to taunt North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, and estimated the likelihood of military conflict between the U.S. and North Korea at between 20 and 25 percent. He cautioned that this did not necessarily mean the situation would turn into a nuclear conflict, and added that he hoped the Trump administration used available back channels to come to a peaceful resolution.
“Thank our lucky stars for Defense Secretary (James) Mattis and (Secretary of State) John Kelly and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford,” Brennan said, calling them “governors on the instincts and impulsivity of the president.”
Earlier this year, Brennan criticized Trump for denigrating the intelligence community and questioning its integrity in the wake of public reports that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election. Brennan reiterated on Wednesday that the C.I.A. knew in the summer of 2016 that the highest levels of Russian government, under the direction of President Vladimir Putin, had launched a campaign aimed to undermine the election with the goal of enhancing Trump’s prospects.
Brennan recalled an August 4 conversation with Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Russian Federal Security Bureau, in which he warned his counterpart that interfering with the election would backfire and be met with outrage from the American people. In hindsight, Brennan reflected that this was a bad analysis on his part because it seems like many people aren’t concerned about election tampering.
Whether American citizens realize it or not, cybersecurity remains a substantial threat from state and non-state actors, Brennan said. As C.I.A. director, Brennan called for the United States to establish a major independent commission to answer how the nation intends to protect itself from cyber threats and to debate how best to balance security threats with civil liberties. He envisioned this commission to be the cybersecurity equivalent of the Manhattan Project.
“I am hoping we’re not going to wait for a 9/11 equivalent in cyber to take the steps that are necessary,” Brennan said.
In his role with Fordham Law, Brennan will contribute his expertise and insights as a leading practitioner in national security to the Center on National Security’s mission of bringing to public attention issues of national security, foreign policy, governance, and the rule of law. He will participate in conferences, workshops, and other events hosted by the center.
He also plans to serve as a mentor to students who wish to know more about government service and professional opportunities in the field of national security.
“For the way the center has evolved over the past years, always trying to open up a conversation for the people who are most thoughtful, most in front on these issues, most responsible for what happens in Washington and around the world, and most generous with who they are as human beings, he makes perfect sense here,” Greenberg said during her introductory remarks.