David Axelrod wasted no time establishing the severe and somber mood which defined CIA director John Brennan’s visit to the University of Chicago on January 5, 2017. Axelrod began the event by relaying in solemn terms how, on the night before President Obama’s first inauguration, he received a phone call warning that there could be an attack on the inauguration. He recalled lying awake that night, fearing the events of the next day, and concluded, “I learned, in those hours, what we were going to confront in this new administration.”
This theme, the unique challenges which threaten our national security in today’s world, remained central throughout the night. After a brief introduction by second-year student Emily Feigenbaum, Dr. Robert Pape, a professor in the political science department specializing in international security affairs, immediately turned the focus to the elephant in the room: Russia. Asking the director to “help us understand the Russian threat,” Pape prompted a reserved response from Brennan, who made it clear he was “not going to get ahead of the publication of this”—that is, the declassified report on Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, which was released the next day. He did, however, acknowledge that “Russia did interfere in the recent presidential election, and we have a good understanding and appreciation of what it is they did,” referring to it at one point as “a threat to one of the foundational tenets of our democracy.”
Pape then directed the conversation towards the incoming president-elect, asking Brennan to comment on the “estranged relationship” between Donald Trump and the intelligence community. Here again the CIA director gave a balanced response, but was slightly more candid than he had been on Russia. He noted that Trump will be the first president not to have served in government prior to his election, and observed that he “is, I think, unfamiliar with the intelligence profession and intelligence capabilities.” But Brennan then shifted to a more diplomatic tone, remarking that “what I’ve told my workforce [is that] this is the time for CIA officers to strut their stuff, to be able to demonstrate just how good we are.”
Pape concluded his discussion with Brennan by asking about a particularly sore subject for the Obama administration: the Iran nuclear deal. Asking point blank, “Was there a better deal available?” Pape prompted perhaps the most spirited response of the night. While Brennan acknowledged that it was not a “perfect deal,” he made it clear that “that was unrealistic.” He went on to state that “I am surprised that that Iranians agreed to so much,” adding that “the deal that was struck … was better than a lot of people, including the government, thought we were going to get.”
With the panel discussion over, Pape opened the floor to student questions. Unsurprisingly, a great deal of them related to Trump’s impending presidency. One student questioned how having a president “by all reports uninterested in security briefings” would affect national security, while another asked about Trump’s call with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, calling it the “one thing that makes Chinese [people] worried.” In both cases, Brennan was predictably reserved and diplomatic, saying “I’m going to give [President-elect Trump] the benefit of the doubt” and observing that the CIA “doesn’t assess presidents’ moves,” although he acknowledged the “amazing power of the president’s word.”
The undeniable highlight of the student question-and-answer session, however, came when Cristina Schaver, an alumna of the College, asked about the “irony” of the United States’ complaints about foreign intervention in an election, given its history of intervening in other country’s democratic processes. As a tense silence fell over the room, Brennan at first responded by jokingly asking for the “next question,” before launching into a terse reply, in which he acknowledged that while the CIA had taken steps in the past that by “modern standards would be deemed inappropriate,” every action the CIA takes has consent and support from a number of federal institutions including the president himself. He concluded by remarking that “we have evolved.”
In closing, Pape surprised the room with one final question, asking Brennan to comment on the CIA’s memorial wall at its headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The wall contains eighty-seven stars commemorating the eighty-seven agents who have lost their lives serving their country. Brennan, after acknowledging the ultimate sacrifice paid by those honored on the wall, remarked, “I can tell you, with great confidence, that if you knew what your fellow Americans were doing in the CIA … you would be exceptionally proud.” He concluded that “I can think of no higher honor in my public service than to be called the director of the CIA”—and, for a brief moment, the wall of reserve and diplomacy characteristic of a lifelong government official receded, and the audience saw the true passion of a lifelong public servant.