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CIA Chief Brennan Weighs In On Russian Hacking, Retaliation And Donald Trump

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The head of the Central Intelligence Agency is offering his view of what Russia did during the U.S. election. Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed charges that his government was behind a hacking of the Democratic Party. Putin said just today that Democrats need to learn to lose gracefully. CIA leader John Brennan has a different view. He's been talking with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly who's in our studios.

Mary Louise, good morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So this is a guy, I guess, who has to talk carefully because of the job that he has.

KELLY: That is true. In fact, he did not want to talk about Russia at all. When his team was confirming the interview with me, they said he's not going to go there. He's not going to talk about Russia. And I said, well, I got to ask about Russia. And they said, well, you can try. So I did, and we ended up talking about Russia for close to 20 minutes.

INSKEEP: Close to 20 minutes - so what did he say about the evidence that Russia was involved here?

KELLY: Right. He, of course, is not going to give me details of classified intelligence. But I asked him. I said, we in the public can't see it. You can. You've seen it. Hand over heart, is it solid? And he said he is confident that Russia did in fact try to interfere in the U.S. election. He also talked about the review that the White House has ordered looking into what exactly happened and his hopes to make some of that evidence public before President Obama leaves office.

I also asked him about this question of motive, why Russia was meddling and whether the FBI and the director of National Intelligence are all on the same page as the CIA. Brennan had sent a memo to his workforce at CIA saying they are, so I asked him about that memo. Here's what he said.

JOHN BRENNAN: There is very strong consensus among not just the leaders of these organizations but also the institutions themselves. And that's why we're going through this review. We want to make sure that we scrub the information and make sure that the assessment and analysis is as strong and as grounded as it needs to be.

KELLY: The memo that you sent mentioned that there is agreement on scope, nature and intent of Russian interference. And intent is the one that's been controversial recently, the question of motive. How confident are you in the intelligence on that? The why is tough.

BRENNAN: I will not disagree with you that the why is tough. And that's why there needs to be very, very careful consideration of what it is that we know, what it is that we have insight into and what our analysis needs to be. That's why this review is being done, to make sure that there is going to be a thorough look at the nature, scope and intent of what transpired.

KELLY: What's been reported is that the CIA has concluded the intent was to interfere with the election with the purpose of swinging it to Donald Trump. Is that an accurate characterization?

BRENNAN: It's an accurate characterization of what's been appearing in the media, yes.

KELLY: Is it an accurate characterization of where the CIA is on this?

BRENNAN: Well, that's what the review is going to do. And we will make sure that President Obama and the incoming administration understands what the intelligence community has assessed and determined to have happened during the run-up to this election.

INSKEEP: That's John Brennan, director of the CIA, who spoke with our Mary Louise Kelly.

And Mary Louise, we had President Obama on the program the other day. He said we will respond to the Russian activity here but didn't say how. What are the options?

KELLY: Well, one obvious option would be responding like-for-like, a cyber counterattack. Interestingly, John Brennan thinks that that would be a terrible idea. He strongly opposes it. Let me play you what he said on that.

BRENNAN: This country is based on the democratic principles that our nation was founded upon. The election process is one of those foundational elements of our democracy. And I, individually, believe that there are certain things that this government, our country, should not be engaged in because it is inconsistent with those precepts, those tenets of the United States of America. That's why the intelligence input to President Obama and President-elect Trump is going to be very critically important in terms of making those decisions that are going to be, I think, very consequential in terms of what we might see in the future along these lines.

KELLY: Connect that line for me. How would retaliating in kind - so a cyberattack against Russia - how would that undermine American democratic principles?

BRENNAN: Well, there are a lot of things that those adversaries, enemies that we have, whether they be terrorists or proliferators or nation-states, they do some things that I think are beyond the pale. That's why I don't think we should resort to some of the tactics and techniques that our adversaries employ against us. I think we need to remember what we're fighting for, and to engage in the skullduggery that some of our opponents and adversaries engage in, I think, is beneath this country's greatness.

INSKEEP: John Brennan speaking with Mary Louise Kelly.

And Mary Louise, he's going to have new boss, rather the CIA will have a new boss and a new CIA director very soon. What do they think of the way that the president-elect has spoken scornfully of the CIA?

KELLY: Well, I asked Brennan to respond directly to criticism from the Trump transition team. They put out a statement that suggested the CIA has been discredited because they got it wrong on Iraq. Specifically, these are the same people who said Saddam Hussein had WMD. So I asked Brennan, do they have a point?

BRENNAN: Well, you know, the intelligence community did not call it 100-percent accurate in the run-up to the Iraq War.

KELLY: So why should they trust you now?

BRENNAN: Well, because there are many, many, many, many things that the CIA has, in fact, done and has called correctly. We don't have a perfect record - I understand that. But intelligence is both a science and an art. Yes, there have been times in the past where we fell short. But I can point out some numerous occasions when what this agency did saved lives, kept this country safe. And we, as Americans, should be quite proud of what legions of agency officers have done over our history.

KELLY: The other criticism of late has been that the CIA has waded into politics in a way that it shouldn't. And I want to let you respond to a quote - this is from Republican Congressman Pete King, who sits on the intelligence committee, who says you should be - you, personally, John Brennan - should be investigated for orchestrating a hit job on Donald Trump.

BRENNAN: Ah, Peter King - he's somebody who I've had, you know, many engagements with over the years. I must say he is a great politician. And he can investigate me, that's fine. I am very, very confident that CIA carried out its responsibilities very well. And I am happy to talk to members of Congress who might want to ask me questions about our role.

KELLY: To his broader point - because he's not the only person who's raised it - does the CIA have it in for Donald Trump?

BRENNAN: (Laughter) We are apolitical. We are nonpartisan. We serve our policy-makers and our presidents irrespective of political party. We have it out for no one except this country's adversaries and enemies. So we certainly do not have it out for any administration or any senior official or the incoming president.

INSKEEP: John Brennan, head of the Central Intelligence Agency for a few weeks more - he spoke with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

Mary Louise, thanks for coming by.

KELLY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.