The director of the CIA, John Brennan, was in Birmingham on Tuesday for what he described as a “personal crusade.”
As a white man, Brennan said he’s tired of the CIA looking like him and has made it a goal of his to diversify the agency during his tenure and beyond. He spoke to a small group of Birmingham City School students about his role in the agency – he served for 25 years before retiring in 2005 and has served as the director since 2013 – and how he hopes to build a pipeline from inner city schools to the CIA.
While touring the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Brennan said he was struck by the role the city has played in “ushering in long-overdue changes in this country,” and was reminded about the consequences of violent extremism in America that is still alive today. ”Those changes, I don’t think, have been fully realized. And we need to continue on that journey,” he said.
Brennan recalled the last time he was in Birmingham in 1977. “I was 22 years old. I was driving a 1966 Buick without air conditioning down to Austin, Texas where I was going to graduate school…It looked so different than it does today,” he said. “This community has risen up. That’s why I want to take advantage of the wealth of potential and growth that has taken place here. At that time, in 1977, I had no idea what I was going to do.”
After graduate school at the University of Texas, Brennan said he saw an ad in the New York Times about a position with the agency, which led to his starting a tenure with the spy agency on August 5, 1980.
Students asked about his role in the CIA and what that entails.
“[My first stint in the CIA] was exceptionally rich in opportunities to travel the world, to be part of history, to go to the Oval Office and talk to our presidents over the years…opportunities I never thought I would have as a kid growing up in New Jersey,” Brennan said. He served two terms in Saudi Arabia and speaks fluent Arabic.
During his time with the agency, Brennan said he was inspired by the men and women he met who had joined the CIA from all across the country and their commitment to the national security of the United States. “I give a warning to anyone who joins the CIA or intelligence community: You now have an affliction. And it is an affliction for national security. It gets into your blood. It drives you. It’s something that opens your eyes to the tremendous challenges that we face as a country. Especially in 2016 and beyond when we live in such an interconnected world.”
While that new digital domain has provided innumerable benefits, that interconnectivity has brought with it a new set of dangers and inherent vulnerabilities, Brennan said. “The CIA has to deal with a full range of issues whether it’s terrorism, cyber challenges or whether it is individuals like Kim Jong-un (Supreme Leader of North Korea),” he said with a smile.
The work of the CIA requires undercover work, he acknowledged which has become more challenging than it used to be. “Clandestinely, there are things we must do in order to not be seen or perceived as a CIA officer,” Brennan said. “We used to be able to do that much more easily years ago. Back then we didn’t go through our daily routine and pick up all this digital dust; credit cards, ATM machines, our mobile devices. There is a forensic history that all of you already have. So make sure [you understand] the things you put out on Facebook today could be exposed tomorrow.”
Morgan Moss, a senior at Jackson Olin High School who was in attendance, said that she enjoyed hearing about Brennan’s background. “It was interesting to hear about his personal life and how he related that to his job, because a lot of people might not understand how people in the CIA function,” Moss said. “It speaks volumes about him personally that he came here to talk to us today.”
Birmingham Board of Education President Wardine Alexander said Tuesday’s discussion was a great opportunity for students to learn about possible job opportunities with the government. “I’m very pleased that under Mr. Brennan’s leadership he has fostered an agency that is focused on inclusion and diversity,” Alexander said. “This is a perfect chance to see what the future can hold for them. We have an opportunity now with our school system to have an undergraduate program and an ambassador program where we can partner with the agency.”
Before facing a phalanx of reporters who asked questions on topics ranging from Edward Snowden (a former CIA employee) to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, Brennan regaled students with a story of his first time stepping into the Oval Office to brief former President George H. W. Bush (a former director of the CIA) on Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 – a moment he described as the most memorable during his 25-year tenure.
“As I was approaching the office I could literally hear my teeth chatter and my knees knock,” Brennan said. “I had to pinch myself. What’s a kid from New Jersey doing going into the Oval Office and representing the CIA. I was so, so nervous. I was tongue tied. He was such a warm person. He put me at ease. It was just a great conversation that went on for about 30 minutes.
“I was accompanied by one other individual from CIA. And we both walked out of there and we said, ‘We can’t believe that just happened.’ Here we are, two young Americans, who go in and speak to the most powerful person on the earth about a very, very important, consequential issue and he was seriously and intensely interested in everything I had to say.”
Since then, Brennan has briefed, and continues to brief, every president who has held office.
While Brennan offered no details about clandestine operations or details that some of the students wanted to hear, he gave some advice on what he thinks it means to be an American in 2016. “Sometimes when people talk about American exceptionalism, they make it sound as though Americans are better than others,” Brennan said. “I don’t say that at all. What distinguishes us from the rest of the world is that we are a country that has had tremendous good fortune and blessings for all of the resources and capabilities we have by being the melting pot of the world….
“American exceptionalism means we have exceptional responsibilities and obligations to the rest of the world. And CIA plays a very important part in that.”