CIA Director John Brennan Backs FBI in Apple Privacy Debate

PHOTO: CIA Director John Brennan pauses during a news conference at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., Dec. 11, 2014. PlayPablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
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The FBI has a “legitimate basis to try to understand” what is on the San Bernardino shooter’s cellphone, CIA Director John Brennan said, siding with the FBI in the brewing battle over whether Apple should be forced to hack into the phone.

Apple has refused to allow the FBI to access the shooter’s locked and encrypted iPhone, which the FBI argues could have important information about the attack that left fourteen dead.

But “electronic communications, like other means of communication, or means of storage, have the opportunity for the government, when there is a legitimate basis, to access it," Brennan told NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly during a interview this weekend at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

Brennan talked about the balance between security and privacy, saying FBI director James Comey and others “are not calling for a sort of wholesale access to things. He’s saying under the right conditions, with the right bases, that these companies need to be able to provide, or to respond, to lawful court orders.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook has argued that creating a back door for the government into the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone jeopardizes security for all iPhone users. Brennan's predecessor, former CIA Director Michael Hayden, said recently that he sided with Apple on the issue.

Brennan was pressed on which additional capabilities he wished the CIA had to thwart attacks like the one that occurred in Paris last November.

“I would like the government to have the ability to gain access to information that is in these electronic various devices that can be used to further investigations, whether it be guilt or innocence of individuals,” he said.

Brennan stressed the need for a private-public sector partnership to adapt to the encrypted messaging technologies used by terrorists.

“The cyber environment should not provide the safe harbor for terrorists and others who are trying to do harm, and conduct violence against citizenry around the world,” he said.


Brennan spoke at length about the differences between ISIS and al-Qaeda, as well as the current state of both groups.

He said ISIS, although being pushed back in some areas of Iraq and Syria, has grown in Libya, Nigeria and Yemen, and is also moving into parts of South and Southeast Asia.

“I will say that in my experience, there is greater global attention now to ISIS than there was to al-Qaeda after 9/11, because I think people felt as though al-Qaeda was really focused on the United States and the West, while ISIS has a much broader array of targets,” Brennan told NPR.

Brennan said he sees ISIS as a bigger threat not just because of its larger scope, but because the group threatens global economic and commercial interests in addition to individuals.

Brennan called ISIS “more of a phenomenon” and a “movement” than al-Qaeda.

“It has sort of taken the hearts and souls, minds of individuals. It's set up as false caliphate, and it has attracted thousands, upon thousands of individuals who have been misled by this narrative,” he said. “And so I am very concerned about what ISIS is doing undercutting and undermining the fabric of societies, undercutting governments, again, taking advantage of some of these ungoverned spaces that have evolved and developed, truly since some of the Arab Spring manifestations throughout the Middle East. So it is something that I think is going to take a number of years to be able to address.”

Despite the global emphasis on combating ISIS, Brennan was quick to point out that al-Qaeda, though much smaller than pre-9/11 numbers, is still a “very capable” and “lethal” organization with capabilities in Yemen, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Russian Involvement in Syria

While Brennan wouldn’t go into detail on the CIA program to arm and train Syrian rebels, he did say Russian engagement in Syria has allowed Syrian President Assad’s forces “to withstand the opposition that has been trying to bring him down.”

He believes Assad’s departure is inevitable but called Russia’s support of the dictator “unfortunate.”

His comments on Russia’s role in Syria were not without a broader analysis of President Putin as a leader.

“Well, I think he is somebody who is trying to advance Russia's interests on the world stage. I think he believes that Russia is a superpower, and it needs to have influence, not just in the near abroad, which involves those areas that border Russia, but far beyond it,” he told NPR.

Brennan called Putin “very assertive, very aggressive” and said he pursues Moscow’s agenda in “a variety of means.”

“He does it with his intelligence and security services when he wants to hide his hands, but also, he's doing it rather overtly right now, obviously, with the introduction of thousands of Russian military personnel and sophisticated weaponry inside of Syria.”

ABC News used NPR’s transcript of this interview for its reporting. The full transcript is available here.