CIA Director on recruitment in the fight against ISIS

With America facing ever-more complex and dangerous challenges around the world, CIA Director John Brennan says his workforce needs to evolve and diversify to meet that threat.

Gaining unprecedented access, CBS News correspondent Jeff Pegues traveled with Brennan on a recruitment trip to Birmingham, Ala. 

The CIA Director’s motorcade arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, shortly before his unmarked Air Force jet was scheduled to take off.

This is how John Brennan travels. The plane is equipped with secure systems, insuring that he can communicate with the president during a crisis.

During an hour-and-a-half interview on board, the director told CBS News he is worried about ISIS’ success in inspiring attacks worldwide.

“They have invested in this over the past several years,” Brennan said. “And right now I think they are trying to reap the harvest of those investments.”

While the CIA focuses on external threats, Brennan has also been looking at shortcomings within the intelligence agency itself.

In 2013 he ordered a study on diversity. The results: Racial and ethnic minorities make up just under 24 percent of the intelligence agency’s workforce, and about 10 percent of senior intelligence positions.

On the day Pegues followed him, Brennan was visiting Miles College, a historically black college near Birmingham.

“If everybody at the agency looked like me, and thought like me, and had my background and experience, I think we would be subject to tremendous ‘group think,’” he said. “We would not be open to new ideas, or new perspectives.”

Pegues asked, “Did U.S. intelligence for some of those reasons miss what was bubbling under the surface of the Arab Spring?”

“No matter how much insight we had into how governments were thinking, and how they were reacting, we didn’t have the pulse of the street as best as we should have,” Brennan replied.

ISIS grew partly out of discontent in the Arab world. The terror group inspired the deadly attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando, and in Europe deployed cells to carry out the attacks in Paris and Brussels.

Should Americans, and Europeans, expect more of such attacks?  “I think ISIS’ capability to carry out attacks outside of the Syria-Iraq theater could increase in the short term,” Brennan said.

But, he believes the terrorist organization’s days are numbered.

Few people in this country know more about ISIS and the threat of terrorism than Brennan. He lived in the Middle East, and speaks fluent Arabic.

Brennan says he can’t remember a time when the country faced so many complex and dangerous threats.

He was also asked about recent cyber attacks, such as those on athletes’ medical records, files at the Democratic National Committee, and election databases in at least two states. Experts say the hacks trace back to Russia.

 “Going forward, do you expect that there will be more cyber intrusions from Russia or Russians leading up to the November 8th election?” Pegues asked.

“Well, I believe that as we come to the election there will be additional attempts to exploit, to collect, possibly to disclose information that is related somehow to the presidential campaign,” Brennan said.

He was reluctant to discuss the campaign -- insisting that he wasn’t a Democrat or a Republican. But he is adamant that he will not waterboard terror suspects, even though Republican nominee Donald Trump has endorsed the idea.

“I would refuse to carry out a direction to conduct waterboarding,” Brennan said. “I will just say, ‘No.’”

“Even to a president?”

“Absolutely, even to a president.”

For Brennan, coming to Birmingham is also about understanding evil.

In 1963, in the midst of the civil rights movement, three members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a dozens sticks of dynamite outside the 16th Street Baptist Church. The explosion killed four young black girls.

“So this makes real what it is that we do every day to try to keep this country safe, and strong, and keep its citizens secure,” Brennan said.

Brennan says the core of ISIS has been taken off the battlefield but he acknowledged that it would take time for the group’s “tentacles” to decay. The tentacles he is referring to are the sympathizers and operatives who are willing to carry out attacks.

“The thing about ISIS -- and what the CIA director and FBI director have said about ISIS -- it continues to evolve,” said Peques. “As U.S. law enforcement evolves and tries to adjust, ISIS is almost one step ahead. But that is typical when you have cases like [the New York City Chelsea blast], because often offense comes before defense. That’s the way the CIA director put it and that really stood out to me: Offense comes before defense.”

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.