Sitting CIA directors generally don’t blast incoming presidents — much less in an interview with a foreign news agency. Yet here we are.
On Wednesday morning, the BBC published excerpts from an interview with CIA Director John Brennan, the first time a serving head of America’s best-known spy agency has sat down with the British media, according to the BBC. Brennan’s comments are, unmistakably, a shot at Donald Trump. He calls Trump’s proposal to scrap the Iran deal “disastrous,” warns that “the overwhelming majority of CIA officers” oppose Trump’s call to bring back torture of suspected terrorists, and says the famously Putin-sympathetic Trump should “beware Russian promises.”
Brennan is stepping down from the CIA leadership on January 20, so he’ll never have to deal with President Trump directly. That means he’s free to do something as brazen as trash the incoming president on one of the world’s most-watched TV channels.
Brennan is expressing some widely held grievances with Trump’s foreign policy
If you take a deeper look at Brennan’s comments, you start to realize that he’s expressing criticisms of Trump policies that are widely held in the foreign policy community.
Take his attack on Trump’s approach to the Iran deal, which Brennan calls “the height of folly.” He warns that doing so would allow Iran to simply restart its nuclear program.
This, as my colleague Zeeshan Aleem explains, is the consensus among even anti-deal experts and policymakers. That’s because of the way the deal is structured: Iran has already gotten the sanctions relief it was promised, but has yet to fully comply with the terms of the deal that dismantle its nuclear program. If Trump were to scrap the deal on day one, Iran would have everything it wanted without having to give up too much. It would have billions of new dollars as well, and a free hand to build a nuke without pesky international inspectors.
Brennan’s position on Russia is another good example. His argument is that the Obama administration’s negotiations with Russia have mostly failed to alter Moscow’s worst behavior — for example, its slaughtering of civilians in the Syrian city of Aleppo and bombing of the moderate opposition looking to unseat Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
"I think President Trump and the new administration need to be wary of Russian promises," Brennan told the BBC.
This position puts Brennan on the same side as the nonpartisan US military brass, as my colleague Yochi Dreazen reports, since the nation’s top generals uniformly see Russia — and not, say, ISIS — as the biggest national security threat facing the country.
Trump takes a far rosier view of the Kremlin, praising Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “strong leader” and echoing Russian propaganda that its forces in Syria are fighting ISIS (they are in fact mostly hitting US-backed rebels there). “I think it would be great if we got along with Russia. We could fight ISIS together,” Trump said in the October 9 presidential debate.
On torture, Brennan comes down even harder — which is interesting because he’s gone back and forth on whether it works. He tells the Trump administration, fairly bluntly, that any attempt to reintroduce torture would be met with resistance in the CIA ranks:
Without a doubt the CIA really took some body blows as a result of its experiences. I think the overwhelming majority of CIA officers would not want to get back into that business.
There are many other examples in the BBC interview where Brennan, either explicitly or implicitly, rebukes Trump’s policy ideas.
Now, Brennan’s criticisms are hardly unusual — you could hear them from virtually any foreign policy expert in Washington — and Brennan is a longtime Obama administration veteran (his last job was as President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser). So it’s not surprising that he disagrees with Trump’s policy. Nor is it unheard of for CIA directors to weigh in on policy disputes.
But what’s interesting is that Brennan’s comments would, at any other time, be widely uncontroversial among the foreign policy establishment. Most nonpartisan experts in Washington think that tearing up the Iran deal now is a bad idea, Russia isn’t to be trusted, and the CIA isn’t interested in reviving the torture program.
But saying these things now, publicly, is inevitably seen as a rebuke to Trump — because his ideas are indeed quite far out of the mainstream. Brennan, of course, knows this. So there’s no other way to read this than as him using some of his final days in the public sphere to bash the incoming administration.