Owen Brennan, father of CIA Director John Brennan and a native of County Roscommon, was once a blacksmith in his native land. He worked for an Anglo-Irish family, the McCalmonts, in what is now the Mount Juliet Estate, complete with plush hotel and golf course, in County Kilkenny. Owen slept upstairs from the stables in a loft.
Entering the Big House was forbidden, especially for a lowly blacksmith who was expected to know his station.
Now 96 and healthy, Owen Brennan received the gift of a lifetime from his two sons, Tom and John, when they took him to Ireland for “The Gathering” of emigrants from all over the world in 2015.
The finest suite in Mount Juliet, the house whose door he never darkened, was reserved for him. Owen and his family had come a long way.
Soon after working at Mount Juliet and with no prospects in 1948, Owen Brennan took the trail of tears to America, just one among countless millions of emigrants setting out for the “Bright City,” as the Irish old timers called New York.
The fact that his son John Owen Brennan now 61, has ascended to CIA Director, one of the highest jobs in the United States government, charged with protecting the nation from any and all threats, says an extraordinary amount about the Brennans and the American Dream.
The twain continue to meet. The Irish influence in John Brennan’s life is still strong. He can hold down a discussion on Gaelic games, talk about his father's hero worship for the All-Ireland winning Roscommon teams of 1943 and 1944, and wave away a story about him becoming next United States ambassador to Ireland.
“Well it would be a wonderful, wonderful opportunity – but there is a long list of other Irish Americans who would like that job,” he said during an interview on a cool and sunny Saturday morning, October 15, at the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA.
As for retiring in Ireland, Brennan says no but wouldn’t mind a holiday home there, somewhere in Connemara which he finds an enchanting land. One of his prize possessions is a hurling stick used in the ancient game, given to him by his good friend Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. He even has a couple of Irish words, pronouncing his name in Gaelic as Sean O Braonain.
We are sitting in the boardroom at CIA headquarters in Langley, home to a million spy fiction books and tales of intrigue. His private office is home to a family portrait of his three children in Ireland on vacation and a picture of a Roscommon castle.
John Brennan wears his Irish heart on his sleeve.
His career has been spectacular. Brennan had a 25-year career as a spy overseas and a top analyst and executive at home. The shift within the CIA from Cold War focus to the Arab world made Brennan, fluent in Arabic and a Middle East specialist, an invaluable employee. His career includes stints as station chief in Saudi Arabia, intelligence briefer for President Bill Clinton, top deputy to CIA Director George Tenet during George W. Bush’s presidency, and, now, the most highly coveted job in intelligence, CIA director.
The CIA compound itself is low and slung flat over the Virginia countryside to appear as unobtrusive and innocuous as possible.
The corridors are the longest I’ve ever seen. You could train for a marathon just running them.
The men and women going by don't have fedoras or dark glasses. Nor do they look like James Bond or his fictional CIA companion in arms, Felix Leiter, who lost a leg and an arm in a shark attack.
No, they look just like you and me, but they are the cream of American intelligence operatives. The CIA runs on a $44 billion budget, best estimates say. Spying is an expensive pastime.
Earlier I had seen the CIA museum, not open to the public, including the scale mockup of the compound the American special forces used to train on before the Navy SEALs finally dropped in unannounced on the compound at Abbottabad, Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011.
Bin Laden’s AK 47 rifle, a spoil of war, is in a case nearby. (A female CIA analyst is said to have first pinpointed his location.)
There too was an original beam from the World Trade Center, an umbrella with a poisonous tip, an exploding wallet, part of a Russian nuclear sub lifted from the depths of the ocean when it malfunctioned in a top secret operation called Project Azorian
It is not all hi-tech fun and games. Being a CIA agent can often mean massive risk to life and limb, much more John Le Carre than James Bond.
What sustains a person in such a tough profession? Despite his vital job and heavy responsibilities, Brennan is very keen to discuss his heritage and his faith first. They are both his guiding light.
“I would like to be able to one day have a residence in Ireland because I have been there a dozen times over the years and I really just enjoy the country a lot. I was there last summer, spent a few days in Galway after seeing my relatives in Roscommon,” he said.
“After Roscommon we went to Connemara and stayed in Barna. That part of the country is just gorgeous.”
It is clear that the Brennan family left the old country, but it never left them.
I asked if Ireland was a constant presence in his house.
“Yes, because my father's brother and sisters who were all over here would gather in someone’s house every Sunday, and my father loved singing and dancing,” Brennan replied.
Does he know Irish songs?
“Oh, absolutely,” Brennan replies. “‘Brennan on the Moor’ (about a Cork highwayman), I loved the words…”brave and undaunted was young Brennan on the moor.”
"That’s a great old Irish song," I reply.
“Yes, well the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were constantly on in my house. My sister took Irish-dancing and we used to go to the feises, so we were all in!”
His mother Dorothy was first generation. She and Owen met at an Irish dance in that timeless Irish way and were married in 1952. Her family was from Mayo and Galway, “so I am a Connacht man,” says Brennan proudly.
On the streets of North Bergen, NJ he had a different name, “Jumping Jack” Brennan for his basketball prowess.
Coincidentally, there was another Brennan from Newark, 13 miles from North Bergen via Roscommon parents who also went on to great things. Justice William Brennan was a leading figure on the Supreme Court for decades. The Rossies, as Roscommon folk are known, had the Brennan clan doing them proud in America.
Although Brennan was educated in Catholic schools in New Jersey, the shift to Jesuit-run Fordham for college was not such an obvious one for “Jumping Jack,” who was unsure of his future.
Young John was a free spirit, undecided about what to do next. He even possessed an earring and long hair and motor bike at one point, and considered a religious vocation at another. Jesus won out over Jack Kerouac and he went to Fordham University.
They don't turn out too many popes at Fordham in New York, but they do encourage their students to live the examined life.
I asked him what he wanted to be when he attended Fordham.
“I wanted to be the first American pope,” he laughed.
“Well, you could be,” I replied.
“I’m hoping this is good training for it!” he laughs.
Strangely, many of the articles about Brennan often refer to him as having a priestly presence. He was planning to be a seminarian at one point, but he discovered girls and decided to not pursue the priesthood. But the imprint of the examined life intilled in him by the Jesuits is still with him.
I asked Brennan about his Catholic background and what it means to him today.
“A strong foundation in morality and ethics and core religious foundations,” he replied.
“In fact, just last week I had a former professor of mine, a philosophy professor from Fordham, come visit because when I was a freshman in Fordham in the philosophy classes just for theory and other types of things, I learned so much and I still have those books and I refer back to them because there are issues in there we deal with now and likely always will.”
I asked him what the Jesuits have meant to Brennan.
“They make you think. They make you wonder about life. They make you think about right and wrong and if there is such a proposition,” he replied.
“It was something that was instilled early and it was the religious training exposure from early on and that continued for me into my job and career.”
How does he view good and evil in the world?
“I think my early training and education and then my professional experience have allowed me to understand differences among people and try to understand motivations and understand why people do what they do,” he says.
“Goodness exists in many parts of the world in people and among people, and evil manifests then also. I still question why certain people do what they do. I still can’t get my head around the individuals that wantonly kill and slaughter innocent men women and children.
“I can understand how they grow up in an environment where they were, in essence, brainwashed by other individuals who were manipulating them and exploiting them for instances which is what ISIS and others do with this very distorted sense about religion.”
Brennan finds his intellectual rigor and faith something to draw on when those key questions are posed.
“I draw off my background. I draw on those foundations and morality ethics,” he says.
Brennan loved to travel, was drawn to exotic locales, and spent a year as an exchange student in Cairo at the American University. The Arab world with its many veils and fun-house distorted mirrors and intricate tribe and family structure fascinated him. He even mastered Arabic, a difficult language for a westerner.
Soon after that came the decisive moment when he applied to the CIA.
“I was on the bus going to New York to Fordham and the New York Times newspaper had an advertisement for the CIA, and I then sent in my resume.”
His travel and exploration curiosity was about to become his life’s work.
“When I was at Fordham I was a commuter from my blue collared neighborhood in New Jersey, and in my sophomore year my global science professor brought in brochures of Americans universities in Beirut and American universities in Cairo. That was 1975-’76, the year that American University in Beirut was closed down, so I went to American University Cairo, which got me interested in the Middle East. I took Arabic while I was out there so that was the first exposure to it, and then I went to graduate school in University of Texas at Austin, and concentrated on Middle East studies and continued to refine my Arabic. Then I was hired by the agency in 1980.”
It is safe to say there weren't too many Arabist experts in North Bergen Irish Catholic homes at the time, nor was Hezbollah Topic A at Thanksgiving dinner, but Brennan's parents welcomed his new career.
“They were always used to me doing different things. I went to Indonesia the summer of my freshman year in college. My cousin was living out there so I traveled through Indonesia, went to Europe by myself and then went through Cairo. I had long hair and an earring and a motorcycle, so when I told them I was joining the CIA I think they thought that was going to help settle me down a little bit. It’s a good job, a government job.”
The rest is history, as the cliché goes. The long climb to the top, the utter faith that presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama placed in him, his reputation for no nonsense truth-telling plus a working schedule that makes a workaholic look like a slacker, ensured Brennan’s success. Along the way he married Kathy Pokluda of Czech ancestry and together they raised three children and together they've been for 37 years.
It is clear his heritage, the “mystic chords of memory” as Lincoln described them, is important to him, and even as CIA director he keeps a watchful eye.
How does Brennan view the possibility of extremism occurring in Ireland?
“I don’t think any country should feel immune from the reach of these terrorist organizations,” he replies.
“Ireland first of all is an open and welcoming country, and also there are also a lot of Americans there and American businesses.
“I was in Ireland last August and I met with the Irish intelligence heads and talked to them about the importance of sharing information, we with the Irish and the Irish with us, and if there is anything that looks or seems a bit off those pieces of the puzzle need to be put together.
“Ireland, as you know, is part of the worldwide landscape where a lot of these (terrorist) groups look to see if they can exploit opportunities. You know, there are a lot of people who travel to Ireland for tourism, business, education, and I do think it is important for all the intelligence and security services to be vigilant there.”
I discuss with Brennan how Ireland solved its own conflict by negotiation at the highest level to end The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Is there any political or negotiated way to end current wars, I ask.
“No, there's not really any room for negotiation or discussion. That’s what Al Qaeda and ISIS represent, that absolutist type of phenomenon that you have to destroy the leadership, you have to destroy the operatives that are trying to kill innocent people, but you also have to address the underlying factors and conditions that contribute to their ability to appeal to young men and women around the world and that’s the challenge we have right now.”
How can we beat them, I ask.
“I think you have to destroy their leadership, you have to take away their control of territory, you have to stop the flow of financial support, you have to take away the wherewithal and you also have to discredit and debunk their narratives,” he says.
“Because that clarion call that ISIS gave out, which led to so many foreign fighters from Europe flowing into Syria and Iraq, it really was a very distorted representation of the reality of what was going on.
“I think we have to be able to undercut that narrative so that it doesn’t have the resonance that it had to date. There’s been a multidimensional campaign underway the last several years against ISIS, making good progress on the ground inside Syria and Iraq (the Mosul attack began the day we talked) and we will take away their control of territory, but this is, I think, going to be a challenge for a number of years to come.”
I ask Brennan about Americans and their need for feeling safe in their homeland. Everyone wants security, but what, I ask him, is the trade-off?
“Well, one of the real challenges of 2016 that didn’t exist back in the 1950’s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s is the emergence of this digital domain, this cyber environment that provides tremendous benefit and opportunity for citizens around the world to communicate, to educate, to engage in commerce and trade education, you name it,” he replies.
“But the terrorist organizations have taken full advantage of it, to be able to do the same things – communicate, guide, direct and surveil – and so right now the real debate that’s going on in this country and other countries is what is the role of government in that digital domain?
“How should the FBI and intelligence agencies operate in that domain in a manner that ensures our security, and that’s not going to be exploited by these terrorist organizations or criminal groups.
“For many, many years we have understood what it means to have police forces on the streets of our cities and towns and guards along our borders and military forces. That’s in the physical domain, but the digital domain is a much more challenging one because people want their privacy and civil liberties.”
Do people want it both ways, I ask.
“Well I think they do,” Brennan replies. “Understandably they want both. They want to maintain their privacy and civil liberties but at the same time they want the security, and they have to realize there is tension between those two things.”
Most people fear government overreach, I say, but does he see that as an issue?
“The government is not saying we want to trample your privacy and civil liberties. We want to optimize them because that is what this country is founded on, but we recognize our legal systems, our structures, our capabilities to deal with those challenges in a digital domain are not what they need to be,” Brennan says.
“So I think this is an evolutionary process, and what people have to understand is that the government does need to play a role there if they are going to protect their citizens. It's amazing how individuals are so willing to give out all their information on an application and they shoot it off to, you know, to some type of online commerce store, but if the government wants to have it, oh my goodness they are going to exploit it!
“It should be the other way around. They should have much greater confidence that the government will protect it and that the business would not.”
Is there a sense that we are over exaggerating, that we are actually safer than we used to be I ask Brennan.
“Well, on the terrorism front, when I look at today compared to 9/11, on 9/11 this country was vulnerable to those types of attacks that took place,” he says.
“Over the last 15 years this country has done amazing work to safeguard our borders and our streets. There is much better interaction between law enforcements and intelligence and diplomats and military, and so it’s a much less hospitable environment for terrorist organizations to operate within because we really have done a lot.
“Other countries have as well, but the United States in particular I think we really learned a very painful lesson on 9/11, but that doesn’t mean we are untouchable by no means, again partly as a result of the digital domain.”
Do lone actors continue to be a key worry, I ask.
“These lone actors are individuals who may have no direct interaction with ISIS or Al Qaeda, Syria or Iraq or Pakistan or wherever, but they are prone to falling prey to the narrative that encouraged them to take up arms against neighbors, family, whomever, and so that is a challenge for law enforcement,” Brennan says.
“An individual, for instance, who one day decides that they are going to pick up this distorted jihad and carry out some kind of attack.”
Is it nearly impossible to catch them, I ask.
“It is, and that is what I think societies around the world really need to be aware of is that the availability of this poisonous narrative and the enticement that is taking place there allows individuals to pick up the weapon, whether it be a gun or a knives or an IED explosive device, because there is a recipe on the Internet you can get it from,” Brennan replies.
For a man dealing with potential Armageddon as his daily diet, John Brennan seems remarkably at ease. Other intelligence directors have talked about the crushing burden of carrying the nation's secrets and worst fears inside their minds 24/7. Brennan does not betray that
I ask him how he manages this constant stream of scary information. Does he sleep at night?
“Yes, I sleep great,” he replies. “I always tell everybody that by the time I get home at night and I put my head on the pillow, I usually fall asleep within 30 seconds. My wife could be talking to me but I just zone out.
“I have been in this profession for 36 years in one form or another, and I've come to I think understand the national challenges that we face. I’ve considered it a tremendous privilege and honor to be director of the CIA, and I have certain responsibilities that I need to carry out in order to help this country stay safe and strong, so I don’t want to say you are inured to it over time. But you become rather used to the constant stream of challenges.”
The topic of election fraud is very current at the moment, from Donald Trump’s dire warnings to Russian sang froid about having nothing to do with it. What does Brennan think?
“Well, the directors of national intelligence and Homeland Security have said that it's been quite clear that there have been attempts to try to exploit this election for foreign agendas or other agendas, and there have been public warnings about this, but the American people know this,” Brennan said.
“There is a feeling within the government to keep Americans aware of these efforts, and I should point out the U.S. electoral system is so distributed and so diverse because elections are run by the states, and what the Department of Homeland Security has done along with other government agencies is to offer assistance to state officials to make sure their systems are safeguarded.
“Any system that is connected to the Internet could be prone to some type of attempt, but there are lots of ways to protect information now. We see things that are happening before the elections as far as emails and other things that are released as a way to influence people's views.
“This country is the world's strongest democracy, and I think it is a testament to our strength that we can acknowledge things like this but also give assurance to the American people that this election.”
As our interview draws to a close I ask Brennan a question every director in his job reflects on: “Tell me to name your best and worst moments in the CIA.” The question draws an emotional response.
His reply is both surprising and indicative of the man and his ability to see the real live flesh and blood children and adults who suffer.
“The worst moments are when a CIA officer falls in the line of duty,” he says.
He appears to tear up at the question.
“It’s easy to get there,” Brennan says, referring to his emotions.
“I remember when I get the phone calls. I remember when talking to the families, talking to the spouse, talking to the children, and every year we have our memorial ceremony in the lobby, and it's amazing how families from fallen officers from years and years ago show up.
“Bill McKiernan, who was the first agency officer who died in the line of duty in 1950, his grandchild comes here as a sense of belonging. There is a sense of family. There is a solemn sense of duty here at CIA, and, given that we do these things frequently in the shadows, that we do it without recognition and not for accolades, it makes what we do here very special to those of us who are in the family,” he says.
Brennan notes there are 117 CIA officials who have been killed in the line of duty. Brennan takes each of those deaths personally.
“We administer the oath of officer to every incoming class of officers in that lobby in front of that wall to remind them just what a sacrificial obligation they have as they take up their duties,” Brennan says.
“There are some others too, like when I was working down in the White House and when we lost a number of officers in a bombing of an outpost in Afghanistan and we came out here for the final ceremony with the president. Those are things that are body blows.”
Brennan is solemn when he speaks about the gun massacre in a Sandy Hook, Connecticut school in December of 2012 that took the lives of 20 innocent children and six adults.
“When I was in the White House and I had to tell President Obama of the shooting at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, and first reports were that the children were safe, and next report I had to tell him was that there were nearly two dozen children that were killed,” Brennan recalls.
“You try everything possible to prevent those types of occurrences, but when it happens it becomes very real because of the obligations that we feel and the responsibility we have to protect American citizens. Those were the toughest moments.”
I say to him that the day Osama bin Laden was killed must have been a very satisfying one.
“That was certainly one that I can remember very, very vividly because there were 48 hours and there was a period of time where there wasn’t that much sleep. There was a lot of anxiousness and concern about the individuals who were a part of that raid,” Brennan recalls.
“I can remember leaving the White House that night after many, many hours there, and it was lit up outside and Lafayette Park was bright, and people were all around going through the street. You could hear the chants of ‘USA’ and ‘CIA.’ It was quite a moment.”
What do Brennan’s parents have to say about their CIA chief son? He smiles at the question.
“When are you going to retire, they ask. They are getting on. They have their health challenges,” Brennan says.
“My father’s sight and hearing has failed quite a bit, but he still takes his walks and stays fit. I try to see them at least once a month. I was up there last Sunday. They are very focused on their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren they now have.”
Does his father ever think that when he was a blacksmith kept out of the big house, and now there's his son, one of the most powerful men in the world?
“Well, it just reflects the reason he came to the United States. He wanted to give his family opportunity,” Brennan says.
“He is immensely proud of his background. Whenever we go up there most of the talk is about Ireland. He has a memory that's amazing. He can recite poetry at great length. He will go on and on. I guess it’s the equivalent of kids knowing music, the lyrics of music, but he can pull out these stanzas,” Brennan says.
“He will go on for 10 minutes with a poem. He just has this amazing, amazing ability. He only went to the equivalent of junior high and he took the test for college and passed with flying colors.
Finally, I ask Brennan if can anything can be done about Syria.
“One of the disasters of our time. It really is a beautiful country and beautiful people who have been devastated because of this war first war perpetrated on them by their government by Bashar al-Assad, who has killed countless Syrians with these horrific attacks, and now the country is wracked by terrorism,” he says.
“We are also dealing with ISIS and the Russian intervention there which has been designed to protect Russian interests, and the devastating loss of life of the Syrian people. Look at Aleppo. You can imagine what is going on there and the airstrikes that have just blanket disregard for Syrian life and it’s a real shame.”
There is no obvious resolution?
“No, the thing is there needs to a resolution of the fight between the regime and the opposition. The challenges right now are the opposition is so multidimensional. You have terrorist and extremists there, and you also have Syrians who want a better future for their families,” Brennan says.
“But we also have to address the political dimensions of this. You're not going to solve the terrorism problem unless you solve the political problem, and unless you get into some kind of transition that brings a new government or leadership in Damascus.’
Thank you John Brennan.