Central Intelligence Agency Director Visits UW Law to Discuss the Future of the Agency

In a recent visit the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) John Brennan came to Seattle for the first time and stopped by the University of Washington School of Law to speak with alumni, faculty and students. He joined a small group of alumni and community leaders for breakfast in the morning, followed by a casual meet and greet with faculty. The highlight of his visit was a question and answer session with Professor Ryan Calo, a small group of faculty and about 70 law students. The conversation opened up with a discussion about his efforts toward organization and modernization at the agency.

Although he was sworn in as the Director of the CIA in 2013, Brennan brought years of experience to the position. Prior to his appointment, Brennan served at the White House as Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and 25 years at the CIA from 1980 to 2005. "Given that I’ve spent 25 years at the CIA, I know it so well; I know what it can do in terms of helping to keep this country secure and helping to shape our collective futures in a positive way. I wanted to make sure I was able to use my second time at the agency to position it best for dealing with the challenges that lie ahead of us as opposed to those that we had to deal with over the last 68 years."

Brennan went on to discuss the modernization and reorganization effort at the CIA announced in March of 2014. "It’s not a question of what’s broken, but of how can we be more efficient," he said. Of particular importance in driving the need to modernize are the "tremendous opportunities and vulnerabilities" brought about by the interconnectedness of systems and changes in technology. He discussed the need for the development of skills in systems engineering to link all the physical and digital elements. Systems need to be created that ensure collective security while balancing the needs of privacy and protection of civil liberties.

Professor Ryan Calo brought his technological expertise into the conversation by asking how cyberterrorism inspired the new Digital Innovation directorate, the first new directorate for the CIA in 50 years. “What does the new digital directorate do, and what kinds of threats are the CIA really concerned with on the cyber front?” asked Calo. Brennan explained that in the past there were "cylinders of excellence" for particular areas of expertise, but the new model is designed to integrate capabilities throughout the organization. "I want people who are working on shared issues or challenges to be better able to interact and interoperate, and that’s why we now have a matrix model within the agency," explained Brennan.

He went on to discuss the challenges created by cyberterrorism. One of the biggest threats is the breadth of people that attacks could come from, ranging from nation-state actors who could target important infrastructure to solitary threats that may try to hack a hospital's records just to see if they can. He also went on to explain that defensive technology tends to lag behind offensive technology and that new technology can often be used in unforeseen and detrimental ways. "The nature of these challenges is becoming much more complicated, complex and interconnected. We have to deal with the civil strife and the combat and the violence in the physical domain, but that digital arena is one that is the new Wild West in many respects," said Brennan.

Other topics discussed included how the agency works with the three branches of the United States government, balancing government transparency with the need to protect national security, and the responsibilities of the CIA versus other government agencies. Throughout all of the topics discussed, Brennan expressed his passion for his work: "I truly believe I have the best job in the world because I work on things of great consequence and importance to this country. I work with some of the world’s most gifted individuals and experts across all of the different disciplines and people who are driven to help enhance our national security."