AILSA CHANG, HOST:
When former CIA Director John Brennan stopped by our newsroom yesterday, he was wearing jeans, which was a visible nod to his role now as a private citizen. He is now free from decades of reporting for work in a suit. Brennan was here to speak with our co-host Mary Louise Kelly, who's here with us now. Hey there.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa. Yeah, I have interviewed John Brennan a few times over the years both when he was running CIA and before, starting back during the George W. Bush administration. And he has always struck me as tough. This is a guy who has negotiated with the KGB and its successors.
KELLY: Also struck me as serious - definitely a dark suit kind of guy. This is a man who considers his words before speaking. So I have watched with interest these last 15 months as he has gone out of his way to criticize and attack President Trump. That is unusual, even unprecedented, I would say...
KELLY: ...For a former head of the CIA to do so. So I asked him about it.
John Brennan, I want to read to you a couple of comments you've made about President Trump. March 17, you tweeted of the president - and I'll quote - "when the full extent of venality, moral turpitude and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history." That followed an interview a couple weeks earlier, March 2, where you called him, quote, "unstable, inept, inexperienced and also unethical." I could go on. What's your goal? What are you trying to accomplish here?
JOHN BRENNAN: I am a nonpartisan. I've worked for Democratic and Republican presidents, and I've admired and respected all the ones that I've worked for. And I always felt that they were trying to do what was best for the United States. Mr. Trump is a very different person from anybody in my memory that was elected president of the United States.
And the things that I said, I stand behind them. I think he is dishonest. He lacks integrity. He has very questionable ethics and morality. And he views the world through a prism of how it's going to help Donald Trump. And I just think that he has not fulfilled the responsibilities of the president of the United States office.
KELLY: There are risks, though, to what you're doing. Let me let you respond to a couple of comments by former colleagues of yours. Mike Morell, former acting director of the CIA who has also criticized President Trump publicly, including in interviews here on NPR - he has since said he wonders about his decision to do that and said it risks feeding the narrative in the president's head - these guys are all out to get me.
BRENNAN: Yeah, I think Michael was talking about - before the election, he came out very strongly and endorsed Hillary Clinton and said very negative things about Mr. Trump then.
KELLY: But what about for you? Does this risk feeding the narrative that the president has made clear he's got going on in his head that there's a deep state, that U.S. intelligence agencies were out to get him during the campaign and after he became president?
BRENNAN: Well, some people with agendas will always twist and turn individuals' words and comments in order to support their thesis. So I have no doubt at all - and I know that a lot of people are doing that. But I'm speaking forthrightly. I'm speaking honestly. I'm speaking as a private citizen. I'm speaking from my experience.
KELLY: But people know you speak for a lot of other CIA veterans who can't speak publicly and don't have the profile you do.
BRENNAN: Well, yeah, you know, I - and I decided very quickly to speak out against him when within two days of his inauguration he stood in front of that memorial wall at CIA headquarters and I think disgraced himself by talking about the size of his crowd on Inauguration Day.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But we had a massive field of people. You saw that - packed. I get up this morning. I turn on one of the networks, and they show an empty field.
BRENNAN: People who that, you know, we knew and who gave their lives to this country - and to stand up in front of that and be political I just found very off-putting. So I spoke out then. I selectively speak out now. I will continue to do so. I believe very strongly in the ethical standards that I think a president should be upholding.
KELLY: But let me put to you another concern that's been raised about things you've said. Three-time CIA station chief Dan Hoffman worked for you. He argues that you are doing Putin's bidding by speaking out and attacking President Trump this way. And the reason, he argues, is you're stoking political divisions, that that undermines U.S. national security and plays right into Russia's hands. What's your response?
BRENNAN: Yeah, I think that's a really specious argument. I mean, I knew Dan. You know, I had respect for him when he was in the agency. I just very much disagree with him. But does he say the same thing about The New York Times, The Washington Post, other people who speak out against Mr. Trump? Would he say that they are doing Russia's bidding, intelligence...
KELLY: In fairness, the media isn't calling Trump a disgraced demagogue. No reporter would do that.
BRENNAN: I disagree with you. I think the reporters have said - have called Mr. Trump other words. And I...
KELLY: Maybe editorial pages.
BRENNAN: Well, yes, exactly.
KELLY: Not their newsroom of reporters.
BRENNAN: No, right. There's a difference. And so I'm not speaking as a journalist or reporter. I'm speaking my mind. And I'm giving my views and my editorial opinion in just the way the editorial writers in all the major papers and the commentaries, including on your program. Are we all doing Mr. Trump bidding? No, I think we are speaking out honestly because we believe in this country. We believe that it's important for this country to represent something to the world, which I don't think Mr. Trump is doing.
KELLY: I want to ask you whether it is the CIA's job to steal secrets. You in a past interview with me at CIA headquarters when you were still running the agency - this is 2016. And I asked you your view about the agency's core mission of espionage and stealing secrets. And you said this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
BRENNAN: We don't steal secrets. We - everything we do is consistent with U.S. law. We uncover. We discover. We reveal. We obtain. We elicit. We solicit - all of that.
KELLY: John Brennan, I will tell you that aired on NPR, and my phone started ringing off the hook with CIA veterans calling, saying, what? Stealing secrets is the whole point of the CIA.
BRENNAN: Yeah. I remember that interview quite well because there were a lot of people who took issue with it. And I have been rather frustrated over the years by people claiming that the intelligence community - CIA, NSA and other things - break the law. And I was making the point that everything that CIA and NSA does is consistent with the law. And so when we go out and collect intelligence overseas, it may be breaking the laws of other countries because we're engaged in espionage, but it's wholly consistent with U.S. law.
KELLY: So in other countries, does the CIA steal secrets?
BRENNAN: (Laughter) Sure. Yes, they do in other countries. But again, stealing is not what we do here in the United States, you know, because people were, you know, concerned about what we're doing vis a vis American citizens and on U.S. soil. The CIA's been accused and the intelligence community has been accused of killing people as well. We don't kill. And so I was trying to make the point that we don't break the law.
KELLY: The CIA has carried out targeted assassinations in its history. It's carried out drone strikes that have killed people.
BRENNAN: There's never been an acknowledgement of that at all, absolutely not.
KELLY: You're denying it.
BRENNAN: I'm saying that, well, if there were such a program, it would be a covert action program, and it would be something that wouldn't be acknowledged by the agency or by me. So - but my point is that if the agency had such a covert action program, it would be done wholly consistent with U.S. law.
And so when people say that the CIA tortured, I take issue with that as well because when CIA carries out these covert action programs, it requires a presidential finding. It requires the highest legal body in the executive branch, which is the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice, to determine that that program is lawful. And so when CIA officers are accused of killing or torturing or stealing, all these things that violate U.S. law, I push back hard.
So if there are some CIA officers who like that tag line of we steal secrets, fine. Let them have it. But my point is if CIA ever violates the law, they should be held to account for it, and the people who do that should be held to account.
KELLY: John Brennan, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, thank you.
BRENNAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.