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6th Mar 2021

CIA chief: US and Russian spies still working closely

  • Terrorist alert in Brussels last year: Brennan said Russia would warn Western states on potential attacks (Photo: Full-tactical)

Russian leader Vladimir Putin is “very aggressive” toward the West, US spy chief John Brennan has said, but insisted that anti-terrorism cooperation with Russia was highly “active”.

Speaking to National Public Radio on Wednesday (24 February), the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) said Putin believed Russia was a “superpower" that needed to have influence "not just in the near abroad, which involves those areas that border Russia, but far beyond it".

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He described Putin’s actions in Ukraine and in Syria as “very assertive, very aggressive”.

“He sees that area [Ukraine] as almost a zero-sum game with the West. And I think he was concerned about which way Ukraine was leaning. And it clearly was leaning westward. That's why he took the actions that he did,” he said.

He indicated that Russia’s hybrid war in east Ukraine was not going according to plan, however.

“He [Putin] has found that he's in a bit of a quandary now inside of Ukraine, in terms of realising his objectives,” Brennan said.

Brennan said Putin’s Syria campaign was designed “to protect his interests with a client state”.

“Russia has had a relationship with the government in Damascus for the past 50 years, has invested a lot of money, and a lot of military support,” he said.

But he said Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s “unspeakable acts of violence” against the Syrian people meant that he had “lost his eligibility, his legitimacy, to rule Syria, and to be part of Syria's future”.

“I think his departure is inevitable,” he said.

Intelligence ‘chill’

Brennan said the geopolitical confrontation with Russia had caused a “chill … even in intelligence channels”.

But he said the CIA had continued to work closely with Russian services to stop terrorists killing US and Russian citizens.

Recalling the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia last year, he said: “We worked very closely with them to try to prevent terrorist attacks, and very successfully.”

He described it as a “very factual, informative exchange”.

“If we get information about threats to Russian citizens or diplomats, we will share it with the Russians. And they do the same with us,” he said.

He said Russia faced the same threat from “foreign fighters” as the West. “There are several thousand Russian citizens that have made their way into Syria and Iraq to support these forces of terrorism,” he said.

He said Islamic State (IS) was now bigger than al-Qaeda.

He said IS was “pursuing a strategy of global expansion”, with recruitment in places as far afield as Afghanistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Tunisia.

But he warned that al-Qaeda remained “very capable” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen.

’No safe harbour’

Brennan spoke amid a US debate on whether law enforcement bodies should get access to the iPhone of one of the gunmen in the San Bernardino terrorist attack in December.

The US debate mirrors one in Europe on how to protect EU companies’ data and EU nationals’ privacy while sharing information with US security services.

Brennan said the digital sphere was “sort of a unique environment”.

But he said that, given due judicial oversight, the CIA or sister agencies should have access to suspects’ communications.

The EU court, last year, struck down the so called Safe Harbour deal on EU-US data exchange over US snooping concerns.

Brennan said: “I don't think … that there should be a place where terrorists or criminals, or whomever is trying to violate the law, would have total safe harbour.”

Targeted assassination

Brennan also justified a recent US air strike in Libya, which, the US says, killed up to 40 IS militants.

He said “the United States, and our partners and allies, will take action when we believe it is necessary” to prevent terrorist attacks, such as the “bloody massacre on the beaches of Tunisia” last year.

The radio host asked him whether he thought the Libya targets might have been watching IS propaganda, or “martyrdom videos”, when the bombs hit.

“Well, I think some of the individuals who were there didn't realise they might become a martyr so quickly,” Brennan said.

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