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CIA Director: ISIS Is 'Much Larger Than Al-Qaida Ever Was'


Here's a question that might keep you up tonight. If U.S. forces captured the leader of ISIS, where would they take him? President Obama has vowed not to send anymore terrorist suspects to Guantanamo Bay, and he's just renewed his efforts to close the prison. The CIA's network of so-called black sites around the world has been shut down. So if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were to be captured alive, where would he go? Well, NPR's Mary Louise Kelly put that question and many others to the head of the CIA.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: John Brennan sent 35 years in the intelligence business, long enough to hold strong views on what the spies who work for him should and should not get up to in dark corners around the world.

JOHN 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: The foreign governments from who the CIA solicits secrets may find cause to quibble with Brennan's choice of words, but he insists the CIA is finding creative and, yes, legal ways to carry out its mission. We'll get to terrorism in a moment. But first, take Iran. For a generation of American spies, the Islamic Republic has represented an intelligence vacuum. Brennan says as diplomats drew closer to inking the recent nuclear deal, that changed.

BRENNAN: The intelligence work is not over in any respect we need to continue to monitor, evaluate and make determinations as well as provide input to the president and others about how well Iran is adhering to that.

KELLY: Are you confident that if Iran cheats on the nuclear deal, U.S. intelligence will know?

BRENNAN: I'm confident that the CIA, along with our intelligence partners, both here in the United States and abroad, are going to do their utmost to catch Iran if it decides to cheat.

KELLY: Brennan was walking with a limp the day we met him. He hurt himself digging out his driveway from last month's blizzard. The challenges Brennan grapples with in his day job are more daunting than a couple of feet of snow, from Iran to Syria to Russia's very aggressive President Putin - Brennan's words there.

On terrorism, the CIA director nodded when we pointed out that Americans are more likely to be killed by ordinary gun violence than bioterrorist attack. But he also suggested that ISIS today is cause for greater alarm than al-Qaida was after 9/11.

BRENNAN: Because I think people felt as those al-Qaida was really focused on the United States and the West, while ISIS has a much broader array of targets. It also is going into areas where al-Qaida never even ventured, so I see a much more enhanced global effort right now to try to push back against ISIS, first of all, because it's a lot larger than al-Qaida ever was.

KELLY: So this prompts the question, what's the strategy for dealing with the leaders of ISIS? Or to put it more precisely, if you captured the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, tomorrow, where would he go?

BRENNAN: Well, I think if he were to be captured, as his name suggests - al-Baghdadi - he is an Iraqi. We work very closely with the Iraqi government in the security intelligence services, and depending on where he was captured, I think whatever prevailing legal systems were there at the time - it would be addressed that way. So a lot of these individuals are put into judicial system of the penal system of...

KELLY: Of the country where you...

BRENNAN: ...The country where they're captured - yes.

KELLY: Note Brennan's emphasis there - if Baghdadi were captured. If one option for removing a terrorist from the battlefield involves navigating Iraq's penal system and the other is a lethal airstrike, there's an obvious temptation to pick the latter. Just this month, the president's special envoy on ISIS, Brett McGurk testified before Congress. He said that in December alone, coalition airstrikes killed 10 militants deemed to have been ISIS leaders. John Brennan says catching militants does not make headlines the way killing them does, but he says it is preferable because of the intelligence it yields.

So in an ideal world, you would still prefer to capture...

BRENNAN: Absolutely.

KELLY: ...And interrogate somebody even though it's incredibly complicated where you put them now and...

BRENNAN: Well, it's...

KELLY: ...how you interrogate?

BRENNAN: See; I don't think it's incredibly complicated. I think sometimes there are challenges depending on the circumstances. But we always look for opportunities to capture individuals, to arrest them. There is a determination made whenever the U.S. government decides to conduct a direct action against individuals, that there is not the option to capture them. When a determination is made that it's not feasible to conduct some type of activity like that, what is the next option? And if the feeling is that individuals pose a serious risk to civilians or to people in the area, then other direct-action options are pursued.

KELLY: Direct-action options, meaning a decision to kill, not capture. With the new president taking office in 2017, John Brennan has about 10 months left running the Central Intelligence Agency. Though, in our interview, he hinted he might be open to longer.

BRENNAN: I don't know when I will leave CIA. There are three people who determine that - the president, whether it's this one or the next one, myself and my wife, who's been my, you know, life partner for the last 37 years. She gets a vote in this - an equal vote.

KELLY: As she should.

BRENNAN: Yes. And so I have absolutely the best job in the world. I work with some amazing people, the most dedicated, talented people I've ever had the opportunity to work with.

KELLY: There is precedent for a CIA director staying on. George Tenet, Bill Clinton's intelligence chief, stayed to serve in George W. Bush's administration. For now, Brennan says he's focused on training the next generation of CIA officers to solicit secrets in the 21st century. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.