RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We are back in the business of stealing secrets. Those fighting words are from the head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo. He took over the agency in January, and he says he wants to take it in a newly aggressive direction. Pompeo made the comment last night in a session at CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia. And NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly was there. Hi, Mary Louise.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So what does this mean for the CIA director to say we are back in the business of stealing secrets? Isn't that what the CIA was meant to do?
KELLY: A-ha. Well, I will tell you what I think he meant, and then I will give you a little bit of the backdrop to that comment. Pompeo says that President Trump has put in place priorities, priorities that will require the CIA to be more aggressive going forward. So one example of that if you look at North Korea, North Korea, which, of course, is emerging as one of the most urgent national security threats under this very young Trump administration. Every time North Korea tests a missile, which they do often, it brings them closer to being able to launch a nuclear missile which may threaten the U.S. and U.S. allies.
So at the CIA, Pompeo, in one of his first reforms as CIA director, he has just set up a special mission center for North Korea. One goal is to allow the U.S. to work more closely with their intelligence counterparts in South Korea, but it's basically to try to harness all of the agency's resources to look at the nuclear threat. And people out at CIA will tell you this is an example of the agency's new agility going forward. So that's part of what Pompeo's talking about.
MARTIN: OK. And there is a backdrop to this remark about stealing secrets?
KELLY: All right. The backdrop is this. That comment about the CIA's back in the business of stealing secrets. That is a little bit of a dig at Pompeo's immediate predecessor, John Brennan, and specifically a dig at a comment that Brennan made in an interview with us. If you track the CIA, closely there is this debate over whether under previous presidents - under Obama, under President Bush - the CIA maybe ventured too far toward being a paramilitary force, toward drones, toward targeted killings.
And last year, in an interview at Langley, I asked John Brennan about this and whether he favored the CIA returning to its more traditional routes, so to espionage, to stealing secrets. And as soon as I said those words, Brennan cut in. He jumped on that. And let me play you what he said.
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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: Rachel, I will tell you my phone lit up after that...
MARTIN: I can imagine.
KELLY: ...The whole CIA alumni network calling in screaming, what? Of course we steal secrets. That's what we do.
MARTIN: That's our whole thing, yeah.
KELLY: John Brennan would take exception to the idea that he was not running an agency that was aggressive, that he wasn't forward-leaning. But what Pompeo signaled last night was the agency could be more forward-leaning, could and should, he says, be taking more risks than it has.
MARTIN: So speaking of John Brennan, he made a little news of his own yesterday. Let's pivot to that. He testified publicly for the first time since he left the CIA. Here he is talking Russia in front of the House intelligence committee.
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BRENNAN: I encountered and am aware of information intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign.
MARTIN: Did he get specific, Mary Louise? Did he say which people involved in the campaign?
KELLY: No, he did not, despite the best efforts of several lawmakers to try to ferret that information out of him. The headline of his testimony yesterday was he felt there was enough to warrant further investigation, that there were unresolved questions in his mind, so he last summer referred the matter to the FBI.
He was also careful to say he doesn't know if there is proof of collusion, this big question of was there - did things go beyond contacts to actual collusion between Russian officials and Trump campaign officials? And Brennan said he doesn't know, but there were enough contacts to raise questions for him.
MARTIN: Another moment to note from Brennan's testimony yesterday, he talked about a particular phone call in which he delivered a warning to a Russian counterpart. Can you explain this?
KELLY: So this was a call we had not heard about before. It was a call that took place last summer on August 4. And it was a conversation between then head of the CIA, John Brennan, and the head of the FSB. This is the domestic intelligence service in Russia, right. The head of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov. And Brennan says he warned Bortnikov to cut it out, to stop interfering in the U.S. election.
Bortnikov denied he did, that Russia was interfering, but said, I'll take this to President Putin. And we know how things played out from there. I think the significance of learning about that call yesterday is it gives us some measure of how alarmed Obama administration officials were last summer at the height of the presidential campaign, months before it was clear to the rest of us what the scope of Russian interference was.
MARTIN: NPR's national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly in studio this morning. Thanks so much, Mary Louise.
KELLY: You're welcome.
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