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Brennan: CIA Must Rely on Social Media in the Middle East

CIA Director John Brennan said Congress should provide the CIA with an updated “legal framework” that would allow the agency to tap into today’s digital information as a way to keep American safe.

He also said the CIA director position should have a fixed term length ranging from 5 to 10 years.

“I do believe it makes some sense to have the CIA director position be a term position, whether it’s 5, 7 or 10 [years] and take it out of that election cycle. We pride ourselves as intelligence professionals on being independent and I think it should be independent of that political cycle. The FBI director is a 10-year term,” Brennan said at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance’s leadership dinner. “I do think it makes sense to have the DNI and the CIA director serve similar types of tenures.”

Brennan, who started as director of the CIA in March 2013, was asked at the event about the challenges of intelligence gathering in the Middle East.

“The central governments are being challenged in a way that they have never been before and so much activity is taking place at the street level in terms of the populist movements,” he said.

Brennan cited the Arab Spring as an example of the power of social media and the role it plays in intelligence gathering.

“You’re not going to have insight into what’s going on in the streets if you have a spy in the prime minister’s office because they may be totally disconnected as a lot of authoritarian regimes are,” he said. “We need to have a better sense of what is happening on the street. What are the types of things that are motivating people? What are the types of sparks that can set aflame the forests in the area? That’s where social media gives you really good insights in ways you are not going to be able to get from a lateral asset.”

Brennan said the CIA has to start thinking more “creatively” with a 21st century mindset.

“What are those indicators that would give us a sense that something is happening here? Look what happened in northern Iraq, how Daesh, ISIL, so quickly just enveloped the Iraq security forces in the north. There was an unraveling in Yemen of the Houthi coming down,” Brennan said.

“A lot of these things are something you cannot get from traditional collection systems and methods and we need to be applying the analytics skills, the operational savvy as well as some of the digital expertise because even in places like Yemen or Syria or Iraq, you see people on their phones. They are using all sorts of mobile devices,” he added.

If 100 Americans were asked what metadata is, Brennan said, the majority would not know but would say the government should not have it.

“We need to educate the public about the new digital environment and how we the government have an obligation to our society to be able to leverage whatever capabilities or tools we have to tap and pulse that digital environment in a way that’s not going to infringe on individual civil liberties and privacy — but at the same time, be able to identify information that we need in order to keep this country safe,” Brennan said.

“We make sure that we keep our children safe from pedophiles, we make sure that we’re able to do it from a law enforcement standpoint in terms of people who are a menace. From a national security standpoint, that digital environment is so rich with so much activity, just the way we have police on the streets of cities and towns, we need to have a legal framework and a policy construct that will allow us to appropriately tap into the information and knowledge that is out there in order to keep this country safe,” he added.

Brennan asked the attendees to help the CIA convince lawmakers to enact an updated legal framework for intelligence gathering.

“We need to adapt our legal systems,” he said. “A lot of our departmental structures and legal frameworks were built in the 20th century. The 21st century is so different. So just like CIA is recognizing that we need to adapt to the 21st century, I think there a lot of other environments that need to adapt as well.”

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