John Brennan
Speaks to Young Leaders

The Ireland Funds Young Leaders in New York for a four-day meet-up.

By Maggie Holland, Editorial Assistant
March / April 2019

Over 150 young business leaders from the U.S. and abroad gathered in New York City for The Ireland Funds’ 8th Annual Global Young Leaders Summit, hearing from many industry and government leaders. The four-day event kicked off on Thursday, January 24.

The keynote speaker was John O. Brennan, former director of the CIA under President Obama. In a fireside chat with Ireland Funds board member Susan Davis, Brennan discussed his career, today’s national security challenges, and how his Irish-Catholic upbringing prepared him to make agonizing decisions.

Over the 20th century, the different federal agencies had grown isolated, resulting in a lack of sufficient sharing of information. After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush asked Brennan to set up and lead what would become the National Counterterrorism Center, an organization that would integrate disparate information that resides in the databases of various agencies into a single cohesive agency in order to better thwart terror attacks. Thanks to the NCTC empowering the other agencies as well as being empowered by them, we are much better prepared to thwart terror attacks than we were in 2001: “We have to continue to evolve, and it’s a process of constant improvement and adaptation.”

Brennan also spoke about new dangers that the ever-evolving digital landscape poses for the intelligence community, and the new individual privacy concerns it raises. “How do you optimize privacy and civil liberties, which are what this country was founded upon, but at the same time, try to ensure that the security of this country is protected?” he asked. He believes there should be an independent, bipartisan congressional commission, like the one created after 9/11 that led to the NCTC, to take on the cyber challenge: “It’s the issue of the 21st century.”

Consul General Ciarán Madden, former CIA Director John O. Brennan, Patricia Harty of Irish America, Susan Davis of Susan Davis Intl., and Kyle Clifford of the Ireland Funds.

Consul General Ciarán Madden, former CIA Director John O. Brennan, Patricia Harty of Irish America, Susan Davis of Susan Davis Intl., and Kyle Clifford of the Ireland Funds.


Adaptation and collaboration are big for Brennan. As director, he reorganized the CIA, breaking down the walls that existed between the directorates, like he had done with the federal agencies, and added a fifth directorate, the Digital Innovation Unit. “I really needed to prepare the agency for the challenges of the future, not to address the problems of the past,” he said.

Today, thanks in large part to Brennan, there is a female director and female general council, three of the five directorates are headed by women, and almost 50 percent of the workforce is female. “We’re supposed to be the eyes and ears around the world,” he explained, “so you want to have people from those difference experiences, different backgrounds to be able to be in the agency and carry out its mission.”

Brennan called Brexit “very misguided,” and “a symptom manifestation of populism in the world.” Nevertheless, he said it was due to an understandable criticism of globalization, which “has had a very uneven impact on societies,” explaining that those in metropolitan areas are more likely to benefit from globalization in terms of education and technological opportunities, whereas those in rural communities may see the factory that they, their parents, and their grandparents all worked in and depended on close down due to outsourcing. So, while Brexit (and the congruent American sentiments) may be ill-advised, the concerns behind it are legitimate and must be addressed.

When asked if there was an inherent weakness in western liberal democracies’ emphasis on values due to the tension between values and interest, he responded by recognizing the challenge in dealing with those who take advantage of our values to undermine the security and stability of society, but emphasized the importance of our values and the obligation of leaders to uphold and demonstrate them.“Let’s remember what we’re fighting for, what we’re about, and what we’re dedicated to,” said Brennan. “I’m willing to deal with some of those challenges, but I’m not willing to give up the principles that this country and other countries were founded upon.” Brennan’s steadfast morality can be traced to a childhood ambition, not to be director of the CIA, but in fact, the first American pope. ♦ Maggie Holland

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