STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's visit a room few people ever enter. It is in the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Virginia. Ride an elevator up to the seventh floor, follow a long hallway painted taupe, and you arrive in the office suite of CIA director John Brennan. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly walked in that room to interview Brennan. She's here to talk about it. Hi, Mary Louise.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What's it like to be in that room?
KELLY: Well, I will tell you the detail that stood out for me. We were in the director's conference room, and on the far wall, the other end from where we were sitting for our interview, there are five clocks...
KELLY: ...So that the CIA can keep track of what time it is in five places around the world. So I am, of course, immediately curious. You got five cities. Where are you going to pick?
KELLY: The five are Washington...
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
KELLY: ...Kind of given, one that's not a city, Zulu time, so GMT.
INSKEEP: Greenwich Mean Time in Britain, OK, fine.
KELLY: Exactly, Islamabad in Pakistan.
KELLY: I'm going to let you guess the other two.
INSKEEP: Beijing and my hometown, Carmel, Ind.
KELLY: (Laughter) You will be shocked to know they're not monitoring the time in Carmel, Ind. You know, the other...
INSKEEP: So far as we know, anyway.
KELLY: So far as we know, the other two were Damascus in Syria and Pyongyang in North Korea. And that one interests me because the time in Pyongyang is not the same time as anywhere else in the world. You may remember they created their own time zone last summer. And his staff said don't read anything into this, but it's interesting.
INSKEEP: OK, so we do have some little clue there to the CIA's anxieties or trouble spots. What about the director you met in that room?
KELLY: Well, he's a busy man, and so you think about how am I going to free him this interview? What do I start with? And you start with the newsiest things first for fear that you may be interrupted, which is, in fact, exactly what happened. We were in the middle of a question about Russia, and an aid appeared holding a handwritten note, and John Brennan paused and read it for what seemed to be a very long moment. But thankfully, it was something that apparently could wait, so we were able to carry on questioning him. And I started off by asking about this showdown between Apple and the FBI. I asked Brennan, should Apple be forced to help the FBI unlock this San Bernardino iPhone, and here's what he said.
JOHN BRENNAN: What would people say if a bank had a safe deposit box that individuals could use and access and store things, but the government was not going to be able to have any access to those environments? And so criminals, terrorists, whatever could use it. So what is it about electronic communications that makes it unique in terms of it not being allowed to be accessed by the government when the law, the courts say that the government should have access to it? So these are things that need to be worked through.
KELLY: Is that a yes, that you think Apple should be forced to help the FBI in this case?
BRENNAN: I think that the FBI clearly has a legitimate basis to try to understand what is on a phone that is part of a very active investigation, consistent with what their responsibilities and authorities are.
KELLY: One argument that's been made against that view is that if Apple is forced to open a phone for American law enforcement, what's to prevent China, Iran, other countries from asking for the same thing?
BRENNAN: Apple is a U.S. company. Apple is providing a service to citizens. It operates within the United States.
KELLY: But also to people - half their customer bases outside the U.S.
BRENNAN: Well, that's right. And so depending...
KELLY: Why (unintelligible) people in China with an iPhone.
BRENNAN: ...On where one operates, they're going to have to conform with the laws of those countries or else make decisions about not providing their services or products in those countries. And so I think the United States has a long-established tradition of making sure that privacy rights and civil liberties are protected while, at the same time, the security of the American people are protected.
INSKEEP: Mary Louise Kelly, I hear him essentially saying, the CIA director saying that's the company's problem. That's Apple's problem.
KELLY: I think he's essentially saying that national security trumps business interests. And I will say this is not the first time I have heard Brennan wade into the debate ranging over how we conduct business and balance it with privacy and national security and all of these other interests in today's world. Three days after the Paris attacks, he gave a speech, and he suggested that new laws have made it harder for spy services on both sides of the Atlantic to unravel terror plots. In our interview, I asked him, is there some specific capability that the CIA lacks that you wish it had that might've thwarted those attacks?
BRENNAN: Well, what I think I and others are saying is that terrorists have taken full advantage of these technological advancements, and so they've been able to go to school and understand how they can communicate in a secure fashion and areas and in ways that may be walled off from government access.
KELLY: Can you be specific?
BRENNAN: Well, it's terrorists who are communicating right now and, you know, with different types of, you know, applications.
KELLY: Messaging apps.
BRENNAN: Yes, different things.
KELLY: We pressed Brennan four times on this point, what exactly he wants the CIA to be able to do when it comes to intercepting communications that, under current law, they can't. Finally, we arrived here.
BRENNAN: I would like the government to have the ability to gain access to information that is in these electronic or various devices that can be used to further their investigations, whether it be guilt or innocence of individuals. But just to say no to the government, no, you're not going to have access to this environment, I think is very shortsighted, and also I think it doesn't take into account the very serious threats that this country faces and how criminals, terrorists, proliferators and others can take advantage of that type of attitude.
KELLY: John Brennan, it should be noted, did not ascend to the top job at CIA by being forthcoming with reporters. The top secret nature of his work means he often has to speak in generalities or with a good old-fashioned no comment. Here he is on whether the CIA is arming and training opposition fighters in Syria.
BRENNAN: I'm not going to talk about anything that the CIA might be doing in that area.
KELLY: And here he is on whether airstrikes in Libya last week hit their target, a Tunisian militant named Noureddine Chouchane.
Do you have anything you can share in terms of any confirmation on this?
BRENNAN: No, it's still very early.
KELLY: Brennan did add that strikes in Libya were based on - and I'm quoting - "very good intelligence." And Steve, I should say I asked a few personal questions toward the end, such as whether there's a moment that stands out from his 35 years in the spy business. And Brennan offered this.
BRENNAN: When I welcomed the head of the Russian FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, to the CIA last year, and I walked with him across the lobby, across our infamous CIA seal there, it was rather surreal that the head of the FSB and the head of the CIA were walking together.
KELLY: Rather surreal, I think, to an old cold warrior, John Brennan spent the first decade or so of his career doing battle with Russian spies of his generation.
INSKEEP: What's surreal for me is he's walking with the Russian intelligence chief at this time when the United States is again in conflict with Russia around the world, including in regard to ISIS.
KELLY: And we asked about ISIS, of course. He was really interesting on the current state of ISIS. And if you want to hear exactly what he said, you can tune into All Things Considered later today.
INSKEEP: We'll be listening. That's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. Thanks very much.
KELLY: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: She talked with CIA director John Brennan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.