James Clapper Talks about the Highs and Lows of a U.S. Intelligence Officer

The former director of national intelligence pushed back against presidential tweets and discussed his new book, “Facts and Fears,” at GW’s Jack Morton Auditorium.

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Dana Bash, B.A. '93, led a conversation with former director of national intelligence James Clapper about his new book, "Facts and Fears." (Sydney Gray/GW Today)
May 29, 2018

By B.L. Wilson

James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence deluged by tweets from President Donald Trump, sat for a conversation about his new book “Facts and Fears," with CNN chief political correspondent and GW alumna Dana Bash at GW’s Jack Morton auditorium.

The author event sponsored by Politics and Prose and George Washington University was held Wednesday night as reports emerged of an FBI informant in the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential elections, and presidential tweets characterized Mr. Clapper as the “dumbest former head of intelligence” and accused the FBI of “spying” on the Trump campaign.

Mr. Clapper said he would prefer not to be called out like that but was not bothered by the tweets, agreeing with Ms. Bash that they could help to sell his book, which prompted laughter from the audience.

On a more serious note, Mr. Clapper objected to the use of the word “spying” as a distortion of the point he was trying to make.  He said he was trying to explain that the purpose of the informant was “to determine what the Russians were doing to infiltrate, gain access and potentially exert leverage [on the elections].”

Mr. Clapper said that Russians have a long history of interfering in elections, both in Russia and in other countries. “It was never as direct, aggressive and multi-faceted as what they mounted in interfering in our elections in 2016,” he said.

Though the intelligence community felt strongly about getting the word out about the Russians activities, President Barack Obama, he said, was reticent and concerned about tipping the scale in favor of one candidate or the other. A statement about Russians’ meddling in the elections was finally issued by the Office of the Director of Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security in October 2016 but was eclipsed by the Access Hollywood tape in which Mr. Trump is heard talking about groping women between their legs.

Mr. Clapper said he makes it clear in the book that the intelligence community found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians. Still, he said he found remarkable and striking similarities between what both entities were saying and doing.

When asked by Ms. Bash to offer an expert opinion on whether the similarities were more than a coincidence, he said that you need evidence to make such a call.  

As a private citizen, Mr. Clapper said, he has concluded that Russian interference did have a profound effect on the outcome of the election. “Understanding how close the election was, particularly in an electoral college context and how few votes either way could have affected the outcome, it stretches logic and credulity that there was no impact,” he said.

Mr. Clapper served six and a half years as director of National Intelligence. He counted as a low point the leaking of top-secret information by Edward Snowden, a National Security Administration subcontractor, for which he said, he had to endure “painful venting” from Mr. Obama.

Mr. Clapper served in numerous capacities as an intelligence specialist in three administrations, following his father who served as a military intelligence officer during World War II.  Mr. Clapper’s most “infamous” mistake occurred during his tenure as director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency that is responsible for reading satellite photos. The agency backed up the claims of President George W. Bush that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that provided the rationale for the invasion of Iraq after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“My fingerprints are on the infamous national intelligence assessment of October 2002,” he said. “[The intelligence community] built a case in our own minds, a house of cards it turned out that led us to the conclusion with pretty high confidence that they were there, and it turns out they weren’t.”

The high point of his service in government, tracking down and killing Osama Bin Laden, came early in his last government tour.

“It represented closure for the country and closure for the intelligence community and certainly personal closure. It was certainly a profound event, and I will never forget it,” he said.

He said he supported Mr. Trump’s acceptance of a meeting with the leader of North Korea, where he served as chief of intelligence for U.S. forces. Kim Jong Un’s father and his grandfather always wanted a direct personal meeting with a U.S. president, he said.  But he cautioned that there should not be high expectations of results, if the meetings happen.  

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