• Transcript
  • Show Notes

On this special episode of the United Security podcast, former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper joins host Ken Wainstein for the second installment of their two-part conversation. While the last episode recounted Director Clapper’s life and career before becoming DNI, this one focuses on his service during the Obama administration. 

Director Clapper talks to Ken about the formation of the DNI role, the Obama administration’s response to the Arab Spring, and the controversy over the NSA’s collection of phone data. 

This podcast is produced by CAFE Studios. 

Tamara Sepper – Executive Producer; Adam Waller – Senior Editorial Producer; Nat Weiner — Audio Producer; David Kurlander — Editorial Producer, Sam Ozer-Staton — Editorial Producer

REFERENCES & SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS 

  • Jim Clapper, Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence, Viking, 5/2018
  • United Security: Interview with Jim Clapper Pt. 1, CAFE, 1/8/2021

THE FALL OF THE U.S.S.R AND THE ARAB SPRING

  • “This Week in DIA History: Predicting the Economic Collapse of the Soviet Union,” DIA.mil, 5/16/2019
  • Blake Hounshell, “Dark Crystal: Why didn’t anyone predict the Arab revolutions?” Foreign Policy, 6/20/2011

UNDERSECRETARY OF DEFENSE

  • Marc Ambinder, “On James Clapper and Stephen Cambone,” The Atlantic, 5/28/2010
  • Paul Frommelt, “Katrina: 10 Years Later,” NGA, 8/28/2015
  • “Gates praises intelligence nominee,” CNN, 6/7/2010
  • Ellen Nakashima, “Clapper’s leadership of Army intel group questioned,” Washington Post, 7/20/2010
  • Carol Cratty, “FBI official: Hasan should have been asked about e-mails with radical cleric,” CNN, 8/2/2012
  • Gen. Michael V. Hayden, “Is it OK for spy agency chiefs to tell the truth?” CNN, 4/11/2011
  • “James Clapper: Post-attack critiques show desire for more surveillance,” CBS News, 3/2/2015

DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE

  • James Clapper, “How 9/11 Transformed the Intelligence Community,” DNI.gov, 9/7/2011 
  • “Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004,” DNI.gov
  • “From Director of Central Intelligence to Director of National Intelligence,” National Security Archive, 12/17/2004
  • Office of the DNI, “15 Years Later: 9/11 and the Evolution of the American Intelligence Community,” Medium, 9/14/2016
  • Barbara Spunt, “Senate Confirms Avril Haines As Director Of National Intelligence,” 1/20/2021
  • Steven Aftergood, “Clapper: Military Intel Budget to be Disclosed,” Federation of American Scientists, 7/21/2010

LGBTQ+ RIGHTS 

  • “Remarks by DNI Clapper at the IC LGBTA Summit,” DNI.gov, 3/19/2014
  • Mark Hosenball, “U.S. spy agencies to celebrate LGBT employees,” Reuters, 3/11/2016
  • Michael Getler, “Homosexual to Keep High-Security Job,” Washington Post, 12/30/1980
  • Elizabeth Bumiller, “Admiral’s Opposition to Gay Policy Was Years in the Making,” New York Times, 2/3/2010

SURVEILLANCE

  • 50 U.S. Code § 1881a – Procedures for targeting certain persons outside the United States other than United States persons, Legal Information Institute
  • “USA Patriot Act,” GovInfo, 2001
  • Jessica Schneider, “What is Section 702 of FISA, anyway?” CNN, 1/11/2018
  • Ben Jacobs, “US intelligence chief warns Congress of danger of failing to renew Patriot Act,” The Guardian, 3/2/2015
  • “DNI Clapper Declassifies and and Releases Telephone Metadata Collection Documents,” DNI.gov, 7/31/2013
  • Bill Chappell, “Clapper Apologizes For Answer On NSA’s Data Collection,” NPR, 7/2/2013

SNOWDEN

  • Jamie Crawford, “Top intel official: Edward Snowden forced ‘needed transparency,’” CNN, 9/9/2015
  • Matt Danzer, “Clapper: Snowden Leaks Killed Major Intelligence Program in Afghanistan,” Roll Call, 9/11/2015
  • Katherine Fung, “Edward Snowden ‘Not at All Disappointed’ to Be Left Off Donald Trump’s Pardon List,” Newsweek, 1/20/2021
  • Lindsey O’Donnell, “James Clapper: Lessons Learned in a Post-Snowden World,” Threat Post, 11/15/2019

RUSSIA

  • Sean Illing, “Former top spy James Clapper explains how Russia swung the election to Trump,” Vox, 5/31/2018
  • Robyn Dixon, “Even in jail, Russia’s Navalny knows how to enrage his rival Putin. This time it’s with a viral video,” Washington Post, 1/20/2021
  • David E. Sanger, Nicole Perlroth and Julian E. Barnes, “As Understanding of Russian Hacking Grows, So Does Alarm,” New York Times, 1/5/2021
  • John Hudson, “Biden administration to seek five-year extension on key nuclear arms treaty in first foray with Russia,” Washington Post, 1/21/2021
  • Scott Rosenberg, “Disinformation’s big win,” Axios, 1/8/2021

THE END OF TRUMP 

  • Ayesha Rascoe, “Trump accuses U.S. spy agencies of Nazi practices over ‘phony’ Russia dossier,” Reuters, 1/11/2017
  • Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich, “Truth Decay An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life,” RAND Corporation, 2018

How does former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper remember the Obama years? 

As the Biden administration begins, Director Clapper looks back on his DNI tenure

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is no stranger to controversy. After joining Ken Wainstein two weeks ago to talk about the early part of his career, Director Clapper returns to break down the most intense intelligence debates of the Obama administration, from the Edward Snowden revelations to the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. 

As President Biden takes office, Clapper’s unique perspective on the appropriate role of intelligence seems all the more crucial. Director Clapper talks openly and passionately about the balance between safety and civil liberties, transparency and accountability, and the future of the intelligence community. In the process, he offers an invaluable lesson on the recent history of America’s stormy 2010s in global foreign policy and national security.

Ken Wainstein:

From CAFE, this is United Security. I’m Ken Wainstein. Before we get started, I want to take a moment to congratulate Lisa Monaco, my cohost on this podcast because, as you’ve probably read, Lisa was recently nominated to be the deputy attorney general of the United States in the Justice Department. That is great news for the country, maybe not so great news for her availability on this podcast. But I can’t think of anybody better suited, better equipped for that job than Lisa. So congratulations and best wishes to her.

In Lisa’s absence, as you know, we are doing a series of interviews with folks who’ve spent long stretches in the national security part of our government and intelligence community. Our most recent interviewee is Jim Clapper, the retired lieutenant general who served as President Obama’s director of national intelligence. Two weeks ago we discussed with Jim his excellent memoir called Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence, a memoir that covers his fascinating 50-year career in foreign policy and the world of intelligence.

This week we’re going to focus on the last decade or so of his career, which is the triumphs and tribulations of the Obama years and the lessons that he and we have learned as we enter into the Biden Administration. So Jim, it’s an honor to speak with you again here today. Welcome back to the show. In our last episode with Jim, we covered a lot of history and a lot of time. I think we started with Jim doing intelligence work for President Lincoln during the Civil War, maybe not quite that far back. But that’s actually not far from the truth. As I recall, we started off-

Jim Clapper:

Actually, it was US Grant.

Ken Wainstein:

Okay. US Grant. Actually, that’s not that far from the truth. Jim started his interest in intelligence soon after World War II as the son of an intelligence officer and told us about how he developed his passion for intelligence work and then that translated into a full career in intelligence that went from his time doing work in intelligence in the Air Force, through his stints in the Vietnam War, his work for various commands and the various intelligence agencies, focusing on the Soviet Union during the Cold War, his dealings with North Korea, his intelligence work in and around the Gulf War in the early ’90s, and his work as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the middle of the ’90s.

That’s where we got to at the end of our last episode. We still have quite a bit of Jim Clapper’s career to go, and he has kindly agreed to come back to finish his career in today’s episode. So Jim, thank you very much for coming back and continuing our conversation. Good morning to you.

Jim Clapper:

Thanks, Ken. Good morning to you and thanks for having me back.

Ken Wainstein:

Sure thing. You were the Forrest Gump of the intelligence community in the sense that you were part of every critical intelligence situation over the course of four or five decades and intricately involved in each and every one of them. So you talked us through them the other day. But when we finished going through those episodes, I got an email from a listener who indicated that there was one that we didn’t go over. In fact, this email’s from David in Decatur, Georgia.

He first congratulated Lisa Monaco for her nomination, but then said that he was as a child of the 1980s, he was hoping that you would go back and reflect on the fall of the Soviet Union and the rest of the Warsaw Pact and how that happened from an intelligence perspective and why it is that the Soviet Union collapsed in such a short period of time and did so without our intelligence community having any idea that it was going to happen and being able to predict it?

Great question, a glaring oversight in my questioning of you last time. So let me tee that up for you, Jim. How did that happen? Such a critically important event and one of the most critical geopolitical events of the century and how is it that intelligence community didn’t know it was going to happen?

Jim Clapper:

Well, looking back, I think it’s a couple reasons for it that I think the intelligence community, of which I was a part, became consumed with the military capabilities of the Russians, which sort of masked, to some extent, the underlying rot of the Soviet system. I think many people, I think all of us intuitively felt that it was a question of time before the big lie of the Soviet Union and communism and all that would collapse. That so often happens in intelligence where we’re not real good at forecasting spontaneous events.

To me, there’s a parallel and similarity there between predicting exactly when the Soviet Union would collapse and Arab Spring, which came about many years later. In both cases, the intelligence community was well aware of the conditions that would give rise to some spontaneous combustible event, no pun intended in the case of Arab Spring. We’ve never been real good at predicting spontaneous things that trigger momentous developments. So I think, as I look back on it now, was a preoccupation with Soviet military capabilities, particularly their nuclear arsenal which was quite formidable and which, of course, sustained itself even as the underlying system was rotting away.

I’m not sure we’re much better at that now. We have many more technological tools perhaps that might help, such as artificial intelligence. But to me, there’s a striking parallel and similarity between the fall of the Soviet Union and predicting an Arab Spring and failure to predict what essentially were somewhat spontaneous events. We didn’t pick that up, but that’s not to say we didn’t understand the conditions.

Ken Wainstein:

Right. I see that as a chronic problem or a chronic challenge in the intelligence field. There’s only so much you can do to predict human response to societal conditions, et cetera. I think the Arab Spring analogy is a good one because my understanding is the intelligence community was similarly surprised that that would happen. As you point out in your book, that whole series of hugely important geopolitical events were triggered by one … He was a street vendor who decided to actually immolate himself because he was so upset with the conditions of his life in Tunisia.

That set off this series of events that resulted in the Arab Spring. Hard to imagine that the intelligence community should be expected to predict that that one little event would take place and set off this huge shift in politics in the Middle East. So look, let’s go back up to the point in the chronology of your career where we left off last time. It’s 2006. As I said, you stepped out to the private sector for another New York minute. Even though you told your wife that you were going to spend the rest of your career making more money in the private sector and having more time and seeing more of your family, you got a phone in 2007 to come back in. Why don’t you tell us about that?

Jim Clapper:

Yeah. Actually, it was I think about November of ’06. I’d been working for a company for a couple months and the caller was none other than Bob Gates, who had been the director of Central Intelligence during my last job on active duty in the Air Force, which is director of Defense Intelligence Agency. Bob had became secretary of defense and asked me if I would consider coming back to the government as the undersecretary of defense for intelligence which, at the time, we thought would be to finish the Bush term, since Bob had replaced Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who had terminated me early, about three months early when I was director of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Ken Wainstein:

Why did he do that, by the way? I mean I know Rumsfeld is a character and there’s a lot said about him. But why did he decide that you needed to leave early?

Jim Clapper:

Actually, I never really found out directly. When I was hired on to come back to the government in 2001 to become director of what was then National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the deal was for five years. So I hadn’t got my five years in. And then went to work for a company, CEO was a friend of mine and I’d served with in Korea. I was there a couple months. Bob called and asked me if I’d come back, which was then, at the time, just to finish up the Bush term, which would have been 18 or 19 months. So having gone through this firing, if you will, I asked Bob if he could do me a big favor, which would be to call my wife and say, “I need to borrow him for a little while longer,” which he did.

He recounted it in his book and I recounted it in my book. It went fine and she said okay. But then the 19 months turned into about three and a half years because something unprecedented happened where Bob was asked to stay on by President-elect Obama as secretary of defense. So in turn, Bob asked me to stay as the undersecretary for intelligence. So I was there, got confirmed, I think, in April of ’07. It was a really prolonged confirmation process. And then I stayed until August of ’10 I think it was as the undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

Ken Wainstein:

What is the function of that position? What responsibilities do you have?

Jim Clapper:

It was really set up, I think, intended to be somewhat of a counterweight in DoD to the establishment of the office of director of national intelligence. Previously, the oversight of intelligence functions in the department was done kind of down in the food chain at the assistant secretary level. So I think Mr. Rumsfeld wanted to have a more muscular bureaucratic point of contact in the department for overseeing the four intelligence agencies that are embedded in the Department of Defense. That is the National Security Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, and the Defense Intelligence Agency, in addition to the service intelligence component.

So now with the evolution of Space Force, there are nine components of the 18 components in the intelligence community that are embedded in the DoD. So the thought was to elevate the level to the undersecretary level to oversee and, frankly, to defend against the encroachment of this new position of director of national intelligence. The principal function, I think, is to, in the case of the agencies, to oversee their performance as combat support agencies to support the military forces, principally in the unified commands, war-fighting commands. It has an extensive security and counterintelligence oversight function within the department.

The undersecretary of defense for intelligence runs what’s called the MIP, the Military Intelligence Program, which is the aggregation of tactical resources, tactical intelligence resources that are spread across, I think, some 13 components in the Department of Defense. So that’s essentially the functions. And now to provide the classic civilian oversight of military activities.

Ken Wainstein:

So one episode that I wanted to ask about from your time as undersecretary actually was a terrorist event here on US soil. You talk about this in your book and about the lessons you drew from this. This is the shooting out at Fort Hood by the army major and psychiatrist, Dr. Nidal Hasan, who walked into a facility out in Fort Hood and just opened fire killing, I believe, nine or 10 service people.

That was a pretty shocking situation at many levels because of the loss of life, because this is a service member, because it was a service member who had accomplished a lot in his life and was well-respected in many ways. You talk in your book about how this is a bit of a watershed moment for the intelligence community because there were calls, as there always are after these kind of tragedies, calls for accountability on the part of the intelligence community for not having anticipated this happening.

You saw that as an episode that really highlighted the question as to how intrusive the American people wanted its intelligence community and law enforcement personnel to be in order to anticipate and prevent attacks. Why don’t you tell us about that? Because I think that actually is a good prelude to a number of the similar situations you’ve faced as DNI.

Jim Clapper:

As in all cases like this, there’s always a post-event critique or typically several critiques by the Congress and others. At the center of this critique of the events was a series of 13 emails that Major Hasan had sent to Anwar al-Awlaki, who was a ideologue extremist that had great charisma and an ability, even online, to radicalize people. Apparently, that happened to Major Hasan. In one of these emails, there was a reference that could be interpreted that he was going to do something violent.

So the question it raises which, by the way, came up later in the course of the Boston Marathon post-event critique, and the philosophical issue is how intrusive do people expect the government to be in monitoring, surveilling its own citizens? That issue came up in the course of several hearings that I participated in in Congress who were various committees that were investigating the approximate cause of the shooting at Fort Hood and could it have been prevented, et cetera. We had occasion to revisit that later with Boston Marathon bombing.

The issue is expressed as we can have civil liberties and privacy or we can have safety and security of the country. The challenge, the trick is how do you do both at the same time? It’s a high-wire act actually. I don’t know that there’s a good answer for it. I mean the intelligence community tries to be as diligent and vigilant as it can be, given the tools that it has available to it. There are some technological challenges that make it very difficult to always just hone in on bad people, extremists, terrorists, whatever but, at the same time, not infringing on anyone’s civil liberties and privacy. That’s a tough thing to do.

I think it also devolves around the extent to which a citizen, individual citizen is willing to sacrifice somewhat for the common good. So to the extent that people stop at stoplights and stop signs, they go to airports two hours early in the days when we flew to go through TSA security, these are all things that infringe on one’s civil liberties and privacy but we do it for the common good. So it is in this instance, do you allow the government within reasonable limits the ability to monitor, surveil in the interest of safety and security? This is a classic where you stand depends on where you sit.

Ken Wainstein:

Right, and the balance that there’s no perfect answer for it and the balance that changes based on the situation that you’re facing. That’s your time as undersecretary of defense. Then you talk in your book about another call you got, which was to then become the DNI himself. So why don’t you, before you talk about your service as DNI, you’ve referenced the establishment of the DNI as being a pretty significant change to the structure and operation of the intelligence community.

Tell us a little bit about the origins of ODNI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the kind of bureaucratic resistance that there was to the notion of setting up a DNI and after the DNI was established on the part of, as you said, Secretary Rumsfeld and others.

Jim Clapper:

Well, the origins of it, of course, approximate cause was what happened in 9/11. It was a blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission that was convened after that and did a very exhaustive critique of the events leading up to 9/11 and the event itself. One of the recommendations they made, among others, was to establish a director of national intelligence whose full-time job would be to oversee the intelligence community unburdened by also running one of its components, in this case, the Central Intelligence Agency.

In the system that had evolved, going back to the National Security Act of 1947, was that the director of Central Intelligence Agency would have a second half as what was called the director of central intelligence, that is, to oversee the rest of the intelligence community. My own observations from about 20 years worth of up close and personal engagements with DCIs, directors of central intelligence, who were also serving as the director of Central Intelligence Agency, that was I likened it somewhat to part-time help at the post office at Christmastime. It’s very hard to do that on a part-time basis.

There was always the question about just how objective the DCI could be, wearing that hat, when it came time to allocate resources when one of the recipients for those resources was his own agency. So accordingly, that recommendation to the blue ribbon of the 9/11 Commission found its way into what was called the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which was signed into law by President Bush on the 17th of December 2004, which established the position of DNI.

So the logical question is, why have it? After my almost six and a half years in the position, I came away convinced that there needs to be a full-time champion of coordination, integration, collaboration, whatever term you want to use, which is not in and of itself a natural bureaucratic act. Unless you have somebody that’s pushing that all the time to break down the silos that can sometimes … so-called silos which can be counterproductive. It just won’t happen all by itself. Now that the intelligence community recently added an 18th member, that just amplifies the need for that full-time champion advocate, coordinator, integrator, leader of the intelligence community.

My observations were that directors of a Central Intelligence Agency sooner or later, mostly sooner, would get consumed with agency-centric issues which is quite understandable. I ran a couple of them for almost nine years and they are all-consuming, seven by 24, 365 jobs in and of themselves. So trying to run the rest of the community on a part-time basis was pretty difficult. 9/11 Commission thought that was a flaw that needed correcting.

Ken Wainstein:

So they recommend the establishment of the ODNI. The ODNI gets established by statute at the end of 2004. But some would say that the legislation didn’t go far enough, that it didn’t give the DNI enough authority to really be the quarterback of the intelligence community that the 9/11 Commission envisioned when they made the recommendation. Are there limits on the DNI that shouldn’t be there based on your experience sitting in that seat?

Jim Clapper:

One specific provision of the law essentially neuters the rest of it. For IRTPA aficionados, section 1018 basically says that nothing in the law compromises the authorities and responsibilities of the cabinet department secretaries who have components in the intelligence community. There are, well, let’s see, six cabinet departments that have components in the intelligence community. So if that provision were taken literally and exercised, that would essentially neuter the rest of it. That fortunately has never happened.

But that is a flaw in the legislation. It was done as a compromise in order to gain support from the Department of Defense which, of course, was not a big fan of having a DNI and did not want its prerogatives, the department’s prerogatives who are exercising what’s called authority, direction, and control over the intelligence components within the Department of Defense. So that’s one serious flaw. A strength of the law, in my view, is the designation of the director of national intelligence as a manager of what’s called the NIP, the National intelligence Program, which is the aggregation of people and money that is appropriated by the Congress.

That, of course, funds the major agencies and a good part of the service components. So that gives the DNI, if it’s exercised, a lot of leverage over influencing the behavior of the intelligence components. If I were to recommend a change, it would be to have a single standing appropriation just for the National Intelligence Program. If you think about it, the money that’s spent on intelligence, some $80+ billion is larger than all but three or four of the cabinet departments. But it’s very difficult to manage that spread across all these multiple cabinet departments.

So a way to strengthen the DNI’s authority would be to have a single appropriation, not as a poison pen in the Congress because that would require changes in jurisdiction. You just get nowhere when you’re trying to change jurisdictional boundaries in the Congress.

Ken Wainstein:

Jurisdiction of various committees in Congress?

Jim Clapper:

Right. Exactly.

Ken Wainstein:

So what do you see as the future of the ODNI? It’s still a relatively young part of the intelligence community, still I think arguably finding its way. Do you think it will ultimately evolve into the quarterback of the intelligence community that it was designed to be?

Jim Clapper:

One thing that would help it is not to have turbulence. There have been in the winning day of the Trump Administration some, I don’t know, four people or so that have occupied the position either as confirmed or in acting capacity. That is, in itself, I think weakens the position if you don’t have the continuity and stability, where people are constantly adjusting to a new leader with varying degrees of competence. So hopefully, with new administration, a new DNI who is competent, a very competent professional that it’ll get some stability back, the absence of which is quite distracting.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah. Avril Haines, the nominee for that position, is a true professional, deeply experienced. She also has good counterparts in the other relevant IC agencies, Burns and our friend, David Cohen, over at CIA, Chris Wray at the FBI.

Jim Clapper:

Yeah, exactly. One of the things that’s happened here, and certainly I have been an advocate for it, is to think about putting people in these key leadership positions in the intelligence community as a team and not do it as one-offs. It appears to me that’s what’s happened here. I think Avril and Bill Burns, who’s the designate for director of Central Intelligence Agency, will be a great team together, as well with David Cohen as the deputy of CIA. He’s going back to the job he had at the end of the Obama Administration. So it will not be new turf for him.

So this is all to the good. Of course, the other two key positions will be the principal deputy DNI as yet publicly unnamed, as well as the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. If you have those positions filled with people who are compatible and can work with one another, that is a great strength and a great asset because intelligence is clearly a team sport.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah. Well-said. Okay. So let’s now look at some of the matters that you handled as DNI. One of the things that I wanted to raise because it’s such a prominent and powerful part of your book is your focus on the workforce. This is at every stage of your career but I think, in particular, as DNI you were very focused on the morale of the workforce, their work conditions, the fact that it was known that they were doing good work, that they got the credit, as a good leader should do.

I just wanted to ask you, one of the things that I found the most touching was some of the episodes that you discuss where you had a growing realization about the reality of discrimination against people for sexual orientation in the military and in the intelligence community and the steps that you and others took to deal with that discrimination. Can you just give us a flavor of how that played out over your years in the military and the IC?

Jim Clapper:

Well, a lot of it had to do with my upbringing and the way my parents, the way they behaved with people that were often discriminated against. I remember particularly an experience I had as a, I was a lieutenant. I’d been in the service about two years, I guess, and I was placed in a position that administers the troops, sees to their housing in the barracks and passes and leaves and re-enlistments and all that sort of thing. So I had occasion, and this occurred, I guess, 1965 or so where two airmen were outed as homosexuals. Of course, in those days, it was automatic. You were out of the military.

I just remember, and I had to administer the discharge. I think they got a general discharge, not even an honorable one. These were two great airmen, two superb Russian linguists. They were very squared away in the barracks. They were really two good people. The system forced them to leave the service under less than honorable conditions. So I never forgot that. Fast forward some 20, 25 years later and I was then a two-star as the senior intelligence officer for the Air Force, a chief of Air Force intelligence, and had occasion to review an appeal of an employee who had been found out to be homosexual, civilian employee.

I recalled an example set by Admiral Bobby Inman when he was director of NSA where he allowed a homosexual employee at NSA to stay on if the employee would publicly acknowledge his sexual preference to his family and coworkers, which he did. So Admiral Inman made an exception.

Ken Wainstein:

So the logic of that being if he publicly discloses it, then he can’t be subject to blackmail?

Jim Clapper:

Exactly. That was the reason for expelling people is because of the alleged vulnerability to blackmail by a foreign power. So if you publicly acknowledge it, then you remove the threat of blackmail. So anyway, I had occasion, this is about 1989, I think, to review an appeal an employee made under the same conditions. I remember that example. So I restored this employee’s clearance, and I took some flack from some of my colleagues on the air staff for doing that.

Fast forward again about 20 years or so and I was speaker at a summit for lesbians, gays, et cetera at the National Security Agency Fort Meade in their Freedman Auditorium. I explained why I wanted to speak to these people. I recounted this incident, my first incident of having to kick out two airmen who were outed and when I was in a position of some influence where I could restore someone’s clearance under similar circumstance following an example of Admiral Inman when he was director of NSA.

It so happened that that employee, that very employee was sitting in the front row of the theater. I looked down at him and there were tears streaming down his face. I just about lost it. It was a very impactful episode, vignette for both of us. He and I are still in touch today. He’s also retired as a senior executive, great employee. I worked with him while I was the DNI. I mean in doing that, letting people be open about their sexual preference and not having to hide it was a good thing. Secretary Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mullen when they testified about why that was the right thing to do for the military was also a very dramatic vignette that I recounted in my book.

Jim Clapper:

I think it’s been slow, way slower than it should have been, but there’s been a lot of progress made with respect to not discriminating against people with different sexual preferences.

Ken Wainstein:

That’s an important story and an important lesson that leaders need to remember that they’re agencies second and they’re a group of people first. Kudos to you and others for recognizing the intelligence community is exactly that. It’s a community of people, and you need to take care of those people.

Jim Clapper:

Exactly. The most important asset for the intelligence community is its people. What you’re trying to do, I think, as a leader in the community is trying to motivate people to use their intellects. It’s up to the leaders to try to remove as many of the distractions as possible as they are using their intellects to figure out difficult problems.

Ken Wainstein:

Okay. Let me move on to another area that you handled as DNI. That is the support for the various national security tools and authorities that were put in place by statute with the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act and other legislation after 9/11. Those were authorities that were designed to help us better connect the dots in the future, better enable the intelligence community to prevent the next 9/11, et cetera. There were a number of these authorities that were passed in the years after 9/11 and many of them had sunsets.

In other words, they lasted for five years, X number of years, and then they had to be reauthorized by Congress, which meant that folks like yourself and myself when I was working in the national security field back under President Bush, had us going up to Congress on a regular basis to testify about the need for these authorities. Two of them that I want to just cite here and have you discuss are what are called section 702 and section 215, won’t get into the nomenclature. But 702 is a part of the FISA Amendments Act that allows for surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act against foreign persons who are reasonably believed to be outside the United States who are not US persons.

It allows for a more streamlined way to go about getting the authority than the traditional FISA process of going in with a big application of a US person or somebody in the United States that you want to surveil. Anyway, it’s a much more efficient process and it got established by statute in 2008. It was going to sunset and so it had to be reauthorized in the years after that. The second provision I want to mention is what’s called section 215 which is a part of the Patriot Act that allowed for the intelligence community to issue orders to collect tangible things and records, sort of like a grand jury subpoena on the criminal side.

The section 215 became famous because it was disclosed later on it was being used to authorize the collection of millions of telephone records that were then used to try to connect the dots between callers. You got all these telephone records of all sorts of people and the intelligence community could then put a phone number into see if they knew one bad guy, who that person was communicating with through an analysis of these records. These are two different provisions that you had to testify about.

This is all by the way of teeing up a situation where you had a hearing on Capitol Hill before the Senate and you were asked about one of these provisions by Senator Wyden. There were some who thought that you misled him with your response. Why don’t you tell us about that? And then I want to ask you some questions about the difficulty of testifying about classified programs in an open hearing and how challenging that can be for a member of the intelligence community.

Jim Clapper:

That’s a lot. Well, let me first start with a little bit about technology because that’s what occasioned these laws. In the halcyon days of the Cold War, which I sometimes found myself longing for, there were essentially two mutually exclusive telecommunication systems, one dominated by the Soviet Union and one dominated in the West by the United States. They were, as I say, mutually exclusive, meaning that rarely if ever did you ever see mention of a US person in the telecommunication system dominated by the Soviet Union.

Well, then along comes the internet. Now everything, all the communications are intermixed. So you have hundreds of millions of people each day transacting innocent activities on the internet. But mixed in among these innocent transactions, billions of innocent transactions by hundreds of millions of people, mixed in among them are nefarious people conducting nefarious transactions. They’re all mixed up together. So because of that, and in the aftermath of particularly 9/11, we had these laws that were established ultimately to try to govern the pursuit of nefarious people, terrorists and the like, and at the same time try to protect civil liberties and privacy.

So the two provisions you referred to, one was the section 702, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which was originally passed in 1978 and then had revisions belatedly after new technology. That was designed to cover the collection on non-US persons overseas. Section 215 is a direct of the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act was a direct result of 9/11 and was passed probably somewhat under emotional conditions, emotional reaction to 9/11. A particular provision that’s controversial at the time had to do with the storage of metadata, business records collecting metadata from phone companies.

The National Security Agency was permitted to store what amounted to about 30% of the telephone communications in the country, and the specific data they were permitted to store was a phone number, a to number, and the length of the call. There was no content and no names involved. The reason for establishing this program was a direct result of 9/11 where you had foreign communicants speaking on the phone with people in the United States, plotting a terrorist attack. So the concern was connecting the dots which, of course, it was a job the intelligence community didn’t do prior to 9/11.

So that was the reason for establishing these two provisions to govern the conduct of these activities. In March of ’13, I was testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on what was called Worldwide Threat Assessment hearing. At the very end of this two-and-a-half-hour hearing, Senator Wyden, Democrat from Oregon, who’s a civil liberties and privacy proponent, asked the question along the lines of, “Does the United States government maintain dossiers,” a word that had a new meaning later on, “dossiers on American citizens?” He asked the question.

There’s kind of a convoluted preface to the question and he used the term, dossier, which made me think of content.

Senator Wyden:

Last summer, the NSA director was at a conference and he was asked a question about the NSA’s surveillance of Americans. He replied and I quote here, “The story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is completely false.” The reason I’m asking the question is, having served on the committee now for a dozen years, I don’t really know what a dossier is in this context. So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question, does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

Jim Clapper:

No, sir.

Senator Wyden:

It does not?

Jim Clapper:

Not wittingly.

Jim Clapper:

So I responded to his question thinking about section 702, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which governs the collection of non-US persons overseas, and I did not think of what he was kind of cryptically asking me about, which was actually section 215 of the Patriot Act and the metadata storage program. None of that terminology or phraseology was mentioned. So I simply didn’t think about what he was asking about. So I answered his question, “No, we don’t.”

I went on to amplify that if we did, it would be inadvertent collection, which is that’s a valid answer for section 702, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It, of course, makes no sense in the context of section 215 of the Patriot Act. So you get into these very arcane discussions about these programs and the laws governing them. Well, that was three months later when Edward Snowden, his revelations were revealed. They went back, the media did, I guess, and dredged up the tape of that brief, I think it was about 75-second exchange with Senator Wyden.

Of course, the assertion was that I had lied to him and to the American people, which is not the case at all. I simply didn’t think about what he was asking me about. At that point, I’d probably been up to the Hill maybe 25 years testifying in both open and closed hearings and responded to probably hundreds, maybe thousands of questions if you include responses to written questions. I always endeavored, the best I could, to tell the truth with due regard for the protection of classified information, particularly sources, methods, and trade craft.

So this episode, I mean it’s kind of preposterous that, gee, just for a change of pace here I think I’ll lie on this one question and, by the way, do it on live television in front of one of my oversight committees. So the premise that I would intentionally lie in a situation like that is ridiculous. But that’s the way, not surprisingly, it was interpreted and I was widely pilloried for that. I certainly acknowledge the mistake that I made. But again, I wasn’t thinking about what he was asking me about.

Ken Wainstein:

Right. The dilemma that you faced there was that while you recognized that he might have been asking about 215, once you left the hearing you couldn’t publicly correct yourself, right? Because the 215 program was still classified at that point.

Jim Clapper:

Exactly. We had an exchange afterwards, both he and I, Senator Wyden and I and then his staff. What he demanded was that I publicly acknowledge the mistake I made which, of course, then would reveal a program that was classified and he, I believe, knew that. He realized that and he was just kind of setting a trap for it. My bad, I fell for it.

Ken Wainstein:

Right. So then you mentioned Edward Snowden and his leak, both about the 215 program and about all sorts of other capabilities that the intelligence community had. I’d like to segue into that for a minute because that obviously sort of opened the way for you to be able to publicly explain your misunderstanding as to that question, which might be the silver lining of the Snowden leak. But that’s probably as far as the silver lining goes.

Ken Wainstein:

You write in your book about how damaging those leaks were. Tell us a little bit about why the Snowden leak was so much more damaging than other leaks that we’ve seen from the intelligence community.

Jim Clapper:

I’ve often said that if what Edward Snowden had exposed was only related to so-called domestic surveillance, then I could almost understand what he did, although he did not use the outlets, the legitimate outlets that were available to him at the time. So I think he had other motivations than what he purports, this idealism about civil liberties and privacy. But unfortunately, he exposed so much else that had absolutely nothing to do with so-called domestic surveillance. He compromised much of our foreign intelligence collection capabilities.

I’ve often said to public audiences that if you’re a taxpayer, you’re going to be paying to repair the damage that Edward Snowden did for some years to come. He profoundly damaged our foreign intelligence capabilities, profoundly damaged partnerships that we had with our friends and allies overseas, intelligence partnerships. So there’s been discussion in the media about whether President Trump will pardon Edward Snowden, which I think would be a huge, huge mistake and a real slap in the face at the intelligence community.

Ken Wainstein:

Well, what about that? Because some people make arguments that Snowden and others like him are the true patriots, that they are disclosing things that are being done in the name of the American people and American national security that they think are wrong or unconstitutional. Do you buy that argument? Do you think that people who leak intelligence community secrets are the true patriots?

Jim Clapper:

No, I don’t, because of the damage that’s done. I lived through Private Manning’s revelations and then Edward Snowden. The damage that’s done jeopardizes the country’s safety and security because if you compromise sources, methods, and trade craft techniques, foreign intelligence partnerships, that does untold damage. To this day, we do not know the extent of what Snowden took or what he has possibly exposed, particularly to the Russians. So I don’t look too favorably upon the notion of giving him a pardon, which I think would be a terrible misjustice.

Ken Wainstein:

So just to play the devil’s advocate, so you’re an employee in the intelligence community. You see something that you think is wrong, immoral, unethical, unconstitutional. Look, as we’ve discussed, things have been done by the intelligence community in past years that were all of those things, right? Look at what was disclosed by the Church Committee back in the ’70s, et cetera.

You’re an employee. You come upon something like this. What are you supposed to do if you can’t leak it since you’re constrained by the fact that you have a clearance and you have access to this information due to a clearance, but you also have a duty to keep it secret?

Jim Clapper:

Good question. Ken, that’s why we have whistleblower protection provisions whereby an employee who witnesses wrongdoing, fraud, waste, and abuse or if he or she believes that the intelligence community is doing something that’s not legal, moral, or ethical but they have a legitimate protected outlet ultimately to the Congress, either or both of the intelligence oversight committees. That is the mechanisms that has been established to protect employees so that they can vent their concern, however legitimate it may be, but they can vent it and not compromise classified information, so to allow another outlet other than the public one in which serious damage can be done to our intelligence capabilities.

That’s why whistleblower protection, which got a stress test here in the Trump Administration, is so important, particularly to employees in the intelligence community who are dealing with classified information. If you’re in the Department of Interior or Department of Commerce, maybe not so critical. But in the intelligence community, it is. That’s why it’s important to have this outlet. I think there’s a lesson here though. What the Snowden episode does show, does illustrate is the need for the intelligence community to be as transparent as it can be.

Transparency is a double-edged sword because adversaries go to school on that very transparency that’s designed to engender faith, trust, and confidence of the American people. But if when you do that, if you reveal what the intelligence community, its sources, methods, trade craft, et cetera, enemies go to school on that as well. I’m convinced to this day that had … When the 215 program was originally set up, which was done within the executive branch only. It was very secret. It was kept secret from the Congress.

But if it had been explained to people, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11, why the government, why the intelligence community needs the capability like that, then I don’t think people would have been any more anxious about it than they are about the fact that the FBI, for example, maintains hundreds of millions of fingerprint files on innocent American citizens. But everybody knows they do it and know why and understand the virtues of having that capability.

Had that been done at the outset in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, explained why the program was needed, to be able to link, connect foreign communicants with people in United States, I think it would not have had the shock of impact that it did in the manner in which Snowden revealed it. The lesson learned is be transparent where you can be.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah. I think that is one of the historical lessons of the whole post-9/11 era that while there’s very good reason to keep all intelligence programs as under wraps as possible, there is a value to transparency, not only engendering trust and confidence in the American people, but also blunting a reaction to those programs later on if it comes out through a leak or otherwise, as opposed to being explained and justified to the American people upfront.

I think your analogy to the fingerprint program is very apt, the idea that nobody questions that because it’s been explained to them why the fingerprints are being collected and what use they’re being put to and what uses they’re not being put to.

Jim Clapper:

Exactly. When you think about it, the fingerprint program is actually more bio-metrically intrusive than the metadata program is or was.

Ken Wainstein:

Yep. Very interesting point. Okay. So let’s shift over from the Snowden leaks, which obviously was an all-consuming concern of at least a couple years of your time as DNI, and move forward in time up to the 2016 election. I’d like to ask you about the Russian interference with our election. You’ve spoken at length about that. In fact, you say that it was your concern about what the Russians did to our 2016 election and what they’re going to do in the future that actually drove you to write this book.

Tell us what it is that you saw about the Russian interference efforts in 2016 that alarmed you beyond the level of alarm that you’d had throughout your career seeing what the Soviets and then the Russians were doing at the expense of our national security.

Jim Clapper:

Well, as you can imagine, having spent 50+ years in various capacities in the intelligence community, I saw a lot of bad stuff happen, but nothing that disturbed me viscerally in the gut as did the Russian interference when I understood the magnitude and the scope and the aggressiveness of their campaign of disinformation to influence the outcome of our 2016 election. I believe they were eminently successful. Well, that gets at the very basis, the very underpinnings of our political system, our democracy.

I thought this was a profound threat to this country which continues yet today. So I decided that I would do my part, my little part to try to educate the American public, or those who would pay attention, about the threat posed by the Russians as revealed in the run-up to the 2016 election. I found it extremely disturbing and particularly their activism on social media and how they inflamed passions in this country, which they’re doing yet today, and how they exploited the polarization and divisiveness in this country.

One might ask, “Well, why did they do that?” Well, in the minds of the Russians, most generally and specifically Putin, this is a way of weakening the United States because it acknowledged that we have many other strengths, our military, our economy, et cetera. But when they get at the very fabric of our society and inflamed these passions of divisiveness and polarization, they are succeeding in weakening us. I just found this very, very disturbing. It was certainly a prime motivation for writing a book that people could read and hopefully understand what I was getting at and why I was so concerned.

Ken Wainstein:

I think if you look at events today, I don’t know that you have any reason to be more sanguine about Russia’s effects on us and what their intentions are around the world. I mean just today there’s press reporting about Navalny, the opposition leader of Russia being taken into custody on trumped up charges after he was poisoned, almost killed with an agent that was traced back to the Russian government.

You also have the SolarWinds cyber hack from earlier. Actually started back in March and it was disclosed the end of last year where the Russians hacked into our government systems and got untold amounts of information. I’m not sure that there’s any reason, as I said, to be confident that Putin in Russia is going to change his tack. It’s just having success after success at our expense.

Jim Clapper:

When you think about it, very little expense on his part to do this. Unfortunately, we are a very ripe target for him. I wonder about the ultimate source of financing for the insurrection of January 6th and whether or not, I don’t know, but I wonder about Russians helping to foment that by financing it indirectly. Unfortunately, President Trump has been mysteriously and uniformly deferential to Russia. He’s never personally dimed out Putin or the Russians for that matter.

He claims to be nobody’s been tougher, but that’s not really the case. So I think we’re going to be in a newer era here with President-elect Biden who has, I don’t think, any illusions about the true nature of the threat posed by the Russians. We shouldn’t forget, by the way, the threat posed by their nuclear arsenal. They’ve expended a lot of resources in modernizing it and developing a lot of pretty scary weapons which are for, in their mind, only one adversary, which is the United States.

Ken Wainstein:

So you allude to President Trump’s failing to take on Putin and stand up to the malign activities of the Russian government. I want to now segue into your post-government time as a commentator on TV. You do a lot of commentator work, asked about all the situations and crises that come up around the world. You’re obviously often asked about Russia and the threat it poses. You cite the fact that President Trump has seemingly coddled Putin and the Russians and failed to take them on.

Ken Wainstein:

As a result of that, you’ve been sort of branded as anti-Trump, as a Trump critic. For somebody who, as you explained last time, has spent his career avoiding discussions of policy as opposed to intelligence, much less discussions of politics as an intelligence professional, how does it feel now to be branded as a political dissident, as somebody who is kind of a “political hack,” as I think you’ve been called?

Jim Clapper:

That’s a great question, Ken. There’s obviously controversy attended to this because there are those who feel strongly that both military and intelligence formers shouldn’t be speaking out, which is a view that I certainly adhered to for years. When I retired from the military in 1995, it never occurred to me to be speaking out about politics or certainly being critical of the president or anything like that. But I think we’re in a, I felt, a unique situation and I began simply to defend the intelligence community, since the intelligence community towards the end of the Obama Administration had been labeled publicly as Nazis by then President-elect Trump, which I called him to complain about.

So it started that way and I guess that inevitably led to what is considered as criticism of the president. But I felt early on that he was attacking the institutions of our government and the standards and norms that have long prevailed and make our democracy work. I think that came to a tragic head on January 6th where he incited and fomented an insurrection and attacked the very seat of our democracy in the Capitol Building on Capitol Hill. So I acknowledged the controversy attended to this and those people feel strongly that formers, either military or from the intelligence community should remain silent.

With the amount of time that I spent in the intelligence community defending this country and the values for which it stands, I felt I had to speak out. I tried to be as moderate and temperate as I could but, at the same time, point out what I thought were serious attacks on our system, an independent judiciary, independent intelligence community, freedom of the press, you name it, marginalizing the Congress, marginalizing our system of three co-equal branches of government, et cetera, et cetera. I just felt an obligation to speak up.

It was long instilled in me by my dad had served for 28 years in the Army about respect for the president as the Commander-in-Chief and deference for the Commander-in-Chief. But you need to remember that we all take an oath to the Constitution, support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same, meaning the Constitution, not to an individual. That was what I was trying to do is defend our Constitution and the system that it underpins.

Ken Wainstein:

Well, amen. Thank you for doing that. You mentioned the January 6th riots up on Capitol Hill, the insurrection. I think that actually took place the same day or maybe the day after we did our last podcast. So I just want to wind up this podcast by asking you about that. Pretty traumatic for all of us who care about our country and our democracy and made worse by the fact that it seemed to have been incited by the president himself. But what do you think it says about the state of our American politics and the divisiveness that you referred earlier, that you have a pretty large group of people actually breaking their way into the United States Capitol, treating our seat of government with such disrespect?

Ken Wainstein:

What is your read of that? I guess then I’d ask, what should President-elect Joe Biden do to try to bind the wounds that have allowed this kind of conduct to take place?

Jim Clapper:

Well, what struck me, Ken, about watching over and over again the sickening and disgusting videos is the ferocity, the tenacity of these people who were convinced apparently they were doing the right thing by conducting this insurrection. It’s illustrative of the impact of lying and repetitive lying over the last four years and this cult that has developed around one Donald Trump which is, as we’ve seen, extremely dangerous and destructive to our system and our country.

Democracy has been practiced in this country. As imperfect as it is, it’s actually very fragile. It won’t work without the commitment of people to make it work. You can’t legislate that commitment. It’s a spiritual one. If people don’t respect that, we’re in serious trouble. So what the last four years have done is to amplify the fringe extreme right-wing elements that have always been there in this country, but the president has served to be an echo chamber amplified by enablers and social media, some of whom have belatedly come to an epiphany about the danger that is posed to our country by their acquiescence in perpetuating and amplifying, broadcasting the big lie.

That all came to a head on January 6th and then for all to see, both in this country and overseas. Of course, it’s a terrible embarrassment, a terrible taint for this country which we’ll always have. President-elect Biden, soon to be president, I know understands this and is committed to unifying the country, which is going to be no small task. So I think we have to treat what we’ve seen as a serious terrorist threat in the same way that we saw Al Qaeda as a terrorist threat, an external threat. Now a much bigger threat to our country and our system is an internal domestic terrorist threat.

So we have to pay attention to that, devote the resources to that from an investigatory standpoint using all the same tools that we’ve honed in pursuing external or foreign terrorist threats. We need to do that in our own country. The more difficult part is the fight for the hearts and minds of people, particularly those hopefully who are less extreme and not prone to violence and try to peel them off, if you will. We’ve done some of that against foreign terrorists by peeling off people that are not quite as committed as the hardcore fanatics. I think we’ve got to do that here.

Jim Clapper:

That’s a long-term problem. It requires education at least the middle school, high school level. It requires a lot of things. But if we don’t come to grips with this, the United States as we’ve known it I fear will be forever damaged.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah. You list the things it requires and I think, to your point earlier, one of the things it requires is our leaders telling the truth and not manipulating the facts for their own purposes. We’ve seen the damage that causes to our country and we see how important it’s been that our leaders in the past have not gone to such great lengths to distort the truth. As you say, our democracy’s fragile. That’s probably the easiest way to undermine our democracy by distorting the truth so that nobody understands what’s really happening. The result of that is people actually being so terribly misled that they’re willing to inflict violence on our system.

Jim Clapper:

We have a bad case of what the RAND Corporation has cleverly and aptly called truth decay in this country. This is something that preceded Donald Trump. He certainly magnified it, exploited it, but this business of not having the same set of empirical facts to look at and agree on is very dangerous.

Ken Wainstein:

It is. On that note, let me thank you for joining us here today, but also I want to specifically thank you for writing your book because, to your point, you write out the facts about a critical time in American history and the evolution of our intelligence community, in that very difficult balance between civil liberties and national security that has been basically the crux of what you’ve done for the last five decades. It’s that truth that’s so important for people to see.

So thank you. I know you’re not one to talk about yourself. I know it took a lot to get you to write a book. But thank you for doing it. Also thank you for joining us here today. I appreciate it personally and I know our listeners are very grateful for you taking the time and also for your service over the years.

Jim Clapper:

Well, thanks, Ken. Thanks for having me and thanks for thoughtful questions. I appreciate it.

Ken Wainstein:

Okay. All the best, Jim.

That’s it for this week’s episode of the United Security Podcast. Your hosts are Lisa Monaco and Ken Wainstein. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior producer is Adam Waller. The senior audio producer is David Tatasciore. The CAFE team is David Kurlander, Nat Weiner, Matthew Billy, Sam Ozer-Staton, Noa Azulai, Jake Kaplan, Geoff Isenman, Chris Boylan, Sean Walsh, and Margot Maley. Our music is by Allison Leyton-Brown. Thank you for being part of the CAFE Insider community.