• Transcript
  • Show Notes

On this special episode of the United Security podcast, Ken Wainstein interviews former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper about his life and work in the intelligence community. 

Director Clapper takes Ken on a panorama of American intelligence successes and failures, touching on the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union, North Korea, the Gulf War, and the Iraq War. Along the way, Clapper offers novel observations on the state of geopolitics and American institutions. 

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


  • Jim Clapper, Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence, Viking, 5/2018
  • Jim Clapper, “The Frontline Interview,” PBS Frontline, 8/9/2017



  • Lisbeth Perez, “James Clapper on the Foundation of GEOINT,” Trajectory Magazine, 9/26/2019
  • Director Clapper on listening to police frequencies, CBS News, 5/24/2018
  • Director Clapper talks about signals intelligence at Morehouse College, ODNI, 11/4/2016
  • Sarah Sicard, “This Virginia dairy farm that housed Army spies is now a winery,” Army Times, 2/18/2020
  • Robert Keough, “Small Pieces Of Action Comics #1 Available For Auction,” Screen Rant, 12/15/2020



  • Laurie Kellman, “Obama: President without briefings would be ‘flying blind,’” Associated Press, 12/13/2016
  • Robert Draper, “Colin Powell Still Wants Answers,” New York Times, 7/16/2020

KAL 007

  • Thom Patterson, “The downing of Flight 007: 30 years later, a Cold War tragedy still seems surreal,” CNN, 8/13/2013
  • “MH17: Four charged with shooting down plane over Ukraine,” BBC, 6/19/2019
  • Celestine Bohlen, “Tape Displays the Anguish On Jet the Soviets Downed,” New York Times, 10/16/1992


  • Luis Martinez, “How Clapper’s Secret Mission to North Korea Came About,” ABC News, 11/9/2014
  • Jim Clapper, “Ending the Dead End in North Korea,” New York Times, 5/19/2018
  • Kelsey Davenport, “Chronology of Libya’s Disarmament and Relations with the United States,” Arms Control Association, 1/2018
  • Connor O’Brien, “Clapper: North Korean leader ‘may have met his match’ in Trump,” Politico, 5/27/2018
  • Jim Clapper, “James Clapper: Kim Jong Un Is a God in North Korea,” The Daily Beast, 6/1/2018
  • Uri Friedman, “The ‘God Damn’ Tree That Nearly Brought America and North Korea to War,” The Atlantic, 6/10/2018


  • Molly Moore, “Schwarzkopf: War Intelligence Flawed,” Washington Post, 6/13/1991
  • Amatzia Baram, “Who Will Fight for Saddam?” Brookings Institution, 3/19/2003 
  • Lieutenant Colonel John J. Bird, “Analysis of Intelligence Support to the 1991 Gulf War: Enduring Lessons,” U.S. Army War College, 2004


  • Mark Bowden, “The Legacy of Black Hawk Down,” Smithsonian Magazine, 1/2019
  • “What a Downed Black Hawk in Somalia Taught America,” NPR, 10/5/2013
  • Black Hawk Down (dir. Ridley Scott), Sony Pictures, 2001


  • Colum Lynch, “Document of the Week: The 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on WMDs in Iraq,” Foreign Policy, 5/17/2019
  • Martin Chulov and Helen Pidd, “Curveball: How US was duped by Iraqi fantasist looking to topple Saddam,” The Guardian, 2/15/2011
  • “Whose fault is ‘Curveball’ Mess?” Newsweek, 1/15/2006
  • “Clapper: Steele dossier not part of assessment,” CNN, 1/3/2018

What has former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper learned from a lifetime of public service?

Director Clapper reflects on Russia, Iraq, and the Korean Peninsula

Before James Clapper served as President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, he held a fascinating array of positions in the intelligence community and played a first-hand role in many of the military actions that have defined the last fifty years of American foreign policy. 

In a wide-ranging interview with United Security host Ken Wainstein, Clapper talks through his childhood as the son of an early National Security Agency officer, his service in Vietnam, and his intelligence roles in the other tense conflicts of the Cold War and beyond. 

Along the way, Clapper offers kernels of wisdom that offer a roadmap for the future of intelligence and diplomacy, particularly as we approach the threshold of the Biden administration.

Ken Wainstein:

From CAFE, this is United Security. I’m Ken Wainstein. Before we turn to my interview with Director Clapper, I want to take a moment to briefly acknowledge the events that took place in Washington, DC, up at the Capitol on Wednesday, which all took place after we wrapped our taping of this podcast.

Like so many others around the country, I was and am devastated by what happened, by the images of violence and mayhem and disregard for personal safety and disregard for our country and the institutions of our country that were reflected by those images that we saw up in the Capitol yesterday.

I think what we saw yesterday shows what can happen when our leaders, our national leaders, abuse their authority and the position of trust that they’re given to lie, to distort the truth, to mislead people, to guide people down a path that is wrong, and what happens when leaders do that and cause people to lose sight of what our country is all about, what binds us together, what matters to us, and what makes us the greatest democracy the world has ever seen.

I talked to my daughters about this last night and we tried to chew on what it really meant. I think there’s an important lesson here, which is that our democracy is fragile and it’s precious and it takes work. It takes work by all of us, by every generation that is fortunate enough to live in this democracy, that takes people who will step up and defend and protect that democracy at every turn.

Yesterday showed what happened when our leaders don’t protect and don’t defend our democracy, the principles underlying our democracy, and the principles and values that bind us together as Americans. My hope is that we’ll never see anything like this again in our lifetime and that the coming weeks, months, and years will be a time of healing and that we’ll get past this tense political moment.

I didn’t get a chance to talk with Director Clapper about this because, as I said, our interview preceded the events up on Capitol Hill yesterday. But I can assure you that we’ll spend ample time in the coming weeks trying to make sense of what we saw and talking about how we can and will heal from this difficult moment. Now here’s my interview with former director of national intelligence, Jim Clapper. Lisa Monaco is out again this week, but I’m delighted to be joined by a good friend of mine, Jim Clapper. Jim is a retired lieutenant general for the air force. He served as President Obama’s director of national intelligence.

Before becoming the nation’s top intelligence officials, Jim’s career span nearly half a century of American foreign policy, from Vietnam to the Soviet Union, to North Korea, and Iraq. Back in 2018, Jim wrote an excellent memoir called Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence. It’s a fascinating read and it left me wanting to speak with Jim about his life and his career. Thankfully, he agreed to join us on this broadcast.

We’re going to focus, however, on his career before the Obama administration. There’s so much material to go over. I didn’t want to try to pack it all into one podcast. So we’re going to take Jim up from his childhood up to the point where he became a member of the Obama administration back in 2009. That’s what we’ll focus on today.

Today Jim is retired. He retired after a long career contributing to our national security. Now he’s a national security analyst for CNN. So, Jim, with that, welcome to the podcast and thank you very much for joining us.

Jim Clapper:

Oh, thanks for having me, Ken.

Ken Wainstein:

Absolute pleasure to have you. First, I guess, just as a matter of full disclosure, we should say that you and I are good friends, have known each other for a number of years. In fact, Jim has been a client of mine as we’ve gone through some of the Russia-related investigations over the last few years. It’s been a pleasure to get to know him and to learn more about his life, of which I’ve learned much more after having read his wonderful book.

Ken Wainstein:

So Jim, let me start off, and I’m going to focus really on your book, your memoir, and the sequence of events that lays out in such a compelling fashion. Let me just start with the basic question. You’ve got a lot of things on your plate. You’re a busy man. Why did you decide to write a memoir?

Jim Clapper:

Well, I wasn’t going to. Some people had talked to me about writing a book just because I lived through a lot of the history of the intelligence community, almost 50 years, I guess. But I really didn’t get motivated. I was talked into it by my collaborator, Trey Brown, who had served as my speech writer for the last three years I served as director of national intelligence. I said, “Well, who’s going to buy this sort of thing?” He said not to worry. He talked me into it.

The motivation specifically, Ken, was in that 50 years, I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff in intelligence, but nothing had disturbed me viscerally in the gut as much as what the Russians did to interfere in our election in 2016. And so, I decided, and truth be told, Trey appealed to this, that I was going to do my little part from a little bully pulpit that occupied as a former DNI to try to educate the public as much as I could about the threat posed by the Russians. So that was the germination of the book.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah. You allude to the Russian interference in the 2016 election as being one of the motivating factors for your decision to write the book. It’s quite clear that you’re sending a message. You’re sending a clear warning about the seriousness of that threat and the fact that that threat is continuing into the future.

You are well-known. You have been well-known throughout your government career. Right now well-known in particular because you have been quite vocal about that issue as a commentator on TV. I think, in a way, that’s somewhat obscured the richness of your experiences prior to your time in the Obama administration. That’s why I really would like to focus on that prior period.

As I was going through this, I was seeing you in every significant episode of the World of Intelligence, decade into decade into decade, sort of thought of you as the Forrest Gump of intelligence, a little more intentional than Forrest Gump, but that you were there as not only taking a front row seat, but actually participating in really all the major intelligence operations and incidents over the last 40 years. Really incredible story, dating back to actually when you talk about your time and the immediate aftermath of World War II as a kid. And so, I think it’s a fascinating history and there aren’t too many people with the depth and reach of the history in the intelligence world. So before we get into that, let me just ask you a very basic question, and this is just a framing exercise more than anything. But we all use the term intelligence. We talk about intelligence operations. Why don’t you give us your understanding of what you mean by intelligence, both its process and its purpose?

Jim Clapper:

Well, it’s a great question to dwell a moment on why do we do intelligence or why does any nation state do intelligence. In the end, it is to reduce uncertainty. It’s very rare that intelligence alone will be able to eliminate uncertainty for a decision-maker or a policymaker. Whether that decision-maker or policymaker is sitting in the oval office or, if I could stress the metaphor, in a little foxhole, the objective is the same, to provide that policymaker or decision-maker with information that will help eliminate some uncertainty, eliminate risk, and perhaps save lives.


And so, the various ways you acquire intelligence through the use of physics, exporting the full range of the electromagnetic spectrum, this is more in the technical realm, as well as, of course, what’s called human intelligence, where you’re trying to collect what another human being knows to the benefit of, in our case, the United States and US interests. But to me, the thing to keep in mind is why do we do it in the first place? Well, it’s to reduce uncertainty.

Ken Wainstein:

Obviously, the intelligence community is the collection of, what, 16 odd agencies around the government that have components that are focused on exactly that, developing intelligence.

Jim Clapper:

Exactly. In fact, now it’s 17 apparently, plus the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. So 17th being the intelligence quadrant of the Space Force, at least a branch of service has been stood up.

That construct actually praises its origins from the National Security Act of 1947, but was codified, I think, if that’s the right word, with the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which was enacted as a result of the 9/11 commission that studied the failure of 9/11 and decided that there needed to be one overall orchestrator, coordinator, leader for the intelligence community who was not burdened with also running day-to-day one of the components of the intelligence committee, which had been the arrangement from 1947 until 2004, where the director of the Central Intelligence Agency had a second hat as the director of Central Intelligence.

My own observations from watching up close and personal about 20 years’ worth of DCIs, directors of Central Intelligence, who were also performing as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, that it’s very difficult to run the entirety of the intelligence community, as complex and large an enterprise as it is, on a part-time basis, kind of like part-time help at the post office at Christmas time. It just didn’t work.

A couple of exceptions, notable exceptions, to that was, one, Bob Gates, who was director of Central Intelligence, director of CIA during my time as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the early ’90s. When Bob walked in the front door of the Central Intelligence Agency, he didn’t look around and say, “Hey, gee, what’s this outfit do?” He already knew that because he’d grown up in the CIA.

So he was able to better balance his time between running the agency and running the community. He was actually my role model for when I was groomed into becoming DNI in 2010.

Ken Wainstein:

I see you ultimately served as DNI. That, as you said, was the quarterback of the intelligence community. Then I don’t know if you have this handy, but how many of the intelligence community agencies did you serve in throughout your career?

Jim Clapper:

Well, I grew up in the signal intelligence business, the collection of foreign messages to glean intelligence to reduce uncertainty. My dad was an army signal intelligence officer for 28 years. He got into it in the end of World War II. At the end of the war, everybody was demobilizing, and he was so captured by the work that he stayed in the army. And so, the first 10, 12 years of my career was in the signal intelligence business. I had two tours at the National Security Agency. I served as director of two other agencies, the Defense Intelligence Agency, which was my last job on active duty in the air force from ’91 to ’95. I was out for six years, but doing a lot of things for the IC, intelligence community. I came back two days after 9/11 to become director of what was then known as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which we morphed into what’s now known as the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

So I served as a director of two of the agencies for almost nine years, spent five or six years in NSA, and was certainly closely associated with the [inaudible 00:13:20]. I first came exposed to that about 1965 or 1966, not long after its stand up.

So pretty familiar with all the major command, as well as the CIA, although I never served in it. Been in and around it for … Worked with it for about 40 years. So I’m pretty familiar with the major agencies in the intelligence community.

Ken Wainstein:

Well, let’s go back to the beginning. You mentioned your father. One of the things that I find endearing and charming about the book is you talk a good bit about your parents. You’ve talked to me about the influence your parents had on you. Why don’t you just tell us a little bit about that and how that launched you in the direction of your ultimate career?

Jim Clapper:

You asked about the genesis of the book. One of the things, after I got into it, I found that writing a book was an opportunity to be contemplative. It was also cathartic, I’ll say that as well. But it was an opportunity to be contemplative because just to think back over my life and life experience, and I realized …

I mean I’ve always known it, but I really internalized, I guess is the word, how much my parents influenced me, particularly my dad. He didn’t make a big thing about preaching sermonettes to me about this or that. It’s just the way he handled himself and the way he treated people. I realized how much he influenced me in the way I approached, particularly, as I went up the food chain, leadership jobs and how to handle people, how to interact with them and appeal to their higher motivations.

I realized that in the essence of leadership and intelligence, and it’s not unique to intelligence but it’s certainly true, but I realized that one of the things you have to do is remember that you are trying to motivate people to use their intellects. My dad did that.

I spent my last year of high school in Germany, at a dependent high school in Nuremberg, Germany. That was where I got my first … And this is in the late ’50s. My first inculcation about the Soviet Union, just by … My dad was an operations officer for a big army signal intelligence operation not far from the Czech border. I got to know some of the soldiers, because I was roughly their age, that worked for my dad. I picked up what this was all about. That was really a big thing to me. It’s a story I love to tell, which I call when I first knew I was going to be an intelligence officer. The army, the custom, as actually many military people do, is when you move from station to station or post to post, parents will drop kids at the grandparents’, go ahead to the next duty station, get a place to live, get set up and all that.

So that’s exactly what we were doing in 1953. We were moving from Hokkaido, Japan, which is the northern most island in Japan. My dad was number two in a small army signal intelligence operation that was collecting Soviet Far East messages and converting them to intelligence. So we were moving from there to Fort Devens, Massachusets.

So my parents dropped me and my sister off at my grandparents’ in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And my grandparents did what I do now as a grandparent, because the first line in your job description as a grandparent is spoil the grandkids. And that’s exactly what my grandparents did. They let me do anything I wanted.

Well, a big thing of the day was television, and we didn’t have English-speaking television in Japan. So I was fascinated by this huge box my grandparents had in their living room. It was a big box, a little screen, only four channels on the TV.

So the first Friday night I was there, I was still on Japan time. I was wide awake, so I stayed up and watched. I remember watching the … It was called the SCHMIDT’S Beer Mystery Hour. They showed these old Charlie Chan movies. I loved them.

So a movie went off about 12:30, and I thought, “Well, gee, what else is on now?” Well, in those days you actually had to walk up to the television and turn the dial to change the channel. They didn’t have remotes. So I did that, walked up to the TV, turned the channel. Between channel four and channel five, I heard talking and there was no picture. Just talking.

And so, I stood there and just held the television knob in place for about 10 minutes, 10, 12 minutes, and figured out that this was the frequency for the Philadelphia Police Department dispatcher. Well, in those days in Philadelphia, on a Friday and a Saturday night, well, there’s all kinds of mayhem going on.

So it was kind of interesting just to listen to this. They’re dispatching police cruisers to here and there , bar fights and police chases and robberies and all kinds of stuff.

Well, I listened for about 15 minutes and got tired holding the knob. So I ran out to the kitchen of my grandparents, got some toothpicks, and stuck with toothpicks in the selector dial so it would stay between channels four and five. I wouldn’t have to hold it. So I guess I hacked my grandparent’s TV set. So I just stayed up until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning listening to this because I thought it was fascinating.

So the next day, I got a map of the city of Philadelphia from my grandfather. I got a pencil and I started plotting out the addresses of where the police cruisers were dispatched. Well, pretty soon I’m sleeping all day and staying up all night. My grandparents didn’t [inaudible] because I wasn’t in trouble. They knew exactly where I was.

And I’ve figured out all kinds of things, high crime areas in Philadelphia just by the way police cruises were dispatched and police district boundaries. There was a threshold that officers in the grade of lieutenant and above would get called, particularly the police chief. Kind of figured out what that was.

So about two and a half weeks later, my parents come back from Fort Devens. They’re all set up in the house to retrieve my sister and me. So my dad, just to make casual conversation, says to me, “So what have you been doing this summer?”

So I whip out my map and I had some three by five cards. I figured out what all the 10 codes were that police universally use. I showed him police district boundaries, high crime areas, and all this sort of stuff. It was 67 years ago. I’ll never forget the expression on my dad’s face. When he looked …

I’ll never forget the expression on my dad’s face when he looked at me and he said, “My God, I raised my own replacement.” Now I like to tell a story, because it’s hopefully halfway amusing, but also because it illustrates the nature of intelligence work, notably signal intelligence, where you’re trying to listen in on somebody else to figure out information about them. That’s the essence of intelligence work, particularly signal intelligence. And you develop hypotheses, you test the hypotheses and every time you do this you’re trying to reduce uncertainty as I mentioned earlier. So I’ve often told that story at colleges and universities when I used to visit before the pandemic, and it just illustrate the nature of intelligence work. And as I say, when I first knew I was going to be an intelligence officer.

Ken Wainstein:

Right, as of age 12, is that right?

Jim Clapper:

Age 12, right. And at the time, if I might say, might mention [inaudible 00:21:00], I didn’t think of it that way. I just thought it was cool to listen in on these conversations, which were cryptic. It was a lot of jargon and codes, and figure out what was going on. I didn’t relate it to signal at the time.

Ken Wainstein:

You were an early hacker ahead of your time. You better hope the statute of limitations is run, otherwise you might need my help again. Well, that’s a good jumping off point to start talking about your life in intelligence. So you go to college, graduate, and then start your career in intelligence. But actually around that same time you got married, isn’t that right? And I think there’s a lovely little anecdote in the book about how you’ve known your now wife, or you had known her for quite some time. And I think this is a nice illustration of your willingness to forgive. You want to tell us about that?

Jim Clapper:

Yeah. The story here is that my wife’s father was also an army signal intelligence officer in World War II. And we ended up stationed together, proceeded to our Japan tour, was about 1947, ’48, after we came back from Asmara, Eritrea where we’d been 1946 to ’47. And then when we came to a place called Vint Hill Farms Station, Virginia, which is out between Manassas and Warrenton. It’s since been closed. Anyway, so her parents and my parents knew each other, because it was a very small unit. And so that’s when we first met and I was about eight or so. And Sue, my wife, later became my wife, was about four or five, something like that. I remember when we left, we left early, we left before her family did. And I had a comic book collection and we ended up willing my comic book collection to Susan.

And we don’t know whatever happened was comic books, because they’d be worth a gold mine now, I wish we’d had them. Anyway, fast forward to the early 60s. And I was about to graduate from the University of Maryland in 1963, I had gone through ROTC there. Was going to be commissioned in the Air Force and Sue was graduating from high school. I was a cradle robber, I guess. So my mother kept urging me to, because the parents socialize and my mother kept urging me to, “Hey, you ought to give Sue Terry a call,” and all this sort of thing. Well, anytime my mother recommended a girl that was an automatic turnoff, I didn’t want anything to do with her. But she kept bugging me and bugging me. So, okay. So I called her up and invited her to, take her down to the campus at the University of Maryland, show her around there, because she was interested in going to University of Maryland the next year, which would have been my senior year. I was a junior then I guess.

And so that’s how we met as older than children in the 1940s. And that was the start of a kind of a off and on stormy courtship, which I won’t go into. But we ended up getting married in April 1965 at the Post Chapel at Fort Meade, Maryland, which of course was the headquarters for the National Security Agency. So it was kind of a SIGINT wedding because between the two families they knew a lot of folks that were in the SIGINT business, particularly right there at NSA Fort Meade.

Ken Wainstein:

But most importantly, what happened to the comic books?

Jim Clapper:

Well, we don’t know what happened to them. Sue doesn’t recall. And these were, by the way, I was very anal about taking care of these comic books. So I had the original action comic books from the 40s, Superman comic books or Batman. And I had them all arranged in order and I took very good care of them. It’s too bad because they would be worth a lot of money now if we still had them.

Ken Wainstein:

And I’m sure you remind her of that whenever she chastised you for losing the car keys. So let’s shift gears. You started your career in the early 60s, you get posted to Vietnam, and this is the fascinating part of your book. And that of course is a time there’s a massive buildup of U.S. forces in Vietnam. And look, I grew up in the 60s. I still remember listening to the radio every morning when I came down to eat my Cheerios and hearing the casualty reports from the day before from Vietnam. But that was a pretty distant thing for a young kid like me, but you were over there in the middle of it. And it was obviously a product of the Cold War, the U.S. policy of containment to try to contain the Soviets and communism as it tried to spread throughout the world. Why don’t you give us a little understanding what your job was over at Vietnam as a young intelligence officer?

Jim Clapper:

Well, I was among 100 Air Force intelligence lieutenants that were sent there in mass in 1965. So I went to Vietnam pretty early, and everybody else had been there on a temporary duty basis for 90 or 120 days. So they, I guess, determined this is going to be a longer haul than we thought, I guess. And so I showed up and I was made a watch officer in this morning center they had, which was actually in the back of like a semi-trailer truck. So my job was to pour through the incoming traffic during the night. I went to work about 10:30 at night, got off about 08:00 the next morning, at 08:00 or 09:00 the next morning. And I would go brief the chief of intelligence for what was then Seventh Air Force, which is a major air force organization running the war. And he was an Air Force one star. And I did that for about four months and then became what was called a day lady. I worked days as a North Vietnamese air defense analyst. And my job was to determine principally through signal intelligence the operational capabilities of the North Vietnamese Air Force. And in the course of that I was, I don’t know why, but out of the sea of lieutenants they had, I was drafted as one of two to go down to town to Saigon. I was at Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside what was then called Saigon, now is Ho Chi Minh City. Debrief the commander of all U.S. military forces in the region, was General Westmoreland, army four star. You can imagine here. I had never, ever even seen a four star general live in my life. I’d seen pictures of them and certainly never to talk to one or brief him.

So the first time, first Saturday morning I did this, and my job specifically was to brief him on signal intelligence reflections of the bombing effort. So if the North Vietnamese passed messages discussing the results of a bombing attack, U.S. bombing attack, he was very interested in that. What I did is had an acetate map with bubbles around it each week, then I’d brief him on highlights as reflected in signal intelligence of the North Vietnamese reaction. Well, the first time I did it, I don’t think I slept a wink that Friday night, I was scared to death. But I got into it. It was in his private office, and then the following Saturday I did the same thing. And I calmed down a little bit. And then after a time I figured out that he didn’t know any more about what this war was all about than I did as a Lieutenant.

Ken Wainstein:

And he was running the whole war. And I mean, he oversaw the whole theater, right?

Jim Clapper:

Yeah. He was running the whole war. And I got frankly a bit disillusioned about that. And in fact, got pretty disillusioned about the war itself. And after I did my year, which I’ve always characterized as the most difficult, both personally and professionally, Sue and I’d been married about seven months I think when I went. And we didn’t know when I left that she was pregnant with our daughter. So just a difficult year. And I almost got out of the Air Force after that. And I was going to go to work at NSA as a civilian.

And I went back to the war, after my year and went back to Texas where I had been, essentially, got essentially the same job I had, which wasn’t terribly motivating. And I was about to get out. And again, got plucked from anonymity by a general officer. And then I started a series of experiences where I was mentored, which is a word we didn’t use back then. And I ended up staying in the Air Force for 32 years. The war was, as I say, very disillusioning. I become very disenchanted with whatever it is we were doing there. It was all about body counts. You know, how many people did we kill this week? And it was never a very clear objective to me.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah, you actually tell a, you tell a sort of a surreal story in the book about how your father, who was still active duty at the time was over in Vietnam and you’d have dinner with him. Tell us that little story?

Jim Clapper:

Oh yeah. Well, coincidentally my dad was there as well. He was number two in the NSA operation there, so [inaudible] the operation, had a presence in Vietnam and he was the number two guy in that operation. And so for seven months our tours overlapped, we thought it was pretty cool, but my mother wasn’t too wild about it. And it was during that time by the way they made a rule that no two members of the same family could serve at the same time there. Sort of precluding some bad experiences from World War II.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah, sort of a Saving Private Ryan situation.

Jim Clapper:

Yeah. So that was cool at the time. And then he left and I still had five more months on my tour. And my standard of living dropped very precipitously because I had just moved in with him and he had pretty nice quarters. And when he left, I was out on my own in some fleabag hotel for the five months.

I’ll tell you, much later on when I served as DNI, the heart back to that experience in Vietnam, because a lot of the arguments that I would hear from the Department of Defense and specifically the commanders in Afghanistan, kind of rang chillingly familiar to what I had heard during my time in Vietnam. You know, just a few more troops, a little more time, more resources. If we train and equip the Vietnamese, we can win this thing sort of stuff. And of course we didn’t, went on for year after year, after year. And we lost a lot of people and a lot of people that were wounded and a lot of death and destruction in Vietnam. At the time, why are we doing this? I did have occasion some 47 years later I think, to go back to Vietnam. I think this was in 2013 and it was a really uplifting experience. Something good did come of the war, you know? And Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City is a thriving metropolis. The Vietnamese people could not have been more gracious to me.

And I had occasion to go back to a hotel that my dad and I went to every Sunday afternoon and we had dinner together, because that was my one day off during the week, and went back to the same room where the dining room was, it’s not a dining room anymore. And boy, it really hit me. I was very impactfully emotionally, and I’ll often wondered why these old veteran, old salty veterans go back to where they serve years and years later, and why they get all choked up and emotional about it. Well, I found out, and for me it was particularly impactful having spent that time with my dad. And of course my dad is long gone now. So that was the one silver lining, I guess, in what was otherwise a pretty miserable year.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah, so you tell the story in the book, it sort of highlights the, I guess, the moral ambiguity of the war, where you’re in that hotel that you just referenced. You’re having drinks and dinner with your dad, but you’re looking at across the river where we’re bombing enemy and people are getting blown up and killed while you’re having dinner and drinks.

Jim Clapper:

Yeah, it was eerie. We can sit at the, I think it was the six or seven floor, the sixth floor of the Caravelle Hotel, which was a old French hotel from the colonial era. And the dining room was on the sixth floor. And we’d always sit next to the window and you could literally look across the Saigon River and watched the A1s bombing and strafing the Viet Cong right across the river. I mean, it was, and here we are sitting there drinking our martinis and having lobster tail and watching the war. And that was kind of emblematic, I guess, of the weirdness of that war. It was just, again, not a positive experience for me.

Ken Wainstein:

So I want to go back to something you mentioned about General Westmoreland, who obviously is, history I think consider as a fairly controversial figure. And you have an interesting insight into him in terms of the way he reacted to a brief, a briefing, and look, intelligence briefing, that’s one of the products of intelligence work. It’s the way that intelligence once analyzed is then laid out for a policy maker. And in this case it was the person who was running the whole war over in Vietnam. You’ve had occasion to brief people in leadership positions throughout the U.S. government. And just to take a quick detour from the chronology here, could you give us a sense, well, in the book you talk about the next general you briefed, General [inaudible 00:35:50], I believe, and how he was perceptive and followed the briefing and digested the information the way that you wanted to see a policymaker do. Using sort of that evaluation or those evaluation criteria, could you tell us about the presidents you briefed throughout your career and your sense of sort of how they took the brief?

Jim Clapper:

In stark contrast to General Westmoreland I think President Obama was what I call a voracious and astute user of intelligence. He’s scary smart, and he absorbed, I saw examples of where he would bring it to bear in discussions in the situation room and President Obama he had a amazing knack for taking a vignette that’s discussed in intelligence, or an intelligence vignette and relating it to a bigger picture. I always felt very much the intellectual inferior to him. I’ve thought a lot about what I was going to brief him on and this sort of thing. And I was always, for the whole six and a half years I worked for him kind of awestruck frankly, by his ability to see the bigger picture.

And to contrast to others that I had briefed in my earlier history that I thought got way, way down in the weeds, which on occasion’s okay for understanding purposes. But you want to keep the ability to say, “How does this relate to the bigger picture?” General Powell, Colin Powell, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And I was director of DIA, he was another one that could do that could always saw the bigger tapestry and could take this particular puzzle piece that I’m talking about today and he kind of relate that in the bigger picture. And then to me that was what single out or separated people that could grasp the bigger picture from those that couldn’t get out of the weeds.

Ken Wainstein:

Did you brief Presidents Bush or Clinton?

Jim Clapper:

I did not. I met them both. During the Bush era I was Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence in the Pentagon. I got the PDB as a result of that being in that position, but I did not personally brief them. So the only president I actually briefed was President Obama.

Ken Wainstein:

Okay, so to go back to the chronology, you finish up your year at Vietnam, come back. And then I guess, roughly speaking, in the next chapter of your life you really focused as did the whole country and intelligence community, on the threat from the Soviet Union. So like to spend a few minutes talking about your intelligence activities as it related to the Soviet Union. And this is the height of the Cold War, obviously. And we’ve all read about the intelligence efforts against the Soviet Union back in the 60s and 70s. And that the George Smiley types of John Le Carre books doing the human intelligence, but obviously there’s HUMINT and SIGINT and all the different ints that go into the broader intelligence effort that was largely directed against the Soviet Union. And it’s allies or subordinate countries. So where did you go after Vietnam? What was your next posting? And then I want to ask you about a couple of the incidents that you worked through that tested our intelligence capabilities?

Jim Clapper:

Well, when I came back, and this shows you the impact of luck and happenstance, and I went back to Kelly Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas, which is where I had been before I went to Vietnam, and my wife’s stayed there. She stayed in San Antonio and our daughter was born in an Air Force hospital there. And I came back …

Jim Clapper:

Our daughter was born in an Air Force hospital there. And I came back just … I was going to finish my master’s degree at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, and get out of the Air Force and go to work at NSA as a civilian.

Then one day out of the blue, I got a phone call from a classmate of mine. He and I had gone through second officer training in 1964 at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, which is about 180 miles northwest of San Antonio. And he was the aide to the commander of what was called Security Service, which is the cryptologic arm, the second for the Air Force. And the commander of it was a two-star, and officers who had command position are entitled to aides, young officer that kind of travels around with them and helps them and assists them, writes correspondence and does any number of chores and tasks to save the generals time.

So I got a call from a classmate of mine asking me if … he was going to go to pilot training, this friend of mine. And he asked me if I’d be interested in interviewing for his job. I said, “Well, you know, what’s an aide do?” Because I didn’t know. And he told me, I said, “Okay, I’ll interview.” So sure enough, I got the job. And that phone call was the catalyst for, when you think about it, the rest of my career.

So it worked out pretty well. I worked for this general, Lou [Coyer] who was terrific. He went off to another assignment and I ended up aiding his successor as well. And then I ended up returning to Southeast Asia for my second tour, which was much, much better than the first one. And I was a commander of a … still a captain, commander of a small Air Force signal intelligence detachment that flew reconnaissance missions on the back end of reconnaissance airplanes over Laos and … mostly Laos, but a couple over Cambodia.

And I was the commander, I was flying and it was a combat situation. So it was just a great, a great tour. It really changed my attitude about the Air Force and all that sort of thing. And at the end of the tour, the second general that I worked for was then the commander of my major command. So he planted me in the office of the director of NSA, to be a military assistant. And so I got to work directly for two three-stars, a Navy vice-admiral and an Air Force three-star for two years that I was assigned on that assignment at NSA.

And so the opportunity to work directly for a series of flight officers was tremendous grooming, preparation, whatever you want to call it for me, for much later on.

Ken Wainstein:

So that’s the height of the Cold War. Obviously NSA at that point is heavily focused on trying to find out what the Soviets are doing, what their intentions are around the world, not only in Southeast Asia, but elsewhere. And you tell a really a riveting story about an incident that I remember quite well in the early 1980s. I think you were at a different posting at this point, but it’s when the Soviet Union shot down a Korean airline, and how important signals intelligence was in determining what had happened there. Do you want to tell us about that incident?

Jim Clapper:

Yeah, so it happened in November of 1983, I think it was. And at the time I was a colonel on the air staff in the Pentagon, and I ended up being a part of a small team that reconstructed what happened with the shoot-down. And it was somewhat a comedy of errors on the part of the Soviets.

Ken Wainstein:

It was 280-odd people who were killed?

Jim Clapper:

Yeah, 279 people, something like that, one of whom was a Congressman.

Ken Wainstein:

Blown out of the sky.

Jim Clapper:

And the reason I included it in the book was to make a point about the behavior of the Soviets in 1983, and the Russians and later on in 2014, I think it was, or 2015, when they shot down the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine.

Ken Wainstein:


Jim Clapper:

And the parallels were points quite striking. And the behavior was very, very similar where they would deny, obfuscate the facts, but try to portray blamelessness. And they did that in 1983 with the shoot-down of the Korean airliner, and they did it again in the shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. And the difference, of course, was we had so many more … And this is a testament to the progress of intelligence, that the technology had improved so much. And we had so many more sources to draw on in the second incident than we certainly did in 1983, where we had some signal intelligence that tracked … we would collect reflections of the Soviet air defense tracking, and then we had some intercepts of the air to ground communications between the ground controllers and the pilot, the one that ended up shooting the airliner down.

But it was pretty fragmentary and it was difficult to reconstruct because of that. Whereas the second case, we had many more sources. We learned how to exploit electromagnetic spectrum, and many more sources of draw on, to include, I should add, importantly, open source. So we use social media as a part of that, which of course we didn’t have in 1983. So that was the main point of trying to connect those two incidents spread apart by 33, 34 years, to illustrate the similarities in the Russians’ behavior and the improvement in our intelligence capabilities.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah. But in the first incident, what was so shocking in your telling of the story in the book was the intercept where you got the communication from whoever the commanding authority was on the Soviet side, urging the pilots to shoot down the airplane, even though the airplane, which, once again, was a civilian airliner that had accidentally strayed into Soviet space. He was urging the pilot to shoot the airplane down, even after it had gone back into international airspace. Unbelievably callous.

Jim Clapper:

Yeah, it was. And what had happened, what occasioned this, is the Russians had confused the airliner with a Air Force signal intelligence reconnaissance aircraft that had been in the area at roughly the same time. And they thought that that reconnaissance aircraft had strayed into Russian territory, which it had not. And they confused the two. And so that’s what, I guess, prompted the decision, even though the characteristics of the … it was a 747, so a much larger aircraft and the other characteristics of it, if you gave it some thought, you’d have to know that was a civilian airliner, but the ground controller directed that pilot to shoot it down anyway.

Ken Wainstein:

Yep. And so, an incident of great brutality followed by flat denials, which ultimately were disproven by good intelligence work. Same scenario played out again, as you said, several decades later.

So shifting now from your experiences with the Soviet Union to your experiences with North Korea. And a good bit of your book, the early part of your book focuses on North Korea. And I want to ask about a couple of the incidents there. But first, you actually make a very clear point of laying out your thoughts about how we should be doing with Kim Jong-un and the current Korean government. It’s not all the time that a careful intelligence person like yourself wades into the policy waters, but you very intentionally did so here. If you would, give us a little thumbnail of your thoughts about how best to deal with what you call the Hermit Kingdom, North Korea.

Jim Clapper:

By way of background, I served in South Korea for two years in the mid-’80s and I was a director of intelligence for US Forces Korea. And so I became, as a result of that experience, something of a student of the peninsula and thereafter in any job I had in the intelligence community or not, I always followed developments on the peninsula. So fast forward to November, 2014, and I was tapped by the White House to travel to North Korea to retrieve two of our citizens that have been incarcerated there for about … well, one of them about a couple of years. They’d been in hard labor conditions so I retrieved them. And the reason the North Koreans did this, is they were using these two people as hostages in a sense to get us into dialogue with a view towards changing the nature of the relationship.

So I’d been a student of the Korean peninsula for 30 years and then got to go there and actually interact with a couple of a very senior North Korean generals. And it really had a profound impact on me when I actually went there because I had not appreciated the abject paranoia, the siege mentality that pervades certainly the North Korean elite in Pyongyang. And I was really struck by that.

So the first talking point that I was instructed by the White House to recite to the North Koreans was, “You must denuclearize before we’ll negotiate with you.” And that was … I’ve been there about five minutes and I deduce that that was a non-starter, and that the North Koreans are not going to denuclearize. And why should they? They view their nuclear weapons as their ticket to survival.

And they went to school on Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, who negotiated away his weapons of mass destruction and look how things turned out for him? They kind of reminded me of that. They realize their weaknesses, particularly their economic weakness, they understand the imbalance between military and balance between and the armed forces of South Korea buttressed by the United States. And they understand that no one would pay any attention to them if it were not for their nuclear weapons. Or I should say more correctly, the perception of nuclear weapons, because neither they nor we know if they’ll actually work, but it doesn’t matter because they have what they’ve wanted, which is the sense, the psychology of deterrence.

So after that experience, I came around to the position that, as heretical as this sounds, that maybe we ought to recognize, de jure, what is the defacto, the situation. That is, North Korea is a member of the nuclear club, has been for some time. And perhaps we might be better served to at least think about considering recognizing them that way, and then work on inducing more responsible behavior. Now that is heretical view, neither … domestically, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats would buy into that.

But I just think that … A lot of people are not happy with the fact that the likes of Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons, but the fact is they have them. The fact is they’ve been responsible with them as stewards of these nuclear weapons. And so might it be with North Korea. So I’ve posited that privately when I was in the government and now publicly, I realize that’s an unpopular view, but the approach we’ve taken so far by all administrations, whether Democratic or Republican, and most recently the Trump administration, hasn’t had very much luck trying to persuade the North Koreans to denuclearize. And it’s my belief they just won’t. And it’d be better … and I acknowledged as well, this is a big pill for the South Koreans and the Japanese particularly to swallow.

But I just think that perhaps we ought to give that some thought, so, yeah, that’s a radical view and you’re quite right. And I appreciate your pointing this out, that this is one occasion where I sort of delved into policy which traditionally is not the province of intelligence. Intelligence is supposed to stay out of policy, but-

Ken Wainstein:

Explain that.

Jim Clapper:

Well, there is a line of distinction, a line, a red line, to use maybe a bad phrase, between the collection, processing and analysis and reporting of intelligence that you’ve gleaned, foreign intelligence that you’ve gleaned about the activities and intentions of foreign countries. And conveying that to a policy maker. It is the policy maker’s job, as the name implies, to decide what to do with it, if anything. And there’s always been a fine line between intelligence, the gatherer of information, and those that use that information to implement policy.

And it’s just been a traditional firewall between the two camps of intelligence and policy or in the case of the military command. And it’s just been kind of a holy writ of intelligence to maintain that separation. And this one particular case involving North Korea, I kind of wandered into the policy realm, but whenever I had that kind of discussion in the confines of the White House situation room, I always made it clear that, “Hey, I’m stepping out of my lane here.” And just to offer a view on intelligence.

Intelligence, if a policy maker is considering options to do, which is often the case, most of which are no-win options, but yeah. Anyway, what intelligence does is to portray what the reactions might be. If you pick option A, this is how the region would react. If you pick option B, this is how the region would react, or this is how the Russians will react or how the Chinese will react.

That’s a perfectly legitimate thing for intelligence to do. It is not typically legitimate for intelligence to say, “Here’s the option you ought to go for.” So it’s kind of a religious thing, I guess, but that’s the distinction.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah. And it’s interesting that you felt strongly enough to, as you say, step out of your intelligence lane when it came to North Korea, but that is based on long personal experience with South Korea and North Korea that you lay out in your book. And just to summarize, you talk about a helicopter trip that you were on, which unintentionally went over into North Korean territory and you got fired at and a bullet in your rotor and made it back safely to South Korea. All these stories demonstrate how Korea, the Koreas, have been on a knife-edge longer than any other two countries, really, in the world when you think about it, and have been that way since the end of hostilities of the Korean war, which actually never resolved in a treaty, the point you make.

And that knife-edge quality is something we’re still living with today. You also mentioned, just if you could give us a quick taste of this, an incident that seemingly almost touched off a war, that you were looking into which would started with something as innocuous as American troops trying to cut down a tree in a demilitarized zone. Tell us about that.

Jim Clapper:

Yeah, this was 1978 and I was a major, I think, and I was at Pacific Command Headquarters in Hawaii when they had this incident in the so-called demilitarized zone of Korea, which is a four kilometer wide swath that goes across the middle of the peninsula, it’s 254 kilometers long. This is near Panmunjom, which is famous for where the armistice to end the war on 27th of July, 1953, was signed and is still the focal point for what little interaction there is between North Korea and US.

And so a small contingent of American soldiers that was up there entered into the one area to clear some trees and brush, which were blocking visibility and that elicited a violent reaction from the North Koreans and they ended up killing one or two soldiers. And that was a very, very tense thing. And I remember I was back at the [inaudible] and I worked three days straight, never went home, slept in the office, I guess. And I was constantly on a … well, what would now be email, but in those days was called an operational communications link, direct teletypewriter, point-to-point link with my counterpart, who was an army major who was in Seoul.

And we were orchestrating changes in our collection posture. That’s what we were doing. It was kind of a technical thing. And we were constantly working this and there were B52s flying up and down on the Southern side of the DMZ. And it had all the atmosphere of, we’re going to go to war here pretty soon. And every situation where we’ve had some kind of incident with North Korea, I don’t believe has approached the level of tenseness as that situation, the tree cutting incident and its aftermath did in 1978. So I’ve always used that, in subsequent crises with North Korea as kind of the benchmark of a really tense situation where we were, I thought, on the verge of going to war. So yeah, long history with the Korean peninsula.

Ken Wainstein:

Okay. So moving on from Korea and your experience with the Koreas, you then go through, in your book, a series of incidents throughout the ’90s and 2000s-

Incidents throughout the ’90s and 2000s, where intelligence played a primary role, and there were discussions about whether there were intelligence failures, or intelligence successes, or somewhere in between. And you sort of go through each of these and diagnose the role that intelligence played in each, and whether there were deficiencies in the intelligence picture that was given to policymakers. First one is the first Gulf war in 1991, and you talk about how General Schwarzkopf, who I guess was the Westmoreland of that war, he was overseeing the whole war effort, was disappointed in the intelligence that he’d received. What caused him to be disappointed?

Jim Clapper:

Part of it was intelligence wasn’t fully visible to him. I think one of the main shortcomings, which was dealt with later, in fact, it resulted in the creation of a new intelligence agency, was his disappointment in the speed of delivery of overhead imagery. And he was right, this was a problem. We had very constrained pipes for communications pipes. We had good imagery capability, but we could not… The primary way we conveyed the imagery intelligence back to him was to fly it there on aircraft. And so he was disappointed in that, he was disappointed in a lack of coordination between the special operations forces and the CIA elements that were in the theater. So he had, in my opinion, some legitimate complaints, and a combination of technological and organizational changes took place that overcame a lot of his complaints, so we did learn a lesson there.

I think what’s useful, or instructive, perhaps, is the contrast between the second war, when the weapons of mass destruction issue, which had to be regarded as a failure, and if that’s the alpha, the omega to that would be the takedown of UBL, which was a great, a premier intelligence success. So we do have successes occasionally, and I think lots of lessons to be learned from the first, from the alpha of that, which was the second invasion of Iraq and the reasons for that. And the reason that was a big deal to me was because my fingerprints were on the national intelligence estimate that was done in October of 2002, which was used as a basis for justifying the invasion.

Ken Wainstein:

Well, another thing about the first Gulf war is it highlighted one of the limitations, inherent limitations, in intelligence, because as I understand, and I think you explain in your book, the intelligence community had done a good job of understanding exactly how Saddam Hussein had his forces arrayed, et cetera. You knew the number of forces and equipment and that kind of thing, yet nobody anticipated that we would roll over the Iraqi army in the space of a hundred hours, and they just basically collapsed and dissolved. So as you point out in your book, it just shows there’s an inherent limitation to what intelligence can tell you. And it can’t necessarily tell you what’s in the heart of the fighting man of your adversary, which I found to be an interesting lesson of the first Gulf war.

Jim Clapper:

Well, there’s an old saw in intelligence about the failure to distinguish between mysteries and secrets. You know, secrets are knowable facts, and mysteries are not. And one of the mysteries for intelligence, classically, is assessing intangible things like morale, like a will to fight, the willingness of the individual soldier or a group of soldiers to actually engage in combat. And the intelligence community has always had trouble dealing with those more intangible aspects. We had the same problem in Vietnam. I recall this, because we under estimated the will to fight of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, and we didn’t appreciate that they had a cause, almost a religious cause, which went back to the French colonial days. And we overestimated the ability of the Republic of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese forces, to fight, because they really didn’t have a cause. We’ve always had difficulty in the intelligence community assessing those kind of intangible, spiritual aspects.

And so it was in 1991 with the invasion, we didn’t gauge the lack of willingness to fight by the Iraqi forces. We had them dead to rights on their order of battle. We could count things. You know, here’s where the tanks are, here’s where the artillery pieces are, how many of them and all that. We could do that fairly well, but what we couldn’t assess, as we quickly learned, is that there wasn’t much will to fight on the part of the Iraqis. So there’s always been that difficulty of assessing, as I say, these spiritual, or less concrete aspects, when you’re assessing an enemy.

Ken Wainstein:

Now let’s fast forward to another critical juncture in the history of our intelligence community, which was in the next decade, the second Gulf war, the invasion of Iraq. And you describe the effort leading up to the invasion to try to collect intelligence that relates to whether or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which of course was the stated rationale for the invasion. And then, of course, after the war and after it was found there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, then the questioning and criticism of the intelligence community’s analysis leading up to the war. I know you were involved in that. Why don’t you give us an understanding of sort of how that played out, and maybe some of the lessons that were drawn from that situation?

Jim Clapper:

Well, this is, from a standpoint of intelligence, is a good example of a couple of bad things that happened to us. One was a bit of group think, and secondly, we, the intelligence community, was kind of under pressure, I’ll say, from the political leaders to come up with a certain answer. And we did.

And I still today remember what was called the National Foreign Intelligence Board, which is all the intelligence community leaders who would meet to authenticate and approve a national intelligence estimate, which is the senior most intelligence document in the hierarchy of documents that would go to the president. So we had done one on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, and I was the director of a national imagery and mapping agency. So we had a big role to play in that because of our identification of hundreds of potential WMD, weapons of mass destruction, sites, all of which turned out to be empty. They held no weapons of mass destruction. But at the time, based on our best assessment from imagery intelligence, it looked like… Now that wasn’t the only source, but it looked like they were there.

So one of the lessons we learned in the course of these national intelligence estimates is to be sure that the analysts who are actually writing the assessments have available to them what the sources of the information are that they’re dealing with. And so this is a classic situation with what was an asset called Curveball, which was actually a German asset that we, the US, did not have direct access to. And we learned later that it was kind of a bad source. He had some alcohol issues, was interested in profiting from conveying information, and he knew we were desperately interested in what he had to say, and this had to do with the potential existence of biological weapons, et cetera.

And I’ll never forget. I went to a hearing with George Tenet, who was then the Director of Central Intelligence, and that’s when I first learned about Curveball and the questions about his veracity as a source. The other thing we failed to do was to prominently portray dissent. When we had our National Foreign Intelligence Board meeting, there were dissenters who did not agree with the ultimate national intelligence estimate, notably the State Department and the Department of Energy. And the intelligence community, it’s not enough to put in a little footnote that so-and-so was opposed to this, or did not agree to it. So one of the lessons that we learned from that was if you have dissent, you want to prominently display it, so that the policymaker, when he or she reads the estimate, is aware of the fact that not everybody agreed with it and why. And again, that was a change made later. That, and also being more transparent with analysts who actually write assessments, who actually write estimates, that those analysts know about the character of the sources that they’re using, they’re drawing on to write their analysis.

So lots of lessons that were learned, and I remembered that lesson, by the way, Ken, when it kind of came up again in 2016, with respect to the infamous dossier, and we prepared, at President Obama’s direction, an intelligence community assessment of the Russian interference. And there was a debate in the intelligence community about whether or not we should draw on that dossier. And I remembered the experience I had in 2002 with the Iraqi WMD assessment, or an estimate. And because we could not verify, could not validate, the second and third order assets that Robert Steele had apparently drawn on to compose his dossier, which is actually a collection of 17 separate memos, so we did not include it in the body of the intelligence community assessment that we rendered in January of 2016. So this is a case where living through some experience and having been around the intelligence community for many, many years kind of paid off, because I remembered the hell we went through in 2002, in 2003.

Ken Wainstein:

It’s interesting to hear your perspective on that period of time, 2002 and ’03, and the lessons that were drawn from the Gulf war situation and Curveball, because I was seeing it at the same time when I was chief of staff for Bob Mueller as the FBI director. And he and I are both longtime federal prosecutors, and of course, whenever we hear that an individual says something that we might use as evidence, we’re constantly thinking, “Okay, that person’s going to be cross-examined on the stand, so let’s look at whether that person has a bias. Let’s look at why that person’s telling us this.” That’s sort of intuitive for us. And when we were looking at those first reports that I saw, when I entered the FBI intelligence reports in 2002, you would hear, “A source says X, Y, and Z,” and that’s it. Nothing about how the source knows it, why the source came forward. None of that.

And so we were perplexed that there was not more texture on the background and the reliability of the source. By the time I left the Bureau in 2004, and then of course came back in later on in ’06, there was a lot more of that in the intelligence reports, which I think is tremendously helpful to policymakers who are having to make decisions based on the intelligence that’s provided by those sources. So I saw a concrete difference in approach in the intelligence reports that started coming out after the Iraq war.

Jim Clapper:

Well, that’s good because we clearly went to school, and of course, we were investigated about it. There was a Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission to investigate specifically what went wrong. And there were, I don’t know, some 70-odd, 78 recommendations, most of which were implemented to try to prevent a recurrence of what happened to us in 2002. And as I say, I remembered that in 2016, 14 years later, with respect to the dossier.

Ken Wainstein:

Okay. Well, look, I’m itching to get up to 2016 and talk about that, but I think we’d better put that off to another day. If you’d be so kind as to spend another hour or so with us some other day, we can take our listeners up to your time as DNI and up to today, if that’s all right. But for today, I guess before we sign off, I want to ask one question that I failed to ask at the outset, which is the title of your book. It refers to facts and fears. What does that mean? What are you referring to when you say facts and fears, and what does that have to do with your life and intelligence?

Jim Clapper:

You know, my collaborator and I had a big debate about what to call the book. We didn’t settle on a title until we were well into writing it. I think the facts piece refers to, you know, the cut-and-dried facts that you try to come up, that intelligence does. But there’s always the fear, and we’ve talked about some of that already, the fear that you don’t have all the facts, or that you have drawn the wrong conclusions from the facts that you have.

And that’s why I mentioned that it’s… One characteristic of a professional intelligence officer, I think, is some humility about that. Remembering that, yeah, intelligence has a lot of capability, a lot of ways of gleaning information, but you always have to have that fear in mind as well, that you don’t have all the right facts. And certainly, one of the things that you rarely can come up with are what are the plans and intentions of, say, foreign leaders? Of course, the other dimension under the rubric of fears is, which I spoke to at the end of the book, about my fears about the new administration, the new president, many of which, I think, have eventuated themselves.

Ken Wainstein:

Well, the message of humility, I think that’s an excellent takeaway from today’s podcast, both just in general and in any field of work. But in particular in intelligence, where you’re by definition dealing with a lack of absolute certainty, where you’re always advising policymakers who are making critical decisions based on intelligence that’s never absolutely certain.

Jim Clapper:

There’s another old saw in intelligence about there’s only two conditions in life. There’s policy success, or there’s intelligence failure. There’s no other condition in life. And that, I think that is somewhat amusing, but it is a bumper sticker and succinct way of portraying that sort of fundamental conflict. And you know, a policymaker always has the option, I must emphasize this, always has the option to accept, reject, or ignore the intelligence that he or she is presented. Now, I would argue that doing that over a long term is not a good thing, but policymaker has that option. Well, then the question is, if you tee up intelligence to a policymaker, and for whatever reason, whatever good reason, he or she doesn’t do anything about it, is that an intelligence failure when things go bad? And so these are the kinds of imponderable, philosophical questions that always come up in that fraught relationship between the intelligence community and the policymaking community that it serves.

Ken Wainstein:

Well, that’s a great takeaway then from today’s whole podcast about your life in intelligence. It requires humility. It also requires a thick skin, because you’re always going from one intelligence situation to the next, and it can be a success or a failure regardless of the best efforts you put into it. So look, with that, if it’s okay with you, Jim, I think we’ll pause here, and I hope you’d be willing to come back and finish out the balance of your career in another episode.

Jim Clapper:

Oh, absolutely, Ken. It’s been great, and I’ve really enjoyed doing this with you.

Ken Wainstein:

I appreciate it. I appreciate you taking the time today, appreciate you taking the effort and deciding to write your memoir. It’s a real contribution to history, and also obviously very much appreciate your service over the years. So thank you for joining us, and we’ll see you again soon.

Jim Clapper:

Thanks, Ken.

Ken Wainstein:

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. And the CAFE team is David Kurlander, Nat Weiner, Matthew Billy, Sam Ozer-Staton, Noah [Azerlie 00:19:05], Jake Kaplan, Geoff Isenman, Chris Boylan, Sean Walsh, and Margot Maley. And our music is by Allison Layton-Brown. Thank you for being part of the CAFE Insider community.