James Clapper Has Some Thoughts on Donald Trump

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Who are the heroes of the anti-Trump "resistance"? That's a simple question with a multipart answer.

You've got presidential hopefuls like Bernie Sanders; outspoken members of Congress like Maxine Waters; pundits from left-leaning media outlets like MSNBC; big donors to liberal activist organizations like George Soros; and a bunch of other usual suspects. But there are also some wildcards like former top officials from law enforcement and intelligence and the military. In particular: former FBI director James Comey, former CIA head Michael V. Hayden, and former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper.

Perhaps the last is the most surprising. One might expect that a former Marine enlisted reservist who rose to having three stars on his epaulettes would observe the military tradition of silence on political issues. And one might not expect the resistance to embrace a man who oversaw a vast intelligence operation that secretly gathered data on millions of Americans.

But if one reads Clapper's new book, "Facts and Fears," or better yet spends 20 minutes talking to him, many of these seeming contradictions fade away. So that’s what I did. Here is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

Tobin Harshaw: Before we get to the presidential elephant in the room, I want to talk a little bit more broadly about your career and about the state of the Intelligence Community. We have 17 separate intelligence agencies with a budget of some $70 billion. Several million people have security clearances. Is all of that really necessary? Or would a leaner Intelligence Community maybe be a better Intelligence Community?

James R. Clapper: That’s an assertion that people make: You could be better if you were smaller. And of course it's gotten bigger since I left. But I will say that given the worldwide responsibilities of the United States and the voracious demands for intelligence throughout the government, we've always made a big investment in intelligence in this country. Could it be smaller? I suppose it could. But one thing you have to remember about the intelligence businesses is that it's inherently manpower intensive, and that explains some of the costs. But given the diversity of threats that the United States confronts now, unlike any I've seen in my 50 years, I think that size and spending is merited.

TH: Gathering intelligence has always been manpower intensive. But the great advances in spycraft over the last couple of decades have been digital and relating to communications – we have all of this geospatial technology picking everything up. Is it possible that good old-fashioned human intelligence is slipping behind or not getting the emphasis that deserves?

JRC: No, I don't think so. I think HUMINT remains extremely important. There is no substitute. Despite all the whiz-bang technology that we have, there's still a need for on-the-ground intelligence based on human interaction. That is maybe more important than ever.

TH: Exactly. So what I'm wondering is whether old-fashioned espionage is getting the resources and the manpower that it needs.

JRC: I think so. We can't go into specific numbers, but we make a pretty substantial investment in human intelligence, particularly with respect to the FBI, the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

TH: And you mentioned the FBI there. Are the relations between the intelligence and law enforcement branches of the government in good shape these days?

JRC: Well, actually the FBI is part of the Intelligence Community. The community funds many billets in the FBI. That was occasioned by the transformation of the FBI after 9/11. It's part of what we now call the Big Six of intelligence agencies because they are in a unique and special position. They straddle both the worlds of intelligence and law enforcement. This was an important bridge to create post-9/11.

But to answer your question, yes, the relationship between the bureau and the rest of the community is good and improving.

TH: In the book, you're pretty forthright about what have been the Intelligence Community's biggest oversights or blunders over recent decades, beginning with the failure to see the collapse of the Soviet Union coming. Over your long career, what institutional oversight became the biggest lesson for you?  

JRC: I think it had to be the national intelligence assessment – the apex of intelligence products – on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in October 2002. It was used as a basis for the invasion of Iraq, which had all kinds of negative implications, not to mention, of course, the sacrifice in life and treasure that ensued. I think looking back that had to be the mistake that was the most consequential.

TH: Is there another incident or issue you can remember that maybe people are less familiar with but that you thought was hugely important or led to some important changes?

JRC: I certainly felt that way at the time about the Edward Snowden revelations. And of course that had huge institutional costs for the community – and if you're a taxpayer, you're going to be paying to recover from the damage that Snowden caused by the degradation of our foreign intelligence capabilities. And it was a personal thing for me because of the exchanges I had with Senator Ron Wyden.

TH: Let's talk about what's on everyone's mind. In the book, you make clear there are a lot of aspects of Donald Trump's presidency that you object to, but what one in particular do you think is the most harmful to the nation and American democracy?

JRC: First, let me make the point that Donald Trump is a manifestation of a larger issue in this country. He is just emblematic of it. I think the loss of what I'll call the beacon of truth – where now it's fashionable to have alternative facts or where "truth is relative," to quote Rudy Giuliani – this is very dangerous for the fundamental underpinnings of this country. What this has led to is assaults on our institutions and our values, which I spent over 50 years defending.

I found that very disturbing, and that was the real catalyst I think for writing a book, because I hadn't intended to write a book even though people would urge me to write it just for the sake of the history that I lived through. So when this phenomenon occurred in the country, I wanted to do my little part, what I could do to try to educate the public about the threats to the country, both internal and external.

TH: I don't want to get into all the hypotheticals about where things could go from here. But I think the biggest one on everyone's mind is whether Trump would fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian influence in the 2016 election. Do you have any sort of specific thoughts on what would happen if he tried that?

JRC: Well, I think if he did, it would set off a firestorm and create a constitutional crisis. I think you'd have people in the streets, not unlike what I went through post-Vietnam – that was my war, Southeast Asia. I think his strategy, which he's not very subtle about, is rather than do that he will simply try to undermine the investigation and undermine Mueller. And so that regardless of what he comes out with, many in the public, particularly those who are in the Trump base, will not find it credible. And I think that's probably the more likely approach because I think he understands the firestorm it would create if he actually fired Mueller.

TH: When you were working for Obama, the Intelligence Community brought evidence to him of wRussia's dirty election tricks. But, as you explain in the book, Obama didn't want to make a strong public statement for fear of being seen as interfering in the election. In retrospect, do you think he made a mistake?

JRC: Well, we can do the "coulda, woulda, shouldas" all day long. I've been involved in any number of post-event critiques: Khobar Towers, Fort Hood shooting, Boston marathon, etc. There's a long list. You can always go back and with the benefit of perfect hindsight say, you know, we should have done something different.

But given the highly charged contemporaneous environment of the campaign and Mr. Trump alleging that the election would be rigged against him, the president for good reason was reluctant to feed that narrative. He also didn't want to amplify even more what the Russians were doing by calling attention to it. But I think the biggest inhibition for President Obama was he did not want to be seen as putting his hand on the scale in favor of one candidate and in disfavor of the other.

The other factor that played here is the difficulty we had in securing a bipartisan buy-in on what the Russians were doing. Eventually the homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, and I put out a joint statement which was pretty forthright about what the Russians were doing to interfere in the campaign. Unfortunately, we issued it on Oct. 7, the same day that the "Access Hollywood" audio tapes came out, and our message got completely lost.

TH: Speaking of election interference, you write candidly in your book that the U.S. has long tried to sway foreign elections where it had an important national interest, and you even cite a study of 81 examples. How do you square the current outrage over Russian manipulation of social media – which is kind of a tame practice compared to some of the things that the CIA did?

JRC: I guess the way I think about that is that through our history, when we tried to manipulate or influence elections or even overturned governments, it was done with the best interests of the people in that country in mind – given the traditional reverence for human rights.

TH: Obviously, some of the greatest beneficiaries of the anti-Trump moment are his predecessors, whose reputations have all gotten burnishing. But we know that all presidents have their faults. I assume that Obama was the president you worked with most closely. How would you grade his national security legacy?   

JRC: I think that the agreement with Iran on their nuclear capability was a good thing to do. I do think that it enhanced stability and peace in the Mideast, and actually enhanced Israel's security. It's most regrettable that just because Obama did it, the current president has to undo it. Others of course have a different view there.

TH: What about his biggest failure?

JRC: The most intractable problem – I don't know that I'd call it a failure exactly – was Syria. It was just hard to do anything about it, and it wasn't for lack of effort or thought or a lack of having meetings about it, but that it was just an intractable, insoluble issue. And I think the current administration is finding it the same way.

TH:  Yet what Obama will always be remembered for is the "red line" on Assad's chemical weapons.  

JRC: I think that was part of the general intractability, and also it's one thing for a president to draw a red line, but if you don't have the support of Congress, that makes it pretty tough to execute. We accomplished it in a different way through diplomacy, and got rid of a lot of, not all, chemicals and weapons of mass destruction that the Syrians had. So it worked out.

TH: One last question, and you may take issue with my entire premise here, but hear me out. The American people and even the media have on the whole always been supportive of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, yet they have never been wholly trustful of them. Does it seem to you that in the atmosphere of the Trump backlash, and given that so many of the top critics are former FBI and intelligence agency officials, that Americans and media have lost much of that healthy skepticism of the deep state?

JRC: No. They haven't lost it, because the president feeds a different narrative. You know, I never heard of the phrase "deep state" until this administration. This feeds the narrative for criticizing the FBI and saying it's in tatters. The basic issue, though, is because intelligence – and some aspects of law enforcement – is inherently secret, there's always going to be an aura of suspicion about what the Intelligence Community is doing is legal, moral and ethical.  

TH: My question was intended to be less about the people who are fans of Trump's rhetoric than about, well, what Trump supporters would call East Coast elites or liberal media. The fact that people like James Comey and Michael Hayden and you are being held up as such avatars of truth – I'm just wondering if you think there's anything dangerous about that in terms of the future?

JRC: It's very controversial. Many in the community would prefer that none of us say anything and just sort of fade off into the horizon. There are many military people that don't agree with me or with Mike Hayden particularly, and former military officers are speaking out about this. But I just feel that it's a question of duty.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.