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James Clapper Weighs In On What Role The Intelligence Community Serves


James Clapper has been in the intelligence game for a long time - a really long time. Like, when he was a kid, he spent late summer nights at his grandparents' house in Philadelphia using their television to decipher police radio signal codes for fun.

JAMES CLAPPER: My dad, who had been himself a signal intelligence officer in World War II, just casually asked me, so what've you been doing this summer? And I whipped out my map and my 3-by-5 cards that I'd been keeping records on. And I gave him about a 20-minute discourse on the organization and on operations of the Philadelphia Police Department. You know, it's been 65-plus years ago, and I'll never forget the expression on my dad's face. And he said, my God, I've raised my own replacement. So that's when I first knew I was going to be an intelligence officer when I was 12 years old.

CORNISH: He recounts this story in his new book, "Facts And Fears." Clapper was director of National Intelligence in 2016, and he had a front-row seat to the initial investigation into Russian interference in the last election. But I also spoke to him about whether or not there is a crisis of morale in the intelligence community, especially after, for instance, the NSA whistleblower leaks of Edward Snowden.

CLAPPER: They are blows - no question about it. Of course, the response, which the Congress has insisted on, that the intelligence community particularly do a better job of monitoring the behavior of employees, whether military or civilian. So as a consequence, the intelligence community's embarked on a very aggressive insider threat detection program.

CORNISH: So now the spies are spying on themselves.

CLAPPER: Well, exactly, and evolving to a system in what's called continuous evaluation we you'd be watching their off-duty performance as well. And, frankly, I worry about that, particularly when it comes to recruiting young people who may say, you know, there's just too much big brother here and the intelligence community is not a place I want to work.

CORNISH: Thinking back over the last few years, you had, reportedly, a spy network in China - a CIA spy network - broken up. You had the president essentially tweeting criticism since he's been in office. Is the intelligence community just in a bad place right now?

CLAPPER: It's certainly not helpful when the commander in chief is a critic of the intelligence community. And I think the current focus is probably more on the Department of Justice. And, you know, the heat's, for right now at least, kind of off the intelligence community. And typically, people in the intelligence community are just going to kind of hunker down and do their job, do their mission. And I believe - I have great faith in them. I think they will continue to serve up truth to power even if the power chooses not to listen to the truth.

CORNISH: Is it good enough for the intelligence community to hunker down, stay out of the politics, provide information and hope it gets used in a wise way?

CLAPPER: Well, it may not be ideal, but that's the system, and it's increasingly difficult as it is to keep intelligence out of the politics. You always have to try to keep that as the objective. And I do think - the metaphor I always use - it's the role of intelligence community to stay down in the engine room and shovel that intelligence coal and people on the bridge get to decide where to drive the ship and how fast and how to arrange all the deckchairs.

CORNISH: OK. But that's a reference to the Titanic. So...

CLAPPER: (Laughter).

CORNISH: Right? (Laughter) Help me understand here how I should think about that.

CLAPPER: I didn't mean it as a reference to the Titanic. It's just any ship. That's the metaphor I was using. And I was trying to make the distinction between the role responsibility of intelligence, which is to serve up the facts as best they can, and what policymakers choose to do with it, which could be nothing. That's their role. It is not intelligence community's place to set and implement policy.

CORNISH: In the end, it sounds like most of this comes down to trust and a lack of it. And how does the intelligence community get that trust back, of the American people or the White House?

CLAPPER: That's a very good point and inherently the cross the intelligence community has to bear is the fact that what it does is inherently and necessarily secret and secretive. Now, one of the - the major takeaway for me after Edward Snowden revelations was the intelligence community does need to be more transparent. So I set about trying to declassify as many documents as I could to try to give some faith, trust and confidence on the part of the American people that this is not a rogue elephant, that there is - there are rules and procedures. I will also tell you that after 6 1/2 years almost as DNI, I got very mixed messages from the American public on just what they expect from the intelligence and law enforcement communities.

I was involved in the Fort Hood shooting investigation. And another example is Boston Marathon. And the inevitable post-event critiques that are done on these things - particularly people on the Hill - said we should have been reading more of Major Hasan's emails. We should have been surveilling the two brothers more. So when something bad happens, we should have been more intrusive, but then other times, you know, we're too much into surveillance.

CORNISH: So when you look at this moment, does it feel like a turning point or a crossroads of some kind?

CLAPPER: I think it is in some ways because our traditional historical institutions and norms and values are somewhat under assault. And so this is a key point. We're going to test the resiliency of these institutions.

CORNISH: Well, James Clapper, thank you so much for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CLAPPER: Thanks very much for having me.

CORNISH: That's James Clapper. His new book is called "Facts And Fears Hard Truths From A Life In Intelligence." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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