Christopher Dickey, the Paris-based world news editor of The Daily Beast, is the author of seven books about war, terrorism and intelligence operations. His most recent is “Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South.”
James Clapper has always seen himself as “a ‘truth to power’ guy,” he tells us. The former director of national intelligence, now 77, was born and raised in the world of spookery. His father’s career in Army signals intelligence included stints at the National Security Agency when it was known as “the puzzle palace.” And Clapper grew up with the conviction that the very essence of intelligence work is the collection of carefully analyzed “truths,” conveyed in confidence, however unpleasant the conclusions might be for policymakers and politicians.
Then, after more than 50 years in service, just as the avuncular Clapper, a self-styled “intelligence geezer,” was planning to retire for good from his post as overseer of America’s 17 intelligence organizations, the electoral college named Donald Trump president of the United States. And all the intelligence at Clapper’s disposal suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, had made that possible. Clapper, old Cold Warrior that he was, saw his world turned upside down. Suddenly truth, as he understood the term, was out; “alternative facts” were in; and America’s old enemy had a far too cozy relationship with its new commander in chief.
So this previously reluctant public figure decided as a private citizen to speak out with a vengeance, appearing regularly on CNN (his shaved head making him look a little like Daddy Warbucks stepping out of the shadows), and with Trey Brown he has written a memoir: “Facts and Fears: Hard Truths From a Life in Intelligence.”
The book begins and ends with a bitter appraisal of Trump and the Russian plot to put him in power. “I don’t believe our democracy can function for long on lies, particularly when inconvenient and difficult facts spoken by the practitioners of truth are dismissed as ‘fake news,’ ” Clapper writes. “I know that the Intelligence Community cannot serve our nation if facts are negotiable.”
This may sound sanctimonious to those aware of the dirty tricks played, covert wars waged and tortures inflicted by the CIA over the years, but Clapper, who worked in other, more antiseptic parts of the intel world — mainly monitoring communications — is quite sincere. And now he feels free to say about the 2016 elections what he did not say when he testified multiple times before Congress as director of national intelligence:
“Of course the Russian efforts affected the outcome. Surprising even themselves, they swung the election to a Trump win. To conclude otherwise stretches logic, common sense, and credulity to the breaking point. Less than eighty thousand votes in three key states swung the election. I have no doubt that more votes than that were influenced by this massive effort by the Russians.”
Was there active collusion between the Trump campaign — or the candidate himself — and Russian proxies or agents? Clapper does not go that far because he doesn’t have proof. But what he calls Trump’s “aggressive indifference” to the intelligence community’s detailed presentation of Russian activities is, in his view, damning enough. “Allegations of collusion and the results of the election were secondary to the profound threat Russia posed — and poses — to our system,” Clapper writes, and he does a fair job explaining why.
He begins with Putin’s conviction that the United States somehow bore responsibility for undermining his party’s victory in Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections, which were followed by protests and widespread charges of fraud.
Clapper admits that in other cases — many other cases — the United States did try to influence elections and change regimes. He cites a report by Carnegie Mellon researcher Dov Levin indicating U.S. efforts to interfere in 81 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000. But Clapper says, “Simplistically, I always viewed us as the ‘good guys,’ with at least noble intentions.”
Putin certainly did not view the Americans as the good guys, and after 2011 he bore a special animus toward then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had expressed “serious concerns” about the conduct of those parliamentary elections. Putin “is not one to forgive or forget a grudge — ever,” writes Clapper. “So when Clinton announced her candidacy for president in 2015, Putin remembered.”
By then, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its bloody quasi-war in Ukraine and its role in shooting down a Malaysian airliner there had earned Moscow isolation and sanctions, but candidate Trump seemed more than willing to forget and forgive.
Clapper and his colleagues had watched with interest and then horror, and reacted with agonizing caution to what the Russians were doing over the spring and summer of 2016. Then, in November, the results came in, and in December lame-duck President Barack Obama asked for a comprehensive report.
In early January 2017, less than two weeks before Trump’s inauguration, Clapper and his colleagues presented the president-elect with the sum total of what they had discovered about the Russian influence campaign. The report was far more detailed than the sanitized versions released to members of Congress and the public.
“I remember just how staggering the assessment felt the first time I read it through from start to finish, and just how specific our conclusions and evidence were,” Clapper writes. “We showed unambiguously that Putin had ordered the campaign to influence the election, that the campaign was multifaceted, and that Russia had used cyber espionage against US political organizations and publicly disclosed the data they collected through WikiLeaks, DCLeaks, and the Guccifer 2.0 persona. We documented Russian cyber intrusions into state and local voter rolls. We described Russia’s pervasive propaganda efforts through RT [satellite television], Sputnik, and the social media trolls, and how the entire operation had begun with attempts to undermine US democracy and demean Secretary Clinton, then shifted to promoting Mr. Trump when Russia assessed he was a viable candidate who would serve their strategic goals. . . . The Russian government had done all of this at minimal cost and without significant damage to their own interests, and they had no incentive to stop.”
This was not the now-famous “dossier” compiled by a former British spy about prostitutes and conniving oligarchs, which Clapper calls “pseudo-intelligence” — this was solid stuff. But Trump set out to discredit the whole report before he’d so much as seen it, claiming that it was all a plot by the Democrats to explain away their loss and casting doubts on the reliability — and abilities — of the intelligence community as a whole.
Unfortunately, on that point, Trump might find plenty of extra ammunition in Clapper’s bland but frank memoir. In many places it’s a defensive chronicle of private disappointments and public failures by America’s intelligence services, from Vietnam to, well, the elections of 2016.
America’s spies famously missed the coming collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989; they judged that Saddam Hussein was bluffing about an invasion of Kuwait in 1990; they failed to predict with any actionable intelligence Osama bin Laden’s attack on the United States in September 2001; and they completely misconstrued the evidence at hand (much of which was faked) about Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, which gave the George W. Bush administration the pretext it wanted to invade Iraq in 2003, with all the grim consequences that followed.
Clapper dismisses the excuses tendered by die-hard invasion rationalizers. They don’t “attribute the failure where it belongs — squarely on the shoulders of the administration members who were pushing a narrative of a rogue WMD program in Iraq and on the intelligence officers, including me, who were so eager to help that we found what wasn’t really there.”
The missteps continued after Obama made Clapper the director of national intelligence in 2010.
The Arab Spring came as a complete surprise, toppling several tyrants in the region who had been reliable partners of the intelligence community.
In September 2012, an attack on an ill-protected diplomatic compound and nearby CIA outpost in Benghazi, Libya, cost the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Clapper concluded that it was largely improvised and that the militant group or groups involved probably had no operational ties to al-Qaeda, but the initial intelligence reports, repeated by Obama officials, suggested that the whole thing had started as a protest, which was not the case.
Internally, on Clapper’s watch the intelligence community did not detect or stop the flood of classified documents Chelsea Manning sent to WikiLeaks, which were “embarrassing,” as Clapper puts it, and completely missed the much more damaging activities of Edward Snowden, a “traitor” who absconded with vast quantities of America’s most closely held secrets about intelligence operations. Then the 17 agencies of the intelligence community failed to anticipate the defeat of the Iraqi army by the Islamic State when it took Mosul in 2014.
So it is perfectly possible for Trump to argue that these tellers of “truths” often do not know what they are talking about. But the situation is actually worse than that for intelligence gatherers under Trump, because the very concept of their basic product is discredited.
As Clapper points out: “Getting its target audience to conclude that facts and truth are ‘unknowable’ is the true objective of any disinformation campaign. . . . If someone actually believes the falsehood, that’s a bonus, but the primary objective is to get readers or viewers to throw their hands up and give up on ‘facts.’ Do vaccines cause autism? Maybe. Was Senator Ted Cruz’s father involved with President Kennedy’s assassination? Anything’s possible. Is Hillary Clinton running a child-sex ring out of the basement of a DC pizza parlor? Who knows?”
“Could be” and “could have been” are, of course, staples of Trumpian discourse. Maybe the Russians were hacking the Democratic National Committee, maybe it was the Chinese, maybe it was “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds” or “some guy in New Jersey,” he said. Who knows?
Or maybe, just maybe, the problem is “the deep state,” which at least one member of Trump’s current legal team has suggested.
Given the overall tone and themes of the book, there are some passages by the old hand that readers may find surprising. At several points Clapper writes with considerable emotion about how unfairly LGBT intelligence officers were treated in the past and how pleased he is that they are fully accepted now.
Clapper is generally sympathetic to Obama’s leadership — but not always. On the problem of how to deal with North Korea, particularly, he thinks Obama’s “policy rationale of not discussing anything else until North Korea agreed to end its nuclear capability and ambitions was flawed.” Trump, “surprising everyone,” has agreed to talk, and Clapper concedes that as a result the situation is at least “poised for change,” although he adds grudgingly: “whether for better or for worse.”
Whatever progress is made on the Korea front or elsewhere, as Trump comes under increasing legal pressure from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, allegations of a “witch hunt” and talk of a “deep state” conspiracy will continue to divide the country.
Trump will want to convince his hard-core supporters that people like Clapper, and the men and women of the intelligence community and law enforcement whom Clapper has worked with for so many years — Mueller and fired FBI director James Comey, for instance — were the real power in the country before Trump took over, and it is he, Trump, who is now speaking truth to them.
Could be. Who knows?
By James Clapper with Trey Brown
Viking. 424 pp. $30