In this excerpt from Chapter 1 of "Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence" (Viking), former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recounts his family's history in military intelligence (his father served in the Army Security Agency, among other agencies, in duty stations around the world) and how it pointed him in the direction of a life of public service served in the shadows.
When my family left Japan in 1953, en route to Littleton, Massachusetts, my sister and I were parked with my mother's parents in Philadelphia. This was a good deal for me, because my grandparents let me stay up as late as I wanted to watch TV. Television was a great novelty, since we didn't have one in Japan. On Friday nights, the old movies would end about 12:30, and one night I did the 1950s equivalent of channel surfing, which required actually walking up to the set and manually turning the selector dial. There were only four channels, and one night I stopped between channels four and five—I'll never forget this—because I heard voices speaking in a clipped cadence. There was no picture, just voices. I listened for maybe fifteen minutes as they batted words and numbers back and forth in speech patterns bordering on the nonsensical. Finally I figured out that I'd stumbled onto the broadcast frequency of the Philadelphia Police Department dispatcher. I wanted to hear more, but my arm was getting tired, so I went to the kitchen, found some toothpicks, and stuck them in the dial to secure it. That's right, I "hacked" the Philadelphia Police Department, using my grandparents' black-and-white TV set and some toothpicks.
The next night I was prepared with a map of the city of Philadelphia and began plotting the addresses where the police cruisers were dispatched. After a few nighttime surveillance sessions, I figured out where the police district boundaries were, based on which cruisers responded to specific locations. I wrote down anything they said that I didn't understand, and kept listening until I had figured out what all the "10" codes (10-4, 10-5, etc.) were, the system for call signs, and the personal identifiers for lieutenants and above. I got a pack of index cards to keep track of all the facts I was collecting. Soon I was staying up every night to build my "database." About a month later, when my parents came to Philadelphia to retrieve my sister and me, my dad asked, "So what've you been up to this summer?" I showed him my map and my card files, and I gave him a thorough briefing on how police operations worked in the city. I'll never forget the expression on his face as he exclaimed, "My God, I've raised my own replacement!"
One evening in the fall of 2015, when I was the director of national intelligence, I was shooting the breeze with my staff and recounted this story. A few weeks later, my speechwriter put it into the script for a speech I was scheduled to give for a CIA-sponsored event at George Washington University on "The Ethos and the Profession of Intelligence." I hadn't seriously considered it before, but this vignette from my childhood illustrates what we do in the intelligence profession in simple terms. Intelligence involves research, determination, persistence, patience, continuity, drawing inferences in the absence of complete information, and taking advantage of vulnerabilities and what you overhear in others' conversations, no matter how cryptic and jargon-filled they are. Obviously, the Philadelphia Police Department hadn't foreseen that a twelve-year-old kid would listen in on its radio transmissions, let alone map out its operations. I didn't realize it at the time, but that little avocation, more than sixty years ago, started me down the path to service in the intelligence business.
Life can sometimes loop back on itself, and in 2013, when I was the DNI, Annandale High [in Falls Church, Virginia] asked me to be its graduation speaker, fifty-nine years after I first enrolled there. The ceremony fell on June 13, and when I accepted the invitation, I had no idea how difficult that week would be for me. It was two and a half months after damaging mandatory budget cuts went into effect for the Intelligence Community, and I was fighting the Defense Department to keep intelligence professionals from being furloughed. It was three weeks after Edward Snowden had fled to Hong Kong, and stolen documents were leaking out through press outlets, cutting into intelligence capabilities on a daily basis. I thought about canceling, but was glad I didn't. The students were in high spirits, and they also made me laugh when I arrived. Rather than my donning the gown commensurate with my master's degree, the students asked me to wear the same one they were wearing, to indicate that, like them, I had yet to graduate from Annandale High. I was game, and I did.
I took about two minutes of my commencement speech to vent, before talking about the graduating class, their accomplishments, and what lay ahead for them. I closed my speech that night by telling them:
If you take care of yourself, if you have a vision of what you want for the future, if you're kind, and attentive, and responsible, I can pretty much guarantee that you'll live an interesting and successful life. That doesn't necessarily mean you'll reach every goal you set out to achieve. Fifty-nine years ago, I set out to graduate from Annandale High, and I didn't reach that goal. I never got the chance to wear a red Annandale robe and mortarboard until tonight.
And it's okay to fall short of some of your goals. Even if it feels like a disaster at the time, you'll most likely do some pretty cool other things, as long as you do your best to stay on the right path. I'm proud of how things have turned out in my life. And I've never, ever, been bored. Although these days, I'd like a little boredom. Sometimes, by some circuitous route, you eventually reach those goals you thought had long passed you by. So tonight, I get to wear Annandale red. And you know, it feels pretty sweet.
Excerpted from "Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence." Copyright © 2018 by James Clapper and Trey Brown. Reprinted by permission of Viking Press. All Rights Reserved.
For more info:
- "Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence" by James Clapper with Trey Brown (Viking); Available via Amazon