James Clapper on North Korea, Trump, and Russia's attack on U.S. elections

James Clapper on Trump, Russia and the intel community

As the nation's former top intelligence official, it's a safe guess James Clapper knows the answers to questions many of us can hardly imagine. This morning he's talking with our David Martin: 

Before James Clapper signed on to become President Barack Obama's Director of National Intelligence, he wrote the president a letter with these famous last words: "I have always sought to be below the radar. I do not like publicity."

"So, here you are," said Martin. "Writing a memoir."

"Yeah. Here I am."

"What happened?"

"I needed to defend the intelligence community and the great men and women in it, given some of the assaults that the community was getting from the President-elect and then the President."

The memoir he has written is called "Facts and Fears: Hard Truths From a Life in Intelligence" (Viking), which began the moment he came into this world as the son of an Army Signals Intelligence officer assigned to eavesdropping posts around the world. "I apparently inherited the gene," Clapper said.


So, it might surprise you to hear Clapper's reaction when, in 2010, he was recruited to become the country's top intelligence officer, the Director of National Intelligence: "I said no. At the time I was pushing 70 years old; now I'm dragging it!"

But President Obama insisted, and Clapper found himself with his family in the Oval Office. "My granddaughter is about 13 or 14, and he just said, 'I'm gonna thank your grandfather for taking on the second-most thankless job in this town.' And boy, was he right."

In his letter, Clapper had told Mr. Obama he was "a truth-to-power guy."

Martin asked, "What's the most inconvenient truth you had to tell President Obama?"

"I drew the short straw to brief him about Edward Snowden, which was not pleasant," Clapper said. "And the president understandably and appropriately lost his temper."

Edward Snowden, the IT administrator with a checkered employment history, had been able to roam top-secret computers, stealing sensitive documents at will.

"President Obama was sort of famously low-key; how does he express his anger?" asked Martin.

"He wasn't a yeller or a screamer. And in some ways, that made it worse," Clapper said. "We had profoundly let him down."

But a year later, President Obama trusted Clapper with a secret mission to North Korea to bring home two Americans – Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller – being held prisoner by North Korea.

He accomplished the mission, although he had to sit through a lot of anti-American rhetoric. Clapper said, "The thing that struck me was the pervasive sense of paranoia and the siege mentality that prevails in North Korea."

"What are they like to deal with personally?" Martin asked.

"The encounter I had with them was pretty nasty."

"Did it get heated?"

"Yes, it did."

"Anybody have to step in and separate you?"

"At one point my executive assistant suggested that maybe it was time to go to the bathroom, and I said, 'Yeah, that's a good idea.'"

Clapper was a generation older than the president, clinging to paper copies of intelligence reports which Mr. Obama preferred to view on an iPad.

"I was the last of the Mohicans to give up a hard copy, I think," Clapper said.

[In April 2015, speaking at McLean, Va., on the 10th anniversary of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, President Obama said of Clapper, "He leaves paper clips all over my office. They're in the couch; they're on the floor. He's shuffling paper. And so because I knew I was coming over here, one of the things I did was return them all!"]

As President Obama's term in office came to an end, Clapper was confronted with a new threat unlike any he had seen before: Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

"I've seen a lot of bad stuff in intelligence in 50 years, but never anything like this where there was such a broad-gauged attack against the fundamental underpinnings of our political system," he said.

One of Clapper's final acts as Director of National Intelligence was to issue an assessment that Vladimir Putin had ordered an influence campaign "to help President-elect Trump's election chances … by discrediting [his opponent Hillary] Clinton."

And he had to brief Mr. Trump on that. Martin asked, "How did that briefing go?"

"We were, you know, not sure whether we were going to get thrown out or not, and he wasn't that way at all. He was cordial and affable and, you know, listened."

Then, the infamous Steele dossier became public. The report by a former British intelligence officer-turned-private investigator alleged salacious activities by Donald Trump during a 2013 visit to Moscow.

The President-elect accused the intelligence agencies of leaking it in an effort to discredit him.

"Disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out; I think it's a disgrace," Mr. Trump said in January 2017. "And I say that, and that's something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do."

Clapper said he called Mr. Trump about his remarks. "I just couldn't let that pass," he said.

"You were steamed?" asked Martin.

"I was."

"What did you say to him?"

"What I tried to do was to appeal to his sort of higher instincts by telling him that he was inheriting a national treasure in the form of the U.S. intelligence community. But he was more interested in my putting out a statement that rebutted the dossier, which I couldn't – and wouldn't – do."

Clapper stepped down as Director of National Intelligence the moment Donald Trump was sworn in as president.

Martin said, "You have a pretty low opinion of President Trump."

"Respect for the president as commander-in-chief is a big deal to me," Clapper replied. "This president makes that a challenge, I'll put it that way."

Clapper is, as he wrote President Obama, "a duty guy at heart." For most of his life, part of that duty was to avoid the press. But now it entails a new and very public relationship with the press.

"The strength of our country is enhanced by having a free, independent press," he said. "So yes, I'm proud to be part of the 'fake news.'"

 "Facts and Fears" by James Clapper

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Story produced by Mary Walsh.