WASHINGTON — For more than 50 years as a military officer and in the U.S. government, James R. Clapper has been getting up early each day to look for the breadcrumbs that the nation’s adversaries and enemies leave behind. His job has been to collect the dots, connect them and report what he’s learned.
As the director of national intelligence, he reports directly to President Barack Obama. What he’s telling the president is increasingly disturbing.
“In my 50-plus years in intelligence, I don’t know if we’ve been beset by a more diverse array of challenges and crises around the world,” said Clapper in an exclusive interview with WTOP conducted in December.
In a stunning declaration, he waxed nostalgic when referring to the crushing volume of bad news pouring into the U.S. intelligence community. “Sometimes it almost makes you long for the halcyon days of the Cold War, and a single all-consuming adversary — the Soviet Union that we came to know pretty well,” Clapper said.
The adversaries of yesteryear were cumbersome, slow and blind to the superior defensive skills the U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement communities presented to those who sought to attack. But Clapper and other U.S. intelligence officials say the speed, skill and adaptability of today’s threats pose unprecedented challenges to U.S. national security.
Each day brings a range of threats and issues — cyber, counterintelligence, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, transnational organized crime, economics, natural resources and human security all demand Clapper’s attention as he prepares to brief the president.
He starts off each day early. “I get up about five o’clock and start right away, reading the news clips and that sort of thing,” said Clapper.
After getting dressed and preparing to leave home, “I get in the car. The protective detail brings me here and I start reading the [secure] iPad that we have for the President’s Daily Brief [PDB] to find out what’s going on,” he said.
During the trip from home to work, which takes an unspecified amount of time, he continues to read. Once he arrives at the office, on the days when he briefs the president, “I immediately come here and here sit at this table and work with my PDB briefer,” he said.
The first order of business, Clapper said, is “determining what we are going to tee up to brief the president. The PDB briefer will have been up all night and is my research agent, going through all of the traffic, incoming messages and reports from all over the world.”
By the time Clapper arrives, “We have a set of prepared items teed up to brief. But it’s entirely up to me what I take into the [Oval Office] or not.”
In past decades, the in-person briefing delivered to the president was accompanied by what Clapper called “a formal PDB” in a thick binder-type note book. But after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was established, technology changed the process.
“[The] formal PDB we now do on an iPad,” Clapper said. “It’s not a hard copy any longer, so there will be some number of articles on various topics that are all coordinated throughout the [intelligence] community, and normally prepared by multiple agencies.”
After two hours of preparation, the 10-mile trip to the White House begins.
“I try to stay current even as I’m driving down to the White House. I do have access to secure communications, if I want to check on late-breaking developments,” said Clapper.
He normally uses secure, mobile encrypted-communications channels to talk with officials at U.S. Central Command about tactical developments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen while en route to the White House.
Once he arrives, he lays out the long list of issues, events, people and places that concern him and other U.S. national security officials. He often brings subject-matter experts with him.
Facing the “unknown unknown”
What worries Clapper most is what he doesn’t know — something he calls “the unknown unknown” — such as undiscovered terror plots.
“For all of us in the intelligence business, you worry about what you don’t know at all,” said Clapper. Extremists bent on attacking the U.S. lead the list of unknowns.
Clapper said the U.S. has a robust intelligence community working around the clock, but the terror attack in San Bernardino, California, which left 14 dead, and the Paris attacks, which killed 130 people, exposed a key weakness in the global intelligence community.
Terrorists have learned to avoid detection.
“If we are aware — even anecdotally or partially — of some plot or some threat, we can work on that,” Clapper said. “We can attempt to gain more insight, learn more about it, collect more [human intelligence], collect more [signals intelligence], if we have something to start with.”
Terrorists’ use of encrypted communications and social media tools during recent global attacks have denied intelligence officials that starting point.
Their ability to tap into social media is a key factor.
“Terrorism as an instrument has grown, and it’s grown in its sophistication and destructiveness. In order to have more impact to garner more attention (via social and traditional media), they’ve gotten more destructive, more brutal savage, more creative, particularly when it comes to proselyting and recruiting.”
U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly concerned about how much U.S. enemies, especially terrorists, know about their once-secret capabilities.
On May 20, 2013, Edward Snowden, a former U.S. intelligence community contractor, flew to Hong Kong after leaving his job at an National Security Agency facility in Hawaii. In early June 2013, he began leaking thousands of classified NSA documents to journalists. He lives in an undisclosed location in Russia, and the leaks continue to surface.
U.S. intelligence sources say leaked classified intelligence has provided a virtual university for enemies of the U.S., especially terrorists.
“The terrorists have gone to school on how we try to track them, and that’s made our job harder and harder,” Clapper said.
The Snowden leaks, however, sparked anger in the U.S. about privacy concerns and led to an Obama administration effort to be more forthcoming about its intelligence-gathering efforts.
But for Clapper, transparency is at the heart of his concern. While he believes it is good to tell the American public what the intelligence community is up to, “the downside of course is, when we expose what we do, others capitalize, and that’s what’s happened to us in the last two or three years.”
On Friday, more details about NSA surveillance activities, revealed in Snowden’s leaks, were published around the world.
ISIL is ‘not a mortal enemy, but Russia is’
In addition to warning the president and Congress about looming threats and challenges, Clapper said, a part of his job is to provide perspective on the situation. In a striking statement, he said that while ISIL is dominating the headlines with brutal murders and scary videos, it is not a “mortal enemy” to the U.S., though “Russia is.”
“ISIL is not a mortal enemy of the U.S. It can cause us harm and can kill our people,” he said. “It can’t inflict mortal damage to the United States … they don’t have the destructive power that Russia has.”
He cited Russia’s nuclear arsenal as the driving force behind his comment. He acknowledged that ISIL is dangerous, brutal and savage, but said ISIL “cannot impose the level of destruction on the U.S. as Russia’s nuclear weapons, should it choose to.”
Clapper is preparing for what he calls “testimony season,” which consists of several appearances before Congress. In the upcoming Worldwide Threat Assessment hearings, a newly aggressive Russia, a belligerent and nuclear North Korea, Iranian proxy activities, and Chinese espionage are key areas to be addressed, in addition to terrorism concerns.
A key message he’s is likely to deliver is a warning that the U.S., while making rapid progress against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, will not quickly vanquish the brutal terror group or others.
“Personally [I] think we’re going to be in this counter-extremist business for a long time,” he said. “We’re going to be in a state of vigilance and suppression for these groups. If it’s not ISIS, it’s going to be something else.”