FACTS AND FEARS: HARD TRUTHS FROM A LIFE IN INTELLIGENCE
By James R. Clapper
Viking, $30, 424 pages
Regardless of whatever special counsel Robert Mueller III eventually reports, the 2016 presidential election has spawned enough conspiracy theories to surpass “Who Shot Kennedy?” on any list of supposedly unresolved mysteries, justified or not.
The key questions: Did Russian interference affect the election of Donald Trump to the presidency? And was the Trump campaign witting of the shadow-assistance?
Given the undisputed Russian propensity for meddling in elections in other countries, the U.S. intelligence community kept a watchful eye on the 2016 vote.
As director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper championed this oversight. As he writes, officers who were monitoring Moscow disinformation campaigns realized “that the Russians and the campaign seemed to employ strikingly parallel messaging in social media posts and public statements, effectively complementing each other to great effect, with no attempt to hide it.”
For instance, when the Trump campaign “published an allegation that hurt [Hillary] Clinton, the Russians would repeat, amplify and embellish that claim “
Mr. Clapper’s conclusion: “Whether secretly coordinated or not, the parallelism constituted a putative team effort by the Russian government and the Trump campaign to undermine truth and to cause much of the American public to question if facts were even knowable.”
He also gives a firm rebuttal to the president’s claim that he said that there was no “collusion” between the Russians and the campaign.” He avows he said no such thing.
Even more distressing to Mr. Clapper was the “aggressive indifference of President Trump’s administration to viewing Russia as a threat and its abject failure to do anything about this existential menace to our nation.” The lassitude continues.
Mr. Clapper issues a harsh — and reluctant, he says — verdict on Mr. Trump. Having served every president since Kennedy, he speaks of an “instilled ethos [and] profound respect for the president as commander in chief.” But his admiration stops short of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Clapper contends that Mr. Trump’s “first instincts are to twist and distort truth to his advantage And, close to my heart, he has besmirched the Intelligence Community and the FBI — pillars of our country — and deliberately incited many Americans to lose faith and confidence in them.”
Such observations understandably have aroused the wrath of Trump loyalists. Rudolph Giuliani, one of a swinging-door array of Trump lawyers, denounced Mr. Clapper in a CNN interview as a “clown.” Others have questioned whether an intelligence officer should comment on political matters.
But such strictures are not applicable to a retired officer, who has same right of free speech as any citizen.
Mr. Clapper began his military service as a Marine Corps reservist in 1961 and ultimately became a three-star Air Force general and served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
He retired in 1995, then returned in 2001 as head of the National Imagery and Mapping Service (which he assembled from a mnage of military units) and then as Director of National Intelligence.
During his years in the intelligence trade, Mr. Clapper likely achieved some operational coups that made the world safer for all of us.
Alas, given that much of his career was spent in the tight world of signal intelligence, his book is short on the “war stories” that enliven many intelligence memoirs.
He does cite some rules that intelligence professionals should heed. Foremost perhaps is his admonition to stick to the facts when passing along information, and avoid making policy recommendations.
Further, make plain to the president (and other recipients of information) that “intelligence work was about acquiring and assessing foreign secrets, not predicting events or reading minds.”
For instance, he asserts that intelligence officers have no sure-fire method of predicting whether an embattled foreign leader will survive such turmoil as the Arab Spring, when the rulers of countries such as Egypt and Libya were under attack.
But the intelligence community is not immune from criticism. For instance, Mr. Clapper blisters the National Security Agency for a lax background security check before hiring Edward Snowden, who not only stole uncountable thousands of top-secret cables which he made public, but also revealed critical NSA technology.
Mr. Snowden worked briefly for the CIA, which found him “difficult to deal with.” He resigned before being fired, but the CIA did not red flag his record, which enabled him to join an NSA subcontractor. Mr. Clapper condemns the error, and Mr. Snowden’s disclosures caused the U.S. international embarrassment.
In his concluding pages, Mr. Clapper asserts that “I certainly don’t make the pretentious claim that I am carrying the torch of truth.” And he notes that some persons “have angrily confronted me, questioning my loyalty and patriotism for speaking out.”
But America has a record of surviving national traumas — he cites the Civil War and Vietnam — and Mr. Clapper concludes, “We recovered from both and, over time, emerged the better for it.”
• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.
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