James Clapper was eating lunch in Muscat, Oman, on November 9, 2016, when at 2:31 am EST Donald Trump was declared the winner of the presidential election. Clapper was on one of his final trips abroad at the end of a 54-year-long career in the military and intelligence, working with allies to shore up US interests overseas. Although he didn’t know it at the time, the upcoming presidential transition would make the retired Air Force general and director of national intelligence more famous than he ever was when he worked in government.
Today, he has become an outspoken critic of the Trump administration, a regular—and particularly fiery—voice on cable news, questioning the president’s moral and mental fitness for office. In turn, he’s become the embodiment of Trump’s “deep state,” condemned by name regularly on the president’s Twitter feed. It’s a role that Clapper himself finds puzzling, as he recounts in his new memoir Facts and Fears: Hard Truths From a Life in Intelligence. He never intended to write a memoir; indeed, when I spent weeks interviewing Clapper and following him around before the election for what at the time was the sole long-form profile of him ever written, he told me that his only real hopes after leaving office were to fade into private life and clean out his basement.
Yet he says he felt called to write the book after witnessing the first months of the behavior of the man elected during his Oman trip. He has remained a public face during the nearly 18 months since he left office, becoming increasingly outspoken as the president has both publicly attacked his former colleagues in the intelligence community and denied the increasingly damning questions surrounding his campaign’s contact with Russians during an election where Russian intelligence agencies and propaganda outlets, like the Internet Research Agency and the state TV network, RT, spread disinformation and sowed conspiracies aimed at harming Hillary Clinton and helping Trump. As Clapper writes, in explaining his decision to write a memoir, Trump’s embrace of Russia “made me fear for our nation.”
Meanwhile the behavior in office of Trump himself has increasingly disgusted a world-weary Clapper. Retirement from public life ended up coming at a worrisome time for him, he writes. The America he had long sworn to protect turned out to be under unprecedented assault from within. “My journey of 76 years had led me to a place that should be home, and I’d found that the foundation of the home was beginning to crumble and the pillars that supported its roof was shaking,” he writes. “We have elected someone as president of the United States whose first instincts are to twist and distort truth to his advantage, to generate financial benefit to himself and his family, and, in doing so, to demean the values this country has stood for.”
While his book doesn’t shrink from direct criticism of the new president and an administration that prizes “alternative facts” and condemns all dissenting views as “fake news,” the most insightful and important part of Clapper’s book is not the two chapters at the end on Russia and Trump’s election—which no doubt accounts for how his memoir hit No. 1 on Amazon the week of its release—but the sustained argument that Trump is merely a particularly acute and deadly symptom of a longer and, to Clapper, worrisome trend in American society.
American intelligence services have long tracked the rise of what Clapper calls “unpredictable instability,” but now the US appears to be suffering from the same malady. “The United States had begun to show many of the same characteristics of instability we used to assess other nation-states,” he writes, including rising income equality, an increasingly restive population of young people who couldn’t find work, a rural-urban divide, and declining political discourse.
In a chapter devoted to the capital’s budget dysfunction, he explains how intelligence professionals and Pentagon leaders increasingly view warily the country’s ever-growing deficits and crushing national debt—both of which have been dramatically expanded in recent months by the Republican congress’s massive tax cuts and spending increases. He cites Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen’s characterization of our national debt as the most prominent threat to national security, and Clapper calls out the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party for “play[ing] chicken” with our country’s government, citing the mandatory spending cuts known as “sequestration” and unforced governance errors like the 2013 federal shutdown. Those sequestration cuts are like rot in the basement. “The degradation to intelligence will be insidious,” Clapper writes. “It will be gradual and almost invisible—unless and until, of course, we have an intelligence failure.”
When the nation’s spymasters—career nonpartisan officials whose first and last instincts are bred to remain apolitical—begin to diagnosis such problems at home, we should pay attention.
Throughout the book, Clapper returns to the question of what intelligence is—and what it isn’t. The phrase “speaking truth to power” seems to appear on more pages than not. As he recounts, “the first fundamental, unwritten law of intelligence work: Speak straight, unbiased intelligence truth to power, and leave the business of policy making to the policy makers.” He cites Colin Powell’s charge to the intelligence community: “Tell me what you know. Tell me what you don’t know. Then tell me what you think. Always distinguish which is which.”
Clapper might just be the nation’s most experienced intelligence officer ever—almost literally born into the field, since his father was an Army intelligence officer who took his young 11-year-old son on field maneuvers (“The first sergeant … took a shine to me and let me carry his (unloaded) M1 rifle, or maybe he saw me as a convenient way to get out of having to carry it himself,” Clapper writes). He eventually led two separate agencies—the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency—served in the Pentagon’s top intel position, and then was the DNI for more than half of the time the job has existed.
He took over as DNI in 2010, the fourth appointment to the position since it had been established in 2005 as part of the post-9/11 reforms to the country’s intelligence apparatus. It wasn’t at all clear at the time that the job, which came with enormous responsibility but little authority—in Washington and management writ large often a poor combination—and Clapper himself was unsure of the wisdom of taking the job. “I wasn’t sure it was actually possible to do the job of DNI,” he writes. Yet over the ensuing years, he turned it into one of the most critical jobs in Washington, serving as something of a senior sage as he herded the cats of a $60 billion-a-year intelligence machine.
Facts and Fears does more than simply tell Clapper’s own story, allowing it to rise above the tired genre of public servant memoirs, littered as it is by self-serving, I-did-everything-right arguments meant to tell all and settle scores. Instead, he’s written a book that stands with the likes of Robert Gates’ first memoir, From the Shadows, which remains one of the best histories of the final chapter of the Cold War.
Using his own career as a backdrop, Clapper’s book tells the first, thoughtful, in-depth history of the rise of the American intelligence community as a semi-united entity—how the alphabet soup of the CIA, NSA, DIA, NRO, FBI, and 12 other agencies most Americans would be hard-pressed to identify began to work together and consider themselves and their workforces as part of a unified effort to keep America safe and secure. Clapper recounts how he took the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, known as NIMA, and rebranded it as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which in the strange way that Washington works, meant it had a three-letter acronym and suddenly a prominence that it lacked before.
Readers of this memoir will find a more complex and nuanced portrait than they might expect. The James Clapper who comes across in the book possesses a self-deprecating charm and wry sense of humor—like the time he joked that his new Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids had a special button to mute White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice—that would surprise people familiar only with the dour and gruff “grumpy grandpa” routine he’s known for at congressional hearings and on cable news interviews. He became so famous for recounting on Capitol Hill his standard “litany of doom,” the ever-growing list of looming threats and problems across the world stage, that staff members made him a heavy-metal-band style t-shirt advertising performances by “James Clapper and the Litany of Doom.”
A childhood comic book buff, Clapper takes time to correct Robert Gates’ recounting of the famed Situation Room photo of the Obama team on the night of the Osama bin Laden raid on Abbottabad, explaining that Gates’ interpretation of an online meme that envisioned the group as superheroes wasn’t quite correct: Gates wasn’t the Green Lantern, Clapper says, but actually the Martian Manhunter. The book, written with Clapper’s longtime speechwriter, Trey Brown, obviously benefits from his aide’s artful hand, teeing up jokes that land pages later. And it doesn’t shy from recounting multiple instances in which Clapper “gets thrown under the bus” by others or from confronting his own mistakes, missteps, and verbal gaffes. He duly addresses his much-criticized and picked-over comment in a 2013 hearing where he appeared to mislead Senator Ron Wyden about whether the NSA gathered call details on American citizens. He later said that he misunderstood which program Wyden was asking about and that he couldn’t later correct the record because of the demands for secrecy.
Much of the book’s subtlety befits an intelligence professional comfortable working in the spaces in between; he points out—without ever mentioning James Comey’s repeated, troubling private encounters with President Trump—how few times (three) he ever was alone with President Obama during eight years in the administration, “an experience even Cabinet secretaries seldom have.”
No part of the life story of a grizzled military veteran comes across as more human and surprising than his recounting of his journey to being an “LGBT ally.” When I reported that profile of him in 2016, back when he was still a relatively anonymous figure overseeing the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies, I heard from some staff how he’d been a champion of LGBT officers and analysts, a legacy that became half of a sentence in the final article. It’s clear from reading the many pages and stories he devotes to the subject in his memoir that his efforts first to understand and later to advance LGBT issues inside the intelligence community was actually, to him, some of the most important work he did as DNI.
Despite being, as he describes himself in a phrase that he probably never expected to someday write, as a “73-year-old, white, straight, cisgender man,” the cause of LGBT intelligence and military professionals became Clapper’s own on February 2, 2010, when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, told Congress “speaking for myself and myself only” that the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was morally bankrupt. “I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” Mullen said at the time.
Clapper recounts how the statement hit him hard: “In the span of 29 seconds, Mike Mullen forever became a personal hero of mine.” Mullen captured a sense of unease that Clapper had wrestled with since he was a junior officer in the Air Force and seen two Russian linguists forced out because they were gay and thus ineligible for security clearances. In a profession where personal integrity is sacrosanct, forcing people to publicly deny their own identity could lead only to trouble. (Clapper later intervened in 1989 to restore a civilian Air Force worker’s clearance after it had been stripped because of his homosexuality.) As DNI, he helped lead the intelligence community to welcome and accept LGBT colleagues, including the creation of what he calls a “cross-agency, transgender fly team” that deployed to help and support transgender employees when they decided to come out.
In July 2015, when the Pentagon announced that transgender troops could serve openly, he writes that he likes to think that the intelligence community’s model played a part: “We’d shown it was not only workable, but advantageous to employ openly transgender employees, who brought unique perspectives to mission challenges and contributed to successes.” Again, it’s hard not to read Clapper’s own journey as a subtle indictment of a president who—against the Pentagon’s wishes—has turned away from such inclusiveness. America’s diversity, Clapper argues, is a geopolitical strategic strength—not one to be frittered away by misguided America First white nationalism and cisgender privilege.
Every chapter of the book offers hard-earned lessons for our modern moment, particularly as he struggles as DNI to respond to crises like the leaks of Edward Snowden, the partisan politics of the attack in Benghazi, and how the country should handle the growing power and aggressiveness of Vladimir Putin. “Western observers, particularly diplomats, completely misread Putin. He’s not an idealist, and he doesn’t care about communism or want to follow in Lenin’s or Stalin’s footsteps,” Clapper concludes at one point. “He’s more of a throwback to the tsars and wants to restore the greatness of the Russian empire.”
Some of his bluntest words are reserved for the run-up to the Iraq War, when he led the imagery and mapping agency that helped gather and declassify the photos that served as the visual backdrop for Colin Powell's now-infamous 2003 UN presentation, in which the then-secretary of state incorrectly claimed that an attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was justified because he had weapons of mass destruction. Clapper expresses "shock" that Iraq didn't, in fact, possess an active WMD program and says that the "atrocious intelligence work" leading up to the conclusion prompted numerous reforms. He describes the "sinking feeling" he experienced as he learned—only after the invasion—of the shoddy foundation upon which some of the human intelligence about the program had been based. By the time he became DNI, he says, the intelligence review process had so changed that the "very first topic discussed" was the reliability of the underlying sources.
Similarly, tensions with North Korea—now a flashpoint for the Trump administration—are also a through-line of Clapper’s book. When he was first assigned in 1985 to be the head of US intelligence in South Korea, he recalled a phrase his father told him: “There are four things in life you want to avoid: pyorrhea, diarrhea, gonorrhea, and Korea.”
He eventually concluded—in words that should echo to today’s policymakers—that there would never be a way to provide an unambiguous warning of a North Korean attack. “The only unambiguous sign [we] would have is when North Korean artillery shells started falling on Seoul,” he writes. The threat from North Korea was one he lived personally as DNI, both its reclusiveness and hostility, its attack on the United States via the hack of Sony Pictures, and its rising nuclear threat. I was with Clapper in Omaha, Nebraska, in the summer of 2016 when he was whisked away from a talk to the staff of Strategic Command to respond to yet another North Korean missile test. Clapper knows the difficulty the country has posed to three generations of US presidents first-hand: Much as CIA director Mike Pompeo did just weeks ago, Clapper went to North Korea to negotiate and free two Americans held prisoner there and spent a long, odd visit holed up in a Pyongyang guesthouse while an aide handed out US cash from a briefcase to pay for meals.
In a rare moment where Clapper offers policy advice, he suggests the US should do more to engage North Korea with our own strengths—openness and information. “The DPRK survives because it fosters isolation,” he writes.
As a country, we’ve become increasingly inured to what we might call Trump’s own “litany of doom”—which just in recent days has included more attacks on the independence of the Justice Department, separating migrant children from their parents, and painting those crossing the borders as “animals”—but the final pages of Clapper’s book remind us just how shocking the first weeks of the administration were—the “American carnage” inauguration and fight over the crowd size, Trump’s angry harangue before the CIA’s memorial wall, the “Muslim ban,” and everything else that led Clapper to decide to re-engage in the public sphere.
Those events occurred merely last year but now seem almost forgotten, yet now reading them written into a history book that stretches from John F. Kennedy to the East German Stasi to North Korea and the war on terrorism puts them in a fresh and horrifying perspective.
That, it seems, is Clapper’s goal in the book: We shouldn’t turn away from Trump’s outrages and assault on American democracy or, as Trump encouraged Comey to do in the FBI’s investigation of Clapper’s successor at DIA, General Michael Flynn, “let this go.”
The truth, Clapper argues time and again, is critical. “I don’t believe our democracy can long function on lies,” he writes. “I believe we have to continue speaking truth to power, even—or especially—if the person in power doesn’t want to hear the truth we have to tell him.”
It’s a lesson that we can only hope someone inside government will continue to take to the Oval Office now that Clapper is cleaning out his basement.
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Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor at WIRED. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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