James Clapper wants you to know that he did not lie to Congress. He also wants you to know that he believes a massive campaign of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign got Donald Trump elected, and that American democracy and American society are in grave peril.
After sitting across a table from Barack Obama’s former director of national intelligence while he talked about those things (and others), I believe that Clapper is telling the truth as he understands it. That is always a complicated concept, to be sure, when we’re dealing with someone who has spent his entire adult life in the spy trade.
This article originally appeared in Salon.
What do we mean by the truth, and how do we know it when we see it? We have a problem with that in America right now, as Clapper more than most people is aware. It’s an issue he specifically discussed in our Salon Talks conversation this week in New York, and one he discusses at length in his just-published memoir, “Facts and Fears: Hard Truths From a Life in Intelligence.” Whether Clapper perceives that his profession and his career have contributed to the crisis of truth — whether he perceives, in other words, that the question of whether he lied to Congress and whether Russian subterfuge and lies actually decided a presidential election are intimately connected — I cannot say.
Probably not. Clapper built his career in intelligence on a reputation as a straight shooter, a longtime Air Force officer and NSA analyst who would give the higher-ups the hard facts, even if they didn’t particularly want to hear them. In our conversation, he readily agreed with my suggestion that the intelligence trade rests on the premise that the truth exists and can be discovered, even if there are many missteps along the way. He seemed amused when I said that our current dilemma, when no one in America seems to believe in the same version of reality, recalled the ancient philosophical paradox of Plato’s cave. I don’t think his vision of spy-craft allows much room for stuff like that.
Although Clapper was not perceived as a member of Obama’s innermost circle, he lasted more than six years in a Cabinet-level position, longer than any other major national security official of that administration. That relationship is interesting on a number of levels: Clapper had worked under both Presidents Bush and (as he admits) was implicated in the false intelligence assessment that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Obama promoted him anyway, and stuck by him even after Clapper was accused of perjuring himself on Capitol Hill in 2013, an embarrassing misstep, at best, that would have led most presidents to pull the plug. (We’ll get back to that.)
At first glance the two men could hardly be more different, and perhaps that was the point. Obama had enough intellectual depth and enough ability to ponder shades of gray for three presidents, and liked to surround himself with advisers who offered a contrast. I would speculate he valued Clapper for his gruff, plain-spoken Middle American demeanor, which was likely in the same vein as that of Obama’s Kansas grandparents.
Clapper’s assessment that the Russian-sponsored onslaught of fake news and Facebook ads and Twitter trolls and all the rest of it actually altered the 2016 election outcome — which he is careful to state as his personal opinion — has made headlines and fueled social-media furor all week long. He repeated versions of that in numerous interviews (including ours) but the clearest statement came in his PBS interview with Judy Woodruff:
[G]iven the massive effort the Russians made, and the number of citizens that they touched, and the variety and the multidimensional aspects of what they did to influence opinion and affect the election, and given the fact that it turned on less than 80,000 votes in three states, to me, it just exceeds logic and credulity that they didn’t affect the election, and it’s my belief they actually turned it.
Considering Clapper’s relationship with Obama, it’s reasonable to read this as the former president attacking the legitimacy of his successor, at least by proxy—which is no doubt why President Trump has responded to Clapper with such fury. It also represents a major departure from intelligence-community orthodoxy, which still holds that there’s no way to know for sure whether the Russians affected the election results, or how much.
As I’ve already suggested, there’s a problem here: Clapper is a flawed messenger, and the U.S. intelligence community is a flawed instrument. There is no escape from the flawed epistemology of the Trump era, if you’ll forgive the five-dollar term. In plain English: Nothing is certain, everything is ambiguous and we all pick and choose what we want to believe. Mainstream liberals who despise Trump and yearn to drive him from office hold up Clapper as a man of unquestioned authority, integrity and patriotism — but no such qualities are available these days.
For critics like Scott Shackford of Reason on the right and Jeremy Scahill of the Intercept on the left — neither of whom can be accused of blindly supporting Trump — James Clapper is essentially just another beard for the machineries of power, a longtime leader of the deep state eager to deny that the deep state even exists. For my part, I experienced Clapper quite differently, and I don’t think a simplistic caricature of him as hero or villain can capture his ambiguous role in this drama. There was nothing evasive or mendacious in his manner during our conversation, and as I’ve said I believe he was being as honest as he knows how to be. Whether that means everything he said was true, or entirely satisfactory, is quite another matter.
Clapper was certainly not thrilled when I brought up his infamous Capitol Hill exchange with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in March 2013, when he testified that the NSA did not knowingly or wittingly collect data on American citizens. Several months later Edward Snowden revealed that, at best, that was a wildly misleading statement; Clapper recanted, apologized and has insisted ever since that he misunderstood the context of the question. You can read his answer and judge for yourself.
Clapper nodded along grimly as I listed a litany of historical events that veterans of U.S. intelligence don’t relish talking about: the 1953 coup that overthrew a democratic government in Iran (and continues to create blowback today), the 1961 assassination of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, the 1973 military coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende in Chile, and so on. He wasn’t personally involved in any of those, but after the camera was turned off, he brought up another one I hadn’t dwelt on. “The WMD thing in Iraq?” he said. “My fingerprints were all over that one. That was one of our biggest mistakes.”
For a man who must know many secrets the rest of us should be grateful we will never learn, there is almost something innocent about James Clapper. There is certainly something wistful. I told him that “Facts and Fears” struck me as a melancholy book, a lament for a vanished idea of America as a land of common decency and bipartisan comity, a land of shared ideals, shared aspirations and shared truths. He did not disagree. Whether that America actually existed, and whether it can be recaptured, are not questions we can expect a retired spymaster to answer.