A Conversation With James Clapper

A Conversation with James Clapper

James R. Clapper

Director of National Intelligence

Charlie Rose

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper joins PBS’ Charlie Rose to reflect on lessons learned over his six years as director of national intelligence. Clapper discusses challenges in U.S.-Russian relations, including cybersecurity issues, and critical intelligence concerns facing the next U.S. president.


ROSE: I’m Charlie Rose, and I have the pleasure to welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations, because Richard Haass is not here, James Clapper, who’s the Director of National Intelligence. He’s the fourth person to hold that job. He oversees 16 intelligence agencies, including CIA, NSA, FBI, and others. I think somebody called it a federal uber-agency of all things secret, appointed by President Obama in June of 2010, retired Air Force general, former director of Defense Intelligence Agency, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, 32 years in uniform.

We have many things we want to talk about. And I think you know this is on the record. I’ll mention a couple of things that they always ask me to say. Wait for the microphone. Speak directly into it. I’ll have a 30-minute conversation, and then we’ll speak directly into the microphone. Limit yourself to one question. Be precise. We’re really interested more in your questions than your statements, as you know. And we want to get as many people in as we possibly can.

But it’s a pleasure to have him here. It’s an important job. This is a difficult time. As he has said, he sees more of things than at any time—challenging issues facing the country than at any time.

So join me in welcoming James Clapper. (Applause.)

I want to begin with Russia and the U.S. relationship with Russia. The Russian U.N. ambassador said in the last week that relations are as bad as he’s seen them in the last 40 years. Characterize the U.S.-Russian relationship.

CLAPPER: Well, it’s not—it’s certainly not at its peak by any stretch. We’ve had a lot of difficult issues, notably in Syria, Ukraine, just to name two. So it’s a stressed time for the relationship. I don’t know that it’s, you know, worse than times I can recall—I’m a Cold War warrior; I lived through all that—that it’s worse than that. There were some pretty bad times then where we weren’t getting along at all.

They’re still communicating. Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov are in constant dialogue, so that’s a good thing. But I think this will be clearly a challenge for the next administration is the management of that relationship.

ROSE: So what do you think is driving Putin?

CLAPPER: I think he’s somewhat of a throwback, not so much to the—throwback to the tsar era. I think he has this vision of a great Russia, as a great power. It’s extremely important to him that Russia be treated and respected as a global power on a par with the United States. And I think that has a lot to do with impelling his behavior.

ROSE: Let me go right to what is in the newspapers, in everybody else’s mind today. It is hacking and a threat to or perhaps a motivation to impact the U.S. elections. What can you tell us about that?

CLAPPER: Probably not going to go much beyond the statement that Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and I issued about it. Many people seem to want me to re-parse the words, which were already very parsed—(laughter)—and agonized over. So I think the statement stands—you know, stands for itself.

I will say that, you know, there’s a history here for the Soviet Union, Russia, now interfering in elections, both theirs and other people’s. And there’s a history of this where they’ve attempted to influence the outcome of our elections before.

ROSE: And has said that he thinks we tried to interfere in his elections.

CLAPPER: Well, people who live in glass houses, I guess, applies here. (Laughter.)

ROSE: Shouldn’t throw rocks?


ROSE: (Laughs.)

CLAPPER: That’s the rest of the sentence.

ROSE: Yes. But will it have an impact? Do you think he’ll be successful? Has he created suspicion? Have these disclosures raised questions—


ROSE: —that somehow will cause people to question—

CLAPPER: That’s the—

ROSE: —the American democratic process? And can they affect it at the voting machines and all of that?

CLAPPER: I don’t believe so, but that’s not an issue for the national-intelligence apparatus to decide. I think the—a strength for us in this case is the highly decentralized nature of our voting apparatus, which is run by states and local jurisdictions, that make it very hard, I think, to, you know, affect the outcome. I don’t know of cases where voting machines are tied to the Internet. And, of course, that’s, you know, the common denominator of our security weaknesses that we have. Your reference to hacking is germane.

ROSE: OK, but I mean—so do you believe that they wouldn’t be doing this if it did not go to the top, that those things you can trace to Russia would not be happening if in fact had not been—this is not freelanced by FSB or anybody else?

CLAPPER: I believe our statement said that we believe the direction for this was coming from the highest levels of the Russian government.

ROSE: Yeah, I was hoping you would enlarge on that.

CLAPPER: I’m not going to embellish that statement any more. (Laughter.)

ROSE: Why—when we talk about a proportionate response, the vice president said: Putin will know, but I hope others will not know.

CLAPPER: Well, I think he said something along the lines of, you know, if we—if and when we do something, it’ll be the time and place of our choosing. And it may not be necessarily a symmetrical response; it may be asymmetrical.

ROSE: But there is also a sense that they’re not paying a price for this.

CLAPPER: Well, maybe not yet. (Laughter.)

ROSE: Maybe after the election?

CLAPPER: Well, again, I’m not going to preempt—I mean, it’s a policy issue about what we do if anything and when we do it.

ROSE: Yeah. Yeah, but you know—

CLAPPER: That’s not an intelligence issue to decide.

ROSE: All right. But you know things—(laughter)—don’t you?

CLAPPER: Well, in 84 days I’ll have my brain washed. (Laughter.)

ROSE: But I mean, they also—I may have just said, the president might genuinely worry about this—an escalation of this kind of thing, with all the dangers there is both in terms of hacking but also in terms of cyber warfare.

CLAPPER: Well, are you speaking of—

ROSE: I’m talking about hacking now first.

CLAPPER: —about the election or—

ROSE: No, I’m speaking about in fact if we respond, they respond; if we respond—you know, that gets out of control.

CLAPPER: Well, that—but that’s exactly the issue, is—and I can recall instances where we got a big head of steam up about wanting to retaliate in a symmetrical manner. And you have to consider things like are we counterattacking through another nation state’s infrastructure, which poses all kinds of legal issues? The lawyers get very agitated about that.

And then of course you need to think about the potential counter-retaliation—

ROSE: Right.

CLAPPER: —to the retaliation you took and how well you think—and this applies to any nation state—how well you think we can withstand a counter-retaliation. And those get to be very complicated calculations.

ROSE: And the risk is—

CLAPPER: Sometimes it’s better perhaps to consider other options other than the symmetrical one.

ROSE: And the risk is?

CLAPPER: Well, the risk is the—given the tremendous dependence of this nation on the cyber domain to do everything, whether it’s personal, institutional, we have to think twice, I think, and be very cautious about retaliating in a cyber context, because the presumption that there’s going to be an equally exquisite and precise calculus may not be a good—a valid one to make.

ROSE: But this is a new world we’re living in with respect to the internet.

CLAPPER: Precisely.

ROSE: I mean, I love the terms they use: Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear and Guccifer. (Laughter.)

CLAPPER: OK. (Laughter.)

ROSE: Does all of this show something about the vulnerability of our systems?

CLAPPER: It does. You know, when the internet was first—as an experiment and then when it—as it mushroomed, security was never an integral part of what the internet was designed for. I mean, it just didn’t—wasn’t a consideration.

ROSE: No. In fact, it was the opposite.

CLAPPER: And so we’re kind of paying the price for that now.

ROSE: So what are our options then?

CLAPPER: Well, I think we’re always going to be in a—unless—in the absence of some technological breakthrough, I think we’re always going to be in somewhat of a catch-up mode. There are some fundamental cyber hygiene things that surprisingly people—individuals and institutions—don’t attend to.

Increasingly, though, I think there’s an awareness, particularly in the—in the commercial sector. And of course the attention-getter there is always how does this affect my bottom line. And that is what I think is motivating increasingly to private sector and private sector companies, to pay more attention to cybersecurity.

But it’s always an action and reaction. As long as we have this dependency on the internet, we’re always going to have this fundamental challenge of how to promote security in the cyber domain.

ROSE: It’s a fact that we’ve gotten much better at attribution, haven’t we? We pretty know where it comes from these days.

CLAPPER: Well, that certainly helps. I think that does provide perhaps some degree of deterrence. But you know, we don’t have enough body of law yet. We haven’t, in my opinion—this is not company policy; it’s just me speaking—but we have not been able to generate either the substance or the psychology of deterrence in the cyber realm. And that’s going to continue to be an issue for us.

It’s easier perhaps with nation states, but—and of course nation states have other vulnerabilities besides their cybersecurity weaknesses. It’s non-nation-state entities or the nations that have been—have been in the past considered to have a lesser capability—and I’m thinking of the likes of Iran and North Korea—

ROSE: Yeah.

CLAPPER: —where the—you know, we’ve had this disparity or contrast between the capability of the most sophisticated cyber actors, nation-state cyber actors, which are clearly Russia and China, but have to this point perhaps more benign intent. And then you have other countries who have a more nefarious intent. And then even more nefarious are non-nation-state actors.

So how to create a—the—both the substance and the psychology of deterrence against all those potential actors—I don’t think we’ve figured that out yet.

ROSE: Was the—was the internet attack a non-state actor?

CLAPPER: Well, the investigation is still going on. There’s a lot of data to be gathered here. That appears to be preliminarily the case.

ROSE: A non-state actor.

CLAPPER: Yes, but I wouldn’t want to be conclusively definitive about that yet. That’s an early call.

ROSE: As to who it was.


ROSE: But you know.

CLAPPER: Well, specifically whether a nation state may have been behind it or not.

ROSE: OK. You know, we looked at the North Koreans in the Sony and identified them. We—with the Iranians later, there were some indictments. We haven’t said anything about the Chinese. And it took us, like, three or four months to respond and identify the Russians.

I mean, what’s the calculus behind all that?

CLAPPER: Well, in the most recent case, the reason for the delay was—at least from my part is—was driven by confidence, greater certitude about attribution.

ROSE: Right.

CLAPPER: And in our business, it’s always better to have multiple sources when you’re going to dime-out a nation state publicly. And so we want to be kind of careful about that.

The other thing about all this business of attribution is that oftentimes the means by which we do that is fragile and perishable. And so if we are too transparent about it, everybody would like to know—I want the details. Well, then we risk losing those perishable, fragile sources that give us the insight in the first place.

ROSE: Let me turn to North Korea. Can you tell us how—what’s the status of their ability to put a nuclear warhead on a missile that can reach the West Coast of the United States?

CLAPPER: Well, we’ve actually assessed that capability. We, in a situation like that, always have to worst-case. But, frankly, in a case of their intercontinental ballistic missile, the KN-08 specifically, neither they nor we know whether that missile will actually worked—works since it’s never been tested. But nevertheless, we ascribe them—to them the capability to launch a missile that would have a weapon on it that potentially could reach parts of the United States, certainly including Alaska and Hawaii.

ROSE: What’s the timeframe?

CLAPPER: The timeframe for what?

ROSE: For them being able to do that.

CLAPPER: Well, we’ve assessed this for, oh, years.

ROSE: They can do it.

CLAPPER: That they could do it. I mean, we have to—we can’t—

ROSE: That’s a worst-case scenario, right.

CLAPPER: I will say again: Neither they nor we know whether these—their missile systems will work, but we have to make the worst-case assumption here.

ROSE: OK. What if it worked? What are our options? Sanctions? Sabotage? Or just trust them?

CLAPPER: Well, if they actually launched the missile?

ROSE: No, we know they have that capability. We’re assured. So it’s not just a worst-case scenario, but it’s a scenario that’s possible and likely. What are our options? What’s our strategy?

CLAPPER: Well, I—that’s a policy question.

ROSE: I know.

CLAPPER: I don’t do policy. (Laughter.)

ROSE: Yeah, I know. But you have opinions.

CLAPPER: I’m just down in the engine room shoveling coal, and the people on the bridge—

ROSE: So when the president says what do you think we should do, what’s your strategy, you say that’s opinions, I don’t have opinions.

CLAPPER: Well, I mean, I think there are a number of options.

ROSE: Right.

CLAPPER: Obviously, military is one of them.

ROSE: Right.

CLAPPER: Sanctions—although we’re kind of running out of gas on sanctions since we’ve imposed most of them that we can.

ROSE: Right.

CLAPPER: A key player with respect to sanctions is of course China. And so if a military option were to be exercised, then obviously we would play very heavily in that process. But that’s not a decision, fortunately, that the intelligence community makes.

ROSE: When you look at China and their game in the South China Sea—this is not a policy question; this is an analysis—what are they up to? Is this some kind of Monroe Doctrine by China?

CLAPPER: The Chinese feel very strongly about their rectitude, about their exorbitant claims of the South China Sea, that—all the maritime area contained within the so-called nine-dash line. The tribunal decision notwithstanding, they are very committed to their claims in the South China Sea. I was there recently, and it certainly was reaffirmed to me by the Chinese interlocutors that I engaged with.

ROSE: When you go there, you see their head of intelligence, or who do you see?

CLAPPER: Well, the primary figure that I engage with is Secretary Meng, who is the Politburo member who is the overseer for their intelligence and security organizations.

ROSE: One thing the CIA does clearly, and therefore you, is make analysis of leadership in respective countries and their ambitions and their profiles. Lots of reports in newspapers about the continued authoritative—authoritative kind of moves by Xi Jinping and that he may even want to do another term. What can you tell us about him? What interests you about him?

CLAPPER: Well, so—yeah, that’s always a hard perennial for intelligence, is plans and intentions of leaders, and we do the best we can. Oftentimes have to do it inferentially by behavior that they exhibit, because, you know, there’s the old saw in intelligence about mysteries and secrets, and secrets are knowable facts and mysteries are.

ROSE: (Laughs.) Yes.

CLAPPER: And I think—at the risk of sounding a bit defensive, I think too often we’re held to the same exacting standard—standards for divining both. And we’re not clairvoyant. Nevertheless, I would offer that President Xi is—you know, the thing that impels the leadership in China is—first and foremost, I believe, is domestic stability.

ROSE: Right.

CLAPPER: And so—

ROSE: Hence their paranoia.

CLAPPER: Well, that—yes, I think there’s a certain amount of—there is, as we would call it, paranoia about being contained. They are very sensitive about the appearance of the U.S. containing China. And so I think a manifestation of that behavior is the way they’ve approached their claims in the South China Sea. But the biggest thing again internally is internal domestic stability, and so he’s embarked on a reform program to try to eliminate corruption, and I think is bent on keeping a control by the party apparatus—as well, which I find both disturbing and also impressive, is an extensive military modernization program that the Chinese have mounted across many fronts.

ROSE: And including a huge naval investment to extend their power around the world.

CLAPPER: Yes, and also in the space arena.

ROSE: Right.

CLAPPER: They have—in recognition of our dependence on space for lots of purposes, they’ve accounted for that as part of their modernization.

ROSE: Characterize the Middle East to—

CLAPPER: A mess. (Laughter.) It makes your head hurt. It really does. It’s an extremely complex situation there, and the complexity is probably most focused in—right now in Syria, the many competing interests there. And—

ROSE: Including the Russians.

CLAPPER: Including the Russians. I think Tom Friedman—many of you know, writes for The New York Times—about three or four years ago, he had—I thought he had a great line on one of the talk shows on Sunday, where Mideast is too important to ignore and too expensive to fix. And I think as a one-liner bumper sticker, that kind of—

ROSE: Yeah, but you in fact have said we can’t fix the Middle East.

CLAPPER: No, we can’t.

ROSE: What can we do?

CLAPPER: Well, we can help others, but in the end, I think fixing the Mideast, whatever that means, is not something the United States can do unilaterally.

ROSE: But we’re participating in Iraq and in the battle to retake Mosul.


ROSE: With both air support and actual forces on the ground.


ROSE: How long do you think that’s going to take, and what should we know about it?

CLAPPER: Probably a long time. I’ll tell you the greater concern I would have is what happens after Mosul is declared recaptured.

ROSE: And what is your concern?

CLAPPER: Well, what will happen in terms of holding it, and importantly, what about governance in Mosul depending—and then recovery, depending on how much destruction occurs in a—you know, a highly urbanized situation.

ROSE: Right.

CLAPPER: And if that vacuum isn’t filled rapidly with governance, a provision of municipal services, et cetera, et cetera, that will just, you know, provide the fertile ground for ISIL or some other extremist group to come back.

ROSE: I mean, everybody in today’s paper is talking about Turkey wanting to be in—I mean, Turkey saying, please, we want to come fight and take—be part of the—is that sort of like you want to be on the takeoff so you can be there on the landing?

CLAPPER: Well, the Turks have—yes, they are concerned about ISIL, but the primary concern they have, of course, is a “united Kurdish nation”—if I could use a term with air quotes—across their southern border. So, they are most concerned about the Kurds. That’s their primary motivation. And of course, the extent that they can prosecute a campaign against ISIL, that’s—

ROSE: The Iraqi prime minister said he—this is going faster than he expected. And obviously, you’ve got all the things after Mosul falls—you said Mosul falls—and you have said, you know, you clearly need some kind of governing there.


ROSE: This is also a concern in Syria as well, in terms of what happens there. You know, and if in fact ISIL is defeated in Raqqa, if that happens and they take the battle somewhere else, and you end up with a civil war there—just the civil war—

CLAPPER: Well, we already have one in—

ROSE: No, that’s what I mean. End up that that’s the primary fight there, between the Assad government and rebels.

CLAPPER: Well, it’s actually, I think, a lot more complex than that, because there are so many shades of opposition groups—

ROSE: Right.

CLAPPER: —in Syria. And, of course, you have the added complexity of the Russians, who very much want to keep their beachhead, toehold, whatever figure you want to use, in the Mideast. And by propping up what has been a sponsor ally of theirs, again, that just adds to the complexity there.

ROSE: It’s likely Assad will be in power when President Obama leaves.

CLAPPER: Well, that’s a fair guess, yeah.

ROSE: Yeah. So what do we do? What’s our strategy?

CLAPPER: Not my department. (Laughter.) I don’t have to—

ROSE: What worries you the most?


ROSE: What worries you the most?

CLAPPER: Well, in general or about—

ROSE: About Syria and about where it’s going and whether Mosul will make more likely an attack on Raqqa, whether—

CLAPPER: Well, I think—

ROSE: —al-Nusra is—what role they play, you know.

CLAPPER: What concerns me, I guess, is—lots of things concern me.

ROSE: Yeah. In fact, you said the thing that you worry about most is what you don’t know.

CLAPPER: What you don’t know. Exactly. Yeah, you remember. That’s really good. (Laughter.) It is a concern.

I think what we have to be mindful of as, you know, the nation-state attributes, such as they are, of the caliphate, asserted by ISIL, is being defeated—

ROSE: Right.

CLAPPER: —as a so-called nation-state-like entity. But I think the history of ISIL, going back to its al-Qaida in Iraq roots, is one of resilience and flexibility. So the—what I can—what worries me about all this is we’ve gotten focused, understandably, on recapturing territory or cities, in this case Mosul in Iraq and al-Raqqa in Syria.

ROSE: Right.

CLAPPER: So when that happens, what then does ISIL—what form does it take after that, because it is probably not going to go away, and it’ll morph into something else or other similar extremist groups will be spawned. And I believe we’re going to be in the business of suppressing these extremist movements for a long time to come.

ROSE: So whatever happens in Raqqa, ISIS will still be with us in some form or another, some name, in the same way they morphed out of al-Qaida in Iraq.


ROSE: When you look back in terms of the intelligence world that you have inhabited, what mistakes have we made? For example, with the focus on terrorism and all that we had to do by nature, did we take our eye off what Russia was doing?

CLAPPER: That’s a very good question. And I have been concerned about it, just as for the program I manage, the national-intelligence program, which is what funds the agencies and the other components of the intelligence community, is the very large proportion of that that is devoted to counterterrorism, and while, at the same time, keeping our eye on all the other—

ROSE: Hot spots.

CLAPPER: —challenges that we have and, you know, major nation-state, like Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, while we’re so focused, so consumed, so preoccupied with counterterrorism. So I do worry about that.

Now, how we allocate resources in proportion to each one of those targets is not the unilateral intelligence community’s decision. We have lots of help from the policymakers and from the Congress as well to determine those priorities. But just sitting in my position, I worry about that.

ROSE: You have experience in this too. Should the same person command both NSA and cybersecurity?

CLAPPER: Well, I think we’ve reached the point where it is time to separate the two. I was a part of the decision-making in the Pentagon, when I was the undersecretary for intelligence, to start CYBERCOM, both as a sub-unified command and under a dual-hat arrangement. That was never intended to be permanent in any event. And that’s been six years. And I do think that we’ve reached the point where each of these responsibilities, as, you know, the CYBERCOM commander and director of NSA, are large enough and of sufficient magnitude that they should be separate.

I’ve done a couple of agencies myself, as director of DIA and then again as director of NGA for almost nine years. And running any of these agencies is an all-consuming, seven-by-24 proposition. So I, for lots of reasons, think they should be separate.

ROSE: If you were going to leave a note—I’m going to have two last questions before I turn it over—if you were going to leave a note on the next president’s desk, as the former—as is sort of a tradition with presidents, what would your note to the next president say?

CLAPPER: I would hope that the next president, whoever it is, would continue in the tradition of the current president in allowing and encouraging truth to power. I think that is a fundamental writ of intelligence that it be presented to the president in an unpoliticized, unvarnished manner. And I would hope the next president would continue in that tradition.

ROSE: To want that and to need that.

CLAPPER: And to encourage it and to defend it.

ROSE: Last question. You know, you said that what you worry about is what you don’t know. And I mean this seriously. What might you not know? (Laughter.)

CLAPPER: Well, lots.

ROSE: What is it that might be out there that you don’t know about but you have some sense of intuition backed by experience and some evidence that scares the hell out of you?

CLAPPER: Well, when you have some insight into, say, a terrorist plot, even though you may not know a lot of the details, but you have some insight—you may not know timing, may not know all the individuals who are involved, may not know exactly what the nature of the plot may be—but if you have something to start with, you can build on that. You can bring to bear more resources, more collection.

So the thing you worry about are where you have no insight whatsoever into a potential bad event. And, of course, you can conjure up all sorts of nefarious scenarios that, you know, could happen that you may not know about.

ROSE: Thank you very much.

Let me begin with questions; start right here.

Q: Thank you. Earl Carr, representing Momentum Advisors. Thank you very much.

ROSE: Remember, we said short, sweet, and right to the point.

Q: Thank you. Thank you for your service and your presentation.

My question is regarding to the Philippines. You have a new president who has talked about ending military relations with the United States, and he has recently taken a trip to China in which he has very much welcomed Chinese investment. What is your assessment of the current situation?

CLAPPER: Well, President Duterte is—has a point of view, I think, conditioned quite a bit by his own wife and his apparent resentment of the United States and its relationship with the Philippines. So he’s reached out to the Chinese. And, you know, clearly some of the things he’s been saying and doing are bothersome for us.

I recently chaired a conference of Asian intelligence services, and the idea was to promote more sharing on ISIL, and had occasion to have a private meeting with Philippine seniors who are themselves concerned about the impacts on our relationship.

So, you know, we’ll just have to see how this all plays out. I think he is definitely playing to the domestic audience, and I think he reflects his background as a city mayor.

ROSE: And you assume he’s tilting to China?

CLAPPER: Well, that’s the appearance of it. So—

ROSE: Yeah. Yeah.


Q: Thank you. It’s Pamela Falk from CBS News.

Director Clapper, I want to follow up on Charlie Rose’s top-of-the-questioning question, which was about the interview with Vitaly Churkin, which we participated in with two other news organizations. He also made allegations about the attack against the—on the humanitarian convoy in mid-September; the alleged U.S. attack on Syrian forces, which U.S.—some U.S. officials have called a mistake; and then suggested that the U.S. and Russia join side-by-side to protect Castello Road. I know that’s a policy question. You may not be able to speak with that. But what’s the state of intelligence on the Aleppo issue and trying to get humanitarian aid in?

Thank you.

CLAPPER: Well, we watch very closely developments in Aleppo, which is a humanitarian disaster. It’s terrible, what’s happened there. And our efforts to secure a meaningful cessation of hostilities have not been very successful, regrettably.

The aforementioned American attack that you mentioned was a mistake. There’s no question about that. It will happen in war. It’s regrettable that every munition expended isn’t done so with exquisite precision. And sometimes these tragic accidents happen.

So again, we’re watching this as carefully as we can. It’s of very, very high interest to our policymaker community, and we would certainly like to find a way to relieve the tremendous humanitarian tragedy that exists in Aleppo.

ROSE: But the world is saying, why can’t we do something? It really is, and it’s saying history is going to badly judge everybody who touched Syria.

CLAPPER: Not an intelligence question. (Laughter.)

ROSE: At the back, yes. Right there. Yes.

Q: Spencer Ackerman with The Guardian—Spencer Ackerman with The Guardian. Thanks.

What’s your—sorry—what’s your assessment of how Russia will react if the U.S. imposes a no-fly zone or a safe zone in parts of Syria?

CLAPPER: Well, I don’t know. Again, I’m not a mind reader. But I do take seriously the very sophisticated air-defense system and air-defense coverage that the Russians have. And I think—I wouldn’t put it past them to shoot down an American aircraft if they—if they felt that was threatening to their forces on the ground.

So I take stock in the nature of the weaponry that they deploy and why they—why they did that. The system they have there is a very advanced air-defense system. It’s very capable. And I don’t think they’d do it and deploy it unless they had some intent to use it.

ROSE: All right. Here in the—yes. I’m trying to move around the room for everybody so—

Q: Sure. Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch.

Can you describe what U.S. targeting assistance for Saudi Arabia and Yemen has looked like specifically? What exactly precisely does targeting assistance look like?

And also, in terms of reports that CIA military assistance to Syrian armed groups has reached some of the most extreme armed groups, including ISIS, do you consider that an intelligence failure?

CLAPPER: The answer to your last question is no. What’s the targeting situation look like? If we are engaged with anyone, you know, humanitarian considerations and abiding by the principles of the law of armed conflict are always foremost in what we do and the advice that we render.

But you know, you’re dealing with nation states, sovereign nation states. And you know, they’ll take actions that they deem best and—or what is in their interest.

ROSE: Yes, here.

Q: Federico Rampini, La Repubblica.

Regarding the response to cyberattacks from Russia but also the use of the internet and social media to prevent terrorist attacks, are you satisfied with the current level of cooperation between the U.S. and European countries, or what kind of progress would you like to see in that cooperation?

CLAPPER: Well, to me there’s a little bit of schizophrenia maybe in Europe. You have European Union, which is very much a proponent for openness and transparency and freedom of movement of people and goods. And that is overlaid against, you know, the people I deal with in the intelligence and security services who are very, very concerned about, well, the migrant crisis and the challenges that European countries have with ISIL.

So we’ve done what we can to promote sharing and integration. The White House asked me to lead a conference, which we did last April in Germany and convened several nations in Europe to do just that, which was to promote more integration internally in each country and as well sharing with one another.

Now, there of course was a negative reaction to the Snowden revelations when all that came out, and that caused quite an uproar in Europe about so-called “mass surveillance,” which is a misnomer, but that’s the narrative that develops. So we—I will say in my time in 50-plus years in intelligence, I don’t know of a time when we share more intelligence information with other countries, particularly on the subject of counterterrorism. I’ve never seen it like the magnitude and the extent to which we share now.

ROSE: And it’s reciprocated.

CLAPPER: In some cases, yes. In other cases, not so much. It’s uneven.

ROSE: Right here, yes. Then I’ll come over back—in the middle, too, as well. I want to make sure we get some even—

Q: Thank you. Mr. Director, my name is Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer, have been in the U.S. government a couple of times in national security-related positions.

Concerning the takeover of part of Iraq by ISIL that’s gone on for two years, what is your estimate of the number of people—approximate number of people who’ve been killed and the number of people who’ve been displaced as a result of the ISIL—

CLAPPER: Well, I don’t know the exact number. I mean, caused by ISIL itself or just this—the general upheaval?

Q: Since they—

CLAPPER: Well, there’s something on the order of—I think it’s somewhere in the range of a half a million people that have been displaced. I honestly don’t know the exact number of people that have been killed because of this, but it’s in the thousands clearly.

So it’s—you know, it’s bad—a terrible disruption that’s occurred.

ROSE: Yes, right here, sir. And then I’ll come over in this side at the back.

Q: Claude Erbsen, INNOVATION International.

Unless I’m mistaken, there is no legal mandate for intelligence briefings to presidential candidates. That being the case, was—given the circumstances of the current election process, was some thought given to not doing it? There would still be two and a half months left for the winner of the election to get briefed in detail.

CLAPPER: You’re quite right. There’s no legal requirement for that. It’s a custom of our system, which was actually initiated by Harry Truman, where he became president and then realized how ignorant he was, didn’t learn about the Manhattan Project until 12 days after he’d been president. And so that’s—that custom started in 1952, and we’ve done that every year—every election since then.

There is no requirement whatsoever for a security clearance for a candidate. The mere fact that a candidate is anointed by its party at a convention—that is all that is required. And it’s not up to me or the administration to determine candidate suitability for these briefings.

This is up to the electorate that is in the process of vetting these candidates, and it’s up to the electorate. And then, in two weeks’ time, hopefully this ordeal will be over. (Laughter.) And then we would focus on more intense briefings, and more detailed, certainly, than the ones we have given.

I did get a letter from the speaker of the House urging—enjoining me not to brief Secretary Clinton, and lots of cards and letters from people about not briefing Mr. Trump. And that’s not an option, frankly. And we proceeded as we always have.

ROSE: At the back, yes, sir—right over there, somewhere in the back. Yes.

Q: General Clapper, thank you very much; fascinating occasion.

As you look ahead to the next president and the most pressing issues that he or she could face in the first six months, how serious is the situation we’re looking at in the Baltics, with the Russian activities along the frontiers of the Baltic states?

CLAPPER: I was just there not too long ago. And from their vantage, it’s quite serious.

ROSE: Regarding to the Baltic countries.

CLAPPER: Well, from their vantage, they’re obviously very concerned about the big bear next door. I think the U.S., and in turn NATO, have a number of initiatives under way to bolster their confidence. And they’re, I can tell you, very, very concerned about U.S. physical military presence in Europe in general, and preferably in their countries. And they don’t care how small it is, just as long as there is a visible manifestation of U.S. support and interest.

ROSE: What will be the Russian reaction to that?

CLAPPER: Well, the Russians—you know, they don’t—I don’t think they like it, but I do think they respect military strength.

ROSE: Right here, yes.

Q: Edward Bleier.

Isn’t the cyber situation even more dire that, as long as there’s one competent hacker any place, that nation-states don’t matter and precautions don’t matter?

CLAPPER: Well, I wouldn’t go—I wouldn’t go that far. But I do agree that, you know, we have a serious problem in the cyber domain, because, as I indicated before, of our—I say our—our institutional and personal dependence on the Internet. And you’re quite right about the damage, the potential damage, that can be wrought by an individual hacker.

And so that’s why it’s important that somehow we achieve some international norms on appropriate cyber behavior—and we’re not there yet; we’re a long way away from that, unfortunately—but something along the lines of or at least analogous to Law of the Sea, which all seafaring nations generally recognize. And we need something, I think, analogous to that in the cyber realm. And we’re some distance away from that.

ROSE: If a nation-state wants to hack, is there—will they be able to do it?

CLAPPER: If a nation-state wants to hack? Certainly.

ROSE: Yeah. They can do it.


ROSE: Yes, right there. I’m trying to move it around. Yes, that’s fine.

Q: You said that both candidates had gotten briefings. Have both candidates been briefed on the cyber hacking? And do you conclude, given Mr. Trump’s statements that he didn’t believe what he had heard, since he says that we don’t know that the Russians are doing this, and—

CLAPPER: Well, I’m not going to go into specific—we don’t—the rule of thumb here is we don’t discuss candidate briefings. We don’t discuss what questions they asked or any of that. We don’t—and, by the way, we don’t share that with the White House either. It’s a completely independent operation. And certainly I won’t respond directly on your question.

I will say, though, that policymakers have the option of listening to intelligence or not. That’s up to them. (Laughter.)

ROSE: And the role of the intelligence is to speak truth to power, as you say.


ROSE: Yes, right there. We’ve got about five more minutes.

Q: Director Clapper, what are the gravest threats emanating from Africa and the state of U.S. intelligence activities on the continent?

CLAPPER: Well, the—I think the greatest threats, I would describe it as just the conditions in Africa that—and again, this is a dangerous generalization, because you’re talking about a lot of countries—but there’s been tremendous political ferment across the continent.

And what worries me about it, again, are the conditions that give rise to extremism—ungoverned areas, places awash in weapons, countries with economic challenges, large population bulge of disaffected young males. So these conditions prevail in many places in Africa, which could, of course, give—already is giving rise to forms of extremism—Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, AQIM, et cetera. So that’s—as a general answer, that would—that’s my concern.

ROSE: Yes, over here. Yes, right there.

Q: I’m Lee Sigal.

Q: Thank you.

Q: I do work on North Korea.

ROSE: I’ll come back.

Q: Oh.

Q: Yeah, that’s fine.

Q: You talked about the assessment of threat in North Korea. I’m curious if the community has ever been asked to assess what negotiations can do to suspend North Korean nuclear programs. If not, why not? And if so, if you could share with us any of that assessment.

CLAPPER: Well, I had my own brief foray into diplomacy with the North Koreans in November 2014, and it just proved to me I made the right decision not to try to be a diplomat. (Laughter.)

ROSE: Why was that?

CLAPPER: Well, in fact, it was The New York Times that wrote an article about why on earth would you send the DNI on a sensitive diplomatic mission like—where the purpose was to retrieve two of our citizens who were imprisoned under hard-labor conditions. And the diagnosis by The New York Times was gruff, blunt, a relic of the Cold War—ideal for North Korea. (Laughter.)

I would say, in answer to your question, I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause. They are not going to do that. That is their ticket to survival. And I got a good taste of that when I was there about how the world looks from their vantage. And they are under siege and they are very paranoid. So the notion of giving up their nuclear capability, whatever it is, is a nonstarter with them.

I do think—

Q: Suspending the program.

CLAPPER: I do—I’m sorry?

ROSE: Suspending.

Q: Suspending—

CLAPPER: Well, the best we could probably hope for is some sort of a cap. But they’re not going to do that just because we ask them. (Laughter.) There’s going to have to be some significant inducements. What does bother me a bit is that we don’t capitalize on our great weapon, which is information. And that’s something they worry about a lot. And their reaction to the loudspeakers being activated along the DMZ or the dropping of leaflets by NGOs over North Korea, and they go nuts when that happens. And so that is a great vulnerability that I don’t think we have exploited. But right now we’re kind of stuck on our narrative, and they’re kind of stuck on theirs.

ROSE: So an Iranian kind of negotiation that would put a cap or suspend is not—your experience in diplomacy is that it’s not likely to happen.

CLAPPER: I don’t think so.

ROSE: And what about a kind of Stuxnet sabotage?

CLAPPER: What about it?

ROSE: Kind of sabotage of their facilities?

CLAPPER: Well, I’m not going to go into that. (Laughter.)

ROSE: I tried. At the back. Yes, at the back— no, I’m sorry, yeah, you’re right.

Q: That’s all right. Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux, technology entrepreneur.

Two weeks ago, a fellow from the Academy of Science in Austria presented to us a collaboration between Austria and China on quantum cryptography. What can you share with us about our efforts in that important field, or any other efforts to protect in the long range our intelligence and the sources of this intelligence?

CLAPPER: Well, I just— I’ll make this a rather general answer, but I think quantum computing is hugely important. There are those who would argue that the first one to arrive at a quantum solution will have a huge advantage, cryptographically, over the rest of the world. That’s probably all I’ll say.

ROSE: Do you think that the Russians believe there’s a power vacuum in the world, and they are rushing in to try to fill that vacuum, because we may have abdicated leadership?

CLAPPER: Well, I won’t go there, but I do think there’s a— in the natural course of history, as we moved from a bipolar construct occasioned by the Cold War to a multipolar construct, where countries like Russia, like China see themselves as— and they are— important, if not dominant players in this world scene. So, I don’t know if that’s a vacuum as much as it’s just what’s happened in the natural course of events, which we can’t always influence.

ROSE: I haven’t asked you—and there’s one last question about climate. Is climate a national security issue?

CLAPPER: It certainly is. We’re seeing this already, the effects of climate on national security issues with things like availability of water, or food, or energy. And this increasingly, I believe, is going to play a big part in our national security landscape in the future.

ROSE: Director Clapper, thank you so much for joining us. (Applause.)


"… A challenge for the next administration is the management of the U.S.-Russian relationship."
- James R. Clapper
"It’s always an action and reaction. As long as we have this dependency on the internet, we’re always going to have this fundamental challenge of how to promote security in the cyber domain."
- James R. Clapper
"… The thing that impels the leadership in China is—first and foremost, I believe, is domestic stability."
- James R. Clapper
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