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Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper saw some of the early evidence of Russian meddling in U.S. elections. Now a frequent critic and target of President Trump, Clapper has recently published a book, “Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence.” Judy Woodruff talks to Clapper about Trump’s showdown with Iran, confidence in U.S. intelligence and the Mueller report.
He had access to the earliest signs that Russia was interfering in the 2016 presidential election. He is now a frequent critic of President Trump and a target of the president's wrath.
James Clapper served as director of national intelligence in the Obama administration.
His latest book, "Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence," it's coming out tomorrow in paperback.
And he joins us now.
Welcome back to the "NewsHour." Congratulations on the paperback.
So, General Clapper, the Trump administration has been talking a lot in the last few weeks about the threat from Iran. They have increased U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf.
A lot of confusion around this situation. My question to you is, should there be a standard of proof for any evidence the administration provides as a justification, as a proof of this threat they're talking about?
Well, I think there should be, particularly if we're going to send sons and daughters into harm's way in a situation like this.
And a lot of the rhetoric that's — we're seeing today, is, I think, reminiscent of the same sort of approach, apparently, with North Korea, Kim Jong-un, where we go from fire and fury to a love affair.
And it seems that this inconsistent rhetoric is maybe a hallmark. I don't think that's a good thing, particularly when you have forces that are adversarial in close proximity to one another, as we do on the Korean Peninsula and now in the Strait of Hormuz.
The thing you always worry about is an inadvertent incident that could explode.
We understand — I understand there's a problem with the audio on your microphone, so we're going to try to get that fixed while we're talking. But let's go ahead and continue.
I'm asking about this proof of intelligence, because we know, during the run-up to the Iraq War, there was intelligence. And you have written in your book that you contributed to that. It didn't turn out to be all accurate.
So, how confident can the American people be, going forward, that any intelligence is accurate, that they can count on it?
Well, I think my fingerprints were on that, the infamous national intelligence estimate of weapons — which dealt with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and published in October of 2002.
And you're quite right. Much of it was wrong. I think what people should take note of are the lessons learned from that experience and the practices and procedures that have been built into the preparation of such intelligence, particularly at the national intelligence estimate level, to prevent that.
That's not to say that policy-makers, whether this set of policy-makers or any other set of policy-makers, you know, what they might do with that intelligence, either ignore it, accept it or reject it.
But I think the intelligence community has built in some mechanisms to preclude a recurrence of that. The issue will be — and this is a policy call, not an intelligence community call — is the extent to which that's shared with the American public.
You mean the information that the administration has, and to the extent it's shared?
But how worried — more broadly speaking, how worried are you, either because of the mixed signals that you were just referring to…
… or intelligence and how it's read, that there could be some kind of a confrontation as a result of a miscalculation, a misunderstanding, or for any reason?
Well, that's always a potential, and, as I indicated earlier, particularly when you have hostile force — military forces in close proximity, as you certainly do in the Strait of Hormuz.
I think — I don't think either Iran or the United States really wants to get into a large military confrontation. I think this would be a bad thing for both sides. So I think we're going to have perhaps more of this rhetoric, which makes you a little apprehensive. But I don't — I think both sides are going to try to do all they can to avoid a major confrontation.
I do want to ask you about the Mueller report.
The special counsel, Robert Mueller, as you know, concluded there was no conspiracy, no illegal cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. But you have said — and I'm quoting you — there were examples of what you call passive collusion that you found troubling.
What were you referring to?
Well, I think, to start with, one prime example is President — or candidate Trump's exhortation to the Russians on the 27th of July of 2016, where he enjoined the Russians to go find the missing 30,000 e-mails…
… of Hillary Clinton, alleged missing 30,000 e-mails.
And, as we saw, and as graphically portrayed in the recent Mueller report, but even earlier than that in an earlier indictment, the Russians did exactly what he asked them to do. That very day, after-hours, the GRU went and searched for those e-mails.
As — we didn't know this contemporaneously, but certainly the Trump Tower meeting in June of '16, where it appeared there was certainly a willingness to accept help from the Russians, and, as the Mueller investigation report points out, that the campaign expected to benefit electorally from the support given to them by the Russians.
But here we have our arch adversary helping one candidate against another.
Well, in connection with all that, again, as you know, the attorney general now has launched his own investigation into whether what the intelligence community was doing back during the Obama administration, whether — what the Department of Justice, the FBI were doing in investigating the Trump campaign, whether that was an appropriate action that was taken.
What do you know about that? Was it appropriate?
I think what was done was appropriate because of what the Russians were doing.
And what we saw were only a smattering of what we now know were apparently dozens of encounters between representatives — Russian representatives and members of the Trump camp.
And so this had obvious counterintelligence implications. So I think it's certainly appropriate for the attorney general to look back, are there lessons learned here, do the procedures need to be changed?
But I think what is bothersome to me is impugning the motives, because our concern was the threat posed by — and it continues to be my concern — the throat posed by the Russians.
You mentioned the Trump Tower meeting. There was also a briefing at Trump Tower after President Trump had been elected that you and other intelligence officials participated in.
The Barr investigation is looking at whether that — contents from that meeting were leaked to the press. Do you know anything about that? Were you involved in leaking?
In leaking? No. There's been specific concern about the dossier, I guess. And…
This is the former Russian — I'm sorry former British intelligence…
The collection, compendium of 17 separate memos that were compiled by former British — retired British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who was, I think, regarded as credible by — a credible source by the FBI.
And pretty hard to leak something that was already widely available in the media. And the dossier itself is not a classified document.
So, to answer your question directly, no, I didn't. And I don't know of anyone else in the intelligence community that knew about this that leaked anything to the media.
Very, very quickly, one other question I want to ask you.
In the Mueller report, there's a reference to your saying that you could not certify to then president-elect Trump that you knew that the dossier information was false.
What can you — is there anything you can tell us about your conversation with President Trump?
Sure. I recounted that in the book.
The context was, by the way, his characterization on the 10th of January of 2017 — we briefed him on the 6th, the previous Friday — the characterization of the intelligence community as Nazis.
And I felt, as the leader of the intelligence community, that I couldn't let that pass, so I called him. And, amazingly enough, he took the call.
And during the course of that call, he asked me to put out a statement refuting the…
… the dossier, which I couldn't do. I couldn't affirm or refute it.
I will say that some things in the dossier were corroborated from separate sources of information that we did have high confidence in, in the original intelligence community assessment that we rendered on the 6th of January. So I couldn't do that, one way or the other.
So much to ask you about, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Thank you very much.
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