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When it comes to the Russia investigations, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asks: “Why all the cloak-and-dagger secrecy?” In a wide-ranging interview with Judy Woodruff, Clapper discusses the probe into Jared Kushner’s alleged secret back channels with Russia, along with North Korea’s nuclear program and the recent terrorist attack in Manchester.
And now to my interview with the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper.
He served in that post for six-and-a-half years under President Obama, stepping down just this past January. We spoke earlier today.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, thank you very much for talking with us.
JAMES CLAPPER, Former U.S. National Intelligence Director:
Well, thanks for having me, Judy.
Let me start with the news that was out this morning from CNN, essentially, that U.S. intelligence officials last year picked up from Russian sources that Russian government officials said they had derogatory information about then-candidate Donald Trump and people close to him, some of his top aides.
Do you know anything about this?
Well, I can't comment on specific reports, whether we have them or not or the content of them.
I will say, though, that, in general, that there was concern that all of us had about these interactions, whether we had direct reflections or indirect reflections of them, based on discussions among the Russians themselves.
We didn't know the intent and we didn't know the content, but, in the context of what else the Russians were doing to interfere with our election and the long history of what the Russians do — have done and continue to do to undermine us, undermine our processes and undermine our system, there was great concern about what was going on.
Let me ask you about another story that surfaced in the last week, and that has to do with the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Essentially, it was reported that he was trying to set up a secret back channel to Russian government officials in early December, during the transition last year.
Is there any rational explanation, any explanation you can think of for doing that?
Well, I guess a benign explanation was simply an outreach to the Russians, the Russian government. So that's not, in and of itself, untoward.
But, again, not knowing the intent or the content, and whether or not the sort of time-honored principle of one president at a time in this country, that did give rise, particularly given the attempts to mask, apparently, this dialogue, so that was certainly a concern to all of us. It certainly was to me personally.
Can you think of a reason why it would be necessary to have a secret — a channel that was secret from U.S. intelligence agencies?
Well, if it's true — and, again, I'm not — I can't confirm or deny — but if it's true that the objective here was to use Russian secure communications as the mode of this dialogue or this communication, that is, I will say, curious. Why all the cloak-and-dagger secrecy?
If the intent was simply to reach out to establish — to make acquaintance — but one wonders if there was something worse than that or more nefarious than that. And, again, we didn't know, I certainly didn't know before I left the government on the 20th of January.
I'm asking because yesterday — or, over the weekend, the secretary of homeland security, John Kelly, said in an interview, he said, it's a good thing. He said, if there were attempts to open lines of communication, it's a good thing. It's a positive thing.
Well, it could be, and I agree with him.
And, again, this is not a new thing. Other governments have sought back channels, and particularly as administrations change over. But there is an art form here to how this is done, and there is a line between reaching out, establishing lines of communication, vs. substantively undermining the policies of the current administration.
And, again, we do have a principle here of one president at a time.
I want to ask you about two recent disclosures of classified information by the president himself. One was in a meeting with Russian officials in the Oval Office when the president shared information about ISIS capabilities …
… that had all the earmarks of coming from Israeli intelligence, and then separately in a conversation with the president of the Philippines, when the president said that two U.S. nuclear subs had been in the vicinity of North Korea.
Is this truly damaging information to share, or is all this overblown?
Well, certainly, I guess there are two dimensions to this.
One, the public revelation of this, which, of course, was in both cases somehow leaked to the media, that — and leaks, I have to say, are bad. I know that's the lifeblood of the media business, but, for the intelligence community, leaks are bad. They compromise sources and methods, tradecraft, in some cases, can endanger the lives of assets. So, leaks are damaging.
The other dimension, of course, is the revelation of these things to a foreign government. Well, that kind of thing goes on all the time, but it's also in due deference to protecting either the operational equities or the intelligence equities.
And it's not something you just kind of wing extemporaneously.
These incidents must give some in the intelligence community pause.
I'm sure it does. And it's not exactly confidence-building.
And I think that's important to restore or achieve a level of confidence that that flow can continue unabated.
What do you hear from your friends in the intelligence community about their view of President Trump?
I think the view of the intelligence community, as much as I explained to him when I spoke with him by phone on the 11th of January, after he characterized the intelligence community as Nazis, that the national intelligence community is a national treasure, and that the men of the women of the community stand ready to support the president, whoever it is, particularly in his role as commander in chief.
The terrorist threat. Over the last few days, the secretary of homeland security, John Kelly, has painted a pretty frightening picture. He said at one point he expects — quote — "a lot more attacks" like the one in Manchester, England.
And he said: "The terror threat is worse than most people realize. If people knew what I knew, they would never leave the house in the morning."
Do you share …
And he went on to praise the counterterrorism efforts that we have under way, of course, very much of which the intelligence community is involved in.
And we have gone to great lengths and made great investments to try to ensure that we don't have a similar instance as happened in Manchester. But I would point out that this may not necessarily come from outside. And the issues we have had in this country have been caused by U.S. citizens.
Do you share that level of alarm, though, that people wouldn't leave their houses if they knew …
Well, I'm here, so I left my house this morning.
North Korea. Do you believe there's a realistic chance now that North Korea could pull back from its nuclear weapons development program?
I think it's unlikely, and I certainly think it's not realistic for us to expect the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons. That is their ticket to survival.
I was taken aback when I visited North Korea in November 2014 to bring out two of our citizens who were in hard labor then. And I have been a student of the Korean Peninsula for a long time, ever since I served there as the director of intelligence for U.S. Forces Korea in the mid-80s.
But I had underestimated the level of paranoia and the siege mentality that prevails in Pyongyang. And, as they look out outward, all they see are enemies. And so they're not going to give up their nuclear weapons.
Well, you're going to be in South Korea in coming days. What do you think the best approach is for the United States?
Well, I think dialogue. And I know we have had — there's a long history here of dialogue which hasn't turned out so well with the North Koreans. I attempted it myself.
But I think that's a far better option than a military confrontation, which I think would be a disaster.
And how much does it matter what the president says and tweets?
Well, it matters a lot. Words count. And it's quite important what he says or doesn't say.
One final question about Robert Mueller. You know him well, named special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation.
How confident are you that he's going to be able to get to the bottom of what happened?
I think that was an inspired, brilliant choice to pick Bob Mueller for that function.
In my opinion, he's cut from the same cloth as Jim Comey, two outstanding public servants. And Bob will get to the bottom of this, and he will not be intimidated by any outside influences.
James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, thank you very much.
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