As someone who is charged with overseeing the 17-agency U.S. intelligence community, which includes the CIA, NSA, and FBI, James Clapper often gets asked, "What keeps you up at night?" His answer? "What I don't know," Clapper told the Intelligence and National Security Alliance summit Thursday. "Things you know, even if you don't have all the information, you can work with them, you can get more information."
During the day, Clapper said he worries about what he does know, which, all together, "kind of makes you miss the Soviet Union." But right now, there are three things at the forefront of his mind, floating just above the usual suspects, such as counterrorism, cyberattacks, and unrest in the Middle East. Clapper calls them the three S's: sequestration, Snowden, and Syria.
Sequestration. Earlier this year, Clapper told the House Intelligence Committee that sequestration cuts to the National Intelligence Program would total $4 billion in 2013. The cuts, Clapper said at the summit, have forced his office to determine "what to protect and what not to" protect. He wasn't optimistic about solutions. "We're probably in for it for another year," Clapper said.
Snowden. In March, Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the National Security Agency does not collect "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans." A month later, former NSA contractor and current Russia dweller Edward Snowden revealed that wasn't the case in a stream of leaks that hasn't yet dried out. Clearly, Clapper and Snowden aren't best buds. "As loath as I am to give any credit to what's happened here, I think it's clear some of the conversation this has generated, some of the debate, actually probably needed to happen," Clapper said. "It's unfortunate it didn't happen some time ago, so if there's a good side to this, maybe that's it."
But Snowden should probably stop now. "Unfortunately, there is more of this to come," said Clapper almost despairingly, explaining that he's worried about more revelations harming national security.
Syria. "For me lately, it's been all Syria, all the time." Clapper added little more to this. He did say, though, that he believes national security officials know considerably more—and have better means to accomplish that—than they did during talks of weapons of mass destruction in 2002.
Although he didn't group it in this trio of daytime thoughts, Clapper touched on another S-word during his speech, one most Americans likely associate the director with: surveillance. "The efforts we attempt to make in good faith to separate from those needles the innocent hay, from the nefarious needles, is really what this all boils down to," said Clapper of the NSA's practice of monitoring millions of innocent Americans to weed out the criminals. But, he said, "We have to be more transparent about how we do our business and what it takes to do it."
Clapper is set to oversee President Obama's review of the very NSA surveillance programs the director had misled Congress about. "We must restore the trust and confidence of the American people and their elected officials," he said. The tools used by the NSA, "if we keep these tools at all—they're going to be legislatively amended."
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