What Keeps James Clapper Up at Night?

Today’s current-events whirlwind, the director of national intelligence says, “kind of makes you miss the Soviet Union.”

National Intelligence Director James Clapper testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April on the current and future threats to national security.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Sept. 12, 2013, 12:09 p.m.

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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