The top Republican and Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said today that there is no evidence that any wiretap took place at President Donald Trump’s building in Manhattan during the presidential campaign or transition.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said that there is “no basis” for President Trump‘s accusations that President Obama illegally wiretapped Trump Tower “whatsoever.”
Schiff said it “deeply concerns me that the president would make such an accusation without basis.”
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said “I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower.”
Trump had alleged in a series of Tweets that former President Barack Obama had his phones tapped.
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
“The challenge here is that the President Obama wouldn’t physically go over and wiretap and then you have to decide if you’re going to take the tweets literally, and if you are, then clearly the president was wrong.” Nunes said referring to the multiple tweets that President Trump sent on the morning of March 4 making accusations.
“But if you’re not going to take the tweets literally and if there’s a concern that the president has about other people, other surveillance activities looking at him or his associates, either appropriately or inappropriately, We want to find that out. It’s all in the interpretation of what you believe,” he said.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer maintained that the president will be “vindicated” by evidence. On March 13, Spicer said that Trump was not talking literally or specifically when he accused President Obama of “wiretapping” his campaign.
“If you look at the president’s tweet, he said wiretapping in quotes. There’s been substantial discussion in several reports,” Spicer said.
“The president was very clear in his tweet, it was wiretapping. That spans a host of surveillance options,” he said. “The House and the Senate Intelligence Committees will now look into that and provide a report back. I think there’s been numerous reports from a variety of outlets over the last couple months that seem to indicate that there has been different types of surveillance that occurred during the 2016 election.”
Nunes said that there will be a public hearing about the issue in the coming weeks.
“Certainly at the open hearing that we have… we’ll be asking the director if he has seen any evidence that substantiates the president’s claim,” Schiff said.
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President Trump on Saturday angrily accused former president Barack Obama of orchestrating a “Nixon/Watergate” plot to tap the phones at his Trump Tower headquarters last fall in the run-up to the election.
Citing no evidence to support his explosive allegation, Trump said in a series of five tweets sent Saturday morning that Obama was “wire tapping” his New York offices before the election in a move he compared to McCarthyism. “Bad (or sick) guy!” he said of his predecessor, adding that the surveillance resulted in “nothing found.”
Trump offered no citations nor did he point to any credible news report to back up his accusation, but he may have been referring to commentary on Breitbart and conservative talk radio suggesting that Obama and his administration used “police state” tactics last fall to monitor the Trump team. The Breitbart story, published Friday, has been circulating among Trump’s senior staff, according to a White House official who described it as a useful catalogue of the Obama administration’s activities.
A spokesman for Obama did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Trump has been feuding with the intelligence community since before he took office, convinced that career officers as well as holdovers from the Obama administration have been trying to sabotage his presidency. He has ordered internal inquiries to find who leaked sensitive information regarding communications during the campaign between Russian officials and his campaign associates and allies, including ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Some current and former intelligence officials cast doubt on Trump’s assertion.
“It’s highly unlikely there was a wiretap on the president-elect,” said one former senior intelligence official familiar with surveillance law who spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity. “It seems unthinkable. If that were the case by some chance, that means that a federal judge would have found that there was either probable cause that he had committed a crime or was an agent of a foreign power.”
A wiretap cannot be directed at a U.S. facility, the official said, without finding probable cause that the phone lines or Internet addresses were being used by agents of a foreign power — or by someone spying for or acting on behalf of a foreign government. “You can’t just go around and tap buildings,” the official said.
Trump sent the tweets from Palm Beach, Fla., where he is vacationing this weekend at his private Mar-a-Lago estate. It has long been his practice to stir up new controversies to deflect attention from a damaging news cycle, such as the one in recent days about Sessions and Russia.
Trump’s tweets took numerous top White House aides by surprise, according to a second White House official who was not authorized to speak publicly. There was an expectation that Saturday would be a “down day, pretty quiet,” this official said, and there was little if any attempt to coordinate the president’s message on the wire-tapping allegations.
AUTHOR: GARRETT M. GRAFF.GARRETT M. GRAFF SECURITY
DATE OF PUBLICATION: 126.96.36.199.17.16
TIME OF PUBLICATION: 6:00 AM.6:00 AM
AMERICA’S TOP SPY TALKS SNOWDEN LEAKS AND OUR OMINOUS FUTURE
[OnThursdaymorning, November 17,JamesClapper announced that he had submitted his letter of resignation. He will serve out the remaining 64 days of his term.]PUBLIC APPEARANCES DON’T come easily to James Clapper, the United States director of national intelligence. America’s top spy is a 75-year-old self-described geezer who speaks in a low, guttural growl; his physical appearance—muscular and bald—recalls an aging biker who has reluctantly accepted life in a suit. Clapper especially hates appearing on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress wait to ambush him and play what he calls “stump the chump.” As he says, “I rank testimony—particularly in the open—right up there with root canals and folding fitted sheets.”
One of the things Clapper does profess to enjoy about his job is meeting with the men and women who make up his covert empire of 17 agencies, which range from brand names like the CIA, NSA, DEA, and FBI to lesser-known units like the Treasury Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis. As he has traveled the country and the world over his six years in office, he has hosted scores of town hall meetings with intelligence officers, analysts, and operatives. The events are typically low-key, focusing less on what’s in the news than on the byzantine and, to Clapper, almost soothing minutiae of the military-intelligence bureaucracy.
And so it was that he found himself in late August in an auditorium at US Strategic Command near Omaha, Nebraska, headquarters of the nation’s nuclear forces, taking questions from a group of 180 civilian and military personnel. There were fairly routine queries about China, recruiting, and coordination between the intel services. Then an older man in a suit, a lifer like Clapper, reached for the microphone and asked him something no one ever had in his tenure as director of national intelligence.
For a moment the question stopped Clapper in his tracks.
“Is spying moral?”
BACK IN THE EARLY 1970’s, James Clapper was a young military assistant to the director of the NSA when the entire US intelligence establishment was thrown into upheaval. A team of antiwar activists had broken into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania, and made off with thousands of files. In them was evidence of multiple illegal domestic spying programs, conducted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, aimed largely at neutralizing left-wing dissent in America. Public faith in US intelligence, already poisoned by the CIA’s cold war regime of dirty tricks, plummeted further. And Congress moved to rein in America’s spies, hardening laws and norms against domestic surveillance.
Some 40 years later, Clapper now presides over a broader intelligence purview than any one of his bosses did back in the ’70s. And hanging over his tenure is a sense that our spies have once again overstepped the bounds of acceptable behavior. Many in the public today regard former NSA contractor Edward Snowden as a whistle-blower and a hero for exposing another era of domestic surveillance. Clapper has found himself defending his agencies from the charge that they’re leading the nation into a dystopian future in which an all-seeing government kills from the sky with no accountability, Hoovers up vast troves of data from law-abiding people the world over, and undermines personal computer security through backdoors, malware, and industry side deals. He argues, though, that today’s scandals pale by comparison to those of an earlier era. The programs exposed by Snowden, he says, “had all kinds of oversight by all three branches of government, very limited sets of data, and a very small cadre of people who had access to it. We had none of that in the ’70s.”
SENATOR RON WYDEN, MATT BLAZE AND SUSAN LANDAU
The Feds Will Soon Be Able to Legally Hack Almost Anyone
LILY HAY NEWMAN
How Baltimore Became America’s Laboratory for Spy Tech
Edward Snowden: The Untold Story
Clapper says he has never doubted the morality of his profession. The job of the intelligence community is, in his view, honorably straightforward: to provide policymakers with objective analysis derived from intelligence gathered through legally authorized methods. It’s the battlefield that’s confusing and dystopian. From Clapper’s standpoint, the country is locked in a seemingly constant state of war against a protean and often faceless set of enemies, at a time when a single employee can walk out with a thumb drive containing decades’ worth of secrets. It’s enough to make him nostalgic for the comparatively uncomplicated era of nuclear détente. “Sometimes I long for the halcyon days of the cold war,” he tells me. “We had a single adversary and we understood it.”
Rather than worry whether his spies have gone too far, Clapper worries that leaders in Washington are ill-equipped to tackle the multiplying, metastasizing set of threats that face America. His annual appearances on Capitol Hill—filled with discussions about ISIS, cyber war, North Korea’s nuclear program, and new Russian and Chinese aggression—have been so routinely pessimistic that he refers to his yearly global threat assessment as the Litany of Doom. Unpredictable instability has been a constant for this administration and will be, he says, for the next one too.
But in mere weeks, when a new presidential administration takes office, all those issues will be someone else’s problem. For Clapper, the transition can’t come soon enough. He has spent much of this year literally counting down the days he has left. Some mornings, when he briefs the commander-in-chief, known as Intelligence Customer Number One, President Barack Obama will ask him what the current tally is and then offer Clapper a fist bump. In his final months in the role, Clapper and more than a dozen of his top aides and advisers provided WIRED with an unprecedented series of interviews discussing the state of America’s intelligence apparatus and the threats they’ll be handing off to a new administration come January 20. Even six years in, such exchanges don’t come naturally. “In this job,” Clapper says, “I’ve found the less I talk, the better.”
THE NATION’S FIRST director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, opened shop in 2005 with a staff of 11 crammed into a small office close to the White House—filling a new post created in the aftermath of 9/11 in recognition that the country needed a single figure to oversee its intelligence efforts. By the time Clapper arrived in the job five years later, the staff occupied a 51-acre complex in McLean, Virginia.
Though discreetly identified only by a roadside sign, 1550 Tyson’s McLean Drive is actually easily visible to passengers landing at Reagan National Airport. From the air, its two buildings form an L and an X, a nod to it’s gratuitously patriotic post-9/11 moniker, Liberty Crossing, or “LX” in government-speak. The compound houses the 1,700 employees of the office of the director of national intelligence as well as the National Counterterrorism Center, another post-9/11 creation, whose multi story command post was built to mimic the fictional one in Kiefer Sutherland’s drama 24. It’s a city unto itself, with a police force, a Dunkin’ Donuts, and a Starbucks.
Clapper’s office, on the sixth floor of the L building, is large but mostly barren except for standard-issue government-executive dark wood furniture. One notable exception: a poster by the door of a stern bald eagle, with the caption “I am smiling.”
Clapper’s armored, antenna-topped black SUV—more tank than car—has a satellite dish to keep him in secure contact wherever he’s driving around DC.
Clapper is about as steeped in the intelligence business as any American ever has been. His father worked in signals intelligence during World War II. And when the young James met President John F. Kennedy in 1962 as a 21-year-old Air Force ROTC cadet, he told the commander in chief that he too intended to become an intelligence officer. It’s the only profession he ever really aspired to. Clapper met his wife at the NSA (her father also was an intelligence officer), and in Vietnam he shared a trailer with his father, who was the NSA’s deputy chief of operations there. By now Clapper has devoted more than a half century to the field. In 2007, then–secretary of defense Robert Gates installed him as the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for intelligence, overseeing all four of its defense-related intel offices.
Then in 2010, angry over the intelligence community’s intransigence and failure to connect the dots to prevent the Christmas Day bombing attempt aboard a Northwest Airlines flight, Obama turned to Clapper and made him the nation’s fourth director of national intelligence in just five years. Clapper figured he’d spend his tenure working behind the scenes, coordinating the nation’s many-tentacled intelligence apparatus.
Clapper’s life is a whirl of video teleconferences and nondescript spaces—subterranean briefing rooms, flat screen-lined command centers, and eavesdropping-proof chambers called sensitive compartmented information facilities, or SCIFs (pronounced “skiffs” in spook speak). His armored, antenna-topped black SUV—more tank than car—even has a satellite dish to keep Clapper in secure contact wherever he’s driving around DC. When he travels, a special team converts a hotel room into a secure communications suite. His digital hearing aids are regularly checked by security to ensure that no foreign adversary is listening, and his counterintelligence team dumb down the iPods he uses to brief the president in the Oval Office so that they can’t transmit or eavesdrop.
Clapper will be remembered for something that originated inside his workforce: one of the most significant intelligence breaches in US history.
Clapper holds one of the broadest portfolios in government. The entire world is his domain: every election, economic upheaval, technological advance, terrorist plot, or foreign leader’s bad hair day. “I never get a pass in meetings,” he says.
Thanks to the documents leaked by Snowden, the American public now knows that Clapper’s empire encompasses more than 107,000 employees, roughly equivalent to the population of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Their combined budget exceeds $52 billion, including $10 billion for the NSA and $14 billion for the CIA, $2.6 billion of which goes for covert action programs like drone strikes and sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program.
It’s inside that workforce where Clapper has had his biggest successes, making headway in areas like procurement reform and IT upgrades or building partnerships with foreign governments and domestic agencies. Clapper has also tried hard to improve diversity, which he says still has a long way to go, and he became an unlikely champion for integrating LGBT employees into the intelligence community. “If I’d been able to work all the time on improving the institution and the community, that’d have been much more satisfying,” he says. But he knows that few outsiders will recall any of that.
Instead he will most likely be remembered for something else that originated inside his workforce: one of the most significant intelligence breaches in US history.
ON SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2013, Clapper was at the office, giving a rare TV interview to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in an attempt to quell the growing controversy over a series of leaks in The Guardian and The Washington Post about the nation’s post-9/11 surveillance programs. “It is literally—not figuratively, literally—gut-wrenching to see this happen, because of the huge, grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities,” Clapper told Mitchell. Minutes later, a member of his security detail—plainclothes, Glock-carrying CIA guards who each wear generic badges identifying them as a US special agent—interrupted to say Clapper had to take an urgent telephone call. That’s when he first heard the name that would, more than any other person, define his tenure: Edward Snowden.
In addition to the general shock waves that Snowden’s leaks sent, they caused a particular problem for Clapper personally. Upon discovering that the NSA had been vacuuming up global internet communications under a program codenamed Prism, the media quickly directed a spotlight on a seemingly innocuous Capitol Hill exchange that had occurred three months earlier between Clapper and US senator Ron Wyden. In a hearing on March 12, 2013, Wyden had asked Clapper, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions, or hundreds of millions, of Americans?”
“No, sir,” Clapper replied.
“It does not?” Wyden asked, somewhat dumbfounded, since as a high-ranking intelligence committee member he knew otherwise.
“Not wittingly,” Clapper said. “There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”
The hearing moved on with hardly a note of the exchange, but Wyden and his intelligence staffer were floored by what seemed to be an outright lie.
Edward Snowden on Clapper: “He saw deceiving the American people as what he does, as his job, as something completely ordinary.”
Wyden, along with US senators Dianne Feinstein and Mark Udall, had spent years pushing back against the worst excesses of the post-9/11 surveillance state. Wyden had watched as intelligence leaders at the NSA, who reported to Clapper, issued a series of purposefully misleading statements about their programs. They had already spent years on a “deception spree,” Wyden tells me. “He presided for years over an intelligence community that was riddled with examples.” These included then–NSA director Keith Alexander’s 2012 comment at the DefCon hacker convention that the agency didn’t collect dossiers on millions of Americans, which Wyden calls “one of the most false statements ever made about US intelligence.”
According to Snowden, it was Clapper’s response to Wyden that sent him over the edge. Though Snowden did not respond to an interview request for this story, he told WIRED in 2014 that he was horrified by how glaring and banal Clapper’s lie was: “He saw deceiving the American people as what he does, as his job, as something completely ordinary.”
Clapper brusquely rejects the idea that his exchange with Wyden motivated Snowden. “He’s tried to sell that story, but it’s bullshit,” he says, pointing to the fact that Snowden’s document-gathering began months before Clapper entered that Senate committee room.
“If for whatever reason Snowden felt compelled to expose what he felt were abuses related to so-called quote-unquote ‘domestic surveillance,’ I might be able to understand what he did. But he exposed so much else that had nothing to do with domestic surveillance that has been profoundly damaging,” Clapper says. “I think he’s a narcissist. I don’t buy the idealism that he professes. I don’t buy that a bit.”
After a series of evolving explanations, Clapper tried to clean up his mess of a statement to Wyden by writing an apology of sorts to Intelligence Committee chair Feinstein, two weeks after the Snowden leaks started: “My response was clearly erroneous.” He resisted calls to resign, even as critics called for his indictment for perjury. Senator Rand Paul said Clapper should share a jail cell with Snowden himself.
“I’m convinced that if we’d explained the program and the need, Prism would have been no more controversial than the FBI storing millions of fingerprints.”
Over the past year, the explanation that Clapper has settled on is that he simply got confused answering Wyden’s question. Clapper says he was thinking about the programs that collected content, while Wyden was asking about programs that collected metadata. “The popular narrative is that I lied, but I just didn’t think of it. Yes, I made a mistake, but I didn’t lie. There’s a big difference.”
Clapper knows the Wyden exchange and Snowden revelations will dominate his legacy. “I’m quite sure that will be in the first line of my Washington Post obituary,” he says. “But that’s life in the big city.”
IF ANYTHING, CLAPPER SAYS, the public backlash over the Snowden leaks surprised him—and the intelligence community as a whole. “The shock was a shock,” he says. His agencies thought they were doing exactly what the American people wanted them to be doing—using every tool legally available to them. “I never met a collection capability I didn’t like, you know?” he jokingly told a group of intel leaders this fall.
In his mind the adverse reaction stemmed in part from the fact that, in the era after 9/11, the Bush administration claimed too much power for its sprawling war on terror in secret. More should have been publicly debated and authorized by Congress, he says, including the sweeping domestic surveillance program that lay at the heart of Snowden’s explosive disclosures. Clapper believes that in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the public and Congress would have given the nation’s spies almost anything they requested. “We could’ve gotten legislation to drive a truck through,” Clapper says. “I’m convinced that if we’d explained the program and the need, Prism would have been no more controversial than the FBI storing millions of fingerprints.”
In fact, he says, while the legislative changes after Snowden’s revelations made the process slower for the NSA, it greatly boosted the total amount of data the agency could legally access. “Instead of the NSA storing the data, we go to the companies and ask them for it,” he says. “It actually gave us broader access across a broader range of providers than the original programs. If people think their civil liberties and privacy are going to be better protected by the providers, OK.”
THE COMING THREATS
The new presidential administration will need to look ahead to a whole range of emerging technological threats, many of which are being studied inside a spy skunkworks called the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, led by director Jason Matheny. —G.M.G.
Human genomic modification
What if you could create a population of a million Einsteins? As gene science advances, countries will likely adopt human modifications at different rates—and might even select for different traits. “There are plausible scenarios where there are strong first-mover advantages,” Matheny says.
Increased reliance on satellites for GPS, weather forecasting, communications, imaging, and mapping will likely make space one of the first battlefields of the next major war. Russia has been building new radar jammers and laser weapons that could blind US satellites, and China has tested an anti satellite missile.
The rapid advance and miniaturization of 3-D printers will give individuals an ability to manufacture weapons that until recently belonged only to nations. “You could imagine a state 10 years from now where someone could use insect-sized drones that were built by 3-D printers, then weaponized with botulism toxin,” Matheny says.
As more companies and governments invest in machine learning programs, Matheny is concerned about the unintended consequences of letting these systems out onto the Internet. “We worry about how those systems are embedded in critical infrastructure—financial systems, energy systems, weapon systems.”
Advancing technology could allow scientists to create new superviruses—or even bring back extinct diseases. Scientists have been able to synthesize the poliovirus and make designer forms of deadly mousepox and cowpox. “There’s a line that nature is the best bioterrorist,” Matheny says. “We don’t actually know that’s true.”
Since the Snowden breach, Clapper has tried to make more of an effort to talk publicly about the intelligence community’s work and release more of its records. This is partly just a concession to an unkind reality: Clapper doesn’t really think it’s possible to prevent another Snowden. Indeed, evidence suggests there is at least one other leaker still siphoning information about more recent classified NSA programs. He believes his workforce has to get out in front of a new era in which the government can hide far less. “At some point there will need to be a fairly fundamental change in the classification system,” he warned intelligence executives this fall. The current one, he said, “was born in a hard-copy paper era, and the rules we have today really aren’t compatible with technology and the way we conduct our business.”
That’s similar to what Wyden says he’s been arguing for years. The past decade has shown that secrets don’t keep, he says, and when the American people discover they’re being misled, that undermines their trust in government and leads them to question its morality and ethics. “The whole history of America is that the truth eventually comes out,” Wyden says. “I continue to be concerned about how, in the intelligence community, too often what the American people are told isn’t in line with what I learn about privately. That’s not right.”
Among other small steps toward openness, Clapper has overseen an effort to ease into public view more information about the drone program, which has faced increasing opposition, particularly after the September 2011 killing of Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American cleric who had embraced al Qaeda and become a top leader of its affiliate in Yemen. That strike, which also killed another American, Samir Khan, and a second strike weeks later, which accidentally killed al-Aulaqi’s 16-year-old son, brought new attention to the killing of US citizens abroad by US intelligence and military without judiciary oversight.
In July, Clapper disclosed for the first time the government’s tally of civilians killed by drones in areas outside of hostile activities. Released around 6 pm on Friday of the Fourth of July holiday weekend, the tally was widely derided as laughably low—between 2009 and 2015, Clapper said, the US conducted 473 drone strikes, killing around 2,500 “combatants” and between 64 and 116 “noncombatants.” These are just a fraction of the numbers that have been compiled by nongovernmental groups, which estimate more like 450 civilian dead in Pakistan alone. But Clapper told me he stands by his figures. “We did expose the full truth,” he says. Then he adds a curious caveat: “I think that’s a fair and accurate representation to the extent that we could be public about it.”
Wyden says he has indeed seen a recent shift toward transparency in Clapper’s empire. The new NSA director, Michael Rogers, has been much more open with Congress. “I’m quite encouraged by Mike Rogers’ approach,” Wyden says. “He’s been very different.” But mostly Clapper’s critics say that while the intelligence world might be offering more transparency at the margins, they haven’t seen evidence of any major philosophical shift. The ACLU’s principal technologist, Christopher Soghoian, says that while Clapper’s office has started a tumbler and pushed to declassify some significant historical documents—including the drone casualty report and 28 long-hidden pages of a post-9/11 government investigation that dealt with Saudi Arabia’s role in financing and coordinating the attacks—it has yet to make public or confirm the existence of a single surveillance program or tool not exposed by Snowden. “To the casual observer it might seem like the DNI’s being more transparent,” Soghoian says. “What I think is that the DNI’s office has embraced transparency theater.”
One of the biggest projects of Clapper’s tenure post-Snowden has been to declassify thousands of the top-secret intelligence dossiers, known today as the President’s Daily Brief, that have been delivered to the Oval Office every morning since the Kennedy administration. Over the past year, Clapper and CIA director John Brennan have disclosed the majority of them up through the Ford administration.
In August the two men traveled to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library to mark the release of some 2,500 Nixon and Ford-era briefings. Clapper spent the flight to California hunched over his laptop, reading the declassified documents. The experience was an odd one, he admitted, because the papers still had plenty of redactions—white boxes blocking out snippets and paragraphs of text. It had been years since Clapper had read documents in which anything was redacted from his eyes. “I do have to say that as I was reading, I was thinking, ‘I wonder why we redacted that? Could we have released more? What were we covering up right there?’”
Just weeks before Election Day 2016, Clapper accused Russian officials of meddling in US politics, hacking campaigns and political parties.
Before the event at the Nixon library, he and Brennan took a private tour of the museum, which was undergoing an extensive renovation. The guide explained that once construction was complete, the tour would begin not with Nixon’s birth but with the turbulent 1960s. “We’ll start people with the chaos of 1968. By the time they finish walking through, they’ll be wondering why anyone wanted to be president then,” the energetic young guide explained.
As the two intel chiefs walked into the next gallery, Clapper muttered under his breath to Brennan, “Still a valid question.”
ONE OF THE MOST ALARMING threats that has dogged Clapper’s tenure is a form of warfare that the United States itself pioneered. In 2008 a secret team of Israeli and American operatives unleashed the Stuxnet virus on Iran’s Natanz nuclear plant, using the worm to physically destroy the plant’s uranium centrifuges. It is widely considered the first major modern cyberweapon. The covert attack came to light in 2010, just as Clapper was taking office.
In the years since, other nations have attacked the US, from Iran’s theft of customer data from the Las Vegas Sands casino in 2014 to North Korea’s hack of Sony’s email servers. Just weeks before Election Day 2016, Clapper accused Russian officials of meddling in US politics, hacking campaigns and political parties. Those assaults were minuscule compared to what the US will face in the years to come, Clapper says. He’s worried not just about data destruction and theft but about what he calls the “next push of the envelope”: data manipulation, whereby adversaries subtly edit and corrupt information inside US computer systems, undermining confidence in government or industry records.
Government and private networks aren’t nearly as secure as they need to be, Clapper says. At the same time, he sees the offensive capability of the NSA and the Pentagon as key to keeping the peace online. Clapper has lamented the rapid spread of apps and services that offer end-to-end encryption; he argues that Snowden’s revelations have “sped up” the world’s adoption of advanced encryption by as much as seven years. He says that he and FBI director James Comey have never advocated for backdoor access to private data—a move that critics say is sure to make everyone more vulnerable to hacking by third parties who will inevitably discover and exploit the same back door. He believes the government needs to work with the tech industry to balance society’s desire for security with concerns over personal privacy. “I think with all the creativity and intellectual horsepower that’s in the industry, if they put their minds to it and some resources, they could come up with a solution.” He wonders if a type of escrow system in which encryption keys could be held by multiple parties would work. “There’s got to be a better way than this absolutist business, so that pornographers, rapists, criminals, terrorists, druggies, and human traffickers don’t get a pass.” Clapper has little faith in encryption as a bulwark against cyber attacks. Instead he thinks the answer lies in a strategy of deterrence.
“People understood nuclear deterrence. Cyber’s much harder to grasp. I don’t want that homework assignment.”
That’s why it doesn’t bother him that America inaugurated the era of cyber warfare. “I’m glad, if we were in fact the first,” he says. He hopes that the use of weapons like Stuxnet—and their demonstrated power to wreak real-world havoc—will eventually help keep the peace between state adversaries and perhaps even engender a strategic analogue to the cold war’s mutually assured destruction doctrine. If nations recognize that any act of cyberaggression is certain to result in retaliatory strikes that will wipe out their own critical systems, then they won’t act. “Until we create the substance and psychology of deterrence, these attacks are going to continue,” he says. He has little idea what that strategic deterrence looks like, though. “People understood nuclear deterrence. Cyber’s much harder to grasp.” That’s one problem for which he’s happy to pass the buck to his successor: “I don’t want that homework assignment.”
In other respects too, he says, the nation needs to look further ahead. America is too preoccupied with terrorism and not focused enough on the most troubling long-range threats—from war in space, as China and Russia build antisatellite capability and threaten America’s dominance of technologies like GPS, to the ways in which artificial intelligence and human genomic modification could endanger national security. I ask him if the American people should just get used to terrorism attacks like those in Paris or San Bernardino, California. “I do,” he replies, his words clipped. “Got used to the cold war—went on a long time. Decades.”
WHILE CLAPPER GRUDGINGLY accepts the damage the Snowden affair has done to his own reputation, he worries more deeply about the impact it’s had on the intelligence workforce. He hates the thought that America might turn on his employees. He fears that, in the same way the nation and Congress turned their backs on the CIA officers who ran the agency’s “black sites” and torture program in the wake of 9/11, the country will one day turn on the people who carry out drone attacks. “I worry that people will decide retroactively that killing people with drones was wrong, and that will lead us to criticize, indict, and try people who helped kill with drones,” he says.
“I find it really bothersome to set a moral standard retrospectively,” he says. “People raise all sorts of good questions about things America has done. Everyone now agrees that interning Japanese [Americans] in World War II was egregious—but at the time it seemed like it was in the best interests of the country.” Clapper, who endured a $40 million Senate investigation and condemnation of the CIA’s torture program, says he is concerned that today’s spies are at risk of similar changes in the political winds—where legally authorized actions they undertook in good faith become the basis for political witch hunts. He argues that during the past 15 years, the intelligence community has made mistakes—but it’s never willfully violated the law.
“I have always accepted intelligence was an honorable profession. We are all mindful of the need to comply with our moral values and the law.”
Just as discomfiting to Clapper is the idea that such witch hunts will in turn lead his employees to question the worth and honor of their work. That’s why the question at the Omaha town hall meeting bothered him: Is spying moral? As he stood before a sea of suits and military uniforms, formulating his answer, Clapper knew something the rest of the room didn’t. That very week the FBI was hot on the trail of yet another Booz Allen Hamilton contractor it thought might be responsible for yet another round of leaks about classified NSA surveillance programs.
After a pause, Clapper answered unapologetically: “We can do our job with a clear conscience, but we have to be careful. The history of the intelligence community is replete with violations of the trust of the American people.” That doesn’t mean that the job is immoral—it just means the job has to be done correctly. “I have always accepted intelligence was an honorable profession. We are all mindful of the need to comply with our moral values and the law.”
Clapper’s grandson—who is about the same age as Clapper was when he was commissioned in the Air Force as an intelligence officer—recently started a technology job at the CIA. The two men, 53 years apart in age, have had long conversations over the past year about technology, the future of US intelligence, and its workforce. Clapper says he believes the intelligence world is doing fine with recruiting new hires but struggles to retain staff, particularly technologists lured by private-sector salaries and fewer restrictions. “When I was commissioned in the Air Force, I was committed to the institution for a career. He and those of his generation don’t look at it that way. They’re not as wedded to institutions,” Clapper says.
“I’ve worked at least part of every day for the last six years. When we finish talking, I’m going to keep working. I’ve got to be in the Oval tomorrow morning.”
Although he’ll enjoy a single Bombay gin and tonic or martini some nights, Clapper doesn’t have much opportunity to really relax. “Have you had a day off in the last six years? Really off?” he asks me, a rhetorical question that turns uncomfortable as he waits for an answer. It’s past 10 pm aboard his Air Force Gulf stream as we travel back to DC from the Nixon library event , and we are still an hour from landing at Joint Base Andrews. “I haven’t,” he finally continues. “I’ve worked at least part of every day for the last six years. When we finish talking, I’m going to keep working. Then tonight, I’ll go to my SCIF and keep working. I’ve got to be in the Oval tomorrow morning.”
Clapper says he’s looking forward to leaving it all behind, even if many of his colleagues are anxious about what will come after him. As he said in public appearances this fall, “It makes a lot of people nervous that, with an election cycle that’s been sportier than we’re used to, we’ll drop a new president with new national security leaders into this situation.” Those officials will confront a world that he says looks little like the sound-bite versions offered at rallies. “I’m always struck by the simplicity of the campaign trail—but when I’m in the White House Situation Room, all of a sudden it’s complicated and complex,” he says. When it’s his time to leave in a few weeks, he’ll be happy to say good-bye to the SCIF’s, the briefing rooms, the armored motorcades, the ever-watchful security. He looks forward to cleaning out his basement and, most of all, being spontaneous again.
“Being under surveillance seven-by-24,” he says, pausing. “It’s stressful.” Unlike most of the foreign and domestic targets of the agencies he oversees, though, he knows he’s being watched.
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