Former National Intelligence director discusses media, Russia and President Donald Trump

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Clapper was director of National Intelligence during the 2013 WikiLeaks controversy. PHOTO COURTESY / wm.edu

Students and community members crammed into Tucker Theater Monday, Feb. 11, to see former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper speak about the American intelligence community. Clapper drew from years of experience in discussing an array of topics ranging from data security to the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

Clapper’s role in the intelligence community came at a tumultuous time in American history. He served as director of national intelligence during the 2012 Benghazi attacks, Edward Snowden leaks and the raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011.  

Though Clapper was already known for his role as director under former President Barack Obama, he became famous for his criticism of President Donald Trump, especially on media platforms such as CNN. Clapper recently published a book titled “Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life of Intelligence,” where he discusses the role of Russia in the 2016 election as well as other topics. 

“I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff in 50 plus years in intel,” Clapper said. “There was nothing that bothered me viscerally and disturbed me as much as that: when I understood the magnitude of what they were doing and the fact that it was directed by Putin.”

“I think the most disturbing thing, and the major reason I wrote the book, was when I really comprehended the magnitude of the Russian interference in our election in 2016,” Clapper said. “I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff in 50 plus years in intel. There was nothing that bothered me viscerally and disturbed me as much as that: when I understood the magnitude of what they were doing and the fact that it was directed by Putin. This is a very dangerous thing for this country, so I decided, after I left the government, that I was going to do my little part to try to educate the American public about the profound threat posed by the Russians.”  

During a question and answer session, many audience members asked Clapper about his interactions with Trump regarding Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. 

“When we briefed him in Trump Tower on Jan. 6 [2017] on Russian interference, we were conveying news that he didn’t want to hear, because what the Russian interference meant was it cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, and he just couldn’t get his head around that,” Clapper said. 

Another recurring theme of the panel was the ongoing role of media, specifically the presence of “fake news” and the importance of fact-finding in the United States. Clapper argued that the country’s intelligence community could do a better job in combating foreign propaganda.  

“We need a much more robust counter-messaging capability,” Clapper said. “I was an advocate, when I was in the government, of having a USIA on steroids, the United States Information Agency, which was the counter-propaganda organ for the United States government against Soviet propaganda, which has been done away with after the Cold War. I think we need something like that on steroids to do the counter-messaging effort both overseas and maybe in this country.”

Clapper also took a hardline approach to truth on social media platforms, arguing for a larger governmental role. 

“I personally think the social media companies should be regulated,” Clapper said. “When you think about the prevalence of social media and how dominant it is in our society, I believe there needs to be the kind of ‘truth in advertising’ thing here, where if you see an ad on social media someplace, you’re entitled to know that it was paid for by the Russian government, for example.”  

Clapper also gave insights into the intelligence community in the United States. When asked about the impact of Edward Snowden, a former Central Intelligence Agency employee who leaked classified intelligence information to the press in 2013, Clapper stressed the importance of transparency. 

“I think the major takeaway, the major lesson learned from that whole experience is that it’s absolutely crucial that the intelligence community be more transparent,” Clapper said.  

“I think the major takeaway, the major lesson learned from that whole experience is that it’s absolutely crucial that the intelligence community be more transparent,” Clapper said.  

Clapper notably has been accused of perjury because of the 2013 Snowden incident. Clapper alleged under oath that the National Security Agency does not collect data on millions of Americans, which was later proven false by Snowden’s document leak.

Although many Williamsburg community members were present at the panel, students from the College of William and Mary also attended the event for personal or academic reasons. Many were interested in Clapper’s discussion of government agencies and intelligence.  

“I thought his talk about inter-agency cooperation and how he directed that by controlling their budgets was interesting,” Ann Duke ’22 said.  

Other students found a personal interest in the international topics that Clapper discussed.  

“I’m currently interested in China, Russia and U.S. relations right now, so I think it was really interesting hearing his perspective on everything,” Katie Rys ’22 said. “… And also I found it interesting when he was talking about his interactions with Donald Trump and how the briefing [on Russian interference] went over. I definitely think it was interesting getting his perspective on it, especially because he played such an important role in the intelligence community.”  

Though Clapper touched on a range of domestic and international issues, he repeatedly discussed the significance of truth in public discourse and the role that the intelligence community must play in seeking out the truth at all costs. Clapper’s message came with warnings against believing foreign propaganda and untrue news stories. 

“What I worry about the most is the assault on truth that’s going on in this country and in other countries,” Clapper said. “It’s a manifestation of an attack on our democracy, and that is not good for our democracy or any democracy. I go to a lot of college campuses, and I try to plead with people: don’t believe everything you see, read or hear on the internet.” 

“What I worry about the most is the assault on truth that’s going on in this country and in other countries,” Clapper said. “It’s a manifestation of an attack on our democracy, and that is not good for our democracy or any democracy. I go to a lot of college campuses, and I try to plead with people: don’t believe everything you see, read or hear on the internet.”