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Obama's Intelligence Director James Clapper discusses the threat of Russia, cyber security

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper spoke on campus Monday for the event "Cyber Security: America's Greatest Threat?" Clapper served as the director of national intelligence from 2010 to 2017 under President Barack Obama and was responsible for overseeing CIA, NSA and FBI operations. Currently on the advisory board of the non-profit organization Committee to Investigate Russia, Clapper also has a book, "Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence. Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence," set to be released in May. The Chronicle sat down with Clapper to discuss national security and intelligence issues, as well as his thoughts on the game Saturday.

The Chronicle: What do you think is the greatest challenge to American security today and why? 

James Clapper: There are many, but if I had to pick one, I would focus on Russia. I would focus on Russia for two reasons. One is Russia does represent—as the Soviet Union also did—an existential threat to the United States, meaning that they could destroy us because of their nuclear arsenal. But the other front of warfare is information warfare, and their very aggressive attempts to undermine us, to undermine our system and to sow doubt in discourse in this country. Unfortunately, right now the United States is just the right target. 

TC: Along the same lines, what can we do to try and combat this challenge? 

JC: There are a number of things we can do. First, with respect to our election process, obviously we need to do all that we can to secure that. From a cyber standpoint, we need to consider having paper backups for ballots.The reason this is important is so that people don’t lose trust and confidence in our election system. Additionally, there needs to be education, as now we have, over the last year—particularly represented by the indictments of the 13 Russians—gotten some insight into the depth, aggressiveness and magnitude of what Russia has done to attack us from an information warfare standpoint, particularly by taking advantage of social media.

The Russians have a long history of interfering in elections, both their elections and those of other people, notably in Western democracies and now most aggressively in the United States. This interference stems from the very strong personal animus Putin has for this country, democracy and what democracy stands for.

TC: What do you believe the role of national intelligence is in surveilling the public and are there times you feel this role goes too far? 

JC: That is not a mission of the national intelligence community—to surveil or spy on the American public. In the heyday of the Cold War, we basically had two mutually exclusive telecommunication systems—one dominated by the West, meaning really the United States, and the other dominated by the Soviet system. And so the opportunities for U.S. persons or mention of U.S. persons in the Soviet-dominated systems was very, very rare. Rarely would you see a U.S. person ever.

With the advent of the internet and the globalization that that has occasioned, everybody is all mixed up. So you have hundreds of millions of people conducting billions of innocent transactions every day. All mixed up, though, in it are nefarious people, which includes nefarious nation-states and nefarious individuals. Unfortunately, these nefarious people are all mixed up together. That and the fact that the global telecommunications [and information technology] infrastructure is still dominated by the United States, so much of the traffic—phone calls, emails—will pass through the United States.

So it’s very, very difficult. The intelligence community tries to do all kinds of things to avoid touching innocent people in the interest of protecting their civilities and privacy. To me the big issue here is really to what extent are people willing to sacrifice for the common good. You know it's why we stop at red lights or stop signs or why we go to the airport early so we can go through [Transportation Security Administration] procedures. These are things we give up in our civilities and privacy for the common good, and it’s much the same in our ability to try to pick out bad people doing bad things in that vast sea of IT and telecommunications.

TC: What have you learned through your time on the Committee to Investigate Russia and how has it helped Americans understand Russia’s attacks on our democracy? 

JC: What I have learned from the special council reinforces what we had learned towards the end of the last administration which was highlighted by the publication of our intelligence community assessment, which we put out at the unclassified levels of the American public to make available as much of it as we could without compromising senses, sources and methods.

The Committee to Investigate Russia is headed by Rob Reiner who is very, very concerned about the threat posed by Russia to our system. So I have helped him as has John Brennan, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. John and I have made a video with Rob with the objective of trying to educate the public about the threat posed by Russia. 

TC: I know you have a book coming out in May called "Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence. Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence." Can you tell me anything about it or what the reader can expect from it?

JC: The book is a chronicle of my 50-plus years in intelligence and the changes to the intelligence community along the way. It's about the things that have happened to me and things that I have learned and everything of that nature. I think the book has been an opportunity to be contemplative and also somewhat of a cathartic experience—I could kind of vent about everything I went through. One major lesson I have learned is that I will never write another book, it is a hard thing to do. But it’s due out on May 15—that’s a plug.

TC: Is there anything I didn't ask you which you wish I had?

JC: Yes, how dare you not ask me about the ball game this weekend! It was a great comeback.