Q&A: James Clapper
Former US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper AO, visited Australia this year as a guest of the ANU National Security College. He was joined by former Australian Ambassador to the United States, Kim Beazley AC, for a discussion of the challenges, successes and future of the Australia-US alliance.
It was a rare opportunity for the audience in Llewellyn Hall to hear their insights into how Washington and Canberra view this critical security relationship.
This is an edited extract of their discussion.
Beazley: Could you give us an idea about the impact you see [President Trump] having on what you might call the traditional national security community of the United States?
It resulted in his characterising the intelligence community as Nazis, which none of us appreciated very much.
Clapper: Clearly President Trump is, shall I say, unconventional. We’ve never quite had a president, certainly in my experience, quite like he is. He comes to the position rather unfamiliar with the government and how it works and what at least the classical roles of presidents have been.
Certainly, I think it’s the first time he was ever exposed to any classified information or what the intelligence community was doing.
He, of course, was very sceptical about the intelligence community assessment that we produced and published on January 6, recounting the extensive and egregious Russian interference in our political process.
I think he took great exception to it, principally because he was very sensitive about anything or anyone that would question the legitimacy of his election or the veracity of it, and so that assessment represented a challenge, I guess, to him. It resulted in his characterising the intelligence community as Nazis, which none of us appreciated very much.
I had an occasion to call him about it and he, amazingly, took my call. I tried to appeal to his higher instincts about the national asset he was inheriting in the US intelligence community. I may have rendered a great service by departing.
That’s just up-close and personal my own encounters with him, which I have to say weren’t really positive. I’ve worked for every president and toiled in the trenches of intelligence for every president since, and including, John F. Kennedy. I’ve been a political appointee in both the Republican and the Democratic administrations. I’ve spent 34 years in the military, so my natural instincts are loyalty for the president, particularly in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, and this is the first time I’ve ever had an occasion to question that.
What impact do you think the various activities identified as of Russian origin had on the outcome of the election?
That’s a key question. We, the intelligence community, could not make a call on that.
We don’t have the authority, the capability, the expertise to assess what was the impact on the electorate of the Russian machinations. It’s my belief that it had to have had impact when you consider the magnitude of what they did.
Russians have a long track record of interfering in elections, theirs and other people’s, and we have documentation on Russian attempts to influence our elections going back to the 1960s, but never ever had we seen anything like this – anything that was as aggressive and multidimensional as this one was.
In addition to the infamous hacking of the Democratic National Committee, there was an intensive campaign to promulgate fake news by the Russians, which many other news outlets in the United States, either wittingly or unwittingly, picked up or thus amplified.
This was a very aggressive campaign, but we couldn’t actually say empirically what effect it had on the election itself. Intuitively, it had to have an effect.
The only thing we said in our assessment was that we saw no evidence of messing with the voter tally. We didn’t see any evidence of that.
I think the other point is that, of course, the Russians must be very pleased, must be very gratified with the results, because our assessment was their first objective was to sow discord, disruption and doubt in our political system, and they certainly succeeded in that fairly well.
As the former [FBI] Director Comey indicated in his hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, they will be back. They are emboldened to be even more aggressive, and so I think we can look forward to attempted interference in our election process as a standard feature of Russian behaviour.
I’d like to bring things a little bit closer to home, because I want to get your views on the Korean peninsula.
They would, as they’ve threatened on more than one occasion, transform Seoul into a sea of fire.
Well, I do have a somewhat, I guess, contrary and unconventional view on what to do about North Korea. My interest began when I served there in the mid-1980s as the Director of Intelligence for US Forces in Korea.
One of the items on my bucket list was some day to visit North Korea. I got to do that in November 2014.
I did not meet with Kim Jong-un, but we engaged with some North Korean elite leaders. I was blown away with the degree of paranoia and the siege mentality that prevails in Pyongyang and, as they look out, all they see are enemies.
They have created what they want, which is deterrents and respect which they crave – international recognition as a nuclear power.
Point one is they are not going to give up their nuclear weapons. They went to school on Gaddafi. He gave up his weapons of mass destructions and things didn’t turn up so well for him, and they took that on.
Secondly, the Chinese are probably as frustrated with the North Koreans as everyone else is. They don’t like the missiles, the missile tests, they don’t like the underground nuclear tests. They don’t like all the sabre rattling and all that, but what Chinese dislike even more is the notion of losing their buffer state, so my belief is that they will put pressure on the North Koreans, to a point.
The third is my personal opinion that the United States really doesn’t have any viable military options. If we were to pre-emptively attack the Yongbyon nuclear research facility, for example, or one of the KN-08 ICBM sites, without any deliberation on the North Koreans’ part, reflexively, they would turn loose all their artillery, lined up along the DMZ [Demilitarised Zone] against Seoul, a metropolitan area of about 25 million people. They would, as they’ve threatened on more than one occasion, transform Seoul into a sea of fire.
My view is – and this is clearly not company policy, I can assure you – I think we should consider establishing a [presence] in Pyongyang, not unlike the intersection we had in Havana, Cuba, in representation of another government we didn’t recognise, but at least it afforded a presence and a conduit for communication.
There is, I think, great advantage to this. One would be just the physical presence there, which would pay dividends from the intelligence perspective – I won’t go into detail there, but maybe even more importantly as a conduit for information – information from the outside world, which the North Korean regime fears.
That would open up some dialogue … but I think further isolating the North Koreans, demonising them even more, threatening major conflict or sending in an armada some place, all that sort of thing does is heighten that paranoia and that siege mentality.