Breaking the Silence
Former Intel Chief to Be Honored as Distinguished UMD Veteran
Retired Air Force Gen. James Clapper ’63 will be honored at tomorrow’s football game against Michigan State with the university’s 2018 Distinguished Veteran Alumni Award.
Clapper spent a lifetime in the hush-hush world of military and civilian intelligence—from the skies over Vietnam, where he flew 73 combat missions—to the White House, where he served as President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence in the midst of terrorism concerns at home and multiple wars in the Middle East.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, however, Clapper has emerged from the shadows to become one of the leading military voices to question the administration, appearing frequently on CNN and publishing the recent book “Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence.” Last week, he was one of a group of prominent Trump critics and Democrats mailed crude explosive devices, allegedly by a supporter of the president.
Clapper, who is rekindling his relationship with the university, spoke this week to Maryland Today about his career and his time on campus.
What was it like to be targeted like that?
We were driving down to our place in the Outer Banks (last) Wednesday when I heard on the radio that [former CIA director] John Brennan, who’s a friend and colleague, had one mailed to him. So I immediately called our next-door neighbor, who was going to retrieve our mail, and cautioned her to be very careful. I didn’t find out there’d been a pipe bomb addressed to me until Thursday, after I woke up and found a text message from Jim Sciuto at CNN asking if I had any comment. It went to CNN rather than to my house in Northern Virginia, so I was never in danger. Disconcerting is what I’d call it. It’s really a sign of the times.
What’s happening in our country today?
The divisiveness in our country today is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The closest I can remember is Vietnam and the aftermath. I lived through that, and it seems worse to me now. Some people put all the blame on President Trump, which I don’t think is right, but he does share some of the blame. There’s more he could be doing to unify the country, but he doesn’t seem inclined to do that. He seems much more inclined to exacerbate the polarization and division. I don’t understand what the long-term game plan there is.
To turn the page, what was your time at Maryland like, and how did it affect your life later?
I started at the University of Maryland in Munich, Germany. My dad was in the Army stationed there, and in those days, Maryland offered courses for the first two years of college to the dependents of military personnel throughout Europe. I did my freshman year there and then came to the University of Maryland at College Park. My main interest, to be candid, was ROTC, because I very much wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps—get a commission and go into the Army. But I got to Maryland and they only had Air Force ROTC, so that’s what I took. I majored in government and politics—minored in history—and was the cadet wing commander in my final semester. I enjoyed it very much. I graduated in ’63, then I went into the military and served 32 years. I lived outside of the United States a good bit, and basically lost contact. I’m happy I’m getting back in contact now. I’m deeply touched and humbled by what’s happening Saturday. That’s a lifetime honor and I’m very appreciative.
In uniform and in civilian life, you’ve been part of the intelligence community. It’s getting criticism from all sides of the spectrum now. What are people worried about?
There's always been an aura of suspicion about intelligence. Some of that is due to a history of abuses, which the Congress tried to correct through legislation and oversight. But the fact is, you cannot be fully transparent about what the intelligence community does—it's not like the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Interior, where largely everything they do can be made public. That's why the role of the two oversight committees is so important. They have to act as proxies on behalf of the American public to ensure that what the community’s doing is legal, moral and ethical. And you know, we've taken hits. Intelligence is a classic institution where the saying applies, “When I'm right, nobody remembers, and when I’m wrong, nobody forgets.” Today, I think the major concern is the fear that the intelligence community will become politicized.
You’ve gone from someone who basically can’t say anything, to someone who publicly analyzes and talks about these issues—sometimes controversially.
When I retired from the military 23 years ago, I never would have given a thought to speaking out or going on television. I feel today we’re in a different situation. It’s controversial; there are people in both of my “tribes,” the intelligence formers and military formers, who don’t believe I should be doing what I’m doing—me, Mike Hayden or John Brennan. They say we’re essentially politicizing intelligence. I don’t believe that. The reason I’m doing what I’m doing is because I see the institutions and values of this country, which I spent decades defending, are in jeopardy or are under assault, and it’s my duty to speak out. It’s liberating.
Do the criticisms bother you?
No. I understand how people can feel differently about it, but the vast majority of reaction I get is positive, supportive, great—not only in the two tribes, but in public. When I went on my book tour to six cities, I was amazed at the outpouring of support. Strangers are coming up to me in airports and train stations to thank me for saying what I’m saying.