Charlie Rose Talks to James Clapper

The director of national intelligence on Islamic State, life after the Snowden revelations, and keeping Iran nuke-free
Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Define for us exactly what the DNI does.

Well, the position of the DNI actually grew out of a recommendation made by the 9/11 Commission. Essentially, the three duties are to be the senior adviser on intelligence and counter-intelligence matters to the president; to manage what’s called the National Intelligence Program, which encompasses all the resources, the money—which I defend and navigate to Congress each year—for the entirety of the national intelligence community; and of course, to manage the enterprise. My main objective has been, in the four-and-a-half years I’ve had the job, to integrate the community as much as possible.

Have you come to any new positions on transparency after the Snowden affair?

Not exactly. I do think we need to speak out more than we have, to counter the narrative that has been promulgated about the intelligence community. A major takeaway for me, after the Snowden leaks, is we in the intelligence community do need to be more transparent. It’s important for the public and their elected representatives to understand what we do and why we do it, which is, bottom line, to keep the country safe.

What has changed since Snowden?

Transparency is a two-edged sword. It is good to the extent that we can explain what we do and why we do it, but our adversaries go to school on that very same transparency. And that’s precisely what’s happened. Islamic State is very astute at learning from these revelations and applying what they’ve learned.

There’s no silver bullet here. There is a balance between protection of national security and protection of civil liberties and privacy. If there were some way where we could just find the needles without having to bother, not just one haystack, but hundreds and hundreds of haystacks in order to find those nefarious needles, that would be great. Right now, we can’t do that.

What should Americans know about negotiations with Iran?

My focus and the focus of the intelligence community, if negotiations are successful, is our ability to monitor and verify. And that will depend very heavily on, I think, intrusive and comprehensive surveillance and inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. That will be hugely important to us and our ability to verify.

Do the U.S. and Israel differ on the threat of Iran getting a nuclear bomb?

I’ve had a long association with Israeli intelligence, for 30 or 35 years. They are very competent, very professional. And I think at the intelligence level, where we have a very close relationship, we’re pretty much on the same page with respect to our inside knowledge of Iran’s capabilities and what they might be in the future. What policymakers say and do about it is a different proposition, and I steadfastly try to stay out of the policy arena.

Why didn’t we know more about the development of Islamic State?

We reported robustly on its fighting prowess and capabilities, and we also reported robustly on all the deficiencies and shortfalls of the Iraqi security forces. What we didn’t foresee—and certainly, I didn’t foresee—is that literally overnight, four-and-a-half divisions or so of Iraqi security forces would literally melt away. I will say, going back to my war, which is southeast Asia, that we’ve never been real good at predicting the will to fight.

I don’t know whether the United States can instill in the Iraqis, or any other foreign force, the will to fight. The will to fight ultimately stems from the loyalty to a government, to a cause of their own, and I don’t know that we can impose that.

Does the U.S. need to put boots on the ground to defeat Islamic State?

Probably somebody’s boots on the ground, but not necessarily ours. King Abdullah of Jordan was very eloquent about the need for this to be their fight. Every time we inject ourselves someplace, that injection, that presence, in and of itself, generates, you know, maybe positive impacts, but also negative impacts.

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