US General Clapper Reviews Intelligence Highs and Lows

September 14, 2021

Retired General James R. Clapper, who was the US Director of National Intelligence under President Barak Obama, reviewed the successes and failures of the intelligence community during a webinar mid-September.

The event, co-sponsored by the Santiago Center and security-focused NGO AthenaLab, was chaired by the Santiago Center director Karen Poniachik and AthenaLab’s head of security and defense studies, John Griffiths, and was held in the context of the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“The goal of intelligence is to reduce uncertainty for decision makers, whether they are in the Oval Office at the White House or in an oval hole in a trench,” Clapper said, providing a general overview of the reasoning behind intelligence.

He highlighted the fact that the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 arose from the September 11 attack, which reorganized the intelligence community and established the position of Director of National Intelligence to serve as head of the intelligence community, ensuring closer coordination and integration of all 16 US intelligence agencies. The event also generated greater exchange with foreign partners, which still continues today, and “the result is that we are safer, but not necessarily safe,” he said.

According to Clapper, it is not happenstance that an attack of the magnitude of 9/11 has not been repeated, but rather is thanks to the tireless work of the intelligence community.

One issue that has arisen since 2001 is what he called “violent domestic extremism,” which is a serious problem. “We saw an example of this on January 6, during the attack on the US Capitol,” Clapper noted, recommending providing more resources to the FBI, as well as reforming the laws in chasing down and punishing extremism, as tracking internal threats is manpower intensive.

He attributed increased domestic threats to “truth decay, and we have a bad case of it. People evolve into their own separate bubbles, and that puts us in a bad place.” The former intelligence director said that the solution could be found in education, teaching students on the subject and how to perform critical thinking.

With respect to the US’s recent pullout from Afghanistan, Clapper said it was the correct decision but poorly executed. “There was no elegant way to do it, but there were ways to withdraw more gracefully or efficiently,” he noted, adding that he believes Afghanistan will once again be a sanctuary for terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, but that the power struggle between the Taliban and ISIS-K will make for an interesting situation.

Clapper also reviewed the situations in Pakistan, Russia, North Korea, and China. Regarding the latter, “we've paid a lot of attention to terrorism and antiterrorism, to the detriment of paying attention to peer competitors, mostly China,” he said. “Dealing with China is all the more complex, it will not be long before they overtake the US in economic size and their military buildup is scary… We need to not be dependent on China for key things like rare earth metals or microchips.”