• T. Kearny Vertner, III

Observations: Facts and Fears by James Clapper

Fascinating read by a distinguished career intelligence officer.

I must admit, this book challenged some of my expectations. Despite James Clapper's lengthy career spanning the U.S. Air Force (including extensive time in the National Security Agency or NSA, and the Defense Intelligence Agency or DIA), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency or NGA, and Office of the Secretary of Defense (as the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence or USDI), much of what the public knows of him surround controversies from his last position as the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). As Clapper himself quips, the DNI is the "second most hated man in Washington," and the tail end of his career certainly reinforces that.


The title comes from a famous General George Patton quote:


"The time to take counsel of your fears is before you make an important battle decision. That's the time to listen to every fear you can imagine! When you have collected all the facts and fears and made your decision, turn off all your fears and go ahead!"


While this is a great quote, it's not my favorite one from Facts and Fears. That distinction belongs to his story on "How to Ride a Dead Horse."


One key point that resonated strongly with me was the notion that, as an intelligence officer, he felt that his role was always to provide accurate facts to policymakers and always "speak truth to power." It reminded me of one of my key roles as a senior non-commissioned officer: provide my commander facts and advice to inform their decision, but never strip them of their responsibility to make that decision. Clapper's dedication to providing facts and resistance to the temptation to guide policy is arguably what led to such a long and successful career, particularly as DNI.


While the tail end of his career made the news, Clapper's anecdotes from earlier in his life were much more satisfying. I enjoyed hearing about his childhood escape from Egypt or his time performing airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance over Vietnam onboard the EC-47 (a platform and mission so cool that I'll need to write an article some time to cover it). His reflections on the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia were particularly poignant.


As one could expect, Clapper dedicated much of the book to his post-Air Force time, including his above-mentioned false starts at settling down and retiring. I enjoyed how often he cajoled our nation's senior leaders into convincing his wife, Susan, into letting him leave retirement and come back into public service. Secretary Gates had to personally call and ask her for permission to serve as the USDI. I particularly enjoyed how much he deliberated over accepting the position as DNI, only for Susan to berate him for not immediately responding positively to a request from the President of the United States!


The last quarter of the book is where Clapper takes advantage of his memoirs to defend what he perceived as the countless injustices of the press and misunderstandings by elected officials. Ranging from various intelligence agency leaks to Congressional investigations into the NSA's collection and use of cellular metadata, Clapper's time as DNI was fraught with challenges. These challenges culminated in the discovery of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential elections and offered some fascinating insight into what President Obama did upon learning about this discovery and how best to handle it. Regardless of anybody's Monday-morning quarterbacking of that situation, I don't envy the President or Clapper for having to make the choices they did; there was little they could do that would neither damage the election process nor expose sources and methods.


Clapper and Dep AG Yates, 2017 (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

While I still think there are some valid criticisms of Clapper's tenure, I'd say he acquits himself admirably of many of the highly-charged accusations he received by the press, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Congress. The impression I got from reading this was the chance to tell his side in a long form was - at the very least - cathartic. More cathartic for Clapper were some of the criticisms he levied at President Trump and his handling of the facts Clapper's office presented prior to his 2016 resignation.


As with my experience reading the memoirs of other White House cabinet officials, particularly Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, Clapper's 2018 Facts and Fears, Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence was an intriguing read. I'm deeply fascinated by the unique relationships formed by cabinet officials and the President, including how rarely they might meet personally. While Gates' book focused primarily on his service in a single (albeit important) position, Clapper's smooth transitions between numerous positions and agencies blurs them together. Additionally, he carefully notes throughout how intelligence organizations and their officers maintain their authority by distancing themselves from policy decisions. The idea that intelligence is only trustworthy when it can be presented as non-politicized fact is a central them and a concept worth chewing on for anybody whose work revolves around credibility over policy.

Drop Me a Line, Let Me Know What You Think

© 2020 by T. Kearny Vertner, III. These are my views and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Department of Defense or its components. Proudly created with Wix.com