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'Truth decay' keeps ex-U.S. intelligence chief up at night

James Clapper book

In 2019, Penguin published the second edition of James R. Clapper’s autobiography, “Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence.”

What is James R. Clapper’s biggest worry these days?

It’s not, as you might expect for a former director of national intelligence, cyberattacks or foreign nations.

Rather, what concerns him most is “The bad case of ‘truth decay’ in this country,” Lt. Gen. Clapper said. “A democracy cannot survive if the members of the society cannot agree on the same set of facts.”

By “truth decay,” a term coined by the RAND Corp., Clapper told Lee Newspapers he means Americans’ growing disrespect for “facts, empirical data and objective analysis,” as well the institutions that convey them. The latter include government and news media.

He calls the situation “quite dangerous” for the nation.

Not long ago, for example, most Americans trusted CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, and hung on his every word, Clapper recalled. “We don’t have that any more,” he said.

Being siloed in our separate news feeds and contrasting “reality bubbles” makes us vulnerable to bad actors at home and abroad, Clapper said. Fact-checking is vital, he said.

This Thursday, Clapper will share those and other insights with Germanna Community College friends and supporters during an invitation-only conversation at the Fredericksburg Nationals ballpark. The 7 p.m. event will be streamed free to anyone who wants to watch online. Registration is required, at

Years of service

The son of an Army intelligence officer who was stationed in Fauquier County, Clapper has devoted his life to serving his nation in the Air Force, in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and in diverse leadership posts in intelligence.

From 2010 until 2017, he was the nation’s top intelligence official and principal intelligence advisor to the president. As the fourth director of national intelligence, Clapper oversaw 17 agencies such as the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency, with 200,000 employees at home and abroad, and a $52 billion budget.

Each morning, he provided the president’s daily intelligence briefing, reporting on global threats. After 9/11, Clapper modernized intelligence agencies, improving their communications and information sharing. During the bin Laden raid, he spent 13 hours in the White House situation room, emerging to hear crowds in Lafayette Park chanting “USA, USA, USA!”

Rob Zitz, a former Fredericksburg resident and career intelligence officer, said of him, “Jim Clapper had a profound impact on the Intelligence Community. He drove what was a collection of independent agencies to integrate their efforts. His relentless effort to improve the IC undoubtedly saved lives.”

“Clapper is the best example of a servant leader I know,” Zitz added. “He was always accessible to everyone who worked for him. He sought out the underdogs and the people whose voices had not been heard, and he acted on their ideas and concerns.”

President Barack Obama said of Clapper, “[He] possesses a quality that I value in all my advisors: A willingness to tell leaders what we need to know even if it’s not what we want to hear.”

Asked to comment on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan after America’s 20-year-long war there, Clapper said “it came as no surprise that President Biden did what he did.”

Clapper, who spent six and a half years in the Obama administration, noted that Biden as vice president had opposed a prolonged U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

“There was probably no elegant way to withdraw,” he said. “There was bound to be some confusion and some chaos, in any event.”

The pullout could have been planned better, and done more gradually over a longer period, he said: “Could the withdrawal have been done better? I think so.”


Notably, Clapper was among the intelligence community leaders who warned publicly in 2016 that Russia was interfering in the U.S. presidential election, sought to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process” and labored to help Donald Trump win. In 2018, a bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee affirmed those conclusions.

After Trump’s election, Clapper resigned as DNI and became an outspoken critic of the 45th president.

Truth Decay

In an interview last week, the intelligence veteran said he sees no silver bullet to solve the issues diagnosed in RAND Corp.’s 2018 report on “truth decay.”

“Long term, the only solution is education,” Clapper said. “Kids in school, early on, need to be taught about critical thinking and to learn to question, not to accept everything they see, read or hear on the internet. Critical thinking is a good thing to do in any event, not just for determining untruth in the media, regardless of what your professional endeavors are.”

Critical thinking should be made a part of schools’ curriculum, he said.

Cyberthreats and the growth in ransomware attacks are a grave matter, Clapper said.

But, he cautioned, “Most intelligence people are rather reluctant, at least I am, to pick a single threat that we’re consumed with. The reason is, you don’t get a pass for all the other threats.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Clapper visited many colleges and universities to recruit students for cybersecurity and intelligence work, as well as discuss his 2019 book, the New York Times best-selling “Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence.”

Now a national security analyst for CNN, Clapper said he takes heart from the students he has met who are interested in national-security fields and in serving their country.

“I think that’s great,” he said. “We need that kind of talent in the intelligence community through a whole range of career specialties, to include cybersecurity. And we have a shortage, a big shortage, of cyber-smart, cyber-competent people.”

Career opportunities

The National Security Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have designated Germanna Community College as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education, one of Virginia’s relatively few such institutions.

But to grow a cadre of skilled people sufficiently large to meet those needs, education in the appropriate disciplines must start no later than middle school, Clapper said.

“For kids’ own sake, to develop good (cyber) hygiene habits, to understand the advantages and disadvantages, the good or evil that occurs on the internet and, hopefully, to get them interested in a career, I think it starts way earlier than high school,” he said.

Clapper devoted decades to assessing foreign threats, still a key focus for the U.S. intelligence community with the likes of China, Russia and North Korea able to harm rivals in new ways.

Domestic terrorism

But internal threats are now a top concern for the FBI, FBI Director Christopher Wray has told Congress.

“The current and emerging threat is domestic,” Clapper said.

A potent example of that was the attack on the U.S. Capitol during the “Stop the Steal” rally on Washington’s National Mall.

“When you watch the horrific events of Jan. 6, I consider it a form of terrorism, what was done—a coup attempt to overturn the results of a legitimate, secure election, which strikes at the very foundation of institutions that underlie the existence of this country as a democracy,” Clapper said.

“I was really taken aback by that. Watching it live, I found it extremely disturbing,” he added. “What’s scary is the number of people that have bought into the big lie (that the 2020 election was rigged against Trump).”

Foreign countries are ready to take advantage of the nation’s truth decay and exploit the divisions among Americans, as we witnessed in 2016 via social media and news reports, Clapper said.

“The Russians had messages for everybody in the run-up to the 2016 election in their attempt to heighten, to amplify the polarization and divisiveness that already existed in this country,” he said. “We’re a ripe target for it. So they had messages for Black Lives Matter, white supremacists, pro-Nazis, anti-Nazis, pro-Muslim, anti-Muslim, pro-gun control, anti-gun control. And they didn’t care, because their objective was to sow doubt, discord and distrust about the institutions of this country. And they were wildly successful.”

Asked if the United States is safer from foreign-inspired terrorism than it was on Sept. 11, 2001, when Al-Qaida terrorists attacked the Pentagon and New York City’s World Trade Center and nearly struck the Capitol or White House, he answered affirmatively, saying “no question about it.”

The nation is in better shape with the new focus on those threats by the FBI and intelligence agencies and the establishment of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center, he said.

“We’re in a much better place when it comes to foreign terrorist threats,” he said. “We are not in a good place with respect to domestic terrorism.”

Capitol attack

Asked if authorities suffered an intelligence failure before the U.S. Capitol riot, Clapper said Americans should await the outcome of the House select committee’s investigation. “I really don’t know,” he said. “... It’s hard for me to believe, ranging through social media, that there wasn’t a greater awareness.”

He wonders whether the Capitol Police had an intelligence office that could receive threat reports, analyze them and present its findings to leaders. It’s not clear that they did or if they were adequately “manned with the right people,” Clapper said.

Asked if Donald Trump was responsible for the attempted insurrection, he said that remains to be determined.

The House probe may reveal “whether he did all he could, at an early enough phase, to stop it,” Clapper said. “Hopefully, the results of this investigation will cast light on what the actual facts are.”

“On its face, it did seem to me that in his speechifying at the rally, before the crowd moved to the Capitol, that he was inciting what happened,” he said. “The ultimate determination has to rest on the investigation, particularly whatever evidence they can turn up of his dialogue with those in the White House and those outside the White House.”

Long wars

As to Afghanistan, Clapper said he agreed with Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and personnel.

“The issues in Afghanistan are not soluble by the use of military force,” he said.

Over time, the U.S. was ambiguous about defining its mission in Afghanistan, Clapper said. At first, it was to take down Al-Qaida after 9/11, but that grew into nation-building, he said.

“The goalposts kind of moved,” Clapper said. “The fact is that Afghanistan ... is a tribal society. We’re not going to create a little democratic central government in Kabul. That just wasn’t going to happen.”

“We sold ourselves into believing the Afghan government and the Afghan military were viable, when they really weren’t,” he added. “That has been a consistent shortfall.”

Citing Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam, Clapper said the U.S. hasn’t done well at gauging opponents’ will to fight, which he said is very hard to predict.

American officials didn’t anticipate that, facing ISIS, five divisions’ worth of Iraqi security forces “would literally melt away overnight,” he said. “The same was true with the Taliban.”

U.S. officials underestimated the Taliban’s persistence, will to fight, and popular appeal, Clapper said.

He likened the Afghan situation to “my war,” Southeast Asia, where the United States’ enemy also had “an ideology, a narrative that they believed in.” The U.S. underestimated the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese and overestimated the South Vietnamese, Clapper said.

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Clint Schemmer, a journalist since 1980, has worked at papers in California, North Carolina and Virginia. He’s been a bureau chief, editorial-page editor, copy desk chief and local news editor. Now a staff writer at the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

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