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A spy chief's hardened perspective

Von David Ignatius


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Washington - Early in his tenure as director of national intelligence, James Clapper could sometimes be heard complaining "I'm too old for this [expletive]!" He has now served almost six years as America's top intelligence official, and when I asked him this week how much longer he would be in harness, he consulted his calendar and answered with relief, "265 days!"

Clapper, 75, has worked in intelligence for 53 years, starting when he joined the Air Force in 1963. He's a crusty, sometimes cranky veteran of the ingrown spy world, and he has a perspective that's probably unmatched in Washington. He offered some surprisingly candid comments - starting with a frank endorsement of President Obama's view that the U.S. can't unilaterally fix the Middle East.

Given Clapper's view that intelligence services must cooperate against terrorism, a small breakthrough seems to have taken place in mid-April when Clapper met with some European intelligence chiefs near Ramstein Air Base in Germany to discuss better sharing of intelligence. The meeting was requested by the White House but it hasn't been publicized.

"We are on the same page, and we should do everything we can to improve intelligence coordination and information sharing, within the limits of our legal framework," said Peter Wittig, German ambassador to Washington, confirming the meeting.

The terrorist threat has shadowed Clapper's tenure. He admitted in a September 2014 interview that the U.S. had "underestimated" the Islamic State. He isn't making that mistake now. He says the U.S. is slowly "degrading" the extremists, but probably won't capture the Islamic State's key Iraqi stronghold this year, and faces a long-term struggle that will last "decades."

"They've lost a lot of territory," he told me Monday. "We're killing a lot of their fighters. We will retake Mosul, but it will take a long time, and be very messy. I don't see that happening in this administration."

Even after the extremists are defeated in Iraq and Syria, the problem will persist. "We'll be in a perpetual state of suppression for a long time," he warned.

"I don't have an answer," Clapper said frankly. "The U.S. can't fix it. The fundamental issues they have - the large population bulge of disaffected young males, ungoverned spaces, economic challenges, and the availability of weapons - won't go away for a long time." He said at another point: "Somehow the expectation is that we can find the silver needle, and we'll create 'the city on a hill.'" That's not realistic, he cautioned, because the problem is so complex.

I asked Clapper whether he shared Obama's view, as expressed in Jeffrey Goldberg's article in The Atlantic, that America doesn't need the Middle East economically as it once did, that it can't solve the region's problems and that, in trying, the U.S. would harm its interests elsewhere. "I'm there," says Clapper, endorsing Obama's basic pessimism. But he explained: "I don't think the U.S. can just leave town. Things happen around the world when U.S. leadership is absent. We have to be present - to facilitate, broker, and sometimes provide the force."

Clapper said the U.S. still can't be certain how much harm was done to intelligence collection by the revelations of disaffected NSA contractor Edward Snowden. "We've been very conservative in the damage assessment. Overall, there's a lot," Clapper said, noting that the Snowden disclosures made terror groups "very security conscious" and speeded the move to unbreakable encryption of data. And he said the Snowden revelations may not have ended: "The assumption is that there are a lot more documents out there in escrow [to be revealed] at a time of his choosing."

Clapper had just returned from a trip to Asia, where he said he's had "tense exchanges" with Chinese officials about their militarization of the South China Sea. He predicted that China would declare an "air defense identification zone" soon in that area, and said "they're already moving in that direction,"

Asked what he had achieved in his six years as director of national intelligence, Clapper cited his basic mission of coordinating the 17 agencies that work under him. "The reason this position was created was to provide integration in the intelligence community. We're better than we were."

After a career in the spy world, Clapper argues that intelligence issues are basically simple, it's the politics surrounding them that are complicated. "I can't wait to get back to simplicity," he says, his eye on that calendar.

(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

David Ignatius was the executive editor of the "International Herald Tribune". His column also appears in the "Washington Post".