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Ex-Intel Chief Clapper Weighs In On Russia Influence Investigation


We turn our attention to national security and politics. Midterm elections are happening this fall. And according to our nation's top intelligence leaders, that election will be vulnerable to Russian interference just like the presidential election in 2016. Here's Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.


DAN COATS: There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.

MARTIN: That was the Director of National Intelligence speaking to a Senate committee on worldwide threats this week. Our next guest was the Director of National Intelligence during the 2016 election. He served under the Obama administration. Gen. James Clapper joins us in our studios here in Washington. General, thanks so much for being with us.

JAMES CLAPPER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: When you hear Director Coats, as well as the other leaders of the intelligence community, outline the threats to our election by the Russians and say, as they did, that there is not a whole lot of government effort underway right now to stop future interference, what goes through your mind?

CLAPPER: Well, it, of course, conjures up what we lived through those of us who were in the government when the Russians were doing what they were doing in the run-up to the 2016 election. And I was very gratified - in fact, proud of the uniformity among that panel and particularly DNI Dan Coats for saying what he said.

MARTIN: Because you think he has not been as forthright as he should have been on this?

CLAPPER: No, no, on the contrary - just to reinforce what those of us who were in those similar positions in the last administration were saying. The Russians were very successful in their immediate first objective, which was to sow discord and discontent and doubt about our system. And they succeeded to it fairly well. And we said then that they were going to continue to do it - do that, which they will do in a 2018 election. So I was very gratified that at an open hearing like this, with all six of them there, that they reaffirmed and reinforced that position.

MARTIN: I want to play a clip of Vice Present Mike Pence speaking at an event with the new site Axios. This was yesterday. Let's listen to this.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Irrespective of efforts that were made in 2016 by foreign powers, it is the universal conclusion of our intelligence communities that none of those efforts had any effect on the outcome of the 2016 election.

MARTIN: Is that your understanding of the conclusion of the ICD intelligence community.

CLAPPER: I have great respect for Vice President Pence. But in this case, I must respectfully disagree with what he said. What we said and what our intelligence community assessment said that we published on the 6 of January, 2017, was that we saw no evidence of interference with voter tallies. That's not to say there wasn't interference. We just didn't see any evidence of it. The intelligence community has neither the authority nor the capability to make such a judgment as to whether there was or was not impact on the election. And we did not say that - made that point clear when we briefed then president-elect Trump and his team which included then vice-president-elect Pence in Trump Tower on the 6 of January. I will say, now that I'm not in an official position though, it stretches credulity given the magnitude, scope and depth of the Russian efforts that they didn't have impact on individual voter decisions. But, again, the intelligence community did not and could not gauge the impact on individual voter decisions.

MARTIN: But it is your personal opinion that the Russian disinformation campaign could have affected voter decisions?

CLAPPER: Absolutely, yes.

MARTIN: President Trump continuously attempts to diminish the threat posed from Russia. Is it possible for the U.S. government to combat this problem without leadership from the top - from the American president?

CLAPPER: Well, there apparently are lots of individual efforts going on here - as Director Wray, for example, mentioned that the proactive efforts that the FBI is taking. But I don't think that this is workable without a whole-of-government approach. And by whole of government, not just the federal level but at the state and local level because obviously our voting apparatus is controlled and operated at the state and local level not at the federal level.

MARTIN: So what specifically should be happening that is not?

CLAPPER: Well, for one, I think there needs to be a uniformed approach taken to securing the totality of the electoral process - that means, for example, the two committees - and ensuring that there is - the cybersecurity needs are attended to at the state and local level. I also think there's a lot of merit in having a paper backup systems. Now what we found and what appears to me is continuing is that there are varying degrees of interest and support for doing that at the state and local level. So I think across the government there needs to be an effort there.

Secondly, there needs to be, I believe, an education process for the electorate to understand what the Russians do - their techniques, their tactics and the mechanisms they use, particularly in social media, to try to influence opinion in the United States. And ultimately - and, again, this is, of course, a personal opinion - I think we need a counter-messaging capability. We used to have what was called the United States Information Agency, which was a counter-Soviet propaganda in the heyday of the Cold War. We need something like that on steroids to oppose and counter the messages that come out of the Russians.

MARTIN: Just briefly - did the Obama administration do enough to combat this threat?

CLAPPER: I thought we did a lot. You can argue till the cows come home about the coulda (ph), woulda (ph), shouldas (ph) - the more should have been done. But the sanctions, for example, that we imposed I considered at least only a first step - PNG-ing the 35 intelligence officers of the Russians, closing their two dachas - the two facilities, one of which was a major collection facility. So yes, we did some things which may have prevented the Russians doing even more.

MARTIN: The former director of national intelligence General James Clapper, thank you so much for your time this morning.

CLAPPER: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS'S "PAUSED (STIMMING REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.