Recommendation: Worth it if you’re interested in intelligence
Where to read: If you can find a chesterfield, that would probably be ideal
Read with: I know this is scotch not bourbon but can you blame me….
In brief: Clapper has served in every US Presidential administration since Kennedy but the bulk of this account focuses on the Obama years when he served as Director of National Intelligence.
“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.”
The above, a quote from Patton, is lesson 1.
Lesson 2 is that the key job of intelligence is to provide the facts, even when people don’t want to hear them. Part of that is explaining the limits of what you can know and the limits of what you can do.
Lesson 3 is that misinformation campaigns aren’t about convincing you that the misinformation is correct, they’re about making people think that the truth is either too hard to find or is unknowable. In other words, Alex Jones doesn’t have to convince you that Sandy Hook was a fake or that the kids at Stoneman Douglas were crisis actors, all he has to do is confuse you enough that you throw your hands up and say “maybe it’s a false flag and maybe it’s real, but there is room for doubt.” The tobacco industry doesn’t need to convince you that cigarettes are safe, it just needs to convince you that it’s still up for debate. And climate change deniers don’t have to convert you entirely, all they have to do is make you unsure enough that you’ve got an excuse not to act.
Some commentators have commented that this reads like an account of US failures. That is definitely fair (there are a litany of fuck ups from Vietnam to Al Qaeda to Russia) but I think that lends credence to Clapper’s account. Too many memoirs and biographies, and perhaps US memoirs in particular, tend towards glorification or glossing over but Clapper is almost brutal about his, and his profession’s, failures (on WMDs in particular).
As if to prove lesson 2, he’s included plenty in here guaranteed to piss people off. On one hand, this is an extended attack on Donald Trump and the war on facts waged by the Republican Party (see lesson 1). On the other, he is less than charitable to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. There are points, where he talks about the exposure of Afghan translators for instance, where incandescent rage radiates off the page.
Going further, when writing about the NSA monitoring and privacy scandal, he reams the American public for, in essence, hypocrisy and indecisiveness. As he points out, the NSA collecting data on American citizens causes outrage but the first response to terrorist attacks and mass shootings is “why was no one reading this guy’s emails?” or “why was no one monitoring this dude on 8chan?”. For policy makers, and the intelligence community, this is an invidious position.
From a stylistic perspective, the most striking thing about this book is how communally focused it is for an autobiography. Clapper’s former speechwriter and co-author is credited on the front cover and he is fastidious about crediting the people around him throughout the entire volume. The emphasis on mentors is both noticeable and noteworthy.
Part of the interview with Rachel Maddow about the book: