NBC NEWS EXCLUSIVE TRANSCRIPT OF ANDREA MITCHELLS INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE JAMES CLAPPER

NBC News

JUNE 9, 2013 — NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell sat down with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper yesterday for an exclusive wide-ranging interview to discuss recent revelations about government surveillance programs and the impact of leaks on national security.

The full transcript is below. A video clip from Sunday’s “TODAY” is online here: http://on.today.com/11OPysk

More of the interview will air tonight on “NBC Nightly News” and Monday across all broadcasts and platforms of NBC News and MSNBC, including an extended version on “Andrea Mitchell Reports” at 1pm ET.

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MANDATORY CREDIT: NBC NEWS

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

Director Clapper, thank you very much for letting us come out here and interview you on the subject of all these leaks and how it has affected American intelligence gathering. Does the intelligence community feel besieged by the fact that these top secret documents are getting out?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Well, I think we’re very, very concerned about it. For me, it is literally– not figuratively, literally gut-wrenching to see this happen because of the huge, grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities. And of course for me, this is a key tool for preserving, protecting the nation’s safety and security. So every one of us in the intelligence community, most particularly the great men and women of N.S.A. are very– are profoundly affected by this.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

How has it hurt American intelligence?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Well, while we’re having this debate, discussion, and all this media explosion– which of course supports transparency, which is a great thing in this country, but that same transparency has a double-edged sword. And that our adversaries, whether a nation state adversaries or nefarious groups benefit from that same transparency. So as we speak, they’re going to school and learning how we do this. And so that’s why it potentially has– can render great damage to our intelligence capabilities.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

At the same time, when Americans woke up and learned because of these leaks that every single telephone call in this United States, as well as elsewhere, but every call made by these telephone companies that they collect is archived, the numbers, just the numbers, and the duration of these calls. People were astounded by that. They had no idea. They felt invaded.

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

I understand that. But first let me say that I and everyone in the intelligence community all– who are also citizens, who also care very deeply about our– our privacy and civil liberties, I certainly do. So let me say that at the outset. I think a lot of what people are– are reading and seeing in the media is a lot of hyper– hyperbole.

A metaphor I think might be helpful for people to understand this is to think of a huge library with literally millions of volumes of books in it, an electronic library. Seventy percent of those books are on bookcases in the United States, meaning that the bulk of the of the world’s infrastructure, communications infrastructure is in the United States.

There are no limitations on the customers who can use this library. Many and millions of innocent people doing min– millions of innocent things use this library, but there are also nefarious people who use it. Terrorists, drug cartels, human traffickers, criminals also take advantage of the same technology. So the task for us in the interest of preserving security and preserving civil liberties and privacy is to be as precise as we possibly can be when we go in that library and look for the books that we need to open up and actually read.

You think of the li– and by the way, all these books are arranged randomly. They’re not arranged by subject or topic matter. And they’re constantly changing. And so when we go into this library, first we have to have a library card, the people that actually do this work.

Which connotes their training and certification and recertification. So when we pull out a book, based on its essentially is– electronic Dewey Decimal System, which is zeroes and ones, we have to be very precise about which book we’re picking out. And if it’s one that belongs to the– was put in there by an American citizen or a U.S. person.

We ha– we are under strict court supervision and have to get stricter– and have to get permission to actually– actually look at that. So the notion that we’re trolling through everyone’s emails and voyeuristically reading them, or listening to everyone’s phone calls is on its face absurd. We couldn’t do it even if we wanted to. And I assure you, we don’t want to.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

Why do you need every telephone number? Why is it such a broad vacuum cleaner approach?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Well, you have to start someplace. If– and over the years that this program has operated, we have refined it and tried to– to make it ever more precise and more disciplined as to which– which things we take out of the library. But you have to be in the– in the– in the chamber in order to be able to pick and choose those things that we need in the interest of protecting the country and gleaning information on terrorists who are plotting to kill Americans, to destroy our economy, and destroy our way of life.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

Can you give me any example where it actually prevented a terror plot?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Well, two cases that– come to mind, which are a little dated, but I think in the interest of this discourse, should be shared with the American people. They both occurred in 2009. One was the aborted plot to bomb the subway in New York City in the fall of 2009.

And this all started with a communication from Pakistan to a U.S. person in Colorado. And that led to the identification of a cell in New York City who was bent on– make– a major explosion, bombing of the New York City subway. And a cell was rolled up, and in their apartment, we found backpacks with bombs.

A second example, also occurring in 2009, involved– the– one of the– those involved, perpetrators of the Mumbai bombing in India, David Headley. And we aborted a plot against a Danish news publisher based on– the same kind of information. So those are two specific cases of uncovering plots through this mechanism that– prevented terrorist attacks.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

Now Americans might say, “Yes, but terrorists succeeded in Boston at the marathon, terrorists have succeeded elsewhere and not been thwarted, despite all of this information that is gathered by N.S.A.”–

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Right. Well, that’s true, and I find it a little ironic that in– several weeks ago, after the Boston bombings, we were accused of not being sufficiently intrusive. We are suppo– we were– we didn’t– we failed to determine the exact tipping point when the brothers self-radicalized.

And then it was we weren’t intrusive enough. I don’t mean to be a smart guy here, it’s just that this is emblematic of the serious debate that goes on in this country between the two poles of security and civil liberties and privacy. And what we must, and I thought the president spoke– really articulately about this yesterday in California.

And he is– is exactly on the money. And that the challenge for us is navigating between those two poles. It’s not a balance, it’s not either/or. There has– there has to be that balance and– so that we protect the country and also protect civil liberties and privacy.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

What the president said in part was, “You can’t have a 100% security and then you have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.” There are accidents. NBC News was told by one of your predecessors Dennis Blair that in fact one digit was inaccurately– inputted back in 2009 and it was a completely innocent person whose telephone conversations was actually– were actually eavesdropped on.

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

There– there is no question, and I– I certainly want– wouldn’t want to leave the impression that this process, as complex and voluminous as it is, is perfect. Certainly it isn’t. What we do try to do though is when errors are detected, and understand most of this is done through a computer process, it’s not being done directly by human eyes and ears.

And so– but the computer processes are directed by humans. And when we discover errors which in all cases I’m familiar with were innocent and unintended, they are immediately corrected. And any of the ill-begotten collection is destroyed. And this is all done in response to court oversight and court direction.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

There are people on the Hill who support your work strongly– Senator Feinstein and– among others, who say, “Can it be narrowed? You know, should we take another look at this?” And in fact, asked the FISA Court, the Intelligence Court last December during reauthorization debates– “Can you report back to the American people periodically?” And the court said no. The court operates without– ex parte. Without any countervailing arguments, doesn’t it? Should that be a cause of concern to Americans? Tell us why it is– it shouldn’t be in your view.

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Well, certainly it’s– it’s– it’s a c– it should be a cause of concern to Americans, as a ca– as a cause of concern to us. And if we find ways, and we have found ways where we can refine these processes and limit the– the– exposure to Americans’– private communications, we will do that. In fact, Senator Feinstein has tasked us to– to look at s– at such an innovation, specifically to N.S.A. And we owe our answer in– in about a month.

There are also, of course– people very, very concerned about– civil liberties and privacy, among whom is– for example Senator Wyden– whom I have great respect for. And he is passionate about– civil liberties and privacy and he is averse to– and this gets to the second part of your question, averse to so-called secret law. Well, this gets to the issue of how openly these things are discussed. Because while it’s– transparency’s good for our system, others– n– you know, less– ideally– motivated– are taking advantage of that.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

The bad guy–

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

So our– our s– our perspective, r– from the intelligence community perspective is– c– to preserve and protect the secrecy because the– the– by exposing the tactics and the techniques and the procedures we use, our adversaries go to school on that and they make it even harder for us.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

Senator Wyden made quite a lot out of your exchange with him last March during the hearings. Can you explain what you meant when you said that there was not data collection on millions of Americans?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

First– as I said, I have great respect for Senator Wyden. I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked– “When are you going to start– stop beating your wife” kind of question, which is meaning not– answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no. So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying no.

And again, to go back to my metaphor. What I was thinking of is looking at the Dewey Decimal numbers– of those books in that metaphorical library– to me, collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the book off the shelf and opening it up and reading it.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

Taking the contents?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Exactly. That’s what I meant. Now–

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

You did not mean archiving the telephone numbers?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

No.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

Let me ask you about the content–

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

And this has to do with of course somewhat of a semantic, perhaps some would say too– too cute by half. But it is– there are honest differences on the semantics of what– when someone says “collection” to me, that has a specific meaning, which may have a different meaning to him.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

Well, what do you say also– I should ask you, what do you say to the other senators who are not on the committee, not on the Intelligence Committee, who have been invited in to read before these laws are reauthorized, and now are criticizing? Is there enough information available to the rest of the United States Senate and the rest of the members of Congress who are not expert, when they go in before they vote?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Well–

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

Do they– do they know what they’re voting on?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

I– I trust so. Obviously, our primary congressional interlocutors are– are two Intelligence Oversight Committees, both in the House and the Senate. And so they are used to operating in a classified environment, their staffs are, so that is primarily with whom we– we do business.

But on a piece of legislation, say in this case the FISA Amendment Act– we provided detailed– briefings and papers on this to explain the law, explain the process it was governing. Now I can’t comment on whether senators and representatives were all able to avail themselves, but that material was made available.

And certainly if any member, whether on the Intelligence Committee or the Judiciary Committee or any other committee would– who had asked for specific briefing or follow-up questions, we certainly would respond– would’ve responded.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

There were slides and details about these other programs, the programs on internet providers. It’s been referred to as Prism, but it’s technically 702 programs. And according to The Washington Post’s report on that, it was a disgruntled intelligence officer who provided that top-secret information to The Guardian and The Washington Post. How do you feel about that?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Well, I think we all feel profoundly offended by that. This is someone who for whatever reason has chosen to violate a sacred trust– for this country. And so we all look upon it, no matter what hi– his or her motivation may have been, the damage that these revelations incur are huge. And so– I hope we’re able to track down who is whoever’s doing this, because it is extremely damaging to– and it affects the safety and security of this country.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

Can I assume from that, can I infer that there has been a referral to track down the leak?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Absolutely. We have– the– N.S.A. has filed a crimes report on this already.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

And some people would regard this person, he or she, as a whistleblower and a hero for letting the American public know that their emails are being tapped into and that their privacy has been invaded.

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

There are legitimate outlets for anyone within the intelligence community who feels that some law is being– violated for reporting fraud, waste, and abuse. And there are legitimate mechanisms for reporting that both within the executive and of the Congress, without damaging national security. And for whatever reason, the person or persons doing this chose not to use those legitimate outlets.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

How do these programs work? Some of the internet providers deny that they’re cooperating. So they seem to not be knowing or ca–

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Well, the internet– the– the service providers, I’ll speak generically, are doing this. But the– it is done under a court order and under legally mandated– legislatively-mandated procedures. And it’s– the– these are very precise, they’re not indefinite, they have to be renewed, and the court has to approve them.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

The president and you and the others in this top-secret world, are saying, “Trust us. We have your best interests, we’re not invading your privacy, we’re going after bad guys. We’re not going after your personal lives.” What happens when you’re gone, when this president or others in our government are gone? There could be another White House that breaks the law.

There could be another D.N.I. who does really bad things– we listened during the Watergate years to those tapes. With the President of the United States saying, “Fire bomb the Brookings Institution.” You know, what do you say to the American people about the next regime who has all of these secrets? Do they– do they live forever somewhere in a computer?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

No, they don’t live forever. That’s a valid concern, I think. You know, people come and go, presidents come and go, administrations come and go, D.N.I.’s will come and go. But what is, I think– important about our system is our system of laws, our checks and balances.

You know, the– I think the founding fathers would actually be pretty impressed with how– what they wrote and the organizing principles for this country are still valid and are still used even in you– to– to regulate a technology then, they never foresaw. So that’s timeless. That– those are part of our institutions. Are there people that will abuse those institutions? Yes. But we have a system that sooner or later, mostly sooner these days, those misdeeds are found out.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

And the data that are collected, do they live forever?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

No, they do not. We– there are strict retention period limits, which are– are overseen, well, first by me and the attorney general, by the court system, and by the Congress, to ensure that– the data that is collected is not– held in perpetuity.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

Now, there’s been another leak– in the last couple of days. This one is a t– another top-secret order, ordering from the president, ordering senior intelligence officials to drop a list of potential overseas targets for cyber attack. How do you– how do you deal with a situation where there’s a leak a day, it seems, of top-secret information?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Well, it’s– hard to deal with. It is– again, as– in the case of this presidential directive, an egregious violation of a sacred trust, that anyone who has access to this, would choose on his or her own to violate that– that trust and disseminate this to the media.

I’d be surprised if anyone else were surprised that we weren’t at least thinking about– our behavior in the cyber domain. And so what this does is lay out a conceptual framework to include some definitions or how we think about that.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

At a time when we’re telling the Chinese– you know, “You have invaded our businesses and our weapons systems and have to take responsibility for what’s coming from your territory,” doesn’t– don’t these leaks undercut our argument?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Well, they– (SIGH) perhaps. I think there is an understanding among nation states that we are going other monitor each other’s behavior. We do it. Other major nation states do it as well. But I also think there are limits– and just how aggressive that is, and that’s the reason for– I think some discussion among certainly industrialized countries about some rules of the road for how we behave in– in– in cyber land.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

We were told– NBC News reported that Senator John McCain, during the campaign, had written a letter, a draft letter to the Taiwanese leader, congratulating the new Taiwanese leader. And it was in the computer of his campaign. It hadn’t been sent yet. And he got a call from the Chinese government complaining about a letter that he had sent– that he had not yet sent– to Taiwan, of course– China’s– acknowledged rival or enemy. How does that happen?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Well, it happens because of the technology and the nature– the global nature of the internet and the connectivity that we all benefit from, but there are also downsides. And this is a case in point. To me, what this illustrates is the importance of improved cyber security. A whole other subject. So– and also– the vulnerability that we all have when we use media of any form that is publicly accessible.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

I know what you’re basically– your job is to stop the bad guys, to stop terrorist attacks.

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Right.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

And– how much has that compromised by the current atmosphere of suspicion and criticism– and the feeling that the American public– may not be supporting the effort in the future? And in the past, has been very supportive?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Well, that’s of great concern. It’s a great concern to me and all the intelligence community leadership that we cannot function without the support of the American people. That’s– we are, ourselves, part of the American people. And, you know, the vast majority of people in the– in the intelligence community, whether military or civilian– take this as a point of honor, a point of duty and of service to the country.

They’re not in it for the money, certainly. And they’re not in it for the glorification. And so if people don’t– feel that way and don’t trust the intelligence community to do the right thing, well, that’s a serious concern. And it’s– and it is a serious personal concern of mine.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

Do you know how many people had access to the top-secret documents that were leaked to The Washington Post and The Guardian? Are we talking a handful, hundreds, thousands–

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Well, I’d rather not go into that because that kind of could impact the investigation that’s going on. So I– I’d rather not answer that.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

And are new procedures being put in to try to protect against this flow of leaks?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Well, we’ve– we’re constantly trying to institute new procedures. I’m in the process of attempting to institute some practices and policies that will try to stem the hemorrhage of– leaks, leaking that we’ve– we’ve had in recent years. But this is a tough problem because when it boils down to it, we operate, even though we have clearances and we have skiffs and– and secure areas, when it all boils down to it, it’s all about personal trust.

And we’ve had violations of that personal trust in the past and we will continue to have them. And all we can do is learn lessons from what we– when we find out what caused– a revelation like this and make improvements and go on.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

You know, a lot of this has to do with technology, both people’s adaptation to it and fear of it. We saw in the Boston marathon case how the number of cameras that were out there, security cameras, private and government, really did help, New York City is another instance. We get used to things like Homeland, a television series that– apparently the president himself watches, with amazing technology. Is that the world we have to get used to?

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Well, I think it is. And I think– you know, the pace of technology change which– by the way poses a problem from both a policy and a legal standpoint to keep up with the rapid changes in technology, which is becoming ever more pervasive in our society.

And you spoke of the surveillance cameras in Boston, which were crucial to tracking down the perpetrators, the two brothers. But at the same time– you know, when you’re on the beltway and you have a radar gun that’s looking at you and if you’re not– if you’re– under the speed limit– you know, you’re not bothered.

Photo cameras that take pictures of license plates and you get something in the mail saying you’ve violated the speed limit. So those are all emblematic of today’s society. The same providers who helped to analyze our behavior, our purchasing behavior, well, all of this is both an upside and a downside of this burgeoning technology.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

Finally, your message to those who say, from the– A.C.L.U. and others, “We feel invaded. We don’t know when you’re looking at us or listening in on our conversations. And what is the real benefit? Why should we give up so much privacy? Can it be done better?”

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

We’re trying to minimize those invasions of privacy and keep them to an absolute minimum and only focus on those targets that really do pose a threat. And to not invade anyone’s privacy– communications, telephone calls, emails, if they’re not involved in plotting against these United States. And so– as the technology changes that we were just talking about, we have to adapt as well to both provide that security and also ensure civil liberties and privacy.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

 

Thank you very much, Director Clapper.

JAMES CLAPPER:

 

Thanks for having me.

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NBC NEWS EXCLUSIVE TRANSCRIPT OF ANDREA MITCHELLS INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE JAMES CLAPPER