Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper encouraged students to absorb daily news with a healthy dose of skepticism at a panel discussion held at the School of International and Public Affairs on Thursday.
The panel was billed as an event to discuss Clapper’s new book, "Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence.” Hosted by the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at SIPA, the event began with a brief introduction from Senior Research Scholar and adjunct professor Peter Clement, who praised Clapper as one of the most influential public figures of our time, citing his record as the longest-serving director of national intelligence in U.S. history.
Clapper was unanimously confirmed by the Senate as the U.S. director of national intelligence in 2010, but he resigned in November 2016 following accusations of perjury for telling a congressional committee hearing that the National Security Agency does not collect data on Americans. His new book discusses the role of national intelligence and moral questions regarding societal protections.
During the conversation, Clapper repeatedly tackled the hyperpolarization of the nation, claiming that there was an “assault on truth and those institutions that depend on the truth.” Academic institutions like Columbia are especially vulnerable in the modern era according to Clapper, who implored students and professors to approach information with skepticism.
“I am often asked what you can do to prevent [the consumption of misinformation]. I don’t know the government—on its own—can do that. What I constantly enjoin people is to not believe everything you see, read, or hear on the internet,” Clapper said.
At times, Clapper said that he has been afforded more latitude as a private citizen than as a government official to make a difference on information warfare in the public arena, speaking throughout the nation to highlight the importance of doubt and skepticism. Clapper claimed that the perfect antidote to misinformation is as simple as “questioning who is paying for the ads” of a specific website or newspaper.
“Getting people to think about that and question what they are exposed to ... is the essence of information warfare [today].”
Citing his experience at the helm of multiple intelligence agencies, Clapper also called for students to seek out global experiences, stating that the national intelligence service “places a great premium on expertise of a country, and that which you can only gain if you actually spend time [living] there.” Speaking directly to students in the audience, Clapper further encouraged them to pick up another language if interested in public service.
“There’s no substitute for on the ground experience or expertise,” he said.
Aside from imparting advice to students and sharing insights on the various geopolitical threats facing the U.S. today, Clapper also made his first comments on Dan Coats, Clapper’s successor at the Department of National Intelligence, since news broke earlier this week that President Trump will likely fire Coats.
He portrayed Coats as an honorable man with “the right instincts” and as someone who has been “telling truth to power”—even in today’s political climate. He also reiterated his defense of Former Acting Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe’s decision to open investigations into the president, which was first revealed on “60 Mminutes” this past Sunday.