Book review: "Facts and Fears" by James Clapper

Verdict: well worth it. Should be mandatory reading for every politician and journalist. Not because of the facts included in it, although many of them deserve attention, but because of its depiction of how the intelligence community works as a large bureaucracy, how it deals with challenges, how it evolves, and how it fails. Any seasoned professional worth their salt is going to recognize Clapper as a peer, sharing organizational wisdom of five decades of service. The book starts a bit slow, but by the time it gets to 1991 it becomes a proper nailbiter, especially when you understand the stakes in the events it describes.

Important highlights

Primary reason US has fucked up the fall of the Soviet Union so bad was the idiotic "peace dividend" mantra of the 1990-s. Instead of realizing that decomposition of a former superpower into a tangle of ethnic conflicts, poverty, crime, unrealized ambitions, and unaccounted state of the art weaponry is going to make the world less, not more safe, American politicians were so eager to score political points with budget cuts that they indiscriminately cut funding across the entire defense budget, including intelligence. America paid the price for this shortsightedness on 9/11/2001, the rest of the world, in 2003. What could have been a shining moment for America has instead become the beginning of its downfall.

Clapper seems fine with most of the Bush Jr.'s administration, but he reserves quite a few passages for Rumsfield, painting a convincing picture of a vindictive and incompetent opportunist oblivious of the damage his political maneuvering did to his own organization, his country, and the world. It is especially striking when contrasting it with the great respect he studiously expresses towards everyone else he worked with around that time, even people who gave him a fair bit of trouble, like Feinstein and McCain. As someone with very short patience for incompetence, I sympathize very well.

The really scary part of the book though, at least for people with a cursory understanding of how to run large organizations and with a fully developed adult concept of scary, begins a couple chapters later, with the Tea Party and its takeover of Congress in 2010. It makes the trail of destruction left by Trump across all government services in 2017 look like only a more blatant and visible culmination of a much longer pattern of unprecedented malicious neglect started almost a decade ago. Clapper doesn't talk policy, he disclaims many times that his responsibility as intelligence officer stops at giving all available information. He talks a lot about command, communication, organizational patterns, resolving disagreements, analyzing and fixing mistakes. What he describes in the modern crop of GOP is not bad policy, it is an utter and unmitigated organizational dysfunction.

Thanks to GOP's sequestration and fiscal cliff games, US has been stumbling almost blind through an increasingly dangerous world for years before the impact of reduced intelligence capability began to materialize in actual intelligence and policy disasters, from Ukraine and Syria in 2014 to United States itself in 2016. And it's only getting worse from there.

In 2014, US intelligence analysts have realized that half of the currently stable countries in the world are showing signs of what Clapper calls "unpredictable instability", meaning that an unforeseen event, like street trader's self-immolation in Tunisia, could set off a wave of political violence comparable to the Arab Spring. What's even scarier is that they identified United States as one of these countries, based on factors such as income inequality, youth unemployment, and polarization of political discourse.

Other interesting facts

Benghazi was a freak accident, exactly the kind that happens when a diplomat goes into a city in the middle of a civil war without a security team and stays in a compound guarded by locals who disperse as soon as that compound gets hit and set on fire by random looters. In war, most deaths are stupid.

Snowden is a traitor and not a whistleblower. My friends who told me that before were right and I was wrong. What convinced me were two lies pointed out by Clapper. One, Snowden blamed his decision to go rogue on Clapper's testimony in Congress, except that testimony happened a whole year after he began stealing data to leak. Two, Snowden kept claiming to curate the leaked data all the way until it became evident that he indiscriminately and immediately handed everything to every useful idiot he could find. Another interesting fact is that Snowden was kicked out of CIA in 2009 and should never have been given clearance to work at NSA. This one is on the CIA.

US intelligence had proof that Russia shot down MH-17 over Ukraine within hours, using the systems they've put in place for exactly that purpose after Soviet Union shot down a Korean airliner in 1983. The fact that it kept being presented as "alleged" and "unconfirmed" for years is a massive media fail, a precursor to the disaster of 2016. The press in the democratic countries should have learned by now not to present both sides equally when only one of the sides is known to ever act in good faith.

Same thing about climate, both-siding global warming is entirely on the press. Defence intelligence treated global warming as a real threat to global peace for decades. Clapper casually mentions climate change induced draughts in Northern Africa as the most important destabilizing factor creating preconditions for the Arab Spring.

Almost a half of Bin Laden's personal library turned out to be conspiracy theory books. The guy was no military genius, just a conspiracy nut with access to money. Goes to show both how disconnected from reality the world's most destructive personalities are, and how destructive people disconnected from reality can become.


Predictably, the part about Russia's role in the 2016 elections doesn't offer new revelations, Clapper is careful not go beyond what was already public knowledge at the time of his writing this book.

His SIGINT background also shows in how he misreads the thought processes of his adversaries--something he has noted earlier in the book to have long been a problem even for the HUMINT side of the US intelligence community. Demonstrating once again that US IC is still not paying enough attention to the warnings from their NATO allies in Europe, Clapper sticks to the theory that Putin's decision to support Trump in 2016 was an opportunistic retaliation for Clinton voicing concerns about Russian parliamentary elections in December 2011, rather than another escalation of a broader information war that Russia has been waging against the West since early 2000s, and activation of an asset recruited in late 1980s.

He places the beginning of active support of the Trump campaign by Russian trolls at December 2015, around the time Mike Flynn had that dinner with Putin at RT gala; until then, their focus has been on political polarization and attacking Clinton. He also points out that Trump's ratings have fallen so far after the Access Hollywood that Russian trolls seem to have given up on him and went back to trying to delegitimize Clinton's projected win.

Other than the above, nothing in the book adds or subtracts from the established facts already known to the public. Clapper claims with confidence that the influence of Russian information operations was more than sufficient to influence the 78,000 votes that flipped the Electoral College to Trump, and leaves it up to Mueller to expose the connections between Trump campaign and Russia.

I have opinions, and I am not afraid to use them.