Clapper: Presidential transition 'will be OK'

Outgoing Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is focused on the upcoming presidential transition and future threats to the U.S.

DNI James Clapper speaking at INSA Sept. 7 2016 Photo credit Herman Farrer

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper addresses the Intelligence and National Security Summit. )(Photo credit: Herman Farrer)

Any presidential transition is a time of great vulnerability, and the upcoming change in administrations comes at a particularly difficult time, says Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

"We're facing the most complex and diverse array of global threats... that I've seen in my 53 years in the [intelligence] business," Clapper told an audience at the Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington.

"I know a lot of people have been feeling uncertainty about what will happen with this presidential transition," said Clapper. "I'm here with a message: it will be OK."

Clapper said two weeks ago he attended the first formal meeting between the current administration and the transition teams of the two presidential nominees. He said he was struck by how "sober and professional and courteous and civil the conversation was."

In what was more a valedictory than policy address as he approaches the end of his career, Clapper outlined what he sees as the threats and challenges for the next administration.

"In the coming decades, an underlying meta driver of unpredictable instability will be, I believe, climate change," Clapper said. Growing competition over access to food and water and other resources caused by climate change will make it harder for governments to control their territories and will lead to greater security threats, he said.

He said the cycle of extremism will continue after ISIL is gone.

"Our more traditional adversaries like Russia and China, Iran and North Korea will continue to challenge us," he said.

"The Russians hack our systems all the time, not just government, but corporate and personal systems," said Clapper. "And so do the Chinese and others, including non-state actors."

Clapper said cyber will be a "huge problem" for the next administration, as well as technological advances such as artificial intelligence that can revolutionize life, but also create dangerous vulnerabilities.

At the same time, he noted that attempts to hack into U.S. election technology are nothing new.

"People all around the world, not just opposing parties, want to know what the candidates are thinking," Clapper said. "That's why we've seen attempted cyber intrusions against parties and candidates going back more than one election cycle,"

Clapper said that he believes the IC Information Technology Enterprise (ICITE) has buy-in from enough stakeholders that it will continue under the next administration. He added that he stayed in his position this long in part to make sure that ICITE is instantiated and "will be too difficult to turn off."

Though he stated that platforms like ICITE are important innovations, he said there will never be a need for lessening human intelligence collection.

Clapper also argued the U.S. needs to continue to invest in capabilities in space to counter growing efforts by the Chinese and Russians to develop space technology.

In terms of what the intelligence community needs to do better, Clapper said that agencies need to be more transparent and not over-classify information. He said there also needs to be more partnership and sharing of cyber vulnerabilities with the private sector.

Clapper acknowledged there has been tension with the private sector over encryption, and said industry and the IC need an open dialog to strike a balance.

One item he says will be addressed to the next administration is finding a balance on which threats to prioritize. Counter terrorism, cyber and counter intelligence consume the bulk of the IC's resources today. 

"You always worry about is the balance right, have we continued to sustain what is expected of us, which is global coverage," he said. "I do worry about the relative proportion, and the skewing towards top targets, because it's the non-top targets that have a habit of biting you."