Intelligence Chief: National Security is More Complex than it Appears

James R. Clapper

WASHINGTON -- The winner of the November presidential election will likely sound a bit more restrained on national security upon stepping into the Oval Office, the nation's intelligence chief said Monday.

"I am struck with how simple things are on the campaign trail and how the very same issues are hard in the confines of the situation room," said James R. Clapper, head of the nation's intelligence community, referring to the nerve center in the West Wing of the White House.

He noted that the job of president "has a tempering effect on anyone."

"There are far more complexities, policy implications, legal implications, than it would appear on the campaign trail," Clapper said at a morning briefing with dozens of journalists at a Washington hotel sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

The unusually divisive campaign has brought out some radical postures on national security issues, particularly on the Republican side.

As recently as early March, Republican front-runner Donald Trump said that he would use waterboarding -- or the forced submersion of terror suspects under water -- in the name of national security, and allow the U.S. military to kill family members of suspected terrorists.

Those positions sparked dismay from some national security experts who note that such tactics violate international treaties. Within days, Trump backed down, saying he would "not order a military officer to disobey the law."

Trump last fall called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."

Following deadly terror attacks in Brussels March 22, the Belgian home that is the de facto capital of the European Union and its main institutions, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called for increased surveillance of Muslim communities in the United States. That position also drew criticism from at least one fellow Republican -- Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, who said it could inflame U.S. Muslims.

Clapper said once nominees for the two parties are selected over the summer, government national security experts will brief them both.

"Everybody gets the same information," he said.

Clapper said radical Islamic State fighters are benefiting from accelerated advances in commercial encryption technology, and are intent on further terror attacks in Europe.

He said U.S. intelligence agencies "see evidence of plotting by ISIL" (Islamic State) terrorists in countries such as Germany, Britain and Italy.

"They are very fanatic, very 'opsec' conscious," Clapper said, using an intelligence term for operational security, adding that terrorists "are going more and more to encrypted security communications, and that makes it tougher."

U.S. intelligence experts two years ago forecast where encryption technology would be seven years in the future, Clapper said, but they miscalculated the impact of revelations from intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who exposed extensive government spying in 2013. Accelerated commercial development means forecasted developments are already a reality, he said.

Clapper's statement marked the first time a U.S. official offered a calculation on how fast encryption technology is moving.

"It has had, and is having, a profound effect on our ability to collect, particularly against terrorists," Clapper said. "From our standpoint, it's not a good thing."

Clapper sounded a hopeful note that an equilibrium would be found between interests in maintaining an open U.S. society and national security aims to thwart terrorist attacks at home.

"Somehow we need to find a balance here. I'm not an IT expert. I don't know the technicalities of how we might arrive there," Clapper said. But the country is likely "to thread the needle" between ensuring privacy and protecting the collective good, he said.

On other issues, Clapper said:

-- Some 28 pages from a classified section of the 9/11 Commission Report that many observers believe could implicate some Saudi officials in the 2001 attacks could be released in June.

"I think that is certainly a realistic goal from where we stand with that," Clapper said.

-- North Korea overstates its nuclear and medium-range missile capabilities.

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