"I've been a political appointee in both Democratic and Republican administrations," he said, his voice a phlegmy rumble. "Support the commander in chief. That was the first order of business. But this one, you know…" He reached for his coffee, leaned back, took a sip. "It's hard. This is a unique situation. We've never had a president like this before."
The Clappers live in a well-to-do suburb outside Washington, in a brick house with heavy shutters. Clapper's wife, Susan, a retired NSA administrator, answered the door. Her husband, she said, was at work in the basement. I followed her down a carpeted staircase past some paintings of bald eagles. We found James Clapper sitting at a small round table. He was dressed casually, in sandals, a polo shirt, and board shorts.
He seemed to be transitioning smoothly into the life of an ex-official, what D.C. types call a "former." He now socializes with some of the capital's more august senators, meeting them for lunch and bumping into them with the grandkids behind home plate at Nationals games. He had sworn off his trademark martinis, hit the gym, and lost 20 pounds. He would soon buy a Chevy Camaro. A friend told him that he was having a midlife crisis at age 76.
"Well, this is my man cave," he said, gesturing at a meticulously arranged trophy room with a rolltop desk and two couches. Two glass cases contained a glittering array of polished medals from his time in the Air Force, which he joined in 1963. The far wall had built-in shelves showing off a dim series of objects. Clapper dismissed my interest with a wave of his hand, calling it "various other junk from across the course of my career."
Clapper was one of the first hundred Air Force intelligence officers to go to Vietnam. "I hated the war," Clapper said. "What we were doing to the country—our own country—was bad." For a time, he worked alongside his father, who was the NSA's deputy country chief. Susan gave birth to a daughter while he was overseas. She was 7 months old the first time he saw her.
He stuck with the Air Force after his tours, was promoted "below the zone"—before almost all of his contemporaries—and went on to a career in military intelligence, eventually leading the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. In the years after the September 11 attacks, he clashed with Donald Rumsfeld over how to re-organize the country's spying apparatus, which today consumes roughly $70 billion a year. Rumsfeld won the argument and fired Clapper, but it wasn't long before he himself was out of a job. Clapper's willingness to stand his ground impressed Rumsfeld's replacement, Bob Gates, who recommended him to Obama as director of national intelligence in 2010.
Clapper forged close ties with Obama, whom he often briefed personally. He could be brutally frank; he had no qualms about bringing the president bad news. When the time came to make policy recommendations, Clapper would stick to intelligence and remain silent. Obama staffers would sometimes wonder if he was secretly a Republican.
The worst day of Clapper's career came on March 12, 2013, when he was called to testify before an open hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Ron Wyden, the senior senator from Oregon, asked Clapper whether the NSA collects "any type of data at all on millions, or hundreds of millions, of Americans."
"It does not?" asked Wyden. He looked surprised.
"Not wittingly," said Clapper. The corners of his mouth bent down into his Grumpy Cat face. "There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly."
Wyden believed, and still believes, that Clapper was being intentionally deceptive. Clapper told me that he made a mistake and misunderstood the question. Wyden holds a grudge to this day. "There's no other way to describe this than he lied to Congress. He lied to the American people," Wyden told me. "And that, in my judgment, is unacceptable."