Former national intelligence director James Clapper on stage at Sonoma's Sebastiani Theatre
It’s not often the head of national intelligence comes to Sonoma, at least that we know of. But James Clapper’s new book is being released in mid-May, and that little independent bookstore on East Napa Street lobbied for, and got, the retired Air Force lieutenant general and President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence to put Sonoma on his agenda.
So there he will be on the Sebastiani Theatre stage on May 24, at 7 p.m. in support of “Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence.” The reading is co-sponsored by Readers’ Books, the Sebastiani and the Sonoma Speakers Series, from whom tickets are available.
“Facts and Fears” is likely to generate the same kind of buzz as did James Comey’s recent “A Higher Loyalty,” if not Michael Wolff’s more gossipy “Fire and Fury.” The Trump Administration is a veritable gold mine for an inside-the-beltway memoir (and the president is said to love his gold). Donald Trump is unlikely to be fond of a critique from Clapper, whose outrage and dismay over the Trump White House is almost palpable in appearances on CNN, MSNBC and elsewhere – including as a witness before Congress.
Clapper won’t need “fake news” to sell books. His viewpoint is from the center of the National Security Administration and the capture of Osama Bin Laden through Russia’s influence operation during the 2016 U.S. election campaign. And his 55 years of military, private and government experience gives him the perspective to ask questions about ethics, morality and policy, if not the very nature of “intelligence” itself.
Just five years ago, some members of the press and Congress called for an investigation into Clapper, when he was the DNI. He was accused of leaking information about classified briefings, and giving erroneous answers about mass surveillance to Congress in March of 2013. Edward Snowden said it was Clapper’s misleading statements, among other reasons, that provoked him to release the secret NSA documents he did in June of that year.
Clapper weathered that storm and continued to serve the Obama administration until its end, in January 2017. Since then he has been a harsh critic of Trump’s policies and fitness for office. He continues to be a target of criticism from the conservative press.
“The Russians succeeded, I believe, beyond their wildest expectations,” he told a Congressional hearing in 2017. “Their first objective in the election was to sow discontent, discord, and disruption in our political life, and they have succeeded to a fare-thee-well.”
He raised eyebrows when in December he said that former KGB head Vladimir Putin “knows how to handle an asset and that’s what he’s doing with the President.”
He also told a CNN host that Trump’s behavior at a campaign rally in Arizona was “downright scary and disturbing.”
This high profile makes Clapper the kind of national figure who doesn’t often show up in Sonoma, doing a book reading on the stage of the Sebastiani Theatre. But Lilla Weinberger, co-founder of Readers’ Books, pointed out that national figures are not unknown to Sonoma audiences – she cites Arianna Huffington, Bill Moyers and J.K. Rowling among former Readers’ Books guests.
But this one feels different.
“Every quarter, publishers send out list of available authors for appearances,” said Weinberger. “You request the ones you want, and sometimes you get them and sometimes you don’t. Clapper worked out, and we’re very excited.”
A large part of the reason that the Random House/Viking publisher booked Clapper to Sonoma, thinks Weinberger, was the Sonoma Speakers Series. “Sonoma is not a big media market, so we’re lucky to get someone of his stature. I think it had something to do with SSS and their format.”
The fact that two former NPR reporters – John McChesney and Alex Chadwick – co-founded the group was a definite plus. “I’m sure that had an impact,” said Weinberger. “And we can almost guarantee we will have a literate and engaged audience.”
It will mark the first time that Readers’ has directly partnered with the Sonoma Speakers Series in producing an event, though they have provided books for most if not all previous events.
Those have invariably been held at the spacious Hanna Boys Center Auditorium, but this time the Sebastiani Theatre volunteered to host the event at its downtown venue.
“Our intent with the Sonoma Speaker Series is to continue to attract more and more well-known speakers to our Valley,” said Kathy Witkowicki, co-founder and president of the group. “In some cases, those speakers are authors who have books coming out and are on book tours. That’s the situation with James Clapper. “
Witkowicki said McChesney will interview Clapper on stage for half an hour, then the general would read from “Facts and Fears,” then take questions from the audience. Copies of the book can be advance-ordered from Readers’ Books, or purchased at the May 24 event. Its official publication date is May 15, from Viking Press.
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