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Spy Chief James Clapper Compares U.S. ‘Intelligence Community’ to Spider-Man

The spy chief of the United States compared the American “intelligence community” to the Marvel superhero Spider-Man in a speech he gave at an intelligence summit on September 9.

In a description for Director of the National Intelligence James Clapper, the organizers of the AFCEA/INSA National Security and Intelligence Summit wrote, “U.S. intelligence is an essential instrument of national power, and perhaps has never been more powerful than today, given advances in technology. And with great power comes great responsibility.”

Clapper took this as an invitation to appropriate Spider-Man and use the superhero as a frame for all of his remarks. He admitted he did not think he was Spider-Man, but said, “I feel like I have a personal connection to the web-slinger.”

Like Spider-Man, the Intelligence Community Faces “Tough Choices”

The remarks at the end of the speech were reflective and earnest.

Offering his own thumbnail history of comic books, Clapper said prior to Spidey, “Most comic books primarily depicted the external struggle between the superhero and the super-villain. It was ‘Superman versus Lex Luthor – with Kryptonite.'”

“With Peter Parker, for the first time, comic readers saw a hero’s inner struggles,” Clapper said. “They shared his experiences of trying to keep his job and earn enough to survive, trying to talk to girls, and watching helplessly as a loved one, his Uncle Ben, dies. And more than anything else, Peter struggled with deciding what to do when his principles, his personal values, came in conflict with each other.”

“That’s what made Spider-Man such an interesting character to follow. People have always related to his inner struggle with decisions. Peter found that, sometimes he couldn’t keep a promise to a friend and at the same time, as Spider-Man, help someone in need.”

To Clapper, like Spider-Man, the people of the “intelligence community” [IC] face similar “tough choices.”

“I think this often gets lost in the public discussion,” Clapper argued. “We, as an institution and as a workforce, have principles and values that sometimes come into conflict; things like: our need to keep sources and methods secret, and our desire to be more open and transparent with what we do; things like: pursuing terrorists and others who want to do harm and protecting the privacy and civil liberties of the typical citizens – not just of this country, but of the world – who are rarely, but sometimes caught up in our collection efforts against the bad guys.”

This is preposterous and a brazen example of government using a well-known piece of American culture for propaganda.

The history of U.S. intelligence is one of agencies seeking to keep their operations secret from the public. The National Security Agency has been jokingly referred to as “No Such Agency.” It was created by President Harry S. Truman in 1952 in total secrecy.

Senator Frank Church warned in 1975, it had vast capabilities that, if turned on Americans, would mean no American had any privacy left. The agency could monitor everything from phone conversations to telegrams. “There would be no place to hide.”

The Constitution and civil liberties have always been inconveniences to the intelligence community, which only take on great importance when there is scandal and Congress takes rare interest in curtailing programs operated by intelligence agencies. Then Clapper and others have to pay lip service to principles of privacy and talk about respecting civil liberties, even as they work behind-the-scenes to preserve Stasi-like surveillance programs.

Clapper additionally shared, “Solutions for these conflicts are not always obvious. I’ve been in meetings in which we, literally, pulled out our copies of the Constitution and Bill of Rights to get to the ground truth of what our principles and our obligations are. Wrestling with Constitutional issues to make difficult decisions is part of our daily business and is just a fragment of what makes an IC career so unique.”

This is pure propaganda. NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake had concerns about domestic surveillance in 2001 after the September 11th attacks. He went to Vito Potenza, the NSA Deputy General Counsel from 1993 to 2006. Drake claimed “The Program,” which was gathering data from the phone calls and Internet communications of Americans, was unconstitutional. Potenza did not want to be bothered by Drake.

In fact, for PBS Frontline’s “The Program,” Potenza said, “The minute he said, if he did say, “You’re using this to violate the Constitution,” I mean, I probably would have stopped the conversation at that point, quite frankly. So I mean, if that’s what he said he said, then anything after that I probably wasn’t listening to anyway.”

What is probably true is Clapper and others pull out their Constitution or Bill of Rights and read the words to see how they can manipulate language in the documents to justify expanding a surveillance program.

Going Further Down the Rabbit Hole

For a more disturbing glimpse into the pathology of the head of America’s global security state, Clapper joked and rattled off a list of superficial comparisons.

“That line, ‘With great power comes great responsibility,’ was used to introduce Spidey’s first comic book appearance in 1962. And, in the spring of 1963, just as I was starting off in the intelligence business, Marvel published the first issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Coincidence?”

“We constantly have to worry about cover concerns, someone matching our secret identities to our everyday, normal lives,” Clapper declared. “Both Spider-Man and his alter-ego Peter Parker are known for their genius-level intellect. We in the IC are known for our geniuses – in subjects ranging from mathematics and cryptology, to denial and deception, and even rocket science.”

He added, “Spider-Man is known for his superhuman strength. A few days a week, I lift weights in our office gym. And my spotter says I’m pretty strong, for a geezer. [laughter] Of course, my spotter is normally one of my security detail guys. So his evaluation of my weight-room prowess may be a bit biased.”

“Spider-Man is known for his precognitive ‘Spidey Sense.’ Many of our customers expect us to be clairvoyant when it comes to world events,” Clapper said.

This is not entirely accurate. Spider-Man’s precognitive sense involves a psychological awareness of his immediate surroundings, and it is not necessarily an ability to predict what events will happen next. For the IC to have this “Spidey Sense,” it would have to be able to detect someone, who was downloading secret files to take with him to Hong Kong where he could expose a global mass surveillance apparatus to the world. Of course, the IC had no awareness that this was happening when Edward Snowden committed his courageous act, and the world benefited from the IC’s lack of superpower.

Clapper continued, “Spidey is known as the “web-slinger,” because he shoots spider webs from devices on his wrists. Some of the bad guys derisively call him “webhead.” More and more, we in the IC are focused on cyber intelligence and the World Wide Web. Okay, I’ll grant you, that’s a stretch.”

As if this was not ridiculous enough, Clapper compared the Spider-Man franchise, not the superhero, to “governance” of the “Intelligence Community.”

“There are even similarities between Spider-Man and the IC when it comes to governance,” Clapper added. “Stan Lee and Marvel created Spider-Man and still publish Spidey comics, but Sony Pictures has creative control of Spidey on film. Similarly, every IC agency and element other than CIA and ODNI are in someone else’s cabinet department, and so integrating priorities and resources across the IC is not easy, particularly when it comes to following the different laws, rules, and processes that resides in each of the departments.”

If We’re Going to Compare U.S. Intelligence to Marvel Comics…

Clapper returned to Spider-Man’s creed, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and ended his speech.

“That line so succinctly describes what the people of the intelligence community try to live up to, every day: to show that we’re worthy of America’s trust and that we’re worthwhile, because – spoiler alert – we’re not comic book characters. We’re Americans working to protect our nation, and at the same time, striving to live up to our nation’s values.”

Through whistleblowers like Snowden, Drake, and Chelsea Manning, and through journalists like Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald, and Nick Turse, it is evident Clapper is focused on the wrong comic book character. He should be looking in the pages of Captain America and various other Marvel comic books for Hydra in order to gain insights into the U.S. intelligence community.

As Marvel’s website describes, “Hydra is a world-wide subversive organization dedicated to global domination.” It is “the most extensive, powerful, and dangerous such organization in history.” It is mostly dominated by men. It “prides itself on its ability to regroup and rebuild itself, allegedly mightier than before, after any major defeat. Indeed, the organization has now endured for four decades.”

This sounds like the U.S. intelligence community after Sen. Church spurred investigations into the security state and pushed for greater restraints. U.S. intelligence has found a way to bounce back and use regulations to indoctrinate overseers into their daily operations so they do not fiercely challenge them. Plus, post-9/11, U.S. intelligence grew exponentially to reassert itself in the face of a terrorist group, which had exposed America’s vulnerability.

“The man most responsible for the creation of Hydra was Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, the Prussian aristocrat who served as wing commander of Nazi Germany’s infamous Death’s Head Squadron, and later as leader of its Blitzkrieg Squad of commandos,” according to Marvel.

U.S. intelligence has a history of collaboration with Nazis. During the Cold War, U.S. intelligence agencies utilized 1,000 Nazis as Cold War spies. Agencies then covered up the role Nazis played in efforts.

In the “Captain America: Winter Soldier” movie, Hydra is an organization that learns post-World War II that humanity has surrendered freedom willingly otherwise people will resist. S.H.I.E.L.D., the “espionage, law-enforcement, and counter-terrorism agency,” was founded in the U.S., and German scientists were recruited and became a parasite inside the organization at its beginning. And, for 73 years, Hydra secretly fueled crisis.

U.S. intelligence agencies have been responsible for the overthrow governments in more than 35 countries. Many more attempts at overthrows have been launched. Dirty wars fueled by U.S. intelligence have, especially with the proliferation of drones, helped to destabilize countries like Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Mali. And Snowden showed how numerous dragnets spread out all over the globe have intercepted the communications of millions of innocent citizens.

While Spider-Man is motivated by guilt, regret, and agony when he cannot save people, U.S. intelligence agencies see the loss of countless civilians as “collateral damage.” There is no duty or moral obligation to apologize or atone for the massive amount of death perpetrated by agencies who run the American empire.

The men and women inside U.S. intelligence agencies remain undercover and faceless not because their vigilante acts serve justice but because, if global citizens knew what they really did each day, the world would shun them even more.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."