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New London — At the age of 12, while staying with his grandparents in Philadelphia, James Clapper stuck a toothpick in the television dial to pick up the signal between channels four and five.
After a couple of minutes, he figured out he was listening in on the Philadelphia Police Department dispatcher.
"So I guess that's an early version of hacking my grandparents' TV set," Clapper, 75, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said, describing his initial interest in intelligence during a leadership address at the Coast Guard Academy Tuesday night.
The next night he began plotting on a street map of Philadelphia which cruisers were getting dispatched to which areas.
He then was able to reconstruct the police districts and boundaries in the city. And from there, he figured out the various call signs and police codes.
When his father, an intelligence officer for the Army, asked him what he'd done all summer, Clapper began briefing him on how the police department worked.
"My dad was dumbstruck. 'My god, I've raised my own replacement,' you know," Clapper recalled.
The story has much of the makings of the intelligence business today, "which is all about research, determination, continuity, drawing inference when you don't have complete information and taking advantage of insecurities of whoever it is you're listening to," Clapper said.
The Coast Guard has contributed vital intelligence on port security, maritime terrorism, the changing Arctic, and even Ebola.
"In the fall of 2014, Coast Guard intelligence showed an incredible agility with the Ebola crisis, pivoting your counterterrorism screening tools and processes to monitor and asses the threat of the deadly virus," Clapper said.
There's been much public conversation and debate, particularly since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked information that showed the U.S. government was collecting the communication records of millions of Americans, about U.S. intelligence gathering efforts.
But what gets lost in that debate, Clapper said, is the more fundamental question of "why do we even do intelligence at all?"
At the most basic level, he said, intelligence gathering is intended to reduce uncertainty for decision makers such as the president or the captain of a Coast Guard cutter.
"We can't eliminate uncertainty for them, but we can certainly provide insight and analysis to help their understanding of whatever situation they're confronted with," Clapper said.
When asked by a cadet about the balance between information sharing and protecting sensitive information, Clapper brought up the terrorist attacks in Brussels that took place less than 24 hours before his address.
"Frankly what impels the need to share is the diversity of threats that we face today and regrettably we saw more evidence of that in Belgium today with the attacks there," Clapper told the cadets. "That has impelled cooperation with foreign partners more than I've ever seen in my 50-plus years in intelligence."
Another cadet asked Clapper about the actions being taken by the U.S. intelligence community to prevent what happened in Brussels from happening here.
Since 9/11, the U.S. has made a "huge investment" in intelligence, Clapper said, "and specifically that which is designed to prevent attacks in the United States."
The National Intelligence Program, the resources, people and money it takes to conduct intelligence, "runs in excess of $50 billion a year, which makes the intelligence community as an enterprise larger than eleven of the cabinet departments," Clapper said.
The U.S. spends more money on counterterrorism intelligence than any other target including Russia and China, he added.
Clapper highlighted the capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community as the best in the world, but said that doesn't mean we'll never have an attack "like the nature we're seeing in Europe."
But the U.S. has a much better sense of who's coming into the country than Europe, which has information-sharing challenges, Clapper said.
Clapper met with French intelligence officials days after the November terror attacks in Paris.
It was "very evident" from those conversations that there are information sharing challenges within French intelligence communities, he said.