President Donald Trump’s decision to disclose allegedly classified information to Russian officials could threaten vital foreign intelligence ties, testing key allies’ confidence in the U.S. just as he heads to the Middle East and Europe. In a series of tweets Tuesday morning, Trump defended sharing information about Islamic State threats to airline safety with Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting last week. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said the president’s disclosures, first reported by the Washington Post, were “wholly appropriate.”
But intelligence professionals disagreed.
“If America doesn’t know how to behave in a trustworthy way, other states, not only Israel, will start sifting the information that they provide,” Mordechai Kedar, a retired lieutenant colonel in Israeli military intelligence, said in an interview after a report emerged that Israel was the source of the information. “The Americans may find themselves receiving only paraphrases.”
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Although a U.S. president can legally disclose classified information as he deems appropriate, doing so is typically a decision planned out in advance, with consideration of what should and shouldn’t be shared and the benefits and risks in doing so. McMaster said that Trump made the decision to divulge information “in the context of the conversation,” suggesting no such deliberations took place.
Pressed further, McMaster said Trump hadn’t been briefed on the source of the information. Asked why officials who were present informed the CIA and the National Security Agency about what the president said, McMaster said such a notice would have been done out of an “overabundance of caution.”
Those admissions are unlikely to reassure U.S. allies or intelligence officers risking their lives in the field.
“If true, the story will indeed harm relations with U.S. allies who are our closest intelligence partners and will now be wary of sharing their best secrets with us,” said Nicholas Dujmovic, who spent 26 years at the CIA and is director of the intelligence studies program at Catholic University of America in Washington.
Another possible casualty would be clandestine human sources, who may “think twice before providing the U.S. with privileged information,” added Dujmovic, who used to edit the daily intelligence report provided to presidents. “Why take the risk of giving the Americans great intelligence if the president is going to reveal it?”
Israeli officials wouldn’t confirm they were the source of the information that Trump shared with Russia, as was reported by the New York Times. Ron Dermer, the country’s ambassador to the U.S., said in a statement that “Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump.”
Shabtai Shavit, director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency from 1989 to 1996, said in an interview that any diplomatic fallout between Israel and the White House “will probably be handled behind closed doors” because both countries have an interest in the success of Trump’s visit to Israel next week.
The uproar comes as Trump prepares for his first overseas trip as president, with stops planned in other countries including Saudi Arabia, Italy and Belgium. He’ll meet with leaders whose nations are on the front lines of fighting Islamic State and other extremists, seek to bolster efforts to rein in Iran’s regional influence and discuss ways to end the war in Syria — all of which depend on close intelligence cooperation.
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The U.S. relies on a global network of intelligence-sharing partnerships. Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are key intelligence providers in the Middle East, while another network — the “Five Eyes” agreement among the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand — is also depended on heavily.
Trump said he decided to provide information to his Russian visitors in the context of improving ties with Moscow.
“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining….to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump wrote in a pair of tweets Tuesday morning. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
McMaster said in a briefing that “the president wasn’t even aware of where this information came from, he wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information either.”
The latest revelations come after a presidential campaign in which Trump ridiculed the U.S. intelligence community for its conclusion that Russia interfered in an effort to hurt his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Trump’s trip to the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters on the first full day of his presidency did little to calm that relationship after he gave a speech full of political themes while standing in front of the CIA’s memorial to employees who died in the line of service.
Probes Under Way
While Trump continues to dismiss as “fake news” investigations of Russian meddling and whether any of his associates colluded in it, the FBI and committees in Congress are pressing ahead with probes.
That was the backdrop as Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in Washington May 10. Even if “wholly appropriate,” as McMaster said, the leak of the conversation raises risks for the intelligence community, according to former CIA director James Woolsey.
“If people have stopped trusting us now given all these leaks, people will stop trusting us even more if we have further leaks trying to understand who leaked what,” Woolsey said in an interview in Washington Tuesday. “We may be moving into a world in which nobody wants to share intelligence with the United States because of leaks all the time.”
Trump’s actions weren’t unprecedented.
Past presidents have shared classified information — some of it highly sensitive — with foreign officials to gain trust and cooperation. Former president George W. Bush, for instance, even brought in Russian President Vladimir Putin to the president’s daily brief.
In those cases, however, “the president informed the intelligence community in advance of what he wanted to do,” allowing the agencies to prepare a tailored briefing book for those meetings, according to David Priess, author of “The President’s Book of Secrets’’ and a former CIA officer and intelligence briefer.
“The difference was that was a planned process with full buy-in from the intelligence community,” Priess said in a phone interview. In his research, Priess, who interviewed several former presidents, said he “did not get any sense” that presidents on “an ad-hoc basis simply decide to disclose code-word” — very sensitive — information.
“In this case, the reporting suggests it was not the result of a process,” he said, “but it was a result of a whim.’’