Presidents have an enormous amount of latitude when it comes to classified intelligence. But just because they can do what they want with the material doesn’t mean they should. The reason for this is something that previous occupants of the Oval Office have understood: The consequences of betraying the trust of an intelligence partner can be dire and self-defeating to the national interest.
Over the 28 years I spent in U.S. intelligence, much of it devoted to counter-terrorism, I saw firsthand what happens when that trust is breached.
I recall one episode when a piece of intelligence that a foreign partner service had given us leaked and appeared in U.S. newspapers. Understandably and unsurprisingly, the foreign service suspended its sharing of information with us. In a later meeting with a foreign counterpart in that country—a senior intelligence official with counterterrorist responsibilities—I had the task of apologizing for the leak, expressing my own government’s regret that such leaks occur, offering assurances that we would do our best to prevent a recurrence, and asking the foreign service to please resume the sharing of information. Eventually the sharing was resumed, but only after a months-long hiatus in which we had lost the benefit of timely intelligence on terrorist threats.
That was the consequence of a garden-variety leak, which only requires one bad apple to overcome the security consciousness of an entire service and an entire government. The reaction of a foreign service to willful disclosure by the president of the United States is likely to be stronger. Every foreign government knows that the president can have access to anything he wants and to the most sensitive of secrets. Probably most shocking for the foreign services is the willful disregard by the man at the top for safeguarding sensitive information, and the bad example that this sets for everyone below him.
The damage is not limited to the one foreign service that originated the information that Trump divulged. Every other foreign intelligence, security, and national police force with which the United States has an information-sharing liaison relationship—and it has many—is taking notice. They are worrying about the political consequences of their intelligence relationship with the Americans becoming a headline item. They are worrying even more about the safety and willingness to cooperate of their own human agents, on whom they rely for intelligence that is critical for their own country’s security. There will be greater reluctance, as a result of what happened in the Oval Office, among many of these other foreign services to share information with the United States.
The reluctance extends as well to the level of would-be individual spies, including our own. Every such agent or potential agent must be thinking extra thoughts about the extra dangers of working clandestinely for a government headed by someone who treats the resulting information so carelessly. This incident involved reporting from a foreign service, but the impact also will be felt in what U.S. intelligence services can collect.
The information that Trump reportedly conveyed to the Russians involved terrorism. There is no other topic on which the United States is more heavily dependent on information shared by friendly foreign services. Those services are on the front line in confronting many of the terrorist groups and extremists that also are worries to the United States. Some of the countries concerned have been working hard longer against these targets than the United States. Besides having the experience, they have the local knowledge, cultural familiarity, language ability and other attributes that give them a better chance of penetrating and collecting against such groups and cells than the United States has.
Counterterrorist intelligence is unlike some other topics such as, say, a foreign nuclear program, in which the intelligence service with the most powerful satellites and most sophisticated technical collection systems may have a leg up on everyone else. Intelligence work on terrorism is a much more granular, close-to-the-ground effort, requiring as many participants as possible who are familiar with that ground, to identify the terrorist needles in an endless haystack of extremists. America’s dependence on the cooperation, and the confidence, of its foreign partners is thus heavy and inevitable.
The White House’s attempts at minimizing the significance of Trump’s action miss all these points, and other important ones as well. National security adviser H. R. McMaster made a statement that “at no time were any intelligence sources and methods discussed.” Well, if such sources and methods had been discussed with the Russians, the incident would have been unbelievably egregious rather than merely seriously damaging. The sources and methods involved in the information divulged may in fact be in jeopardy; the Russian services are probably at least as capable as anyone else at reverse engineering the provided information to narrow down how, where, and by whom it was collected. Analysts at the SVR and FSB are undoubtedly digging into what must have been for them an especially interesting cable from Ambassador Kislyak. Even if the specific sources and methods are not compromised, however, the main issue remains the loss of trust.
McMaster was trotted out before the cameras to say he considered the sharing of information “wholly appropriate”, but this defies credibility. He and other senior aides with any national security experience certainly realized immediately the significance of what Trump had done. This was indicated by the scrambling, especially by assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism Thomas Bossert, to expunge from internal memos the relevant part of the President’s conversation with the Russians and to limit severely the distribution of transcripts from the meeting. It is once again, as Trump might say, sad that capable people who do know something about national security are doing fine line-drawing in statements and other clean-up duty to try to cover for the mistakes of a boss who doesn’t seem to know much about national security.
Those aides will be critical players as the intelligence community continues to adjust to serving this unique president. The community cannot, and will not, deny this or any other president access to sensitive information because of a fear of further damaging disclosures. But Trump’s lack of appetite for consuming a large volume of intelligence may help in the adjustment. Some pieces of intelligence that in a previous administration may have gone all the way to the president may instead go no higher than to officials such as McMaster and Bossert, and to Secretary of Defense James Mattis—to whom Trump has delegated more authority for the final say in military operations than was the case in previous administrations. This is not a matter of denial of information to the president, but rather of directing the intelligence to where it can do the most good.
As always, historians will eventually have the final say. They surely will note the irony of how Trump’s gaining access to the White House and all its toys depended heavily on attacks against his election opponent who, in the course of conducting business as secretary of state, handled some electronic communications in what was not the most secure manner, even though no evidence has come to light that any of the information involved ever was exposed to foreign or hostile eyes. Trump has eliminated the hacker middleman and taken a more direct approach: Give the stuff directly to the Russian foreign minister.