When Donald Trump was elected, U.S. intelligence officials feared that allies would stop sharing critical intelligence information for fear that information might be passed on to Russia. European countries in particular rightfully worried their secrets would land in the hands of Vladimir Putin even as he meddled in their elections.
Wednesday, it appears those fears were realized.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the infamous Ambassador Sergey Kislyak must have giggled inside, maybe even smirked a little as Russia’s preferred president bragged to them about how “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day.” Trump’s bravado allegedly revealed highly classified specifics about an Islamic State terror group plot to bomb civilian aviation, one that has triggered months of incremental bans on laptops being carried into airplane cabins bound for the U.S.
He gave that information—which came from an ally as part of what The Washington Post describes as “an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government”—to an adversary, Russia. The same adversary under scrutiny for its widespread hacking of American leaders, including the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, the personal emails of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and former NATO Commander Philip Breedlove—hacking that may have tipped the election in favor of Trump.
By releasing classified intelligence, at best, Trump created a gaffe for which any American other than the commander in chief might be imprisoned. At worst, he revealed and put at risk the life of an essential intelligence source of a critical foreign ally.
Above all, Trump further eroded trust in America and amongst Americans at a time when democracy has come under the intense assault of Russian Active Measures to break up the European Union and the NATO military alliance.
Trump’s classified disclosures undermine trust in several ways. Most damaged in this ad-hoc information exchange is the partner country and its intelligence service providing such valuable support to America. Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe at The Washington Post suggest the information came from a non-traditional, sensitive intelligence-sharing arrangement with “access to the inner workings of the Islamic State.” This points to a highly coveted human-intelligence source likely provided by a Middle Eastern partner that is quite likely an adversary of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—a Syrian regime allied with Russia.
Trump’s revelation may well place this rare human source, a type the U.S. intelligence community has struggled to develop after the Sept. 11 attacks, in physical danger. It badly damages a critical intelligence-sharing relationship now and well into the future.
If the country sharing intelligence information with the U.S. is an Arab partner, which is likely, this undermines the legitimacy of the country’s leadership with their own population by associating them with a vocal, anti-Muslim Trump administration.
Even more complicated is Russia’s relationship with the U.S. intelligence-sharing partner country. If Russia had not received the same intelligence as the Americans, for example, Russia may wonder why this country was holding out. Or if Russia received a different version of the intelligence from the partner country, Trump’s unapproved information dump might undermine or exasperate Russia’s relationship with the partner country.
Trump’s braggadocio “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our allies,” the Post reported and the news that he’s done so will strain trust not just with the country sharing this piece of information, but also among other allies and inside the U.S. intelligence community. America’s greatest intelligence sharing comes from its “Five Eyes” partners in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
The U.K. followed the U.S. laptop ban and Canada considered doing the same, but it appears the Five Eyes may not have received all the intelligence from the U.S., and those critical allies may well feel slighted and mistrustful if they didn’t get the full scoop.
U.S. government intelligence leaders must also conduct business with the White House using extreme caution. Those compiling the CIA’s Presidential Daily Brief must now wrestle with the question: “Can I provide this information to President Trump and still protect and maintain the safety of my sources and support of intelligence partners?”
In answering that, true intelligence professionals might hold back critical information from the Leaker in Chief, whose ego and desire to impress preclude sound judgment. That in turn means key decisions would be made by a reckless, emotional, and volatile president with an incomplete picture of the situation.
One slip-up might be excusable, but Trump’s release to the Russians came just one day after his dismissal of FBI Director James Comey for pretenses that almost immediately were exposed as false. Two days later, he further eroded trust among government leaders by insinuating on Twitter that he had taped his conversations with Comey. America’s defense, intelligence, and law-enforcement officials are now more incentivized to hide information and protect themselves than to share and inform America’s top leader—an unprecedented and sad state of affairs.
Talk of some Russia-Trump conspiracy only grows with the American president’s leak of classified information. The day following his dismissal of Comey, Trump held a closed session with Lavrov and where Ambassador Kislyak also appeared—a character whose meetings have been a trademark signature of Russia’s influence of the Trump team, having sullied Gen. Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, Attorney General Sessions and campaign surrogate Carter Page.
When Angela Merkel met with Trump, he treated her with disdain and allegedly served her and Germany, a more than 50-year ally of the U.S. during and after the Cold War, a bill for perceived unpaid NATO commitments. With Lavrov and Kislyak, representatives of a U.S. adversary, Trump laughed it up, as seen in the pictures taken by a Russian photographer after he blocked the U.S. press from observing the event.
The last seven days have forced Americans, including those in the intelligence community, to ask disturbing questions: What is wrong with the president? Is he insane? Incompetent? Why is he furthering Russia’s aims by sowing distrust among America’s allies? Why would he complain of leaks from inside the U.S. government even as he leaks classified information to Russia?
With those questions, loyal Americans serving his administration are searching for ways to sideline or corral the President before the U.S. finds itself devoid of credible intelligence, alone in the world and highly vulnerable to foreign threats.