Donald Trump has defended his right to share classified information with whomever he sees fit – in this case, the Russians. However, intelligence officials have denounced Trump’s leaks saying they have “significantly damaged” international intelligence relationships with key allies, and could affect the future sharing of vital information.
Trump and his team have pushed back against the original claims first made by the Washington Post that the President decided off the cuff to brief the Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on an ISIS terror plot during an Oval Office meeting.
While White House officials initially denied that anything untoward was shared, pushing back on the original claim, Trump later appeared to contradict this by defending his “absolute right” to share the information – undermining the credibility of his own staff, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who had just carefully denied such reports.
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….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
…to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
The tweets above clearly detail the information that was confidential in the first place, the involvement of airline flight safety. The Post said Trump also revealed the city within Islamic State group territory where the ally found out about the threat – prompting some to suggest that the informant’s life had been put in danger:
Sen. Booker on Trump: “This sharing of extremely sensitive, classified intelligence information with Russia … puts lives at risk” pic.twitter.com/tRTmzhQOnY
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) May 16, 2017
President Trump has not broken the law, it should be noted. As President, he is indeed free to disclose whatever information he wants to disclose, to whomever he wants. But these disclosures are raising serious concerns about intel-sharing arrangements.
Last night a stream of WH officials were sent out to blast WaPo story as false. This morning, Trump says it’s true. https://t.co/uR9hDRZ6ki https://t.co/IFuS1042GX
— Greg Miller (@gregpmiller) May 16, 2017
Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser and another person at the meeting, also denied the reports. “This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.”
McMaster: Trump “wasn’t even aware of where this information came from” pic.twitter.com/Jj1Ks3vW7t
— VICE News (@vicenews) May 16, 2017
“A complete nightmare”
Stephanie Carvin, a former intelligence analyst for the Canadian government, said, “This is a complete nightmare — the president of the United States has admitted to giving information to a country that is actively working against Western interests.
“It’s very possible that that information could have been reverse-engineered, so sources to the U.S. could start drying up if they believe this is a major risk. We’re all going to be less safe as a result of this.”
Essentially, it’s hard to think that any ally would feel its safe to share intelligence with a president who is loose-lipped and talking to Russia.
Matthew Dunn, a former officer at British intelligence agency MI6 warned of such an event, “What Trump has done has probably put MI6 and other intelligence services in the West on hold vis-à-vis sharing intelligence with the United States,” Dunn said. “I can’t imagine them thinking it is safe to share any intelligence right now with a president who is loose-lipped and talking to Russia.”
Stopping the information flow?
Joint intelligence operations are typically based on a high level of trust, something that Trump is threatening to undermine.
“The relationship between foreign intelligence services is always a fraught one, even between extremely close allies like the United States and the United Kingdom,” Dunn said. “It is very easy for those allegiances to falter completely.”
A senior European intelligence official who told the Associated Press that his country might stop sharing information with the United States if it independently confirms Trump had indeed shared classified details with Russian officials. The reason cited by the official was that it “could be a risk for our sources.”
However, it is unlikely that information will stop flowing, especially between the intelligence-sharing network known as Five Eyes, comprising of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. They have already sought to downplay the significance of the threat.
While Trump’s loose lips will certainly make America’s intelligence partners nervous, relationships are too robust and too important for this incident alone to affect their status.
“On the one hand, allies will be hugely nervous, certainly on a political level, that information they pass to the Trump administration might be subject to compromise outside the original agreements that previously existed,” said Peter Roberts, director of Military Sciences at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.
Joe Devanny, an intelligence expert at the International Centre for Security Analysis and a former national security analyst for the British government said the Five Eyes agreement was “so deep and longstanding and mutually beneficial that its value transcends incidents like this.”
“But definitely there’s an impact in terms of the need for the White House to reassure different foreign partners,” Devanny said. “They would want to be assured that there was a clear process and discipline in the way that this information was handled.”