TSG IntelBrief: The White House and a Dangerous Disclosure
May 16, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• A report by The Washington Post on May 15 alleged that President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister during a May 10 meeting.
• National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, who was in the meeting, denied that any intelligence ‘sources or methods’ were discussed.
• The notion that President Trump may have revealed classified information to the Russians is magnified by the cascading events related to the Trump administration and investigations into its dealings with Russia.
• Even the perception of poorly handled intelligence—to the Russians of all parties—can significantly hinder the already fragile cooperation of America’s foreign intelligence partners.
The ongoing saga over inappropriate contacts between individuals associated with the Trump administration and Russia reached a new and even more shocking milestone on May 15, with reports that President Trump revealed highly classified intelligence during a May 10 meeting with two high-ranking Russian officials. The reports about the meeting between President Trump and Russia’s foreign minister come in the midst of continued scrutiny over Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. However, President Trump’s disclosure of classified information to high-ranking officials of a hostile foreign power is far more likely a case of negligent handling of closely-held information than it is any sort of malicious action. That such a leak was negligent rather than malevolent is of little comfort, however, given that it was the U.S. commander-in-chief who exhibited such a reckless lapse in judgement.
On May 15, The Washington Post reported that during the meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, President Trump boasted in some detail about intelligence—provided to the U.S. by a foreign intelligence partner—regarding a threat to civil aviation by the so-called Islamic State. The timing and officials involved make the issue even more significant, as the meeting occurred one day after President Trump took the unprecedented action of firing FBI Director James Comey. In addition, Ambassador Kislyak was the Russian official with whom former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn spoke on several occasions after the election, which he subsequently lied about to Vice President Mike Pence and the public.
According to the reports, the intelligence that President Trump discussed with Lavrov and Kislyak was not approved for passage to the Russians by the country that gave the U.S. the information. Under U.S. law, the president has the broad authority to declassify nearly anything. Thus, the point at issue is not so much that Trump passed along highly sensitive information, but rather the potential repercussions stemming from the haphazard nature in which he did so. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, who was present for the meeting, denied that any sources or methods were discussed by the president during the conversation. However, for intelligence that is of the level of sensitivity as the information Trump reportedly disclosed, it is the information itself that is considered extremely close hold. It is illegal for anyone other than the president to discuss such intelligence with foreign government officials—especially if those foreign officials are Russian. Though not illegal, it is extremely unusual and improper for the president to do so as well.
American counterterrorism partnerships with foreign intelligence agencies and local liaisons depend on concrete trust—not in theory, but in fact and daily practice. The risk of revealing intelligence assets run by liaison partners—who by definition have access and information that the U.S. cannot otherwise obtain—is no small matter for any party involved. Such affairs are literally a matter of life and death for partner intelligence agency source networks working to collect on the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. Even if the alleged inappropriate discussion of sensitive intelligence with Russian officials did not reveal sources and methods, it gives partner intelligence agencies strong reason to believe the risk for such reckless negligence is real and growing. Regardless of the outcome of ongoing investigations into possible collusion between Trump associates and the Russian government, the public mishandling of top secret information by the U.S. commander-in-chief—or even the perception of it—generates its own set of very real and pressing concerns for the continued success of U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence efforts.
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