Will U.S. Intelligence Partners Trust Trump Anymore?
One former senior White House official said Trump’s loose lips on intel could cause a “ripple effect.”
The real danger behind President Donald Trump’s decision to shared classified information with Russian officials isn’t that he did something illegal but that foreign partners will now be reluctant to share sensitive information, endangering the U.S. government’s ability to track security threats, former administration and intelligence officials told Foreign Policy.
Trump on May 10 reportedly went “off script” to disclose to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, highly sensitive “code-word information” provided by a U.S. ally concerning an aviation threat from the Islamic State, the Washington Post reported Monday evening. That threat, related to explosives in laptops, is slated for discussion at a meeting with officials from the European Union on Wednesday.
The president can declassify what he wants, when he wants, but these disclosures could lead to a “ripple effect,” one former senior administration official told FP during a phone interview. There’s a danger that foreign partners, beyond the government that shared the sensitive source, will “turn inward and reduce or limit sharing even on issues outside the counterterrorism realm,” the former official said.
Trump undercut his own staff Tuesday with a pair of tweets confirming he revealed intelligence to the Russians — the morning after his top White House lieutenants vehemently denied the report, first published in the Post.
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster told reporters Monday night that no “sources and methods” were revealed during the conversation. On Tuesday, he repeatedly told reporters Trump’s conversation was “wholly appropriate,” going so far as to say that what Trump told the Russians wasn’t anything more than you could get from open-source intelligence, on the internet and through press reports. “I was in the room … and none of us felt in any way that conversation was inappropriate,” he said.
However, the Post article did claim that President Trump revealed the name of the city where the partner nation got the information about the aviation threat. The United States and the EU will be discussing plans to implement a “laptop ban” on transatlantic flights, a response to threat information derived from intelligence overseas.
The bombshell revelations could damage key U.S. intelligence relationships with allies around the world. Foreign partners are watching the wheels fall off the cart, thinking “‘too many things are out of control, so I might hold back,’” a former senior intelligence official told FP.
One senior European intelligence official told The Associated Press his country may curb its intelligence sharing with Washington for fear of what Trump could reveal to Russian officials. Trump “could be a risk for our sources,” the official said, speaking anonymously and on condition his country would not be identified.
While White House officials have emphasized that Trump did not disclose sources and methods and only described the intelligence he had received, the former intelligence official said that may be a distinction without a difference. Some intelligence is so sensitive that it will be obvious to intelligence professionals how it was obtained, the former official said.
The intelligence Trump shared came from a Middle Eastern ally, the New York Times reported. Separately, the White House announced that Trump had a phone call with King Abdullah of Jordan Tuesday morning after the news broke, fueling speculation that Trump’s disclosures came from Jordan, which has a robust intelligence footprint in Syria.
Several former administration and intelligence officials interviewed by FP, though without direct knowledge of the information Trump shared, speculated that the foreign partner is likely a Middle Eastern ally — potentially Jordan or Israel. One former official who worked for several intelligence agencies told FP that the source of the information may be concerned about “exposure of sources and methods ultimately to Iran,” because of Tehran’s relationship with Moscow.
Though officials think it’s unlikely the information came from one of the so-called “Five Eyes” nations — the intelligence alliance made up of the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada — officials from those countries are likely to be concerned about the president’s decision to share the information with Russian officials.
Trump’s disclosures are “certainly” a risk to U.S.-U.K. intelligence sharing, one of the closest bonds in espionage, said Matt Tait, a former analyst at GCHQ, Britain’s equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency. “Lots of information is shared on the understanding that the U.S. will be able to keep it safe,” Tait said. “To have a president show that he does not care about that arrangement makes countries think twice before sharing it.”
GCHQ declined a request for comment.
While Democrats fumed at the revelations, exasperated Republicans in Congress worried that Trump’s repeated scandals and gaffes could scupper their legislative agenda.
“They [the White House] are in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment that I think … creates a worrisome environment.”
“Can we have a crisis-free day?” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “That’s all I’m asking.”
Key lawmakers were, yet again, in the dark before the bombshell. An aide for the Senate Intelligence Committee told FP that no one briefed the committee about Trump’s conversations. They learned about it from the Post.
This isn’t the first time disclosures of classified information have gotten U.S. officials into trouble. For example, Reuters reported that John Brennan, then the top White House advisor for homeland security, may have accidentally disclosed sensitive information about the “underwear bomber” to TV counterterrorism pundits during a teleconference in 2012. President George W. Bush authorized leaks of classified information to a Times reporter to bolster his decision to go to war in Iraq, court documents later revealed.
The White House had to confront the fallout from major European partners including the U.K. and Germany, after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed a large cache of classified documents to journalists in 2013.
The former senior administration official recalled several instances when U.S. officials shared more information than might have been prudent, often a result of poor staffing.
“It’s unfortunate,” the former official said, “but we’ve seen this movie before.”
FP staff writer Elias Groll contributed to this article.
Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/Getty Images
Corrections, May 16, 2017: George W. Bush authorized leaks of classified information to bolster his decision to go to war in Iraq. A previous version of this article mistakenly said George H.W. Bush authorized the leaks. Also, John Brennan was the top White House advisor for homeland security when he may have accidentally disclosed sensitive information via teleconference in 2012. A previous version of this article said he was CIA director at the time.
Jenna McLaughlin is Foreign Policy's intelligence reporter. You can reach her on Signal at 203-537-3949. @JennaMC_Laugh