16 May 2017

A failure in discretion: the meaning of the Trump leak to the Russians

Sharon Squassoni

Sharon Squassoni

Sharon Squassoni, a member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, has directed the Proliferation Prevention Program at the...

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It took just five days for the story to emerge that President Trump disclosed highly classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak when he met with them in the Oval Office on May 10. At first, the public outcry was a little reminiscent of that scene in the movie Casablanca—we are shocked, shocked (!) to find intelligence-sharing in the White House by this president with those Russians.

But then a second bombshell dropped: an unclassified memo, written by former FBI Director James Comey, in which he reportedly expressed concern about the president’s efforts to dissuade him from his investigation into former NSC director Mike Flynn made its way into the press.

Rather than offer a wink and a nod, even stalwart Republican senators like Bob Corker and Mitch McConnell are now making statements that suggest weariness with the dysfunctional circus the White House has become. Indeed, the circus masks fundamental issues underlying this story.

Throwing the ally out with the bath water. The intelligence, probably a mix of intercepted communications and human sources, came from a foreign ally. Although not confirmed, the New York Times has reported the ally was Israel. Israel is not new to the business of counterterrorism or intelligence collection and obviously assessed the risks of sharing the information with the United States against the costs of not sharing it. Very likely, however, Israel shared the information on the premise that the United States could do more with the information than it could. Whether the United States acted against implicit or explicit instructions regarding the confidentiality of the information, Israel may feel less comfortable in the future sharing information with the United States. And that, in particular, will make efforts to bring peace to the Middle East only that much harder.

Sharing versus using information. There are always risks associated with acting on intelligence information. But an even bigger risk is sharing the information without acting on it. Trump’s tweets suggest that he shared the information to get Russia to do more against ISIS in Syria. If we believe National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, this was a spontaneous policy idea. But as policy ideas go, farming out action against ISIS in Syria to Russia is like giving the fox the keys to the henhouse. And sharing intelligence with Russia to target ISIS in Syria is like giving the fox a frying pan so he can scramble the eggs he’s too full to eat.

Drip, drip. The level of classification of the information, according to reports, could not have been higher—not secret, or top secret, but part of a special access program that a select few people are read into. Access to intelligence in the United States government is generally given on a “need to know” basis, but information classified in compartments is often restricted only to those who need the information to do their jobs. For example, sensitive information about particular nuclear programs in, say, India and Pakistan, is not shared widely within the US government but only with those intelligence and policy officials who deal with the subject on a regular basis. Widening access for people who may be unfamiliar with the risks at hand can be dangerous. One particular risk is the loss of “sources and methods.” Intelligence services can spend years building up their human sources of information and protecting technology used to gather particular types of intelligence. Sometimes, the protection of such sources and methods means protecting actual lives, since some countries would rather eliminate than imprison leakers of information. Given the murderous nature of the Assad regime, the execution of enemy sources, if they become known, is to be expected.

As other analysts have pointed out, Russia’s wide-ranging intelligence capabilities will make it relatively easy to read between the lines and take actions to make sure Israel (and the United States) never get information from the sources involved in this leak in the future. Although McMaster told the press that the president did not divulge sources and methods, it may be just a matter of time before they are discovered through a process of deduction.

Presidential prerogative. The president should and must be able to use intelligence information to achieve policy purposes, even if it destroys intelligence assets. As others have pointed out, Trump, as president, has declassification authority. But here is where the American public needs to avert its gaze from the ringmaster’s spotlight, which the Trump administration has attempted to train on whether the president is within his legal rights.

The hidden crisis involves presidential discretion. The scrambling in the White House to first deny the allegations and then to try to contain the damage Trump’s release of classified information could do indicates that the release was not planned. Judging from the administration’s own statements, the release was not a deliberate element of a policy designed to enlist Russian aid in containing ISIS. Rather, it was the kind of idle banter that Trump has engaged in, notoriously, as a celebrity; that banter now has the potential to create devastating national security consequences.

A president exhibiting even a modicum of discretion would have kept the TASS photographer who apparently witnessed Trump’s revelations out of the Oval Office, allowing photographs to be taken, perhaps, on the White House circular drive. Presidential discretion would have kept Trump to a set of boring talking points in his conversation with Russian diplomats, tailored to specific policy purposes. Presidential discretion would involve the difficult work of coalition-building to pressure Russia on its efforts in Syria, rather than flashing a little secret information at Russian diplomats, in the hope they might be impressed and somehow, magically, decide to dedicate their country to the fight against the Islamic State.

The burden of power. The cycle of crisis and spin engulfing this administration makes it hard for the US electorate (let alone foreigners) to understand what is important and what is not. The issue with Mr. Trump’s disclosure is not—as McMaster would have it—about the president’s rights, but about his responsibility. It is tough to keep secrets, but sometimes it’s necessary. It is tough to confront brutality and injustice, but, for a US president, that will always be necessary. And as the preeminent nuclear weapons power on the planet, the United States has an enormous responsibility to act with discretion and prudence, if not moral courage. One hopes that President Trump will not want to show off his “great” nuclear weapons as much as he wanted to share his “great intel.”