According to an afternoon report in the Washington Post on May 15, President Trump disclosed highly classified intelligence information to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and its U.S. ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, in a May 10 meeting. The article said that Trump wanted to impress the Russians about the intelligence information we can get and in bragging about it spilled top secret information.
The Post report, as elaborated on in subsequent media stories, says that the intelligence information regarded planned actions by ISIS and possibly other terrorist groups to blow up airliners departing from the European Union and heading to the United States, using bombs concealed in laptop computers. Though the initial Post piece didn’t allege it, later stories said that Trump’s bragging to the Russians about information America has might result in disclosure of both the sources of the intelligence and methods used to collect it.
The Post report says that senior White House officials called the CIA and NSA to alert them to Trump’s disclosure. One source — anonymous, of course — told the Post that the information Trump disclosed was “code word” intelligence, meaning it was top secret.
Equally important, some of the news reports said that the intelligence had been provided to the U.S. by a Middle Eastern ally on condition it not be shared with other nations. If that is true, the nation providing the intelligence will, for a time, cut us off from future intelligence it obtains. (The president’s schedule was reportedly changed on May 16 to include a telephone call with King Abdullah of Jordan. That indicates that Jordan was the source and Trump planned to call to assuage Jordan’s concerns.)
Later on May 15, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster apparently wanted to refute the Post report. A very carefully-parsed statement he issued said that, “At no time, at no time, were intelligent sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.” McMaster added that the story “as reported” was false. The language of McMaster’s statement was perfect Clintonese.
On Tuesday morning (May 16) President Trump weighed in — via Twitter, of course — writing, “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….to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
That sounds a lot more like a confirmation of the Washington Post story than a denial.
Earlier today — May 16 — McMaster stood by his Monday denial. But he spread further confusion by refusing to say whether the information Trump gave the Russians was or wasn’t classified or whether it came from one of our intelligence-sharing allies. Moreover, he said that Trump made the decision to share the information with the Russians spontaneously at the meeting.
The president can do that, but it almost never happens. Before a disclosure of any classified intelligence information to any nation, especially an adversary like Russia, an inter-agency group probably including NSA, CIA, DIA, and any military department involved, would vet the information and recommend whether it should be shared. Permission of the originating nation would routinely be sought. That apparently didn’t happen here.
That doesn’t mean that Trump shouldn’t have told the Russians whatever he told them. It does mean — if the Post story is correct – that the president either doesn’t understand how classified information must be concealed from adversaries or he got carried away in the moment.
The latter would be most troubling. We know, from the cruise missile strike Trump ordered on a Syrian airbase after seeing children injured by a chemical weapon attack that emanated from the base, that Mr. Trump sometimes acts on his emotions rather than America’s national security interests. If he shares intelligence with adversaries on that basis, he will severely damage our ability to gather intelligence and have allies share theirs with us.
Trump was right about his authority to divulge intelligence information. But intelligence cooperation can be ended if the permission of the originating nation is not obtained before the information is divulged to a third nation.
The president is the ultimate authority on classified information, including intelligence information that the U.S. originates. Sometimes presidents, to the utter frustration of their advisors, divulge top-secret information to the public for purely political purposes.
In 1964, for example, Lyndon Johnson confounded the CIA and the Air Force by stating at a press conference that we’d developed the SR-71 supersonic reconnaissance aircraft that, he said, flew at speeds in excess of 2,000 miles per hour and at altitudes in excess of 70,000 feet. He also divulged that we had a technological breakthrough to make the SR-71’s skin out of titanium.
Johnson had the authority to make that disclosure, just as Trump had the authority to tell the Russians about the terrorist threat using laptops.
The question isn’t the president’s authority to do that, but the wisdom of doing so.
It was unnecessary (and purely political) for Johnson to reveal the SR-71 fifty-three years ago. It was just as unnecessary — obviously so if the purpose was only to brag — for Trump to divulge highly classified intelligence to the Russians on May 10, if that’s what happened.
We don’t know what the president told the Russians, but from the circumstantial evidence we have — especially the calls made by White House staffers to the CIA and NSA as well as Trump’s call to Jordan’s king — it looks as if it was classified information that Trump shouldn’t have shared with the Russians.
Why he did it is known only to the president. How badly affected our intelligence relations with our allies is by his action will be known only to the intelligence community if and when our allies cease cooperating with a nation whose president could get more urges to brag about what he has learned.