President Trump probably did little immediate damage to the physical security of the American people when, as The Washington Post first reported and has by now been widely reported and confirmed, he shared code word level top secret intelligence with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister in the Oval Office last week.
He also broke no criminal laws. As the Lawfare blog succinctly explains here, classification authority flows from the president to the rest of the executive branch. The president has the inherent ability to declassify anything he wants at any time he wants.
Cries of “Treason!” seem even more overblown. Trump reportedly shared information about an effort by the terror group ISIS to craft explosives that can be hidden inside portable electronic devices, like laptops, and to have identified the city in which the project is located. It’s a stretch to claim that this was an effort to harm the U.S. while advantaging Russia.
All that said, by spilling high-level intelligence to one of the country’s most dangerous global adversaries the president sent a dangerous message to America's allies, potential allies and even adversaries who might be willing to cooperate with the United States on limited issues of mutual interest.
That message is that you can’t trust Trump and, by extension, you can’t trust the U.S. intelligence officers around the globe who work for him. That’s not to denigrate those intelligence officers in the least, but only to recognize that they are duty-bound to report what they learn into a pipeline of raw intelligence that ultimately flows directly to the Oval Office.
Some U.S. allies are already taking that message to heart, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday. Burkhard Lischka, a senior member of Germany's Bundestag told the newswire, “If it proves to be true that the American president passed on internal intelligence matters, that would be highly worrying.” Another official from a European country told the AP that they were reconsidering whether to share intelligence with the U.S.
Here seems as good a place as any to insert the president’s ex-post facto justification of his actions last week.
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
Nevermind that Trump’s explanation flies in the face of angry denials from his staff on Monday afternoon.
The fact remains that U.S. intelligence officers around the world spend their days trying to convince people who don’t have to help them to do so anyway, often at great personal risk.
The fact that raw intelligence containing information that might help a hostile government identify the source of American intelligence or the method used to obtain it might get blurted out to someone who shouldn’t have it makes their job much more difficult.
As former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency David S. Cohen put it in The New York Times today, “No one can say how many potential spies will decide that working for America is not worth the risk. And that means intelligence that could have been collected for years to come will be lost to us. That will harm our national security. Every asset who is not recruited impoverishes our understanding of the opportunities, risks, and threats in the world.”
But the worry extends beyond individual assets. Trump’s irresponsibility with classified information will also make friendly governments think twice about what they can and cannot safely share with the United States. In breaking the story, the Post revealed that the intelligence Trump passed on had been obtained by a U.S. ally that is notoriously tight-fisted with its secrets, in the interest of protecting its own intelligence networks.
This country evidently shared information that might help prevent a terrorist attack on a U.S. passenger plane. Good luck getting them to share warnings about the next major terror plot their spies learn about.
All this comes as U.S. allies around the world are trying desperately to adjust to a situation in which the ostensible leader of the free world is an unreliable -- an uninterested -- partner.
The website Foreign Policy on Monday published a brutal assessment of how the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is working to prepare for its first summit of the Trump presidency.
“NATO is scrambling to tailor its upcoming meeting to avoid taxing President Donald Trump’s notoriously short attention span,” reports Robbie Gramer. “The alliance is telling heads of state to limit talks to two to four minutes at a time during the discussion, several sources inside NATO and former senior U.S. officials tell Foreign Policy. And the alliance scrapped plans to publish the traditional full post-meeting statement meant to crystallize NATO’s latest strategic stance.”
One source in the story described the process this way: “It’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child — someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing. They’re freaking out.”
It’s a sentiment that’s more and more applicable to the U.S. intelligence community every day.