US intelligence agencies depend upon collaboration to succeed. They coordinate with counterparts around the world, sharing information and resources for the betterment of the US and those countries. As with all relationships, this relies on a foundation of unshakeable trust. Now, President Trump has given that foundation a nudge.
As first reported by The Washington Post and subsequently confirmed by Reuters and Buzzfeed, the president disclosed highly classified information in a private meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on Wednesday. The Post cited anonymous officials who expressed concern that the revelation could endanger a critical source of ISIS-related intelligence.
This loose treatment of highly secretive “code word” intelligence raises broader questions, too, about how the cavalier disclosure of such secrets might impact the international relationships so essential to ensuring national security at home.
Within His Rights
Trump surrogates immediately denied any oversharing by the president. “At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed, and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly,” said National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump did not “discuss sources, methods, or military operations.”
Those loose denials do not refute the Post report, which focused on Trump revealing details about the intelligence-gathering process. But just to put an end to the drumbeats being heard within some Democrat circles, Trump did not break the law. “Any assertion that the president is sharing information that’s improper is ridiculous,” a former senior intelligence official told WIRED, speaking on background. “That’s the authority of the president. He is the original classification authority.”
Senator John McCain made the same point when he told an Associated Press reporter, “We certainly don’t want any president to leak classified information, but the president does have the right to do that.” Yes, but the legality of Trump’s action does not make it proper. A president that declassifies material on a whim to Russia, a nation with interests frequently at odds with those of the United States, raises legitimate concerns among the nation’s allies in the intelligence community. This is troubling, given how much the US relies upon those alliances.
Intelligence sharing between the US and its allies goes back decades, and is even more integral to national security than one might assume. “It’s extremely important,” says Keith Lowry, a former Department of Defense chief of staff. “We can’t collect it all. Other people have information to access we don’t have.” That sharing helps combat a host of security threats, too; terrorism, certainly, but also human trafficking, drug-running, and more. The success of US efforts to stem those threats depends on international collaboration.
Those relationships stem from years of treaties and allegiances forged through the years, which can make any decision on what gets shared, with whom, a complicated dance. “You have to balance it out. How much do we share? Are they part of this group? What are they entitled to? What are the expectatons?” says Lowry. “There’s a lot of politics and honoring of politics and agreements that goes into who gets to share what information.”
Sharing information with an unexpected partner subverts those considerations. It could also expose chains of intelligence; a piece of information may shift from France to Germany to the US in a game of international-spy telephone. Protecting where the intel came from can be as important as protecting the information itself. And it can reveal many secrets to an adversary. “All of those relationships are important and sensitive and hard to maintain over time,” says John Parichini, director of the Rand Corporation’s Intelligence Policy Center.
Those relationships were taking a hit even before Monday’s disclosure. “This comes in the wake of the [Chelsea] Manning releases and the [Edward] Snowden releases,” Parichini says. “It erodes the trust in the United States’ ability to maintain secrecy or classified information. It may make other countries hesitant to share with us.”
A second former senior intelligence official, who also declined to be named, put it more bluntly: “Stories like this can have a chilling effect on intelligence liaison relationships across the board.”
A Few Degrees Cooler
That said, former intelligence officials and analysts don’t expect to see the US completely shut out of international intelligence sharing as the result of one slip, or even a few gaffes. “Foreign policy isn’t zero-sum. It’s very complicated,” says the former intelligence official. “Sometimes things can be talking points for diplomats, but I’m not aware of any historical evidence where one of these things would disrupt a very complex multinational relationship.”
The outsized contributes the US makes to the international intelligence community should help cement those relationship further. Its intelligence agencies simply have too much to offer. “We’re the big dog in the information-sharing block,” says Parichini. “It’s not as though people will stop sharing information with us, but it may make them cautious in certain cases.”
And that’s the dilemma Trump may have created today: a world in which the US can access most, but not necessarily all, of the intel gleaned by allies. “Other nations will have little choice but to keep working with us,” says former CIA analyst Aki Peritz. “But with each terrible revelation about how this particular White House operates, our allies might be thinking hard about providing us their crown jewels of intelligence in the future.”
What Trump did was not illegal, and it may not result in any direct harm. But if it makes even one partner think twice about entrusting the US with its secrets, the damage already has been done.