The Washington Post reported Monday that in a meeting last week with Russian ambassador Sergei Lavrov, President Donald Trump described details of intelligence the U.S. had obtained from a foreign partner about the potential use of laptop bombs by ISIS.
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW
- The White House does not deny that the discussions took place, but says that Trump shared information only of a general nature and did not reveal sources and methods. No one said he did.
- Instead, the Post reported that Trump, in the meeting with Russian officials, described the intelligence in specific enough detail that the Russians could easily deduce how it was obtained.
- The information Trump revealed likely fell in a grey area in which Trump’s supporters and detractors can take more, or less, charitable interpretations of the same basic facts.
- Revealing this kind of highly classified information is a significant concern because it could jeopardize ongoing intelligence operations or put the lives of sources at risk.
- While it is unlikely that President Trump intended to reveal anything classified, the incident is nonetheless troubling. Still, it probably says more about Trump’s lack of sophisticated understanding of the nuances of intelligence operations than his relationship with Russia.
White House officials, including National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, whose credibility is widely respected, disputed the account saying that the information shared was general in nature. “The president and the foreign minister reviewed common threats from terrorist organizations to include threats to aviation,” McMaster who was in the meeting said. “At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed, and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.”
While McMaster says the Washington Post story is false, he does not say what about it is not true. The difference between the White House’s account and that of the unnamed sources in the Washington appears to be one of degrees. McMaster’s denial that Trump shared sources and methods does not directly contradict the Washington Post’s sources, who did not say that Trump explicitly revealed the sources of information. Nor did the Post say anything about revealing ongoing military operations, making McMasters denial that he did so puzzling.
Instead, the Post reported that Trump, in the meeting with Russian officials, described the intelligence in specific enough detail that the Russians could easily deduce how it was obtained. That raised concerns for two reasons. First, the intelligence was provided by a foreign partner whose trust in U.S. ability to keep information confidential might be diminished. Second, if the same method is used to gather intelligence on Russia or its allies, such as the Syrian regime or Iran, Russia might be able to also work out how to thwart future gathering of valuable intelligence.
Without knowing the specifics of the information in question, it’s hard to tell if the alarm about all this is overblown. It might be. Trump has plenty of detractors in the intelligence community. More now after firing FBI Director James Comey. It’s likely that Trump’s comments fell in a grey area and his detractors are taking the more uncharitable interpretation of the same basic facts. Whether Trump truly revealed classified intelligence or not, he walked closely enough to the line that intelligence agencies felt compelled to spend Monday night doing damage control.
Even if he did reveal classified information, it is unlikely that Trump did so intentionally. The episode may say more about Trump’s lack of sophisticated understanding of the nuances of intelligence operations than his fondness for Russia. Still, intentional or not, it’s troubling.
At the least it appears that Trump failed to exercise appropriate discretion in discussing this material. Information gets classified for a reason, in this case at the codeword level reserved for the most sensitive secrets. Revealing this type of information could put lives at risk or undermine ongoing intelligence and military operations. Considering the amount of criticism President Trump leveled against Hillary Clinton for risking disclosure of classified information stored on her home-brew email server, Democrats will feel well-justified in flogging Trump over this.
But, whatever the case, Trump probably didn’t break any laws. The President has broad authority to declassify anything he wants. If anyone else did the same thing, they’d potentially be facing criminal charges. Still, coming on the heels of Trump’s controversial dismissal of James Comey last week, it doesn’t looks good. It is just one more crisis in what is shaping up to be a really bad couple of weeks for President Trump.