National Security

Trump relationship with intelligence community sinks further

President Trump’s disclosure of highly sensitive intelligence to Russian officials has threatened to fracture his already-delicate relationship with the intelligence community.

Former officials expressed horror at the move, warning that it could seriously damage important partnerships that the U.S. relies on for information — including the U.S. relationship with the reported source, Israel.

The disclosures were sufficiently sensitive to cause unnamed officials to leak the details of the meeting to The Washington Post, suggesting a deep discomfort with Trump’s actions from within the administration.

{mosads}The president has had a tense relationship with the intelligence community since December, when he attacked the CIA over its assessment that Russian hacks on Democratic political targets were intended to help him win the White House.

A week before his inauguration, he blamed the intelligence community for the leak of an unconfirmed dossier of sensitive information regarding himself compiled by a private investigator, calling it “something Nazi Germany would have done.”

On Tuesday, Trump tossed accelerant on that simmering feud.

“I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community,” he tweeted.

National security adviser H.R. McMaster has described Trump’s disclosure as “wholly appropriate,” characterizing the sharing of intelligence as spur of the moment and adding that the president didn’t even know the sources and methods underpinning the intelligence he shared.

But McMaster did not deny that Trump had discussed highly classified information during a May 10 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Moscow’s U.S. ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Senior White House officials reportedly placed calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) after the meeting to contain the damage, suggesting a more serious internal reaction.

By Tuesday morning, disturbed rumblings from overseas allies had already emerged in the press.

A senior European intelligence official told The Associated Press that his country might stop sharing information with the U.S. if it confirms Trump’s disclosure because it “could be a risk for our sources.”

In Germany, a senior lawmaker told the AP that if the president “passes [exclusive and highly sensitive] information to other governments at will, then Trump becomes a security risk for the entire Western world.”

“The damage will not be seen today or last night,” said Todd Weiler, a former assistant secretary of Defense under former President Barack Obama. “It’s going to be seen in the weeks and months to come as allied countries and cooperating countries hold back on information.”

Trump’s apparent disregard for those relationships puts tremendous strain on the intelligence professionals who depend on them in a day-to-day capacity to do their jobs, former officials say.

Fear that the president might burn carefully cultivated sources or closely held capabilities could create an extreme situation in which intelligence professionals withhold information from the White House.

“It has to make you think about what you tell and to whom,” said one former CIA officer. It might be difficult to keep information from the White House once it’s been reported, he said, but “I guess they can withhold from everyone — don’t collect it, or don’t report it.

“I don’t know if people would go that far, but I’m sure people are concerned. I can’t imagine anybody is happy.”

A second former agency officer called it “an existential crisis for intelligence officers.”

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have expressed similar concerns.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) warned in a statement that the disclosure “sends a troubling signal to America’s allies and partners around the world and may impair their willingness to share intelligence with us in the future.”

“I know firsthand the life and death implications of safeguarding classified information,” tweeted freshman Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher (Wis.), a former Marine intelligence officer. “Our allies and partners must have the utmost confidence that sensitive information they share with us will not be disclosed.”

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Israel was the source behind Trump’s disclosure, raising concerns that Russia could pass along the information to Iran, Israel’s main adversary in the Middle East.

Israel is one of the U.S.’s most valuable intelligence partners in the region. Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, told the Times in a statement that the country “has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump.”

International concern about the president’s handling of sensitive information has simmered quietly for months.

That Trump shared the information with Russia — even amid the ongoing scrutiny of his relationship with Moscow — offered little in the way of reassurance.

“During the transition, many allies voiced concern Trump team might share intel with Moscow. Today’s news will compound that concern,” tweeted Colin Kahl, a senior official on Obama’s National Security Council.

In January, Israeli press reported that U.S. intelligence officials implied Israel should “be careful” when sharing intelligence with the Trump White House until it was clear that Trump does not have any inappropriate ties to the Kremlin.

For almost anyone else in government, the disclosure Trump made would be considered illegal.

But the president has the broad authority to declassify government secrets. For Trump, the question is whether the disclosure was a prudent execution of a pre-planned strategy — or a moment of braggadocio, as the Post reported.

If the latter, critics say, it represents either a total lack of understanding of the life-or-death nature of intelligence gathering or an appalling recklessness.

“Often a revelation of information reveals the source of the information by inference,” the former CIA official said, who emphasized he had no knowledge beyond the public reporting. 

“There could be somebody who’s dead now.”
Tags Barack Obama John McCain

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