Assessing the Damage of the President’s Intelligence Sharing with Russia
Following the Washington Post’s revelations Monday night, the legality of President Donald Trump’s decision to share sensitive information related to the ISIS bomb threat to airliners with senior Russian officials has been generally accepted. This leaves the manner in which he chose to share this information as the issue that must be addressed, from the perspective of conducting what the intelligence community refers to as a “damage assessment.”
How much damage has been caused by this disclosure, and the subsequent leaks to the media?
As a result of revealing this sensitive intelligence information in an off-the-cuff manner, sources and methods have been put at risk. Moreover, the president’s disclosure has set back the very cause he espouses in his own statements, i.e., working more closely with the Russians on counterterrorism. Unfortunately, the way in which the president chose to reveal the information has also inadvertently strengthened the hand of skeptics in the intelligence community who mistrust the president’s judgment concerning Russia, as well as his ability to properly handle classified information. As a result, more damaging leaks of the kind the president is fully justified in denouncing are more likely in the future.
The White House now finds itself putting out fires that need not have been set.
If the president felt moved to divulge this information to the Russians out of personal concern for the elevated threats to civil aviation globally, it should be acknowledged that this is a laudable objective. Indeed, the U.S. intelligence community takes very seriously its duty to warn all countries of the possibility of imminent terrorist attacks that could claim the lives of their citizens. Unquestionably, U.S.-Russian counterterrorism cooperation to prevent ISIS bombings of civilian airliners is in our common interest, especially at a time when so many issues divide us.
In such a case, however, the president’s hand would have been strengthened if he had relied on coordinated, carefully crafted language from the intelligence community that conveyed the urgency of the threat, while doing everything necessary to protect sources and methods. As all experienced intelligence officers know, sharing sensitive information does not inherently compromise or expose the source of that information, if dissemination of the information is properly managed.
If the President felt compelled to share this information in order to make a point on the need for closer U.S.-Russian counterterrorism cooperation, in Syria and elsewhere in the world, it would have been more effective to use the intelligence as part of a broader plan to engage the Russians at senior levels between intelligence agencies, rather than offering it up in an ad-hoc way at a meeting with senior diplomats. This would have also enabled appropriate liaison coordination prior to any disclosure, and would avoid foreign partners deciding to withhold intelligence from the U.S. over fears of unauthorized sharing of information.
Again, Trump’s instinct to share holds a certain logic, even if the method of action was flawed in this case. The ugly truth is that neither Russia nor the U.S. can achieve its objectives in Syria without narrowing deep differences in respective strategy and tactics of waging this war. Neither Russia nor the U.S. can impose a unilateral solution in Syria. Therefore, it is incumbent on both parties to find a way to work together towards a political settlement that is acceptable to the people of Syria. Ideally, both the U.S. and Russia should stand united in a global anti- terrorism coalition to eliminate the threat posed by Islamic violent extremists in their so- called “global jihad,” which continues to deepen and spread, as we continue to feud.
In order to achieve any meaningful cooperation between the U.S. and Russia, the president needs every ounce of support, resourcefulness, imagination and full might of the U.S. defense and intelligence community. Sadly, this affair does not enhance the intelligence community’s trust and confidence in the president. It heightens concerns over Trump’s intentions with Russia, which is viewed in national security circles as an adversary of the U.S. Now, Trump’s doubters have new grounds to question the president’s judgment in handling classified information.
That is unfortunate. It would not serve U.S. national security interests if officials were to quietly withhold information from the president. It would not serve our national security interests if officials opt to exclude certain sensitive information from being published in high-level intelligence products, such as the Presidential Daily Briefing. It damages our national security interests when officials feel compelled to leak classified information in a misguided effort to protect it. In this regard, the damage caused by leaks and the resulting media speculation may well be more damaging than the original disclosure by President Trump.
Trust is the issue at hand. President Trump should trust intelligence to provide him with a decision advantage over those with whom he is negotiating. In turn, intelligence officers must trust the president will protect their lifeblood: their sources and methods. Once again, the main beneficiaries of this rupture in trust and its corrosive effects on the American establishment are the Russians. That alone should give us reason to learn from this incident and move on the wiser for it.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is director of the Intelligence and Defense Project and the Project on Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council Security at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Photo by Gage Skidmore.