President Donald Trump’s reported disclosure of classified information to Russian diplomats last week is “highly damaging” because it gives Russia an opening to trace the information back to sensitive intelligence sources and could jeopardize the US’ relationship with its foreign allies, national security experts say.
“This is highly damaging for two reasons,” former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell told CBS on Monday night.
“First, the Russians will undoubtedly try to figure out the source or the method of this information to make sure that it is not also collecting on their activities in Syria — and in trying to do that they could well disrupt the source,” Morell said.
“The second damage is that third countries who provide the United States with intelligence information will now have pause to do so if the United States is sharing such information with the Russians without their permission.”
Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said during a press briefing on Tuesday that Trump “didn’t even know where the information” he disclosed to the Russians had come from. (The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Israel had provided the intelligence Trump shared with Russia. BuzzFeed later confirmed that the intelligence was about an ISIS plot to smuggle laptop bombs on airplanes.)
But the information Trump is believed to have disclosed could still “jeopardize lives” because it could allow the Russians to trace that intelligence back to a particular source, said Bob Deitz, a former senior counselor to the CIA director and former general counsel at the National Security Agency.
Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defense during the George W. Bush administration, told the Wall Street Journal that Trump’s disclosure could have jeopardized “a human source.”
“I’m completely gobsmacked,” Edelman said. “It’s jeopardizing a human source. It’s the one thing you’re trained to never do. If what Post is reporting is true, it’s a stunning indication of his unfitness for office.”
Indeed, the information Trump relayed to the Russian diplomats was reportedly “code-word” information — one of the highest classification levels used by the US intelligence community. Israeli officials would have reason to be concerned about that kind of sensitive intelligence falling into the hands of Russia, which is an ally of Israel’s biggest regional enemy: Iran.
National security expert Juliette Kayyem said that Trump’s “disdain” for the US intelligence community “may be the root” of Trump’s decision to disclose the sensitive intelligence to Russia.
“But it’s also just a lack of seriousness about the nature of the job that these intel agents actually do,” Kayyem said. “Ultimately, Trump did not take what he knew seriously.”
Countries ‘will think twice’ before sharing intelligence
It is unclear how Israel’s relationship with the US will be affected by Trump’s misstep. But the revelation “will make countries think twice” before they share classified intelligence with the US in the future, Deitz said.
Jim Jeffrey, a former US ambassador who served as deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, agreed: “The ally who provided the info will have to be told, and that could restrict future reporting” of sensitive intelligence between the partners, he said on Monday.
Jeremy Bash, the former Pentagon chief of staff under President Barack Obama, echoed that sentiment: “Giving the Russians intelligence that our counterterrorism partners have asked us to protect is incredibly dangerous,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “It will ensure that those partners don’t share with us the information we need to protect ourselves.”
When asked whether he was concerned that Trump’s disclosure might discourage other US allies from sharing sensitive intelligence with the US in the future, McMaster replied, “No, I’m not concerned at all.”
But Israel was reportedly warned by US officials months ago not to give the Trump administration sensitive information for fear it might be leaked to Russia.
“Discussions held in closed forums recently raised fears of a leakage of Israeli intelligence top-classified information, clandestine modus operandi and sources, which have been exposed to the American intelligence community over the past 15 years, to Russia — and from there to Iran,” Ronen Bergman reported for the Israeli news outlet YNet in January.
US officials apparently briefed their Israeli counterparts before Trump’s inauguration about their belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin had “leverages of pressure” over Trump. Trump’s meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak last week, during which he disclosed the Israeli intelligence, was reportedly requested by Putin.
“There is a special understanding of security cooperation between our countries,” Israeli officials told Buzzfeed News on Tuesday. “To know that this intelligence is shared with others, without our prior knowledge? That is, for us, our worst fears confirmed… I would not trust a partner who shared intelligence without coordinating it with us first.”