ATLANTA – Telling someone a secret is an act of faith. Sharing intelligence with an ally is no different. By disclosing intelligence provided by a US ally to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in an Oval Office meeting last week, President Donald Trump indicated that he cannot safely be trusted – and caused profound damage to US national security.
Every intelligence relationship has its rules and regulations. But, while written agreements are often part of the protocol, intelligence sharing isn’t based on any fine print. Rather, it rests on mutual confidence built over years, including by protecting secrets each side acquires through hard and often dangerous work.
Trust between intelligence services is a perishable commodity; indeed, there is an implicit threat that a betrayal, or even a mistaken disclosure, can sever the relationship then and there. Last week, Trump risked precisely that, as he demonstrated to intelligence services around the world that he hasn’t got a clue what trust means.
The most important facts about Trump’s revelations to his Russian visitors no longer appear in dispute. Major news organizations have tapped multiple sources to report a presidential soliloquy that described, among other things, new and innovative plans by the Islamic State to use laptop computers and undetectable explosives to bring down commercial airliners. Details Trump provided to the Russians included the plot’s location and the damage the devices could wreak – facts that had reportedly been denied to America’s European allies so far, because of the sensitive sources involved.
Trump asserts that he was acting well within his authority, because US presidents can declassify almost anything they want. General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, has affirmed that Trump revealed nothing to the Russians about the “sources and methods” used to acquire the intelligence discussed. More information about the discussions will undoubtedly emerge.
But whatever new details are revealed will not change the fact that what Trump did is history. And that history will have an impact on the US intelligence community – and American interests abroad – in the future.
For America’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coates, and for the heads of its 16 intelligence agencies, the question is obvious: Will the president protect the country’s most sensitive information? The question turns their relationship with the US president – service to whom has always been their top priority – on its head.
Consider the president’s daily brief. Created in the 1960s by the Central Intelligence Agency, the PDB, as it is known, provides the president each morning with the intelligence community’s analysis and raw reporting from its most sensitive sources. It is tailored to each Oval Office occupant. What can the agencies that run intelligence collection operations – including protecting multibillion-dollar technical systems and vulnerable human sources – now put on Trump’s desk?
The question is no less pressing for US intelligence partners abroad. No intelligence service can survive – much less succeed – by operating alone, and making connections with the US, in particular, is vital. America’s intelligence ties extend from intimate collaboration with World War II partners, NATO members, and Asian allies to politically sensitive and therefore less publicized cooperation elsewhere in the world.
Of course, the risks associated with countries’ US connections vary widely. Leaks, data dumps, and other disclosures – such as those by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden – have exposed a variety of intelligence relationships and sensitive information. They have embarrassed some political leaders, unsettled others, and, in several cases, roiled relations with the US.
At this point, there is no way to tell how Trump’s Russian revelations will be assessed by intelligence leaders abroad, including whether it will affect their willingness to share intelligence with US counterparts. But, given past revelations, the potential for fallout must be considered. It would be naive to believe that Trump’s show-and-tell hasn’t already prompted its share of risk assessments in capitals around the world, including cost-benefit analyses of the provision of sensitive intelligence to US partners.
Whatever the outcome of those analyses, it is clear that Trump has done no favors for US intelligence officers around the world. Many of them hold jobs that focus on building person-to-person relationships with professional counterparts who have a responsibility to protect their services’ hard-won information and sources. While those counterparts’ personal attitudes may not change, it’s a safe bet that their chain of command will think twice about authorizing the release of sensitive intelligence that could wind up in White House in-boxes, particularly if that intelligence includes insights into what the Kremlin is up to.
Even if interest in Trump’s latest indiscretion fades, his relationship – and the relationships of his associates – with Russia remains a subject of much interest, underscored by the appointment of a special counsel to investigate those links. Given this, the Trump administration’s response to the Kremlin’s increasingly assertive behavior in what was once the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence – from Eastern Europe to the Baltics – will also be watched carefully in the coming months.
News headlines are unlikely to reveal the damage that Trump has done to America’s intelligence-sharing relationships by his failure to grasp his responsibility to protect information vital to national security. Like painstakingly collected sensitive intelligence, evidence of that damage will accumulate only gradually, as friends and allies keep their counsel – and their insights – to themselves. The US may have long been a critical intelligence partner. But, with Trump in charge, sharing intelligence with the US may look more like an unnecessary – if not unaffordable – risk.