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The Wrong Way to Share Intelligence

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Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

There is nothing unusual about sharing intelligence, even sensitive intelligence.  The United States does regular intelligence sharing with the English-speaking countries, and the United States and UK are particularly generous in the process of sharing.  The CIA shares intelligence with key NATO, and conducts semi-annual meetings to share intelligence with Israel and Egypt.  But it is most unusual for the president of the United States to take the lead role in sharing intelligence.

It is extremely unlikely that the president, particularly the current occupant of the White House, would have an in-depth understanding of the sources and methods involved in a particular piece of intelligence.  National security adviser H.R. McMaster even acknowledged that President Trump was never briefed on the sources and methods for the shared information or even understood the sensitivity of the report.  This alone is an indictment of the president’s national security staff and particularly the National Security Council, which failed to bring the president up-to-speed regarding  sensitive details.  Twenty-four hours after we learned about Trump’s unusual exchange with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, McMaster had still not discussed the matter with Tom Bossert, the president’s advisor on intelligence matters that concern homeland security, who took it upon himself to warn the CIA and the NSA about the obvious breach.

Of course, there are times when the case can be made for the sharing of intelligence.  But this can only be done in the context of exchanges between policy and intelligence advisers so that the former can testify to the utility of sharing intelligence for the interests of the United States, and the latter can properly conceal information that would compromise the provenance of the report as well as provide strategic warning of the consequences of possibly compromising sensitive intelligence.

The risks associated with President Trump’s sharing of information, which McMaster curiously labeled “routine,” are great.  If the source is an agent then his life is at risk.  If the source is a communications channel, then it’s possible that ISIS in this case will find other ways to broadcast sensitive information.  If the intelligence community were to lose a sensitive channel, then the likelihood of stopping future ISIS operations becomes more difficult and many lives could be lost at home and abroad.

The fact that the president had never been briefed on the report, according to McMaster, and had no idea of the provenance of the report points to the dysfunctional state of the entire national security team.  We already have too many generals serving in sensitive positions in the national security arena, and McMaster’s recent appearance before the press corps revealed a serious level of unsophistication on his part.  Any sharing of sensitive intelligence with any nation, let alone an adversary such as Russia, usually follows an intense vetting process, which McMaster obviously didn’t conduct.

Any high-level meeting with Russian leaders, moreover, would require an intense discussion among key policymakers in order to make sure that the United States effectively presented its negotiating position and knew exactly what it wanted from its negotiating partner. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a foreign policy neophyte, has not taken control of the Department of State, and there is no indication that the department’s Russian experts played a role in the run-up to the meeting.  It is particularly worrisome that, on the eve of serious U.S. negotiations in the Middle East and Europe, U.S. diplomacy is in the hands of a president, a national security adviser, and a secretary of state who don’t have a firm grip on U.S. policy or the decision making process.

In a bizarre attempt to explain the president’s actions, McMaster said that it was “wholly appropriate for the president to share the intelligence” because he had not been briefed on the origin of the report or any of the sources and methods that were involved.  Actually, it is the president’s ignorance on these issues that makes the entire episode very problematic.  And sharing with the Russians, who don’t share U.S. interests and objectives in Syria, makes the matter wholly inappropriate. If the president and the secretary of state had taken the time to discuss former secretary of state John Kerry’s frustrations in dealing with Lavrov on Syria, then perhaps they would not have been so sanguine.

U.S. intelligence agencies will not face immediate problems in their liaison relations with foreign intelligence services because Israel, the source of the sensitive report, will not want to harm its relations with President Trump, and as a result Mossad will not cut back on sharing with the United States.  But other foreign intelligence services will have to think twice before sharing sensitive information with a government headed by a loose-lipped president.

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Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. His latest book is A Whistleblower at the CIA. (City Lights Publishers, 2017).  Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.

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