Eeek. Disaster. Scandal. President Trump personally shared highly classified intelligence information with the RUSSIANS!
In the meeting last week, Mr. Trump told Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, details about the Islamic State plot, including the city in Syria where the ally learned the information, the current official said. At least some of the details that the United States has about the Islamic State plot came from the Israelis, said the officials, who were not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
It was not clear whether the president or the other Americans in the meeting were aware of the sensitivity of what was shared … Intelligence officials worried that Mr. Trump provided enough details to effectively expose the source of the information and the manner in which it had been collected.
… Now, the Americans and Israelis will have to contend with the serious breach of espionage etiquette. Israel had previously urged the United States to be careful about the handling of the intelligence that Mr. Trump discussed, the officials said.
… Sharing the United States’ own intelligence with Russia, much less information from a foreign ally, has long been a contentious issues in American national security circles. In fact, many Republicans strenuously objected last year when the Obama administration proposed sharing limited intelligence about Syria with Russia.
One of the Republicans was Mike Pompeo, the former congressman from Kansas who now runs the C.I.A. In an appearance last year on a podcast hosted by Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan administration official now best known for his anti-Muslim views, Mr. Pompeo said sharing intelligence with the Russians was a “dumb idea.”
So to basic questions.
Why would anyone share intelligence information with a potential adversary or at least rival?
And what considerations need to be considered if one is minded to do so?
Why share intelligence?
States share secret intelligence reports all the time. How that works depends on different aspects of Trust. Can state X trust state Y (a) to handle the shared intelligence reports properly (ie not blab it out or send it on to any other state without state A’s permission), and (b) to use it in a way that does not embarrass state X or put at risk state X’s ability to get more intelligence from the same source?
States share intelligence reports in part because they all have limitations on their own intelligence efforts. Lots of strange things are going on out there: not even the mightiest intelligence agencies can hope to gather more than a fraction of all that fascinating material. So it makes sense to share efforts on a routine basis, eg where some states have a comparative advantage (“You give us your stuff on southern Africa, and we’ll give you ours on central Asia”).
Or the complex technical routes to gathering information (listening in to telephones or monitoring Internet traffic) can be shared, again to improve coverage for those who join together for this purpose (most notably the Five Eyes arrangements). In these cases huge volumes of data will be shared automatically, but even here each state will have in place some checks and balances to protect especially sensitive information.
Note that vast quantities of non-sensitive information may contain patterns that help identify malevolence or crime. Thus states these days share airline passenger data or shipping data in part to help cooperation against terrorism of different sorts. The way the data are analysed by different state agencies to search for trouble may itself be highly sensitive.
Sometimes it makes sense to share even the highest level of sensitive information with another state for urgent operational reasons. Thus state A finds out from an intercept that something awful is going to happen in state X to a citizen of state A, but state A can do nothing to stop it: state A has no embassy in state X. So state A asks state B to do what it can to help ASAP.
This happened in Serbia under Slobodan Milošević. The Americans had reason to believe that an attack on a top CNN journalist was imminent, but the USA had no embassy in Belgrade after the NATO bombing attacks on Serbia in 1999. So they asked the best available friendly Western country that still had an embassy in Belgrade to do what it could to help, much to the amazement of the ambassador who suddenly found himself using top secret decoding procedures that had sat quietly in the cupboard for decades waiting for their moment of glory. Result? CNN journalist saved!
Or it can happen that state A finds out that a leader in state B is soon going to be attacked by state B people. Should that leader be tipped off? Perhaps! This one is especially tricky. What if that leader is toppled and the new state B leadership find out that state A was ‘interfering’ against them, to help the ex-leader stay in power? What if the leader stays in power but then rounds on the plotters (identified thanks to state A’s nimble intelligence sharing) and tortures/executes them?
Or states that have no close collaboration on sharing intelligence may exchange information for ad hoc operational reasons and/or to build high-level trust. This looks like the Trump case. The President reportedly gave the senior Russians some information about an ISIS plot in Syria presumably to show his own willingness to work with Moscow in important respects. No doubt the Russian were pleased by the gesture, even if (maybe) they knew all about that information already.
That said, President Trump might have done better simply to tell the Russian side that he had asked his team to share with Moscow some important operational informational on Syria ‘through the normal channels’. That way of doing it projects ‘discipline’, and allows steely US intelligence experts used to dealing with the Russians some leeway in negotiating the sharing process, perhaps to try to get something juicy in return.
Nonetheless, there is a good general case for sharing sensitive information at a high level to build bilateral trust. HMG made a major effort to do this with Russia after the Cold War ended. The two sides appointed ‘declared’ intelligence officers in their respective embassies who were tasked with building so-called liaison work.
At one high point this led to the UK ambassador being presented with an impressive-looking but alas rather thin dossier of secret Russian material on the IRA’s links to the Libyan regime. An almost negligible proportion of what Moscow might have shared with us on this fascinating subject, but you have to start somewhere. Alas all this fizzled out after the UK side blundered by refusing to accept the posting to London of a top former KGB officer. Mutual trust slithered back down a long snake towards Square One.
What considerations come into play when sharing intelligence?
As well as the sort of operational factors mentioned above, there are intelligence-related considerations in all this.
Intelligence-sharing involves thinking about these core questions:
- what is the practical substance of the intelligence report to be shared?
- what is the source of the report (ie is it (a) reliable in itself, with (b) good access)?
- how did we get it?
The reason to share the information is usually all about the first question. State A wants to tell state B something interesting. BUT can state A do that without revealing the source of the report and how state A acquired the report? The latter two factors are typically more sensitive for state A than any supposed information in the report itself. Why? Because in the murky world of intelligence-gathering the one thing that matters more than anything else is gathering more intelligence. Don’t put that hard-won capability at risk.
State A has found a way to monitor what’s going on in the closest top-level machinations by state X’s leaders: someone deep in state X’s Communications Ministry tips off state A every time state X is changing its secret data encryption codes. That person was recruited when state A working quietly with state C found a way secretly to monitor state X’s leaders’ corruption, and persuaded the person concerned that state X leaders deserved no loyalty.
State A thereby discovers that state X is actively planning to support a terrorist-style operation in state B. State A does not have especially close relations with state B. But state A opposes terrorism on principle, and hopes that a grateful state B in return might be open to sharing some handy information on the goings-on in state Y.
What exactly to tell state B? State A has to be very careful that anything conveyed to state B does NOT reveal or help reveal to state B how exactly state A acquired the report. Who knows? Maybe state X has its own spies working in state B, and if they find out what state A knows about state X and how it has acquired that information, that whole fat flow of important intelligence could come to an abrupt and brutal end. State C will be furious and may stop collaborating with state A in other more important areas. Proceed with great caution.
Thus the hoots of indignation about the supposed Trump security calamity in this case. Did he inadvertently help the Russians find out more than they should have done about what the Israelis know about Syria and how they know it? Have Israeli intelligence-gathering assets in and around Syria recklessly been put at risk, or blown altogether?
There are layers within layers in such issues. In this Trump case it’s impossible to tell from the media babbling and tendentious leaking what precisely happened and what if anything it means in operational or policy terms.
But note the drivelling hypocrisy in all this.
The same people who rail against the damage supposedly done by President Trump in leaking sensitive information to the Russians gush the glory of the appalling Chelsea Manning in a low-cut open-topped black and white ensemble set off by a slash of bright coral lipstick. Manning cunningly assembled huge amounts of US sensitive diplomatic information and dumped it in the greedy hands of Wikileaks and its busy Russian collaborators. So did the even more odious Snowden. They both did FAR more damage to US and wider Western intelligence interests than anything President Trump has done or even could do. By many orders of magnitude.
But that’s cool, even transgressive. Rather than let Manning spend the few decades in jail that such startling stupid malevolence richly deserved, President Obama issued a pardon. Because TRANSGENDER.