Trump and the Potential for Intelligence Failure
The world of foreign intelligence and the sharing of intelligence is always a challenge for political leaders, their officials, staff and for governments and the Trump administration seems to face its share of real challenges. Yesterday, US National Security Adviser, General H.R. McMaster, defended President Trump’s decision last week to reveal reportedly highly classified information during an Oval Office meeting with Russian officials. President Trump apparently detailed an Islamic State plot to Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, and Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador. More concerning is that the information reportedly came from Israel, and that the President discussed this ally-obtained information with the Russians, who for all purposes are closely allied to Iran, Israel’s principal regional opponent. Even more concerning, is that US officials who clearly knew better, then ran from the room to tell the media and make a potentially bad Presidential decision worse. If we were not facing a crisis in North Korea, an aggressive China is the South China Sea, an Iran bent on re-shaping the Middle East in its own image, and a Russia poised to take another bite out of Ukraine and central Europe, then it might be okay. Right now, the Leader of the Free World has a problem, perceived or real, with his conduct on intelligence and national security matters, and this does in fact, represent a problem for the Trump Presidency and the US government. Intelligence is laboriously gathered at great economic cost and at great cost in terms of human capital for all governments. Most intelligence communities will tell you off the record that governments crave intelligence and that it is a never-ending demand against the backdrop of ‘bargain basement’ funding models. In the absence of the political leadership’s interest in intelligence it is the bureaucracy that hungers for information. Sharing and releasing intelligence within governments and outside with allies comes risk, and releasing sensitive information can give away a great deal about how that material was obtained. Intelligence in and outside government with allies is hard capital and information is power. In the wrong hands, key pieces of intelligence mean sources disappear, and with them critical potential information about the next plot evaporates into the atmosphere. US Presidents reportedly have broad powers to classify and declassify information, and you would think that there was a process to do just that, so that legalities are followed, and risks mitigated.
President Trump in sharing sensitive intelligence with Russia opened perceptional or in real terms a ‘can of worms.’ Sharing with Russia, a strategic competitor, is risky at a whole new level, and may have been down-right dangerous. Following this through, the Russians can share this intelligence that they have been given with their allies on the ground in Syria where it reportedly originated, and Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and others might then determine the source and go after it. This is a problem. Given the media reporting, it is now so widely known, that this secret source is now ‘blown’ and has likely disappeared in a good-way, or a bad one. Was the President Right or wrong in what he did we do not know? Perhaps he had to ‘open his kimono’ and tell the Russians what he knew about a plot to save lives. Perhaps President Trump was back-channeling with the Russians for Israel. Just maybe both sides were filling in the pieces of a mutual intelligence puzzle and trading information at a high-level to build trust for the way forward. Perhaps this represents the first big intelligence failure of the Trump administration. We simply don’t know. We do not know how the conversation on this intelligence matter came about, and what the Russians disclosed to prompt President Trump into reportedly releasing the information. We do not know if the information was as reported, ‘highly classified,’ or if for certain it came from Israel. For argument sake let’s say it did and the media reporting is accurate. To be frank, we do not know if the President knew how the information was obtained and where it came from. That usually is not part of the brief to a senior political leader, unless they, or their staff, ask for it in questioning or discussing the item. There is only so much time to brief a world leader, and so some things like North Korea take more time, and right now the Islamic State, probably much less, depending on the item, and if an attack is imminent. How the intelligence gets obtained is likely not a matter that consumes most political leaders, though perhaps it should. Most political leaders get their first detailed briefs in transition and then situational briefs as time goes on. Sometimes it is a snippet here, and a conversation there that fills in the gaps. My perception rightly or wrongly is that President Trump hoists on issues based on oral briefs and that he does not live by hard copy or paper. This would not be unusual for a business leader of a massive enterprise who gets briefed, and makes snap business decisions, based on the words of people they trust. When there is a problem they revisit the issue in detail and then move on.
The real issue here is two-fold. First, there is the perception that President Trump’s has ‘rocky’ relations with his own intelligence services. We all have seen the press and know that there are issues in how the President treats his intelligence agencies, and it is not smart. It is a problem. Some politicians, wise ones live by a trusted relationship with their intelligence services backed by heavy occasional doses of skepticism, and some regard intelligence as not a big deal that they cannot read in the paper or disregard it as inconvenient truths. In a town where intelligence is critical and easily ‘politicized’ President Trump and his team are running risks that could lead to the next great intelligence failure. To know officials, likely senior ran from the room to cast the President’s judgement in a bad light and make public what is alleged top secret information is not a reassuring sign. Frankly, it is not very professional, but may signal a divide between the President and his national security community that needs immediate repair. There cannot be much trust right now between the White House, Commander-in-Chief, and officials.
Second, on the international front, you can bet that allies in the ‘Five Eyes’ community and NATO are a bit un-nerved by the media reporting on this issue and are now being choosey what they share or trade with the US on the intelligence front. If you are Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, the Baltic States you might hold back where the risks are even higher as a frontline state. Intelligence sharing alliances, both multi-lateral and bi-lateral, are deep, long relationships, based upon mutual trust, and mutual best interest. When there is a critical intelligence leak, information is compromised, or an intelligence failure, the country with the failure goes to their allies and tells them exactly what was compromised, how it was done, what they have done to mitigate the failure, how they will prevent it in the future from happening again. The state with the ‘intelligence failure’ does the mea culpa and attempts to restore confidence rapidly, so that critical intelligence is ‘freely’ shared again. This is not the sort of conversation that happens by phone or email. High-level discrete delegations of the most senior officials in the intelligence community climb on planes and deliver very bad, moderately bad, just plain bad news, in person to their affected counter-parts. That is, if they want to see you at all.
We do not know if President Trump pulled down his own ‘Intelligence house’ in this meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador, because there is much that we do not know. It does look bad, and it is a problem at least of perception. But we are going to see a clue of what has happened in President Trump’s upcoming visit to Israel. If we see a scurrying of high-level officials from the US intelligence community start to travel in twos and threes to Israel, the Five Eyes, and NATO, then we are going to know something is up. It will be very interesting to see who travels with President Trump to Israel, and who does not, and who sits in on meetings to determine if this represents an intelligence failure or something else. But this scenario must not be allowed to happen again.