Preliminary thoughts on Trump revealing classified info to Russia

Steve has already commented on the big news of the day — the Washington Post’s report that President Trump shared highly sensitive intelligence information with the Russians when they visited him in the Oval Office last week. I’d like to add my preliminary thoughts.

The problem, if one exists, isn’t sharing information (classified or not — the president has the power to disclose such information, as I understand it) with Russia about ISIS’s intention and terrorist plots. Russia is a U.S. adversary in some important respects. However, we share a common interest with the Russians in combating ISIS. Russia is our potential partner, and probably our actual partner, in the fight against that outfit.

The potential problem with what Trump did is identified by Post reporters Greg Jaffe and Greg Miller:

Trump went on to discuss aspects of the threat that the United States learned only through the espionage capabilities of a key partner. He did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering method, but he described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat.

(Emphasis added)

Why is revealing the city a potential problem? Jaffe and Miller explain:

The identification of the location was seen as particularly problematic, officials said, because Russia could use that detail to help identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involved. Officials said the capability could be useful for other purposes, possibly providing intelligence on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow would be keenly interested in identifying that source and perhaps disrupting it.

(Emphasis added)

That’s what this story boils down to, as I see it now. It’s possible that Trump, by identifying the city, gave the Russians enough information to figure out where the intelligence came from, and thus to disrupt that source in order to advance its interests in Syria, which diverge from ours in very important respects.

How real is this possibility? We don’t know.

We do know (assuming the Washington Post is telling the truth) that the Trump administration asked the Post not to reveal the city where our intelligence partner obtained the information. This suggests that some disadvantage would be associated with entities other than Russia — e.g. ISIS — learning about the location. But it doesn’t mean the Russians gained much from that knowledge. Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t.

A second problem with Trump telling the Russians about the intel we received is that it likely will upset the nation that provided us the information, as well, probably, as other allies who supply such matter. I agree with Charles Krauthammer that this problem is real — allies might be reluctant to share intel with us — but remediable. In other words, probably not a big deal.

Finally, a note on Gen. McMaster’s denial of the Post’s story. As Steve says, the denial was “carefully worded.” I don’t think McMaster has denied that Trump revealed the city where the intel was gathered. And that, as noted, is the truly worrisome part of the Post’s article.

In sum, it seems clear that, unless the Post’s story is inaccurate on the key question of whether Trump revealed the city, the president told the Russians too much. Whether doing so caused serious harm is another matter.

Trump’s adversaries in the government will tell us it did. His appointees and spokespersons will say it didn’t. I don’t think we in the public are in a position yet (and we may never be) to say who is right.

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