The President of the United States reportedly provided classified information to the foreign minister of the Russian government in the Oval Office. As the President, he is the ultimate “declassifier” of US intelligence, and he has every right to do it.
But while there is no question he had the right to do it, was it the right thing to do?
Before saying more, here’s a confession: Eight times during my four-decade military career I disclosed classified information. All of these occurred when I was a general officer in command of large organizations and when I was working with allies.
These disclosures occurred twice in combat and six times during peacetime engagement operations. Each instance involved the sharing of data classified at the secret level — certainly not in the top secret category or emitting from an even more restrictive special access program (SAP) identified with a code word — and, on each occasion, there was an operational reason for passing along the information.
The good news is that prior to each disclosure I requested and received permission to communicate the intelligence from both my boss and the classification authority. Most importantly, I asked key players in the organization to conduct an analysis to ensure that collection methods and, most importantly, collectors or sources were not jeopardized as a result of the transfer of information, and that our disclosure would not affect military operations in a negative way.
Now, let’s jump from my experience as a division commander in combat and a European theater commander in peacetime to the more lofty perch of the President.
The office of the president of the United States has access to and consumes intelligence products that dwarf any other organization or sovereign nation in the world. That office also has a much greater capacity to drive the collection of a wealth of information from a bevy of intelligence agencies, both in the US and through the coordination with other governments all around the world.
The fight for intelligence and the rapid focused analysis require a professional body of individuals who often put their lives in danger and who work long and tedious hours. But their activity is critical to collection, analysis and the subsequent protected dissemination and use of products that give us an advantage in combat operations where lives are at stake.
In effect, their actions contribute to the safety of our people, the security of our nation and the guarantee of freedom for our allies around the world.
So why are many people excited, and why is the press gobsmacked at this most recent presidential action?
I’ll offer the musings of a former soldier and say it is because of five reasons:
1. Further loss of trust in the President
The indication that the President provided “code word” information — or information that if properly analyzed could provide links to code word information — to the Russians indicates our commander in chief does not understand the significance of these programs. While most Americans would likely not be able to tell the difference between top secret (information that if publicly released might cause exceptionally grave danger to national security apparatus or processes) and secret (information if publicly available that might cause serious damage to national security) information, very few truly understand SAPs and related code word intelligence that are applied to various programs. And that’s a good thing.
SAPs require security protocols that go far beyond normal safeguards, usually for the protection of individuals, acquisitions, technologies, intelligence activities or types of operations, and these programs give us an unmatched advantage on the battlefield and in international relations. I can admit to having used SAPs in combat, and they provided a significant advantage in saving lives.
2. Further loss of trust in the White House
The seemingly uncoordinated talking points and misinformed spokespersons on what the President did or didn’t do — especially in the wake of FBI Director James Comey’s firing — which were followed by the President’s own Twitter admission that he did provide the intelligence only further damage the reputation of those who work in our President’s administration.
3. Further loss of trust with our allies
According to CNN, officials confirm that Israel, one of our closest allies in the Middle East, provided us some of this intel, which was not to be shared. The effect is the equivalent of telling a best friend a secret with a promise not to share — only to find out your friend has indeed shared it… with someone who is not your friend.
In international relation dyads, this is a death knell for trust, and soon other nations will be wary of providing information to those hardworking individuals in the intelligence community. The fact that this is occurring before the President travels to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Vatican will have significant negative effects on several engagements with other nations during his first international trip.
4. A seeming lack of prerelease analysis of ‘what might happen’ to the agent, force or country which provided the information
The conduct of the meeting and the passing of intelligence is simply amateurish statecraft and intelligence tradecraft, and begs the question: Who are the professionals planning the strategy and operations that direct the President on the world stage? While the President admits to uttering the information to the Russians, reportedly in a bragging manner, those who may not have provided the information on the cause-effect of the sharing are equally culpable for his actions.
5. Where’s the quid pro quo?
While the President tweeted that he provided the information because he wants “Russia to greatly step up their fight against terrorism,” there is very little indication that Russia is amenable to our values, policies or strategies.
The Putin government continues to conduct operations that have countered our strategies while also being complacent with the alleged war crimes committed by the Assad regime. Foreign Minister Lavrov thwarted the actions of Secretary Kerry and others in the approach toward a diplomatic solution to Syria and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak is tainted for his relationship with several in our government.
Many Americans voted for this President because they believed he would bring a businessman’s approach to governing. While Trump enthusiastically used nondisclosure agreements with his business associates that could hold up well in court, he does not seem to understand how to apply those same elements of confidentiality and secrecy to statecraft and intelligence operations.
Though he certainly has the right to disclose, whether it’s the right thing to do will be determined in a court of public opinion on both national and international stages.