President Trump’s latest on-the-job lesson in being commander in chief is a vital one: Intelligence is a team sport.
For all of America’s immense military power, global reach and technical capabilities, we still rely on our allies for on-the-ground knowledge. Bottom line: We need friends to fight terrorism, and Trump’s actions are making it harder for the intelligence community to do its job.
In the wake of this week’s reports that President Trump appears to have provided classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — intelligence the U.S. has yet to share with our allies on combating the Islamic State — it’s fair to ask what impact this will have on U.S. intelligence-gathering.
If you give away too much information about how or where you got it, that can cause problems. But if you talk too much about what you know — even if you don’t reveal how — that can still give too much detail to people who know what they’re doing.
The White House denies Trump gave away “sources and methods.” No one said he did. The danger is he talked so much about what he knew to two of the wiliest and most senior diplomats in the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Since the New York Times and other news outlets have identified Israel as the classified material’s source, lower-level U.S. officials will now need to try to smooth things over with our close ally.
Some anonymous Israeli intelligence officials are reportedly “boiling mad and demanding answers.” Former Mossad chief Danny Yatom said, “We will think twice before conveying very sensitive information.”
Another former Mossad chief, Shabtai Shavit, told the Times of Israel: “If tomorrow I were asked to pass information to the CIA, I would do everything I could to not pass it to them. Or I would first protect myself and only then give it, and what I’d give would be totally neutered.”
How will the U.S. intelligence community’s rank-and-file employees view the latest disclosure about Trump giving information to the Russians? There’s already lingering concern that Trump continues to disrespect the intelligence community’s work and its personnel. His first and only speech at CIA headquarters went dismally, and not only because he brought his own claque to cheer and applaud his commentary about his inauguration crowd size in front of the agency’s Memorial Wall.
The president’s firing of James Comey as FBI director has left many alarmed. And, of course, the smoke billowing from his and his team’s reported relationship with Moscow would have felled any other person with a security clearance.
Will intelligence officers now try to hide information from the president? That rumor has certainly dogged this administration since its beginning. CIA Director Mike Pompeo strenuously pushed back against these whispers in February: “The CIA does not, has not, and will never hide intelligence from the president, period. We are not aware of any instance when that has occurred.”
Nonetheless, one possible pernicious effect of these lingering doubts, spurred by the administration’s near-daily self-inflicted national security crises, could result in an effort to play down or elide truly sensitive material regarding sources and methods.
If that occurs, it would set a terrible precedent for the intelligence community, as it would begin to consider the policy implications of its intelligence as never before. That change in attitude would then chip away at the high wall that separates the intelligence world from the policymaking one.
To riff on Fox News’ motto: The intelligence community reports; the policymakers decide. With a few exceptions, this is the way the intelligence/decision-making system has been designed in the post-World War II era.
Foreigners may also begin to become warier about committing espionage on America’s behalf.
As retired FBI agent David Gomez told me, “When a friendly foreign intelligence service shares their source with the U.S., it is incumbent on the president to protect that source at all costs. Otherwise, you risk the sharing of that future source of information.”
If something terrible were to happen to the human being(s) helping the Israelis, as a result of Trump’s disclosures to the Russians, it would have a chilling effect across the board.
Not only would our allies by infuriated — remember, intelligence collection is a team sport — but our officers around the world would also have more difficulty recruiting new people to assist us.
And this is just in the counterterrorism realm, where the U.S. has overlapping common interests with Russia. How difficult would it suddenly become for America’s intelligence agencies to recruit willing participants in regions where Washington and Moscow are at odds — say, in Eastern Europe or Syria?
Assets read the papers, too, and should be rightly suspicious about Trump’s stance regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin. It’s their lives on the line, after all. The photos from Trump’s meeting last week with Lavrov and Kislyak in the Oval Office — courtesy of Russia’s state-run media after the U.S. media were shut out — merely heighten these suspicions and concerns, both at home and abroad.
Finally, Trump’s behavior has also resulted in numerous leaks to the media. The intelligence community as an institution dislikes seeing classified material show up in the press: Secrets are secret for good reason.
Yes, some argue the leaks help keep this president in check. But what happens when Trump and his clique leave office? Will the leakers stop? As former CIA case officer Doug Patteson notes, the slipshod way intelligence is used at the highest levels is creating a “culture of leaking and disrespect for authority just because they do not like the nature of [Trump’s] decisions.”
Still, life goes on. Intelligence officials will continue to go to work and do their important business. Secrets will continue to be stolen. Papers will continue to be written. Briefings will continue to be briefed.
But intelligence community personnel are also highly educated Americans who read the papers, watch television and listen to the radio. They cannot help but be negatively affected by questions about the people in charge.
From their offices and cubicles throughout the country and across the globe, these personnel are now watching with unease the near-daily national security churn that keeps percolating into the public sphere. One currently serving official tells me that many people within the system are trying to keep their heads down — and keep their integrity intact.
This worry is not just confined to American officers. I asked a former British counterterrorism official what he thought about the latest Trump-Russia revelations. In return, he texted me a Bitmoji avatar of himself descending into an orange vortex with the words:
“This Is Not Happening.”
But it is.
Aki Peritz is a former CIA analyst and co-author of Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda. Follow him on Twitter @AkiPeritz