President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended his right to share classified information with whomever he likes, but former foreign intelligence figures told VICE News that his decision to brief Russia on an ISIS terror plot has “significantly damaged” international intelligence relationships and could put the sharing of vital information on hold.
Trump and his administration have pushed back against claims, first reported Monday by the Washington Post, that the president had revealed highly classified information about an ISIS plot during an Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak last week, and in so doing jeopardized a critical intelligence source. Senior White House officials pushed back on the story and said that no intelligence sources or methods were revealed. On Twitter, Trump today defended his “absolute right” to share the information.
Regardless of whether Trump is legally within his right as president to share highly sensitive information, intelligence experts warned of blowback from allies.
“This is a complete nightmare — the president of the United States has admitted to giving information to a country that is actively working against Western interests,” Stephanie Carvin, a former intelligence analyst for the Canadian government, said. “It’s very possible that that information could have been reverse-engineered, so sources to the U.S. could start drying up if they believe this is a major risk. We’re all going to be less safe as a result of this.”
Carvin characterized Trump’s actions as the “absolute worst-case scenario” from an intelligence standpoint.
“I can’t imagine them thinking it is safe to share any intelligence right now with a president who is loose-lipped and talking to Russia.”
Matthew Dunn, a former officer at British intelligence agency MI6, was less severe, but he warned of a temporary cooling of information-sharing between allies.
“What Trump has done has probably put MI6 and other intelligence services in the West on hold vis-à-vis sharing intelligence with the United States,” Dunn said. “I can’t imagine them thinking it is safe to share any intelligence right now with a president who is loose-lipped and talking to Russia.”
Dunn, who recruited and ran agents during his time at MI6, said that joint intelligence operations are typically based on a high level of trust — something that can be easily undermined.
“The relationship between foreign intelligence services is always a fraught one, even between extremely close allies like the United States and the United Kingdom,” Dunn said. “It is very easy for those allegiances to falter completely.”
Dunn’s assessment was echoed by a senior European intelligence official who told the Associated Press that his country might stop sharing information with the United States if it independently confirms Trump had indeed shared classified details with Russian officials.
The reason cited by the official was that it “could be a risk for our sources.”
The U.K. has yet to issue an official comment on Trump’s actions. However, other members of the intelligence-sharing network known as Five Eyes — the world’s most powerful intelligence network, comprising the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — sought to play down the significance of the threat.
According to Reuters, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he would continue to treat classified matters as usual, calling the U.S. partnership “the bedrock of our national security.” And New Zealand Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee focused not on the potential intelligence breach but on the White House denials and the need for Russia and the U.S. to cooperate in Syria.
Other intelligence experts who spoke to VICE News said that while Trump’s actions will have made America’s intelligence partners nervous, intelligence-sharing relationships such as Five Eyes were too robust and valuable to be seriously affected by the incident.
“On the one hand, allies will be hugely nervous, certainly on a political level, that information they pass to the Trump administration might be subject to compromise outside the original agreements that previously existed,” said Peter Roberts, director of Military Sciences at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, who has extensive intelligence experience from his career as a warfare officer in the Royal Navy.
But Roberts said he believed that the U.S.’ intelligence partners would continue to share information, and that Trump’s disclosure was unlikely to have jeopardized the safety of a human source who may have divulged the existence of the laptop plot. He said any human source would likely have been removed from potential harm prior to the introduction in March of a U.S. ban on electronic devices in the cabins of flights through airports in a number of Muslim-majority countries.
Joe Devanny, an intelligence expert at the International Centre for Security Analysis and a former national security analyst for the British government, told VICE News that the Five Eyes agreement was “so deep and longstanding and mutually beneficial that its value transcends incidents like this.”
“But definitely there’s an impact in terms of the need for the White House to reassure different foreign partners,” Devanny said. “They would want to be assured that there was a clear process and discipline in the way that this information was handled.”
He said he expected Trump’s senior officials would be busy behind the scenes providing assurances during the president’s forthcoming foreign trip, in which he will meet Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia, the pope at the Vatican, NATO leaders in Brussels, and G7 leaders in Sicily, as well as visiting Israel.
“But I would be extremely surprised if anyone fundamentally changed the nature of their intelligence-sharing relationship with the U.S. on the basis of this incident,” he said.
Kenneth Pollack, a former military analyst with the CIA who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told VICE News that he believed all U.S. intelligence partners were “going to be somewhat more cautious with us.”
But he said they wouldn’t turn off the faucet completely, as “they get far more out of the relationship than we do. Our intelligence community is massive and collects far more than any of them can individually.”
Pollack said he expected the incident to be a cloud over Trump’s first foreign trip.
“I suspect when he shows up in Israel and he shows up in Brussels, reporters are going to be asking him, ‘Did you share sensitive information with him?’ And Lord only knows what Donald Trump is going to say to that.”