Democrats have rallied around Kerry, while the press has all but ignored or dismissed the controversy. But it was a very different story four years ago, when a media firestorm broke out over news that President Donald Trump had shared details of an Islamic State plot with Russian diplomats during an Oval Office meeting. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, called Trump’s actions “dangerous” and “reckless.” Then-Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused Trump of risking “the lives of Americans and those who gather intelligence for our country.” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), then-vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Twitter, “If true, this is a slap in the face to the intel community. Risking sources & methods is inexcusable, particularly with the Russians.”
It turned out that Trump did not reveal sources and methods to anyone. The Times found out that that Israel was the source of the intelligence from “a current and a former American official familiar with how the United States obtained the information.” Former CIA director John Brennan later said that “the real damage that was done is what was leaked in the aftermath, what was put in the media” — not what Trump said to the Russians. Moreover, as a sitting president, Trump had full declassification authority. As secretary of state, Kerry did not — and certainly not after he left office. If he shared classified intelligence with an Iranian official, it would be a serious offense.
We don’t know for certain what Kerry told Zarif, or when he told him. All we have is Zarif’s word that “it was former U.S. foreign secretary John Kerry who told me Israel had launched more than 200 attacks on Iranian forces in Syria.” Some, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have defended Kerry by saying that this intelligence was in the public domain by the time Kerry allegedly disclosed it (in contrast to Kerry’s blanket denial). This seems implausible, since Zarif says on the recording that he was astonished by what he claims Kerry revealed. Perhaps Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani kept Zarif out of the loop on Iran’s intelligence about the Israeli strikes. But how could he keep him in the dark about published news reports of Israeli strikes against his own country’s targets in Syria?
It is likely that what astonished Zarif was not the fact of the strikes, but the significant escalation in Israeli attacks on Iranian targets. In July 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was caught telling world leaders behind closed doors that Israel had struck Hezbollah dozens of times in Syria in remarks that were accidentally transmitted to the ear buds distributed among reporters. After this inadvertent disclosure, the head of the Israeli air force confirmed in August 2017 that Israel had struck Syrian and Hezbollah arms convoys nearly 100 times in the previous five years — adding, “Happily, this goes on under the radar.” It was not until a year later, in September 2018, that Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz publicly acknowledged that there had been 200 strikes in the previous two years. This jump in operational tempo is what seems to have taken Zarif by surprise. So, if Kerry revealed that Israel had carried out 200 strikes before September 2018, he was sharing still-classified intelligence about an intensification in Israeli military strikes with an official of the target country. That would be a significant transgression.
Four years ago, Senate Democrats demanded an investigation of Trump’s alleged disclosures to Russia. But now that it is Kerry who stands accused, the silence from Democrats is deafening. The Iranian foreign minister has said he learned this intelligence information from Kerry. That cannot simply be ignored. Democrats have a responsibility to conduct oversight over the Biden national security team. Kerry should be called to Capitol Hill to explain under oath what he said to Zarif — and when he said it.