Michael Morell was acting director and deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2010 to 2013.
Most of the commentary, including my own, about what The Post says was President Trump’s sharing last week of sensitive intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has focused on the very real downsides of the incident — the risks to the intelligence source or method that produced the information and the risk that other countries will begin withholding critical intelligence from the United States out of concern that something similar might happen to their information.
In this commentary, Trump, who reportedly proudly shared information provided to the United States by a third country, is criticized as not being prepared for an important meeting, for being careless during the meeting, for letting his ego drive his decisions and for not understanding that Russia is an adversary, not an ally of the United States. And this criticism is deserved. But what has been missing from the discussion so far, I think, are three lessons — one heartening, two disturbing — that provide some important and interesting context.
First, we now know that the president is actually paying attention to the intelligence community. He was evidently able to recite to the Russians the Islamic State-related threat intelligence on which he had been briefed with a significant level of detail. So, gone should be the perception that the president is not listening to the intelligence community. And gone should be the idea that the intelligence community is withholding information from the president that he needs to do his job. Neither is true.
Democrats and Republicans — and independent-minded Americans — should see these as positive. A commander in chief cannot do the job of keeping the country safe without listening closely to what the intelligence community has to say and without its members telling the president what they know. Trump not paying attention to intelligence was something a number of us feared during the transition, but we were clearly wrong about that. Time to admit it.
The idea that Trump is paying attention to the intelligence community is consistent with rumors among former intelligence officers that those in the community are getting near daily access to the president, that he is interested in the material and that he is listening and asking questions. The rumors attribute this access largely to the relationship that has grown between Trump and his CIA director, Mike Pompeo. Gaining the confidence of the president and getting access to him is one of the jobs of a CIA director. So, good for Pompeo.
Second, the president’s advisers have not been able to properly “manage” the president. The Lavrov incident underscores that national security adviser H.R. McMaster and his staff are failing us in two ways. They are not succeeding in persuading Trump to work off of a set of carefully written and coordinated talking points when meeting with foreign officials. And they are not always willing or able to redirect the conversation between the president and foreign officials when it is heading into inappropriate areas.
Most lay the blame here on the president because of the idea that managing him must be extraordinarily hard. While it is true that it must be difficult, that can’t be the end of the story. I once briefed President George W. Bush on the intelligence community’s failure to collect insightful intelligence on an important adversary of the United States, and I made the mistake of saying it was “hard.” Bush quickly responded, “I pay you to do hard.” The American people pay McMaster and his staff to set the president up for success, not failure.
This incident is an opportunity for McMaster to sit down with Trump and have a one-on-one discussion on how to handle meetings with foreign officials going forward. McMaster’s ability to speak truth to power is one of the characteristics that made many of us excited when he was named national security adviser. Time to deploy that capability.
Third, the leaks that led to The Post’s article on the issue have made matters worse. The Post relied on multiple sources, who leaked not only the idea that Trump had shared sensitive information with Lavrov but also many of the details of that information. Because of the leaks, the Russians now know the extreme sensitivity of the information. Because of the leaks, other governments now know what happened and may be recalculating their sharing with us. And, because of the leaks, the Islamic State may now be narrowing its search for the source or method of the intelligence on its attack plans.
Trump, who as president has the ultimate authority in the executive branch to declassify intelligence information, did not commit a crime when he shared sensitive information with the Russians. But the leakers did commit a crime, and they should be held accountable.
The country deserves a president who is going to do the hard work to master the job. But the president and, more important, the countrydeserve more balanced and nuanced commentary on how he and his administration are doing.
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