President Trump can legally share classified material with any foreign leaders he likes, as it appears he did recently in an Oval Office meeting with Russia’s foreign minister and its ambassador to the United States.
As a former CIA officer, I fear that sharing information without coordinating with our allies will almost certainly hurt the country’s security in the long run. I know how U.S. intelligence officials evaluate whether we can trust our partners in other countries. If another head of state handled the sensitive information we had provided so casually, it would damage our relationship badly. It would cause us to reevaluate how and what we passed, and almost certainly result in our sharing less.
Over the years, the United States has developed close relationships with foreign intelligence services with which we share interests and goals. Since 9/11, many of these relationships have become quite close. These ties are particularly useful when it comes to sharing intelligence on the plans and intentions of terrorists — from specific plots to longer-term issues such as terrorist training locations or ways to improve security for high-profile international events.
Trust is the key element in these relationships. Before one intelligence service passes its information to another, its officers must have a reasonable expectation that the information will be protected. Part and parcel of protecting the information is the understanding that the other country will not pass the intelligence to a third party without specific permission. This is how it has always been done between intelligence services, and for good reason; it can take years to reach the level of trust where information can be shared routinely. Track records matter.
There are times when the United States decides against passing intelligence to foreign governments, even when it might be useful to them. Part of the job of professional intelligence officers is to assess the risks compared with the gains when contemplating passing sensitive information. There are important questions that need to be asked: Has there been a recent change in government in the country that is asking for the intelligence? If so, what do we know about the new leadership? With what countries do the leaders have relationships, and are those countries allies or foes of the United States? How likely is it that intelligence the United States passes will end up with our adversaries? And, of course, what would happen if we didn’t pass the intelligence? Would a terrorist attack that could have been thwarted be successful? There are times when U.S. intelligence agencies have to hold their nose and pass sensitive information to a foreign government when they really do not want to — if it is information about a terrorist threat, we often do it, in the hopes lives will be saved. (Reportedly, the intelligence Trump shared with his Russian visitors dealt with plans by the Islamic State to hide bombs in laptops on flights bound for the United States.)
The story doesn’t end when we pass information to another government. U.S. intelligence officials then watch carefully to see what happens. Did the information we passed leak? Did it end up in other, unfriendly hands? Was it used politically, to score popularity points domestically? Or did it result in some action that was not consistent with American values? Was an entire village razed because a suspected terrorist was there? Was a known terrorist’s family tortured or killed? Were children and innocents harmed as a result of our passing the information? U.S. officials take these questions seriously. Often, hard, morally ambiguous choices need to be made.
In this case, the fact that the president shared the information with Russia simply adds insult to injury. All of our allies understand that in the vast majority of situations, the Russian government is not a good partner when it comes to intelligence sharing — even, unfortunately, when it involves issues both sides should agree on, such as terrorism. Russian operatives are often guilty of committing many of the acts U.S. intelligence officials are watching for when we evaluate potential partners for sharing information. As we saw during the conflict in Chechnya — which Moscow has always described as a battle against terrorism — Russia does not share the concerns the United States has regarding collateral damage and the unintentional killing of innocents. And the Russians rarely share intelligence of use to us.
You can be sure that whichever intelligence service passed us the information that the president subsequently shared with the Russians, it is now doing precisely the same analysis we would. And it is doing it for the same reasons. Officials want to know how the U.S. government, with its new president, will treat sensitive information in the future. They want to see whether the intelligence they provided is shared in an uncoordinated fashion with another country, breaking the third-party rule. If this happens, they will want to know why: Did Trump not understand, or was he not told, that the intelligence was not from a U.S. spy agency and therefore should not be shared without checking with the originating nation? Did he not care? Did he think he could share it without his action ever coming to light?
There are really no answers to these or similar questions that would satisfy whichever ally passed us the information. Certainly, there are no answers that would satisfy the United States if the situation were reversed. The options boil down to two scenarios: Either the president knew and passed the intelligence anyway, or he did not know and therefore did not understand his mistake. Either way, you can be sure that the foreign intelligence service will be more careful next time. It will either water down the information or not pass it at all.
It does not matter whether you blame Trump, or an aggressive press corps seeking out every flaw in the White House, or “deep state” operatives in the intelligence world who are leaking to damage the administration, as conspiracy theorists have it. No matter why this story is coming out, all of this is being watched by our foreign intelligence partners and their governments, all over the world — just look at how the British signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, ridiculed the notion that President Barack Obama had persuaded it to eavesdrop on then-candidate Trump.
Foreign governments are asking themselves questions that come down to this: Can we trust the United States with sensitive intelligence? Right now, they must be deeply skeptical. And that means the United States will have less intelligence from our foreign allies, which in turn means the United States is less secure. If we are to make America more secure again, Trump needs to be more careful.