Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Some Thoughts on Trump Sharing Classified Information With the Russians

The news media is once again ablaze with a "you have got to be kidding" story about President Trump: that he revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador.  The Administration has issued denials.  So what are we to think?  As I explain below, I think that it is abundantly clear that some highly classified information was told to the Russians.  Whether we ought to be outraged by this, however, requires much more information.  We need more information, but I strongly suspect that reckless describes what occurred here.

So what to make of the denials?  In order to put these in context, you need to understand an old Washington trick--the nondenial denial.  The pattern is this:  A news article alleges that some category of activity occurred.  The "nondenial denial" does not categorically deny that something with in that category occurred, but instead denies only that specific types of activity within that category occurred.  By inference, there is an admission (or at least not a denial) that something in that category occurred.

Here, there has not been a categorical denial that classified information was shared.  Instead, we have more specific denials: “At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed, and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.”  From this you can surmise that highly classified information was shared--just not intelligence sources or methods or secret military operations.  From this, I surmise that the Washington Post article accurately reports that Trump "did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering method, but he described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat."  And Trump has since tweeted that he has the right to disclose classified information.

So what are we to think about this disclosure?  It is here that we need more context.  The President has the legal authority to share classified information with a foreign nation.  And we often do--even with countries like Russia--when it is in our interests to do so.  The issue here is whether it was wise--or reckless--to do so.  We need more information, but I strongly suspect that reckless describes what occurred here.

The calculation that needed to be made is whether the risks of disclosure are outweighed by the benefits of disclosure.  Here the downside risks are enormous.  the Washington Post article explains that the source of the information was a foreign intelligence agency that was itself highly classified (and not even disclosed to our allies).  It was "code-word" information, which means that access was tightly controlled even among those with the highest security clearances.   (My friend Jonathan Lee has a great primer on the highly classified nature of this information here.)  The downside risk is that in disclosing both the existence of the plot and the city where the foreign partner detected this information, the Russians could deduce the source of the information and surmise that there is a human agent  or technical means in that City.

The downsides here include the lack of future sharing by the foreign partner and the increased danger of exposure of the source.  As the article explains, "The identification of the location was seen as particularly problematic, officials said, because Russia could use that detail to help identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involved. Officials said the capability could be useful for other purposes, possibly providing intelligence on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow would be keenly interested in identifying that source and perhaps disrupting it."

So when would the risk be worth taking?  If the plot was directed toward Russia, the intelligence might be "actionable" in Russian hands, and therefore worth the downside risks.  If, however, as the article suggests, Trump was merely bragging about what he knew, disclosure looks reckless.

To me the most damning evidence that this was not a calculated disclosure is the fact that the White House only discussed the disclosure with the intelligence community after the meeting.  This suggests that there was not a pro/con vetting of the disclosure by those with knowledge of the situation.

So what should be done?  I think the House and Senate Intelligence Communities are the logical places to get to ground truth.  Sadly, given the highly classified nature of the intelligence here, their conclusions might not be made public.  Still, they might be able to at least give a judgment about whether the benefits here were worth the large risks.


  1. Regardless of the nature of the information, it is intensely disquieting to think that Trump believes he can impress sly foxes like Lavrov and Kislyak with any example he thinks would demonstrate that he has "the best intel."

  2. Thanks for the post , it is hard to know right now , what was happening there . Yet , just worth to note :

    First , Russia and the US , in that case , share the same common enemy ( The IS ) . So , if we deal with the same enemy ( and absolutely so ) surly and prima facie , the damage , is attenuated .

    Second , human source is one think . electronic source is another . Yet , even human source , is not always such big deal . It is a big deal , when we deal with an informant , who can be identified , within a well defined group ( defined and limited ) like : the idea , that only ministers , and prime ministers , could be the source , and then , one quickly can bridge the gap , and reveal the source . But , if the informant , is well blended within huge group or army or whatsoever , it wouldn't help that much . The same for electronic of course . How the understanding , that it has been extracted or monitored from a satellite , or drone , or camera disguised or blended inside a rock for example ( like special forces do typically , see link ) can help the Russians trace it ?? it is not so simple as an apple, while we deal with huge territory .

    Finally , The quote brought , states clearly : " not already known publicly " So , if already known , there is no issue here ( according to the citation brought , whether the peace of information , or method ) .

    Link : A device concealed in an artificial rock ( IDF , Lebanon )



  3. I have noted two concerning things that haven't​ been thoroughly discussed, and I wondered about your take on them. The first is the fact that the Russian meeting with Trump was taken at the requedt of Putin, with Trump asking what was he supposed to do, say no? Were the Rusdians seeking verification of information they had heard about?

    Second, the news agency Tass was present at the meeting, and ublished a Russian language article boasting about the classified information passed. While it may be conceeded that Pres. Trump has the right to share whatever classified information he deems necessary with officials of foreign governments, is that also true of foreign news agencies? While it may have no legal consequences, what does it say that he barred US news agencies from the same meeting?

  4. One may find great interest in that post ( " just security " blog , by itself very recommended ) here :