President Trump reportedly shared sensitive intelligence information on ISIS with the Russians during a high-level meeting last week. Since it’s a story involving Trump, Russia, and ISIS–offering a savory mix of scandal, Cold War, and terrorism–it promptly became the biggest story to start the week.
Citing anonymous US officials, The Washington Post reported earlier this week that President Trump shared “highly classified” intelligence on ISIS with the Russians when he met with them last week. The intelligence was that ISIS has been considering using a laptop bomb on an airplane in a future attack. Given that the US recently instituted a laptop ban on incoming flights from the Middle East, this probably didn’t come as a shock to the Russians (or anyone else).
But while the intelligence itself is not that interesting, the controversy is over the fact that this intelligence was gathered by a US ally using a source in the region. And according to the Post, Trump also disclosed the name of the city the source was located in, which is the kind of thing that doesn’t usually get shared unless it needs to be.
In response, White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster downplayed the report and indicated that any details that were shared would already be accessible from “open-source reporting”. We can’t be sure, but this phrasing would appear to suggest the city named in the conversation wasn’t very specific–most likely if a source has high-level contacts with ISIS leaders in Syria, they’re located in its de facto capital of Raqqa. While this would make sense, obviously the White House has an interest in minimizing the story just as the Post’s sources had an interest in promoting it. Both versions should be treated with some skepticism.
In any case, the story has become another major controversy for the Trump Administration. The nice, and unique, thing about this story is that both sides basically agree that the underlying event occurred–namely, sharing intelligence with the Russians; the dispute is largely over whether what transpired is a big deal or not. Here’s my take:
No Laws Were Broken
While some outlets were quick to cite this story as the latest impeachable offense by the Trump Administration, there is a problem with that narrative. It’s virtually certain that no laws were broken–which the original Post piece also concedes.
This may seem strange given that purportedly classified material was disseminated to a third party. But this is the curious nature of the President’s broad declassification powers. From a legal standpoint, the president can more or less decide to declassify anything he chooses, and this happens automatically. In general, if the president talks about classified material openly, it ceases to be classified. As a result, the President can’t really commit a crime by sharing classification in the same way that other officials can.
Reminder: Russia is at War with ISIS Too
One of the most remarkable aspects of The Washington Post story was its extensive speculation on how Russia might use the intelligence it received. Here are some relevant excerpts:
But officials expressed concern about Trump’s handling of sensitive information as well as his grasp of the potential consequences. Exposure of an intelligence stream that has provided critical insight into the Islamic State, they said, could hinder the United States’ and its allies’ ability to detect future threats…
“Everyone knows this stream is very sensitive, and the idea of sharing it at this level of granularity with the Russians is troubling,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who also worked closely with members of the Trump national security team…
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…
A former intelligence official who handled high-level intelligence on Russia said that given the clues Trump provided, “I don’t think that it would be that hard [for Russian spy services] to figure this out.”
Given that another part of the story explicitly refers to Russia as an “adversary”, it’s not hard to see what’s being implied here. Now that the Russians know some information source in ISIS, they could find it and disrupt it–to help ISIS! The Washington Post is clever enough to not to state this last clause outright, but it’s a conclusion they go out of their way to encourage.
The trouble is that this suggestion is more than a bit crazy. In fact, Russia is at war with ISIS. Readers will recall that Russia entered the Syrian War to strengthen the Syrian government, and the strongest forces working against the Syrian government are the Islamist factions concentrated in northwest Syria, which are dominated by the local Al Qaeda affiliate, and ISIS, which is concentrated in eastern Syria.
There is no reason to believe the Syrian government is backing one of the main organizations that threatens its survival. Similarly, it would make no sense for Russia to expend significant resources and political capital by militarily backing the Assad regime and then simultaneously provide assistance to one of its major opponents in Syria. Fighting on multiple, conflicting sides of the same war is America’s policy in Syria, but there is no indication that Russia is pursuing a comparable strategy.
In other words, Russia and the US are both at war with ISIS. It’s one of the few issues these two governments actually agree on publicly at the moment.
Of course, one may still find it problematic that Trump haphazardly shared potentially sensitive intelligence information. But it is extraordinarily improbable that the Russians will use it to help one of their primary enemies.
(Also worth noting, The Washington Post actually does concede that Russia is at war with ISIS at one point in the piece. It just left in all the other quotes that cast Russia’s possible actions in the most adversarial light.)
Will Allies Still Share Intelligence with the US?
The Washington Post suggests that this latest revelation might make other allies reluctant to collaborate or share intelligence with the US in the future. This is a reasonable concern.
The episode does lend some additional credibility to the idea that the US has a loose cannon at the helm. But the magnitude of the potential harm caused by this disclosure seems to be blown out of proportion.
Remember, in this case, the US shared intelligence information about a common enemy; all three countries, the US, its ally (which subsequent reports named as Israel), and Russia are all opposed to ISIS. ISIS may not be all parties’ top priority in Syria, but they are still basically on the same side in this part of the war. This fact limits the potential harm to the ally and thus also reduces the probability of any ally having a major falling out with the US over it.
By contrast if the US president had randomly shared Israeli intelligence on Hezbollah with Iran for some reason, that would be a much bigger issue for allied intelligence sharing. But given the facts we know currently, this particular episode seems unlikely to cause a major shake-up to the status quo.
It’s a pretty low bar, but this latest installment of the Trump-Russia controversy had more substance than normal, and competing narratives on the subject had more points of agreement than we’ve grown accustomed to. That said, The Washington Post’s take on the story seemed to clearly inflate the risks and significance of Trump’s actions beyond what the facts warranted.