Today we are facing the very real possibility that the president of the United States poses a clear and present danger to American national security.
That's the inescapable conclusion from the Washington Post's bombshell report that Trump shared highly sensitive, highly classified information about the ISIS fight with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak when the men met with Trump in the Oval Office last week.
The White House went into crisis mode after the story broke Monday night, trotting out surrogates to argue that Trump's move was no big deal because Russia is an ally in the ISIS fight (it isn't), because Hillary Clinton did something worse (she didn't), and because Trump was legally free to share whatever he wants with whomever he wants (true, but utterly irrelevant). Breitbart, unsurprisingly, blamed it all on a supposed "deep state" of US national security officials committed to harming the Trump presidency.
The spin is meant to distract attention from the enormity of the new scandal — and from the likely repercussions of Trump's actions. The White House has good reason for desperately hoping it can change the topic: The president's gaffe will make US allies less likely to share vital intelligence and add new fuel to the administration's ongoing war with the American intelligence community just when US spies can least afford the distraction.
That's because Trump's disclosures represent a direct threat to US counterterrorism efforts, which rely less on the skills of individual operatives and more on the web of intelligence-sharing agreements that Washington has with allies around the globe.
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The best known is the decades-old Five Eyes agreement between the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia that calls for the nations to share information and not carry out espionage missions against each other.
But the US also maintains formal and informal intelligence-sharing arrangements with countries closer to the main battlefields of the war against ISIS and al-Qaeda. Those include deals with Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and other Middle Eastern nations that have worked hard to develop granular knowledge of the terror groups that threaten them at least as much as they threaten the West.
Those are also precisely the kinds of agreements that could fall apart because of Trump's cavalier decision to give Russia information Washington had received from one of its allies in the terror fight. As the Washington Post's Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe write:
The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said.
The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said Trump's decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State
We don't yet know which country had its secrets given to Moscow, nor the exact details of the intelligence Trump shared. (The Post said the information had to do with an ISIS "terrorist threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft.")
One thing is very clear, however: Trump doesn't seem to know or care about the possible repercussions of his actions. Russia would once have devoted enormous amounts of resources toward trying to gain insight into what an American president was thinking or what kinds of deals the US was striking with other nations. In the age of Trump, that information is literally handed to them in the Oval Office on a whim.
"I get great intel," Trump boasted to Lavrov, according to a source who recounted that conversation to the Post. "I have people brief me on great intel every day."
The problem is that those people thought they were briefing Donald Trump. They didn't realize they were also briefing Vladimir Putin.
TV shows like 24 and Homeland center on US spies operating freely inside countries like Pakistan while they race to disrupt terror plots and kill or capture key militants.
The reality is very different. As terrorism scholar and former CIA analyst Daniel Byman has noted, groups like al-Qaeda and now ISIS operate in so many countries simultaneously that it would be impossible for Washington to keep up. Foreign intelligence services — often located in countries geographically closer to known terrorist strongholds in places like Iraq and Syria — help fill those gaps, often by trying to embed deep-cover operatives into the militant groups themselves.
"Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, and Pakistan have all reportedly penetrated Al Qaeda with human assets," Byman wrote in 2014. "In some cases, certain of these countries will 'run' the agent in cooperation with the United States."
Something similar may have been taking place here.
According to the Post, Trump told Lavrov that the US had learned details of a specific threat from espionage work carried out by overseas ally. The president didn't reveal how the intelligence was gathered, but he described the ISIS plot in some detail. "Most alarmingly," the newspaper notes, "Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State's territory where the US intelligence partner detected the threat."
That information, in turn, could have allowed Russia to identify which US ally had provided the information and how it was obtained. In a worst-case scenario, Trump's disclosure could threaten the safety of the foreign spy or spies who found the information in the first place.
It's impossible to predict the future, and it's possible that Washington's allies will accept that Trump screwed up and continue business largely as usual.
But it's just as likely, if not more so, that the next time an American partner learns a critical piece of intel about a terror plot it may decide to keep that information to itself rather than entrust it to Trump. That may already be happening: Senior Israeli intelligence officials are reportedly reluctant to share classified intelligence with the Trump administration because of fears the information would wind up in Russian hands.
The president's latest gaffe doesn't simply threaten the lives of undercover foreign operatives or the future of Washington's broader information-sharing relationships overseas. It also deals a new blow to Trump's own ties to the US intelligence community he is nominally in charge of commanding.
Trump has been bashing American spies since before he even took office, mocking them for their faulty assessments of Saddam Hussein's weapons programs in the run-up to the Iraq War and going so far as to compare them to Nazis.
In recent days, though, the simmering tensions between the president and America's intelligence community has sharply escalated. Last week, Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, the man leading the bureau's criminal probe into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. The move infuriated many FBI agents, several of whom told reporters that they were willing to go to war with Trump.
As my colleague Zack Beauchamp noted, the FBI could leak damaging information to the press, work more closely with Congress to strengthen the existing House and Senate probes into Russia, intensify its own investigation or even open entirely new probes into Trump and his allies.
Trump's latest stumble makes the likelihood of a confrontation far higher, and ensures that it would involve more than just the FBI. The CIA and other branches of the US government spend years honing the kinds of intelligence-sharing relationships that Trump just torpedoed during his meeting with Lavrov. They won't soon forget the damage the president caused.
Some US spies had already been withholding highly sensitive intelligence from Trump and his team because of concerns that the information would promptly leak and because of lingering unease over Trump's ties to Russia.
According to a February report in the Wall Street Journal:
In some of these cases of withheld information, officials have decided not to show Mr. Trump the sources and methods that the intelligence agencies use to collect information, the current and former officials said. Those sources and methods could include, for instance, the means that an agency uses to spy on a foreign government.
US spies had those concerns before Trump openly shared some of the most closely guarded American secrets with a pair of visiting Russian diplomats. Imagine what they're thinking now.
Commentary by Yochi Dreazen, deputy managing editor, foreign at Vox.
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