Why intelligence sharing is at risk thanks to the Trump administration

Donald Trump promised during his presidential campaign that if elected to the highest office in the land that he would do things differently.  No more Washington business as usual, he said.  This was welcomed by many who are convinced that the capital, and by extension the government, had fallen into paralysis and inefficiency.  What better man than a real estate tycoon and an outsider to shake things up?

Some may still see many of President Trump’s changes as a good thing.  I have no position on most of them as they are well beyond my purview.  There is one, however, on which I see myself qualified to comment and that is the clearly detrimental break in longstanding intelligence practice.  No, I am not speaking of the firing of FBI Director James Comey (many others have weighed in on that) but rather the current administration’s flippant disregard for the rules of intelligence sharing.

Look people, it is not complicated.  Agency A shares its data with Agency B on the simple understanding that Agency B will not share it with Agency C without first asking Agency A if that is ok.  Could anything be less opaque?  Apparently not as far as Trump’s team is concerned.  It has elected, inexplicably, to give very sensitive Israeli intelligence to the Russians (not exactly an ally by the way) and now appears to have leaked sensitive UK intelligence on the Manchester terrorist incident to, well, everyone.  As a consequence, the UK has announced that it will cease to give the Americans what is has on the attack.

There is no need to put a fine point on this.  It is unprecedented, at least based on my 30+ years in Canadian intelligence. Yes, there have been tiffs in the past which resulted in a turning off of the taps (the 1985 decision by the New Zealand government to deny port facilities to US warships possibly carrying nuclear weapons led to one such action) but they are few and far between, especially between strong allies.  And there is no stronger intelligence alliance in the world than the ‘5 eyes’ partnership, a set of Anglo countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US) that is the envy of all.  This group was forged during WWII and has developed into a premier collection of human and signals intelligence agencies that give and receive an astronomical amount of data.  This alliance has helped to keep us all collectively safer, and that goes for us too here in Canada where we benefit immensely from our partners’ complementary capabilities.

The bizarre unilateral decisions in the US put some of this in jeopardy.  Let us not over-dramatise the issue: no one member is going to leave the club over a given leak as they all recognise the advantages that membership confers. But continued leaks undermine the decades of trust and if there is one maxim about intelligence sharing it is that trust is very hard to gain and even harder to reinstate once broken.  The US seems to be keen to break that system of trust.

Even as a former insider it is not obvious to me why this is happening.  Professional intelligence officials know the rules and keep to them closely.  So why is this information now being treated cavalierly?  Is direction to do so coming from the top?  Did Trump’s boneheaded move to share intelligence with the Russians establish carte blanche permission to do so?  Will we see more?  Is this the ‘new normal’ in the US?  I feel for my many friends and colleagues who work for the NSA and FBI and who have to witness this foolish behaviour.

I recognise that leaks are pervasive, even in the intelligence world.  These particular leaks, however, run the risk of undermining ongoing investigations.  I fully understand why the Brits (and, for that matter the Israelis) are livid with the US.  This clownish practice has to stop and stop now.

Intelligence sharing is the lifeblood of spying.  As one of my bosses at CSIS once told me ‘we don’t collect for the sake of collecting: we do so to share what we know and to offer advice’ (or something to that effect).  Sharing is crucial but it has to be done properly.  It is now not clear that the US gets this.

The spy business should be run by mature adults.  Is the US intelligence community being taken over by children?  Let us hope not.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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