Why the President was wrong to disclose intelligence

The President of the US is a very powerful person.  The so-called leader of the free world has a lot of influence on all kinds of issues and has a great deal of leeway in deciding what to say and do (within the system of checks and balances of course).  The current holder of office, Donald Trump, is exercising this freedom to the max.

President Trump elected to share a piece of intelligence with Russian officials the other day.  This particular information had to do with Islamic State, a heinous terrorist group that has targeted, and continues to threaten, both US and Russian interests in addition to our own here in Canada.  In that vein some may not see a problem with the US President electing to disclose intelligence on a mutual enemy to a state which, although not an ally, does share a mutual desire to see the end of IS.

But while the President has stated publicly that he can make that decision that does not imply that he should.  On the contrary, Mr. Trump’s act is a disaster and has potential serious implications for intelligence collection and international collaboration.

First, a primer on how intelligence organisations operate.  Spy agencies are not natural sharers of what they possess for the very simple reason that the protection of how they collect intelligence is paramount.  Unauthorised or careless leaks of information that could shed light on sources or methods leads to the loss of those sources and methods, some of which are very hard to gain and next to impossible to reproduce.  The loss of such intelligence can do grave damage to national security (not to mention place the lives of human sources at risk).

In this recent case it is not clear what kind of intelligence the President appears to have unilaterally decided to give to the Russians although reports suggest it was sensitive (codeword – could be a reference to signals intelligence or very delicate human source) and came from the Israelis.  It is hard to fathom that Israel agreed in advance to allow the US to pass on intelligence it provided to the US to Russia.  I cannot imagine that Israeli intelligence is very happy with its American ally today notwithstanding the post facto assurances of senior US officials.

When intelligence services do agree to share information it is always done on the principle that the recipient will not further distribute it without the express consent of the originator.  This is a cardinal rule of intelligence, one that the current US President is either unaware or dismissive of.  Mr. Trump’s brazen disregard for basic intelligence practice is sure to cause officials in spy services around the world to question their sharing relationships with the US.

There are circumstances under which a senior official can and should make a public reference to intelligence, say to gain public confidence in a measure taken (an airstrike for instance).  This, however is not one of them.  To the average citizen it seems that the US Commander in Chief simply chose to share sensitive information with an non-ally, rules be damned.

Some may shrug their shoulders and chalk up the President’s action as yet another ‘Donaldism’, one in an increasing series of doubtful moves.  There is however, a much more insidious implication here and it speaks to the role of US and allied intelligence agencies and their relationships with their clients and partners.  The atmosphere in the US is already toxic between the President and his spy services: he has mocked them on several occasions and fired the head of the FBI on dubious grounds. It is very likely that the men and women that work in the US Intelligence Community are shocked, dismayed and demoralised by their leader’s view of them and their mandate and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that some question whether they can trust Mr. Trump with sensitive data.

As for Canada there is little chance that this will have a disproportionate effect on our relationship with the US.  As part of the very effective 5-eyes intelligence club since the end of WWII we gain more intelligence from our immediate allies than we contribute.  Hence, taking a unilateral decision to stop sharing would be injurious to our interests.  Nevertheless, the heads of CSIS and CSE should think twice before forwarding the most sensitive intelligence with a US partner whose head is unpredictable and capable of jeopardising that intelligence.  The US may not miss our contribution but we need to take a stand on principle and time-honoured intelligence practice in this instance.

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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