National Security & Defense

Intelligence Lapses and Double Standards

(Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
Trump’s reported blunder with the Russians is no worse than the record of the Obama administration in such matters.

For Democrats, there is nothing like having the media and the intelligence bureaucracy on the team.

We don’t know all the details, but let’s stipulate that if President Trump disclosed to Russian diplomats secret information that was shared with the U.S. by a foreign intelligence service, as the Washington Post alleges, that could have been a reckless thing to do. General H. R. McMaster, the president’s national-security adviser, claims the Post’s story is not true; but there has been pushback from critics who say that McMaster’s denial was lawyerly.

The matter boils down to whether Trump disclosed a city in Islamic State territory from which an allied intelligence service (perhaps through a source who infiltrated ISIS, or through a collection method that enabled intelligence to penetrate ISIS operations) discovered a threat to civil aviation (reportedly involving explosives hidden in laptop computers). In asserting that the report is “false,” McMaster insisted that Trump had not “disclosed” any “intelligence sources or methods” or “military operations that were not already publicly known.” That denial, however, arguably sidesteps what the Post actually reports. The paper claims not that Trump provided the identity of the source or the nature of the intelligence method involved but that the president mentioned a city that is the locus of the information. By saying Trump did not “disclose” the source, is McMaster saying there’s no way that what was revealed could compromise the source?

It is reasonably argued that this tip could enable to Russians to figure out which ISIS cell has been infiltrated, thereby endangering the mole or other penetration method. It is also reasonably argued, though, that the Post’s own reporting of what McMaster describes as a standard diplomatic exchange of sensitive intelligence has given the Islamic State valuable information it would not otherwise have learned.

In any event, without going into details: Trump concedes that he discussed “facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety”; and the Post maintains that it was persuaded by “officials” (not further identified) to withhold from its report the name of the city, lest “important intelligence capabilities” be jeopardized. If knowledgeable government officials did plead with the Post to refrain from reporting these details, that would be cause for concern that the president erred, perhaps significantly.

Trump’s disclosure was certainly not illegal. The president is in charge of classified information. He has unreviewable authority to disclose it himself and to authorize executive-branch subordinates to disclose it. But legality (as Jim Geraghty explains in the “Morning Jolt”) is not the point. The question is competence: Was the president trying to impress the Russians with his range of intelligence knowledge, even though the Russians would naturally assume an American president knew such things? If so, the incident would raise questions about Trump’s conduct of foreign policy. Avoidable gaffes can gravely imperil intelligence sources. The doubts they can create about our government’s reliability in keeping secrets may induce allied intelligence services to withhold vital information from us. And avoidable gaffes can happen to an official who is not well versed in the give-and-take of high-level diplomatic exchanges. That would not be an excuse: President of the United States is not an entry-level position.

All that said, how unusual is this sort of thing, really? It is a good question that Steve Hayward raises at Power Line — along with a Washington Post report reminding us that, less than a year ago, the Obama administration was offering to share with Russia intelligence about ISIS operations in Syria . . . which sounds an awful lot like what Trump was doing.

When Osama bin Laden was killed, President Obama was not content to explain that fact to the American people. His administration gratuitously disclosed that the raid on the al-Qaeda emir’s compound in Pakistan produced a “trove” of actionable intelligence. From a national-security standpoint, this political grandstanding was a foolish: It gave al-Qaeda operatives a heads-up that their cells and activities had likely been exposed, providing them the opportunity to disappear before our forces could roll them up. And then there is the Obama administration’s leak disclosing (to the Washington Post) General Michael Flynn’s conversations with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. This was done with obvious malevolence to hurt Flynn and Trump (who had named Flynn national-security adviser). The beneficiary, however, was Russia. It received valuable information that its ambassador was under surveillance and that whatever countermeasures the Kremlin’s intelligence services had been taking had failed. This is apt to make Russian operatives more difficult to monitor in the future.

When Democrats mishandle classified information, they are earnest progressives. When Republicans do it, they are incompetent morons.

More to the point, does anyone believe that American presidents other than Trump do not make highly questionable disclosures in their negotiations with hostile regimes? Remember when Obama told Putin’s factotum, Medvedev, to tell ol’ Vlad he’d have much more “flexibility” to accommodate Russian concerns after his 2012 reelection — patently signaling that Putin should just be patient and not pay too much attention to campaign rhetoric about dealing sternly with Moscow? And what of the to-and-fro over Obama’s coveted Iran nuclear deal? Is it necessary to remind Democrats that Obama entered secret side deals with the “death to America” regime that were withheld from Congress and the American people? That was not an instance of what Trump was apparently doing — sharing some intel with a hostile government in the (probably naïve) hope of getting cooperation from that government against a common enemy. Obama was actually partnering with a hostile regime through arrangements that were against American interests and that promoted Iranian interests.

Of course, the media and the intelligence bureaucracy happily gobbled up the Ben Rhodes fiction that the Iranian regime was “moderating,” and that Obama’s nuclear deal was the only alternative to war. So it was “anything goes.” That wasn’t planeloads of intel that Obama was covertly sending to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism; it was planeloads of cash. But to judge from the coverage, this was apparently okay because, after all, he’s Obama — the smartest, most thoughtful, most sophisticated negotiator in the history of negotiators.

And Trump is, well, Trump.

How about Secretary “Extremely Careless” herself, Hillary Clinton? If she had done the same thing Trump did, the media wouldn’t be saying she was grossly negligent in handling top-secret information. We’d be hearing, instead, that what she did was fine because it was communicated in a high-level diplomatic exchange — and that it’s not like she handed the Russians a document that was “marked classified.” Or more likely, we would be hearing nothing at all about her conversation with the Russians, because “current and former intelligence officials” would not be leaking to the Washington Post.

You should read the FBI reports of interviews with Mrs. Clinton’s former State Department staffers sometime. In explaining their actions, in the context of an investigation about the mishandling — the serial mishandling — of classified information, one of the themes that comes through is: Statecraft involves a lot of exchanges of sensitive information with foreign governments; sometimes tough calls about transmitting information have to be made in the heat of the moment, and it’s not always practical to weigh carefully the need to safeguard information against the imperative of getting it into the right hands promptly.

Could there have been more sympathy for Clinton’s aides in the press and official Washington? The lesson appears to be that if administration officials repeat often enough the party line that “we were all working really hard, we all understand that classified information is really important, and we all really did our best to protect it,” the media and intelligence-agency chiefs will forgive the transmission and storage of even thousands of classified e-mails on an unsecured server that was undoubtedly hacked by hostile intelligence services.

Provided, that is, that the administration officials are Democrats.

When Democrats mishandle classified information, they are earnest progressives who understandably suffer the occasional lapse while struggling to make the international community a better place. When Republicans do it, they are incompetent morons.

I’m not suggesting that Trump be cut slack. This seems like it could be a serious error, and one that was easily avoidable. But after a couple of years of hearing the Iran deal and Mrs. Clinton’s homebrew server explained away, I’m just wondering when the media suddenly got so interested again in harmful White House dealings with hostile powers and the proper safeguarding of classified information.

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