President Trump’s disclosure to Russian officials of sensitive intelligence provided by a US partner in the fight against the Islamic State threatens to put a chill on one of Mr. Trump’s priorities – the global effort to defeat Islamist terrorism.
That’s because counterterrorism work depends on a high level of trust among partner nations, international security experts say. The partners rely on each other to use the highly sensitive information, which sources may have risked their lives to gather, judiciously and to mutual benefit.
Violate that trust by loosely sharing intelligence from at-risk sources, the experts add, and information critical to stopping one attack – or prevent a new means of carrying out deadly attacks – can dry up.
“This whole episode is terrible for trust – and trust is what makes intelligence sharing work,” says Joshua Rovner, an expert in relations between leaders and intelligence officials at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“Sharing intelligence is very risky for the side that’s giving the information up, and especially if what’s involved is a human source inside ISIS,” he adds. “Sharing that kind of information with a third party is not something you do lightly.”
Trump shared ISIS-related information the US obtained from another country with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as well as with Russia’s ambassador to Washington, when the two visited the Oval Office May 10.
At a White House press conference May 16, national security adviser H.R. McMaster deemed the information Trump shared as “wholly appropriate” and further stated that the president wasn’t even aware of the country that provided the information. The New York Times reported that the source was Israel.
What worries intelligence officials is that the information shared – which US officials say concerned ISIS methods of placing explosives inside electronic devices like laptops – could be “reverse-engineered” to pinpoint the source or sources of the information.
The Russia factor
Adding a kind of “on-top-of-everything-else” aura to the revelations is the fact that Trump chose to share the information with Russia – a fact that may not sit well with many Americans or with America’s counterterrorism partners in Europe.
“The information sharing is not really the problem. I must tell you that in foreign policy this kind of thing goes on all the time,” says Jeffrey White, a specialist in Middle East military and security affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). “What makes this very bad all around is that this was with Russia, and only underscores [Trump’s] unwillingness to accept that Russia is an enemy state that is not looking out for our interests.”
At one level, thwarting attacks planned by ISIS, Al Qaeda, or other terrorist groups intent on attacking the West depends on a global web of intelligence sources – some of whom provide crucial information at extreme personal peril.
The prospect of having highly classified information about those sources bandied about – even if by the president of the United States to another global power pledging to crush Islamist terrorism – can’t help but cause nervous sources to clam up, and the relaying of valuable information to go cold.
More broadly, destroying the scourge of international terrorism depends on a high degree of trust in international relationships – including sometimes between partners who have access to vital information but who prefer to keep their level of cooperation with the United States under wraps. If partners decide they can no longer rely on the US to safeguard the intelligence they provide on terrorists and their organizations, they may think twice about sharing information that could prevent attacks.
Trump’s information-sharing with Russia may not perturb some US allies that are more focused on garnering US support for other priorities. For example, Saudi officials, preparing for what they are calling a “pivotal” summit with Trump in Riyadh this weekend that is to feature more than 50 Muslim nations, are pushing aside fears over intelligence leaks while praising “closer cooperation” with the Trump administration on top-tier concerns like Iran.
“There is full security, intelligence, and political cooperation with the new administration that will only continue,” says an official Saudi source, who was not authorized to speak to the press and thus insisted on anonymity.
“The new US administration sees the region and the threats that face it like Saudi Arabia [does], and its policies are much more in line with Saudi policies than the previous administration,” says Jasser al-Jasser, an analyst and columnist at the semi-official Saudi daily Al Jazirah. “An incident or leak would not derail this important partnership.”
Keeping information from Trump
But reactions from European partners are likely to be much more critical of the president, experts there say.
“Donald Trump was a businessman who speculated in real estate using other peoples' money. Now as president he is taking risks with other peoples' intelligence (assets),” says Irwin Collier, director of North American Studies at Free University of Berlin.
“Clearly people stop lending to speculators who fail to pay back when they fail,” he says, “and [now] intelligence agencies have witnessed their worst fears, [that] the president of the United States risks their people and methods to satisfy his own ego.”
One mitigating factor, Mr. Collier says, is that German intelligence agencies are dependent on the US sharing intelligence with them. As a result, he says, he doubts it will come down to a widespread refusal to share from the German side.
“But they will definitely work out procedures to double-insulate their sources and methods before sharing,” he adds. “They will seek assurances that their US colleagues figure out ways of keeping particular information very far from the current occupant of the White House.”
Some even see the spectacle of the American president casually sharing hard-won intelligence with the Russians as pushing European officials back to a mistrust among powers that some thought had ameliorated in recent decades.
“We are almost going back to this cold war type of environment where information obtained by the other side, it could be misused and lives potentially could then be in danger,” says Sajjan Gohel, a terrorism expert at the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation. “One has to be very careful. Especially more-so when you are discussing things with Russia.”
Ties to intelligence community at risk
WINEP’s Mr. White says that as worrying as the impact on US relations with its intelligence partners may be, he is much more concerned about what this latest crisis in the Trump White House says about White House-intelligence community relations.
Calling it “very clear to me” that the information about the intelligence sharing, first reported in The Washington Post, was leaked by someone in intelligence, White says, “This indicates to me that the Intell Community is out to get Trump, and that’s not a healthy thing.”
SMU’s Dr. Rovner concurs that damage has been done to “intelligence policy relations,” right when, he says, signs were mounting of steady mending in White House-intelligence community relations.
But he is less optimistic about repairing the breach he anticipates is widening with international counterterrorism partners as a result of the Oval Office ISIS information sharing.
“I really think the difficulty so many countries are now going to have sharing information with the US will be a factor as long as Trump is in office,” Rovner says. “Intelligence people around the world are seeing a US president that is unreliable, unpredictable – and not the kind of leader you’d entrust with your most sensitive information.”
Staff writer Sara Miller Llana contributed to this story from Paris; Correspondent Taylor Luck from Amman, Jordan; and Correspondent Rachel Stern from Berlin.