The Controversy over Trump's Intelligence Disclosure to Russia, Explained

May 22, 2017

“The breach was deadly serious and reckless in the extreme.”


When the Washington Post first reported that that President Donald Trump disclosed classified information in a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, it was difficult to even process what was happening. The president did what? With whom?


But since the story broke Monday afternoon, a consistent through-line began to emerge as to what had happened. The president, seemingly on a whim, gave a US adversary closely held information about an ISIS threat that had been provided by a US intelligence partner.


Making things even more complicated, the New York Times reported Tuesday that the original source of the classified information was Israel. That seems certain to cast a pall over Trump’s trip to Israel next week, especially since Israeli spies have worried for months that information given to the Trump administration would find its way first to Russia and then Iran, a Kremlin partner that also happens to be Israel's biggest enemy.


This is a staggeringly severe breach, one that experts on the intelligence community warn could jeopardize US national security for the foreseeable future — even directly putting lives on the line.


Understanding why this is such a big deal can be tough. It requires a deep attention to detail about what literally happened, to the point of parsing specific word choices by the Trump administration. It also requires understanding a lot of obscure intelligence jargon and practices, like the details of foreign intelligence sharing.


What follows is a user-friendly guide designed to answer the four biggest questions swirling about the Trump breach: What literally happened, why it’s a big deal, whether Trump broke the law, and how, if it all, he might suffer consequences for his actions.


The bottom line? Trump did it, it’s dangerous, and there’s nothing to stop him from doing it again so long as he remains president.


What actually happened?


There’s a lot of confusing information swirling about this — including from the White House itself. But the Washington Post’s original story, by Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe, is still the best point to start with. Here are the core points it hits:


 - Trump disclosed the information in an Oval Office meeting with Lavrov on May 10. Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak (yes, that Sergey Kislyak) was also there.


- The information Trump revealed to Lavrov concerned information about an ISIS plot to bomb airplanes using laptops.


- Revealing it “jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State,” according to the Post — specifically by giving the Russians enough information about the nature of the source to easily identify who or what it is.


- That intelligence came from “espionage capabilities of a key partner,” per Jaffe and Miller, that we now believe to be Israel. The information allegedly provided by the Israelis was so sensitive that it wasn’t being shared with any other allies.


 - The gaffe — something unprecedented in recent American history — seems to have been the result of Trump bragging about the quality of his intelligence. “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” the president reportedly said.


These basic details essentially have been confirmed by a number of other outlets — including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The basic contours seem pretty clear.


Top White House officials, most notably National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, have called the story “false.” But if you parse their statements more carefully, you see that they’re not actually responding to the Post’s story.


In both a written statement and a Tuesday press conference, McMaster was very careful to say only that the president hadn’t compromised “sources and methods.” In intel-speak, that means the president didn’t directly tell the Russians who or what were the sources of the intelligence on ISIS or the method by which it was gathered (human spies, communications intercepts, drone imagery and the like).


But the Post and other outlets never said that the president disclosed sources or methods directly. Instead, they reported that the president gave away enough classified information that the Russian could easily figure out the sources and methods on their own.


“Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat,” Miller and Jaffe write. “The identification of the location was seen as particularly problematic, officials said, because Russia could use that detail to help identify the US ally or intelligence capability involved.”


No White House official has denied this aspect of the Post’s reporting. They appear to be playing, as Jaffe put it in an MSNBC appearance, “word games” — setting up a fake version of what the Post alleged, that Trump directly disclosed sources and methods, and then knocking that down.


In fact, the White House spin — particularly during McMaster’s Tuesday presser — ended up confirming some key aspects of the Post’s story.


“He [McMaster] confirmed that the president made an impulsive, unvetted decision to share info without even being aware of its source,” Julian Sanchez, an expert on privacy and surveillance at the libertarian Cato Institute, tweeted. “In other words: No review of the equities, no input from agencies on whether sources/methods could be reverse engineered.”


And it’s this “reverse engineering,” as Sanchez put it, that’s been the problem the whole time.


Follow the link to see the source article published by Vox May 16, 2017.



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