U.S. President Trump defends decision to share classified information with Russians

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Yesterday morning, United States President Donald Trump defended his disclosure of classified information regarding the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) to Russian foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov and ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak, a decision that has drawn a storm of both explanation and criticism from the media and both major U.S. political parties over the past week.

As president, I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled [White House] meeting) which I have the absolute right to do

—U.S. President Donald Trump

Trump spoke directly to the public, as is his custom, via Twitter: "As president, I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled [‍White House‍] meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against Isis and terrorism."

On May 10, President Trump met with Lavrov and Kislyak in the Oval Office and, according to reports first from the Washington Post, told them about an Islamic State plot to sneak explosives onto airplanes by hiding them in laptop computers, which may have placed the anonymous partner who provided it in danger of identification. According to U.S. officials, the information in question was so sensitive that it is not only usually not shared with allies but also extremely restricted even within the U.S. government.

"The Russians have the widest intelligence collection mechanism in the world outside of our own," said John Sipher, the former head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's Russia division. "They can put together a good picture with just a few details[...] They can marry President Trump's comments with their own intelligence, and intelligence from their allies. They can also deploy additional resources to find out details."

While it is not illegal for the sitting U.S. president to share classified information with foreign officials, it may violate the agreement with the person or organization who provided the information in the first place. There are concerns the Russians may reverse-engineer the process by which the information was gathered and identify the source. Because many of the countries in the Middle East have tribal-level connections to areas controlled by the Islamic State, allowing a source to be identified could place them in political as well as personal danger. An official from one country in Europe told the Associated Press his government might cease to share intelligence with the United States. According to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, the information came from Israel. None of their Israeli counterparts have seen fit to either confirm or deny this, and Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer wrote to The New York Times expressing "full confidence" in the U.S. intelligence process.

Trump's advisors who were present at the meeting were quick to say on Monday, once the disclosure was reported publicly, that Trump did not tell the Russians exactly how the U.S. had come by any information. "At no time — at no time — were intelligence sources or methods discussed, and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known," said Trump's National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, who also told reporters, "I was in the room. It didn't happen." No U.S. newspapers were invited to the meeting.

Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry, said the report of Trump disclosing classified material was "another fake."

Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, noting he was not present at the meeting and did not personally know if President Trump actually compromised the source, said, "To compromise a source is something that you just don't do, and that's why we keep the information that we get from intelligence sources so close as to prevent that from happening."

Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who serves on the U.S. Armed Services Committee, and fellow Democrat Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee both raised concerns about Trump's mindfulness. Reed called it "reckless" and said: "The president of the United States has the power to share classified information with whomever they wish, but the American people expect the president to use that power wisely. I don't believe the president intentionally meant to reveal highly secretive information to the Russians."

Republican John McCain of Arizona called this "A troubling signal to America's allies and partners around the world and may impair their willingness to share intelligence with us in the future."

Trump's meeting with the Russian ministers took place one day after he fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey, who had been running an investigation into alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which raised concerns about obstruction of justice.