As we toggle between alleged Trump scandals -- with that sentence fragment providing a sense of how things are going at the White House this week -- I'm going to go ahead and quote myself from yesterday. In analyzing this story, I concluded that we hadn't seen the last relevant leak yet, due to warring factions over the president's actions: "The central question of this controversy rests on subjective judgments, with one side of the debate perceiving Trump's disclosure as relatively harmless and routine, and the other side insistently viewing it as neither...Determining which side's impression is closer to the truth will likely require more information. Which probably means more leaks." Sure enough, amid the explosion of this story last evening, ABC News published (surprise) another leak:
The life of a spy placed by Israel inside ISIS is at risk tonight, according to current and former U.S. officials, after President Donald Trump reportedly disclosed classified information in a meeting with Russian officials last week. The spy provided intelligence involving an active ISIS plot to bring down a passenger jet en route to the United States, with a bomb hidden in a laptop that U.S. officials believe can get through airport screening machines undetected. The information was reliable enough that the U.S. is considering a ban on laptops on all flights from Europe to the United States. The sensitive intelligence was shared with the United States, officials say, on the condition that the source remain confidential...many in the counter-terrorism community say what the President did was a mistake. “Russia is not part of the ISIS coalition,” Olsen said. “They are not our partner.” Dan Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, now a senior visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, agreed. In an interview with ABC News, he called the president and his team “careless,” saying that the reported disclosures demonstrate a “poor understanding of how to guard sensitive information." Shapiro was most concerned, however, that the president’s move could make Israel think twice about sharing intelligence with the United States, warning that it will “inevitably cause elements of Israel's intelligence service to demonstrate more caution.”
The Israelis downplayed the revelation that it was their source who might be endangered, pledging to deepen ties with the Trump administration on intelligence-sharing. And of course that it what they'd say publicly. They're shrewd and diplomatic, especially as it relates to their top global ally. They frequently made nice with the Obama administration in public, even as our two nations' special friendship frayed terribly under an hostile president and an Israeli leader adamantly (and correctly) opposed to a central administration legacy project. In other words, a public statement of support is entirely unsurprising and laudable, but simmering mistrust below the surface could be an issue -- especially if an Israeli spy's life is truly in danger. Two thoughts on this: First, relating to this report that CNN ran with for hours yesterday:
The concern, US officials told CNN in late March, was that publishing certain information, including a city where some of the intelligence was collected, could tip off adversaries about the sources and methods used to gather the intelligence. Over several days, US intelligence officials spent hours on conference calls making specific requests to CNN to withhold certain details of the intelligence information. Those details included information that Trump reportedly shared in his Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak.
Here's the thing, though: It's not remotely unusual for the US government to oppose public disclosure of secret programs or intelligence, even as they choose to share that information with strategic partners or allies for security reasons. The fact that administration officials urged CNN not to publish details of a program that the president later relayed privately to a foreign power is not a scandal. As we've discussed previously, the factors that make Trump's handling of the situation very questionable are Russia's malignant regional agenda (they're not our friends, and anything that they discover is likely to end up in the hands of the Assad regime and the Iranians), and the alleged violation of a longstanding agreement with Israeli intelligence not to share discrete strands of intelligence with other nations without their consent. Even so, given Russia's strategic interests against ISIS, plus this ISIS-claimed airline attack, Trump's decision to fill them in could be defensible.
I just wish I had more confidence that the decider-in-chief was aware of the dynamics at play, and made an informed, intentional decision on this -- rather than an off-the-cuff call that members of his team reportedly had to clean up shortly after the divulgence, a detail that HR McMaster didn't deny yesterday. Then again, the National Security Adviser assertion Trump's move had not at all even compromised any intelligence sources or methods. The ABC News leak seems designed to contradict that assessment. Which leads us to this question:
Not quite true. He didn't disclose. But the leakers & reporters who went public with it—hope they think this Israeli's life was worth it https://t.co/ceWMi8Xs2A— Seth Mandel (@SethAMandel) May 17, 2017
Unless the Russians publicized the details disclosed by Trump the intervening days (is there a shred of evidence of that?), it would seem as though the threat to Israel's ISIS infiltrator would be primarily attributable to Trump administration leakers and the American press. Yes, certain important details were withheld from the public in the Washington Post story, but based on ABC's reporting, the damage was done. While there is plenty of room to criticize and question the president's handling of this intelligence, shouldn't there be some soul-searching on behalf of the people who ensured that the story would spill into the public eye? Analysts as far afield as Rush Limbaugh and Alan Dershowitz have made this point, and it definitely deserves some attention. Trump may be the designated villain here (deservedly and otherwise), but there are other players making impactful choices that are least as debatable. And with that, we return you to the 'Watergate-scale' Comey/Flynn scandal, with subpoenas getting ready to fly. It's only Wednesday, folks:
NEW: Chaffetz has asked FBI for all memos, notes, summaries or recordings "relating to any communications between Comey and the President."— Ben Siegel (@benyc) May 17, 2017
Dana Bash now reporting Congressional Rs debating between supporting independent prosecutor or independent commission. Major development.— Josh Kraushaar (@HotlineJosh) May 17, 2017