The truth about the scan­dal that brought down a pres­i­dent

Former CIA of­fi­cer Steven L. Hall says our spies would never trust a coun­try whose leader acted like Trump

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Twit­ter: @StevenLHall1 Steven L. Hall re­tired from the CIA in 2015 af­ter 30 years of run­ning and man­ag­ing Rus­sian op­er­a­tions.

Pres­i­dent Trump can legally share clas­si­fied ma­te­rial with any for­eign lead­ers he likes, as it ap­pears he did re­cently in an Oval Of­fice meet­ing with Rus­sia’s for­eign min­is­ter and its am­bas­sador to the United States. But the in­for­ma­tion Trump re­port­edly shared with the Rus­sians was orig­i­nally passed to U.S. of­fi­cials by an­other coun­try’s in­tel­li­gence ser­vice (Is­rael’s, ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports), which didn’t agree in ad­vance to let­ting him dis­close it.

As a former CIA of­fi­cer, I fear that shar­ing in­for­ma­tion with­out check­ing with our al­lies will al­most cer­tainly hurt the coun­try’s se­cu­rity in the long run. I know how U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials eval­u­ate whether we can trust our part­ners in other coun­tries. If an­other head of state han­dled the sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion we had pro­vided so ca­su­ally, it would dam­age our re­la­tion­ship badly. It would cause us to reeval­u­ate how and what we passed, and it would al­most cer­tainly re­sult in our shar­ing less.

Over the years, the United States has de­vel­oped close re­la­tion­ships with for­eign in­tel­li­gence ser­vices with which we share in­ter­ests and goals. Since 9/11, many of these re­la­tion­ships have be­come quite close. The ties are par­tic­u­larly use­ful when it comes to shar­ing in­tel­li­gence on the plans and in­ten­tions of ter­ror­ists — from spe­cific plots to longert­erm is­sues such as ter­ror­ist train­ing lo­ca­tions or ways to im­prove se­cu­rity for high-pro­file in­ter­na­tional events.

Trust is the key el­e­ment in these re­la­tion­ships. Be­fore one in­tel­li­gence ser­vice passes its in­for­ma­tion to an­other, its of­fi­cers must have a rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tion that the

in­for­ma­tion will be pro­tected. Part of pro­tect­ing the in­for­ma­tion is know­ing that the other coun­try will not pass the in­tel­li­gence to a third party with­out spe­cific per­mis­sion. This is how it has al­ways been done be­tween in­tel­li­gence ser­vices, and for good rea­son; it can take years to reach the level of trust where in­for­ma­tion can be shared rou­tinely. Track records mat­ter.

There are times when the United States de­cides against pass­ing in­tel­li­gence to for­eign gov­ern­ments, even when it might be use­ful to them. Part of the job of pro­fes­sional in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers is to as­sess the risks com­pared with the gains when con­tem­plat­ing whether to share sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion. There are im­por­tant ques­tions that need to be asked: Has there been a re­cent change in gov­ern­ment in the coun­try that is ask­ing for the in­tel­li­gence? If so, what do we know about the new lead­er­ship? With what coun­tries do the lead­ers have re­la­tion­ships, and are those coun­tries al­lies or foes of the United States? How likely is it that in­tel­li­gence the United States passes will end up with our ad­ver­saries? And, of course, what would hap­pen if we didn’t pass the in­tel­li­gence? Would a ter­ror­ist at­tack that could have been thwarted be suc­cess­ful?

There are times when U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have to hold their nose and pass sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion to a for­eign gov­ern­ment when they re­ally do not want to — if it is in­for­ma­tion about a ter­ror­ist threat, we of­ten do it, in the hopes lives will be saved. (Re­port­edly, the in­tel­li­gence Trump shared with his Rus­sian vis­i­tors dealt with plans by the Is­lamic State to hide bombs in lap­tops on flights bound for the United States.)

The story doesn’t end when we trans­mit the in­for­ma­tion. U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials then watch care­fully to see what hap­pens. Did our in­for­ma­tion leak? Did it end up in other, un­friendly hands? Was it used po­lit­i­cally, to score pop­u­lar­ity points do­mes­ti­cally? Or did it re­sult in some ac­tion that was not con­sis­tent with Amer­i­can val­ues? Was an en­tire vil­lage razed be­cause a sus­pected ter­ror­ist was there? Was a known ter­ror­ist’s fam­ily tortured or killed? Were chil­dren and in­no­cents harmed as a re­sult of our pass­ing the in­for­ma­tion? U.S. of­fi­cials take these ques­tions se­ri­ously. Of­ten, hard, morally am­bigu­ous choices need to be made.

In this case, the fact that the pres­i­dent shared the in­for­ma­tion with Rus­sia sim­ply adds in­sult to in­jury. All of our al­lies un­der­stand that in the vast ma­jor­ity of situations, the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment is not a good part­ner when it comes to in­tel­li­gence shar­ing — even, un­for­tu­nately, when it in­volves is­sues both sides should agree on, such as ter­ror­ism. Rus­sian op­er­a­tives are of­ten guilty of com­mit­ting many of the acts U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials are watch­ing for when we eval­u­ate po­ten­tial part­ners for shar­ing in­for­ma­tion. As we saw dur­ing the con­flict in Chech­nya — which Moscow has al­ways de­scribed as a bat­tle against ter­ror­ism — Rus­sia does not share the con­cerns the United States has re­gard­ing col­lat­eral dam­age and the un­in­ten­tional killing of in­no­cents. And the Rus­sians rarely share in­tel­li­gence of use to us.

You can be sure that which­ever in­tel­li­gence ser­vice passed us the in­for­ma­tion that the pres­i­dent sub­se­quently shared with the Rus­sians, it is now do­ing pre­cisely the same anal­y­sis we would. And it is do­ing it for the same rea­sons. Of­fi­cials want to know how the U.S. gov­ern­ment, with its new pres­i­dent, will treat sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion in the fu­ture. They want to see whether the in­tel­li­gence they pro­vided is shared in an un­co­or­di­nated fash­ion with an­other coun­try, break­ing the third­party rule. If this hap­pens, they will want to know why: Did Trump not un­der­stand, or was he not told, that the in­tel­li­gence was not from a U.S. spy agency and there­fore should not be shared with­out check­ing with the orig­i­nat­ing na­tion? Did he not care? Did he think he could share it with­out his ac­tion ever com­ing to light?

There are re­ally no an­swers to these or sim­i­lar ques­tions that would sat­isfy which­ever ally passed us the in­for­ma­tion. Cer­tainly, there are no an­swers that would sat­isfy the United States if the sit­u­a­tion were re­versed. The op­tions boil down to two sce­nar­ios: Ei­ther the pres­i­dent knew and passed the in­tel­li­gence any­way, or he did not know and there­fore did not un­der­stand his mis­take. Ei­ther way, you can be sure that the for­eign in­tel­li­gence ser­vice will be more care­ful next time. It will ei­ther wa­ter down the in­for­ma­tion or not pass it at all.

It does not mat­ter whether you blame Trump, or an ag­gres­sive press corps seek­ing out ev­ery flaw in the White House, or “deep state” op­er­a­tives in the in­tel­li­gence world who are leak­ing to dam­age the ad­min­is­tra­tion, as con­spir­acy the­o­rists have it. No mat­ter why this story is com­ing out, all of this is be­ing watched by our for­eign in­tel­li­gence part­ners and their gov­ern­ments, all over the world. Just look at how the Bri­tish sig­nals in­tel­li­gence agency, GCHQ, ridiculed the no­tion that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama had per­suaded it to eaves­drop on then-can­di­date Trump.

For­eign gov­ern­ments are ask­ing them­selves ques­tions that come down to this: Can we trust the United States with sen­si­tive in­tel­li­gence? Right now, they must be deeply skep­ti­cal. And that means the United States will have less in­tel­li­gence from our for­eign al­lies, which in turn means the United States is less se­cure. If we are to make Amer­ica more se­cure again, Trump needs to be more care­ful.



For­eign gov­ern­ments are won­der­ing: Can they trust Pres­i­dent Trump with sen­si­tive in­tel­li­gence?

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