Disclosures 'could threaten foreign intel ties'

Mr Trump defended his actions in a series of tweets on Tuesday (May 16).
Mr Trump defended his actions in a series of tweets on Tuesday (May 16). PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump's decision to disclose allegedly classified information to Russian officials could threaten vital foreign intelligence ties, testing key allies' confidence in the United States just days before the US leader heads to the Middle East and Europe.

In a series of tweets on Tuesday morning, Mr Trump defended sharing information on a threat by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) with Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting last week.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said the disclosures, reported first by the Washington Post, were "wholly appropriate".

But intelligence professionals disagreed.

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"If America does not know how to behave in a trustworthy way, other states, not only Israel, will start sifting the information that they provide," Mr Mordechai Kedar, a retired lieutenant-colonel in Israeli military intelligence, said in an interview after a report emerged that Israel was the source of the information. "The Americans may find themselves receiving only paraphrases."

Although a US president can legally disclose classified information as he deems appropriate, doing so is typically a decision planned out in advance, with consideration of what should and should not be shared, and the benefits and risks in doing so.

Mr McMaster said Mr Trump made the decision to divulge information "in the context of the conversation", suggesting that no such deliberations took place.

MORE DISCRETION NEEDED

If America does not know how to behave in a trustworthy way, other states, not only Israel, will start sifting the information that they provide. The Americans may find themselves receiving only paraphrases.

MR MORDECHAI KEDAR, a retired lieutenant-colonel in Israeli military intelligence, after a report emerged that Israel was the source of the classified information US President Donald Trump passed on to Russian officials during a meeting at the White House.

Pressed further, he said Mr Trump had not been briefed on the source of the information.

Asked why officials who were present informed the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency about what the President said, Mr McMaster said that such a notice would have been done out of an "over-abundance of caution".

Those admissions are unlikely to reassure US allies or intelligence officers risking their lives in the field.

Mr Nicholas Dujmovic, who spent 26 years at the CIA and is the director of the intelligence studies programme at Catholic University of America in Washington, said: "If true, the story will indeed harm relations with US allies who are our closest intelligence partners and will now be wary of sharing their best secrets with us."

Another possible casualty would be clandestine human sources, who may "think twice before providing the US with privileged information", added Mr Dujmovic, who used to edit the daily intelligence report provided to presidents.

"Why take the risk of giving the Americans great intelligence if the president is going to reveal it?"

The uproar comes as Mr Trump prepares for his first overseas trip as president, with stops planned in Israel as well as Saudi Arabia, Italy and Belgium.

He will meet leaders whose nations are on the front lines of fighting ISIS and other extremists, seek to bolster efforts to rein in Iran's regional influence and discuss ways to end the war in Syria - all of which depend on close intelligence cooperation.

The US relies on a global network of intelligence-sharing partnerships. Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are key intelligence providers in the Middle East.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2017, with the headline 'Disclosures 'could threaten foreign intel ties''. Print Edition | Subscribe