Every one of Donald Trump’s national security mishaps prompts a version of the same question: is it incompetence or malice? Are we watching real-life Veep or House of Cards? Often the answer is unclear. When he reportedly tried to stop the FBI’s investigation Michael Flynn and his collusion with Russian agents, for example, was it out of criminal, conspiratorial intent or some combination of personal loyalty and indifference to basic democratic norms? At this point, it’s hard to say.
Then, going back a single day, there’s his disclosure of highly sensitive intelligence in a meeting with Russian officials, potentially imperiling the original source and infuriating the foreign spies, apparently Israeli, that acquired the information and shared it with their American counterparts in the first place. Malice would explain little, given that the intelligence in question pertains to Trump’s central international objective, the defeat of ISIS. Yet lack of malice is no cause for comfort. In foreign policy, Trump’s incompetence may have considerably more dire consequences than a deliberate action on his part, no matter how malicious, possibly could.
When Trump shared “code-word” intelligence about ISIS efforts to place a laptop-bomb on an airplane, as The Washington Post reported yesterday, it may have been “granular” enough that foreign governments would have little trouble zeroing in on the specific source. (“Code word” refers to the most closely held intelligence in the system, restricted to a specifically designated circle even among those with the highest-level security clearance.) In a carefully hedged semi-denial, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster insisted that Trump could not possibly have revealed specific sources, because no one had shared source information with him in the first place – a statement that is disquieting precisely because it is so momentarily reassuring. On background, however, other officials countered that “it’s far worse than what has already been reported.” And by this morning, Trump had made liars of some of the most respected members of his National Security Council, tweeting about why he had done what they claimed he had not. His advocates are left pointing out, correctly, that Trump, as president, can legally share whatever information he wants.
That the disclosure came in a meeting with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, adds a conspiratorial overtone to the entire episode. Suspicious interactions with Kisylak, after all, have already gotten Jeff Sessions and the untouchable Jared Kushner into trouble, and could land former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn in jail, despite Trump’s efforts to block the FBI investigation. Trump, one administration official told the press, “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.” But the impulse behind Trump’s loose talk may go no deeper than a desire to impress the guests he had just smilingly welcomed into the Oval Office. NBC’s Richard Engel quoted an intelligence official’s explanation that Trump was eager to show the Russians “how cooperative he wants to be with them.”
Yet none of that allays the seriousness of the consequences. The first, and most immediate, is damage to the specific intelligence operation Trump bragged about. If the recent laptop ban on flights from the Middle East to the United States, and the administration’s accompanying explanations, are any indication, the source of the information was both sufficiently trusted and sufficiently well placed that it was acted on immediately. Now, the ongoing effort to track that threat is imperiled. A source’s life may be in danger. At a minimum, the flow of further information is hampered, if not destroyed entirely. “This means that some guy working on a laptop bomb relocates and is no longer in the orbit of these sources,” notes Daniel Benjamin, a senior Obama administration counterterrorism official now at Dartmouth.
The disclosure also adds to already significant doubts among foreign intelligence services about the trustworthiness of the American government. Before Trump’s inauguration, there were reports that American intelligence officials were warning foreign counterparts to “be careful” about what they shared with the new administration, out of fear of where it might go from there. For foreign intelligence officials, yesterday’s news came as a chilling reminder of what could happen with information passed to Washington. There may be little in the way of overt complaints or explicit prohibitions against future sharing, since other governments still need as much, or more, intelligence help from us as we need from them. But they will think twice before divulging anything that might reveal key human sources, unique technical capabilities, or ongoing operations that could be upended by indiscreet boasting in the Oval Office or al fresco crisis-management at Mar-a-Lago.
In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, a lack of information sharing and coordination with other governments was highlighted as one of our vulnerabilities. “The U.S. government cannot meet its own obligations to the American people to prevent the entry of terrorists without a major effort to collaborate with other governments,” concluded the 9/11 Commission Report, which called for doing “more to exchange terrorist information with trusted allies.” It took years of careful diplomacy to build smoothly functioning relationships with foreign intelligence services, and the success of that effort is one important reason why not a single American has died in a foreign terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. Foreign partners can develop sources that Americans can’t; they can operate in cultures and places where Americans struggle to operate. Now, the trust essential to those partnerships is eroding much more quickly than it can be restored. And even a degree of hesitation in sharing real-time information will make it harder to identify and stop threats.
Finally, the Oval Office disclosure fuels another round in the ongoing war between Trump and his own intelligence community. Intelligence officials have long seen Trump’s general recklessness and blithe disregard for facts as a threat to their ability to do their work (and also a mortal threat to the foreign sources they ask to take risks for the sake of the United States). He has disparaged them repeatedly (“Are we living in Nazi Germany?” he tweeted about them in January), and his firing of James Comey and meddling in FBI Russia investigations were additional affronts (the FBI is part of the intelligence community). Whether or not intelligence sources were behind the original Washington Post story, the fact that well-placed intelligence figures rushed to confirm it reflects their total lack of confidence in the Commander-in-Chief. If they haven’t already, they will start routing the most sensitive information away from the Oval Office. And Trump, infuriated by the leaks, wounded by the disrespect, will lash out with even more contempt and suspicion, driving the vicious cycle forward.
At a certain point, incompetence becomes so unstinting, so impervious to correction, so aggrieved and outraged in the face of criticism, that it becomes its own kind of malice. “He thinks that because we’re the United States, no one would ever mess with us,” a career official currently serving in a senior foreign-policy position said of Trump yesterday. “He thinks we’ll get away with anything. It’s hubris, and it’s scary.”