Paul Pillar

Trump's Classified Toys

Counterterrorist intelligence is unlike some other topics such as, say, a foreign nuclear program, in which the intelligence service with the most powerful satellites and most sophisticated technical collection systems may have a leg up on everyone else.  Intelligence work on terrorism is a much more granular, close-to-the-ground effort, requiring as many participants as possible who are familiar with that ground, to identify the terrorist needles in an endless haystack of extremists.  America’s dependence on the cooperation, and the confidence, of its foreign partners is thus heavy and inevitable.

The White House’s attempts at minimizing the significance of Trump’s action miss all these points, and other important ones as well.  National security adviser H. R. McMaster made a statement that “at no time were any intelligence sources and methods discussed.”  Well, if such sources and methods had been discussed with the Russians, the incident would have been unbelievably egregious rather than merely seriously damaging.  The sources and methods involved in the information divulged may in fact be in jeopardy; the Russian services are probably at least as capable as anyone else at reverse engineering the provided information to narrow down how, where, and by whom it was collected.  Analysts at the SVR and FSB are undoubtedly digging into what must have been for them an especially interesting cable from Ambassador Kislyak.  Even if the specific sources and methods are not compromised, however, the main issue remains the loss of trust.

McMaster was trotted out before the cameras to make that statement, but he and other senior aides with any national security experience certainly realized immediately the significance of what Trump had done.  This was indicated by the scrambling, especially by assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism Thomas Bossert, to expunge from internal memos the relevant part of the President’s conversation with the Russians and to limit severely the distribution of transcripts from the meeting.  It is once again, as Trump might say, sad that capable people who do know something about national security are drawing fine lines in defensive statements and performing other clean-up duty to try to cover for the mistakes of a boss who doesn’t seem to know much about national security.

Those aides will be critical players as the intelligence community continues to adjust to serving this unique president.  The community cannot, and will not, deny this or any other president access to sensitive information because of a fear of further damaging disclosures.  But Trump’s lack of appetite for consuming a large volume of intelligence may help in the adjustment.  Some pieces of intelligence that in a previous administration may have gone all the way to the president may instead go no higher than to officials such as McMaster and Bossert, and to Secretary of Defense James Mattis—to whom Trump has delegated more authority for the final say in military operations than was the case in previous administrations.  This is not a matter of denial of information to the president, but rather of directing the intelligence to where it can do the most good.

As for what this episode says about Donald Trump, we have many of the same things we already knew all too well about him, including the impulsiveness, the indiscipline, the refusal to admit mistakes, and the inexperience of having come into office not only with no exposure to national security matters but also no public service at all.  Another attribute comes through in the reportedly boastful nature of the way Trump spilled the information to Lavrov and Kislyak, bragging about the great intelligence he is able to get every day.  It also comes through in Trump’s subsequent tweet that “As President…I have the absolute right” to share such information with Russia.  The resulting image is of a kid in a roomful of new toys, and now that they are his toys he believes he has a right to do whatever he wants with them.  David Brooks, in a column evidently written largely before the intelligence disclosure, perceptively captures this quality in describing Trump as an “infantalist” who has several of the attributes of a “seven-year-old boy”.

That brings to mind an earlier president who was the polar opposite of Trump in how he would have handled intelligence and the Russians: George H. W. Bush, who not only had an astute and successful foreign policy but also, as a former director of central intelligence, was the most sophisticated consumer of intelligence of any president in memory.  But Mr. Bush did have a thing about broccoli.  “I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it,” he declared, “and I'm President of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli!”  Letting one’s inner little kid out when the only consequence is banning a cruciferous vegetable from the White House dining table does no harm to the national interest.  Letting it out the way Trump has done inflicts significant harm to the national interest.

As always, historians will eventually have the final say.  They surely will note the irony of how Trump’s gaining access to the White House and all its toys depended heavily on attacks against his election opponent who, in the course of conducting business as secretary of state, handled some electronic communications in what was not the most secure manner, even though no evidence has come to light that any of the information involved ever was exposed to foreign or hostile eyes.  Trump has eliminated the hacker middleman and taken a more direct approach: giving the goods directly to the Russian foreign minister.