Trump's Leakers Have Only Made Things Worse

Donald Trump speaks with Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office. Flickr/The White House

Can an anonymous source who does this much damage be taken at face value?

Suppose that a few months before 9/11, another country’s spies discovered that Islamist radicals were preparing to hijack airliners and fly them into buildings, with the United States as an obvious target. Would Americans expect that country to give us a warning? Would we be understanding if it failed to do so, on the grounds that protecting its own intelligence-gathering capabilities was more important than saving innocent Americans’ lives?

That’s one question to keep in mind as the Washington Post, the New York Times and other outlets claim that President Trump did something wrong by telling Russian officials about a new threat from ISIS—apparently a threat involving bombs concealed in laptop computers. The accusation, which as usual depends on framing provided by anonymous sources, is that the president shared information that came from an ally in the Middle East, and that based on what the Russians now know, they might be able to figure out who that ally is and what its intelligence resources in the region are. This, we are told, may dissuade the ally from sharing more information with the United States in the future.

There are several problems with this story, but the overarching question must be kept in mind: who decides when saving lives outweighs preserving somebody else’s secrets? Is this something for elected officials to decide—and in particular the highest elected official, the chief of the executive branch—or is it something that unelected officials with a habit of handing secrets over to friends in the media should decide? Legally, the answer is clear: the responsibility belongs to the president. However much the press or bureaucracy may despise him, the president has been chosen by the public precisely to make such top-level decisions. That’s the nature of representative government.

The national security advisor, H. R. McMaster, denies that President Trump’s warning to the Russians did, in fact, compromise any third-party intelligence source. McMaster knows exactly what was said: he was in the room when the president spoke to Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak. On Tuesday, McMaster characterized the president’s remarks as “wholly appropriate” and “consistent with the routine sharing of information” about terrorist threats. He said he was “not concerned at all” that any ally would hesitate to provide more intelligence in the future as a result of what the president told the Russians.

McMaster dismissed the idea that by naming a city in ISIS-controlled territory where the information came from, President Trump had supplied a vital clue as to how the intelligence was obtained. He made it sound as if the city the president named was one of many obvious places that anyone who keeps up with the news might mention: “You would probably be able to name a few cities, I would think,” McMaster told the press. “It was nothing you would not know from open-source reporting.”

Whatever risks arose here, McMaster claimed, came not from the president’s disclosures but from “those releasing information to the press” that can be used “to make American citizens and others more vulnerable.” Based on what the New York Times and Washington Post themselves have reported, there are reasons to think McMaster is correct.

First, consider this: if what the anonymous sources have claimed is true, and President Trump did reveal to the Russians clues about a U.S. ally’s intelligence resources, how would that ally know that this had happened? Knowing that a treasured secret had been given away might well be grounds for limiting cooperation with the Americans in the future. But no ally had grounds to believe anything of the sort had happened during President Trump’s meeting with the Russians—until anonymous sources started telling the Washington Post that this happened, and the Washington Post proceeded to tell the world, including whatever ally or allies might be worried.

In other words, certain unnamed officials are sowing distrust among America’s allies for the purpose of embarrassing the president. That distrust did not exist based simply on the knowledge that the president had met with Lavrov and Kislyak: the damage is done only when the substance of the meeting is made public by deliberate leaks. And not just that: these unnamed officials who have taken policy into their own hands have apparently told journalists much more and more sensitive information than has already been made public. As the Post acknowledged, “The Post is withholding most plot details, including the name of the city, at the urging of officials who warned that revealing them would jeopardize important intelligence capabilities.” So the source of the leaks not only seeded a narrative that would undermine allies’ trust in the United States—a narrative that would not readily exist absent the leaks—but the source also revealed to the media highly sensitive classified specifics. Who else might the source have revealed that information to? Who else might people at the paper have told?

The president has wide-ranging legal authority to declassify secrets, and if he did so in a discreet conversation with Russian leaders, with top U.S. national security official present, there is no scandal there—and would not be, even if an ally didn’t like what was said in the discussion. No ally or outside nation would even know, unless someone from the inside spread that information around. And that’s exactly what the Post’s anonymous sources have done.