Few doubt that President Trump had the legal right to share highly-classified US intelligence information with Russian diplomats during a meeting last week. But to understand why it still might not have been a good idea, it’s important to consider the established ground rules of “intelligence sharing.” That’s the vital but little-discussed practice in which allies — and sometimes adversaries — agree to exchange secret information, under strict conditions.
When governments share intelligence with one another, it generally comes with one overriding restriction: don’t pass it along to other parties, even trusted allies.
And that’s just what Trump seems to have done.
Here’s the emerging picture. US intelligence agencies reportedly partnered with Israel to gather information about ISIS. Some of the intelligence that Trump shared with the Russians involved ISIS plans to develop and deploy a laptop-bomb on an airplane — sparking new restrictions on using laptops in-flight.
And when Trump shared this information with Russian diplomats, he revealed enough details to expose the identity of the US partner. Less than 24 hours later, the New York Times reported Israel was the US partner in this intelligence sharing arrangement.
This is not just bad for the partner, Israel, which apparently insisted on secrecy. It’s also bad for US intelligence agencies, because it means the Russians (and the rest of the world) now know about one of the ways we gather information — which they can try to disrupt or penetrate.
More than that, Trump’s loose lips are likely to have a chilling effect on future partners, who may worry that their covert involvement with the US could be shared with other nations or even the public, without warning.
And without partners, the US would lose a major source of information, including human intelligence. Organizations with local expertise, knowledge of regional dialects, and longstanding ties to key players tend to have the best shot at infiltration.
Which is not to say that all intelligence sharing is about gathering human intelligence. It’s far broader than that, compassing just about any kind of deal you can imagine two countries making.
Often, intelligence sharing is a way for allies to exchange vital information. Since World War II, for instance, the US has been part of the Five Eyes alliance, sharing telephone and internet intercepts with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom.
But even enemies sometimes find enough common ground to exchange limited information in the service of a shared cause — think the US and Pakistan on counter-terrorism.
In the case of Israel, the US actually has a long tradition of intelligence sharing — much of it done on a strict bilateral basis. That’s quite common in this sphere, since one-on-one relationships make it easier to build trust and control the flow of information. Provided, of course, that you refrain from sharing it with other partners.
What troubles national security experts about Trump’s divulged details is that if other countries lose trust in the United States’ ability to safeguard their secrets, we may not hear those secrets.
What happens the next time Israel, or another intelligence partner, uncovers a potential plot? Will they inform the CIA? Or will they stay mum, fearful that Trump would share indiscreetly, putting their field agents and other operations in jeopardy.
Which is not to say that intelligence sharing is some kind of panacea, allowing the US to outsource our information gathering like manufacturing jobs. When you rely on foreign governments to do your information gathering, you become vulnerable to manipulation and outright deception.
But the reality of 21st Century intelligence is that no country can go it alone. The US relies on partners all over the world to serve as proxy eyes and ears — willing to trade their inside knowledge for the right price.
Trump’s decision to violate one of the most basic terms of these sorts of agreements — don’t share with third parties — may make it harder to find such partners in the future.