On May 15, the Washington Post broke the story that President Trump released extremely sensitive and classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador last week. The Post also reported that “Trump went off script and began describing details of an Islamic State terrorist threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft.”
The Trump administration reportedly received the intelligence from Israel, whose officials did not give Trump permission to disclose this information to Russia. This information could potentially jeopardize an important source of intelligence on the Islamic State.
On behalf of the Trump administration, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, deputy national security adviser Dina Powell and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were all sent to call the Post’s initial reports “false.” However, they stuck to the grounds that Trump did not discuss intelligence sources and methods, instead of addressing whether he had revealed sensitive information in the first place. In true Trump fashion, the president then weakened these attempts at damage control by tweeting out his version of the story.
As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
...to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
Though it is Trump’s right as president to release any information he sees fit, it would be illegal for virtually anyone else to release such confidential information. This does not suggest any major legal actions will be made against Trump, but shows the controversial nature of his actions.
Despite Trump’s determination to be buddies with Putin, Russia is still not an official U.S. ally. With the information provided, it would not be difficult for Russian officials to determine U.S. sources or techniques.
Senator John McCain voiced his discomfort with the president’s actions, stating that the leak sent “a troubling signal to America’s allies and partners around the world and may impair their willingness to share intelligence with us in the future.”
“The Israelis gave us great piece of information on the inside of ISIS and told us not to tell anyone who the source is. Then Trump went and blurted it out,” said Dexter Filkins, a foreign correspondent and staff writer for The New Yorker. “I’m surprised the Israelis shared it in the first place. I don’t know they'll do that in the future,” Filkins said.
To complicate matters even more, the U.S. deputy attorney general recently appointed a special counsel to examine Trump's ties with Russia. Robert S. Mueller will take over the investigation, and as a special counsel he is allowed to act as an independent prosecutor in the case. Clearly, Trump isn’t getting off easily for his dealings with Russia.
The sensitivity of the situation worsens when considering the bigger picture of complicated relationships in the Middle East. First, Israel provided the U.S. with sensitive information about an ongoing terrorism threat out of Syria. Trump gave that information to Russia, an arguably hostile nation to the U.S. – especially after allegedly interfering in our elections. Russia is a close ally with Iran, which is the main enemy of Israel and, according to Adam Goldman of the New York Times, the “greatest threat to Israel’s existence in the Middle East.”
The exposure of this intelligence thread and of a critical source could impede the U.S. and its allies in the fight against ISIS in the future, especially since the U.S. and Russia have competing agendas in Syria. All this falls on top of an almost certain strain on U.S. diplomatic ties with Israel.
Trump will soon leave for a tour of the Middle East, and will meet with diplomats in Jerusalem on Monday. In light of these recent events, this visit could be very awkward.