Defense, Foreign Affairs

Can Trump Be Trusted With State Secrets?

Well, obviously not. But what is the intelligence community supposed to do about it?
September 10, 2019
Featured Image
Putin and Trump. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

It’s rare for the public to find out about spies working for America in a hostile environment like Moscow. During the Cold War, Oleg Penkovsky, Aleksandr Ogorodnik, and Adolph Tolkachev each provided the CIA with information that averted nuclear war and helped the West defeat Communism. Yet information of their feats wasn’t declassified for decades after their deaths. Tolkachev and Penkovsky were executed for treason; Ogorodnik poisoned himself rather than sign a confession.

That’s what makes it so exceptional that American intelligence exfiltrated a high-ranking spy from Moscow in 2017, as CNN reported. Evacuating a spy burns the source and can endanger the lives of operatives involved. As the Cold War examples illustrate, the CIA would often rather an asset commit suicide or risk capture than endanger agency personnel in a cross-border dash for freedom.

Reports indicate that the exfiltration operation was green-lit after President Trump’s early recklessness with classified information made senior intelligence officials nervous for the spy’s safety. In May 2017, President Trump revealed classified intelligence on ISIS to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister in the Oval Office. In July, he spoke privately with Vladimir Putin and pocketed his translator’s notes of the exchange. It’s not hard to see why the spy’s identity—or even existence—might have looked suddenly more precarious.

Trump’s stumbles in 2017 spooked the spooks enough for them to risk an exfiltration of a high-ranking asset from Moscow. The fact that five independent sources confirmed the story to CNN this week suggests their confidence hasn’t improved in the years since.

President Trump has continued his years-long demonstration of everything a consumer of sensitive intelligence shouldn’t do. Two weeks ago, the president tweeted a classified surveillance photo of a failed Iranian missile launch. Whether or not the Iranians assumed American eyes were on their launch pads, now they (and the whole world) know for sure. That’s exactly why classified information is, um, classified. If our enemies are unsure of whether or how we are watching them, it will be trickier to hide their activity. The president seems to think it’s secret only so that no one else can tweet it before he does.

The gross incompetence of that tweet had barely sunk in when Sharpie-gate hit. Of course, an official NOAA hurricane prediction map is a very different kind of intelligence than dispatches from a spy in a foreign capital, but they both rest on the same assumption: The president needs the best available information possible to inform policy decisions because, regardless of ideology, the president ultimately wants what’s best for the country.

NOAA gave the president the best information it could, and he altered it with a marker. Even more worrying, NOAA sent an internal memo to its staff warning against contradicting the president.

L’affaire Sharpie was ridiculous on Twitter, but certainly would have had a more solemn reception at Langley. It’s one thing for political leadership to dispute the meaning of a particular piece of government information or intelligence. It’s quite another for an administration to order people to lie to adhere to a false narrative. 

Congress appropriated the intelligence community $81.5 billion in 2018. (That’s the unclassified number.) That’s a lot of money for yes-men.

Hurricane Dorian had barely passed when President Trump canceled a meeting with representatives of the Taliban at Camp David—a meeting no one knew about. While negotiations between Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, and elements of the Afghan Taliban have been ongoing in Qatar for moths, plans of a possible final meeting with the president had remained secret.

The idea of inviting the Taliban to Camp David during the week of September 11, of all times, is something that would be rejected from the script of a black comedy for being miles too far over the top. But tweeting out the cancellation was probably worse.

Maybe Trump was convinced that meetings with the president are valuable negotiations tools (because it’s worked so well with North Korea) for which the benefits outweigh the concessions.

But when it comes to parties like the Taliban, such meetings offer infinitely more risk than reward. That would make inviting the Taliban leaders a foolish idea that Trump broadcast to the world out of pique.

If Trump is unwilling or unable to avoid embarrassing himself and the country by revealing sensitive information, it’s nearly impossible for the intelligence community to function. This president has shown that the country’s best interests rank below his own interests. How can intelligence leaders ask their agents to risk life and limb to collect and analyze information that will be, at best, misused or, worse, made public?

Better just to get the spies out safe, if possible.

Why did the story about an exfiltration from two years ago come out now? It could be that it took that long to report it. It could be the CIA decided to leak it for reasons we don’t know about. But it also could be a signal that senior intelligence officials don’t trust the president to handle classified information, and they want the world to know it.

Releasing classified information to the press is illegal. It’s also vital to the constitutional order that public servants, especially in the national security bureaucracy, obey political leadership. But when the people who dedicate their lives to keeping the country safe can’t trust the president, there’s not much recourse within the law.

And even if the leaks aren’t a mayday signal, haven’t we seen enough already?

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.