The controversy around President Donald Trump’s alleged disclosure of classified material to Russian leaders underscores a dilemma facing U.S. intelligence officials: How much should they share with the unpredictable commander-in-chief?
It’s an unusually difficult question for America’s spies. The president is not only their boss, he’s also the most important consumer of the information they invest their time, treasure and blood digging up. The entire U.S. intelligence apparatus is geared toward providing the president with the best information possible to help him make critical decisions.
Still, the latest reports about Trump’s talks with the Russians could lead some in the U.S. spy world to think twice about how much information they send to the White House, former intelligence officials and other observers said.
“There’s different ways the intelligence can be left a little bit thinner if somebody wanted to do that, but it would be against every sort of fiber of every intelligence officer’s being,” said Steven Hall, a retired CIA chief of Russian operations. “Your reason for existing is to make sure the president’s got all the information he needs.”
But if Trump keeps up his cavalier approach, “then analysts may be afraid that the president will misappropriate their intelligence, resulting in something completely inimical to the security of the United States as well as individuals or partner countries that may have provided the information,” said Thomas Sanderson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Washington Post reported Monday that Trump shared the classified information during an Oval Office meeting last week with Russia’s foreign minister and Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Trump took to Twitter to defend himself Tuesday, and his aides also insisted he never revealed any “sources or methods” used to obtain the information. But no one in the administration has denied that Trump divulged classified information to the Russian leaders.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the sensitive information, which pertained to the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group, came from an intelligence-sharing arrangement with Israel. The fear within the spy world is that Russian officials will be able to deduce the original source of the information, or at least the method used to obtain it, through the basics allegedly shared with them by Trump.
Because as president Trump can declassify information when he wants, he is unlikely to have broken the law. But there was at least some international fallout: One European official told The Associated Press that his country, which was not identified, may stop sharing intelligence with the United States, a move that some in the U.S. intelligence community have long feared some allied governments may make under Trump. Officials in other countries, however, either avoided comment Tuesday or said they would continue to cooperate with Washington.
White House officials did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but the administration has pushed back hard against past reports that intelligence officials were holding back information from Trump. Asked for comment on what the latest news could lead intelligence officials to do, CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani said: “It is CIA’s mission to provide the president with the best intelligence possible and to explain the basis for that intelligence. The CIA does not hide intelligence from the president, period.”
While defending Trump’s conversations with the Russians on Tuesday, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster raised more eyebrows when he said the president “wasn’t aware of where this came from. He wasn’t briefed on the source of this information.”
Former intelligence officials said that’s not unusual. When it comes to their regular intelligence briefings, presidents often get succinct, top-line material. The nitty gritty details of who got the information from where often aren’t included. If the president requests such details, however, intelligence officials generally feel compelled to give him the answer.
“In my experience, if the president asks, you tell him — intelligence briefers do not substitute their judgment for what the president needs to know for a direct request from the president,” said David Priess, a former intelligence official who wrote a book about the president’s daily intelligence briefing.
What’s more likely to happen is that some intelligence officials may choose to keep even their succinct analyses more vague over concerns about what the president will do with the information, some observers said. For instance, some of the media reports said Trump may have hinted at the sources or methods used to obtain the Islamic State-related information by mentioning a city involved. McMaster downplayed that aspect on Tuesday, saying Trump’s conversation with the Russian diplomats was “wholly appropriate,” but some intelligence officials may choose to avoid including the names of cities in future reports to the president as a result.
At the same time, the president’s daily intelligence brief and other materials produced by U.S. intelligence agencies are often shared well beyond the Oval Office. The vice president, the national security adviser and others are also recipients of the material, so intelligence officials considering skimping on information may ultimately choose not to as a result.
Trump is historically unusual in several ways when it comes to the subject of intelligence. He entered office openly disdainful of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. He also has appeared to cozy up to Russia, a U.S. rival whose government American intelligence agencies believe interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump win. At first, it was not clear that Trump would even take intelligence briefings on a day-to-day basis, although the White House has said he receives them regularly.
A former U.S. intelligence official who until recently served under Trump said the new president liked the written sections of his daily briefing significantly shorter than his predecessor, Barack Obama. Various intelligence units were asked to keep their contributions to no more than a page. Trump has an infamously short attention span, so it’s entirely possible that he pays scant attention to the material he does receive. But of greater concern is his impromptu style of speaking and his habit of sharing his thoughts on Twitter and other forums.
Such lack of discipline is not common in presidential history, analysts said.
“I never came across a time when somebody withheld intelligence information that a president needed to know because they were worried about how he would handle that information,” said Priess, whose book, “The President’s Book of Secrets” covers decades of the intelligence community’s interactions with the commander-in-chief.
Intelligence officials are well aware of how complicated it can be for Trump — or any U.S. president — to keep track of all of the information tossed at him on any given day, not to mention delineating which bits are safe to discuss in public and which aren’t. Some presidents at times intentionally avoid asking questions about sources, methods or other sensitive details because they don’t want to accidentally slip up and divulge the material. Adding to the complication is that the United States often has intelligence partnerships with countries that don’t necessarily get along with each other, especially in the Middle East.
Former CIA officer John Sipher said savvy senior officials would figure out a way to give Trump the intelligence he needs in a way that won’t backfire. But establishing that equilibrium might take some time.
At the end of the day, “it’s in our DNA that our job is to provide the president of the United States the best intelligence available,” Sipher said.
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed to this report.