On May 10, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump disclosed classified information to Russian government representatives, creating political and security concerns in the United States and its allies, especially Israel. Soon after the meeting, American intelligence extracted a high-level covert source from within the Russian government, on concerns the individual could be at risk due, in part, to Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandling classified intelligence.
Oval Office disclosure to Russia
Disclosure in May 2017
President Donald Trump discussed classified information provided by a U.S. ally regarding a planned Islamic State operation during an Oval Office meeting on May 10, 2017 with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, providing sufficient details that could be used by the Russians to deduce the identity of the ally and the manner in which it was collected, according to current and former government officials. The meeting had been closed to the U.S. press, although a photographer from the Russian press contingent was present. The disclosure was first reported in The Washington Post on May 15, 2017. White House staff initially denied the report, but the following day Trump defended the disclosure, stating that he has the "absolute right" to "share" intelligence with Russia.
It was later reported that Israel was the source of the information. Israel did not confirm or deny the report but released a statement stating full confidence in the intelligence sharing relationships with the United States. Ynetnews, an Israeli news website, had previously reported on January 12 that in a meeting held in early January (during Trump's presidential transition), U.S. intelligence officials advised Israeli Mossad and other intelligence officials to "be careful" when transferring intelligence information to the Trump White House and administration until the possibility of Russian influence over Trump, suggested by Christopher Steele's report (commonly referred as the Trump–Russia dossier), has been fully investigated. U.S. officials were concerned that the information, particularly about sensitive intelligence sources, could be passed to Russia and then to Iran. Two Israeli intelligence officials confirmed privately that Trump's disclosure of the intelligence to Russia was "for us, our worst fears confirmed." They said the disclosure jeopardizes Israel's "arrangement with America which is unique to the world of intelligence sharing" and that Israeli officials were "boiling mad and demanding answers".
The report was described as "shocking" and "horrifying" by some commentators and former U.S. intelligence officials. According to current and former U.S. officials interviewed by ABC News, Trump's disclosure endangered the life of a spy placed by Israel in ISIL-held territory in Syria. The classified information Trump shared came from a source described as the most valuable of any current sources on any current external plotting, according to The Wall Street Journal.
On May 15, 2017, The Washington Post, citing anonymous sources, reported that the intelligence was about an ISIL plot to stealthily use laptops as weapons that can then explode in Western countries, and that a Middle Eastern ally provided the intelligence, which was codeword-classified, meaning that its distribution was restricted only to those who were explicitly cleared to read it, and was not intended to be shared beyond the United States and certain allies. The incident was later reported by The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and Reuters. The officials talking to BuzzFeed said, "it's far worse than what has already been reported."
Immediately after Trump's disclosure, "which one of the officials described as spontaneous", "senior White House officials appeared to recognize quickly that Trump had overstepped and moved to contain the potential fallout." Immediately after the meeting, Thomas P. Bossert, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, telephoned the directors of the CIA and the NSA to inform them what had occurred.
The incident was seen as a pivot away from traditional American allies, and towards closer relations with Russia, and raised questions on Trump's respect for the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement.
Several commentators stated that by releasing classified information to Russia, Trump jeopardized American and allied intelligence sources, breached the trust relationship with America's foreign partners, threatened the long term national security of the country and violated his oath of office through "gross negligence". All of these actions are possible legal grounds towards efforts to impeach Donald Trump. Aides privately defended the President, stating that Trump did not have sufficient interest or knowledge of the intelligence gathering process to leak specific sources or methods of intelligence gathering; National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster publicly maintained that Trump had not been briefed on the origins of the intelligence in question, and therefore could not have compromised the source.
According to conservative commentator Erick Erickson, multiple sources have stated that the leaks were far worse than the current reports, and the leaker is a strong supporter of Trump who believed it was necessary to publicly disclose the story because of Trump's inability to accept criticism.
White House response
White House staff initially denied the veracity of the report during the evening of May 15. In a press briefing on the same day, McMaster denied The Washington Post report, saying, "At no time, at no time, were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of state, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. And their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources." He concluded by saying, "I was in the room, it didn't happen." McMaster said that "it was wholly appropriate to share" the information because of a similar ISIL plot two years earlier.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that "common efforts and threats regarding counter-terrorism" were discussed in the meeting with Lavrov, but not "sources, methods or military operations". Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy Dina Habib Powell flatly rejected the Post article, saying: "This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced."
On May 16, Trump implicitly confirmed a disclosure in a tweet, claiming that, "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 ... to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism."
Origin of the intelligence
The May 15 The Washington Post article reported that the intelligence came from an unnamed Middle Eastern ally. On May 16, The New York Times named the relevant ally and source of the intelligence as Israel, saying that as a consequence, Trump's boasts to the Russian envoys could damage America's relationship with Israel and endanger Israel's security if Russia passes the intelligence on to Iran, Israel's main threat in the Middle East. The intelligence was so sensitive that it hadn't even been shared among key U.S. allies.
Israeli intelligence officials were reportedly horrified by the disclosure. In public comments, Israeli officials including intelligence minister Yisrael Katz, Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the intelligence services of the two countries would continue to share information, with Dermer saying "Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States." However, speaking privately, unnamed Israeli sources said they might need to reassess what intelligence they share with the U.S. Israeli officials stated that it is Israel's "worst fears confirmed" about Donald Trump. The officials also stated that Israeli intelligence officers were "boiling mad and demanding answers" on its current intelligence-sharing agreement with the US.
On May 22, while visiting Israel, Trump appeared to confirm both the disclosure and the identity of Israel as the source, telling the press "Folks, folks, just so you understand, just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name Israel during that conversation." It had been widely reported before May 22 that Israel was the source.
Speaker of the House Republican Paul Ryan said through a spokesman that he "hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration".
Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that the allegations were "very, very troubling" if true. Senator John McCain called the report "deeply disturbing" and said that "Reports that this information was provided by a U.S. ally and shared without its knowledge sends 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." McCain stated: "Regrettably, the time President Trump spent sharing sensitive information with the Russians was time he did not spend focusing on Russia's aggressive behavior, including its interference in American and European elections, its illegal invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, its other destabilizing activities across Europe, and the slaughter of innocent civilians and targeting of hospitals in Syria."
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said, "The president owes the intelligence community, the American people and Congress a full explanation". and Senator Dick Durbin, the Senate Democratic Whip, said that Trump's conduct was "dangerous" and "reckless". Senator Jack Reed, the ranking Democratic member of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, said, "President Trump's recklessness with sensitive information is deeply disturbing and clearly problematic." The Democratic National Committee issued a statement, which included this: "If Trump weren't president, his dangerous disclosure to Russia could end with him in handcuffs."
Reaction from foreign countries was generally negative. A top European intelligence official said that sharing of intelligence with the United States would cease if the country confirms that Trump did indeed share classified information with Russia, because sharing intel with Americans while Trump is president could put their sources at risk.
Burkhard Lischka, a member of the German Bundestag's intelligence oversight committee, said that if Trump "passes this information to other governments at will, then Trump becomes a security risk for the entire western world".
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denied the U.S. media reports.
Several professors of law, political science, and international relations, as well as intelligence experts, were alarmed by Trump's disclosure.
Intelligence expert Amy Zegart of Stanford University noted that Trump revealed code word intelligence, which is the highest layer of classification, even higher than the "top secret" classification. Such information, if revealed, could reasonably be expected to cause "exceptionally grave damage" to the national security of the United States. She wrote, "so just how bad is the damage? On a scale of 1 to 10—and I'm just ball parking here—it's about a billion."
Counterterrorism expert Daniel Byman of Georgetown University said that disclosures such as Trump's could jeopardize intelligence sharing relationships, which "perhaps more than any other policy instrument ... play a vital role in counterterrorism against global terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda." The effects could be "disastrous".
Professor Jack Goldsmith and other contributors to the Lawfare Blog said that Trump's release of classified information could be a violation of the President's oath of office: "There's thus no reason why Congress couldn't consider a grotesque violation of the President's oath as a standalone basis for impeachment—a high crime and misdemeanor in and of itself. This is particularly plausible in a case like this, where the oath violation involves giving sensitive information to an adversary foreign power. That's getting relatively close to the "treason" language in the impeachment clauses; it's pretty easy to imagine a hybrid impeachment article alleging a violation of the oath in service of a hostile foreign power. So legally speaking, the matter could be very grave for Trump even though there is no criminal exposure." While the authors argued Trump "did not violate any criminal law concerning the disclosure of classified information" because of the president's broad authority to declassify information, another legal scholar, Professor Stephen Vladeck, wrote that the president's "constitutional power over national security information" is not unfettered and that Trump's disclosure "may actually have been illegal under federal law."
Harvard Law emeritus professor Alan Dershowitz called the incident "the most serious charge ever made against a sitting president" and said that it was "devastating", with "very serious political, diplomatic, and international implications".
Leaking of sensitive information by the U.S. has led to the review of intelligence sharing arrangements by key allies, and also a review by the Department of Justice regarding the leaks from the United States.
Soon after the Oval Office meeting, intelligence officials reportedly became concerned about the safety of a high-level CIA source within the Putin government, and decided to bring him out of Russia. The source had refused an earlier offer to extract him. The extraction, or "exfiltration", was carried out sometime in 2017. CNN and other news sources reported on this extraction in September 2019, along with details about the Russian. One source told CNN that the decision to remove him was based in part on concern about the Trump administration's mishandling of classified information. However, other sources said the concern for his safety was primarily based on a 2017 CIA report about Russian interference in the election, which had such specific information it might make Russia suspect a high-placed spy. A CIA spokesperson said the news reports were "misguided speculation", and a White House spokesperson said the reporting was "incorrect" and "has the potential to put lives in danger," although they did not specify why they considered the reporting flawed.
Other disclosures of intelligence
In an April 29, 2017, phone call, Trump told Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte that the U.S. had positioned two nuclear submarines off the coast of North Korea. This was during a time when Trump was warning of a possible "major, major conflict" with North Korea. The locations of nuclear submarines are a closely guarded secret, even from the Navy command itself. "As a matter of national security, only the captains and crew of the submarines know for sure where they're located."
On May 24, 2017, Britain strongly objected to the United States leaking to the press information about the Manchester Arena bombing, including the identity of the attacker and a picture of the bomb, before it had been publicly disclosed, jeopardizing the investigation. British Prime Minister Theresa May issued a public rebuke, and British police said they would stop passing information to U.S. counterparts.
In July 2017, after a private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 2017 G20 Hamburg summit, Trump took the unusual step of confiscating and keeping his interpreter's notes. This led U.S. intelligence officials to express concern that Trump "may have improperly discussed classified intelligence with Russia."
On Christmas 2018, Trump and First Lady Melania Trump flew to Al Asad Airbase where Trump posted video to Twitter of several members of Seal Team Five in their camouflage and night-vision goggles, revealing the team's location and un-blurred faces. In 2020, the Airbase was the subject of an Iranian ballistic missile attack in retaliation for the killing of Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike a few days earlier.
On August 30, 2019, Trump tweeted a reportedly classified image of recent damage to Iran's Imam Khomeini Spaceport that supposedly occurred as a result of an explosion during testing of a Safir SLV. Multiple concerns were raised regarding the public release of what appeared to be a surveillance photo with exceptionally high resolution, revealing highly classified U.S. surveillance capabilities. Within hours of the tweet, amateur satellite trackers had determined the photograph came from National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite USA-224. Before Trump's tweet, the only confirmed photographs from a KH-11 satellite were leaked in 1984 by a U.S. Navy analyst who went to prison for espionage. Trump defended the tweet by saying he had "the absolute right" to release the photo.
In a December 2019 interview with Bob Woodward, Trump stated, "I have built a nuclear — a weapons system that nobody's ever had in this country before," adding, "We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before. There's nobody. What we have is incredible."
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We had a photo and I released it, which I have the absolute right to do.
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