President Donald Trump clearly believes there is an opportunity for the United States to work with Russia on counterterrorism and the fight against ISIS. Some commentators who’ve defended his intelligence disclosure to the Russians say that it makes sense to work with the Russians in this area, and sharing intelligence with Moscow on the ISIS threat would be a natural outgrowth of that approach.
Regardless of what one thinks about the reasons why it might be good or bad policy for the U.S. to cooperate with Russia in this or other policy spaces, let’s assume you have a White House that has decided to work more with Russia on counterterrorism, and as part of that, the president intends to share sensitive intelligence with the Russian government. How would the administration accomplish that objective?
In addition to Trump’s own poor judgment, which led him mid-meeting to boast about “his inside knowledge of the looming threat,” the White House and Trump’s staff were caught off guard by the disclosure and none of the proper precautions and permissions seemed to have taken place in the run-up to the meeting. (Among other effects, the disclosure reportedly put at imminent risk the life of a spy placed inside ISIS by Israel.) As Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA intelligence officer and now senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, wrote yesterday for Just Security, “The president’s hand would have been strengthened if he had relied on coordinated, carefully crafted language from the intelligence community that conveyed the urgency of the threat, while doing everything necessary to protect sources and methods.”
To figure out how abnormal this disclosure was, and to get a sense of how such a specific intelligence sharing decision would be implemented in a properly functioning White House, I turned to a former government spokesman to get some answers. He couldn’t speak on the record because of the restrictions of his current job.
1. The president wants to invite the Russians to the White House to talk about ISIS. What should happen before that meeting takes place? What type of conversations at lower levels would happen beforehand? How would the intel community be brought into the discussion?
There would be a whole host of interagency discussions, at least at the deputies level, and several planning sessions with the President himself to ensure that everyone understood the goals and objectives of the meeting, participation, agenda and just as critically, how it was going to be explained afterward. It would normally be a weeks-long process.
2. Are Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak the right guests?
There is nothing wrong, intrinsically, with the president meeting either man. It is not unusual, and Secretary Rex Tillerson met with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his trip to Moscow. What is troubling, however, was the timing and setting of this particular meeting. Given the recent firing of FBI Director James Comey, it would have been better for this visit not to occur … or at least not to occur in the Oval Office. It surprises me that no one in the White House seemed to understand the optics here, or, if they did, that they were unable to dissuade the president from taking the meeting. It wasn’t just tone deaf. It was deaf.
3. What kind of conversations would take place/permissions would be granted in terms of the kind of intelligence you decide to share with the Russians?
First of all, we do not routinely share intelligence with the Russians. They are not an intel partner and cannot be trusted with sensitive information. On the rare occasion when airing that type of information with a country like Russia is being weighed, it is done through a rigorous interagency discussion and process that first determines the degree to which disclosure is in our interest. If deemed so, there would then be a vetting process through which only the most necessary data or information would be culled and presented for delivery to them. Delivery would normally be done in non-electronic forms.
4. Would there be any communications strategy for the meeting or the decision to share new kinds of information with the Russians?
I doubt seriously there would be a communications component to a discrete decision such as this. You might, perhaps, have the comms team develop a “response to query” document should it leak, but I can’t see any value in doing a proactive briefing.
5. If you wanted to share the kind of intel being talked about (code word from an ally), what would you do to make sure that was OK with the ally? And with the intelligence community?
Yes, to both. It is not required, but it would make little sense in the long run to cut out either the intelligence community or the ally who provided the intelligence. First of all, you cover your bases and avail yourself of any unintended consequences. Secondly, you help preserve relationships upon which you will need to continue to draw.
6. Would it be possible to roll out this new closer relationship with Russia (including the sharing of sensitive intelligence) in a way that would better explain what is happening and why to the American people and to our allies?
I don’t think we can say at this point that we have a new and closer relationship with Russia, and I don’t think the president told them what he did to forge that sort of relationship. I think he was bragging, and I think he was reckless. That said, there is no question that, once the White House knew the Washington Post story was coming, they could have done a better job reacting and responding to the story.