Analysis |

Trump’s Leak of Israeli Secrets Threatens an Intimate Intelligence Relationship

Israeli officers now know that the commander-in-chief of their American counterparts is clearly compromised

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
President Donald Trump listens during his meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 16, 2017
President Donald Trump listens during his meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 16, 2017Credit: Evan Vucci/AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Ironically, just when the New York Times and other American news organizations were breaking the news that the secret intelligence President Donald Trump shared last week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had been provided to the U.S. by Israel, Trump was in a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This is the same Erdogan who appointed a pro-Iranian aide to head Turkey's intelligence service. Israel's once intimate strategic alliance and intelligence-sharing with Turkey all but evaporated due to fears that the Turkish intelligence was leaking to Iran and jeopardizing Israeli assets.

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But even during their heyday, Israel's close relationship with Turkish intelligence cannot be compared to the level of sharing with the U.S. intelligence community. For lack of divulgeable classified details, the value of intelligence Mossad and the IDF's intelligence branch pass on to their American counterparts can only be described using superlatives. "We literally give them the crown jewels," said one senior Israeli intelligence officer who was intimately involved in the relationship with the Obama administration.

>> Anslyses: Israel gets a bitter taste of Trump’s mayhemTrump's Russian intel leak is the last thing Netanyahu needs >>

Like every relationship, the U.S.-Israel intelligence sharing one isn't perfect and it took long years to rebuild trust following the Jonathan Pollard spy scandal in the 1980s. But despite fears in recent years that the lack of personal chemistry between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu would "trickle down" and affect the ties between intelligence professionals, Israeli officials insist that it wasn't the case. The same Obama who locked horns with Netanyahu over the nuclear agreement with Iran gave the go-ahead for the joint Israel-U.S. Stuxnet cyber-attack against the operating system of Iran's uranium enrichment centrifuges, according to the New York Times, in what was probably the most successful joint cyber operation known to have taken place.

According to the reports in American media, confirmed largely by Trump's tweets and his spokesman Sean Spicer, the intelligence Trump shared with the Russian foreign minister concerned plans by ISIS to smuggle explosives aboard a civil airliner, disguised as a computer laptop. Throughout the previous decade when the U.S. fought al-Qaida in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israeli intelligence and military labs provided much of the information on jihadists' efforts to prepare more deadly types of improvised bombs for use against American troops.

Israel is the only country to have an intelligence relationship with the U.S. of an intimacy rivaling that of the “Five Eyes” group of the U.S., Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada which reaches back to the Second World War. According to the Wall Street Journal, the intelligence Trump divulged to Lavrov hadn’t even been disclosed to the U.S.'s “Five Eyes” partners. That would be par for the course. Intelligence provided by one nation to an ally is for that ally’s eyes only. It is up to Israel to decide who else it wants to share it with (and in recent years, the level of cooperation with Britain and Australia is such that it may well have been shared with them as well, by Israel).

To add insult to injury, Israel is in the midst of its own very delicate engagement with Russia, which has become the dominant global power in the Middle East following the Kremlin’s deployment to Syria in support of the Assad regime a year and a half ago. In Syria, Russia is working together with Israel's rivals Iran and Hezbollah. As one senior Israeli intelligence officer put it this week, talking of the arrangements to prevent friction between the Israeli and Russian air forces in the region, “we share mutual respect with Russia, but we’re just coordinating with them, not cooperating”.

The intelligence-sharing with the U.S. isn’t about to end just because of one indiscretion by the president. The response of Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, that “Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump,” can be taken nearly at face value. The alliance is too valuable to Israel to jeopardize. But what Trump did last week in the Oval Office will weigh heavily on the minds of the Israeli officers who work daily with their American counterparts whose commander-in-chief is now clearly compromised.

Trump is triply compromised because he seems to have no sense or interest in guarding his allies’ secrets, because of his obvious affinity with the Russian leadership and because he has lost the confidence of his own intelligence community, as the steady stream of high-level leaks, with revelation following explosive headline on the hour so damningly proves. If the officers of the CIA and FBI won’t trust Trump, Israeli intelligence professionals certainly won’t either.

An accidental president is now receiving the daily intelligence brief in the White House. When Vladimir Putin authorized the hacking of the Democratic Party, and by extension the American democratic system, he almost certainly didn’t assume that it could actually lead to Trump’s astonishing election. He wanted to get back at Hillary Clinton for perceived slights and to sow discord and mistrust within American society. President Trump was an unexpected bonus and nearly four months into his presidency remains for the Kremlin the gift that keeps on giving.

Trump is just like one of those NSA hacking tools let loose on the internet, being used by rogue North Korean and Iranian hackers to cause online havoc everywhere. A bumptious and bragging amateur with a security clearance that allows him access to every secret of the American intelligence community.

Fundamentally, Trump was right when he claimed in his tweets on Tuesday morning that it was his prerogative as president to share classified information with the Russian foreign minister in the interest of furthering a U.S.-Russia alliance against ISIS. That is what presidents and ministers often do in these closed meetings, discuss top-secret intelligence reports. But the information they share has to be first processed and sanitized by intelligence professionals so only the necessary essence is passed on, without any details that can give away sources and methods. And if even the bare details can benefit the spy services of a hostile nation, and the president of the United States should certainly regard Russia as such, then the damage has to be weighed against the possible benefits of an ad-hoc alliance.

A vain and boastful accidental president, incapable of telling his nation’s friends from its foes, is doubly dangerous to the U.S. and its allies.

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