Two leading American papers, one after the other, threw bombshells into Washington’s already seething political arena on Tuesday. First, the Washington Post reported that president Donald Trump had revealed sensitive intelligence about the Islamic State’s plans – intelligence America had received about the terrorist organization from another country – during his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Then, the New York Times reported Tuesday that the other country, and perhaps this should come as no great surprise, was Israel.
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This news from Washington mainly embarrasses the U.S. administration, which in any case has been acting for months like a train moving from one wreck to another. Now, Trump’s spokesmen are contorting themselves with denials that morphed into inadequate explanations in an attempt to justify the president’s unusual action.
But to a lesser extent, these reports certainly aren’t pleasant for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is supposed to host Trump on his first official visit to Israel in another week. Israeli spokesmen adamantly refused to comment on Tuesday, either on or off the record.
Clearly, the last thing Netanyahu needs now, on the eve of a visit in which Trump is likely to saddle him with a new and ambitious initiative for peace with the Palestinians, is an intelligence crisis with the Americans. Even if Israel was harmed by Trump’s behavior, it won’t rush to make this public. Netanyahu is aware of Trump’s sensitivity to criticism, any criticism. And even before the visit has begun, tensions between Jerusalem and Washington have already risen over problems in setting Trump’s schedule, from the Western Wall to Masada.
If the report about info leaked to the Russians is in fact true, it raises concern regarding three kinds of damage: endangering the source of the information (and that’s a particularly high risk if it involves an agent); endangering the prospect of dredging up additional intelligence on future terrorist acts that ISIS is planning; and of course damage to relations with the country that provided the information to the Americans and that apparently didn’t think that it would then be leaked to the Russians. Russia’s interests in the Middle East are entirely different from those of the United States and its allies in the region, even if Moscow has been attempting to claim that all of them are partners in the fight against ISIS.
Jordan and Israel have been mentioned over the past two years as two of the countries that possess relatively credible information about ISIS’ activities. Jordan’s border with Syria has been wide open since the beginning of the Syrian civil war and Jordanian intelligence has in recent years invested major efforts in putting a stop to possible risks posed by ISIS — this, against the backdrop of the arrival in Jordan of more than a million refugees from Syria.
As for Israel, foreign media have reported on several occasions about intelligence warnings that it passed along to European countries just prior to the major terrorist attacks committed by ISIS supporters. On one of his prior visits to Israel, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed the appreciation of the United States for Israeli intelligence that has help foil terrorist attacks.
The report is seen as a direct continuation of the previous scandals involving the administration’s possible ties with Russia: the resignation of U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and just recently Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey.
With the carelessness that he is known for, Trump is now getting himself entangled inside that sensitive triad of intelligence, the administration and the media. The Washington Post report bolsters prior assessments expressed by several senior intelligence officials from the Obama administration to the effect that Trump’s conduct regarding sensitive intelligence could be dangerous.
Trump is in fact exceptional in his impertinence and outspokenness, the likes of which no prior president has exhibited. But this is not the first time we’ve seen a dispute over the political, diplomatic and sometimes military use of classified intelligence. There have been similar controversies in Israel.
In 2002, on the eve of the Second Gulf War, the Israeli prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, sparked major criticism from intelligence officials when he disclosed sensitive information about assistance that Syria had provided to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. And in the summer of 2014, during Israel’s war against Hamas and its allies in Gaza, a military presentation provided to the security cabinet that forecast hundreds of fatalities among Israeli soldiers if the Israeli army was to be ordered to conquer the Gaza Strip was leaked to Channel 2 television. Netanyahu’s political adversaries accused him of the leak.
As part of the aftermath of the so-called Harpaz affair involving an allegedly forged document meant to influence the selection of a new IDF chief of staff, a police investigation was conducted against former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi over the claim that he had provided reporters with classified information without permission.
The allegations against Netanyahu have never been proven and the case against Ashkenazi has been closed.
Each of these cases has highlighted the question of who actually owns the information. Does the person at the top have the authority to decide, for overriding reasons, that classified information can be released to advance another goal?
Following the Trump administration’s denials, this was indeed the line of defense the president used in his tweets on Tuesday. But looking beyond today’s controversy, and given the alternative reality of Trump and his supporters, the worrying reports will not necessarily lead to a change in how the White House conducts itself.