Intelligence reports are divided into two parts, separated by the so-called tear line. The area below the line contains less sensitive information and can be shared with select parties, including foreign partners. The area above it, however, includes details about the sources and methods behind the report — information too sensitive to share. A Washington Post report released Monday has raised concerns that U.S. President Donald Trump may have crossed the tear line during his meeting May 10 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. The United States' intelligence partners and adversaries alike will be intently watching the fallout of the latest White House controversy on intelligence sharing.
According to the details leaked to The Washington Post, Trump allegedly discussed elements of a terrorist plot related to a potential measure banning laptop computers from flights between Europe and the United States. He also reportedly revealed the name of the city in Islamic State territory where an unnamed intelligence partner discovered the threat. Trump took to Twitter to defend himself, insisting he had the "absolute right" to discuss "facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety" with Lavrov, Kislyak and their aides. (As president, Trump has considerable legal leeway to disclose classified information, unlike the officials who leaked the information to the media.) Cabinet members such as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell, meanwhile, issued statements denying that the president had inappropriately divulged "sources and methods for intelligence gathering." But the details suggest that even if Trump's disclosures stopped short of "sources and methods," they nevertheless could be used to infer sensitive information about the intelligence-gathering practices of the United States' partners.
Considering that the source of the shared intelligence gathered information on a transnational terrorist plot by the Islamic State, the asset must have unique access to high-ranking leaders in the extremist group. The leaders would be especially paranoid about their operational security while planning a strike, meaning that the media leaks of Trump's discussion with the Russians may have put the intelligence asset in question in grave danger. The revelations may also have short-circuited the intelligence operation that yielded the information after months, if not years, of careful planning and training. As the Islamic State works to root out suspected moles in the organization, the United States and its intelligence partners are in danger of losing their eyes and ears in the group.
Then there are the diplomatic repercussions. Israel is reportedly the U.S. intelligence partner whose information has been compromised; the brewing diplomatic imbroglio comes as Trump prepares to lead a delegation to the country May 22-23. Despite their decadeslong history of intelligence sharing, Israel and the United States are no strangers to explosive intelligence debacles. The two countries are still reconciling after the United States' 30-year detainment of notorious Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. The United States has also weathered some diplomatic storms with Jordan, another important intelligence partner in the region. Their relationship suffered its most recent blow in 2010 when a Jordanian intelligence asset who was recruited to infiltrate al Qaeda in Afghanistan conducted a suicide bombing that killed his Jordanian handler and seven CIA officers.
Intelligence operations are rife with such risks. And though intelligence professionals accept them, they do so with special training and a certain understanding of how intelligence will be collected, handled and shared. Intelligence sharing, after all, is a valuable commodity in managing foreign relationships. When thorny public issues stand in the way of cooperation, the trust that intelligence collaboration entails can go a long way toward keeping frictions under wraps. Israel, for example, relies heavily on its intelligence prowess to maintain a strategic dialogue with difficult partners such as its Arab neighbors and Russia, not to mention the United States. Washington, moreover, depends on the sensitive information its partners in the region collect to supplement its own intelligence as it tries to contain the threat of transnational jihadist groups. The trust that goes into these intelligence relationships is sacred when lives are at risk and laws at times must be bent to acquire information.
Doubtless, the reports that the president may have mishandled sensitive intelligence will alarm U.S. intelligence partners. But it won't break their relationships with the United States. Intelligence sharing is a two-way street, and the United States shares enough threats in common with its allies to keep them working together. That said, if Washington's intelligence partners begin to doubt Trump's ability to handle information, they will likely adapt their approach to the United States to mitigate the risk of exposure and protect their intelligence assets. In the process, they could create more layers for U.S. intelligence officials to work through when receiving information from their foreign partners. The scrutiny surrounding the White House's relationship with the Kremlin has already raised concerns in many European capitals over whether information shared with the United States could inadvertently wind up with the Russians.
Perhaps more important, the frequency with which officials in the administration leak privileged information to the media has caused worry that the political environment in Washington is encouraging members of the U.S. intelligence community to run to the press. The White House, as expected, is already pivoting the focus of the controversy to the criminality of the leaker and the importance of identifying and holding accountable those who jeopardize national security by talking to the press. The widening chasm between the president and the intelligence community will only heighten distrust and risk, creating more dysfunction in Washington. For Russia, this has been the goal all along. But notwithstanding the benefits of Washington's distraction for U.S. adversaries such as Moscow, the scrutiny on communications between the United States and Russia will still hamper efforts by both governments to put their relationship on a more conciliatory track.
Another aspect of the leak and ensuing reports concerns the Islamic State's aspirations. When news first broke in March that eight airlines from 10 Middle Eastern countries would ban laptops on overseas flights, many speculated al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was behind the plot that inspired the measure. The group, after all, has been known to favor ambitious transnational plots and has a history of attempted attacks on U.S.-bound aircraft. That the laptop ban is in fact connected to Islamic State suggests the group is making a concerted effort to conduct a high-profile attack to maintain its relevance as its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq crumbles under pressure from U.S.-led coalition forces. The Islamic State may be taking a page from the AQAP playbook to make a big splash abroad, but it will be doing its own housecleaning to try to preserve the plot in the wake of the latest leaks.