President Donald Trump’s loose lips aren’t just causing him political trouble anymore. Now they’re putting at risk vital global intelligence sharing with allies whose spies have helped thwart terrorist attacks on the United States.
British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday issued a public rebuke of the Trump administration before meeting with the president, and a senior Democratic lawmaker said the British government may have “every right to be furious.”
The flare-up was over U.S. leaks to the media about the terror network behind the Manchester Arena bombing Monday night that killed 23 people, including the British suicide bomber. Angered by the leaks, British police stopped passing information to U.S. counterparts.
Trump, who had no apparent role in the disclosures, called the leaks “deeply troubling.” But the incident follows others in which Trump personally appeared to reveal secrets, such as an Islamic State plot to blow airliners out of the sky.
The incidents include Trump allegedly telling the leader of the Philippines about the presence of two nuclear submarines off the Korean Peninsula and the disclosure of classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a May 10 meeting in the Oval Office.
“Every government looks at it and says, ‘Whoa! We need to think twice about our sharing with the government when the guy at the top seems to be so careless with information,” said Paul R. Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the CIA who now is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.
In some instances, Trump’s sharing doesn’t appear to have been a calculated move, within his lawful right as president, but a spontaneous disclosure.
“He just seems to have blurted this stuff out,” said Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists who follows national security issues.
Trump, traveling in Brussels for a NATO summit, called the leaks out of his administration “a grave threat to our national security.” He pledged a deep inquiry by the Justice Department, and reassured Britain over the importance of security ties.
“There is no relationship we cherish more than the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom,” Trump said.
Intelligence sharing with Britain is critical “to our security and to theirs,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who is ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
“Any break or deviation from that relationship or the profound trust we have in the British and they have in us, would be a grave loss for both countries. We must take any steps necessary to remedy this problem immediately,” Schiff said in a statement issued by his office.
Other Democratic congressmen joined the criticism, including Rep. Ted Lieu, a fellow California Democrat, who upbraided Trump for pledging to root out leakers when he himself had spilled secrets.
Another nation affected by Trump’s disclosures is Israel. On Wednesday, Israel said it had changed its intelligence-sharing protocols with the United States. The move followed Trump’s disclosure to Lavrov that a human source in the Islamic State had revealed a plan to use bombs hidden in laptop computers to take down airliners. Although Trump didn’t say so, the source apparently was recruited by Israel.
While in Jerusalem this week, Trump denied that he’d mentioned Israel to Lavrov.
"Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name ‘Israel’ during that conversation. They were all saying I did, so you had another story wrong,” Trump told the media.
Acknowledging a human mole in a terrorist group like the Islamic State imperils both the source and the relationship with the nation that recruited the source, said Bruce Hoffman, a global fellow at the Wilson Center and director of security studies at Georgetown University.
“The aspiration of any intelligence agency is to have some source imbedded in the terrorist decision-making and planning apparatus. I mean, that is solid gold,” Hoffman said.
Still, Hoffman said some disclosures out of the White House can be chalked up to lack of familiarity with procedures over classified information and how it’s handled.
“Those procedures have to be second nature and routine to you,” Hoffman said, noting that Trump and his aides are outsiders prone to inadvertent action. “I don’t think it’s deliberate.”
Pillar said it falls on a few shoulders, primarily National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, an active duty Army lieutenant general, to educate Trump and his staff on the implications of handling and revealing classified information.
“He’s the key person to be the tutor,” Pillar said.
But the learning must happen more quickly, other observers said, noting that an erosion of allied trust in the Trump administration has already occurred.
“I absolutely think allies are reassessing how best to have an intelligence and criminal sharing relationship with the United States while President Trump is in office,” said Mark S. Zaid, a Washington, D.C. attorney who handles national security cases.
Puzzling to some experts is what motivated Trump to tell Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte about the location of U.S. nuclear submarines, a key component of the nation’s land-air-sea triad of nuclear retaliatory capability.
“The question is, why is President Trump releasing information to individual leaders who probably from an intelligence or military standpoint have no reason to know?” Zaid asked. “Now, the North Koreans know about it, and the thing everyone worries about is any provocation to a North Korean leader who is trigger happy.”
Trump’s disclosures reflect less on legality than on judgment, Aftergood said.
“It’s not that he’s weighed the risks and decided that they are outweighed by the benefits. It’s that he’s not thought the matter through,” Aftergood said.
“All we can infer is that he enjoys the role of the person who possesses secrets and therefore can share them.”