It’s every intelligence chief’s nightmare – a phone call announcing the unexpected disclosure of highly sensitive secrets.
The stakes are high: intelligence methods potentially compromised; future access to vital intelligence on terrorist plots and other threats jeopardised; diplomatic relations with allies and partners strained; and, in some cases, the lives of agents put at risk.
Alarm bells clearly rang at the highest levels of the US national security apparatus following President Donald Trump’s ill-advised Oval Office meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Based initially on well sourced leaks and then confirmed in his own tweets, the President told Lavrov the United States had highly sensitive intelligence about a terrorist plot to attack airliners using explosives concealed in laptop computers (which in March led the US and Britain to ban laptops from carry-on luggage on certain routes from the Middle East).
According to media reports, senior White House officials contacted the CIA and the National Security Agency, the US eavesdropping organisation, after the meeting. They must have been difficult conversations, particularly given the highly charged relationship between the Trump White House and the American intelligence community.
Of course intelligence disclosures, while damaging and unfortunate, are a fact of life. After this one occurred the relevant US agencies would have swung immediately into damage control. They would have conducted a rapid assessment of the harm done, including to the intelligence-sharing relationship with the country that provided the material – in this case reportedly Israel.
The Israeli government is relieved to see the back of the Obama administration, which it saw as hopelessly naive about the threat posed by Iran; but presumably this incident will create at least a little awkwardness during Trump’s visit next week.
Losing access to further information on a major terrorist threat such as this one could obviously be immensely costly, but national security adviser HR McMaster – widely regarded as a man of integrity – has said no details of intelligence sources or methods were disclosed.
US agency chiefs would also have had the unwelcome task of telling their Israeli counterparts what had happened and reassuring them that the United States can still be trusted to protect their secrets.
President Trump is correct when he says that he has the authority to share intelligence with other leaders. But this episode is disturbing, for three reasons.
The first is that Trump seems to have disclosed the intelligence not as part of a deliberate decision-making process after consultation with his senior officials but impulsively on the spur of the moment – reportedly as a boast about US capabilities. That can only feed concerns about his judgment, temperament, and fitness to be commander-in-chief.
The second reason is that it is pretty clear the President passed on the intelligence without first consulting the government that provided it. This is a grave breach of intelligence-sharing practice. If it is repeated and becomes a pattern, it will make other partners, including the other “Five Eyes” countries, nervous about sharing their secrets. Ultimately it can only undermine the mutual trust that lies at the heart of effective intelligence co-operation. The consequences for efforts to combat global terrorism and other threats such as North Korea would be severe.
The third reason to be disturbed is that Trump shared the intelligence with Russia, of all countries. At a minimum the fact he did so the day after he fired the director of the FBI and himself linked that decision to his unhappiness with the Bureau’s investigation into his administration’s Russia links demonstrates poor political judgment. But the more fundamental concern is Trump’s failure to appreciate that, far from being a dependable partner, Russia is working aggressively to undermine American interests and the liberal international order more broadly, whether in Europe or the Middle East or by interfering in the US election.
For all this, however, the responses of Australia and other key US intelligence partners will be measured.
Our intelligence relationship with the United States is simply too important to be put at risk. Australia’s intelligence agencies are highly regarded and we make a valuable contribution. But we get far more out of the intelligence partnership than we put in, including information affecting Australian interests from all around the world and access to sophisticated US collection systems we could never afford to replicate on our own.
Australian law enforcement and security services depend on intelligence from the United States and other partners to disrupt terrorist attacks here and abroad. Intelligence informs our diplomacy. The Australian Defence Force simply could not operate the way it does in the era of networked warfare without our deep and longstanding intelligence links with the US.
More than 70 years ago Australians and Americans worked together to crack Japan’s codes and helped win the Pacific War. In a world facing so many new threats those ties are as important as ever.