Almost a year ago, a major news story was Hillary Clinton's private email server, which contained classified information. No evidence has been produced that this information was hacked or released, but former-FBI Director James Comey found her behavior “extremely careless,” though he declared it did not rise to the level that charges should be sought. On the pages of Proceedings, Rear Admiral Tom Brooks, U.S. Navy (Retired), former Director of Naval Intelligence, gave a clear and thoughtful analysis of those developments for a Sea Service audience, including their second-order effects on the Fat Leonard case and the evident double-standard between high-level officials and ordinary sailors who mishandle classified information. (See “Now Hear This: ‘Clinton Defense’ Will Undercut the Classification/Clearance System,” p.10, August 2016 Proceedings.) Admiral Brooks concluded, “Perhaps the next administration will recognize this and establish a mechanism to restore confidence in the integrity of the system.”
Unfortunately, this has not happened. An egregious violation of the integrity of the system occurred when President Donald Trump revealed to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak highly classified “code word” intelligence from a sensitive foreign source. There are several aspects of this disclosure that need to be unpacked to understand the incident in context and its impact on our military forces, intelligence services, and diplomacy.
This behavior would have been a felony if a sailor or Marine had committed it, but Admiral Brooks already recognized the double standard between high-level officials and ordinary service members. Will it affect the President's security clearance? No. Uniquely, the President and Vice President undergo no background checks or investigations by the FBI or other agencies. The American people, shall we say, did the background check last November and granted them security clearances for four years. So, no, the President’s clearance will never be revoked during his term of office.
President Trump violated no U.S. law by revealing this information to the Russians. But not violating U.S. law is not the whole story. The information was not President Trump's to give away. It was “Foreign Government Information (FGI)” from a friendly country—according to the press, Israel. Many military members may be familiar with the “FGI” label on briefing graphics. It is a caveat to guard information so details are not revealed without the permission of the originating government. This is critical because intelligence relationships with foreign governments are highly sensitive, based on trust, and take years or decades to develop.
These relationships can, however, be burned in a day. And we are not just talking about the relationship with the Israelis. All countries are likely reassessing their intelligence relationships with the United States. If foreign governments retreat from sharing their best, most sensitive information, it will degrade U.S. national security and put forward-deployed American service men and women and diplomats in danger. Some of the best intelligence the United States has on terrorist threats comes from partner nations that share intelligence with the United States under quid pro quo agreements and the expectation that the United States will closely guard it. Sharing FGI with the Russians without source-nation approval violates those agreements.
By releasing this classified material without consulting the country that provided it to the United States, President Trump undermined the trust in the U.S. government and may have reduced the flow of vital intelligence that keeps America safe.
Captain Hanson is a retired intelligence officer who served on active duty for 24 years. His last duty tour was Director of Intelligence (J2) for Joint Interagency Task Force West at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii. He is a Democratic candidate for Congress from Virginia's Tenth Congressional District.
Photo Credit: Associated Press
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