The nation’s secrets belong to the president.
As The Washington Post acknowledged when it reported that the president had passed highly classified information to the Russians last week, the president has “broad authority to declassify government secrets, making it unlikely that his disclosures broke the law.”
Put another way, in strictly legal terms, the president can more or less do what he likes with classified information, because that information is classified at his pleasure.
What the president did—if the reporting by two of the Post’s most experienced and well-sourced journalists is to be believed, and the denial that emerged from the mouth of the president’s national security advisor was a very weak one—is problematic on other levels.
The first and most important reason why what the president did is dangerous is what it does to our relationship with our intelligence partners. The Post reports that the intelligence the president shared was provided by another partner—likely the intelligence service of another country. Countries provide that information to the United States trusting we will not divulge that information to, say, the Russians.
During the Obama administration, we briefly considered sharing some counter-terror intelligence with the Russians as well, all as part of a broader effort to counter the Nusra Front in Syria while kick-starting the political process to remove Bashar al-Asad from power. It was a noble if misguided effort, and the intelligence community and the Department of Defense—for whom I was the lead negotiator—argued strenuously against it, in part because we feared the Russians would use the opportunity to collect their own intelligence on our sources and methods, many of which we developed over decades to … spy on Russia.
It also made our partners incredibly nervous. So much of our intelligence is derived from partners that it’s hard to ensure that any information passed to the Russians would not violate agreements with those partners about the way the information would be used. I can only imagine how intelligence services across the globe are now re-thinking how and what to share with the Americans. Can any Republican stand in front of a television and argue to the American people that this keeps them safer at night?
Second, this completely undermines the relationship between the president and his intelligence community, which had recovered over the past few months from the low point—and I can’t believe this was just a few months ago—when the president compared the Central Intelligence Agency to Nazis and then used its memorial wall as the background to a political speech.
I asked a friend at the CIA how things were going with the new president in January. He replied sarcastically that since the CIA basically needs the president to do only two things—safeguard its secrets and clandestine programs and read his President’s Daily Brief—things were going swimmingly. The CIA had already resigned itself to the incurious nature of this president but now has to contend with a president who also demolishes its most valuable intelligence-sharing relationships by chatting about sensitive intelligence with—of all people, come on man—the Russians.
I was heartened to see my fellow Chattanoogan Bob Corker offer some of the more critical comments from a Republican in response to this latest scandal, worrying the White House was in a “downward spiral” and adding that “the White House has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and in order.”
But even those comments misdiagnose the problem: The problem is not “the White House.” There is no executive branch process or structure you can erect around this president to prevent his type of stuff from happening. The problem is neither the process nor the staff. It’s the president himself.
We, as citizens, live under the constitution written by our forefathers, and unless the president gets bored and quits, we’re likely going to have to endure the damage this man will do for another three-and-a-half years.
But I hope the American people never forget this moment when one of our great political parties hitched its fortunes to a man whose temperament and disposition threatens the very security of our nation. If this reporting is accurate, the president’s actions amount to egregious, dangerous behavior, and any Republican who doesn’t speak up loudly against it forfeits his or her right to be taken seriously on issues of national security.
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