The Risks of Sharing Intelligence

According to recent news reports, President Trump divulged highly classified material to Russian officials, potentially endangering the U.S. relationship with the source of that information.

Susan Walsh / AP

The Washington Post first reported Monday that President Trump revealed information about an Islamic State plot that “had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement” during an Oval Office meeting with Russian officials. As a result, the U.S. relationship with the source of that information, a partner in the Middle East with knowledge of the terrorist group, could be at risk.

Intelligence sharing between countries is a common practice, but also a delicate one. In these relationships, nations rely on a combination of trust between senior officials and built-in institutions that verify intelligence, said James Igoe Walsh, author of The International Politics of Intelligence Sharing and a political-science professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. By voluntarily—and seemingly spontaneously—disclosing sensitive information, Trump may have broken bonds of trust, and not just between the United States and its Middle East partner. European officials have already expressed concern over the disclosure, with one telling the Associated Press “that their country might stop sharing intelligence with the United States.”

I spoke with Walsh about the implications of sharing material provided by a U.S. partner. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Priscilla Alvarez: To start, what is an intelligence-sharing arrangement?

James Igoe Walsh: It’s when one country has intelligence that it gives to another country—that’s the basic part of it. Typically, the receiving country is going to promise not to share that [information] onward to other countries without permission.

More generally, these intelligence-sharing relationships are usually embedded in a larger bilateral relationship, which might involve alliances, military cooperation, economic cooperation, and stuff like that. It’s important to see them as part of that larger relationship as well, because it might mitigate some of the consequences when things like this happen.

Alvarez: Can you elaborate on how that larger relationship might mitigate consequences?

Walsh: We don’t know the country that shared this intelligence. We have to think about: What is that country’s interest in sharing it? They probably want to have some sort of influence over U.S. policy. Maybe not with this specific piece of intelligence, but more generally. And they may also want to secure something in return—at least implicitly—from the United States, like military aid. That country might look at this as a sort of betrayal of their intelligence-sharing agreement, which would be bad, but they may also balance that against their other interests in their overall relationship with the United States.

Alvarez: In your book, you note that there is always room for doubt in these arrangements. The providers of intelligence can’t be sure that it’ll be adequately protected. Is intelligence sharing, then, based on trust?

Walsh: No. Trust is really important, because if you can’t trust your partners not to treat the intelligence you share in some secure way, then that’s a real major cost for the sharing or the sending state. But like in other parts of social life, we can build institutions that supplement trust. In our daily lives, we might have a lease with our landlord that is, in part, based on trust, but ultimately it will be backed up by a written contract. You can’t really do that in international relations because there are no real courts, but there are ways you can structure the relationship so that each side can monitor the other more closely.

For example, often the United States provides a lot of technical assistance to its partners so that they can use technology to collect and analyze intelligence. And that’s going to improve the efficiency of the partner country’s intelligence agency, presumably. But it also might give the United States some insight on what that country is actually doing on the ground, and that might give some insight into how valuable their information is or how trustworthy it is.

Alvarez: Is a president sharing information from another source voluntarily—and without permission—with another country unprecedented?

Walsh: It’s hard to know the answer to that question, because a lot of that communication is not public information. I think what’s really surprising about Monday’s news to me is that it seems, from the reporting, that this was not gamed out in advance. It’s not like the president and his advisers said, “We can win something from Russia even though that may alienate another country.” It seems like it was just sort of a spontaneous sharing, and I think that would be very troubling to other countries because that’s so unpredictable.

Alvarez: What’s at stake if it was indeed spontaneous? Where does that put the United States with its relationships with other countries?

Walsh: Generally speaking, not in a good place. You can imagine that other countries might be a lot more wary about sharing really sensitive intelligence. They might also be wary about sharing sources and methods. If you’re a country like the United States, one thing you have to worry about is how reliable foreign intelligence is. Maybe the country that’s sharing it did a bad job collecting it, or maybe it’s shaded a little bit to influence U.S. policy. One way for the receiving country to get around that is to try to figure out the sources and methods that the sharing country used, so it can independently—to a certain degree—assess the credibility of the intelligence. How intelligence was discovered is the most sensitive information; that’s almost more sensitive than the actual intelligence itself.

Other countries may continue to share some of this intelligence with the United States, but maybe tighten up the sources and methods that they share. That leaves the United States in a bind, because they’re getting statements from foreign countries that something is true, but are limited in whether they can independently assess it.

Alvarez: The Post reports that the information was so sensitive that it was also kept from other U.S. allies and only shared with a handful of officials. Why is some information not shared with allies?

Walsh: The fundamental reason is the more countries or people that know this intelligence, the more problems it creates [if] publicized. In this context, the big concern about sharing it with Russia is that Russia could share it with its partners, like Iran or Syria, that aren’t friendly to the United States. And it might be able to figure out the country that shared it with the United States and how they shared it.

That could also be important because, depending on the sharing country involved, it might give them some insight into how that nation is collecting intelligence on Russian, Syrian, and Iranian activities.

Alvarez: Trump’s rationale is that he revealed the information to encourage Russia’s further participation in the fight against ISIS. What do you make of that?

Walsh: The best interpretation of that is perhaps it was a strategic decision by the president—“I could get more cooperation or concession from Russia if I share this intelligence with them.” But what’s surprising to me about that is it’s a pretty big decision, and so you’d think it’s not something you’d make spontaneously in the room. You probably want to talk it through with your staff and game out its implications, like the fact that you might alienate the partner that shared the intelligence with you. That’s not the way it’s being reported. It seems like it wasn’t really well-thought-through. That’s really troubling.