According to the Washington Post, President Donald Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and members of his delegation during a May 10 meeting in the Oval Office.
In a May 15 story, the Post reported that White House staffers tried to contain the damage by striking Trump’s allegedly inappropriate comments from internal memos.
So how did the Washington Post get the story?
The newspaper story cites “current and former U.S. officials” as sources. Later, the reporters offer more detail, describing one source as “a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who also worked closely with members of the Trump national security team.”
Translation: The public learned of Trump’s apparent overstep because more than one member of the U.S. intelligence community was willing to leak the information.
As a professor and director of the Applied Intelligence master’s program at Georgetown University, I study, teach and write about homeland security and law enforcement intelligence. I’m curious about why intelligence officers disclose classified information and how that affects their work.
Why whispers start
Leakers and whistleblowers often are motivated by a lack of trust in their chain of command. They denounce wrongdoing and express their dissent through leaking information to the media or advocacy groups. In my view, one example of wrongdoing that is particularly salient today is political interference in intelligence activities.
Trust is undermined when the gathering or sharing of intelligence influences politics or is influenced by politics.
Bottom-up politicization happens when members of the intelligence agencies themselves target individuals or issues for political reasons. For instance, intelligence agencies may go after political opponents to maintain or increase the level of influence they enjoy with the government.
J. Edgar Hoover was renowned for using the resources of the FBI to interfere in politics and keep his job as the head of the FBI for 48 years.
Top-down politicization happens when policymakers – all the way up to the president – spin intelligence and investigations to support their political agenda. A famous case study is the 2002 national intelligence estimate on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly pressured CIA analysts to quickly produce a report confirming the existence of WMD. Although the evidence was rather tepid, Cheney and George W. Bush used that intelligence to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Another famous example of top-down politicization comes from President Richard Nixon, who obstructed the special investigation in the Watergate scandal.
Plenty of bad blood
How does this relate to Trump’s most recent meeting with Lavrov?
This latest political drama happened in the midst of a high-profile investigation regarding possible collusion between the Trump campaign staff and the Russian government. And it comes just a week after the dismissal of FBI Director James Comey escalated the tension between the White House and intelligence agencies.
The firing of Comey rattled the FBI, spurring some agency employees to express anonymously their intention to wage a “concerted effort to respond over time in kind.”
But the bad blood goes back even further. In February, Trump accused the FBI of leaking information about the Russian investigation. And, in March, the president expressed his belief that Trump Tower was wiretapped by former President Obama with the help of the Department of Justice.
Hostility between Trump and the intelligence agencies has been heightened by a series of decisions by the White House.
First, on Jan. 31, 2017, Trump fired Sally Yates, acting attorney general, after she informed the White House several times that then National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had lied about his contacts with Russians.
Then, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigation related to the Russia meddling with the 2016 presidential elections because he omitted to disclose two meetings with the Russian ambassador.
In addition, Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, had to recuse himself from the investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 election because he was being investigated by the House Committee on Ethics for making unauthorized disclosures of classified information.
Finally, Comey was dismissed a few days after he requested more resources to accelerate the probe on Russia’s interference in the election.
These events undermine the perception of integrity of the investigative process – not just by the general public, but by intelligence officers and investigators. In this environment, it should be expected that more classified information will be disclosed and whistleblowers will come forward. And, there’s a real possibility of an intensified political tug of war in which leakers and whistleblowers deliberately undermine the White House while President Trump tries to do the same to the Russian investigation.