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Trump’s shared secrets with Russia: The fallout, and what we know so far

Trump’s disclosure of classified information to a Russian diplomat has alarmed U.S. allies and raised questions about whether he endangered intelligence gathering. Here’s a primer


The latest

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that U.S. President Donald Trump had not passed on any secrets to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting in Washington last week and that he could prove it.
  • Mr. Putin said Russia was ready to give a transcript of Mr. Trump’s May 10 meeting with Mr. Lavrov to U.S. lawmakers if that would reassure them.
  • The Trump White House has been engulfed in a new controversy after it was revealed that Mr. Trump disclosed highly classified information to Mr. Lavrov about a planned Islamic State operation.
  • Israel has yet to acknowledge claims from U.S. officials that it was the source of the information. On Wednesday, Israel’s Defence Minister and other officials sought to play down any damage to the U.S.-Israeli security relationship as Mr. Trump prepares to visit the country next week, part of his first major overseas trip as president.
  • The disclosure has raised alarm among security experts who aren’t sure if the intelligence secrets of U.S. allies like Canada are safe under a Trump presidency. The Globe’s Colin Freeze takes a deeper look at the issues involved for Canada’s spy networks.



In a photo released by the Russian Foreign Ministry, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia meets with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on May 10, 2017.

What Trump said: The basics

Who he told: On May 10, Mr. Trump shared information about a threat from the Islamic State group while playing host to Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergei Kislyak.

What Trump said: The threat related to laptops carried on airplanes, according to a senior U.S. official cited by Associated Press. The information appears to be related to the basis for a U.S. and British decision in March to bar laptops and tablets from being carried on board international flights from cities in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. U.S. and European Union officials more recently have discussed expanding the ban to include flights from Europe.

Where he got the information: A U.S. ally provided the information, the official cited by AP said, meaning it wasn’t necessarily Mr. Trump’s to share with anyone else. The New York Times reported that Israel was the provider, though administration officials wouldn’t confirm that was true. The White House said Mr. Trump wasn’t briefed on the source of the intelligence and didn’t know where it came from when he passed it along to the Russians.



Why did he do that?

The White House acknowledged Mr. Trump made the decision to share the information essentially on the spot. In fact, it was so unexpected that officials later called the National Security Agency and the CIA to inform them of the breach of protocol and try to limit any damage.

On Twitter, Mr. Trump defended his “absolute right” to share the information with Russia:


This is not the way that Mr. Trump’s predecessors have typically shared classified information with their allies. Other American leaders routinely authorized disclosing certain secrets to other countries, but typically, before disclosing intelligence to another country, there would be an evaluation of costs and benefits, close consultation with the U.S. intelligence community, and detailed consideration of how much to say and in what words so as to mitigate risks. “That way, they can take steps to protect sources and methods,” Steven Pike, a former State Department official who teaches at Syracuse University, told Associated Press.



Was it legal for him to share the information?

Probably. The system for how U.S. secrets are classified and the rules for how they’re handled derive from an executive order. That means secrets are governed by the president and not by laws passed by Congress. The president’s authority to make the classification rules comes from his constitutional powers as the commander in chief and head of the executive branch.

Typically, that has been interpreted to mean that the president has the ultimate authority to classify and to declassify information. Put another way, classified information becomes unclassified by default the moment the president chooses to disclose it.

But there are other laws that could come into play when sensitive information is disclosed to harm the U.S., according to David Pozen, who teaches national security law at Columbia Law School. These include the Espionage Act and Identities Protection Act. Still, it’s hard to imagine the president being prosecuted under those laws given that it’s his constitutional power to make national security decisions.



Why sharing the information was probably a bad idea

Compromising Canada and other allies: The fact that the secrets went to Russia, an adversary of the U.S. and many of its allies, was especially alarming. U.S. intelligence-sharing agreements include the Five Eyes program with Canada, Australia, Britain and New Zealand. These countries share vast amounts of information and promise not to spy on each other. The U.S. also shares intelligence with countries like Germany that broadly share U.S. national security goals.

Damaging trust in the U.S.: The disclosure to Russia appeared to violate an intelligence-sharing agreement that provides the U.S. critical information about threats to the nation. A breach of trust raises the possibility that U.S. friends might curtail such intelligence partnerships out of concern their secrets – and their sources and methods – could end up in the wrong hands.

Compromising U.S. intelligence-gathering: Even when intelligence is declassified, the government typically keeps secret the ways it acquired the intelligence, so it can safely collect more in the future. Mr. Trump and his aides insist he did not reveal sources and methods to the Russians, and thus didn’t put intelligence-gathering at risk. But intelligence experts say it’s not that simple: Adversaries can often look at disclosed intelligence and reverse-engineer where it came from. That raises concerns the Islamic State group might be able to identify a vulnerability that spies have been exploiting and cut it off.

Benefiting Russia: Even sharing limited amounts of intelligence about terrorist targets with Russia, in Syria for example, has been the source of major controversy in the past. And Russia’s allies and partners include Syria, Iran, China and other American rivals.



What Canada and other U.S. allies think

Even as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser insisted the Oval Office disclosure to visiting Russian diplomats was “wholly appropriate” and routine, few people outside of the White House saw it that way. Here’s how some key U.S. allies have responded.


Canada

When news of Mr. Trump’s disclosure broke, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan were in Washington dining at the State Department with their counterparts, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis. Speaking to The Canadian Press, she kept to herself her thoughts on the news; whether she’d heard anything from the Americans about it; and whether Canada might have some concerns about intelligence-sharing with the Trump administration:

You will appreciate it's a really sensitive area. I don't have information I'm at liberty to share.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, right, visits Capitol Hill in Washington with senators Patrick Leahy, left, and John McCain, middle, on May 16, 2017.



Israel

Israeli officials have declined to confirm whether they were the source of the information Mr. Trump shared, but have been quick to say counter-terrorism coordination with the United States is strong. On Twitter, Israel’s Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, defended the U.S.-Israeli security relationship:


Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, issued a similar statement, saying:

Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump.



Britain

British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday the government has confidence in its relationship with the United States. Asked at a news conference whether Mr. Trump’s disclosure had made her reluctant to share intelligence with him, she said Britain will continue regardless:

Decisions about what President Trump discusses with anybody that he has in the White House is a matter for President Trump. We continue to work with the United States and continue to share intelligence with the United States as we do with others around the world because we are all working together to deal with the threats that we face.



Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a news conference at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on May 17, 2017.

What Russia thinks

Speaking Wednesday at a news conference alongside Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow was ready to hand a transcript of Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. Lavrov over to U.S. lawmakers if that would help reassure them.

He also tried to make light of the political controversy, saying Mr. Lavrov was remiss for not passing on what he made clear he believed were non-existent secrets:

I spoke to him [Lavrov] today. I'll be forced to issue him with a reprimand because he did not share these secrets with us. Not with me, nor with representatives of Russia's intelligence services. It was very bad of him.

A day later, Mr. Lavrov weighed in at a news conference in Nicosia, saying he saw “no secrets” in the information conveyed by Mr. Trump:

As far as I can recall, maybe one month or two months earlier, the Trump administration had a laptop ban from seven Middle Eastern countries, and that it was connected directly to a terrorist threat. If you are talking about that, I can see no secrets here.



A Trump-Russia refresher

If the latest Trump-Russia imbroglio seems like one of many, it is. Here’s a refresher on some other chapters in the months-long saga and the latest developments.

Russia and the election: Mr. Trump’s connections with Moscow came under intense scrutiny during the 2016 election after e-mails were stolen from Democratic National Committee computers. U.S. intelligence agencies said the hackers were acting on the Russian government’s behalf, aiming to discredit the Democrats and help the Republican Mr. Trump win. Congressional hearings are investigating those claims and the Trump campaign team’s Russian connections.


The Flynn affair: One of the key Trump associates under scrutiny is Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser. Mr. Flynn was fired from his job in February because, according to Mr. Trump, he lied to Vice-President Mike Pence about meetings he had with the Russian ambassador. The Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation also launched a probe into Mr. Flynn’s activities.


The Comey affair: The man leading the federal probe of Mr. Trump’s Russian ties was FBI director James Comey – until Mr. Trump fired him on May 9, that is. The sudden decision, and Mr. Trump’s contradictory accounts of why he fired him, created a furor in Washington over Mr. Trump’s use of power. The story took another twist when Mr. Comey revealed a memo saying Mr. Trump asked him to scuttle the federal investigation into Mr. Flynn.



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