by Mitchell Plitnick
When the history of this chaotic period is written, people will doubtless be amazed that, not even four months into his presidency, Donald Trump could have made so many mistakes, done so much wrong, and acted in such legally questionable ways.
It may well be, too, that historians will look back at May 16, 2017 as the day that marked the beginning of the final disgrace of Trump’s presidency. With the revelation that recently dismissed FBI Director James Comey had allegedly recorded and sent to FBI colleagues a memo detailing Trump’s attempt to pressure him into dropping the FBI’s investigation into former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and Trump’s Russia ties, other matters of grave importance have not gotten the attention they deserve.
Only a day before the Comey memo revelation, in an Oval Office meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister, Trump reportedly revealed highly classified intelligence regarding a planned Islamic State terrorist attack against the United States. The information that Trump divulged had apparently not been shared with some of the closest U.S. allies and was “code-worded” information, a particularly high level of classification.
The next morning, it emerged that the information had come from Israel.
Although the Comey memo scandal may well turn out to be what brings Trump down, this breach of trust may have had more lasting effect than any of Trump’s other numerous misadventures. It was an unprecedented betrayal of Israel’s confidence. Ironically, Trump has now done what even Barack Obama’s biggest detractors never accused him of: seriously compromised Israel’s security relationship with the United States.
It is difficult to overstate the damage Trump has done to both Israel and the United States. Israeli intelligence officials were already highly worried about Trump’s poor judgment and apparently close relationship with Russia. They had expressed concern that intelligence they shared with the US could end up getting to Iran through Moscow. Now, their fears have been magnified greatly.
On the professional level, Israeli and American intelligence officers will still have the relationships they’ve had before. The mutual respect and personal connections will not be affected. But at the broader level, Israel will, by necessity, think twice about sharing the most highly classified intelligence. So, for that matter, will every other US ally, even the closest ones like the UK and Australia.
But for Israel, it will be of a different caliber. Although all US allies will have deep concerns, Israel sees its intelligence as potentially going to a country it sees as a deadly enemy and a material threat. That is a different level of concern than Great Britain, for example, is going to have.
How Much Damage Did Trump Do?
When Jonathan Pollard was caught spying for Israel, it caused what was, until now, the single greatest rupture in the history of the US-Israel relationship. To this day, the incident influences the thinking of many diplomats and intelligence officials in the United States.
Trump’s actions are not going to have quite the same significance in the long term. No one seriously believes that Trump’s actions here are typical of US leaders. Israelis surely understand that when Trump is gone, the risk of anything like this happening again goes with him.
But in the short term, the effects could be dramatic, and they could still have long-term ramifications. Trump has endangered the life of an Israeli spy intentionally planted inside the Islamic State, who was, apparently, the source of the information Trump leaked. That is no small matter. It could not only close a delicate pipeline that is difficult to establish, but it will make it much more difficult for Israel, or anyone else, to find spies who will take on such jobs. It’s one thing to perform dangerous espionage, quite another when your own allies greatly elevate the risk you are taking.
Additionally, Trump’s careless divulgence will cause Israel to be less forthcoming with information. Ultimately, intelligence has to be brought to the head of the state. Israeli operatives may respect and trust their American counterparts. But if they cannot trust the discretion of the president, they will need to be careful about what intelligence they share. They cannot expect American operatives to conceal crucial intelligence from the White House.
Neither the US nor Israel wants to see their intelligence cooperation diminished. But it may now be inevitable. That will mean the US will increase its dependence on other sources, which tend to be less trustworthy and reliable than Israeli ones. It is, in fact, this reliability and trust that is the basis for the US-Israel “special relationship,” as I have explained extensively over the years.
Although those conditions will be restored when Trump is gone, things can change in the meantime. Israel will need to find ways to act on its own and, potentially, with other allies. The United States will need to find other ways to gather reliable intelligence. Quite possibly, neither path will yield much before a new administration restores the status quo ante. But once new practices and pipelines are established, they could have significant staying power.
Meanwhile, the US will be flailing, with Israel and other allies guarding classified information more closely. The breach of trust here is enormous, and puts the US and its allies at grave risk. The Islamic State and other groups have been able to successfully execute many attacks all over the world over the years. With diminished coordination between global powers, they can do even more. This was always a concern with Trump, but until now, the concern had been speculative. Now it is hard as stone.
A Crisis of Trust, Internal and External
As the world’s major military superpower, the United States is, in many ways, the fulcrum of the global intelligence network. That network is by far the most important defense we all have against terrorist attacks. Trump has damaged that network in a key way.
Israel is far from alone in worrying about what will happen with their intelligence when it gets to the White House. The concern will be quite deep in Europe, where Russia is seen as a much more imminent threat.
But it’s not only the clumsiness of the president that is at issue here. The leak of Trump’s meeting to the press is also another result of Trump’s alienation of the intelligence community and other executive branch officials. Although The Washington Post kept its sources understandably anonymous, some high-ranking officials clearly see the need to raise an alarm.
Trump has been feuding with the intelligence community since before he even took office, and the FBI has not taken kindly to his firing of James Comey. Although this ongoing tension may or may not have had anything to do with the whistle blowing of Trump’s Russia meeting, it does add another layer of concern for our allies.
Shocking though the revelation of Trump’s meeting may have been, it was not entirely surprising. For months, there have been reports of US intelligence officials warning their Israeli counterparts of Trump’s untrustworthiness. That, in and of itself, is remarkable. Career federal agents expressing to foreign colleagues that the president of the United States cannot be trusted should be unthinkable.
As with so much in the first four months of the Trump administration, however, the unthinkable has come to pass.
Photo of Donald Trump by Michael Vadon via Flickr.