I guess one good thing about the Trump coverage in the legacy media is that it has become a full employment policy for everyone in punditry. (Who here knows that “pundit” is a loanword from Hindi/Sanskrit? It is, look it up.)
It’s a shame, though, that so much of it is coming from either people who are completely uninformed or, worse, people who are well-informed but don’t think truth suits their purposes. One of those that has been particularly galling me is the one about “OMG Trump revealed code-word classified data to the Russians.”
If you’re not completely familiar with the idea, I wrote about the details in a story about Edward Snowden and another about Hillary Clinton’s emails, but to make it short and sweet, a code word is applied to something classified when the classified information is in a particular compartment, usually because of a particular need to protect a source or method. If you’re a Tom Clancy fan, you might remember the book The Cardinal of the Kremlin. The “Cardinal” in the title is the code name of a source very highly placed inside the upper ranks of the Soviet government; it was also the code word assigned to the compartment for people who knew the Cardinal’s true identity. That compartment was kept very small because the more people who don’t know a secret, the more people who cannot possibly leak it.
This comes to mind because there’s a scene in the book — and I don’t have it near at hand, so this is by memory — in which the president asks who “Cardinal” is, and the director of Central Intelligence replies that while the president can demand that information, the DCI would really really not like to reveal it, because basically, the president doesn’t have the need to know.
The point here is that while the president is cleared for everything as commander-in-chief, need-to-know still applies, and the CinC doesn’t actually need to know everything. In fact, it’s better that he doesn’t, and that applies to every president from George Washington on.
Now, classification authority derives from the president’s status as CinC, but a mere reference to the Constitution isn’t enough to define the rules that the intelligence community uses, so there are executive orders that establish the major details of the policy. The most current one is Executive Order 13526; that’s where things like “TOP SECRET” and the various special access programs are defined. (The Snowden article goes through this in detail, if you’re interested.)
It also establishes in no uncertain terms that all classification decisions derive from the authority of the president, and that the president has the final authority over the classification of anything, no matter what. This means that, by definition, it is impossible for the president to release something without permission.
This is by far not the first time the question has come up, either. There are several examples of President Obama leaking highly classified material, or directing that it be released. If you’re old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis — I am just barely, but I read about it later — UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson II revealed U-2 surveillance pictures proving that the Russians had indeed placed missiles in Cuba, right after the Russians denied it. Now, the quality of pictures we could get with what were then essentially undetectable U-2 overflight was as secret as anything in the U.S., but Kennedy overrode that. And yes, revealing the sources and methods had consequences. But in no case were those a crime, and neither is what Trump did.
Of course, it may have been unwise, and I have no trouble believing Trump might do something unwise with classified information: he’s new to this. But … was it unwise? I can’t say so.
I talked about this when I first tried to understand the Trump/Russia story.
The basic point is, we and the Russians were talking “at the highest levels” as they say, and Trump was trying to convince the Russians that we have a mutual interest in finding and stopping ISIS. They’ve already had one commercial flight downed by a terrorist bomb onboard, as have we, and we’ve been talking about bombs concealed in laptops for weeks. (For years, really, except it wasn’t laptops in 1988.)
So to convince the Russians, Trump says “Look, we’ve got really good intelligence with a really good source that tells us this is a real plot. You really want to get on board with this, because ISIS hates you as much as it hates us.”
This information — “we’ve got really good intelligence with a really good source” — is probably code-word information. Even more so if he said “really good source within ISIS” or “on the ground in Iraq.” But it’s still a legitimate tactic: I think the term of art in diplomacy is “putting one’s cards on the table” or “opening the kimono.” You’re offering something to prove you’re sincere and to show the risk is real.
So let’s assume that this is what really happened. What we know the mysterious anonymous source said is that Trump “revealed code-word information.” And we know that General McMaster, who has pretty much always been the definition of a straight shooter, said that the release was “wholly appropriate.” He also said that Trump didn’t know the source, so he couldn’t have revealed it. Like the “Cardinal’s” real name, that’s entirely plausible: he wouldn’t have the need to know.
Here’s the trick: all these statements can be true! Trump did reveal code-word information, and it was wholly appropriate.
The moral of this story is pretty simple: it’s entirely possible that Trump did what the anonymous source said, McMaster was telling the truth, and — pace Jim Geraghty — that there is a perfectly valid reason why Trump wanted to do it. But if you start with the assumption that Trump is a cad, a fool, and a blackguard, you’re unlikely to see that. And any news story you write is unlikely to consider that.