Analyzing the Trump/Russia Intelligence Story
At 5:01 PM, right on time for the evening news stories, the Washington Post ran a story saying that President Trump revealed "highly classified information to the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador." (Also see Rick Moran's story earlier today.)
President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.
The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said.
The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said Trump’s decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State. After Trump’s meeting, senior White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency.
Predictably, this was all the news on the 6 PM news shows.
Now, I've gotten to be pretty cynical about the legacy media, and even more so in the last year. If you're following us on Hot Mic (and if you're not, why not?), then you will have seen me share the Circa story "What a breathless media got wrong about Trump, Comey and Russia this week." It's a list of 23 items. Just in the last week. I feel entitled to be cynical.
So, let's have a little analytical look at the story.
First of all, every U.S. person in the room denies it, specifically saying no "sources and methods" were disclosed. Remember that, it's important.
Apparently, the Trump people did report to the NSA and CIA what they talked about with the Russians, and that some of it was highly classified. Following that, the story was leaked by "current and former U.S. officials," speaking anonymously, of course.
One thing we know -- since we know exactly who was in the meeting -- is that these "current and former officials" were not in the meeting. The second thing we know is that -- well, let's work backward a bit. "Current officials" work for the current administration. "Former officials" must have worked for some previous administration. Those would be the Obama administration, the Bush administration, the Clinton administration, and the previous Bush administration. Of course, of that list, only Obama administration officials are likely to still be cleared for anything like this, so it's a fair guess "former officials" means "former Obama administration officials."
So, rewriting the lede with this, we have: "President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, as reported by unnamed sources who are current officials, or who were Obama administration officials, and who were not present at the meeting."
Let's go further. Later in the story, it's reported:
Trump went on to discuss aspects of the threat that the United States learned only through the espionage capabilities of a key partner. He did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering method, but he described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat.
Okay, remember the emphasized part, and let's move to the next paragraph:
The Washington Post is withholding most plot details, including the name of the city, at the urging of officials who warned that revealing them would jeopardize important intelligence capabilities.
So, now what we know is that these anonymous sources were so alarmed about what Trump told the Russians that they immediately got in touch with Washington Post reporters and ... revealed the same information to them?
Okay, so now I'm getting a little bit suspicious.
So, can we put this all together in a way that makes sense? Imagine if the conversation went something like this:
TRUMP: We think the laptop restrictions are very important. We have very good, really great, trustworthy intelligence that ISIS is preparing an attack like this.
Okay, that is going to be pretty sensitive.
LIVROV: We don't buy it.
TRUMP: We have good sources within the city of [let's say Bagdad].
LIVROV: No kidding? How'd you get those?
TRUMP: We have great intelligence. I'm telling you it's yoooge how great it is.
Of course, I don't know this is what really happened, and God knows I can see Trump slipping on something like this -- although, frankly, while the president by definition has clearance to see anything, he doesn't have any obvious "need to know" for the details.
On the other hand, this looks like one of those classic WaPo snipe hunts: someone anonymously, breathlessly, tells a story to a reporter; the reporter runs with it solely on the basis of these anonymous and potentially untrustworthy sources. The reporter gets responses from the usual suspects. Then it's denied by multiple sources on the record.
So I'm not saying it's certainly nothing. I'm just saying, given the press's record for the last six months, it would probably pay not to buy the story too readily.