Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Classified Ain’t Necessarily Classy
If you have ever worked for the federal government (I have), you are more than familiar with document stamps, cover envelopes, security procedures, clearance background checks, bag checks and steely-eyed guards (often cops and soldiers). Folks elected to Congress have a different standard to secure their clearance, but it takes little more than a “stamp” to turn an ordinary communication into spy-fodder. Federal employees tend to err in favor of classifying a document when there is the slightest hint of possible national security relevance. And anyone related to any national security agency is raised with the mantra that virtually everything, other than take- out lunch orders, is classified.
Looking at the U.S. federal process of classifying information, the BBC.com (May 16th), explains the process with the help of a couple of other cited periodicals: “There are three different levels of classification…
“Top secret is the highest level, and is information the government believes could ‘reasonably... be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.’ According to The Economist, about 1.4 million people have access to these documents.
“Secret is for information which could reasonably... ‘be expected to cause serious damage.’
“Confidential applies to information which could simply ‘cause damage to the national security.’ Most military personnel have this level of clearance.
“However, there is also a way to add a second level of clearance to top secret. It is administered by the CIA, and allows only those with the codeword access to the information. The material discussed by Mr Trump with the Russians was under a codeword, sources told the Washington Post.” That is a reflection of the former “eyes-only” add-on.
So with the above in mind, we have a situation where the President of the United States self-admittedly shared information in a meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister and the Russian Ambassador to the United States. After what seemed to be a spate of initial denials from his staff, Trump tweeted that as President, he had “an absolute right” to disseminate anything he wanted and that he communicated with the Russians towards a common goal of defeating terrorism. The “leak” was purportedly specific information about an ISIS plan to use laptop bombs on commercial fights, which we believe was generated by a foreign intelligence partner under a pledge of confidentiality.
At a May 15th press briefing, General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, said “The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries including threats to civil aviation… At no time, at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.”
At second White House briefing on May 16th, after Trump admitted his communication, McMaster iterated that the president’s statements to the above Russian officials were “totally appropriate.” He denied that any underlying sources were “compromised.” But with a little “reversing engineering,” experts claim, sophisticated intelligence agencies could easily figure out where such information, of necessity, came from, perhaps down to the individual who originally sourced the information (possibly putting the lives of such informants at risk). How do you think the country that provided that intel feels about the situation? How much will foreign allied intelligence agencies trust the U.S. with additional future sensitive information? Do our allies really have any choice but to share such information with us given our military resources and power?
“The disclosure also risks harming his credibility with U.S. partners around the world ahead of his first overseas trip. The White House was already reeling from its botched handling of Trump’s decision last week to fire James Comey, the FBI director who was overseeing the Russia investigation.
“The Royal Court in Jordan said that King Abdullah II was to speak by telephone with Trump later Tuesday [5/16].
“The revelation also prompted cries of hypocrisy. Trump spent the campaign arguing that his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, should be locked up for careless handling of classified information.
“Secretary of State Rex Tillerson disputed the report. He said Trump discussed a range of subjects with the Russians, including ‘common efforts and threats regarding counter-terrorism.’ The nature of specific threats was discussed, he said, but not sources, methods or military operations.” TheRepublic.com, May 16th. But can the President be prosecuted (impeached under the notion of a “high crime” or “misdemeanor”) for this communication to representatives of a country long-held as one of our leading foes with powerful connection to the Assad regime in Syria? Simply put, if the President wishes to declassify any information, he can.
Normally, here’s how “declassification” works within the federal government: “Declassification before the agreed time - or even just downgrading its classification level - is a decision for the person who originally gave the information that level of security, their successor or supervisor. The Director of National Intelligence can downgrade or declassify an item, after consultation with the relevant heads of department.” BBC.com. But the President himself defines the entire classification system under his constitutional powers.
“Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy specialist with the Federation of American Scientists, explained…: "[The right to classify information] is an expression of presidential authority, and that means that the president and his designees decide what is classified, and they have the essentially unlimited authority to declassify at will… ‘The president defines the terms of the security clearance system and the parameters that determine who may be given access to classified information.’…
“If Mr Trump has shared highly sensitive information, he has broken a ‘golden rule,’ the BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner has said… ‘There is a golden rule in the world of espionage that when one government supplies intelligence to another it must not be passed on to a third party without permission of the original supplier,’ he said.” BBC.com
Okay, so the president did not violate the law by disseminating classified information to those Russian officials. Sure it was probably ill-advised. According to undisclosed sources, Trump’s statements were motivated by a notion of bravado to reflect how much he knew than a genuine concern for the safety of commercial air traffic. Coming during a period of severe instability based on White House actions, particularly during the heightened concerns about possible ties between the Trump administration and Russia, was it simply a reflection of bad timing and constantly contradictory statements from the White House… or something worse?
“The news reverberated around the world as countries started second-guessing their own intelligence-sharing agreements with the U.S… A senior European intelligence official told the AP his country might stop sharing information with the United States if it confirms that Trump shared classified details with Russian officials. Such sharing ‘could be a risk for our sources,’ the official said.
“The official spoke only on condition that neither he nor his country be identified, because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly… On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans alike expressed concern about the president’s disclosures. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the reports ‘deeply disturbing’ and said they could affect the willingness of U.S. allies and partners to share intelligence with the U.S.
“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the intelligence uproar a distraction from GOP priorities such as tax reform and replacing the health care law… ‘I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda,’ he told Bloomberg Business… Doug Andres, a spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, said the speaker was looking for ‘a full explanation of the facts from the administration.’”TheRepublic.com.
At least this time the information Trump shared with Russia appears to have come from an unshakable American ally: Israel, “according to three government officials with knowledge of the matter… Israeli Ambassador [to the U.S.] Ron Dermer did not confirm where the intelligence came from but said in a statement that his country ‘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.’” AOL.com, May 16th.
We’ve only begun with this new presidency. How long will the political system, particularly the Republican-controlled Congress, continue without some rather powerful efforts to stem this dysfunctional tide? So let me share this little tidbit from the May 16th New York Times: “President Trump asked the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, to shut down the federal investigation into Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo Mr. Comey wrote shortly after the meeting.” Yup, we’ve only just begun.I’m Peter Dekom, and my biggest concern with this new Trump/GOP Congressional cabal is how much of this litany damage to our political, economic, social and environmental systems is irreversible