Unusually, Donald Trump wasn’t lying when he angrily tweeted that he had “absolutely the right” to give Russian officials highly classified information about Islamic State sourced from Israeli intelligence in an Oval Office meeting. The President, as he or she should, has very broad powers of declassification. Of course, by confirming The Washington Post story about relaying secret intelligence to the Russians, Trump made a fool of his own staff who had denied the story, especially his current National Security Advisor HR Macmaster, who said: “The story that came out tonight as reported is false. I was in the room. It didn’t happen.”
Yeah, not quite.
By the way, there was a minor kerfuffle over that meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister and his Washington representative because only Russian media were allowed to film it, with concerns expressed that Russian media had been allowed into the Oval Office. Presumably the concern was that they could have somehow left bugging devices there, a concern that has clearly been put to rest. You don’t need bugging devices when Donald Trump simply tells the Russians secret information anyway.
Why did Trump give the Russians Israeli intelligence that he shouldn’t have? It was a “spur of the moment decision”, according to McMaster. That’s another way of saying what other, more anonymous officials, have said, which is that Trump “went off script”. More likely, it was Trump indulging in something he regularly does, boasting. “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” he told the Russians. Then proceeded to furnish them with an example.
But Trump is hardly unique in revealing top secret information for shits and giggles. Recall then-CIA head David Petraeus revealed classified information to his biographer, Paula Broadwell, with whom he’d been having an extramarital affair. Petraeus’ predecessor Leon Panetta also revealed secret information about the killing of Osama Bin Laden to the producer of the propaganda film Zero Dark Thirty and the CIA provided extensive access to agents who provided additional information about the operation.
No action ever resulted from Zero Dark Thirty leaks. And Petraeus received a slap on the wrist; the foreign policy establishment has been trying to rehabilitate him ever since.
Obama’s administration did go after other leakers, however. In fact, it conducted a war against whistleblowers. Chelsea Manning, who is released today US time, was jailed for revealing US war crimes. CIA officer John Kiriakou served two years in jail for revealing the CIA’s torture program — still the only person to face any legal retribution in relation to that program. Another CIA officer, James Sterling, was jailed for revealing details of a failed Clinton-era operation against Iran.
Trump, who wants journalists who report what leakers tell them jailed and who demanded FBI director James Comey investigate White House leaks rather than his own connections with the Putin regime, promises to be no different. Comey should “consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information,” Trump told the then-FBI director, in the same now-infamous meeting where he demanded fealty from Comey and asked him to interfere in the Russian investigation to kill it off.
The lesson — you can leak anything you like, for any reason you like, if you’re an insider — to impress your Russian handlers, to impress your girlfriend, to impress Hollywood. But leak to reveal criminal behaviour or incompetence by the US government, and you go to jail.
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