How to share intelligence

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Getty images/istockphoto   | Photo Credit: mauromod

The United States currently gives an impression of being at war with itself. This stems from a series of charges and countercharges levied against President Donald Trump and his advisers, including that of collusion with the Russians, who are accused of meddling with the presidential election.

Several probes have already been launched in this connection. Meanwhile, the kaleidoscopic nature of the changes taking place in the top echelons of the new administration is hardly helping matters. The peremptory actions of the President, such as the dismissal of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey, has only aggravated this situation. Almost every step taken by the new administration is leading to partisan rows. The media and intelligence agencies are far from impartial in their behaviour. Leaks from within the administration, including the White House, have also created a piquant situation. Nothing comparable to this has been seen since the Nixon years.

Unparalleled disdain

Liberal America and ‘Beltway’ Washington’s disdain for President Trump, and the manner in which he conducts his policies, is quite unparalleled. Barack Obama, Mr. Trump’s predecessor, is by contrast credited currently with many more virtues than at any time when he was in office. Forgotten is the anger against Obamacare and the Obama ‘doctrine’. He is seen as a moderate, someone wedded to maintaining equilibrium in international relations and, above all, someone at peace with the American nation and its people, in marked contrast to Trumponomics. What has led to a fractured society in the U.S. today carries a message for democracies everywhere. Democracy needs sensitive handling. One of the principal charges against members of the Trump team is that they maintained improper contact with Russian diplomats who, after Ukraine and Crimea, were regarded as international outcasts, at least from the point of view of the U.S. Contact with other foreign diplomats was acceptable, but not with the Russians, possibly a new and modified form of McCarthyism, but nevertheless the current norm. A point to consider, no doubt, is whether there is indeed something sinister in all this, or it is a case of the liberal media overreaching itself, with investigative and intelligence agencies such as the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) acting in tow. The role of Congress and the elected representatives is little in evidence.

Even after becoming President, Mr. Trump remains a ‘disruptor extraordinaire’. Disruption is today acceptable in fields such as technology and business, even regarded as essential for progress, but the same cannot be said for politics and diplomacy.

The jury is still out on his overtures towards Russia, his simultaneous diplomatic forays vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and Israel, his approach to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and Europe, his attitude towards China and the policy towards North Korea.

For the present, hence, the President appears to be under a virtual siege. Apart from Congress and Congressional committees, which constitute an essential element of the U.S. system of ‘checks and balances’, he is today confronted by teams of lawyers assigned to a kind of ‘Trump Watch’, journalists, and NGOs. These apart, there are the street protesters. Seldom has an elected President had to face a situation of this kind.

The most recent accusation levelled against the President, viz. that of leaking state secrets, surpasses anything levelled against him previously. It was the result of a leak from within the White House, and related to a meeting that Mr. Trump had with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office on May 10. The accusation is that the President revealed certain highly classified intelligence information to Mr. Lavrov.

The impression conveyed was that the President had thereby violated the strict norms that govern dissemination of secret information. The classified intelligence is said to have been provided by a West Asian ally to the U.S. and was not to be shared with anyone. It was stated to be so sensitive that U.S. officials had not shared it widely within the U.S. government, and had not passed it on to other allies. The fear expressed was that the West Asian ally would not share any sensitive information with the U.S. in future.

The facts of the case do not quite add up to what has been put out. An element of bias does seem to have crept in. It would seem that the main grouse of Washington ‘insiders’ was to the meeting effected between Mr. Trump and Mr. Lavrov, which also included the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, a meeting from which the U.S. press was excluded and to which the Russian press was privy. Mr. Kislyak’s presence was a kind of ‘red rag’ as his name had previously figured in the controversies involving Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Leaking of sensitive secret information became a useful plank to hit the President with. The secret intelligence referred to was that of advances made by the Islamic State in bomb-making, and its plans to mask the explosive devices by concealing it inside laptop computers, which could be carried on to an aircraft to launch a terrorist attack. No mention seems to have been made about the identity of the source or the mechanics of how the intelligence was obtained. Only the city from where the intelligence was obtained had been mentioned.

It is not unusual for Presidents and Prime Ministers to exchange sensitive information — including of the intelligence variety — in closed-door sessions. It is again the general practice worldwide that heads of state and government are the best judges of what they can divulge to their counterparts at such closed-door meetings.

In this case, the President was apparently expansive during his meetings with the Russian Foreign Minister. There is nothing to indicate that he went beyond ‘boasting’ about the intelligence information in the possession of the U.S. In itself, what the President revealed was hardly a crime. It is well-known that leaders at this level are far less parsimonious in parting with intelligence than are intelligence chiefs and members of the intelligence fraternity.

The Indian experience

We in India have been victims of such inadequate provision of intelligence by friendly countries, despite having elaborate arrangements for counterterrorism cooperation, an instance in point being the failure of friendly counter-intelligence agencies in 2008 to share all the information in their possession which might have prevented the November 26, 2008 terror attacks on multiple targets in Mumbai. A welcome departure from the attitude of intelligence chiefs is generally the approach of Presidents and Prime Ministers, who tend to take a more liberal view. Mr. Trump is perhaps guilty of breach of intelligence protocol. Intelligence protocol stipulates that prior approval should be obtained from the country providing the intelligence to share the classified information with a third country. Disclosure of ‘bare-bone intelligence’, short of identity and mechanics, is not an offence. That the media should have portrayed it as one of the gravest crises yet for the White House is inexplicable.

This does not absolve Mr. Trump of not being careful with the intelligence in his possession, and to which he is privy through the Presidential Daily Brief and periodic meetings with his Director of Intelligence, and the heads of intelligence and investigative agencies such as the CIA and the FBI. One such intelligence gaffe on the part of Mr. Trump was his recent disclosure to the Philippines President of the location of two nuclear submarines in the waters off the Korean Peninsula, while discussing the situation in North Korea.

Relations between President Trump and sections of society in the U.S. appear stalemated at present. The avalanche of leaks from within the government reveals an unhealthy atmosphere. Maintaining secrecy of information is important, especially where it concerns exchanges between two governments.

For democracies everywhere, there are lessons to be learnt from the present imbroglio in the U.S. The need to maintain a balance between the government, the judiciary and the legislature, the media, interest groups and various elements in society is vital. Without this, the functioning of government and institutions would become highly untenable.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 5:05:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/how-to-share-intelligence/article18701218.ece

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