Republicans, Democrats demand ‘full explanation’ on Trump sharing secrets with Russia
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US President Donald Trump is facing criticism for sharing top secret intelligence with Russian officials during a meeting in the Oval Office last week, prompting both Democrats and Republicans to demand a “full explanation”.
The Washington Post reported Monday that Trump revealed highly classified information on the plans of the Islamic State (IS) group during a May 10 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak.
Citing unnamed officials, the Post reported that the intelligence included plans by the Islamic State group to threaten airliners in a plot involving laptop computers.
The intelligence originated from a Middle Eastern ally that did not authorise the United States to pass the information on to Russia. The rules of espionage usually allow governments and intelligence agencies to have a significant say in how their information is shared.
By not respecting these protocols, the officials said, Trump’s revelation threatened the cooperation of an ally “that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State”.
“This is code-word information,” a US official familiar with the matter told the Post, referring to an intelligence classification that ranks even above top secret. Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies”.
One official with knowledge of the Oval Office meeting said Trump told Lavrov of the "great intel" he receives as president. “I have people brief me on great intel every day,” he said.
Such seemingly off-the-cuff revelations could prompt allies and sources in the field to avoid passing sensitive intelligence to the White House in the future, thereby jeopardising US operations and security.
Divulging such information could also place intelligence sources at imminent risk. The source in question, moreover, was not a US informant but one cultivated by an allied nation.
Senior Security Contributor Michael Morell says the source that says Pres. Trump gave classified information to Russians “is now at risk” pic.twitter.com/XvUwFya6WS— CBS News (@CBSNews) 16 mai 2017
While Trump did not reveal how the intelligence was gathered, he did reveal the name of the IS group-controlled city where the threat was detected. From this location Russia could likely identify the US ally who gathered the information or determine which intelligence capabilities were involved, the Post said.
Russia and the United States are both battling the Islamic State group in Syria and do share some information about the jihadists’ moves. But Russian operations in the country are largely aimed at bolstering the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, while the Trump administration launched air strikes on Assad targets following a deadly chemical attack in April and has said Assad should play "no role" in Syria's future.
Trump’s meeting with the Russian envoys was controversial from the start, as Russian photographers were allowed to take pictures while US media were barred from the Oval Office.
The White House later expressed outrage that photos of the gathering were made public after the Russian embassy posted them on Twitter.
"They tricked us," one White House official told CNN, adding: "That's the problem with the Russians – they lie."
WH furious over Russian government photos of Trump meeting with Lavrov/Kislyak. "They tricked us," an official said of Russians "They lie."— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) 11 mai 2017
Both the House and Senate intelligence committees, as well as the FBI, continue to investigate the extent of Russian attempts to influence the US presidential election. The meeting with Russian officials came the day after Trump fired the FBI director, James Comey, who was overseeing the bureau investigation.
Ambassador Kislyak has also figured prominently in the allegations of improper contact between Trump associates and Russian officials. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after not revealing the true nature of his talks last year with Kislyak while Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to recuse himself from any Russia investigations after he failed to disclose his meetings with the ambassador while being questioned under oath.
Soon after the talks, senior White House officials appeared to recognise that the discussions had taken a problematic turn, with the Post reporting that a series of calls was made to the CIA and the National Security Agency in what were likely attempts at damage control.
National Security Adviser HR McMaster was unequivocal in denying that sources had been compromised, emphasising that Trump had not revealed any "intelligence sources or methods" in his meeting with the Russians. He said that Trump and Lavrov had merely "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. Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of state (Rex Tillerson), remember the meeting the same way and have said so,” McMaster continued.
But despite the denials, the Post report sent shock waves around Washington, with Republicans joining Democrats in calls for a “full explanation” from the White House.
"We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation's secrets is paramount," said Doug Andres, spokesman for Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan.
"The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration."
This sentiment was echoed by the top-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer.
"Revealing classified information at this level is extremely dangerous and puts at risk the lives of Americans and those who gather intelligence for our country," Schumer said on Twitter.
"The president owes the intelligence community, the American people and Congress a full explanation."
"To compromise a source is something that you just don't do," the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, told reporters. "That's why we keep the information that we get from intelligence sources so close, is to prevent that from happening."
Some legal experts said the allegations involved potentially serious wrongdoing on the part of the president.
"This is the most serious charge ever made against a sitting president of the United States," said Alan Dershowitz, a prominent US legal expert and former Harvard Law professor, in an interview with CNN on Monday.
But others pointed out that the US president has a legal right to declassify information as he sees fit, so Trump’s decision to share intelligence broke no laws.
“The classification system is not based on a law,” said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy specialist with the Federation of American Scientists, in comments to the New York Times. “It 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.”
Trump himself seized on this justification on Tuesday, tweeting that he had the “absolute right” to share the information.
"As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining … to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism," he wrote in two joined tweets.
As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 16 mai 2017
...to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 16 mai 2017
Anyone else sharing sensitive intelligence, however, risks losing security clearance and his or her government position. An individual could also face up to 10 years in prison on charges related to the Espionage Act, which makes it a felony to reveal certain information on US national defence to unauthorised sources.