Hot and Cold Running Sources and Methods Outrage

Let’s stipulate that Donald Trump is an incompetent president. Let’s stipulate that his fondness for the Russians exhibits at least naiveté about their intentions, if not out and out compromise. Let’s agree that when he fucks up, it is fair game to scream about it as a way to limit his power. Let’s acknowledge ruefully, again, that the man who got elected heckling “Lock her up!” continues to engage in far more egregious mistreatment of classified information than an email server.

But it’s worth looking at one paragraph in the WaPo story on how Donald Trump shared code word intelligence with the two Russian Sergeys, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the omnipresent Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak last week.

First, some background.

The whole point of the story, which is sourced to “current and former U.S. officials,” just one of whom is described as a former intelligence official (meaning the others could be members of Congress), is that Trump’s actions are particularly egregious because he revealed the city from which ISIS was allegedly plotting a laptop attack on US planes that has led US Homeland Security to consider ineffective bans on laptops in passenger areas of planes.

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. [my emphasis]

Revealing the city, these US officials sharing the information anonymously because of “the sensitivity of the subject” explain, might help ID the US ally or capability involved in revealing this laptop threat.

The identification of the location was seen as particularly problematic, officials said, because Russia could use that detail to help identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involved. Officials said the capability could be useful for other purposes, possibly providing intelligence on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow would be keenly interested in identifying that source and perhaps disrupting it.

Hmmm. How many cities does ISIS still hold…?

The other problem with sharing this information is that it is not ours to share. This ally gets very frustrated when it discovers we shared information that it hasn’t permitted us to share.

At a more fundamental level, the information wasn’t the United States’ to provide to others. Under the rules of espionage, governments — and even individual agencies — are given significant control over whether and how the information they gather is disseminated, even after it has been shared. Violating that practice undercuts trust considered essential to sharing secrets.

[snip]

At a more fundamental level, the information wasn’t the United States’ to provide to others. Under the rules of espionage, governments — and even individual agencies — are given significant control over whether and how the information they gather is disseminated, even after it has been shared. Violating that practice undercuts trust considered essential to sharing secrets.

The officials declined to identify the ally but said it has previously voiced frustration with Washington’s inability to safeguard sensitive information related to Iraq and Syria.

“If that partner learned we’d given this to Russia without their knowledge or asking first, that is a blow to that relationship,” the U.S. official said.

So: bad to share because this ally gets to veto any sharing of this information, and “if that partner learned we’d given this to Russia without their knowledge or asking first, that is a blow to that relationship.” And especially bad to share the city (even though there can’t be many possibilities) because that would make it easier to figure out the underlying sources and methods.

This stuff is so sensitive, the WaPo explains, that if anyone else were to share it (with an adversary, they caveat), it’d be illegal.

For almost anyone in government, discussing such matters with an adversary would be illegal.

You with me so far? Sharing bad without okay of frustrated ally, sharing location especially bad, illegal if you’re not the President.

Okay. Now read this paragraph:

The 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 multiple people learned of this event, and went out and leaked it (which is illegal to do for most anyone besides the President, the WaPo helpfully notes), not just with the WaPo’s two reporters, but with reporters from Buzzfeed, NYT, WSJ, and more. They leaked it to reporters who they presumably knew would then report it, alerting the frustrated ally that Trump had shared the information, which is a blow to that relationship, and also alerting the frustrated ally that they then proceeded to go leak it more.

I’m confused, is that a blow to that relationship too, leaking the sharing so it can be revealed? Or did, say, the Saudis call up a bunch of members of Congress and former spooks and permit them to leak this to the press so Donald and his close relationship with the Russians can be undermined?

And these sources who are outraged that Trump shared the city where our frustrated ally that shouldn’t learn we’re leaking it without its permission learned of the plot? These sources shared plot details, including the name of the city, with journalists whose job it is to publish stuff like this, though the journalists didn’t share it with us or the Russians.

Now, I’ll grant you, WaPo’s reporters aren’t an adversary (depending on who you ask), though neither are they tasked with keeping a nation that has already lost a plane to ISIS safe. WaPo’s reporters aren’t fighting for power in Syria like Russia (and our frustrated ally), so they can’t personally use this information for advantage there.

So, yeah, it’s different. But these very outraged sources are still sharing the information that it is so outrageous to share.

Me? I’m hoping all this sharing and leaking about sharing will reveal what the underlying threat really is supposed to be. Because some of our frustrated allies have a habit of exaggerating threats so we implement stupid transportation policies and grow ever more reliant on their intelligence that they seem to keep sharing even though it seems to keep getting leaked.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

30 replies
  1. Mayl_ says:

    Something doesn’t sit right about that WaPo story since it broke last night. It doesn’t take an Arabic Linguist to play the “process of elimination” logic games and figure out what city is mentioned.

  2. trevanion says:

    Very very good. The “outraged sources” behind this latest batch of caterwauling are as much an element of the ongoing national weirdness as the putrid dumbassery you identified in the first paragraph.

  3. scribe says:

    the point of this latest exercise is that the Establishment, against which The Donalt ran, is continuing to give him the Jesse Ventura treatment.  You’ll recall, Ventura ran and won as an independent candidate for governor of Minn. promising to shake things up in a populist way, only to have the Democrats and Republicans lay down their fights against each other to gang up on him.

    Too many people have been making too much money in DC and from DC, and too many people have had too much status, for them to allow the Donalt to shake things up at all.  The DC crowd likes the Status Quo and will do anything to maintain it.

     

    And, if you think the WaPo is not an adversary [at least of Trump], you haven’t read their editorial pages and their reporting, the latter being a textbook example of “slant”.  You don’t have to like Donald to recognize it.

  4. Anne says:

    This has “okay, so if you weren’t sure before, does this convince you that Donald Trump is not fit to hold the office?” written all over it – or at least it seems so to me.  What is disheartening and infuriating is that this looks to be just one more event the reactions to which are already being  chalked up to which side of the aisle someone sits on.  And so, we then are left to await the next assault on whatever’s left of the institutional integrity that’s supposed to hold the democracy together.  It seems we are not only finding out that Trump is worse than we ever imagined, but that those who are supposed to serve as checks and balances are more or less confirming that they are not exactly shining lights of principled purpose themselves.  And may not even be capable of it.

    And now we’re going to send him overseas, where he is likely to be met with loud and large protests, leading to one of his triggers: being compared unfavorably to his predecessor.  I shudder to think what fresh hell awaits as his ego makes him say or do something orders of magnitude worse than what we have seen so far.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Trump thinks it’s his right to share whatever information he has with whomever he wants to share it, for any reason.  Unlike Michael Corleone, it’s always personal for Trump. That’s inherent owing to his overwhelming narcissism. But like Corleone, it’s also always strictly business, his own, not the public’s.

    In that regard, Trump doesn’t know the difference between illegal and stupid [information sharing], and couldn’t care less.  Laws he considers rules to evade, like a game of dodge ’em.  Stupid is something he thinks he’s incapable of being, which is his first and greatest stupidity.

    And the idea of favoring a Russian photojournalist-cum-spy while excluding the American press from a meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador?  I don’t think Donaldo thought past giving the American press a thumb in the eye.  That there might be other implications, starting with the crass impropriety of it, well, that’s Donald.  But instead of leaving it there, Trump should face a growing chorus of criticism and for prompt change.  Not just from an uncomfortable establishment, whose apple carts Trump is tumbling, but from average Americans, whose futures Trump is stealing.

    • jonf says:

      Just two things I heard elsewhere. First the President has a right to declassify information whenever he likes. So under that reasoning anyone is thereafter able to talk about it. WaPo held some of it back. But obviously the people who reported it to WaPo did not hold any of it back,  and presumably they cannot be prosecuted for revealing classified information, since it was at that point, well, no longer classified. After all the Russians had it.  So The Donald did not violate the law on that score, since he makes the law. Nevertheless, he undoubtedly pissed off whomever gave us the information and that could have blowback in the future and, who knows, perhaps expose those who gave us the information to physical harm. The question is then do we give a shit? Guess not, who needs them anyway, amirite? Besides he didn’t give them methods and sources they say, so the Ruskies have to figure it out for themselves.

      .

      Second issue is did this disclosure violate his oath of office? I suppose one could say you have now endangered the nation since others will not trust us anymore, or less, I guess. And that could lead to attacks on us from places where our allies no longer provide information, since this puts them in danger of life and limb when The Donald opens his mouth. This is likely difficult to prove. But it does put a point on this Idiot’s leadership.

      .

      In passing I understand that the meeting in the Oval Office was a request of his friend Putin. And Trump figured he didn’t want our press in there because, well, Comey. Anyhow, Obama never allowed them in the Oval Office. Why do I feel like we are out of control?

      .

       

       

       

       

      • seedeevee says:

        “Why do I feel like we are out of control?”

         

        The propaganda is doing its job.

  6. makomk says:

    Wow, good catch! Yet ultimately, I doubt the vast majority of people will ever realize this. As far as they’re concerned the anonymous sources’ claims will be simple, indisputable fact untainted by hypocrisy, political objectives or untrustworthiness  and Trump will be the only one who leaked classified information here. That’s almost always what happens with anonymous sources that support the Trump-Russia narrative and with inconvenient evidence that might distract from or discredit any part of it. Simply how the press and the public consensus works.

    • Jon says:

      I appreciate the point that there are multiple players with varying motives. Still a bit confused…

      Tell me if I get the implication correct: Israel is in the habit of exaggerating threats from Islamic extremists, in the interest of aligning US/Israeli policies. Moreover, in this particular case, after Trump made the blunder of blabbing to the Sergeys, Israel itself leaked the same info to the WaPo and others, this in an attempt to undermine Trump because he’s cozy with the Russians. Is that the correct reading?

  7. Peterr says:

    Or did, say, the Saudis call up a bunch of members of Congress and former spooks and permit them to leak this to the press so Donald and his close relationship with the Russians can be undermined?

    Actually, this makes a lot of sense. It not only has the possibility of undermining the Trump/Russia relationship, but specifically attacks Donald Trump personally. It opens him up to public ridicule, reveals him publicly to be a lightweight in the high stakes world of modern diplomatic relations and warfare, and punishes him for breaking the word of the US government by unilaterally revealing information that was not his to reveal.

    From the standpoint of this other nation, this is probably the most brutal way they can get Trump’s attention and force him to be careful with intelligence they provide to the US — save for cutting off information sharing entirely.

  8. lefty665 says:

    Thank you Marcy for being rational in a sea of hysteria.

    Confidential sources have published that there is a major U.S. city, the nameless seat of government, where many people have set their hair on fire and are plotting to spread the conflagration to every corner of the country.

    If it is the Saudis could the city be Riyadh? My guess was Israeli intel.  Maybe we need a special edition of Clue. It could be the Emir or a Likudnik with a laptop bomb in the 737.

    Cooperating with the Russians in areas where we have common interests, as in keeping things that go bang off of commercial flights, is a good thing.  Disclosing intelligence to feed narcissism not so much. In this case maybe it was a twofer.

     

    • harpie says:

      I was also going to mention Zakharova’s Foreign Ministry spin, as related in the NYT:
      Donald Trump Defends Sharing Intelligence With Russia

      Also on Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry denied that Mr. Trump had given classified information to Russian officials — and denigrated American news reports of the disclosure as “fake.” [more…] 

  9. jdmckay says:

    To me though, larger issue is DT’s glaring… in your face, non-ending hypocrisy. From “lock her up”, to HC reform (DT: “You’re going to love it”, but nothing more then tax cuts to u know who), absurd statement he has no financial ties to Russia, except (blah blah blah), gutting already weak environmental protects…

    Our media has sucked for a long time. Articles on Politico recently of Bannon collaborating with Fox/Ailes to go after Fox “enemies”, Drudge, Breibart etc: NYT, WP and few others still best we have.

    People are scared of Trump. As bad as GWB was, this guy’s worse. Given massive challenges both in US and abroad long neglected, this guy really scares the shit out of me.

    So I think on this issue, media has become hyper sensitive to DT’s constant soap opera. Trump still broke rules on this one. Notion he can somehow be the “decider” of what’s right, moral and sit in judgment has become 3rd worldly. AFAIC, as long as this guy sits in the oval office US, with all it’s influence and power, is an utterly rudderless ship.

    I give WP a pass on this one, hope they keep nipping at his heels until he leaves or gets impeached.

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The meme about sources and methods, which the president could also declassify and share if he chose to do so, intentionally distracts from the content Donaldo shared with his Russian friends.  Not disclosing one has no direct bearing on the consequences of disclosing the other.

    As for appearances, Donaldo made himself look like a Russian puppet.  No doubt that’s what made Putin’s foreign minister behave so arrogantly in front of the American press.  Lord knows how he and his ambassador behaved just among friends. Now we know how the Brits feel when America comes calling.

  11. Annia says:

    Perhaps the intel community leaked the circumstances because the Russians had the info, possibly on tape, and the Trump administration was keeping the disclosure info and even the presence of Kislyak from the public.  So it could be ‘Kompromat’, leverage for the Russians.  The IC public leaks could be preventing, for want to a better word, blackmail.

  12. Tom says:

    I suppose that instead of leaking, the folks who knew about this, and wanted to blow the whistle, should have followed protocol; which in this case, since the executive branch was at least aware, if not approving, would have meant going to Congress.

    • harpie says:

      Tempers Flare and Confusion Swirls at Rattled White House

      […] In private, three administration officials conceded that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling — and honest — defense of the president: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of printed briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would do harm to United States allies.

       
       

  13. greengiant says:

    If there are no mirrors in the hall,  then someone who thought they were working for,  pick a name,  just found out they were working for Israel.  Sources can be burned in may different ways,  doh.

  14. seedeevee says:

    “Let’s stipulate that his fondness for the Russians exhibits at least naiveté about their intentions, if not out and out compromise.”

     

    You missed giving Louise Mensch a byline for this article.

  15. Kim Hanson says:

    While your point about the city name is interesting, didn’t this have to be leaked in oder to immunize it from being used by Russians to blackmail Trump?

     

  16. makomk says:

    Of course, ABC had to go one better and publish a bunch of details about the supposed covert source in ISIS that supplied this information which go far beyond anything I’ve seen anyone claim that Donald Trump let slip – in an article about how said source’s life is endangered by by the release of information that might help identify them. What is even going on anymore?

  17. Les says:

    They may have been referring to locations where ISIS has a significant presence, such as the Sinia, Saudi Arabia, or other.   A laptop computer on a passenger jet from a city in which ISIS holds.  I would’ve originally guessed the plot originated in Egypt or Saudi Arabia.  They say it’s Israel.

  18. greengiant says:

    Reports now for the past two weeks that agents were exfiltrated from ISIS deir Eizzor  Syria.

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