President Trump tweets a defense of his intelligence-sharing with the Russians. At least six U.S. news outlets—The New York Times, Buzzfeed News, Reuters, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post—reported Monday evening that the commander-in-chief revealed highly classified information to the team of Russian officials (and employees of the Russian press agency Tass) during their May 10 meeting in the Oval Office.
The info was reportedly “code word”-level intelligence relating to purported Islamic State group plans that had been relayed to U.S. officials via an unnamed ally in the Middle East, the Washington Post first reported. It “was considered so sensitive that American officials did not share it widely within the United States government or pass it on to other allies,” The New York Times added.
Citing unnamed former U.S. officials, the Times writes: “But sharing the information without the express permission of the ally who provided it was a major breach of espionage etiquette, and could jeopardize a crucial intelligence-sharing relationship. In fact, the ally has repeatedly warned American officials that it would cut off access to such sensitive information if it were shared too widely, the former official said. In this case, the fear is that Russia will be able to determine exactly how the information was collected and could disrupt the ally’s espionage efforts.”
After the story broke Monday afternoon, the White House dispatched National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster to give reporters a short denial and a few details: the topic of the purported information was aviation-related threats common to Russia and the United States. But McMaster, in the manner you might expect from a general, insisted: “At no time…were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not publicly known…I was in the room, it didn’t happen.”
By then, the White House had already issued three statements from McMaster, SecState Rex Tillerson, and Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell, all variously denying the story’s gist, adding to the story’s alleged details — and denying things none of the outlets alleged. (Catch all three officials’ statements via a short post by Axios, here.)
As Axios notes of McMaster’s denial, “The Post did not claim sources, methods or military operations were discussed, but that Trump mentioned classified intelligence from a sensitive source.”
To be clear: POTUS can, of course, declassify almost anything he wants, as six legal scholars over at Lawfare wrote Monday evening. But, they continue in a longish post, there are many more considerations beyond that, including that “this may well be a violation of the President’s oath of office.”
Additionally, “it matters hugely, at least from an atmospheric point of view, that the people in the room were Russian and one of them was Sergey Kislyak of all people.” Find the rest of their lengthy take, here.
President Trump’s own defense: “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 on Twitter this morning.
One takeaway he’s eyeing: The leaks are coming from inside the house. “I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community,” he added in a third tweet on the topic nearly an hour later.
The story comes at an inopportune time for the White House. Trump is slated to leave Friday on his first international trip, to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy, and Belgium. (More from Brussels via our own Marcus Weisgerber, traveling today with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, a bit later.)
But before all that, Trump will be meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan today at the White House, nearly a week after greenlighting a U.S. effort to arm Kurds in Syria—a move intended to accelerate the defeat of ISIS from their stronghold in Raqqa, which could begin this summer or earlier.
About Raqqa: civilians appear to be hopping whatever semis, trucks, tractors and trailers they can to get the heck out of Raqqa. Catch video of that alleged exodus, here.
By the way, the WSJ reported last night the U.S. intends to pass along anti-tank weapons to the Syrian Kurds. Story, here.
Erdogan and many other Turkish officials have loudly opposed any move to arm the YPG, a Kurdish group with at least ideological links to the PKK, a U.S.-designated terror group. It’s hard to imagine that Monday’s revelation would change much about Erdogan’s goals today in Washington—goals which include, broadly speaking, forging a “new beginning” in U.S.-Turkish relations, NPR reported in a preview of today’s meeting. See also CNN’s lookahead, with three diplomatic targets for Ankara, here. Or U.S. News’s Paul Shinkman with his preview over here.
From Defense One
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Welcome to Tuesday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. #OTD1919: A U.S. Navy team makes the first transatlantic flight. Got tips? Email us at email@example.com. (And if you’re reading this on our website, consider subscribing. It’s free.)
NATO’s military leaders will meet in Brussels tomorrow to talk about the way ahead for Afghanistan amid a push to send more troops to there as the security situation deteriorates, Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber reports after arriving in Belgium this morning with Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As of March, there were nearly 13,500 NATO troops in Afghanistan. Those forces are largely involved in training Afghan Security Forces.
In addition to NATO troop levels in Afghanistan, other topics on the agenda include “a situational awareness briefing on the Middle East and North Africa region and pave the way for further discussions on Projecting Stability Initiatives, countering/fighting terrorism and the ongoing NATO Training and Capacity Building in Iraq,” according to an alliance statement.
The generals are also expected to talk NATO’s southern flank, an area of concern due to the increasing flow of migrants from Syria and Africa.
Per NATO, this is the 177th meeting of the Military Committee, which meets twice each year and is chaired by Czech Gen. Petr Pavel.
Who else is in attendance? Chiefs of defense from NATO members, Gen. John Nicholson, commander of Resolute Support and U.S. Forces–Afghanistan; and Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO supreme allied commander.
Tomorrow's military meeting is a precursor to next week's NATO's heads of state meeting, which President Trump is slated to attend.
As the massive global cyber attacks from late last week ebb, investigators chase clues while governments wonder how much to share. There is “weak” evidence linking the ransom-seeking malware that shut down huge swaths of the Asian economy and undermined the British medical system beginning last Friday, AP reports. “One challenge will be sharing intelligence in real time to move as quickly as the criminals — a tricky feat when some of the major nations involved, such as the U.S. and Russia, distrust each other...On the other hand, the WannaCry attack hit — and annoyed — many countries. Russia was among the hardest, and Britain among the most high-profile, and both have ‘some pretty good investigative capabilities,’” said Robert Cattanach, a former U.S. Justice Department attorney. More, here.
Ben Thompson, one of the sharpest observers of the IT market, says the world is slowly becoming less vulnerable to massive malware attacks like WannaCry, which targeted a version of Windows built in an era where Internet security was taken much less seriously, and which Microsoft had all but abandoned support. Thompson argues that the spread of cloud-based software-as-a-service is properly, if gradually, aligning security incentives. Read, here.
And ICYMI: Here’s the story of how a 22-year-old researcher spent $11 and all but brought WannaCry to a screeching halt.
See and hear from U.S. advisers in the fight against ISIS in Mosul in this video report from the BBC, working out of Patrol Base Foundry, near Mosul airport, about 5 kilometers from the heart of fighting in West Mosul.
Now take a look at the rather impressive progress Iraqi security forces have made over the past nine days in Mosul, via this comparison map and analysis from Iraq watcher Joel Wing.
Over in Syria, "the Syrian government has built a large crematorium near the notorious Saydnaya Military Prison in an effort to hide mass atrocities carried out there," Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, said Monday in a declassified briefing at the State Department. CNN: "Jones said the regime could be killing as many as 50 detainees a day at Saydnaya. In February, Amnesty International alleged that thousands of people have been hanged at the Syrian prison just 45 minutes outside the capital of Damascus in a secret crackdown on dissent."
Said Jones: The "photos underscore the depths to which the Syrian regime has gone with the support of ... Russia." But CNN notes, "He wouldn't confirm whether the US will take military action in response to the grisly discovery of the crematorium."