By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
If you accept the narrative presented by most major media about US President Donald Trump “leaking” information to Russia at a meeting, you accept these basic facts which I have traced in a previous blog.
“Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian foreign minister according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State (WAPO).”
Why did officials leak details of meeting if they wanted to protect the source?
If this is true, let’s ask a question about these “current and former US officials.” They heard that Trump had passed sensitive information during his meeting. They were aware that National Security Advisor H.R McMaster, who is considered reliable and the diametric opposite of Trump in many ways, was present. But they felt that this was of such crucial importance that they went to the press with it.
Now wait a second. The ostensible reason for going to the press was that the “current and former US officials” were worried that Trump had passed “classified” information that “jeopardized” a source. If they believed that had happened, how did going to the media, so that the information and the source would now be known to the whole world, rather than a few Russians, help? Let’s say you buy the theory that they were worried the intel would get to the Russians and that the source country of the intel had not authorized this. And they claim that the intel would be jeopardized in Russia’s hands because it might be passed to Iran?
The intel related, according to all the reports, to an ISIS plot, often said to involve laptops. By revealing this information a source inside ISIS, often called a “spy” was jeopardized and his or her “life” said to be “at risk tonight.” But If the media had never reported this, if the “current and former officials” had instead informed the FBI or CIA, then who would know about this “spy” and how would his or her life have been jeopardized. Pause for a moment and think about this. The “current and former” officials, by telling the media, made this story public. Prior to that the only people who knew were a few people in intelligence circles, allegedly in Israel, Jordan, the United States and then Russia. That’s 20 to 50 people. Maybe several hundred.
But the day the media began publishing stories, billions of people now knew. So how did that help protect the source, if that was the agenda of the “current and former” officials? Weren’t there better avenues for them to work to protect the source and still show the administration it had made a serious error?
Trump’s conflict with his own intelligence community, or the “deep state”
Let’s say the “current and former” officials agenda was not to protect the source, but rather to show that Trump is an unreliable President. That’s a reasonable feeling, one that is common in circles in the US intelligence and diplomatic community, many of whom loathe Trump. They’ve been called a “deep state.” That doesn’t mean they are wrong, they were right about Michael Flynn. A piece at CNBC called this latest leak about Trump’s alleged leaks, a “coup attempt.” That’s exaggerated. It’s an attempt to raise an alarm about Trump and his handling of intelligence. However, last year Donald Trump was accused of not even listening to his CIA briefings. So how can Trump both not listen to intelligence reports and be giving “top secret codeword information”?
The larger story is that Trump is at war with his own intelligence community. In February former NSA intelligence analyst John Schindler tweeted that the intelligence community was incensed, one man told Schindler that “he [Trump] will die in jail.” If you accept that this is part of the picture, then it means that the “current and former” officials who told the New York Times and Washington Post about the “leak” are part of the larger internal conflict with Trump, one that thinks he is unfit to be President or have access to sensitive material. This is the same community that was concerned he wasn’t listening to briefings, now they say he knows too much? This contrasts with reports that he doesn’t even read reports unless he is mentioned. This dovetails with the NYT claim “Mr. Trump discussed the contents of the intelligence, not the sources and methods used to collect it.” H.R McMaster said the same basically.
What really happened?
If you follow recent reports it turns out Israel’s head of Military intelligence is now in Washington to discuss issues with the US administration. At the same time reports claim the source was actually a Jordanian asset in Raqqa. The story that this source provided data on laptop plots is old news.
So the “current and former” officials only provided a half-truth story to media. They didn’t want to endanger any real sources, so they told a story about Trump passing classified intelligence to the Russians but then made sure that when the actual details about the contents of that intelligence came out, it would relate to old intelligence. This leaves confusion in Israel and in Jordan. There is no evidence that passing details about a “spy” in Raqqa to Russia would compromise the “spy”, even if it was passed to Iran, Iran is at war with ISIS. So what was compromised? The current and former officials are seeking to protect the intelligence community and sources while undermining Trump. It wouldn’t help to undermine their own intelligence community or alleged sources in Raqqa. When Trump leaves office the intelligence community will want strong relations in Jordan and Israel, burning their alleged agents doesn’t help anyone. Intelligence communities see the long game, they are the “swords around the throne,” the occupant of the throne comes and goes but the state remains. They don’t act impulsively. But that doesn’t mean they don’t act to protect their interests.
Why doesn’t the media and public understand this?
Most readers and most journalists have no knowledge of how the intelligence community operated. Those who do have some knowledge tend to be easily misled by the intelligence community which uses journalists as assets, while the journalists themselves think they are getting juicy information. In fact they are being spoon-fed to feed an agenda. They don’t get “secrets”, they get exactly what their sources want them to have. They don’t even really get “leaks,” they get the purposeful leaks to manipulate them to create stories and launder information.
Journalists pepper their stories with what seem like inside-dope, using terms like SIGINT or HUMINT, as if they themselves are running agents in Raqqa. They talk about “spies” when they don’t mean spies, and agents when they don’t mean agents. They exaggerate their stories and write about spies being “in danger,” when no one is in danger and their is no evidence of that danger. Readers are as oblivious as the actors in Burn After Reading.
The whole story is a bit like Otto’s “It’s an XK Red 27 technique” in A Fish Called Wanda. Fancy words but the real story is hidden. So when commentators write long articles about “Trump endangered agents” they are building castles of sand, huge allegations behind very scant evidence.
The real story is that Trump met the Russian foreign minister. He passed along some intelligence information. That specific information may not have compromised anything. But current and former officials felt it could be used to show that Trump was unreliable in the broader sense and even in the specific sense that he passed on things they believed he shouldn’t have. A story was created relating to laptops and Israel and Raqqa, that was only a half-truth. Now that the story has run its course, the current and former officials who started it all have walked back into the shadows to re-emerge when the time is right.