Opinion

Trump's sharing of intel with Russians a disaster

Phil Gurski

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the US Coast Guard Academy Commencement Ceremony in New London, Connecticut, May 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the US Coast Guard Academy Commencement Ceremony in New London, Connecticut, May 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The president of the United States is very powerful. The so-called leader of the free world has a lot of influence and a great deal of leeway in deciding what to say and do. Donald Trump is exercising this freedom to the max.

Trump elected to share a piece of intelligence with Russian officials. It had to do with Islamic State, which threatens both U.S. and Russian interests, and Canada's. In that vein, some may not see a problem with the president disclosing intelligence on a mutual enemy to a state which, although not an ally, shares a mutual desire to see the end of ISIL.

But while the president has stated he can make that decision, this does not imply he should. On the contrary, Trump's disastrous act has potentially serious implications for intelligence collection and international collaboration.

Spy agencies are not natural sharers of what they possess. The protection of how they collect intelligence is paramount. Unauthorized or careless leaks that could shed light on sources or methods lead to the loss of those sources and methods, some of which are very hard to gain and next to impossible to reproduce. The loss of such intelligence can do grave damage to national security (and endanger the lives of human sources).

In this case, it is not clear what kind of intelligence the president appears to have unilaterally decided to give the Russians, although reports suggest it was sensitive (which could refer to signals intelligence or a very delicate human source) and came from the Israelis. It is unlikely Israel agreed in advance to allow the U.S. to pass on its intelligence to Russia.

When intelligence services do agree to share information, it is always done on the principle that the recipient will not further distribute it without the express consent of the originator. This is a cardinal rule of intelligence, one that the president is either unaware or dismissive of. Trump's brazen disregard for basic intelligence practice is sure to cause officials in spy services around the world to question their sharing relationships with the U.S.

There are circumstances under which a senior official can and should make a public reference to intelligence -- say to gain public confidence for a measure. This, however is not one of them.

Some may chalk up the president's action to yet another "Donaldism." There is, however, a much more insidious implication and it speaks to the role of U.S. and allied intelligence agencies and their relationships with their clients and partners.

The atmosphere in the U.S. is already toxic between the president and his spy services: he has mocked them on several occasions and fired the head of the FBI on dubious grounds. It is very likely people working in the U.S. intelligence are shocked, dismayed and demoralized by their leader's view of them and their mandate, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that some question whether they can trust Trump with sensitive data.

There is little chance this will have a disproportionate effect on Canada's relationship with the U.S. As part of the very effective "Five Eyes" intelligence club, we gain more intelligence from our allies than we contribute. Taking a unilateral decision to stop sharing would be injurious to our interests.

Nevertheless, the heads of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment should think twice before forwarding the most sensitive intelligence with a U.S. partner whose head is unpredictable and capable of jeopardizing that intelligence. The U.S. may not miss our contribution but we need to take a stand on principle and time-honoured intelligence practice.

Phil Gurski is president and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. borealisthreatandrisk.com