Why you should care
Because this could put a true alliance at risk.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
With the White House looking like Grand Scandal Station — from Donald Trump’s intelligence sharing with Russian leaders to former FBI director James Comey’s claims that the president asked him to back off on the probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn — we sat down with OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin to discuss the latest twists and turns.
Did Trump do anything illegal in sharing classified intelligence with Russian leaders?
John McLaughlin: I’m not a lawyer, but my sense is that the president does have the authority to share and declassify whatever he wishes to declassify. The broader issue is the manner in which this information was apparently shared. In my former job, I was sometimes authorized to share information with the Russians. But before doing that, every word of it was scrubbed by intelligence agencies, carefully coordinated and narrowly defined. It was never done extemporaneously.
Could any operatives’ lives be at risk? Could it compromise operations?
McLaughlin: What’s noteworthy is that Tom Bossert, the White House official in charge of counterterrorism, apparently called at least two of the intelligence agencies to alert them to the fact that certain things had been mentioned to the Russians. That tells me that something was said that was more sensitive than Bossert cared for, and that he felt he had to alert people. But we can’t definitively say people’s lives are at risk. We can probably say that whatever evidence was collected by whatever means may now be something the Russians can figure out. And that is not good, given that we have sharply different goals in Syria and that, given their close alliance with Syria and Iran, whatever they learned, in all likelihood, would be shared with those two countries.
There’s been speculation that the compromised ally may be Israel. Please paint a picture of the fallout for the U.S. and the wronged country if we stop sharing intel with them as a result.
McLaughlin: I don’t think the countries will stop sharing intel. But they’ll share it more carefully and with a great deal of concern and conceivably hold back some things. The relationship we have with the Israelis and the four commonwealth countries are among the most intimate in the world. They give us a lot, and we give them a lot, particularly on the Middle East. The information we get from partners in that part of the world is particularly valuable because they have access to the culture, to the “street” and the politics of those societies at a deeper, more granular level. So it’s not something you ever want to lose.
Will Israel be expecting an apology during Trump’s trip to the region next week?
McLaughlin: If it was their material, I think the Israelis would expect at least some acknowledgment of it and some explanation. I think it would be too awkward to expect an apology, but they will probably be looking for an explanation of what actually happened.
How might the intelligence committees in Congress react? Does this add fodder for the collusion investigation?
McLaughlin: No one is prepared to say there is evidence of collusion. But most of the concerns on that score are based on smoke. This certainly thickens the smoke and adds to suspicion. The congressional committees are likely to be calling for everything from a briefing on what was passed to documentary evidence of what it was. And given Trump’s other comments, they’ll be looking to get tapes that may have been made of conversations with Comey, and they will also be trying to get their hands on the memo that Comey is alleged to have written about his conversations with the president. One thing that jumps out? Most of these are unforced errors — easily avoided by merely seeking some advice from people who have handled these things in the past. And Trump doesn’t seem to do that, or he’s just not getting it. Why he is not better advised is a mystery to me.
How could the disclosure accomplish something positive?
McLaughlin: Embedded in all this ugliness is the fact that we do share some interests with Russia. They have a terrorist problem, and we have a terrorist problem. Something like 2,500 Russians have gone to fight with ISIS, and they have extremism within their own borders and terrorist incidents that are well-known. In that sense, there is logic to wanting to work with them. But I can tell you from having tried this that it’s very difficult. They calculate their interests very coldly, and they are not as eager to support your interests. It can be done, but it can’t be done casually and extemporaneously. It should be done through the intelligence agencies, not through casual chitchat between the president and the foreign minister.
If Trump really told former FBI director James Comey, “I hope you can let this go,” referring to the agency’s probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, how serious is this?
McLaughlin: If true, it’s shockingly inappropriate. Anyone with five minutes’ experience in law enforcement or politics in Washington knows that you don’t interfere with an FBI investigation. That is, in many respects, the most concerning thing we’ve seen so far. It is going to raise a debate about whether this amounts to obstruction of justice, and if that turns out to be the case, then the president is in serious trouble.
Do you believe Republicans will begin speaking up in the wake of this week’s scandals?
McLaughlin: They have endured a lot so far and have not broken ranks in any significant way. But they are beginning to express impatience and frustration with the level of chaos. If it becomes apparent to them that this is beginning to affect the party’s electoral prospects in 2018, that also would weigh in their decision about how to posture themselves. I will be very surprised if we don’t start to see them distance themselves more from the president. I think the next couple days will be crucial in this respect and will tell us a lot. There will be a lot of soul-searching in that party. It made me think of something John F. Kennedy wrote in his book, Profiles in Courage: “Each man must decide for himself the course he must follow.” We are in that kind of time.
John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS.