US President Donald Trump on Tuesday said he had the right to share sensitive information with Russia, saying he acted to help Moscow in its fight against terrorism.
"As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. [White House] meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety," he said.
The president's statement came one day after news broke that he allegedly shared sensitive intelligence with Russia's foreign minister and Washington ambassador during their visit last week to the Oval Office.
Trump said he was motivated by "humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS [Daesh] & terrorism."
On Monday, the Washington Post reported that Trump revealed highly classified information about Daesh to Russian officials during a meeting on May 10 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Russia's ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.
The newspaper said the information Trump relayed had been provided by a US partner through a highly sensitive intelligence-sharing arrangement.
The partner had not given Washington permission to share the material with Moscow, and Trump's decision to do so risks the cooperation of an ally that has access to the inner workings of Daesh, the Post said, citing unnamed officials.
The newspaper and later Buzzfeed detailed what could undermine US relations with intelligence-sharing partners and sources.
TRT World's Oliver Whitfield-Miocic has this report on the alleged leak.
A detailed Twitter thread from a former defence department official from the Obama administration attempted to explain the highly-classified nature of the information if it was indeed leaked:
So, if true, this is a serious failure to protect highly sensitive sources/methods, and risks our intelligence sharing relationships. END
— Jonathan Lee (@JonathanLLee) May 15, 2017
The Post cited current and former US officials who said Trump shared details about a Daesh terror threat with Lavrov and Kislyak, who is already at the centre of a US election-related controversy. The threat was related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft.
The anonymous officials told the Post that the information Trump relayed during the May 10 meeting was considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the US government.
"It didn't happen"
"I was in the room, it didn't happen," HR McMaster, Trump's national security adviser, told reporters outside the White House late Monday.
"The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries including threats to civil aviation," McMaster said. "At no time, at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known."
He said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser for strategy, remember the meeting the same way. "Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources" in the news report, he said.
Powell said, "This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced."
But while White House officials denied that any intelligence sources or methods were discussed, they did not deny that Trump shared the information about the use of laptop computers on aircraft.
A Syria complication
The Post story does not claim that Trump revealed any specific information about how the intelligence was gathered. However, the Post reported that "Trump revealed the city in Daesh territory where the US intelligence partner detected the threat."
According to the New York Times, this information could help the Russians figure out logistical details about the US intelligence partner or its source. These details can help Russia either locate or disrupt the source, aiding its Syria strategy where both the US and Russia are on opposing sides, albeit both battling Daesh at some level.
In his conversations with the Russian officials, Trump appeared to be boasting about his knowledge of the looming threats, telling them he was briefed on "great intel every day," an official with knowledge of the exchange said, according to the Post.
Trump is scheduled to meet Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a US ally in the fight against Daesh, on Tuesday. Turkey and the US are on fragile footing after Trump announced arming the YPG, which Turkey considers a terrorist organisation because of its links to the PKK, which Ankara and Washington DC agree is a terrorist organisation.
The story will only heighten Trump's strained relations with intelligence workers and former officials, who have expressed worry about sharing classified information with a former New York business magnate who often shoots from the hip.
It's unlikely that Trump has broken any law.
A president has a wide berth to reveal classified information, but critics already have denounced Trump for having too cosy a relationship with Russia, which intelligence and military officials view as an adversary.
If true, the breach was ill-timed, coming a day after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey, who was leading an investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election.
Reported fact-chain: 1) Comey requests more $ for Russia probe 2) Trump cans Comey 3) Trump invites Russians to Oval, divulges state secrets
— Glenn Thrush (@GlennThrush) May 15, 2017
Afterwards, White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency, the newspaper said. Correspondents inside the White House tweeted excerpts from the commotion that followed in the cabinet room after McMaster's briefing.
WH comms staffers just put the TVs on super loud after we could hear yelling coming from room w/ Bannon, Spicer, Sanders
— Adrian Carrasquillo (@Carrasquillo) May 15, 2017
The CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment Monday evening.
This story is ultimately verifiable or falsifiable. There is a full transcript. Congress should demand it.
— Charlie Sykes (@SykesCharlie) May 15, 2017
Breitbart News chose to go another way with the story, blaming it on the "deep state." Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon was the founding member of the alt-right news and opinion publication.
Democrats and Republicans respond with similar dismay
Reacting to the newspaper's report, the Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin, called Trump's conduct "dangerous" and reckless," while the Republican head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, called the allegations "very, very troubling" if true.
Reaction from Capitol Hill Democrats was full-throated.
The story prompted Senator Martin Heinrich to tweet, "Protip: Don't give the Russians classified information. #Classified101."
Senator Mark Warner tweeted, "If true, this is a slap in the face to the intel community. Risking sources & methods is inexcusable, particularly with the Russians."
Senator Ron Wyden — who had just had a root canal — read reporters a statement he scrawled out in the dentist's chair after learning about the story.
"These reports, if true, are of the gravest possible concern. It could harm our national security by cutting off important sources of intelligence that protect Americans against terrorist acts," Wyden said.
Report that Trump shared highly classified intelligence with Russians is deeply disturbing. House Intel needs to be briefed immediately. pic.twitter.com/jHaMKy71am
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) May 15, 2017
Republicans were only slightly more tempered in their remarks.
"We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation's secrets is paramount," said Doug Andres, a spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan. "The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration."
Senator John McCain said, "We certainly don't want any president to leak classified information, but the president does have the right to do that."
Corker told reporters the Trump White House "has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and order."
He said he would have more to say when he knows more about the news report.
"The shame of it is there's a really good national security team in place and there are good, productive things that are under way through them and through others," Corker said. "But the chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline — it's creating an environment that I think makes — it creates a worrisome environment."
During his Oval Office meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak, Trump went off-script and began describing details about a Daesh threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft, the officials told the Post.
US officials have told Reuters that US agencies are in the process of drawing up plans to expand a ban on passengers carrying laptop computers onto US-bound flights from several countries on conflict zones due to new intelligence about how militant groups are refining techniques for installing bombs in laptops. So serious are assessments of the increased threat that Washington is considering banning passengers from several European countries, including Britain, from carrying laptops in a cabin on US-bound flights.
The United States has consulted about the intelligence with allied governments and airlines.
One source familiar with the matter told Reuters at least some of the intelligence that went into the planned laptop ban expansion came from a US commando raid on an Al Qaeda camp in Yemen in which a US special operator was killed.
The source said one of the most troubling aspects of the new intelligence was that it showed that Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had figured out how to produce sheets of explosives so thin they could be concealed in the insides of a laptop and would be very hard to detect.