Days before Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, an Israeli journalist reported that US intelligence officials had issued a warning to their Israeli counterparts: Be wary of sharing intelligence with the incoming administration, for it is unclear what ties the new president may have with the Russian Federation and if that information might even find its way to Iran.
Similar reports came out shortly after about potential problems with England, Australia and other countries sharing intelligence with the US, and their numbers have only increased since Trump’s heated telephone call Thursday with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Might Trump leak Israeli and other allied intelligence to Russia in light of his continued unusually pro-Russia attitude? Might this concern have allies like Israel hold back from sharing intelligence with the US that they would have shared when it was business as usual? The Jerusalem Post surveyed a number of officials on both sides of the Atlantic on the issue.
It was difficult to get Israeli officials to directly address the issue due to the sensitivity of the US-Israeli relationship.
The Prime Minister’s Office, which is the only public point of reference for the Mossad, and which has no spokesperson, refused to comment.
One top former Israeli official who was willing to talk was former national security adviser Uzi Arad.
He said, “It is ridiculous to say that Trump would” purposely share Israeli secrets with Russia, and “Anyone who says that is politicized.”
Giving an overview of the background to the report he noted: “First, the president is unusually colorful; second, the US intelligence community is politicized; third, Russian intervention in the US election was unprecedented; and fourth, there were big accusations against both presidential candidates.”
He said that the report itself was most likely “disinformation by politicized players – which doesn’t mean that there aren’t wrinkles to sort out.”
Arad pointed out that “every nation considers many possibilities” when sharing intelligence with another country and that “the more people share, the more their intelligence can be misdirected.”
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He added that, “just because of better relations with Russia” the idea that a Trump administration would share information with Russia that would find its way to Iran “is a long shot.”
Further, the former National Security Council chief said “Russia could penetrate US intelligence” using its own strong spying tactics, without the need for authorized leaking by Trump.
Giving the Israeli perspective on intelligence sharing, Arad said, “We also had rotten apples, others do too, and you factor that in” when deciding whether to share intelligence, even with an ally.
In other words, Arad viewed Russia gaining intelligence that Israel shared with the US, through its regular attempts at turning US spies into double- agents, as a more credible threat than authorized leaks by Trump.
Other, more current and former US officials were forthcoming on the issue.
“If you’re sharing intelligence, you’re doing it from one agency to another,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a former US Treasury terror finance analyst and vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“It’s sort of a rare moment when the prime minister walks into the president’s office and shares new information.
The intelligence sharing is done at a working level – it’s institutionalized.
“Let me put it this way,” he said.
“When intelligence is shared from one country to another, there are caveats as to how it can be used and how it can be shared. It’s an imperfect system based on trust and ongoing personal relationships.
I think everyone is going to be careful in this hyper-charged environment.
“I can imagine the last thing the Mossad wants to do is endanger its relationship with the CIA,” he added, implying that a decision not to share can be a two-way street that Israel would avoid.
Likewise, Danielle Pletka, a former senior staffer for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and current vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute said, “I think that the implication that, somehow, Trump and his team’s different attitude towards Russia translates to the notion that they would violate US law and share classified information with the Russians, seems to be a little out there. At the end of the day, we have a special intelligence relationship with the Israelis.
We don’t have one with the Russians.”
Importantly, she pointed out that Israel already does its own sharing with Russia, despite Russia’s relationships with Syria and Iran.
Pletka added: “Bibi Netanyahu went to Moscow to talk to the Russians about what they were up to in Syria and with the Iranians. I think it’s important we reserve judgment about the nature of the Russian reset that Trump has planned.”
But even if there was unanimity that there was no real concern of Trump leaking Israeli intelligence to Russia, there were more complex concerns about Trump which could impact Israeli and other countries’ intelligence sharing.
Former CIA and NSA Director General Michael Hayden started by saying he did not think Trump would purposely leak Israeli intelligence to Russia. “I don’t share those concerns. I saw the reporting. I don’t think even looking at the dynamics we are talking about, I don’t think the Americans would do it.
It is still America’s CIA.”
However, Hayden also said that did not mean it was necessarily business as usual.
“If there is a danger, and I don’t know it to be true, it is that countries might be less enthusiastic to share with the US not because of leaks, but because the US may not act on it,” he said.
For example, if Trump’s “seeming disregard for intelligence – if that actually becomes the approach of his administration,” then there could be more general issues with intelligence sharing with the US.
In that scenario, “if you are Israel or any intelligence service,” anytime you share intelligence “you are in some ways marginally increasing the risk of the information being compromised.
Why embrace the potential it could be compromised, if it is not making a difference anyway, because the president is not paying attention to the American intelligence community?” Echoing that concern, one current US official made the point that intelligence officials are, like everyone else in civil service, nervous over Trump’s past statements, his inexperience and the instability he brings to the existing global order. “Foreign nations – including our closest allies – are taking this into account across the board in their relationships with Trump administration officials,” he said.
On the flip side, former Defense Intelligence Agency head David Shedd said that Trump’s treatment of the CIA has already changed, now that his own appointees are in place.
Overall, while few seem genuinely concerned about Trump leaking Israeli intelligence to Russia, Israel and other traditional US allies may think twice about sharing intelligence, until he further proves his support for US intelligence and shores up the overall state of those alliances.Michael Wilner contributed to this report.