U.S. media outlets have been consumed by the story today that President Trump improperly or unwisely shared classified material on ISIS with the Russians, material that apparently came from Israel. For its part, the Trump administration denies the charge that information was improperly or unwisely shared.
A couple of comments. First, the president has broad powers of declassification and the discretion to share sensitive secrets with others. Sharing classified information with the Russians, an ally of a sort in the struggle against ISIS, is not necessarily a bad idea. Trump seems to have decided it was a way to strengthen relations and build trust at high levels with the Russian government, a defensible position, in my view.
Second, I’ll repeat here what I said about classification and the Hillary Clinton email scandal: Far too much information is classified by the US government. Classification is vastly overused by our government to conceal many sins, blunders, nefarious designs, and who knows what else. There’s nothing sacred about secrecy; indeed, a democracy should prefer transparency, rather than stamping everything “secret” or “top secret” and thereby keeping nearly all Americans in the dark.
Obviously, I’m not privy to the exact nature of the intelligence shared, the sensitivity and vulnerability of the source(s) and collection methods, and so on. I’m not an intelligence trade-craft expert. So far, Israeli operatives seem unconcerned, but whether their blasé attitude is feigned or not is unknown.
Americans elected Trump because he promised to do things differently. He campaigned on the idea of being unorthodox; indeed, he is unorthodox. Surely no one should be surprised when he decides to speak in the clear to Russian government officials on matters concerning ISIS and terrorism.
Repeat after me, America: Secrecy is not sacred. Transparency is desirable. So too is building trust with rivals as well as friends. Trump has his faults, major ones I believe, but this current controversy is a tempest in a teapot.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.