If The Washington Post is right, President Trump divulged highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador at a jovial meeting in the Oval Office. Here is why this is appalling, beyond even this president’s usual standard.
Top secret codeword information is no joke
There are multiple flavors of intelligence classification, from “Confidential” (which is often in the public record already, just not acknowledged), to “Secret” (usually, though not always available if you know where to look—or are willing to wait a few days), to “Top Secret” which is beginning to be serious. The codewords, which security officials began using in World War II to protect signal intercepts (e.g. ULTRA), tell you whence the information was derived—so Top Secret/codeword material really has to be protected. Any of us who have had those kinds of clearances have gone through repeated trainings about how to safeguard such material (cover sheets, multiple envelopes, proper paragraph marking, etc.). And if you hope to keep your job and stay out of jail, you take it seriously. You do not have access to any and all compartments if you have a top-secret clearance. This, apparently, is some of the information that Trump blew.
The repeated spectacular breaks into the American security system by the Russians, among others, coupled with the ubiquity of personal information in the smartphone age, has caused some Americans to assume that secrets do not exist. They most certainly do. If someone finds out how you have gathered information, that artfully planted bug may go dead. Or a human agent may go dead. In the normal course of events, Donald Trump would never have been given a high-level security clearance because of his psychological profile and personal record, including his susceptibility to blackmail. But it will be even worse if his behavior convinces others, including those who work for him, that classification is meaningless.
Top-secret codeword information derived from an ally is even more sensitive.
To a remarkable degree, the United States relies on liaison relationships with other powers with whom it shares information. If Trump has indeed compromised a source of information, it is not merely a betrayal of an ally’s trust: It is an act that will jeopardize a whole range of relationships. After all, the Director of Central Intelligence cannot very well say, “Don’t worry, we won’t share that with the president.” So now everybody—even our closest allies like the United Kingdom—would be well-advised to be careful with what they share with us. That is a potential intelligence debacle for us, but the danger goes beyond that. If any foreign government harbored lingering illusions about the administration’s ability to protect any information, including sensitive but non-intelligence matters like future foreign-policy initiatives or military deployments, they no longer do. They will be even more apprehensive about sharing sensitive information of any kind because…
He gave it to the Russians. In the Oval Office. In a fit of braggadocio.
Russia is antagonistic to the United States, although Trump has repeatedly indicated his desire to be chummy with the Russians—after all, as he notoriously said during the presidential campaign, we are both killers, and so on the same moral plane. He apparently divulged the information to show off, which not only shows a lack of self-discipline: It shows, yet again, how easy this man is to play, particularly by veteran manipulators like his two experienced, talented, and thuggish guests. The crisis is made worse by virtue of Trump having just fired the FBI director, apparently for having pushed that Russia investigation too far.