Can America still be trusted with classified information?

With friends like these.
With friends like these.
Image: Russian Foreign Ministry Photo via AP
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American allies have been worried about sharing intelligence with the new administration since the day US president Donald Trump took office. So, obviously, none will be thrilled about reports that Trump shared top secret intelligence—seemingly provided by Israel—with Russia’s foreign minister and US ambassador.

On the surface, things look terrible: Israeli officials have told Buzzfeed they’re “boiling mad and demanding answers.” Meanwhile, a senior European official has said his country might stop sharing intelligence with Washington since it “could be a risk to our sources”:

There’s no doubt this is a bad mis-step. It has reportedly endangered an Israeli intelligence source’s life. According James Walsh of the University of North Carolina Charlotte, author of The International Politics of Intelligence Sharing, it breaks “a de facto rule: you don’t share intelligence with a third party unless you get explicit permission from the party that gave it to you.

However, if this remains a one-off incident, in practice it’s unlikely to hit US intelligence operations too hard, Walsh and others say. The US holds most of the cards in all the most important intelligence-sharing relationships. Either Washington provides more and better intelligence than the other partner, or America’s geopolitical assistance is too important for the partner to jeopardize.


Official response: “Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump,” Israel’s US ambassador told the New York Times.

Unofficial response: “I would not trust a partner who shared intelligence without coordinating it with us first,” an intelligence official told Buzzfeed anonymously.

In reality: It won’t be too bad, says Dennis Ross, a former top State department official and the “point man” on the Middle East peace process under Bill Clinton and George Bush senior. “Israeli cooperation with the US on intelligence is really part of the system…I don’t expect in the end it will really change,” says Ross, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He said it is likely to be raised as an “issue” in discussions during Trump’s upcoming trip to Israel, but “one that will be sorted out.”

What’s more, Israel is keen to get over its fraught relations with the Obama administration, and prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s main priority is securing Trump’s backing on Iran, Palestine and other regional matters. “He will probably be willing to forgive this at least this time, rather than spoiling what he hopes is the bigger prize, which is real support from the US,” says Joshua Rovner, chair of international politics at Southern Methodist University, and author Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence. 

Intelligence on ISIL also isn’t among Israel’s most prized assets. “Israel is not a friend of [ISIL] but they also haven’t really been in direct conflict with each other,” says Walsh. ”If it was something super sensitive about Iran that actually undermined Israeli security, that would be a much bigger issue.”

The “Five Eyes” alliance

The wonderfully-named “Five Eyes” alliance was founded in World War Two. It consists of the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and involves an even deeper level of intelligence sharing than between Israel and the US.

Walsh says Five Eyes partners will likely find it “troubling” that Trump is so ready to part with information—and that he shared intelligence from a source that, according to the Wall Street Journal, even they hadn’t been trusted with (paywall).However, kicking up a fuss could end up doing much more damage to them than to the US, Walsh adds.

“They’re actually kind of dependent on the US in a lot of ways that the US isn’t dependent on them,” he says. “If they were to threaten to retract intelligence sharing the US might respond in a way that really undermines their security.”


Intelligence sharing between NATO allies has long been done with special care, Walsh says. In the Cold War, this would be for fear that European countries with strong left-wing movements might pass the information to the Soviets. Now, the alliance is so big that half the countries don’t have their own foreign intelligence services, Walsh says, and there’s a higher risk that information shared with them could reach the wrong ears. “Why would you share intelligence with, for example, Slovenia, that it doesn’t really need? I’m sure they’d want it but they can’t really do anything with it,” he said.

Partners used more often are the Nine Eyes (the Five Eyes plus Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Norway) and the Fourteen Eyes (adding Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden). These are likely to be rather riled. “The idea that you would take a piece of third-party intelligence and share it with Russia who is NATO’s chief adversary…that’s not some thing that will sit well in Brussels. It’ll make for an interesting trip next week,” says Rovner.

The top European official who threatened to stop sharing intelligence is almost certainly one of the nine or fourteen. The AP reporter he spoke to is based in Copenhagen, which suggests that the official, if not Danish, is likely to at least be Scandinavian. It would make sense for the Northern Europeans to be concerned about their sources, given that all the Scandinavian countries except Finland, which is not a NATO member, are part of the Fourteen Eyes, do some sort of intelligence gathering in Russia, have been involved in NATO efforts in Afghanistan, and surveil radicalized Muslims in Western Europe.

Nonetheless, Walsh says he’d take the warning “not very seriously”—basically as a warning shot. “If I was one of those countries, I’d worry that the US would basically retaliate and limit its intelligence sharing,” he said. “They can’t say nothing; they obviously have totally legitimate bases for concern, so they probably want a discussion to make sure it doesn’t happen again in the future at a minimum—this could be a way to signal that.”

Partners in the Gulf

Saudi Arabia and Jordan both share a lot of intelligence with the US too, both as part of a broader alliance on military and economic matters, and as a form of exchange: information from their on-the-ground human spy network in return for what the US collects by monitoring electronic communications, Rovner says.

Given Saudi Arabia’s antagonism with Iran, the Saudis are also likely to be highly worried about the chance their information may end up with Russia, one of Tehran’s closest allies, Rovner says.

However, similar factors apply here as to Israel—ISIL isn’t their main concern (in some ways, the Sunni extremists are a counterweight to Iran’s Shia militias), and they really need the US. “Both the Saudis and Jordanians are really concerned with the question of, ‘Will the US stay in the region?’; this is what matters to them more than anything else,” Ross says. “There is continuing concern that there will be withdrawal…They want the US to counter Iran and its Shia militias, not just to contain [ISIL]. Yes they see [ISIL]  as a threat but Iran is an existential threat.” That, he says, means they’re unlikely to rock the boat over one intelligence leak.