Sometimes, recklessness and stupidity collide so forcefully that the two cancel each other out.
Such is the only feasible way to describe the lack of repercussions from President Donald Trump’s behavior with regard to national security and espionage. Trump uses an unsecured phone to rant to his friends and subjects about whatever he sees fit, despite the noble and valiant efforts of his aides. Doing so is blatantly irresponsible given that foreign powers are almost certainly monitoring said calls (such activity is relatively routine for countries a respectable intelligence apparatus; the United States even got busted for eavesdropping on the Iron Frau with Snowden’s leaks). These same aides are at least confident that there is little risk of directly leaking state secrets, Trump “rarely digs into the details of the intelligence he is shown and is not well versed in the operational specifics of military or covert activities.” Reassuringly, he is simply too uninformed for his recklessness to cause serious damage. Score one for MAGA!
The cellphone matter is a tragicomic manifestation of the president’s inability to grasp the gravity of foreign intelligence threats the United States faces. For a president so obsessed with deals, it should be obvious to him that one should never show one’s hand when negotiating—but if you are blabbing about your trade plans with whatever eager sycophant happens to pick up the phone, you are probably doing just that, much to the delight of some mid-level analyst sitting in a GRU complex outside of Moscow. More importantly, if events were to somehow transpire such that the president actually began to read the intelligence reports delivered to him, he might proceed to blithely reveal protected information on his unsecured iPhone; the man literally has no filter and has done similar things before, as the Israelis learned the hard way.
The timing of such an incompetent administration is truly unfortunate, given the dire straits many of America’s current espionage networks appear to be in. American intelligence has been dealt terrible blows in the past several years in China in particular; a former CIA operative was convicted of espionage by the Chinese government this past September. Former CIA analyst Jerry Chun Shing Lee is in court for handing over the details of the CIA’s informant network in China, leading to the brutal deaths of over dozens of Chinese informants working for the United States starting in 2010 (The New York Times has an excellent piece on the human and intelligence consequences of this devastating loss). As for other countries, one does not need to be reminded of the myriad ways that Russian intelligence services have been trying to mess with American democracy for the past few years.
To be clear, Trump is not the only president to appear to be disturbingly unaware of the dangers posed by foreign adversaries (cf. Obama’s lax attitude towards Russia up until the last few years of his administration). But the scale of Trump’s ignorance is disturbing. The US intelligence apparatus is robust, yet far from omniscient; America relies extensively on its allies to relay and share information to combat national security threats. Heads of foreign intelligence agencies would be wise to exercise caution when disclosing sensitive information to a nation-state whose president—if he does not leak the information—may very well just ignore or outright rebuke that intelligence if he finds it politically inconvenient. The result is a less effective global intelligence operation, the consequences of which will be quite grave.
The United States works closely with allies in the Middle East and Europe to ensure effective counter-terrorism operations; when we make them shout at us, one begins to worry whether or not they will trust the US with critical information again. Even if Trump manages to keep his mouth shut, his administration is unable to stop the myriad of leaks that have become the norm for the motley crew manning the White House.
The potential for leaks is also threatening our relationship with Great Britain.The United States is the key player in one of the most extensive and unique intelligence sharing networks in history: the Five Eyes, and the core of that network is built upon mutual trust of each member state (the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand).Whether it is counterterrorism, counternarcotics, or ensuring stability in East Asia in the face of a rising China, the US needs such intelligence agreements to continue working as they have for decades. An untrustworthy United States is a less secure United States.
For the sake of national security, let us hope that Trump’s recklessness and stupidity cancel one another out until 2020.
Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of The Gate. The author of this article is employed by a federal agency and requested anonymity.
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