It is chaos in Washington. Earlier this month, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), James Comey, was peremptorily fired by President Donald Trump. The FBI is running an investigation into Russian influence on the victory of the tycoon-turned-politician over Hillary Clinton in the election last November, as well as possible links between Moscow and members of Trump’s campaign team. The move was immediately seen as a bid by the White House to undermine — or even halt — that investigation and it provoked uproar.
Even before that uproar had died down came the next bombshell — last week, the Washington Post revealed that Trump, to prove that he gets “great intel”, had divulged highly classified information, on a specific terrorist plot involving ISIS in the Middle East, to Sergei Lavrov, the veteran Russian foreign minister and Moscow’s ambassador to the US, during a meeting at the White House. The information had come from a third party — almost certainly a Middle Eastern spy agency — and had been considered so sensitive that it had not been circulated even to allies such as the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, which, together with the US, compose the so-called “Five Eyes” alliance, which has shared intelligence for decades.
This new gaffe — apparently made to buttress the boastful statement that “I get great intel, great intel” — has prompted even greater outrage than the sacking of Comey, which was described by many, such as James Clapper, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as an attack on democracy in the US.
Trump remains defiant, saying he had done nothing wrong. The president is certainly allowed to declassify whatever he wants, and so, he has done nothing illegal or unconstitutional here. But his sudden and apparently unpremeditated disclosure of such sensitive information, without any of the usual reviews or checks in place to safeguard spies and relationships with spy agencies around the world, is a massive breach of protocol at best. It also reinforces the image of a president who is out of control, with no respect for established systems which, though they may constrain his freedom of action, protect the interests of the nation he leads from dictators, demagogues and, of course, the merely incompetent.
Yet, hyperventilating about the possibility that a spy may now be identified and killed by ISIS (which is unlikely) or that a Middle Eastern spy chief is now very angry (which is certain) or even that no intelligence service in the world will now be as happy to pass on information to the US as they were a few days ago for fear that it reaches some third party such as Russia (which is probable) misses the point. In all the shouting about the content of the Washington Post story, the key point, that the story appeared at all, is being missed — what is much more important than the president’s lack of respect for due process in handling intelligence is that someone in the security establishment in the US told the press about it, an illegal act which risks their career and liberty.
That someone was prepared to do this is an indication of the state of the relationship between Trump and the agencies which are charged with keeping Americans safe, from external threats and from each other. There was already little love lost; Trump has compared the US spooks to Nazi spymasters and made his suspicion of their work very clear. The sacking of Comey, well-liked by officials at the agency he ran, has reinforced the sense that the White House and the agencies, if not openly hostile, do see each other as potential, or even actual, adversaries. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s alt-right fellow travellers at Breitbart, the controversial website, are already blaming the ongoing row on the “deep state”.
The row took a new turn for the worse when the US justice department, facing pressure from Congress, appointed Robert Mueller, the respected former FBI director, as special counsel to probe Russian influence and the alleged links with the Trump campaign. Mueller is also charged with looking at “any matters that… arise directly from the investigation”, a very wide brief.
The president said on Twitter that he was the subject of the greatest witch hunt in US political history, and may try to mitigate some of the damage with his choice of a new FBI director. He is currently thought to be considering Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat politician who has backed many of Trump’s more controversial policies and, as a lawyer, reportedly handles much of Trump’s own litigation.
Importantly, this kind of vicious internal war in the American capital is bad for everybody, not just in the US.
First, any instability in Washington harms us all. A president battling institutions and investigations at home will be distracted and thus, even less likely to make the right calls on matters of global import, whether these be the war against terrorism, keeping the oil flowing from the Middle East (much of which heads to India and China), new trade agreements or fighting global warming.
Second, that the president, whose understanding of the world is already weak, will not be briefed properly and will not receive the distilled wisdom of the most expensive, powerful intelligence-gathering operation on the planet, as he should. Decisions and policies he does make will suffer as a result.
Third, security agencies that are undermined by a conflict with the president are less able to execute their core tasks, such as detecting terrorist plots. Yes, intelligence services all over the world funnel information to the US (and, in this recent instance, via the US to Moscow!). But the US also sends vast amounts of useful intelligence to services overseas. This flow will slow, to everyone’s detriment.
So, while we are fascinated and appalled by the circus in Washington, there is no room for schadenfreude. This is one spectacle where the onlookers are victims too.