North Korea accuses CIA of assassination plot — Why Trump’s disclosure to Russians could be unlawful — New bill would require NSA to reveal software weaknesses — US – Israel Intel relation not affected by Trump’s leak
The United States Central Intelligence Agency has announced the establishment of a new center focusing on North Korea, shortly after Pyongyang accused Washington of plotting to assassinate its supreme leader. Last week, the regime’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Han Song Ryol, said the CIA tried to kill North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. He was speaking during a meeting with foreign diplomats in the North Korean capital, where he repeated previously stated claims by government officials that American spies had tried to assassinate their country’s leader. According to Pyongyang, the plot involved an attack by a North Korean CIA agent, who had been trained in the use of a biochemical weapon by his handlers. The North Koreans also accuse South Korea of collaborating with the alleged CIA assassination plot, claiming that Seoul either bribed or blackmailed the would-be assassin.
Meanwhile, the CIA announced last week that it has established a dedicated center focusing on developments in the Korean peninsula. The purpose of the center, said the CIA, is to “address […] the nuclear and ballistic missile threat posed by North Korea”. There are only 11 such centers in the CIA, which the Agency calls “Mission Centers”.
In short, it appears that the President acted irresponsibly and destructively. But was it his “absolute right” to do so, as he tweeted yesterday morning? Or might he also have acted unlawfully?
In the hours after the Post story broke, a consensus quickly emerged that he did not. “We certainly don’t want any president to leak classified information,” Senator McCain commented, “but the president does have the right to do that.” “Because the classified information system was not established and is not regulated by congressional statutes,” the New York Times explained, “Mr. Trump has the power to declassify or disclose anything he wants.” A Post headline stated simply: “No, Trump did not break the law in talking classified details with the Russians.”
These assertions are correct in one significant respect. Since the early years of the Cold War, Presidents rather than Congress have established the system that governs the executive branch’s handling of national security information. The President not only determines what is and is not classified but also has authority to determine the circumstances under which executive officials and employees may share classified information with others. Such executive branch actors promise to adhere to the classification rules as a condition of their employment, and they expose themselves to civil sanctions, including loss of their security clearances and jobs, if they breach their nondisclosure agreements. But the President is the one who insists upon these employment conditions and sanctions in the first instance, in his role as head of the executive branch—and, in consequence, it is generally assumed that he is not subject to these internal rules. Put in slightly more technical terms, the Executive Order on Classified National Security Information defines “classified information” as information that requires “protection against unauthorized disclosure,” and the President is the ultimate source of “authorization” within the system he has created. Accordingly, in a case such as this one, where the President himself discloses the information, it becomes hard to argue that the disclosure is “unauthorized” for purposes of the Executive Order.
Even so, just because the President controls the classification system and that system’s nondisclosure limitations, it does not follow that every disclosure of information he makes to foreign officials is necessarily legal.
A bill proposed in Congress on Wednesday would require the U.S. National Security Agency to inform representatives of other government agencies about security holes it finds in software like the one that allowed last week’s “ransomware” attacks.
Under former President Barack Obama, the government created a similar inter-agency review, but it was not required by law and was administered by the NSA itself.
The new bill would mandate a review when a government agency discovers a security hole in a computer product and does not want to alert the manufacturer because it hopes to use the flaw to spy on rivals. It also calls for the review process to be chaired by the defense-oriented Department of Homeland Security rather than the NSA, which spends 90 percent of its budget on offensive capabilities and spying.
Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii introduced the legislation in the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“Striking the balance between U.S. national security and general cyber security is critical, but it’s not easy,” said Senator Schatz in a statement. “This bill strikes that balance.”
The controversy over the possible disclosure of Israeli intelligence by President Donald Trump will affect neither overall U.S.-Israeli relations, nor intelligence cooperation, which remains “solid,” a former official of the Mossad, Israel’s external security agency, told reporters during a conference call Wednesday.
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Amnon Sofrin, who headed Mossad’s intelligence directorate, explained that the unwritten rules governing the disclosure of intelligence information are different for foreign intelligence agencies than they are for foreign leaders. Foreign leaders have “the ability and the mandate to make use of information according to their considerations,” Sofrin said. Still, he should “ask his people about the sensitivity of this information.”
“The cooperation between the two organizations is so solid that I don’t believe that such an event will cause any big damage,” Sofrin said, regarding the effect Trump’s reported disclosures to the Russians would have on the relations between the intelligence services of the U.S. and Israel. “It may cause a small damage or a local one, but not a disaster.”
INTEL TODAY DIARY — May 19 2017