“I just think this president has to understand that he cannot just say whatever the hell he wants and expect that it doesn’t carry consequences.”
Leon Panetta — Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary
As Chris Cuomo read the Tuesday morning Twitter dispatches from President Donald Trump in which he defended giving intelligence to Russia’s U.S. ambassador and foreign minister, Leon Panetta — the former CIA Director and Defense Secretary — was rendered speechless for a few seconds. Follow us on Twitter: @INTEL_Today
On May 10 2017, President Trump shared “highly classified” intelligence provided by a U.S. ally in the Middle East — most likely Israel — with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at a White House meeting.
Danny Yatom and Shabtai Shavit— both former head of the Mossad — said Israel should penalize the US over Trump’s leak because his acts could endanger Israeli sources.
The former CIA Director does not mince his words about the leak.
“You know, I watch the President rationalize these kinds of things. And the problem that really bothers me is it undermines the credibility of the office of the Presidency.”
Panetta was just getting warmed up. Calling Trump a “loose cannon,” the former CIA Director and Defense Secretary said the President must come to terms with the idea that his words now have gravity as the leader of the free world.
“I just think this president has to understand that he cannot just say whatever the hell he wants and expect that it doesn’t carry consequences,” Panneta said.
Ultimately, Pannetta is hoping others in the White House can save the President from himself.
“This President needs to have some grown ups around him that make very clear what the lines are here.”
On the legality of the disclosure
Did President Trump commit a crime when he disclosed classified intelligence information to Russian officials? Most observers — including Panetta — do not think so.
For instance, secrecy law expert Steven Aftergood wrote:
“Considering that the President is the author of the national security classification system, and that he is empowered to determine who gets access to classified information, it seems obvious that the answer is No. His action might have been reckless, I opined previously, but it was not a crime.” [Secrecy News]
However, on May 17 2017, Congressional Research Service considered the question and concluded as follows in their report:
“It appears more likely than not that the President is presumed to have the authority to disclose classified information to foreign agents in keeping with his power and responsibility to advance U.S. national security interests.” See Presidential Authority to Permit Access to National Security Information, CRS Legal Sidebar, May 17, 2017.
In short, the question is not nearly as simple as it seems. And several experts point out that Trump could have committed a crime.
“Don’t Be So Quick to Call Those Disclosures ‘Legal’”by Elizabeth Goitein, Just Security, May 17, 2017
“Why Trump’s Disclosure to Russia (and Urging Comey to Drop the Flynn Investigation, and Various Other Actions) Could Be Unlawful”by Marty Lederman and David Pozen, Just Security, May 17, 2017
“Trump’s disclosures to the Russians might actually have been illegal”by Steve Vladeck, Washington Post, May 16, 2017
The “Reagan did it” argument
Setting aside the issue of the “legal weight” of this argument, I would like to point out that the past examples used by the media are absolutely irrelevant for two reasons.
It is true that President Reagan decided — after debating the issue with the US IC — to declassified the information regarding Korean Air Lines Flight 007 and the bombing of the LaBelle disco.
However, in both cases, the intelligence had been obtained by the NSA, and not by a foreign country. Revealing this information did not put the life of a source in danger.
And there is more. Reagan’s disclosure was undoubtedly legal because he used “his power and responsibility to advance U.S. national security interests.” Basically, he came to the conclusion that the advantages (providing the information to the UN and the media)outweighed the disadvantages (revealing the NSA capacity to eavesdrop on these communications and the ability to decrypt Libya diplomatic cables).
The real question therefore is this: How does Trump’s disclosure advance U.S. national security interests? No so obvious anymore…
About Leon Panetta
Leon Edward Panetta (born June 28, 1938) is an American statesman who has served in several different public office positions, such as Secretary of Defense, Director of the CIA, White House Chief of Staff, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and as a U.S. Representative from California.
In January 2009, newly elected President Barack Obama nominated Panetta for the post of CIA Director. Panetta was confirmed by the full Senate in February 2009. As director of the CIA, Panetta oversaw the operation that brought down international terrorist Osama bin Laden.
On April 28, 2011, Obama announced the nomination of Panetta as Defense Secretary, to replace the retiring Robert Gates. In June the Senate confirmed Panetta unanimously and he assumed the office on July 1, 2011. David Petraeus took over as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency on September 6, 2011. [Wikipedia]
May 9 2017 — President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey
May 10 2017 — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak meet President Trump at a White House
May 15 2017 — According to US media, President Trump boasted about highly classified intelligence in a meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador during the May 10 meeting, providing details that could expose the source of the information and the manner in which it was collected
May 16 2017 — The NYT reveals that the classified intelligence that President Trump disclosed in a meeting last week with Russian officials at the White House was provided by Israel
May 16 2017 — ABC news reports that the classified information came specifically from a spy embedded in the terrorist group on behalf of Israel
Leon Panetta discusses the ‘Russia Leak’ on CNN Interview
Former CIA Director Leon Panetta on the Russian Leak: “Trump Is a Loose Canon!”