British intelligence sources say Donald Trump’s disclosure of highly classified information to Russian officials during a meeting at the White House was “amateurish” and “crass”, but insisted it would not stop the UK and other nations sharing material with the US.
BuzzFeed News spoke to four UK intelligence sources, including two former senior officials and an ex-officer, after it emerged that Trump had revealed classified information during a meeting with Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and ambassador Sergey Kislyak last week.
It was later reported that Israel was the original source of the information, which concerned ISIS plots to smuggle explosive laptops on to planes. It appears the intelligence had been shared with Russia without prior coordination with Israel.
Britain is the USA’s closest intelligence partner, routinely sharing information, surveillance programmes, and even bases, with British and American staff sitting side by side.
The UK sources said it was not unusual for the US to share intelligence with a third country without first coordinating with the country that provided it. But they said it was a new and concerning development that this latest disclosure came direct from the president and may have been unintentional.
Usually such information is shared with a specific purpose – for example, it could directly affect the country with whom the information is shared – and it is shared at an agency level, not direct from the Oval Office.
“There is a different dynamic here: It is the US president having conversations with senior Russian diplomats. And it happened in the wrong place,” one UK source said.
“This doesn’t seem like intelligence sharing with Russia, but more like Trump grandstanding,” they added.
One source described the disclosure as “amateurish” and “crass”. Two suggested the president possibly didn’t fully understand what he was sharing.
Under what is known as the “third country rule”, an intelligence agency is meant to seek permission before sharing information it has been provided by another country’s intelligence services.
The principle exists because agencies want to protect their assets, they don’t want their capabilities exposed, and they don’t want their intelligence to end up in the wrong hands. It is an unwritten convention, with nuances especially in regards to aspects of some off-the-books relationships, but it is one that most abide by for the simple reason that agencies will probably need to rely on each other in future.
But the British officials said the US was often the exception to this rule.
“The US breaks the conventions because the relationship is so disproportionate,” a former intelligence officer told BuzzFeed News. “They sit at the top of the tree. We give them a trickle of water, although often a significant trickle, they give us the Niagara Falls.
“Nobody will stop sharing with them because if they did, the US would say ‘fine, we won’t share with you’, and everybody wants to keep receiving what they send.
“You can put any classification you want on information, but if it’s shared with the US they will deal with it how they see fit, whatever the classification was at source.”
The source said that this factor was taken into account at operational level: “When you’re working with the US you almost accept that you are on a running clock, that information could be shared for political or whatever reason and could make its way into the public domain.”
They provided the example of highly sensitive intelligence shared with the US more than a decade ago about an al-Qaeda aircraft plot.
“We had a plan to get our assets out after informing the US because we knew the information would be at the very least briefed out to the lower branches of law enforcement meaning that the net of people in the know would be wide,” the source said.
While the UK would be seeking clarity on exactly what information Trump shared, two of the senior former officials told BuzzFeed News that the day-to-day UK-US relationships at the agency level were longstanding and would be largely unaffected by acts from politicians at the very top.
And there is also another factor that will ensure sharing continues. “At the end of the day, nobody wants to be the person who sat on intelligence that could have saved hundreds or thousands of lives,” one source said.
But the underlying concern is where the unpredictable behaviour of a president who would seem to operate mostly on impulse and gut could lead to in future. This particular worry aligns with a string of consistent views voiced to BuzzFeed News by UK and European government officials over recent months: Trump, they claim, lacks basic knowledge about key issues, and doesn’t have a historical perspective on world affairs.
One former senior official said that something that could hamper the UK-US relationship was if the vacancy for FBI Director left in the wake of James Comey’s firing was left unfilled for any length of time. As the FBI is a key agency on some transatlantic operations, a protracted vacancy could hamper cooperation, they warned.
The sources said the intelligence sharing would continue unless the situation reached a “tipping point”, described by one as any assessment that the Trump administration’s actions were putting UK national security at risk. For example, they said, “something that leads to a suspect fleeing with disastrous effects and loss of life, a degree of publicity, and a direct link to the actions of the president”.