The Death Of Espionage
Espionage, one of Earth’s eldest occupations—perhaps younger only than the harlot selling her skin—has had a certain standard throughout history. In being the spy, only the craftiest and most vulpine would survive. It was a dangerous job that might call for skullduggery one day and decorum the next. The spy would sneak between street urchins and kings, between peasants and popes. Inhered in the spy is his mystique. This, through the centuries, hasn’t changed, even if from one age to the next his suits, cars, and gadgets do.
Above all else, the spy needs three things: sagacity, skill, and sex appeal. Perhaps the third is superfluous, but the first two? Essential. When sagacity and skill are no longer needed, the espionage unemployment line will lengthen. In other words, the spy will die.
It appears that in this day and age, the spy’s work can be outsourced to the laymen. No longer is it reserved for a Bond, a Bourne, or a lesser Ethan Hunt. Sergey Kislyak and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian emissaries visiting President Trump, learned this new reality rather quickly. As they settled in at the Oval Office for their much-awaited tête-à-tête with Trump, the two were surely eager to employ some of their craftier tricks. They might’ve thought they’d have to dust off some old-fashioned Eastern bloc espionage maneuvers. Not so; quite the contrary was true. Any intel they wanted or didn’t want was given up-front. Such is the case with a president, from whose loose lips words flutter carelessly into eager laps.
As initially reported by the Washington Post, President Trump shared privileged information to the Russian Ambassador and Foreign Minister during the trio’s White House meeting. Trump held an affable audience with two, mere days after revealing to Lester Holt the real reason for his firing of James Comey. The now former FBI Director Comey, you’ll recall, wouldn’t publicly squash the Russian meddling investigation (and thus exonerate Trump). For his recalcitrance, he was given his leave.
In light of this, the optics of the Lavrov-Kislyak meeting were already bad. They were made substantially worse when the Post revealed that President Trump had volunteered information about an impending and otherwise unknown ISIS operation in the Middle East. Little else was learned of the specifics, which in my mind, is for the best. We learned not of the projected city, country, or scale in which the operation would take place. Some are a bit miffed by this. Once we get a taste, the argument goes, we’re entitled to the whole pie. We’ve become information gluttons, but let’s satiate ourselves with this little unexpected morsel and move on. It’s not a topic we should press; the Post’s revelation is one that can have life and death consequences and is better left unsaid.
It’s also a revelation that could imperil America’s privileged international partnerships. In just a few days after Trump’s slip, it surfaced that Israel was the one who had originally fed him the intel. The intel belongs to Israel and they alone determine how it should be dispensed. Their intel is a state-acquired secret ascertained by their own means—means, lest we forget, that often involve grave risk to he who does the collecting. With this in mind, it’s understandable if Israel is at the very least disquieted, but more than likely, upset. Trump was given what was theirs, with the very basic expectation that he wouldn’t use it to play whisper down the lane.
Apparently, the information was so secretive that it was ineligible for discussion even amongst America and Israel’s other common allies. It’s this fact that makes the revelation to the Russians all the more damaging. It needn’t be emphasized that Russian ambitions in the Middle East are far different than our own (and by our ambitions, I’m grouping together America’s and those of Israel). The Kremlin, should it choose to do so, could easily and surreptitiously subvert our efforts in the Middle East. As it is, Russia is renowned, if not notoriously so, for its ability to hack computer systems from afar. Making them work so little for such important information is Trump’s unforced error and a potentially fatal mistake. If so inclined, the Russians could compromise Israel’s source and endanger his life (I daresay his, for one has to assume no female could easily infiltrate ISIS as a mole). Israel is very much against the Assad regime, while Russia is very much for it. Putin could jeopardize the Israeli informant—who’s so integral to America’s counter-terrorism agenda—simply out of spite.
All that being said, I doubt very much that President Trump’s mistake will damage our relationship with the Jewish state. America and Israel’s comity, at least in the age after Obama, is too strong. Israel’s very being would stand upon much shakier ground if not for AIPAC (the American and Israeli Public Affairs Committee) and Uncle Sam’s undying succor for his Near East friends. It’s conceivable, though, that vital information—of the kind Trump let loose— could begin desiccating as it streams toward Washington. Not just Israel, but any foreign ally, once comforted by America’s discretion, might reconsider pouring sensitive information into a presidential sieve. Friendly nations might sleep more soundly knowing that their careful secrets aren’t in Trump’s hands.
In disseminating Israel’s intel, Trump acted either myopically or ignorantly. If he was motivated by the former, the conclusion must be that he knew better and acted otherwise; if the latter, it assumes he still has much to learn. Wherever you land, and whichever way you judge him, you must admit that he acted inexcusably. Both shortcomings, those of myopia and ignorance, can be equally injurious. Only one has any hope for change. Myopia might be incorrigible, but ignorance and naiveté can be fixed. And while Trump isn’t known for his ability to adapt to nuance and education, with a little persistence and even more experience, he could improve.
I, for one, don’t think the president acted through ill-intent. In the more probable scenario, he simply didn’t consider the gravity of the Israeli intel. He didn’t perceive it to be so sanctified that it was to be placed off-limits in conversation. Rightly or wrongly, Trump considers Russia to be a potentially powerful foreign ally in the struggle against ISIS (and in the arena of international business more generally). In his mind, I can only assume, Trump’s calculus was that the more a potential ally knows about a shared enemy, the better off we’ll be.
Aside from Trump’s slip, we don’t know exactly how the rest of the conversation unfolded. This, the public is privy to, but the transcripts haven’t yet been released. President Putin, for his part, has offered a hand-written manuscript of the meeting’s details. He’s done so to defend President Trump (who just gave him a gift) and to downplay the importance of the information. Putin’s is an enticing offer, but we must be circumspect recipients. With him, we must always assume his intentions are motivated by mala fide, not mutual benefit.
In responding to Putin’s offer, the White House was compelled to release its own account of the meeting. It wasn’t as forthcoming as we might’ve hoped, and it surely wasn’t given with alacrity, but it was an account nonetheless. And as with all tales re-told in this White House, there were contradictory elements. After fist dismissing President Trump’s reported slip wholesale, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster later defended Trump’s remarks about the Israeli intel as being “wholly appropriate”. On this point, he’s not wrong. Verily, it’s within the president’s scope of practice to de-classify and reveal anything he sees fit and to anyone he so pleases. This stands to bear, even if the nation from whom the information was given objects. But just because it’s “wholly appropriate” doesn’t make it less injurious to the international community—as a whole.