Somewhere in Syria, an Israeli espionage team was left scrambling after U.S. President Donald Trump passed along Israeli intelligence to Russian officials in May.
During a visit to the White House by the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, Trump revealed highly-classified information that was given to him by Israel about an ISIS plot—including the Syrian city in which the intelligence was gathered. The disclosure raised concerns that Russia—or ISIS—would be able to figure out who was collecting intelligence and how.
While Trump’s action was not illegal—the president is allowed to share classified information with whomever he sees fit—it could be seen as a political gaffe, according to experts.
In this case, Israel, which is known for its long-ranging espionage tactics, had explicitly asked that the information not be passed on without permission.
The impact of Trump’s disclosure to the Russians is yet to be seen, but it might manifest itself in ways not directly related to intelligence sharing, says James Igoe Walsh, professor of political science at University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“On the one hand, that would be very troubling to other countries because they are sharing a lot of intelligence with the United States and it might be passed on in a similar spontaneous way,” Walsh tells Security Management. “Having said that, these are typically ongoing long-term relationships, so one episode is probably not going to be enough to upset that longer-run cooperation. In this case, Israel gets a lot from the United States in terms of intelligence, as well as a lot of other types of support. Maybe one mistake would not lead to a fundamental reassessment of that relationship.”
Walsh says he believes Trump’s decision to share the classified information was not planned; typically, countries share such information so they will receive something concrete in return, which was not the case with Russia. But regardless of the disclosure’s spontaneity, it almost certainly created headaches for the intelligence agents who initially obtained the information.
The flow of national security intelligence from one country to another can be fickle, Walsh notes. Alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN), INTERPOL, and Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance made up of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, foster structured intelligence sharing between nations.
But there are also countless complex connections, networks, and alliances between countries based on the sharing of not just intelligence but economic and military support.
“These narrow intelligence-sharing arrangements are embedded in larger arrangements,” Walsh explains. “If the U.S. becomes less predictable, that might be counterbalanced by other commitments, like military cooperation in Afghanistan or cooperation against terrorist threats.”
This is especially important for nontraditional intelligence-sharing partners. The United States depends on both traditional and new allies for counterterrorism intelligence sharing, according to a report in academic journal Global Security Studies. The global reach of terrorist groups has widened the circle of allies the United States has to rely on for intelligence from the trenches.
For example, “nontraditional relationships with Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have been critical to the crackdown on terrorism financing and the ongoing operations against terrorists and insurgents in both Afghanistan and Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas,” according to the report Challenges to International Counterterrorism Intelligence Sharing written by Anna-Katherine Staser McGill and David H. Gray.
While these newer relationships are bolstered by military support or a dependence on the oil trade, more traditional alliances are expected to last through thick and thin—although recent concerns based on leaks, personal data protection, and the increased flow of information can put a strain on the sharing relationships.
Just weeks after Trump passed on Israeli intelligence to Russia, the attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, United Kingdom, shocked the world. While British authorities were scrambling to track down the perpetrators, American news media published details of the ongoing investigation, including the name of the suspected attacker and photos of bomb fragments from the attack.
British intelligence officials immediately announced that they would no longer share information from the investigation with their American counterparts; Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham told newspaper reporters that the country couldn’t risk sharing any more information.
The change in policy upsets a history of open information sharing between the United Kingdom and the United States during crises, Walsh notes.
“They share this kind of intelligence on autopilot, and maybe with good reason,” he says. “They planned it in advance so that they could disseminate information to partners who may be able to help them with the investigation. The assumption would be that the recipient would not be sharing it with the media at all, or especially more or less immediately.”
The EU has its own intelligence-sharing challenges. Although Europol has established several means of intelligence sharing across Europe, it has continued to face problems connecting the dots.
“The recent terrorist attacks in Belgium and France have once again highlighted the contradiction between the seemingly free movement of terrorists across Europe and the lack of EU-wide intelligence sharing,” notes Oldrich Bureš in the policy journal European View. “Due to their earlier criminal activities, most perpetrators of the attacks in both Paris and Brussels were known to the various security agencies in several EU member states.”
Indeed, a man who gave logistical support to the terrorists who carried out the November 2015 Paris attacks had been investigated by both Belgian and Dutch police, but neither the EU nor French authorities were aware of the man.
While Europol has established multiple tools for reporting and collecting national security and terrorism intelligence, it cannot conduct its own investigations and instead facilitates the exchange of information. However, given the cultural and linguistic diversity of the 28 EU member states, as well as their differing political and judicial frameworks, sharing intelligence through Europol may not be as effective as more informal arrangements.
Likewise, the United Nations’ counterterrorism efforts lack coherence, according to an issue brief by the Council on Foreign Relations. The UN alone runs more than 30 agencies that conduct counterterrorism activity.
“Too often, these various elements are uncoordinated and even competing,” the report notes. A UN committee created a consolidated list of individuals subject to sanctions because of terrorist activity, but the report finds that the impact was negligible “given the lack of regular updates and expansion of the list, making it an inflexible mechanism,” especially as terrorist groups become less hierarchical.
Walsh points out that even successful intelligence-sharing relationships face larger philosophical concerns—determining when to share information, and whether the receiving country will treat that information appropriately.
“Typically, when you cooperate with another country, say on trade policy or an alliance, you want to be able to observe how they’re behaving to see if they’re living up to their commitments,” Walsh explains. “That’s exceptionally hard to do in the area of intelligence because it’s information and secrets.”
Nations also need to know whether it is necessary to share intelligence they have collected. After 9/11, intelligence agencies agreed to share secrets more freely with each other to prevent another large attack. However, the effort backfired when leaks through Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks made agencies scale back their sharing to need-to-know information.
“It’s really hard to know when you actually have ironclad intelligence that something bad is going to happen,” Walsh explains. “You have so much intelligence that’s collected on individual people, like travel records, so the problem is connecting the dots. How do we even know that we should share that?”
Trust is essential to intelligence-sharing relationships, whether it’s trusting that the information is accurate or trusting that the receiving country will treat the information appropriately.
Despite Trump’s gaffe, Walsh points out that it takes a great deal to seriously damage an intelligence-sharing relationship—there were no significant changes to the United States–Germany relationship after it was revealed that the United States had been tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private phone. However, too many leaks and faux pas by the new administration could eventually take a toll.
“It’s troubling that the Manchester investigation leaks happened so shortly after the Israel episode,” Walsh says. “It might suggest to foreign governments that there’s a pattern, especially if that information was shared with the United States and it was leaked by the White House, in particular.”