US President Donald Trump’s sharing of Israeli intelligence with Russia without prior coordination “has an erosive and corrosive effect” on global data sharing with Washington, a former US intelligence chief told The Jerusalem Post.
“I am not surprised that [Israel’s] intelligence officials were appalled by it. There have been similar reactions from other countries as well,” Former Defense Intelligence Agency chief and CIA veteran David Shedd said in a telephone interview after ex Mossad chiefs urged Israel to temporarily freeze intelligence sharing with Washington after the leak.
Shedd gives Trump a range of minuses but also some pluses in intelligence and national security. He noted how England had also recently frozen intelligence-sharing after a US official revealed classified British intelligence. The former defense intelligence chief voiced the concerns of foreign allies, saying they might ask, “Is this a person who can be trusted with sources and methods? Hopefully a little further down that path the answer becomes ‘yes’.
“The currency of the realm is trust… My sense is [allies like Israel] may be more apprehensive about future sharing things that are that sensitive,” since “inadvertently the president or someone else may release [information] about sources” who would then be in “great peril,” Shedd said.
Noting that “these are very difficult sources to acquire,” Shedd added that “losing them is not just potentially fatal to the source, but very serious,” regardless of the fact that Trump did not technically break any US laws.
Moving on to the recent Syria cease-fire deal Trump cut with Russia – which Israel has opposed, based on concerns it could leave a volatile Iran-Hezbollah-Russia mix on the Golan frontier, Shedd said: “I share Israel’s concerns, full stop.”
Shedd said “the cease-fire is an exhibit of something broader than I am very deeply concerned about…a reproach with Russia, which by extension would include Iran.”
He said the deal is “an outcome of the status quo…You are laying the foundational work for the partition of Syria. That the price for peace in our time is an appeasement of a Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah presence…that to me is a terrible and horrible outcome for Syria and for Israel’s security.”
Trump’s current deal would “give Russia a permanent foothold in Syria – a dream come true, which goes back all the way to the days of [former prime minister Yevgeny] Primakov’s interest in the Middle East…Putin is a winner. Iran comes out as a winner…It is a tempting outcome for bringing a so-called peace…but it is a terrible outcome.”
Shedd also shared Israel’s concerns about Trump’s recent misstatements that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his Sunni bloc are on the frontlines fighting Hezbollah. In fact, Hezbollah is the dominant partner in Hariri’s “unity” government.
Trump’s misstatements about Hezbollah in Lebanon are similar to those he has made about the Colombia-Venezuela relationship and drug-trafficking, Shedd said.
“The absence of details in understanding these kinds of issues and the proclivity to talk before understanding…is a case in point,” he said. “I would be the first to say that the president is not endorsing Hezbollah in any shape, way or form. I don’t think he understood that they are fully in the government. That is how Lebanon holds itself together currently, but it is a pact with the devil.”
Shedd called this “just another example of where [Trump] missed it entirely. What is so bad about it is that there is an enormous, missed opportunity to make a profound policy statement. To get it wrong…is a missed opportunity as well.”
That said, Shedd is not concerned that Trump’s misunderstanding of the Hezbollah-Hariri relationship would lead to criticism of Israel in a future Lebanon war, if Israel were forced to attack Hezbollah.
“The absence of the president having a nuanced understanding would also apply to a full carte blanche for Israel… His constituency is so supportive among evangelicals. It is such a difference over the previous eight years” under the Obama administration, which sometimes criticized Israel strongly about using force.
After all the criticism, Shedd has compliments for Trump as well. “Overall…I am pleased we have a president who is ready to make decisions and in a manner without languishing in terms of action. I like the unambiguous message to Syria about using chemical weapons…
“Very quickly the administration, [US Defense Secretary] Mattis and the president made it very clear [to the Assad regime] that the consequences” of any new use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war “would be Tomahawk [cruise missiles] as a response and then some.”
Another area of improved Trump-intelligence relations, he said, is the president trusting his own intelligence chiefs. He said Trump is “building relationships with [Director of National Intelligence] Coats and [CIA Director] Pompeo…by having his own team in there… There is a bridge of trust toward those individuals.”
As a result, he said Trump now “routinely takes his daily briefings,” which he had refused until his own appointees were in place.
Despite the compliments, Shedd reiterated his “deep concern” that “there is no clear policy making process in place to develop strategy. Now or in six months, will we have a clear strategy in Syria? No, because there is no process” for policies about Syria, Iran or North Korea.
Echoing some other security-hawks’ criticisms of Trump, he added, “a tweet is not policy… it is a message which may be true today, but not tomorrow. It is not strategy by any means. I am not real encouraged” that the lack of a policy process will improve.
Part of the issue may be that Trump still has “a skepticism to accepting at face value that the intelligence community is there to help him be able to be a better decision-maker.”
Shedd said this is part of Trump’s “deeper, more profound view of distrust of government and of what at times has been referred to as a ‘deep state.’ I would argue that it will be hard for that to go away entirely. Intelligence can be bad news which runs contrary to policy objectives… This president may interpret that as ‘they are working against me,’ as opposed to speaking truth to power.”