President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, said during a press conference Tuesday that Trump “wasn’t even aware” of the source of the classified information he reportedly disclosed to Russian diplomats last week.
McMaster briefed reporters one day after The Washington Post reported that Trump’s disclosures to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in the Oval Office last week “jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.” The report said the intelligence “had been provided by a US partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the US government.”
McMaster denied Monday night that Trump had revealed intelligence sources and methods to the Russians. But when asked by a reporter on Tuesday whether Trump revealed the specific city from which an ISIS plot was detected by a US ally — which experts have said could jeopardize that ally’s sources and methods — McMaster replied that what Trump discussed with the Russians about the Islamic State “was nothing you would not know from open-source reporting.”
“All of you are familiar with the threat from ISIS,” McMaster said. “All of you are very familiar with the territory it controls. If you were to say, ‘Hey, from where do you think a threat might come, from territory that ISIS controls, you would probably be able to name a few cities.”
“It had all to do with operations that were already ongoing and had been made public for months,” McMaster claimed.
But the information Trump relayed to the Russian diplomats was reportedly “code-word” information — one of the highest classification levels used by the US intelligence community — and came from a close “Middle Eastern ally,” according to The Washington Post and The New York Times.
McMaster did not confirm whether the information Trump disclosed was classified, or if it came from a US ally. But he suggested Trump did not intend to reveal classified information because he “did not even know where that information came from.” He added that Trump made the decision to disclose the information “in the context of the conversation” with the Russian diplomats.
Top White House officials evidently were aware, however, that the disclosure might constitute a misstep. According to The Washington Post, officials scrambled to “contain the potential fallout” from the conversation by quickly contacting the directors of the CIA and the NSA.
When asked about that reaction, McMaster said it may have stemmed from an “overabundance of caution.”
Parroting what has by now become a familiar White House talking point, McMaster said the real threat to US national security were leaks emanating from the US intelligence community to the press.
“We need a high degree of confidence in all of our organisations so that we can do what we need to do for the president,” McMaster said.
He asserted earlier that Trump sought to “emphasise the common interests” between the US and Russia when it comes to fighting terrorism.
“We have to work together,” he added. “It was wholly appropriate to share what the threat was as a basis for common action and cooperation.”
When asked whether he was concerned that Trump’s disclosure might discourage other US allies from sharing sensitive intelligence with the US in the future, McMaster replied, “No, I’m not concerned at all.”
Trump tweeted a similar defence on Tuesday morning.
“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump wrote. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
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