The Truth About the Leaked Intelligence
My role as a former CIA intelligence officer is to take the politics out of security issues. My job is to give you the scoop devoid of political wrangling.
The sad fact about the intelligence reportedly leaked by President Trump to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is that the intelligence leaked itself.
What do I mean by that?
When the CIA acquires credible and detailed threat-related intelligence, we face a moral and ethical dilemma. We must release the intelligence to potential target(s) of the threat as well as those in a position to stop the threat. That’s the whole point of collecting intelligence—to provide it to those who can prevent the operation from being carried out.
But here’s the dicey part: Threats of this nature are known to a very small group of people, those involved in planning the operation. That means that the source of the intelligence we gather, either a human being or technical communications, will quickly be discovered and dealt with accordingly.
This means that by sharing the intelligence, we are completely closing a window into the group and will be unable to gain additional insights into their plans and intentions. If the source is human, he will likely be killed if he hasn’t already been exfiltrated from the area. If the operation was discussed over a telephone, then that phone will be destroyed. If an email was used, then it will be quickly discarded and never used again.
So whatever fallout that would occur in the wake of telling the world about the terrorist threat has already occurred, way before Trump discussed it with Lavrov. Unless Trump discussed the details of who collected the threat and how it was obtained, then there’s very little that could be compromised at this point. Per CNN, “The President did not directly reveal the source of the information, but intelligence officials told CNN that there is concern that Russia will be able to figure out the highly sensitive source.”
Well guess what guys—everyone involved in the threat has already figured out where the leak occurred and have taken care to get rid of the source of the information. They will ensure that we will never be able to use the same collection method again.
Our foreign intelligence partners know this. They have worked closely with us since 9/11 on these issues and are fully aware of our need (and their own need) to inform appropriate authorities. Intelligence professionals are constantly balancing the need to protect the source of the information with the need to share it to stop the threat. And because this threat affects so many different countries, many of our foreign intelligence partners are aware of the threat details and have collaborated with us to figure out a way to stop it. This is how intelligence works.
My bottom line: There are plenty of other issues to be concerned with. Manufactured horror at this “leak of classified information” is just that—a situation blown out of proportion. There are plenty of other valid issues to be concerned with, but the “leak” is not one of them. The compromise of this stream of reporting due to the necessary release of this information to the public and the continued threat to our well-being is much more critical.
Take it from someone whose former job was to clear such information for authorities, governments and the general public. My job was to balance source protection with the need to stop attacks from occurring. I’ve been around this block a few times.
The U.S. government released the information to protect us, and now the source of the information is forever compromised. It sucks, but this is how intelligence and espionage works when dealing with threat information.
What was the intelligence about?
The intelligence indicated that a terrorist group (possibly ISIS) planned to use electronic devices (i.e. laptops) as a platform for a new type of improvised explosive device (IED) that could be initiated on an aircraft—a goal terrorist groups have had for years as they work to devise a way to blow up airplanes mid-flight.
Implications of the plot
This is a serious threat because it is credible and detailed. Law enforcement, intelligence, security, and airline authorities are doing their best to safeguard our interests and ensure that airline travel is as safe as possible. It takes time to figure out how to defeat the technology terrorists seek to use against us. It will likely change rules about what devices we can take onboard with us and what may need to be checked in our luggage. I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine being parted from my laptop. I don’t trust that it won’t be stolen during my travels in my checked luggage. This issue will be a challenge for us all.
*** This does not constitute an official release of CIA information. All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or any other U.S. Government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentification of information or CIA endorsement of the author’s views. This material has been reviewed solely for classification.