Elliott Abrams: Leaks Against Trump Are Hurting Israel

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

Much was made of the information that President Trump gave to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov when they met on May 10. The Washington Post story began this way:

President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said…

It was during that meeting, officials said, that Trump went off script and began describing details of an Islamic State terrorist threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft.

How much damage was done? Hard to tell, because the President did not reveal how the information was acquired.

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That task was left to The New York Times and to the American officials who leaked highly classified information to the Times. Those officials committed a crime. Read this portion of the recent Times story:

Even one of the rare successes against [ISIS] belongs at least in part to Israel, which was America’s partner in the attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Top Israeli cyber-operators penetrated a small cell of extremist bombmakers in Syria months ago, the officials said. That was how the United States learned that the terrorist group was working to make explosives that fooled airport X-ray machines and other screening by looking exactly like batteries for laptop computers.

The intelligence was so exquisite that it enabled the United States to understand how the weapons could be detonated, according to two American officials familiar with the operation.

The information helped prompt a ban in March on large electronic devices in carry-on luggage on flights from 10 airports in eight Muslim-majority countries to the United States and Britain.

It was also part of the classified intelligence that President Trump is accused of revealing when he met in the Oval Office last month with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and the ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak. His disclosure infuriated Israeli officials.

I don’t know whether the President’s disclosure infuriated Israelis, but I know that the Times’s unprincipled and irresponsible disclosure damaged not only Israel but our own safety. It helped ISIS.

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Now, read this from a story in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth (originally in Hebrew), by Israel’s most distinguished military correspondent, Alex Fishman. Fishman severely criticizes what President Trump did, saying that if he revealed to Lavrov what we think he did, that’s “an intelligence disaster.”

GettyImages-681466714 Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the Treaty Room at the State Department May 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. Tillerson is hosting Lavrov to discuss Syria, Ukraine and other bilaterial issues, according to the State Department. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

But he goes on to discuss the Times story:

The leak in the New York Times saying that the sensitive information came as a result of a cyber-attack could cause intelligence damage of another kind and of a much greater scale.

[ISIS] is good at compartmentalization and knows that there is no intelligence agency that is not trying to penetrate it. It therefore reasonable to assume it ordered a communications blackout: its members refrain from using digital communication and if they do, it is encrypted…

Any penetration of [ISIS], including computerized, often entails risk to life. Any penetration requires classical intelligence work, which includes: setting a target, learning the system and finding its weak points, and developing functions that will hide the Trojan horse that is inserted to collect secret intelligence. Every exposure of [ISIS] activity ends, as far as intelligence is concerned, with a bomb on the head, literally.

But then came the New York Times to reveal to [ISIS] that it had been hit by an Israeli cyber-attack. And now, all that remains for [ISIS] is to do is to try and expose the system that had penetrated their computers.

And not only ISIS: countries that wish to learn about Israeli capabilities will be digging through ISIS’s computers to catch the virus, or Trojan horse, or worm, or whatever it is. The moment a cyber “tool” is discovered, there is a great chance that the weak point will also be found. And that weak point—which no doubt also exists in the computer systems of countries and organizations hostile to Israel—will be fixed.

This means an intelligence collapse of the attacker [Israel] who invested long years in developing the tool and placing it.

Cyber warfare has enormous advantages over conventional intelligence. However, it entails long-term risks and damages for the attacker. If there is a trace of truth to the latest reports, then somebody is waging their battle against Trump at Israel’s expense and is deliberately causing serious damage to an ally of the United States, bordering on betrayal.

Strong words, but well deserved. The officials who leaked to the Times leaked information of the highest sensitivity and classification, which is why I called it a crime.

That leak, and the decision of the Times to print the story, endanger Israeli security, and American security. To what end? What is achieved?

Fishman has it right: it’s just a small part of a campaign against Trump. And it seems advancing that cause, for the leakers and the newspaper, trumps our security and that of an ally.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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