Tuesday, May 16, 2017

What If Hillary Had Volunteered Classified Information to Russia?

Today I am thinking about the following hypothetical. Keeping firmly in mind that Russia is and long has been one of our most important geopolitical adversaries, what if--
  • Hillary Clinton had won the presidential election;
  • Our intelligence community unanimously and with a high level of certainty agreed that Russia intervened in that election with the aim of helping her win, not directly by ballot box tampering but in other powerful ways designed to sway public opinion;
  • Clinton's campaign staff had numerous well-documented ties to Russian officials and Russian businessmen known to be close to Vladimir Putin;
  • The Clinton campaign was under FBI investigation to determine if, and if so to what extent, it was complicit in Russia's election intervention;
  • Instead of saying "I welcome this investigation because it will prove that I'm innocent and have nothing to hide," she dismissed the whole "Russia thing" as a hoax and fake news and repeatedly tried to deflect attention from it;
  • She fired the FBI director shortly after he asked for more resources for the Russia investigation;
  • The next day, she met with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador behind closed doors in a meeting to which the Russian press was admitted but the US press was not;
  • A few days later, the Washington Post reported, and the New York Times confirmed, that Ms. Clinton, in the course of bragging about her access to "great intel," had shared some of the most highly-classified intelligence we have about ISIS -- intelligence provided by an ally and so sensitive it was closely held within our intelligence community and not shared with our allies;
  • The official response from White House staff, while couched as a strong denial, did not squarely address the Post's report (i.e., they didn't deny a voluntary disclosure of classified information but rather focused on the fact that specific "sources and methods" were not expressly revealed);
  • The next morning Ms. Clinton admitted in a tweet that she had shared the information with Russia but said it was for "humanitarian reasons" and an attempt to convince Russia to "greatly step up their [sic] fight on ISIS?"
If you were in Congress, regardless of your political party or your assessment of Ms. Clinton's prior actions, wouldn't this one fact pattern alone make you sit bolt upright and say, "Holy shit, we need to get to the bottom of the Clinton-Russia nexus immediately if not sooner!!!"? It would me, and I voted for her.

Perhaps more disturbing than the fact pattern itself, which of course is true if you replace the name "Hillary Clinton" with the name "Donald Trump," is that the Republican leaders in Congress by and large seem willing to continue brushing off the Trump-Russia nexus. These are the same people who traditionally have been highly skeptical about and tough on Russia, and the same people who wanted to put Hillary Clinton in jail because she used a private email server. (For the record: as someone who had a security clearance and was subject to federal agency record-keeping rules for many years, I, too, was very troubled by Ms. Clinton's email arrangement and did not, like some of the more strident Clinton apologists and Democratic partisans, try to pretend it was a non-issue.) 

It should be obvious to everyone, especially those who were concerned about Hillary Clinton's email, that, if true, what Mr. Trump did last week is orders of magnitude worse. The Clinton email case involved a reckless decision that had the potential to, but ultimately did not, permit an adversary to obtain unauthorized access to a relatively small amount of classified information. By contrast, Mr. Trump allegedly has voluntarily and knowingly provided super-top-secret information (which, again, we didn't even share with our allies) to a long-time adversary with respect to which his campaign is under federal investigation for possible collusion in election tampering. 

Yes, the president is legally permitted to de-classify and share top-secret information, which is a power all presidents until now have understood is meant to be used rarely, in only the most extraordinary of cases. Does anyone in their right mind think such authority is meant to permit sharing this kind of information in this context? Does anyone in their right mind think the effect of this will be anything other than to greatly undermine our intelligence agencies and their reciprocal sharing arrangements with other countries? 

Even if what Mr. Trump did was technically legal, taking such an action with no articulated reason relating to US interests, no prior consultation with our intelligence and diplomatic communties or the source country of the information, and no regard for the longer-term consequences is unjustifiable and outright dangerous. It is equally unjustifiable and outright dangerous for those in Congress with appropriate clearance to refuse to seek a complete, accurate, and immediate understating of the details of what Mr. Trump told the Russians last week and a true explanation for his unusual (at best) attitude toward Russia. If the Post's story is confirmed -- and Mr. Trump already seems to have confirmed at least the basic contours -- then the Congress must hold Mr. Trump accountable in the same manner and to the same extent that it undoubtedly would have done had the actor been Hillary Clinton. Anything short of a full investigation followed by appropriate action based on the results would be an outright betrayal of the oath they took "to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic" and "bear true faith and allegiance to the same."

We should all recognize that this ultimately is not a test of party loyalty -- rather, this is a test of the very bedrock on which our nation rests and its security and status in the world. There is a point when a clear-headed assessment of our country's best interests and a due regard for its rule of law and political norms must prevail over partisan politics. The time for that is long-overdue and must not be postponed any further.

*This blog post consists solely of the views and opinions of the author.