Why Trump's leaky White House could sink trust of Russia-wary allies

Reports about the Trump administration's Russian links are accumulating, and spilling out of the White House at a pace that should concern the U.S.'s spying partners abroad, security experts say.

'Five Eyes' partners might decide to scale back how much intelligence they share with U.S., experts say

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration is under intense scrutiny following new reports that his campaign team was in regular contact with Russian officials during last year's presidential campaign. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Sensitive leaks seeping from Donald Trump's White House, the latest of which revived misgivings about his administration's ties with Russia, could end up fouling a global intelligence ecosystem that has long shared data with American spy channels.

The danger, former counterterrorism officials warn, is the U.S. could become isolated from security partnerships abroad as reports pile up about White House links with the Kremlin.

The administration's troubles intensified Monday after the president forced his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to resign. Flynn reportedly discussed U.S. sanctions with a Russian official before Trump had even moved into the White House and then lied about it.

More damaging reports came out on Tuesday that Trump associates kept regular contact with Russian officials during his presidential campaign.

Michael Flynn was forced to resign as Trump's national security adviser this week. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

In the wake of the disclosures, a loss of faith among Russia-wary allies around the world could lead to an erosion of U.S. intelligence, said Joseph Nye, who served as an assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs in the Bill Clinton administration.

"Liaison with allies is an important source of intelligence," Nye said, but "sloppy processes in the White House" could alarm America's partner nations in the so-called Five Eyes intelligence coalition, which includes Canada as well as Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

"Foreign intelligence agencies will be worried about how their information will be protected," Nye said. "You might narrow down how much intelligence you send."

Unusual relationship

Suspicions about the Trump team's unusual relationship with Russia were reportedly shared by some outgoing Barack Obama administration staffers during the new president's transition period. Anonymous senior Obama officials told the Washington Post they deliberately withheld information pertaining to Russia from Flynn and other national security aides. 

"We just thought, who knew? Would that information be safe?" one former official said.

Joseph Nye, who served as an assistant secretary of defence in Bill Clinton's administration, says U.S. allies 'might narrow down' the amount of intel they share if they have reason to worry the White House is prone to leaks or if they believe the information might be shared with Russia. (Itsuo Inouye/Associated Press)

Flynn's predecessor, Susan Rice, also reportedly refrained from informing him ahead of time about new sanctions against Russia as punishment for the Kremlin's meddling in the U.S. election.

The week before Trump's inauguration, Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported that U.S. spies were telling their Israeli colleagues about "levers of pressure" that Russia might have over Trump, and that intelligence might be shared with the Kremlin.

Former White House national security adviser Susan Rice, right, shakes hands with Michael Flynn, her successor. A report said Rice didn't give Flynn advance information about new sanctions against Russia. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Leaks happen with every White House, but rarely are they this abundant. 

Even president Trump agrees with the media on that point.

"It's been going on a long time before me," Trump said Wednesday, complaining about unsanctioned disclosures from Washington insiders to the press. 

"But now, it's really going on."

Trump has blamed the "un-American" intelligence leaks for Flynn's ouster. The president removed Flynn after he misled Vice-President Mike Pence about discussing sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump took office. A federal law called the Logan Act prohibits unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments.

As the government dealt with Flynn's resignation, more disclosures came out Tuesday night in the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN, citing unnamed intelligence sources who said Trump associates were in "constant contact" with Russian government officials during last year's presidential campaign — a contest U.S. intelligence agencies say the Russians tried to sway in Trump's favour.

Chilling effect

Security analyst Robert Jervis, who teaches international politics at Columbia University, expects other federal agencies will experience a chilling effect, opting to scale back how much they tell White House colleagues.

"The State Department, the Defence Department and the intelligence community are going to be very careful about what they share at the highest levels of the White House ... because would you trust them not to blab something?"

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was among the Trump associates named in a report who had regular contact with Russian officials last year during the presidential campaign. Manafort has denied the veracity of the reports. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Intelligence officials told the New York Times that communications they intercepted last year between Trump's campaign associates and senior Russian operatives had occurred around the same time they uncovered evidence the Russians were trying to hack into the Democratic National Committee.

The Trump Organization also has significant financial ties to Russia. In a 2008 speech, Trump's son, Donald Trump, Jr., told a real estate conference: "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia."

Democratic senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut suggested on Wednesday that a probe of Trump's tax returns, which he has not yet disclosed, might shed some light on what he called a "bizarre positioning" towards Russia.

'Compelled to speak out'

Meanwhile, Trump's insistence that the "illegal" leaks are "the real story" was viewed by critics as an attempt at misdirection. Rather than blaming the leaks, former Department of Defence intelligence analyst Jim Arkedis, who served in the George W. Bush administration, says it's important to understand why the leaks are happening at all.

Sergey Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the U.S., reportedly discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with Flynn before Trump was sworn in as president. (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)

"Civil servants in the government are compelled to speak out and say there are serious threats to our national security orbiting the Trump White House, and the public deserves to know," said Akredis, a fellow with the Truman National Security Project. "The worst thing in the world for American democracy is the idea that the president or those advising him on crucial national security measures have been compromised by a foreign government."

He said close allies like Canada might hesitate about exchanging "valuable intelligence that helps keep Americans safe."

"Trust is at the heart of that exchange. If our allies don't trust us to handle information they give us properly and the intelligence exchange dries up, America's national security suffers."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong