Is A President Sharing Classified Information Against The Law?

May 16, 2017
Originally published on May 16, 2017 8:21 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The White House is denying allegations that President Trump gave classified information to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office. The Trump administration released several statements from people who attended that meeting, saying the story is false. NPR has not independently confirmed these reports, which first appeared in The Washington Post before being confirmed by multiple other news organizations.

To understand a bit more about what the president can and can't do with classified information, we are joined by Benjamin Wittes. He's a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. We should note he is also a close friend of the former FBI director, James Comey, who was fired by President Trump. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

BENJAMIN WITTES: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: If President Trump did discuss classified information with the Russian foreign minister as is alleged, what's the problem with that from a governance perspective? It's not illegal, right?

WITTES: Well, so the president controls classified information. The - almost the definition of classified information is material the president wants to protect. So if the president wants to disclose it, he gets to disclose it. And disclosures that would be a very serious crime if anyone else did them are almost certainly not if the president does them. So, you know, if the question is, is there a criminal problem here, the answer is almost certainly not.

If the question is, is there a governance problem with the president of the United States blowing major intelligence operations by an allied government to an adversary foreign power, the answer is yes. That's a huge problem. And it's really - the report in The Washington Post is a kind of breathtaking breach of faith with the men and women of the intelligence community and the American people more generally.

MARTIN: Well, and it's clear that members of the administration knew that the president had overstepped a bit because there were phone calls that were placed to the NSA and the CIA to try to do some damage control here. But unpack that a little more. What do you see as the central governance issue?

WITTES: The central governance issue is that American intelligence professionals put their lives on the line every day to protect information, to protect intelligence relationships with foreign services. And those foreign services give us information on the clear understanding that it will not be disclosed beyond the parameters of their permission. And when the president blithely gives away such information to a hostile foreign power - apparently without realizing he was doing it - the consequences of that to the intelligence collection apparatus of the United States are swift.

They can be very severe. And they're very hard to undo because the system is built around trust. And when the person at the top behaves in a fashion that calls that trust into question, that is heard around the world by our partners.

MARTIN: Benjamin Wittes is the editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

WITTES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.