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Intelligence Lingo Explained In Light Of Trump's Meeting With Russian Officials


The intelligence world has a very rich lexicon, and some of these terms are self-explanatory. Some of them are not. We've as NPR's national security editor Phil Ewing to talk us through a couple of key terms as we follow this story about President Trump's meeting with the Russians. Hey there, Phil.


CORNISH: So one of the words in the first reports of the president sharing highly classified information describe that information as being compartmented. What does that mean?

EWING: Well, you remember the lines from the spy movies, you get writ into something if you have a need to know. So if you're a CIA officer and you're working on the Asia desk focusing on North Korean nuclear missiles, for example, you might have no reason to learn about what the U.S. knows about European intelligence or Syrian intelligence or whatever. And so the goal is by compartmentalizing things that these spies learn, you minimize the risk that each individual person poses if they get captured in a conflict, for example, or if they start talking to the press - the damage they can do to national security.

And it's actually really interesting to learn what people don't know. The former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was just up on the Hill, and he told members of Congress there he didn't know the FBI was running a counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign, something that former FBI Director James Comey had revealed.

CORNISH: Another description of the information shared was that it was, quote, "code word information," which doesn't sound unusual for spycraft. But what does it mean here?

EWING: It's a way that you can talk about these things in which you refer to them but without actually knowing what they are. So if you have a code word for your fiefdom that you're working on and I have one for mine, you might know about the other person's work but not any detail about what it is. And sometimes these become public. A lot of people remember the code name Curveball, who was the source for an Iraqi defector who gave intelligence to the United States about what he said was the weapons of mass destruction program there, intelligence that turned out to be faulty and was later debunked.

And sometimes current code words get into the press through leaks and other reports as well. The CIA program to support anti-government forces in Syria, for example, was called Timber Sycamore. And these are ways that people in the intelligence world can kind of wink and nod to each other in officialdom to say that they know what's going on or don't know what's going on.

CORNISH: Finally, Phil, one phrase we've heard over and over again the last 24 hours is sources and methods. Here's national security adviser H.R. McMaster speaking again.


H R MCMASTER: The president in no way compromised any sources or methods in the course of this conversation.

CORNISH: Sounds kind of obvious, but help me understand what that means in this world.

EWING: Right. It's kind of a term of art. Intelligence officers will often tell you what they know - as in North Korea wants to launch a missile against the United States - but not how they know it because they don't want to tell you the foreign source and the government that's telling them these details or that they are eavesdropping on the phone conversations of the foreign minister or they might have a spy satellite that flew overhead and looked down and saw some evidence that gave them that conclusion.

And the issue with the Trump conversation with the Russians is not that he gave them those sources and methods but that he might have talked about intelligence in such a detailed way that the Russians who are very skilled in this department, by the way, could infer from what they learned who those sources are, what those methods might have been. And that's why this story has caused such concern for so many people.

CORNISH: That's NPR's national security editor Phil Ewing. Thanks for coming in.

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