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Trump's Disclosure To Russian Officials Threatens To Alienate Intelligence Community

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

These reports of President Trump sharing classified information with Russia may impact American allies overseas and the U.S. intelligence community here at home. To discuss this, Paul Pillar joins us now in the studio. He spent nearly three decades at the CIA, working on counterterrorism in the Middle East. Thanks for being here.

PAUL PILLAR: Good to be with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with U.S. allies. Do you expect that this will harm relationships?

PILLAR: It will cause more doubts and more second thoughts to be going through the minds of U.S. allies. And we should remember that it's not just whatever country, whether it's Israel or someone else, share this particular information but all of the intelligence partners that the United States has. And we have a great deal. We share information through liaison relationships with literally scores of intelligence, internal security and national police forces. And every one of those countries and their governments and this - heads of their services are going to have to think longer and harder when they see the head of our government doing what he did with this particular information.

SHAPIRO: On the specific issue of fighting ISIS and counterterrorism, are intelligence assets in other countries more important than they might be on other issues?

PILLAR: Terrorism is the one topic that - on which the United States is probably more dependent on foreign liaison than on any other subject that our intelligence community follows. It's not like, say, a foreign nuclear weapons program where because we've got the most capable satellites or the most sophisticated technical intelligence collection, we might be ahead of the game.

On terrorism, we're relying on those foreign partners that are right down there in the dirt on the front line. Many of them have dealt with groups and cells and individual extremists long before we even knew they existed. They have the cultural knowledge, the language, the lay of the land. It's absolutely critical to maintain these healthy intelligence liaison relationships especially for the topic of counterterrorism.

SHAPIRO: Now, you said this may affect relationships with countries that had nothing to do with this specific disclosure, but it was reported by The New York Times today that the intelligence came from Israel. Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., says Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump. That was a statement today. Do you think this is likely to affect the U.S.-Israeli relationship specifically?

PILLAR: Well, I think the U.S.-Israeli relationship has so many other political equities in it that this particular incident probably would ruffle that relationship less than with many others. I frankly am more worried about what some of the other partners we have worldwide are thinking as they see what happened.

SHAPIRO: Let's pivot from allies to U.S. intelligence agents here at home. In The Atlantic today, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum said, American military and intelligence agencies must assume from now on that the president of the United States is a security risk; he cannot be trusted to protect state secrets. Do you agree, and what impact would that have on the way the intelligence community works with the White House?

PILLAR: Well, it is a problem, and it's going to be incumbent on the intelligence community and in a very large way with security officials and aides in the White House, particularly people like General McMaster, the national security adviser, to find ways to deal with this.

Now, perhaps one silver lining in this is that this particular president, Mr. Trump, isn't necessarily one to get long intelligence briefings and to consume a lot of intelligence. So there are probably a lot of details that in an earlier presidency, like for Bush or Obama, might have gone to the president aren't going to go to this president anyway. And so there are perhaps many things, including in this counterterrorist area, where the intelligence agencies can quite appropriately deal with general McMaster, deal with Secretary Mattis at the defense department, Secretary Tillerson, and not bringing the kind of details to the president where we have a risk of this sort of thing happening again.

SHAPIRO: What about intelligence agents in the field? Do you think this makes it more difficult for them to do their jobs?

PILLAR: Yes. It's not just other foreign governments and foreign services that see what's happening. It's the would-be agent, the would-be spy, if you will, people who at great risk to themselves sometimes betraying their own country are being asked to provide information to us. Well, it's extremely important for those people to have the confidence that we are going to safeguard that information and it's not going to be blown to an adversary.

SHAPIRO: That's Paul Pillar, a CIA veteran and senior fellow at Georgetown University. Thanks very much for joining us.

PILLAR: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.