Assessing the Damage: The Implications of the Leaked Intel for Israel

In his weekly column, Amir Rapaport discusses the intelligence information that had originated in Israel and subsequently shared by US President Donald Trump with the Russians: what is the truth regarding this affair, which reports were exaggerated and what are the implications for Israel?

President Trump meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (Photo: AP)

This has already happened during the last few years: a head of state revealed information regarding sensitive assets of the local intelligence community in another country. The damage inflicted by that revelation was immediate and tangible. Valuable intelligence connections, nurtured over many years, were severed abruptly.

Senior members of the intelligence community were furious following the revelation, but had nowhere to direct their anger at. The person who exposed the sensitive connections was none other than their boss, the head of their state. The revelation was intended to serve a political goal, and that leader must have taken the potential damage into account.

"Mishaps that cause intelligence damage always happen, and should be viewed in the proper proportion," said earlier this week Haim Tomer, the former Head of the Mossad's Tevel Division. We talked following the storm of reports in the USA regarding the damage inflicted by President Donald Trump's big mouth. "In such a situation, a series of activities should be initiated to minimize the damage actually inflicted, to prevent future damage and move on. There is no substitute for the intelligence cooperation between Israel and the USA and the other intelligence services in the West."

Tomer knows what he is talking about, as until about three years ago, he had served, as stated previously, as the Head of the Mossad's Tevel Division – the organ in charge of Israel's intelligence connections with allies around the world: those whose alliances with Israel are well-known, as well as those with whom relations are maintained 'under the Radar'.

In order to assess the severity of the damage sustained by Israeli intelligence – if such damage was, indeed, sustained – one should understand what had actually transpired. Official Israeli sources refused to comment on this affair in any way. The only one who responded, vaguely and indirectly, was Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman, who spoke about the importance of "the relations between us and our greatest ally, the USA." Consequently, the only source for information, this time, is the US media, which is not subject to any censorship and is professional and reliable.

So here goes: the meeting that stirred up the storm had taken place last week at the White House, between President Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The Russians are world champions in extracting intelligence information without giving anything in return. Donald Trump may be an illustrious businessman, but in this field he is easy prey for the Russians.

Either way, in the course of a conversation regarding the ISIS threat, the Russian diplomats told the US President that the USA had been wrong denying entrance to passengers carrying laptop computers and travelling on board flights arriving from specific countries, mainly from the Middle East.

Trump dismissed his guests' claims, telling them that the directive was issued pursuant to intelligence information regarding a concrete terrorist attack planned by ISIS, to be staged using an explosive charge planted in the battery of a laptop computer. It is possible that Trump, either naively or burning with a desire to recruit the Russians to the struggle against ISIS terrorism, went too far and provided too much information, which enabled the Russians to trace it to the intelligence sources that had provided it.

A Mistake is Never Made Twice

The affair was reported initially by the Washington Post, quoting a serving senior official and a former official. The report was widely publicized and promptly made the headlines. It was soon reported that the country which had supplied the information is Israel. Some reports suggested that the intelligence damage was so severe as to threaten the life of an Israeli agent within the ranks of ISIS in Syria – which might sound just a bit exaggerated.

"Even if the public revelation had endangered the life of a human source, an evacuation plan could still be initiated to extricate that source," said Tomer, in response to a question of how to deal with the damage sustained. "Assuming, quite reasonably, that no one is in immediate mortal danger because of what Trump had said, a long list of activities may be initiated in order to minimize the intelligence damage and obscure the sources that may have been exposed. It is important to understand that putting an intelligence source at risk is an almost daily phenomenon – not necessarily as a result of a leak. For example, sometimes, in order to execute a targeted killing, some activities must be initiated that might 'burn' an intelligence source, technological or human.

"When political leaders use intelligence information presented to them, they should take into account the damage that might be caused. There can be no doubt that under President Trump and in view of the current situation in Washington, the manner in which Israel shares sensitive intelligence information with the Americans must be considered very carefully. At the bottom line, however, the close intelligence cooperation with the USA will not be discontinued. It is an overriding interest of both countries."

According to reports in the world media, the Americans have already inflicted damage on Israeli intelligence on several occasions. Substantial damage, to the extent of mortal danger, might sometimes be inflicted without anyone having taken that into consideration.

For example, when an excellent intelligence source located at the heart of a hostile territory is compromised pursuant to an apparently innocent report in the Israeli media, where the reporting party never even considered the fact that non-defense related information included in the report could endanger the life of that excellent intelligence source, of whose existence that party had never been aware. Past experience has shown that most of the human sources compromised took their secrets with them to their graves, and when technological sources are compromised – new intelligence gathering resources are developed to replace them.

Who Leaked the Report about the Leak?

At the bottom line it would appear that more than the recent affair had inflicted serious damage on Israeli intelligence, it indicated how severe the internal hostility and tensions within the Washington establishment have been since Trump's election.

The unusual leaking of the affair – which is probably just as severe as the details revealed by the President – cannot be separated from the battles raging between the President and the US intelligence agencies after National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had been forced to go home against the background of alleged connections with Russia, and after FBI Chief James Comey had been fired on TV. The investigation regarding the Russian involvement still hovers over President Trump's head, and the quota of vengeful sentiments has not been filled yet on either side.

In this state of affairs, it will be perfectly reasonable for the Israeli intelligence community to carefully consider every bit of information they intend to share with Washington in the future, while asking themselves where this information might end up.