Many in the British intelligence community are disturbed by Donald Trump’s most recent meeting with Russian officials, during which he bragged of “great intel” about an Islamic State plot. They fear the Oval Office could become a centre for the broadcasting of information, for which spies have risked lives and liberty.
“There is a now widespread concern about the ability of Trump to handle secret material with discretion and judgment,” a former high official in Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence agency told me. Others echoed his view.
Trump’s actions could ultimately be more damaging than the WikiLeaks disclosure of CIA hacking tools in March, or Edward Snowden’s 2013 NSA leak, and have already strained the west’s main spy network.
And they are likely to increasingly test the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain, one that becomes more precious to the UK as Brexit negotiations become more challenging. On Wednesday British Prime Minister Theresa May affirmed her country’s commitment to intelligence-sharing. She said her government had confidence in its relationship with the United States, and that "Decisions about what President Trump discusses with anybody that he has in the White House is a matter for President Trump”.
Yet if Trump cannot climb out of the hole he has dug for himself, the prime minister’s position will weaken. “Trump is in big trouble,” says Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham. “If Theresa May insists on continuing to give top secret intelligence to him, she may be putting the political dimension before national security, and find herself on the wrong side of her intelligence chiefs”.
Within the “Five Eyes” – which includes the intelligence agencies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and the UK – the United States and the UK work most closely together. The British spend around $2 billion a year on intelligence: the Americans, $80 billion.
Yet whether niche players or global powers, spy agencies must prize secrecy above all else and take extraordinary measures to ensure it. That’s become harder after 9/11, when pressure to share information rather than retain it has meant greater leaking, whether deliberate or accidental. Thus the more delicate and explosive the information, the less it is shared.
Trump isn’t the first president to share intelligence to the chagrin of his spies; his predecessors include John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush, among others. But his inexperience, unpredictability and inability to grasp the nature of his office puts his risk at a higher level.
The result is that members of the intelligence and diplomatic communities will certainly keep their distance from elected politicians. Charged with ensuring national security and conducting business with foreign states, the intelligence officials and diplomats will have to keep highly sensitive intelligence – especially that in which sources might be identifiable – away from the president.
In the United States, an intelligence community that strongly believes in the Russian threat has as its ultimate boss one who discounts that threat. The “Five Eyes” is now facing a series of challenges greater than any since the end of the Cold War. At its political apex is a man the agencies cannot trust. Often seen as a potential threat to democracy, the agencies are now among its strongest defenders – in opposition to a democratically elected politician.
This isn’t a stable situation. Something has to give.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and "Journalism in an Age of Terror". He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.