The Nunes Memo Has Wrought a Crisis for U.S. Intelligence

It’s also made us less safe.

Rep. Devin Nunes walks away from a meeting with House GOP members on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 30.
Rep. Devin Nunes walks away from a meeting with House GOP members on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 30.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

In the wake of the release of the Nunes memo, it’s worth considering one other key consequence of last week’s partisan classified-information release: We’re now facing a crisis of intelligence. The foundation for sharing intelligence with our partners around the world is being shaken by unusual suspects—some members of Congress charged with intelligence oversight, and the president, whose solemn duty is to put the best interests of all Americans first, including guarding us against threats to our national security.

The Nunes memo has gripped headlines for weeks. It’s been a massively successful PR and distraction campaign. As a country, we’ve spent more time anticipating the memo and then analyzing each line than we have talking about what we’re doing to counter ongoing Russian attacks to our election system. It has sucked up time, resources, and the attention of not just members of Congress but also members of the intelligence community (IC) who have been waiting to see whether a memo, shoddily compiled from some of the most classified intelligence in the country, would see the light of day.

The Nunes memo and its surrounding events are not only a costly distraction. They also exact other long-term consequences. One of them is in the realm of intelligence sharing. It’s important to think about how this episode will be understood by our foreign allies and how they may change their strategic posture toward the United States because of it.

As the IC prepared for the eventuality of the Nunes memo’s release, intelligence professionals were also likely analyzing what impact it would have on our foreign intelligence–sharing relationships. For decades, the IC has developed deep–and incredibly useful–relationships with intelligence services around the world. The “Five Eyes”–the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, and New Zealand–regularly share lifesaving intelligence. Forged out of WWII, the U.S. and U.K. began coordinating closely on Soviet intercepts, and the relationship grew from there. Today, there’s probably not a global threat on which the Five Eyes don’t collaborate, including Russia’s ongoing information warfare campaign and cyberattacks around the world. U.S. intel relationships, simply put, circle the globe. We learned, for example, after President Trump shared sensitive intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office, that the Israelis have been sharing vital intel compiled from highly sensitive operations involving ISIS. And the list of our sources of information extends beyond governments, including foreign nationals whose information can make the margin of difference in a successful U.S. military operation or in convincing U.S. officials to discard a military option by identifying other levers of influence.

Our intel-sharing arrangements help keep the country safe. They provide intelligence from places we can’t or won’t go and are often built on relationships we don’t have. Imagine a world where we didn’t have established partnerships with intelligence services around the world. We would miss critical intelligence, for example, from South Korea and Japan, who may have access to information on North Korea. Or Israel, which has historically had better access to some Arab countries and Russia. (Our intel sharing with Israel really kicked off after Israel obtained a copy of Khrushchev’s speech admitting Stalin’s crimes.) Many of these intel-sharing arrangements also occur in large-scale multinational settings where nations have common threats and common goals. There’s a reason that the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS shares information among its 73 members and why NATO does the same—by sharing intel, we get a more fulsome picture of what’s going on, so we can decide what to do about it.

As a baseline, when the Trump administration came into office, we know that some intelligence agencies reportedly dialed back sharing information with a White House so strangely oriented toward Russia. In the wake of Trump’s sharing Israeli intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, Israeli trepidation about sharing intel with the White House undoubtedly increased, with one source, according to a piece in the New York Times, saying, “We have to rethink what to give the Americans. Until we are sure that this channel is as secure as can be, we must not hand over our crown jewels.” Foreign intelligence services are naturally now aware that there’s an ongoing investigation into potential collusion with Russia, which may be affecting the level of intelligence they share about Russia with the United States. It is only logical to assume that foreign intel partners who would already be worried about this White House would be even more likely to hold back until the investigation concludes. This is particularly worrisome as the clock winds down to the 2018 elections.

Liaison relationships with intelligence partners have been built on carefully constructed agreements about what is shared, how, and with whom. At the very least, intelligence partners have known that we have strict processes for classifying and declassifying intelligence, embodied in documents like the Obama-era Executive Order 13526. Those policies clearly state that information shall not be considered for classification unless its unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security and if it, among other things, relates to foreign government information, intelligence activities, intelligence sources or methods, or foreign relations of the United States that include confidential sources. Referencing the balance between transparency and national security, Executive Order 13526 says in its preamble that “throughout our history, the national defense has required that certain information be maintained in confidence in order to protect our citizens, our democratic institutions, our homeland security, and our interactions with foreign nations.” So, before the Nunes memo, foreign intel partners would have been assured that once information was classified, it would go through a rigorous process if and when there was a call for declassification.

The Nunes memo turned this assumption on its head. A member of Congress wrote a document, an obscure rule allowed the House Intelligence Committee majority to move for its declassification, and the president, arguably abrogating his responsibilities to weigh the impact of releasing top-secret information to the public, let the memo go public. Now that a single committee in Congress has cracked the glass on this procedure, and the president has proven his willingness to make major gambles for narrow political self-interest, the entire episode rightfully begs the question: Couldn’t this happen again?

The answer, shockingly, is yes, and the salient point to remember is that this isn’t happening in a vacuum. The world is watching, and if you’re a foreign intelligence service, there’s considerably less and less upside to sharing intelligence with the United States anymore, particularly if it relates to Russia. The truth is, there’s less certainty that sensitive intelligence and the names of specific sources won’t end up on the House Intelligence Committee’s website or all over Twitter. Take the Nunes memo—it specifically references an FBI source, former U.K. intelligence agent Christopher Steele, and notes that he was previously a source for the United States with a history of credible reporting. It also tries to drag his name through the mud. There is talk that to defend against the allegations in the memo, other members of Congress will need to reveal more about the underlying classified information. And due to the step of selective declassification, litigants have already asked a federal court to compel the government to more fully disclose related documents.

If you’re the Israeli Mossad or British MI6, your relationship with peers in the U.S. was bound by a knowledge that rules were in place. There were metrics for multiple layers within the U.S. government to meet before intelligence was declassified or reclassified. Today, that doesn’t hold water anymore, and we’re all a lot less safe because of it.

More from Just Security:

A Q-and-A on the Nunes Memo and Its Implications for the Russia Investigation

The Nunes Memo Misses the Point: Probable Cause

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Samantha Vinograd

Samantha Vinograd served on the National Security Council during the Obama administration and served as deputy U.S. Treasury attaché to Iraq during the Bush administration.