Former CIA Director: Disclosure Firestorm May Be ‘Just Kind of a Flap’
Woolsey says Trump has 'right to declassify material,' but leak to media 'absolutely' illegal
Former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey said President Donald Trump had “the right to declassify material” during a meeting last week with Russian officials, and the only debate can be over whether it was “wise for any of a host of reasons,” during an interview Tuesday on “The Laura Ingraham Show.”
Woolsey, who served under former President Bill Clinton, addressed alleged disclosures of sensitive information by Trump to Russian officials, reported Monday evening by The Washington Post. Anonymous intelligence sources told The Post that Trump shared classified information during a meeting with Russian officials attended by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, White House Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategy Dina Powell, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
“We’re not talking about whether [Trump] has the right here. He does. He’s the classification authority. The question is, was it wise?”
“It’s a mess,” Woolsey said. “We’re not talking about whether [Trump] has the right here. He does. He’s the classification authority. The question is, was it wise? And it may not be wise for any of a host of reasons, one of which is that he could have disclosed sources and methods, even though not directly.”
Noting that the president unwittingly could have caused “the disclosure of a source method,” if he named a date or a time or referred to a recognizable event or detail when he spoke to the Russians, Woolsey expressed his concern that such a disclosure could cause irreparable damage.
“And if a source method is disclosed, it could be very damaging to intelligence collection, to our reputation, to in some cases an individual’s existence. You could get killed if somebody leaks classified information,” Woolsey said.
“It can be serious. On the other hand, this could all be just kind of a flap that got started up without having any underlying substance. I don’t know,” Woolsey added.
The former CIA director noted that he faced a similar situation during his tenure when a journalist consulted with him, before publishing a report, to confirm the accurate of information. Woolsey said he was concerned because the piece contained a specific date “that would have indirectly disclosed the source and method and could have actually gotten someone killed.”
“And so I went alone to the media outlet and got with the editor, the senior person there … and explained it,” Woolsey said. “So I disclosed classified information to him in persuading him to say, ‘OK, we’ll run this, but we will not include the date.'”
“But it’s important to have your eye on what you just can’t turn loose,” Woolsey added. “And both direct and indirect indications of sources and methods just should not be turned loose under any but the most extraordinary circumstances.”
What is unquestionably wrong, the former CIA director said, is the fact that an intelligence source with knowledge of the information Trump reportedly disclosed to the Russians leaked that information to The Post.
"That step is what's illegal," Woolsey said. "It is probably not illegal for them to have the information, even if they don't have a need to know it. They have a clearance, and so forth. But maybe again, it might be unwise for them to have it, but not illegal. But giving it to the press and giving it to an uncleared person is a violation of the law, absolutely."
Although Trump did nothing illegal in passing along the information to the Russians during the meeting, Woolsey advised the president to exercise extreme caution and foresight before disclosing sensitive information provided to the U.S. by a third country again.
"But what you don't do is just sort of take what is classified and because it came from a country that let you have it under very limited circumstances, and just talk about it in an unclassified format. That's not what one should do," Woolsey said. "So this whole business of talking to other countries about something that you have gotten from a third country is very sensitive. Sometimes you can do it."