November 22, 2019

A Slope Too Slippery

By Stephen Tuttle | June 22, 2019

A recent report in The New York Times was troubling on so many levels. The article said the United States was conducting a cyber attack on the Russian power grid, including the installation of malware into their system. 
 
The punchline: The intelligence community now so distrusts President Trump that he had not been informed of the operation. If true, that sounds like a big problem.
 
It should come as no surprise to anybody that our intelligence community is searching for ways to use technology to fight digital warfare. We're likely probing networks in multiple countries all the time. And it's clear several countries are doing the same to us.
 
It's also no mystery our intelligence community has reason to be skeptical of this president. He has consistently denigrated them since they concluded the Russians interfered in the 2016 elections to his benefit. He is still hesitant to acknowledge that reality despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary. His peculiar relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't help. But it isn't just Russia.
 
Our intelligence community said the Iranians were likely abiding by the terms of a nuclear treaty they had signed with the Obama Administration. Trump said the intelligence community was wrong and canceled the treaty. They said North Korea was still engaged in its nuclear program and missile testing. Trump said they were not because the country’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, wouldn't lie to him.
 
It can’t be easy seeing what could be years of meticulous work summarily disregarded or, worse, described as “fake news.” The antipathy toward the president from that community is understandably quite real. 
 
Let's also accept there are plenty of ongoing intelligence operations, both internationally and domestically, of all sorts about which the president has little knowledge, if any. It isn't his job to be the operational manager for everything, and those managers need not run to him with every detail.
 
However, an operation in which we launch a cyber attack on the Russian power grid sounds like something needing presidential approval. At a minimum, he would certainly need to be informed. Apparently he wasn’t, and this is troubling. 
 
The president said the report was wrong and The Times was guilty of treason for printing the article about a program he says doesn't exist. Nope.  
 
The courts have ruled, more than once and over decades, the press has a First Amendment right to print classified material, or stories about classified operations. They can even print such material if it’s been stolen, as long as they weren't part of the thievery. That the consequences of printing such material could be detrimental to individuals, or even the country, does not abrogate those rights.
 
The better question is not if they had the right to publish but why they chose to do so. The media has sometimes cooperated with government agencies by withholding information regarding classified operations or ongoing investigations. The Timeschose to publish.
 
But whoever leaked the information is not protected. Assuming the program was classified, it was perfectly legal for The Times to publish but in no way legal to leak it to them. If caught, one supposes the leaker could claim he was a whistleblower exposing a program being kept secret from the president, but prison is a likely destination. 
 
If the cyber attack was an ongoing program, it's pretty much over now. If malware was installed, it will now surely be found. That's not so good.
 
The bigger problem here, of course, is a significant intelligence operation being carried out without the president's knowledge. If he didn't authorize it, who did? Who's in charge? If the malware activated, would the intelligence operators even tell the president? If it resulted in a counterattack, which it might now do, were they going to tell the president? What else are they doing on their own?  
 
There is plenty of reason to be skittish about President Trump's ongoing criticisms of our allies and his flirtations with our enemies. Not to mention his bizarre exaggerations and outright lies. 
 
But regardless of what one might think of the president, we cannot have the intelligence community operating independently of civilian oversight. If we're trying to interfere with or bring down the Russian power grid, the president needs to know that regardless of suspicions about his trustworthiness. 
 
The protocols of the intelligence community, with layers of legal and constitutional checks and balances, are in place for good reason. Rogue intelligence operations aren't a good idea, regardless of the president or party in power.  
 
It may well be that Donald Trump has already broken most political conventions and has been occasionally reckless with comments concerning national security. Even so, an arm of the intelligence community allegedly carrying out major operations against a powerful enemy without presidential knowledge is a slope far too slippery.

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