President Donald Trump’s alleged revelation of classified material to Russian officials last week sparked a national security controversy Monday, but the move is technically within his power.
As president, Trump has the authority to declassify information as he sees fit, though that privilege has rarely been invoked. It is not uncommon for U.S. leaders to share information with allies and partners, but it is highly unusual to do so with what some would consider a U.S. adversary.
“It’s never done to U.S. adversaries. Ever,” John Schindler, a former U.S. intelligence officer and current New York Observer columnist, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
The controversy stems from Trump’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on May 10. The president allegedly told the Russian officials of intelligence regarding an Islamic State plot. A U.S. ally who did not give permission for it to be shared reportedly supplied the information.
Executive Order 12356, signed by former President Ronald Reagan in 1982, gave the authority to the official who originally classified information to declassify it. Former President Barack Obama followed up that order with E.O. 13526 in 2009, which adjusted some of the earlier order’s provisions.
“The official who authorized the original classification, if that official is still serving in the same position and has original classification authority; (2) the originator’s current successor in function, if that individual has original classification authority; (3) a supervisory official of either the originator or his or her successor in function, if the supervisory official has original classification authority; or (4) officials delegated declassification authority in writing by the agency head or the senior agency official of the originating agency,” according to the order.
The president is the ultimate authority over the intelligence agencies that classify material, meaning Trump can choose to declassify material if he so chooses.
Schindler made a distinction between declassifying and releasing information to a hostile intelligence service (HoIS) in a tweet Monday.
POTUS can declassify anything he wants. Releasing to HoIS is another matter, however. https://t.co/xfxLNhdzEn
— John Schindler (@20committee) May 15, 2017
The most notable example of a president declassifying information was John F. Kennedy’s address to the nation detailing the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The former president described the Soviet Union’s construction of nuclear-capable missiles installed on the Cuban coast and provided Top Secret U-2 spy plane imagery. The crisis marked one of the closest times the U.S. and Russia came to direct conflict during the Cold War.
Presidential administrations have been known to leak intelligence information in the past. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta acknowledged SEAL Team Six was responsible for killing Osama bin Laden in 2011 just days after the U.S. raid in Pakistan. Officials within the Bush administration were accused of leaking the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame in 2003 after her husband, Joseph Wilson, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times doubting the administration’s claims regarding Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program.
Trump ultimately had the authority to release classified information in his meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak, but his alleged use of the privilege in this case appears to be a first.
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