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Trump's actions pose questions about future of Canada-U.S. intelligence sharing: experts

U.S President Donald Trump on May 16, 2017.


When Donald Trump spills secrets, people in intelligence agencies get nervous. Not just within his own country's agencies, but also within allied ones – such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service – where officials rely on freely swapping information with the much larger American apparatus.

"This is such a hard problem for a country that is an intelligence consumer like Canada," said Stephanie Carvin, a former federal-government intelligence analyst in Ottawa. Recent disclosures about Mr. Trump's lack of discretion, she said, could lead CSIS and other closely allied agencies to reconsider just how much they confide in the United States – especially when it comes to informants who jeopardize their lives in conflict zones.

"The handlers are probably tearing their hair out right now because if some sources aren't clamming up in the first place, they are having to probably reassure them that the risk they are taking is still worthwhile," said Ms. Carvin, now a Carleton University international-relations professor.

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Explainer: Trump's shared secrets with Russia: The fallout, and what we know so far

Related: Trump engulfed by new crisis over sharing classified information

This week, Mr. Trump stood accused of spilling secrets, lacking judgment and having an unfortunate tendency to "declassify on the fly." Reports indicated he had relayed details about a highly classified intelligence tip from Israel, regarding an Islamic State plot to bomb airplanes, during his recent meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister and the Russian ambassador to the United States.

In intelligence circles, spy-agency sources and methods – or even information that points to them – are considered inviolable secrets, even when shared between states. Mr. Trump defended himself on Twitter by saying that he exercised his presidential prerogative to declassify intelligence and that he was only motivated by "humanitarian reasons."

Given how the President's inner circle is being investigated by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation for potential ties to Russian agents, this sounded outlandish to many observers. Yet several sources once affiliated with the Canadian government pointed out Tuesday that intelligence about potential acts of aviation terrorism is shared widely among states. They also suggested that U.S. presidents and their officials often leak material when it suits their political purposes to do so.

The United States can leak even allied secrets with relative impunity. Allied agencies cannot credibly threaten to withhold information in the future, given their relatively small size and the fact they are beholden to the pipeline of the multibillion-dollar U.S. intelligence community.

In 2013, for example, the American government contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents about highly classified technological-intercept programs that involved not just U.S. surveillance agencies, but also ones from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But because the United States' contribution to the Five Eyes alliance between the countries was so much larger and more vital than that of the rest, the allies largely swallowed any bad feelings flowing from the leak.

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In Ottawa on Tuesday, several Canadian cabinet ministers sidestepped questions about whether Mr. Trump's alleged affinity for ill-considered disclosures would hurt intelligence sharing. "Our relationship with the Five Eyes community of security agencies goes very long back, up to approximately 70 years ago or so," said Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who added that "very strict protocols" safeguard shared information.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said: "I'm not going to speculate about a media report in another country." One of the agencies Mr. Goodale oversees is CSIS, which has been cultivating informants overseas who put themselves in peril to spy for Canada.

In 2015, Turkey's Foreign Minister announced his country had arrested an alleged human smuggler with terrorist ties who had moonlighted by selling information to Canadian intelligence. The suspect was later accused of being a CSIS asset in the Turkish press, amid allegations he had transported a trio of British schoolgirls, among other Westerners, into Syria to join the Islamic State.

Portrayals of Mr. Trump as a loose-lipped and reckless politician come as the Canadian government has tabled legislation that would give a select committee of politicians access to classified intelligence from CSIS, the Five Eyes and other agencies.

The Canadian civil service had long resisted such an initiative because of long-standing questions about whether politicians can be trusted to keep secrets.

Yet the bill makes it clear that MPs and senators will face consequences if they violate their oaths. "My bottom line is that the C-22 bill is festooned with checks and balances that limit the capacity of parliamentarians to do this, that don't exist with respect to the President of the United States," said Craig Forcese, a University of Ottawa law professor.

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Pointing out the U.S. President has enormous discretion to divulge classified information, he added that Canadian politicians would not. "It's unequivocal that if they spill a bean they go to jail for 14 years," Mr. Forcese said, adding that "if they leak it to a foreign power, it goes up to life."

With a report from Daniel Leblanc

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More


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