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In the Navy, I kept plenty of classified info a secret. Why can’t Trump?

Trump telling Russian ambassadors classified intel was a scary mistake.

President Donald Trump addresses U.S. Navy and shipyard workers in Newport News, Virginia in March, 2017.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

“This is code-word information,” an anonymous US official told the Washington Post. Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”

Even in these extraordinary times, news of President Trump’s impromptu disclosure of “code-word information” to the Oval Office’s recent Russian guests shocked me. As someone who has served our country in uniform, I was alarmed by the idea of a commander in chief who, despite railing against mutinous leakers, possesses no sense of prudence in his own handling of America’s secrets  —  even when in the company of our geopolitical adversaries.

During my 10 years of military service, I was entrusted with confidential information as a matter of course. I know from experience that such information comes at a steep price. While deployed in the Persian Gulf as a sailor in the US Navy, I routinely boarded vessels with potential terrorist ties on the basis of highly classified intel. Such information was essential to the security of our ship and our shipmates, so secrecy was paramount.

Keeping secrets requires that we entrust them to good, reliable people. Few know this better than our military members. Understanding the importance of this fact is part of our culture. As a Navy veteran, I’m proud I was counted among those so entrusted.

Unlike the hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file military members who guard our secrets every day, Trump has no appreciation for that cost. That lack of appreciation is contrary to the values a commander in chief should promote, and it should sit uneasily with anyone who has worn our nation’s uniform.

When I was deployed, keeping some information secret was a priority

I enlisted in the military in search of better opportunities than I had back home in Sanford, Florida. The Navy offered travel, work experience, and higher education, as well as appealing to a sense of patriotism and adventure. That adventure commenced when I was stationed aboard a Navy cruiser, where I did two Middle East deployments in the Persian Gulf between 2002 and 2004.

While deployed, I conducted boarding operations in support of our efforts in the global war on terror. Before 2003, our mission was to enforce sanctions under the United Nations Oil for Food Program, which prevented Saddam Hussein’s government from importing materials related to weapons programs. After Saddam’s removal from power in 2003, the mission continued as we sought to deny terrorists access to the high seas.

Our team searched ships for potential weapons materials or contraband, and we routinely gathered classified information on “vessels of interest.” Sometimes the operations themselves were initiated in response to secret intelligence information shared in confidence by our allies. We trusted in the security of our intelligence to ensure that every sailor who left the ship returned at the end of the day. Lives were at stake, and we took our responsibility seriously.

For instance, we sometimes relied on allied intelligence to guide us to vessels for non-routine boarding, such as when a vessel and its crew were suspected of ties to terrorism. Intelligence we gathered from such vessels was then used to monitor the crew’s activities, all without the crew itself finding out. A careless word could endanger our entire boarding team, and any opportunity to gather future intelligence related to the vessel’s activities would evaporate.

Such operations are easily romanticized, and in reality they bear little resemblance to the vast majority of what I did during my decade of service, like drafting reports and conducting routine maintenance. Yet even my more mundane military duties required access to  —  and protection of  —  classified materials. My charge was no less serious because I accessed such information from a computer terminal or while servicing weapons systems instead of while participating in a scene out of a recruitment ad. Duty called for secrecy, and every sailor I knew upheld that duty with honor.

None of that will come as a surprise to anyone who has ever had a serious security clearance. The importance of protecting sensitive information is stressed continually with military personnel, and the knowledge that some work can’t go home is ingrained in the military culture. Knowing that your safety and that of your comrades is at stake makes everyone keenly aware that classified information is no joke.

Well, almost everyone, it seems.

I wasn’t happy with how Clinton handled her email server. But this is far worse.

It is fair at this point to recall Hillary Clinton’s own fraught record of handling classified information, and that many saw Trump as, at a minimum, having no baggage in that regard.

My own thoughts during the 2016 election focused on what I saw as candidate Trump’s dangerous and erratic rhetoric. I did not see Trump as an option, and I ultimately supported Clinton.

But I was troubled by Clinton’s use of a private email server for government-related business. I was under no illusion that she should have known better. In fact, I believe she did know better. When Secretary Clinton sent her farewell email to the Department of State, she quipped that she was looking forward to not having to leave her own electronics at the door for work.

As a law student working in the legal office at the US Mission to the UN in Geneva, I was one of that email’s recipients. Electronics restrictions are a hassle familiar to anyone working at the State Department, so I appreciated her statement — and its significance. State Department restrictions on personal technology were clear, and her own words convinced me she understood those restrictions.

Yet Clinton’s server concerns me less than Trump’s boastful divulgence. The difference in the potential for harm and in the state of mind between the two is stark. Federal investigators went to great lengths in Clinton’s case only to uncover precious little potentially compromised information  — much of which wasn’t classified until after the server was found . By contrast, without a moment’s thought, Trump actually revealed to two Russian officials, both of whom figure prominently in Russia’s bad behavior, information we had not even shared with our allies. These are important distinctions.

Perhaps more important, Clinton also had the sense to admit her mistake and express contrition, albeit belatedly. By contrast, Trump takes no such responsibility. Indeed, the president, by his own Twitter account, sees no problem with his loose lips. That is itself a problem.

Still, we might rightly ask whether Trump is the lesser of two evils.

He is not.

Trump didn’t break the law —  but his move was a bad sign

To be clear, the issue is not whether the president’s leak broke the law  —  although the same indiscretion could certainly have landed almost anyone else in irons. The fact is that, short of actual treason, the president has enormous latitude to reveal, reclassify, and even declassify our secrets. The king can do little wrong in this regard. So the question is not about the legality of Trump’s disclosure but about its wisdom.

But even beyond the wisdom of disclosing code-word information to top Russian officials, we should be concerned by the message Trump’s impulsiveness sends down the chain of command. The president’s prerogative to disclose or declassify secret information aside, the arbitrary, gratuitous, and conspicuous exercise of that power minimizes security concerns, lending the impression that classification doesn’t really matter. It does.

Worse still, the president’s use of this power for perceived political advantage or merely to brag about the quality of his intel briefs — an unthinkable supposition until recently — makes his ego the paramount interest that classification determinations serve. Not the lives of our sources. Not the integrity of our methods. Not even our national security. Just one man’s ego.

This is not how our military is trained to think about its civilian leadership. The president’s new ego-first doctrine thus threatens to undermine military institutions built around honor, order, and service.

The nature of military service requires a leader of courage and humility as an example if we are to continue fostering a culture of caution, forthrightness, and accountability, especially once inevitable mistakes are made. The alternative is a culture of arrogance, denial, and evasion — dangerous traits for those entrusted with our most sensitive information.

Our military is one of our nation’s bedrock institutions. The commander in chief is our ultimate military authority — both operationally and morally. We look to the president to lead the military in our national interest, but also to lead by example. Our fragile and divided democracy cannot afford a military unmoored from its principles. But that is the kind of corrosion Trump’s rash example can catalyze, even beyond the immediate and profound damage such lapses work on our national security.

The president can lead for our military’s honor, or he can leak for his own. He cannot do both.

Jesse Medlong is an international lawyer, a Navy veteran, and a member of the Truman National Security Project Defense Council. He writes on national security, international relations, veterans issues, and law.


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