President Trump just broke a major taboo: In a late-night tweet attacking the Washington Post on Monday, he confirmed the existence of a covert CIA program to arm and train Syrian rebels to remove Bashar al-Assad from power.
"The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad," the president tweeted.
It's a stunning admission, even though the program was a well-known secret. The CIA rarely, if ever, confirms or denies stories about its operations, even if they're reported in the media.
And while the president has the authority to declassify this information, his casual disclosure of a highly classified operation — on Twitter, no less — will only exacerbate the ever-growing rift between him and the nation’s intelligence agencies.
The CIA program was pretty well-known. That doesn’t mean Trump should have tweeted about it.
In his tweet, the president was referring to a July 19 Washington Post report detailing his decision to end the Obama-era covert CIA program to train and equip Syrian rebels to help take down Assad. Unnamed officials told the Post that Trump chose to shutter the covert program after meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster before his July 7 face-to-face with Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.
Trump didn’t clarify which parts of the report he considered to be fake news. But just that tweet alone confirmed both that the program exists and that the US is not looking to remove Assad for now. For those following the conflict, it was already apparent that was America’s policy in Syria. That still doesn’t mean the president should admit it publicly, embarrassing one of the country’s most storied intelligence agencies in the process.
But openly deriding US spies is something Trump likes to do publicly. Regardless, it’s another instance of Trump’s wanton handling of some of the nation’s most important secrets — angering intelligence officials and revealing US plans for one of the world’s most brutal and deadly wars along the way.
This is yet another reason for the intelligence community to distrust Trump
Trump has no problem letting his negative feelings about the US intelligence community be known — even in the most diplomatic settings.
"I remember when I was sitting back listening about Iraq, weapons of mass destruction. How everybody was 100 percent sure that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? That led to one big mess," Trump said about why he doesn’t trust the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 president election during a July 6 press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda. "They were wrong and it led to a mess. So it was Russia. And I think it was probably others also. And that's been going on for a long period of time."
Trump also hurt intelligence operations against ISIS when he shared code-word-level intelligence about them with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then-Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on May 10 at the White House.
Again, the president has the authority to declassify this information. But intelligence agencies work hard to get any nugget of information so America has an intelligence advantage over others. When the president just gives it away to adversaries, it diminishes the trust spies have in the commander in chief.
It’s an odd thing for a leaks-hating president to make a habit of releasing sensitive information about the US government. But that’s where we are.