With controversy swirling in light of reports President Trump shared classified information with Russian officials, some Indiana lawmakers are calling for more details. Former Democratic Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton says doing so is necessary because leaks of classified information could hurt U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in the future.
Indiana Public Broadcasting's Barbara Brosher sat down with Hamilton, who is now director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, to get his take on the situation.
Q: What was your first reaction to the reports that President Trump shared classified information about an ISIS plot with Russian officials?
A: My first reaction was that it was a very uneven contest or meeting. You had in the room two of the most experienced Russian diplomats whose sophistication and experience goes back decades, highly-skilled professionals.
For the United States, you have a president who is unschooled in the use of classified information, inexperienced in using it and the nuances of it who is not, by any measure, steeped in policy.
And, so you had a meeting of two very unequal participants. That is a recipe for trouble. And, we put ourselves into that situation knowingly and I think it is not the way for a great power to do business.
Q: Should the American people be alarmed by these reports?
A: I think the American people should be deeply concerned about this incident and I hope we learn from it. This president used information supplied to us by a close Middle East ally. That phrase is usually used to identify Israel, although that country has not been identified. They gave us that information with the clear caveat that we not share. We did share.
And, so that means whatever the country was, they lose confidence in our ability to use highly-classified information. That means we do not have all of the information we should have or may need in the future to combat terrorist activity.
So, I think there are plenty of reasons for the American people to be concerned. And, another reason is that the Trump administration doesn’t seem to have their act together. Because his allies, his administration officials say one thing and then he contradicts it, which makes the whole operation look amateurish.
So I think we have legitimate questions on our mind about the seriousness of the handling of this information.
Q: We’ve spoken before about the power of Congress and how strong the presidency’s become. Do you think this is an opportunity for Congress to exercise some of that power?
A: Congress should be screaming about this. Congress has an obligation as a supposedly co-equal branch of government to protect the national security interests of the United States. Clearly they should be outraged by what happened in this meeting and trying to take steps to minimize it ever happening again.
But, we don’t see that. We see on the Republican side a willingness to protect the President and an unwillingness to criticize him, even when he is putting the national security interests of the United States at risk.
So, the Congress needs to step up its game dramatically, as well, to fulfill their Constitutional responsibilities to protect the national interests of the United States.
Q: Republican Rep. Jim Banks put out a statement saying this report is another example of the “Washington media storm.” Do you think that’s an accurate portrayal of the situation?
A: I do not think it’s an accurate portrayal. Now, look, the information [Trump] gave the Russians was about what ISIS was doing with regard to laptops on airplanes. This is important information, this is not a game, this is not politics as usual. This is putting at risk the counter-terrorism policy of the United States.
For heaven’s sake, let’s put politics aside here and focus on the seriousness of what was done. We do not know and may not for a long time exactly what damage was done.
Certainly we have lost the confidence of a key ally. They said, ‘We’ll give you this information, please don’t share it’ and we immediately shared it. That does not encourage future exchanges of information. We don’t know what the Russians knew. We don’t know if the information the president gave supplied a key element of information to the Russians. But it could have. And, in any event, it’s a serious leak.
Now, this president has been strong in his condemnation of leaks. But, in this case, he’s the chief leaker. And, no matter who leaks, you want to protect the security interests of the United States.
I hope the President draws from this a lesson. He seems to be careless with the way he handles information. And, on the political stump that may be OK. But, when you’re sitting down talking with your chief global adversary or at least one of them, Russia, you’re not playing a game. You are dealing with highly-important information. And, you don’t want to share things you don’t want your chief adversary to know. But, he did.
Q: What do you think the best response to this situation would be, whether it be from the President or from Congress?
A: Well, the best response is to tighten up the ship. It is to make sure when a President, who’s leaving on a foreign trip this weekend, is first of all very well-briefed before he goes into the meetings, is alerted to the possibility that he must not share certain information, even with friends and allies, unless we think it’s all OK to do so.
What needs to be done further is for the Congress to conduct a robust oversight to make sure that this team, this Trump team, articulates a common, consistent message. And, not have the problem as we’ve had twice in the last week, of the President saying one thing and his top advisers saying another, with regard to Comey and now with regard to this leak of information on terrorism.
Look, we’re a major power. This is serious stuff. You don’t fool around with it. The consequences may not be catastrophic, we hope they are not, but they could be. And, we must learn from this incident to tighten up our ship, handle classified information with very great care, do not reveal to our adversaries secrets and information we’re not supposed to share, and begin conducting our affairs like the world power we are.
I will add this. In the world of counter-terrorism, we rely very heavily on our allies. They’re in the region, they have a lot of information we do not have and cannot get. And, we don’t want to jeopardize the flow of that information. And, that’s exactly what we do when we do not handle the information carefully and with great circumspection.