As the heat stays on the Trump administration about possible illegal communications with Russia, the resignation of National Security Council chief Michael Flynn last week and the proximity of his meetings with the Russian ambassador to his meetings with Mossad Director Yossi Cohen once again raised the question of whether Israeli intelligence has or could be leaked to Moscow.
In December and January, stories started to circulate in the media that Israel, the UK, Australia and others might be reconsidering whether they could fully openly share intelligence with the Trump administration when incoming US President Donald Trump, Flynn and others seemed so close to Russia.
On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that some US intelligence officials are withholding certain intelligence from Trump because of continued concerns it will be compromised or leaked.
Most US and Israeli officials interviewed by The Jerusalem Post in January and early February dismissed the concerns. But there have been developments since then. Flynn resigned on Tuesday – stepping down for having spoken to Russian officials about removing sanctions before Trump entered office as well as for lying to other members of the administration about what he discussed with the Russians.
But not only were the content of the discussions, the lies and the resignation new, but it turns out that Flynn met with the Russian ambassador on December 29, sandwiched just after and just before secret meetings with Cohen in which the sides presumably exchanged key intelligence.
The Post once again interviewed former Israeli intelligence officials on the issue, to see if their confidence in Trump and his team, or more specifically in Flynn, was shaken by the latest developments.
Former Mossad director Danny Yatom came out strongly, saying he knew Flynn personally and affirming that he would not have leaked Israeli intelligence information to Russia even if he may have violated certain US norms by discussing sanctions relief to Russia before Trump had taken office.
Asked about the possibility of a leak, Yatom said, “I don’t think so, from my personal evaluation. Flynn was very experienced. No one thinks he was a Russian spy. He was experienced and smart enough.”
“Maybe he made a mistake even with no intention, but that can happen to anyone,” he added. “I don’t think we need to worry that our intelligence will go to Russia.”
He speculated that Flynn may have even “been thrown under the bus,” echoing some theories that Flynn’s discussion of sanctions with Russian officials may have been under orders from Trump, but that at this point he may have “fallen on his sword” to protect the US president from fallout.
Yatom said that Flynn’s dismissal should not have a huge impact on Israeli-US intelligence cooperation, since Trump has just come into office and top officials tend to have more power and influence after serving with a new leader for at least a year. This allows time to gain his confidence and authorization for various policies.
Yatom broke down the process of relevant information exchanges in terms of protecting Israeli intelligence sources into two pieces.
The first he said, concerned information meant exclusively for the US, which goes directly to the CIA or the National Security Agency. “Only after it gets to the NSA does it get to the president. The CIA and NSA don’t need to tell the president and others at the White House who is the source of the intelligence they received – they don’t need to know,” he said.
He explained that if the US president does not know the source of the intelligence, then there is no danger to Israel’s sources and no danger to sharing the intelligence.
The second he described as “intelligence we intentionally want to give to Russia. We give them a paraphrase. We don’t give them the actual original material which would let them analyze potential sources of the material. We give intelligence to Russia, for example, to convince them that Iran is not standing by its obligations.”
“Some of the facts we present to Russia directly and some through the US, but we do it in a smart way so they can’t figure out the source,” of the intelligence, said Yatom.
Other former intelligence officials indicated that they could not be sure one way or another about the fate of any Israeli intelligence given to Flynn, with one official saying, “He was a US general, I hope he was not a traitor.”
One former official said that Israel has no choice in these situations about whether to share intelligence with the US, noting “We also receive. We can’t say yes and then no” about Israel asking for the US to share information and then refusing to share or refusing to share in an equal manner.
He indicated that the intelligence sharing between Cohen and Flynn was part of regular working intelligence relations and could have included some of the most important secrets that there are.
Overall, Yatom said he was most worried by reports that US intelligence officials did not trust Trump enough to give him the full picture.
Yatom did not necessarily buy into all of the various theories about Trump and Russia, but he said some of the allegations at the very least required investigation from an internal US perspective, as if some of the allegations were true it would be “a nightmare scenario.”