Six Fireflies Beeping Randomly In a Jar

In 1981 it was the end of teaching English at the prep school in upstate New York and the move to Los Angeles, and the move to aerospace – Northrup and then Hughes Space and Communications Group, the satellite people, where most of the work was secret. In 1983 it was WarGames – Matthew Broderick somehow accesses WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) – the military supercomputer programmed to predict possible outcomes of nuclear war, not the big hamburger – and comes close to starting World War III – because even a goofy high school kid looking for the latest computer game should be careful. In 1985 it was The Falcon and the Snowman – Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton) and Andrew Daulton Lee (Sean Penn) end up selling top secret stuff to the Soviet Union – based on a true story. That actually happened at TRW just down the street – two kids in way over their heads. At work it was security briefing after security briefing – even for those of us who worked in Human Resources. The Russians were out there. They’d try to turn you. You wouldn’t know who they were. Be careful.

None of us took that very seriously – we knew nothing – but we were told to think again. We knew people who knew things, and how they lived their lives, because many of them were our friends, and we knew which doors were locked, and where those doors were. We also knew who wasn’t talking, even if we didn’t know why – and that was enough. Those Russians were sneaky bastards – they could infer all sorts of things. We could be used. We got it – and we were careful, with a little help from Hollywood. Those two movies were scary.

It’s odd being only a few months younger than Donald Trump and realizing that he didn’t see those movies:

President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said.

The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said Trump’s decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State. After Trump’s meeting, senior White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency.

“This is code-word information,” said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, using terminology that refers to one of the highest classification levels used by American spy agencies. Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”

That was the big news of the day from the Washington Post, and later confirmed by the New York Times and then Buzzfeed and then other news organizations. Donald Trump went off-script at the worst possible time:

Last week, he fired FBI Director James B. Comey in the midst of a bureau investigation into possible links between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Trump’s subsequent admission that his decision was driven by “this Russia thing” was seen by critics as attempted obstruction of justice.

One day after dismissing Comey, Trump welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak – a key figure in earlier Russia controversies – into the Oval Office. It was during that meeting, officials said, that Trump went off script and began describing details of an Islamic State terrorist threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft.

For almost anyone in government, discussing such matters with an adversary would be illegal. As president, Trump has broad authority to declassify government secrets, making it unlikely that his disclosures broke the law.

Trump broke no laws, but that might not matter much:

The CIA declined to comment, and the NSA did not respond to requests for comment.

But officials expressed concern about Trump’s handling of sensitive information as well as his grasp of the potential consequences. Exposure of an intelligence stream that has provided critical insight into the Islamic State, they said, could hinder the United States’ and its allies’ ability to detect future threats.

“It is all kind of shocking,” said a former senior U.S. official who is close to current administration officials. “Trump seems to be very reckless and doesn’t grasp the gravity of the things he’s dealing with, especially when it comes to intelligence and national security. And it’s all clouded because of this problem he has with Russia.”

In his meeting with Lavrov, Trump seemed to be boasting about his inside knowledge of the looming threat. “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” the president said, according to an official with knowledge of the exchange.

He wanted to boast – he’s like that – insecure – think of him boasting about the size of his massive penis at one of the debates – but this is trouble:

Trump went on to discuss aspects of the threat that the United States learned only through the espionage capabilities of a key partner. He did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering method, but he described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat.

The Post is withholding most plot details, including the name of the city, at the urging of officials who warned that revealing them would jeopardize important intelligence capabilities.

The Russians now know the name of that city of course, even if, at the urging of our security officials, no one else will, so the damage is done:

“Everyone knows this stream is very sensitive, and the idea of sharing it at this level of granularity with the Russians is troubling,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who also worked closely with members of the Trump national security team. He and others spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the subject.

The identification of the location was seen as particularly problematic, officials said, because Russia could use that detail to help identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involved. Officials said the capability could be useful for other purposes, possibly providing intelligence on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow would be keenly interested in identifying that source and perhaps disrupting it.

Those Russians were sneaky bastards – they can infer all sorts of things and “eliminate” the problem – but there’s more:

At a more fundamental level, the information wasn’t the United States’ to provide to others. Under the rules of espionage, governments – and even individual agencies – are given significant control over whether and how the information they gather is disseminated, even after it has been shared. Violating that practice undercuts trust considered essential to sharing secrets.

The officials declined to identify the ally but said it has previously voiced frustration with Washington’s inability to safeguard sensitive information related to Iraq and Syria.

“If that partner learned we’d given this to Russia without their knowledge or asking first, that is a blow to that relationship,” the U.S. official said.

That won’t make us any safer, nor will this:

Trump also described measures the United States has taken or is contemplating to counter the threat, including military operations in Iraq and Syria, as well as other steps to tighten security, officials said.

It was time for damage control:

Senior White House officials appeared to recognize quickly that Trump had overstepped and moved to contain the potential fallout. Thomas P. Bossert, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, placed calls to the directors of the CIA and the NSA, the services most directly involved in the intelligence-sharing arrangement with the partner.

One of Bossert’s subordinates also called for the problematic portion of Trump’s discussion to be stricken from internal memos and for the full transcript to be limited to a small circle of recipients, efforts to prevent sensitive details from being disseminated further or leaked.

General McMaster, the national security advisor who replaced Flynn, said the story was false – “as written” – but would answer no questions – and that was the official line:

White House officials defended Trump. “This story is false,” said Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser for strategy. “The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.”

But officials could not explain why staff members nevertheless felt it necessary to alert the CIA and the NSA.

As for McMaster, Josh Marshall notes this:

The “as reported” is a hedge. But more fundamentally saying “the story” is false can mean anything. He doubles down later. “I was in the room. It didn’t happen.” But again, what didn’t happen? The only reason I can think of to be totalizing in general and lawyerly and non-denailing in the specifics is that you’re trying to deny something that actually did happen…

The most reasonable take on this is that McMaster’s statement can’t really deny the details of the story. But the story is of sufficient gravity that he has felt the need to deceive the public, putting his own credibility on the line and destroying it in one moment.

If the story falls apart, perhaps he’ll be vindicated. But it looks like he just sacrificed his credibility on the altar of Trump.

Perhaps so, but the Washington Post notes who’s not playing anymore:

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he would rather comment on the revelations in the Post story after “I know a little bit more about it,” but added: “Obviously, they are in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening. And the shame of it is, there’s a really good national security team in place.”

Corker also said, “The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment that I think makes – it creates a worrisome environment.”

That would be this:

Trump has repeatedly gone off-script in his dealings with high-ranking foreign officials, most notably in his contentious introductory conversation with the Australian prime minister earlier this year. He has also faced criticism for seemingly lax attention to security at his Florida retreat, Mar-a-Lago, where he appeared to field preliminary reports of a North Korea missile launch in full view of casual diners.

U.S. officials said that the National Security Council continues to prepare multi-page briefings for Trump to guide him through conversations with foreign leaders, but that he has insisted that the guidance be distilled to a single page of bullet points – and often ignores those.

“He seems to get in the room or on the phone and just goes with it, and that has big downsides,” the second former official said. “Does he understand what’s classified and what’s not? That’s what worries me.”

Lots of people are worried. At Foreign Policy, Robbie Gramer reports that our allies are making adjustments:

NATO is scrambling to tailor its upcoming meeting to avoid taxing President Donald Trump’s notoriously short attention span. The alliance is telling heads of state to limit talks to two to four minutes at a time during the discussion, several sources inside NATO and former senior U.S. officials tell Foreign Policy. And the alliance scrapped plans to publish the traditional full post-meeting statement meant to crystallize NATO’s latest strategic stance…

“It’s kind of ridiculous how they are preparing to deal with Trump,” said one source briefed extensively on the meeting’s preparations. “It’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child – someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re freaking out.”

David Brooks suggests why that is:

At certain times Donald Trump has seemed like a budding authoritarian, a corrupt Nixon, a rabble-rousing populist or a big business corporatist.

But as Trump has settled into his White House role, he has given a series of long interviews, and when you study the transcripts it becomes clear that fundamentally he is none of these things.

In fact, he’s just a big kid:

First, most adults have learned to sit still. But mentally, Trump is still a 7-year-old boy who is bouncing around the classroom. Trump’s answers in these interviews are not very long – 200 words at the high end – but he will typically flit through four or five topics before ending up with how unfair the press is to him.

His inability to focus his attention makes it hard for him to learn and master facts. He is ill informed about his own policies and tramples his own talking points. It makes it hard to control his mouth. On an impulse, he will promise a tax reform when his staff has done little of the actual work.

Second, most people of drinking age have achieved some accurate sense of themselves, some internal criteria to measure their own merits and demerits. But Trump seems to need perpetual outside approval to stabilize his sense of self, so he is perpetually desperate for approval, telling heroic fabulist tales about himself.

That explains the boasts, but Brooks sees Trump as the incompetent person who is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence:

Trump thought he’d be celebrated for firing James Comey. He thought his press coverage would grow wildly positive once he won the nomination. He is perpetually surprised because reality does not comport with his fantasies.

That may be the problem here, and the problem with what just happened:

From all we know so far, Trump didn’t do this because he is a Russian agent, or for any malevolent intent. He did it because he is sloppy, because he lacks all impulse control, and above all because he is a seven-year-old boy desperate for the approval of those he admires.

And he does admire Putin, for his strength, but there’s more:

The Russian leak story reveals one other thing, the dangerousness of a hollow man.

Our institutions depend on people who have enough engraved character traits to fulfill their assigned duties. But there is perpetually less to Trump than it appears. When we analyze a president’s utterances we tend to assume that there is some substantive process behind the words, that it’s part of some strategic intent.

But Trump’s statements don’t necessarily come from anywhere, lead anywhere or have a permanent reality beyond his wish to be liked at any given instant.

We’ve got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are, often, just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar.

There’s not much anyone can do with six fireflies:

“We badly want to understand Trump, to grasp him,” David Roberts writes in Vox. “It might give us some sense of control, or at least an ability to predict what he will do next. But what if there’s nothing to understand? What if there is no there there?”

And out of that void comes a carelessness that quite possibly betrayed an intelligence source, and endangered a country.

Jonathan Chait explains that:

Fears that Trump could not be trusted with classified intelligence have circulated among allies and the American intelligence community since his election. “U.S. officials and analysts fear other countries will hesitate to share information with a Kremlin-friendly Trump administration,” reported Politico’s Nahal Toosi in January. “Israeli intelligence officials are concerned that the exposure of classified information to their American counterparts under a Trump administration could lead to their being leaked to Russia and onward to Iran,” reported Haaretz that same month. Now those fears have been vindicated. As one former senior intelligence official tells conservative Weekly Standard editor Stephen Hayes, “sharing of another country’s intel without permission is one of the brightest red lines in the intel world.”

And everyone sees the problem:

One of the oddities of the moment is that Republican officials who work closely with Trump almost uniformly regard him as wildly unfit for office. Trump’s gross unsuitability for office is the subtext of the constant stream of leaks that have emanated from his administration (and, before that, his campaign.) James Comey told associates he found the president “outside the realm of normal,” even “crazy,” reported the New York Times recently. A Republican close to the White House told the Washington Post Trump is “in the grip of some kind of paranoid delusion.” A friend of Trump, trying to spin the latest debacle in the most forgiving way, tells Politico, “He doesn’t really know any boundaries. He doesn’t think in those terms … He doesn’t sometimes realize the implications of what he’s saying. I don’t think it was his intention in any way to share any classified information. He wouldn’t want to do that.” (This was offered as an alternative to the suspicion that Trump is deliberately undermining U.S. intelligence to benefit his Russian friends.)

And yet, outside the inner circle of Republicans with access to the commander-in-chief, Trump’s popularity remains respectable, even solid. The conservative base is largely unaware of the constant revelations of Trump’s gross incompetence, or has been trained to ignore them as propaganda emanating from the administration’s enemies in the deep state or the liberal media. In red America, Trump remains a hero at best, and a competent, normal president at worst.

That’s a stalemate, but then there’s Eliot Cohen, the director of the Strategic Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and from 2007 to 2009, Counselor of the Department of State – their top lawyer – and the author of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force – who now says this:

To a remarkable degree, the United States relies on liaison relationships with other powers with whom it shares information. If Trump has indeed compromised a source of information, it is not merely a betrayal of an ally’s trust: It is an act that will jeopardize a whole range of relationships. After all, the Director of Central Intelligence cannot very well say, “Don’t worry, we won’t share that with the president.” So now everybody – even our closest allies like the United Kingdom – would be well-advised to be careful with what they share with us. That is a potential intelligence debacle for us, but the danger goes beyond that. If any foreign government harbored lingering illusions about the administration’s ability to protect any information, including sensitive but non-intelligence matters like future foreign-policy initiatives or military deployments, they no longer do. They will be even more apprehensive about sharing sensitive information of any kind because he gave it to the Russians – in the Oval Office – in a fit of braggadocio.

This is what this was:

Russia is antagonistic to the United States, although Trump has repeatedly indicated his desire to be chummy with the Russians – after all, as he notoriously said during the presidential campaign, we are both killers, and so on the same moral plane. He apparently divulged the information to show off, which not only shows a lack of self-discipline: It shows, yet again, how easy this man is to play, particularly by veteran manipulators like his two experienced, talented, and thuggish guests. The crisis is made worse by virtue of Trump having just fired the FBI director, apparently for having pushed that Russia investigation too far.

Quite apart from making himself and the country a laughingstock around the world, the president has now practically begged Vladimir Putin to toy with him, tantalize him, tease him, flatter him, to manipulate him. He has shown the Russians (and others, who are watching just as closely) just how easy that is to do, and he has shown the rest of us that his vanity and impulsiveness have not been tempered by the highest responsibilities.

If so, expect this:

One can be certain that (metaphorically speaking) at this very moment ice picks are sliding into unsuspecting kidneys in the White House. No doubt the president is raging at the cowed subordinates who have to cover yet again for his folly and grandiosity; no doubt that some subordinates see this as an opportunity to settle scores, undermine rivals, and curry favor. It is probably a fascinating if odious spectacle.

Or expect this:

What will be of lasting importance, and the only possibly redemptive part of this wretched tale, is if it motivates some Republican legislators to take a stand against their own party and for the law and the Constitution. If Trump nominates any kind of Republican political figure, no matter what their previous record, as FBI director, they must oppose it. They should denounce his misconduct for what it is. And all of us should begin contemplating the conditions under which – not now, maybe not even a year from now – the constitutional remedies for dealing with a president utterly incapable of fulfilling his duties with elementary probity and competence will have to be implemented.

That’s one big-gun lawyer talking, and then there’s Jack Goldsmith, the Henry L. Shattuck Professor at Harvard Law and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, who served as Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel from 2003-2004, and Special Counsel to the Department of Defense from 2002-2003, who now says this:

This may well be a violation of the President’s oath of office. Questions of criminality aside, we turn to the far more significant issues: If the President gave this information away through carelessness or neglect, he has arguably breached his oath of office. As Quinta and Ben have elaborated on in some detail, in taking the oath President Trump swore to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States” and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” to the best of his ability. It’s very hard to argue that carelessly giving away highly sensitive material to an adversary foreign power constitutes a faithful execution of the office of President.

Violating the oath of office does not require violating a criminal statute. If the President decided to write the nuclear codes on a sticky note on his desk and then took a photo of it and tweeted it, he would not technically have violated any criminal law–just as he hasn’t here. He has the constitutional authority to dictate that the safeguarding of nuclear materials shall be done through sticky notes in plain sight and tweeted, even the authority to declassify the codes outright. Yet, we would all understand this degree of negligence to be a gross violation of his oath of office.

Congress has alleged oath violations – albeit violations tied to criminal allegations or breaches of statutory obligations – all three times it has passed or considered seriously articles of impeachment against presidents: against Andrew Johnson (“unmindful of the high duties of his oath of office”), Richard Nixon (“contrary to his oath”), and Bill Clinton (“in violation of his constitutional oath”). Further, two of the three articles of impeachment against Nixon alleged no direct violation of the law. Instead, they concerned Nixon’s abuse of his power as President, which, like the President putting the nuclear codes on Twitter, is an offense that can only be committed by the President and has thus never been explicitly prohibited in criminal law.

There’s thus no reason why Congress couldn’t consider a grotesque violation of the President’s oath as a standalone basis for impeachment – a high crime and misdemeanor in and of itself. This is particularly plausible in a case like this, where the oath violation involves giving sensitive information to an adversary foreign power. That’s getting relatively close to the “treason” language in the impeachment clauses; it’s pretty easy to imagine a hybrid impeachment article alleging a violation of the oath in service of a hostile foreign power. So legally speaking, the matter could be very grave for Trump even though there is no criminal exposure.

That’s the legal argument for getting this guy gone, but Max Boot had already made the political counterargument:

Republicans have turned away from this uncomfortable truth by telling themselves that Donald Trump is an imperfect but necessary vessel for their agenda. Sure, he’s clownish and boorish, but hey, he has appointed a great Supreme Court justice. (I had one conservative friend tell me that Neil Gorsuch’s appointment justified the entire Trump presidency.) Sure, he doesn’t believe in anything, but he will repeal Obamacare, cut taxes and increase the military budget. Isn’t it worth overlooking a few crazy tweets in return for this conservative policy nirvana?

If that is all that Mr. Trump demanded, and if he actually delivered results, the answer might be yes.

Maybe that’s not the answer after this. A guy whose thoughts are just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar does no one any good. There were those two movies back in the eighties about those three kids in way over their heads and the possible end of the world as we know it. Add the fourth kid now.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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