“Likely to weaponize intelligence”: Experts alarmed as Trump poised to get security briefings again

Scholar worries Trump could “very easily endanger the lives of individuals in the intelligence apparatus”

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published March 4, 2024 3:30PM (EST)

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at Greensboro Coliseum on March 2, 2024 in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at Greensboro Coliseum on March 2, 2024 in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump is set to receive national security intelligence briefings once he secures the Republican nomination despite being indicted on charges that he mishandled classified materials after leaving office.

Barring any changes, once Trump is formally nominated at the Republican National Convention, he will be offered intelligence briefings ahead of the general election. Despite facing a “bevy of federal charges” stemming from his stash of classified documents found at his Mar-a-Lago residence in August 2022, “nothing” would currently restrict Trump’s access to further classified information if he secures the Republican nomination this summer, unless he is convicted by a jury or pleads guilty, Javed Ali, former senior counterterrorism official at the Department of Homeland Security, told Salon.

Trump’s other legal charges, apart from those related to the classified documents investigation, may not influence his potential candidacy, Ali said. Only if these cases result in guilty verdicts would they potentially affect his candidacy, as both the presidential challenger and the incumbent receive classified briefings from the intelligence community.  

After leaving office, the former president is charged with taking classified materials containing intelligence on nuclear weapons programs and information on the nation's defense capabilities. When the government pressed Trump to return all materials taken to Mar-a-Lago, he provided only a few of them and engaged in repeated efforts to obstruct the investigators' efforts to retrieve the documents, the indictment alleges.

The prospect of having someone like Trump with a documented history of mishandling classified materials holding office again raises concerns about any legal or administrative mechanisms preventing him from having unrestricted access to classified materials, Christopher McKnight Nichols, the Wayne Woodrow Hayes Chair in National Security Studies at Ohio State’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies, told Salon. 

The first level of concern revolves around the possibility that Trump could “very easily endanger the lives of individuals in the intelligence apparatus,” Nichols said. But it also brings up the country's “international credibility” and how other countries may be more “skeptical and wary” of what they share with the United States.

The former president’s previous behavior indicates how he can be “reckless with secrets and sensitive information” and rely on them for his “own benefit,” Nichols explained. When you combine that with his previous statements like saying he would encourage Russia to do “whatever it wants” to any NATO member that hasn’t met its funding obligations, “you wind up with a president who you know, is likely to weaponize intelligence,” making other countries “wary to share their information with us.” 

This would lead to the U.S. becoming less secure, Nichols said. For example, a country that has some awareness of a possible terrorist attack might not want to share how they obtained that information.

There are also other instances where this may serve as a disadvantage for the country. Nichols pointed to the example of the U.S. working with Jordan to conduct a joint humanitarian assistance airdrop into Gaza to deliver critical relief to civilians affected by the ongoing violence.

“If other countries don't give the U.S. information about where to drop aid or how it's being used, because they're wary, then even just doing benign, helpful things like dropping aid to Gazans in need could be thrown into jeopardy,” Nichols said.

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There are also “accidental dimensions” that bring up concerns about Trump having access to classified information, he added.

After leaving the White House, Trump reportedly engaged in discussions regarding sensitive information concerning U.S. nuclear submarines with an Australian billionaire who was a member of his Mar-a-Lago Club. The disclosure was reported to special counsel Jack Smith's team during their investigation of Trump’s alleged hoarding of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, ABC News reported

“We often focus on Donald Trump's willful acts, but it seems like accidentally he has let slip or, at least not strategically, let slip information for his own ends,” Nichols said. 

There have been other instances too. In 2019, Trump tweeted an image of a rocket that had exploded at an Iranian space center from what appeared to be an American surveillance photo of the site. The photo was a once-classified surveillance photo from American intelligence agencies, according to The Associated Press.

Three years after Trump shared the image with the public, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) formally declassified the original image.

Throughout the history of the country, the U.S. hasn't dealt with a president "who is known to be reckless with information," Nichols said. However, there are still instances of how information could be withheld from Trump. 

There are “compartmentalized security areas” of the government that the president doesn't look into unless he's aware of them, Nichols said. This includes various kinds of intelligence that is closely held and has not yet been distilled for presidential briefings, as well as information on special operations that are ongoing. 

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“One challenge here would be, the U.S. government operating where individuals are empowered within the system to withhold information from the president because they don't trust the president,” Nicholas said. “As a long-standing precedent, that sounds terrible for American democracy, but given legitimate concerns about a president who might endanger the lives of individuals who are in the field gathering intelligence or methods, if he's spilling information, or if it just comes out accidentally, that may then compromise methods of gathering information from adversaries.”

During Trump's prior administration, there were instances of individuals reportedly withholding information from him. However, what's more significant is the potential for a second Trump administration to influence intelligence information or to have individuals within the hierarchy, altering information to prevent Trump from being upset.

“One of the problems with intelligence with a president like Donald Trump is that he's very likely to want to get intelligence that confirms what he believes or to change intelligence information towards the arguments that he wants to make,” Nichols said. “We've heard reporting about how many [individuals] in his first administration didn't want to upset him by bringing him contradictory information.”

Theoretically, the operation of the national security system in the U.S. involves distilling information without influence from those who developed the highly classified information, he explained. But Trump is “likely to demand” information that confirms his worldview and “reinforces his own positions, whether or not they're factual.”

“So on top of the fact that he might leak things, a second Trump administration might well be one that shapes intelligence information, or has individuals within the hierarchy, changing information functionally,” Nichols said.

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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