SAN FRANCISCO — Two Israeli intelligence officials confirmed to BuzzFeed News Tuesday that Israel had shared specific intelligence with the US regarding ISIS plots to smuggle explosive laptops onto planes, and that it appeared that that intelligence had been shared with Russia without prior coordination.
The revelation that Trump had shared that intelligence with Russian officials was Israel's "worst fears confirmed," said one of the intelligence officers.
"We have an arrangement with America which is unique to the world of intelligence sharing. We do not have this relationship with any other country," said the officer, who spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity as he was not granted permission to speak to the press.
"There is a special understanding of security cooperation between our countries," he said. "To know that this intelligence is shared with others, without our prior knowledge? That is, for us, our worst fears confirmed."
The officer previously spoke to BuzzFeed News in January, when he said that Israeli officials had specific concerns about what Trump would share with Russian officials. Israel, he added, routinely shared intelligence that included sources of information and asset names, he said — the type of information that could endanger the lives of those providing the raw intelligence.
Israel's role in obtaining the intelligence passed on to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was first reported by the New York Times on Monday. Lavrov and Trump's discussion last week has been the subject of rapid pushback from an embattled White House, which has said that the president's disclosure was "wholly appropriate."
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer defended the right of the president to share intelligence as he sees fit, telling reporters, "the president can always discuss common threats or common issues with host nations -- excuse me -- with other heads of government or other government officials as he deems appropriate to tackle the threats our country faces."
Without confirming that the source of the intelligence shared by Trump came from Israel, Spicer said, "We appreciate the relationship that we have with Israel and appreciate the exchange of information that we have with them."
Israeli officials, however, said it was "highly unusual" and "highly inappropriate" to share information without prior coordination.
"There has to be trust for this sort of arrangement. I cannot speak for Israel's entire security apparatus, but I would not trust a partner who shared intelligence without coordinating it with us first," said the intelligence officer who spoke to BuzzFeed News.
An official in Israel's Ministry of Defense said that while the US has passed on Israel's intelligence to other friendly nations in the past, it has always done so in a coordinated manner.
"There are situations where this is necessary. But there is always coordination... that is just good practice and manners," said the official.
A second intelligence officer, who spoke to BuzzFeed News via encrypted app and also spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Israel had shared specific intelligence with the US regarding an active threat to US-bound planes. Speaking to BuzzFeed News via a military base in northern Israel, he said Israeli intelligence officers were "boiling mad and demanding answers" as to whether Israel's military would continue its current intelligence-sharing agreement with the US.
Israel still maintains a large network of human assets, also known as HUMINT, who work in gathering intelligence on the ground in countries across the world. Unlike other western countries, who have given up costly HUMINT operations in recent years in favor of signals intelligence — or SIGINT, intelligence gathered through online systems, phone lines, and other communications — Israel still invests heavily in sending its own spies abroad and in cultivating a network of locals interested in selling or trading intelligence.
The Ministry of Defense official who spoke to BuzzFeed News said the network of resources Israel maintained made their intelligence both, "incredibly valuable and precarious," adding that real human lives were put in danger if that intelligence leaked out to the wrong parties.
The White House has suggested that Trump did not reveal the source of the intelligence during his meeting with Lavrov. On Tuesday, Spicer told reporters, "it would be impossible for the President to reveal the source of the information because, as General McMaster made very clear as he was leaving this podium, the President wasn’t briefed on the information and wasn’t aware of the source. So the President wasn’t aware of this. This wasn’t part of his briefing. So, therefore, to suggest that, therefore, he revealed it, is impossible."
The Israeli officials who spoke to BuzzFeed News said there has already been a push to stop sharing Israel's most sensitive intelligence with Trump's White House. It was Israel's political echelons, they added, who insisted the intelligence-sharing continue, and who were hoping to use Trump's mistakes as a way to gain leverage.
"We are concerned about our long-term intelligence gathering operations," said the Ministry of Defense official. "But politically [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] Bibi sees a way to get what he wants out of Trump. He can say to Trump, you screwed us, now give us this or that."
Privately, US national security officials said they had no way to know for that the leak would effect US-Israeli military relations or intelligence sharing between the two countries. For many, that was not the biggest issue of the leak. Rather, it was Trump’s push to normalize relations with Russia during the meeting where the leak happened, even going so far as to push for coordination on protecting the homeland.
That, two US officials explained to BuzzFeed News, would change US national security in a way the leak would not.
Nancy Youssef contributed to this report from Washington.
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
Contact Sheera Frenkel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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