By James Freeman
May 16, 2017 5:52 p.m. ET
Former government officials have been demanding anonymity from the Washington Post in order to discuss a meeting they did not attend at the White House. President Trump’s National Security Adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, who did attend the meeting, has been going on the record this week along with other attendees to knock down the resulting story. Yet much of the press still seems to credit the Post’s unnamed non-attendees.
Here’s the lede from the Post:
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.
On Monday evening Gen. McMaster said in response:
The story that came out tonight as reported is false. The President and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time, at no time, were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the Secretary of State, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources. And I was in the room. It didn’t happen.
On Tuesday the national security adviser elaborated on his remarks and took questions from reporters. At his Tuesday appearance in the White House briefing room, Gen. McMaster called Mr. Trump’s discussion “wholly appropriate” and consistent with the normal sharing of information on terror threats that occurs in high-level meetings with representatives of foreign nations. He said he was not concerned by Mr. Trump’s disclosures and had not contacted any foreign governments about them.
The anonymous sources quoted by the Post, on the other hand, appear to have very deep concerns, and the Post says that some of them even know what was said at the meeting. But many of the story’s harshest critiques of the President come from people who were not only not at the meeting, but are no longer in government:
“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.”
Here’s another excerpt from the Post story specifically focused on the President’s discussion of a particular plot hatched by Islamic State:
“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.
Now why are such subjects sensitive enough to require anonymity but not sensitive enough to avoid discussing with a Washington Post reporter? We normally think of current government employees needing to remain anonymous while leaking data to the press in order to keep their jobs, but it’s not immediately clear why all the former officials also deserve anonymity in this case.
It’s possible that the sources in this story understand that people not named Clinton may be punished if they are caught mishandling sensitive information they obtained while they were in government. But one would think that a former official could publicly opine that the President is recklessly sharing information without disclosing any particular details of intelligence or the way it is collected. This raises the possibility that the sensitivity problem relates to a source’s current and future employment rather than previous government service.
Not every organization enjoys having its employees publicly accuse the President of endangering national security. And even people without an institutional affiliation understand they run the risk of offending clients when they publicly stand behind a controversial idea. But of course the grant of immunity by a reporter denies readers the opportunity to evaluate sources for themselves and consider their possible agendas.
Readers can’t tell whether the former officials quoted by the Post are retired or work for defense contractors or think tanks or political operations—or perhaps at firms that have nothing to do with government.
But readers are able to evaluate H.R. McMaster. He has spent a highly distinguished career defending the United States. And he was at the meeting. And he’s on the record.