Voice of America
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster speaks during a briefing at the White House in Washington, May 16, 2017.
U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Tuesday that information about terrorism and threats to international aviation that President Donald Trump shared with Russian diplomats last week was “wholly appropriate” and did not compromise U.S. intelligence sources.
McMaster stood by his account from the day before, that the premise of U.S. news accounts was false that Trump had divulged highly classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Moscow’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, in a meeting at the White House.
“I’m not concerned at all,” said McMaster, who was at the Oval Office meeting. “That conversation was wholly appropriate to the conversation, and I think wholly appropriate with the expectation of our intelligence partners.”
The news accounts, first in The Washington Post and later other publications, said that Trump’s comments about a possible Islamic State airline terrorist attack were specific enough that it could have given the Russian envoys enough information to determine the U.S. intelligence source, a government with an intelligence-sharing agreement with Washington and one that had not agreed that the U.S. could share the information with Russia.
“The president in no way compromised any sources,” McMaster said.
The national security adviser’s remarks came hours after Trump defended his “absolute right” to share information with the two Russian diplomats.
In early morning Twitter comments, Trump said he wanted to pass on “facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety” as he met with Lavrov and Kislyak, and urge Russia to "greatly step up their fight" against Islamic State and terrorists.
Trump appeared to be boasting about inside knowledge of a looming threat to aviation, according to The Post.
The New York Times reported that the information, which was deemed to be especially sensitive, had not even been shared widely within the U.S. government or shared with other allies.
The two newspapers, and others, further said the information could jeopardize a critical source of intelligence about Islamic State and the manner in which it was collected.
A U.S. president has the power to declassify nearly any information, so what Trump did does not appear to be illegal. But intelligence officials, quoted by the newspapers, expressed concern that the information, provided by a U.S. partner government, could harm crucial international relationships.
As he defended his disclosure Tuesday, Trump also said that from the beginning of his administration in January he has been pressuring the Federal Bureau of Investigation and others in the U.S. government "to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community." After-the-fact published reports of Trump's interactions with foreign leaders have at times angered him.
Before Trump's Twitter comments, McMaster and other members of Trump's administration on Monday had denied the accuracy of the news reports on Trump's meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak.
As the controversy over Trump's remarks unfolded, the Senate majority leader, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, gently chided the president.
"We could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so we can focus on our agenda," McConnell told Bloomberg Television.
Other lawmakers voiced concerns about Trump's revelations to the Russians.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer called for the White House to release a transcript of Trump’s meeting with the Russian officials to lawmakers on congressional intelligence committees.
Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told VOA that Trump "has the ability to disclose classified information. That doesn’t make it right. And where it’s sensitive and could put sensitive relationships and sources at risk, it’s just as dangerous whether it’s legal or not."
Another Democrat, Senator Mark Warner, said, "There are a whole host of issues here, both legal and strategic — trusted allies, trust of our intelligence community. And it seems we have one more action by this president that continues to show a pattern of, frankly, disrespecting and disregarding the leadership of the intelligence community.”
Republican Senator John McCain, a key foreign affairs expert, said Trump's disclosure risked the cooperation of allies in future intelligence-gathering operations. "It’s a serious concern and we have to know who it is he [Trump] may have unmasked [the intelligence source] by giving that information" to the Russian officials, McCain said.
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman on Tuesday denied that Trump revealed any classified information at last week's meeting, calling the reports "fake."
The Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency declined immediate comment when contacted by VOA.
Since the early days of the Trump administration, the president’s apparent willingness to work with Russia has had some U.S. allies ill at ease.
"It's a key concern," a Western diplomatic official who spoke on condition of anonymity told VOA at the time. "Russia has been a very disruptive player."
But some former intelligence officials think the repercussions from the Oval Office meeting will be minimal, if any.
“No damage - no sources or methods revealed,” said Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer now with the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank.
Pregent, who worked with McMaster in Iraq, said it is unlikely the national security adviser would have allowed the president to cross any lines.
The story broke as the White House remains embroiled in controversy over Trump's firing last week of FBI Director James Comey. That occurred one day prior to the Oval Office meeting with the Russians.
The FBI is investigating alleged links between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.