Legality of Presidential Disclosures, Continued

“There is no basis” for suggesting that President Trump’s disclosure of classified intelligence to Russian officials was illegal, wrote Morton Halperin this week.

To the contrary, “senior U.S. government officials in conversations with foreign officials decide on a daily basis to provide them with information that is properly classified and that will remain classified,” wrote Halperin, who is himself a former senior official.

“We should not let our desire to confront President Trump lead us to espouse positions that violate his rights and that would constrain future presidents in inappropriate ways.” See “Trump’s Disclosure Did Not Break the Law” by Morton H. Halperin, Just Security, May 23, 2017.

But constraints on presidential disclosure were on the minds of Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL) and 17 House colleagues. They introduced legislation on May 24 “that would require the President to notify the intelligence committees when a U.S. official, including the President, intentionally or inadvertently discloses top-secret information to a nation that sponsors terrorism or, like Russia, is subject to U.S. sanctions.”

Yesterday, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) introduced a bill “to ensure that a mitigation process and protocols are in place in the case of a disclosure of classified information by the President.”

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) and five colleagues introduced a resolution “disapproving of the irresponsible actions and negligence of President Trump which may have caused grave harm to United States national security.”

For related background, see The Protection of Classified Information: The Legal Framework, Congressional Research Service, updated May 18, 2017, and Criminal Prohibitions on Leaks and Other Disclosures of Classified Defense Information, Congressional Research Service, updated March 7, 2017.

Legality of the Trump Disclosures, Revisited

When President Trump disclosed classified intelligence information to Russian officials last week, did he commit a crime?

Considering that the President is the author of the national security classification system, and that he is empowered to determine who gets access to classified information, it seems obvious that the answer is No. His action might have been reckless, I opined previously, but it was not a crime.

Yet there is more to it than that.

The Congressional Research Service considered the question and concluded as follows in a report issued yesterday:

“It appears more likely than not that the President is presumed to have the authority to disclose classified information to foreign agents in keeping with his power and responsibility to advance U.S. national security interests.” See Presidential Authority to Permit Access to National Security Information, CRS Legal Sidebar, May 17, 2017.

This tentative, rather strained formulation by CRS legislative attorneys indicates that the question is not entirely settled, and that the answer is not necessarily obvious or categorical.

And the phrase “in keeping with his power and responsibility to advance U.S. national security interests” adds an important qualification. If the president were acting on some other agenda than the U.S. national interest, then the legitimacy of his disclosure could evaporate. If the president were on Putin’s payroll, as the House majority leader lamely joked last year, and had engaged in espionage, he would not be beyond the reach of the law.

Outlandish hypotheticals aside, it still seems fairly clear that the Trump disclosures last week are not a matter for the criminal justice system, though they may reverberate through public opinion and congressional deliberations in a consequential way.

But several legal experts this week insisted that it’s more complicated, and that it remains conceivable that Trump broke the law. See:

“Don’t Be So Quick to Call Those Disclosures ‘Legal'” by Elizabeth Goitein, Just Security, May 17, 2017

“Why Trump’s Disclosure to Russia (and Urging Comey to Drop the Flynn Investigation, and Various Other Actions) Could Be Unlawful” by Marty Lederman and David Pozen, Just Security, May 17, 2017

“Trump’s disclosures to the Russians might actually have been illegal” by Steve Vladeck, Washington Post, May 16, 2017

Update, 05/23/17: But see also Trump’s Disclosure Did Not Break the Law by Morton Halperin, Just Security, May 23, 2017.

An Authorized Disclosure of Classified Information

Updated below

President Trump’s disclosure of classified intelligence information to Russian officials, reported by the Washington Post, may have been reckless, damaging and irresponsible. But it was not a crime.

Disclosures of classified information are not categorically prohibited by law. Even intelligence sources and methods are only required to be protected under the National Security Act from “unauthorized disclosure.” This leaves open the possibility that disclosures of such classified information can actually be authorized. And we know that they are, from time to time.

One statute in particular — 18 USC 798 — does come close to matching the circumstances of the Trump disclosure to Russia, with a crucial exception.

That statute makes it a felony to disclose to an unauthorized person any classified information “concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government; or […] obtained by the processes of communication intelligence from the communications of any foreign government.”

But it further explains that an “unauthorized person” is one who has not been “authorized to receive information… by the President.”

This morning, President Trump tweeted that “As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”

(Was the gratuitous parenthetical phrase “at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting” intended to rule out a clandestine transfer of classified information?)

All of that is to say that this episode, though it may have far-reaching ramifications for national security, is probably not a matter for law enforcement. (Based on the reporting by the Washington Post, the President’s actions did violate the terms of an intelligence sharing agreement with a foreign government that supplied the information. But that agreement would not be enforced by the criminal justice system.)

Instead, this is something to be weighed by Congress, which has the responsibility to determine whether Donald J. Trump is fit to remain in office.

Update, 05/17/17: For contrasting views arguing that Trump’s disclosure of classified intelligence to the Russians may actually have been illegal, see Marty Lederman and David Pozen, Liza Goitein, and Stephen Vladeck.

Update, 05/23/17: See also Trump’s Disclosure Did Not Break the Law by Morton Halperin, Just Security, May 23.

Transparency Will Need a Reboot in the Trump Era

The future of transparency in the Trump Administration is uncertain. It will ultimately be determined in practice as the new Administration embarks on its programs, determines its priorities, appoints its personnel, engages with Congress and confronts the public.

On his first full day in office, President Obama famously pledged to conduct the most transparent Administration in history. Though it was imperfectly executed and suffered some reversals, I think that pledge was fulfilled to an impressive extent. More government information was made more easily available to more people than ever before. The reported volume of new national security secrets created in the past two years dropped to historically low levels. Whole categories of information that had previously been off-limits — the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, the President’s Daily Brief, the size of the annual intelligence budget request, among others — were newly subject to declassification and disclosure during Obama’s tenure. If this was not the most transparent Administration in history, then which Administration was?

Donald Trump’s estimation of transparency already appears to be radically different. Although his Twitter persona during the campaign represented a degree of unfiltered candor that is almost alarming in a public official, it was unaccompanied by detailed policy proposals that might have informed the election. Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns as a presidential candidate was a startling repudiation of a longstanding norm of American governance. Worse, the fact that this refusal was not considered disqualifying by his supporters suggests that the norm is weaker than supposed. Far from being a given, the value of transparency itself may not be widely understood or shared by many Americans.

It’s not that Trump has promised transparency and failed to deliver. He has promised nothing of the kind. Hypocrisy on this point would actually be a step forward.

In what seems to be the first post-election reference to the FOIA by the Trump transition team, applicants for positions in the new Administration were advised that “One should assume that all of the information provided during this process is ultimately subject to public disclosure, if requested under the Freedom of Information Act.” (also noted by Russ Kick)

This is somewhat misleading, since various types of personal privacy information such as social security numbers would not be subject to FOIA. But perhaps it is a healthy sign that some awareness of the FOIA and its disclosure requirements is already present in the Trump camp.