Among intelligence partners, two maxims govern how business is done: don’t disclose more than is needed, and never allow a source to be compromised.
This code of conduct has been especially relevant in the campaign against Islamic State (Isis), where regional and global powers have collaborated to quash the terrorist group, often at enormous risk to individuals.
The Five Eyes alliance, comprising the US, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand and which acts as the eyes and ears of the western world, has spent much of the past decade trying to penetrate Isis. But for all its hi-tech edge, it still relies heavily on local partners for real human sources who can reveal terrorist plots, particularly in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq’s Kurdish areas and Turkey.
The sharing of such information with any member of Five Eyes comes with clearly understood caveats that the sourcing remains opaque, unless those doing the disclosing decide otherwise.
Whoever told the CIA that terrorists in the Middle East were again trying to hide explosives inside computers, as Trump allegedly disclosed to Russian counterparts last week, clearly had reasons to obscure their involvement and would be unlikely to welcome news that Russia might now know their identity, as well as their methods and sources.
Working out what Isis is planning is paramount for the Five Eyes spies, and a specific tip from a trusted partner that could stop a planned attack is as good as it gets in the world of counter-terrorism. In this case, the information given to the US and allegedly relayed in part by Trump was reportedly considered so sensitive that it wasn’t immediately passed on to Washington’s allies when it was received earlier this year.
In the months since, Britain has replicated the US ban on plane passengers carrying laptops in hand luggage, although it has applied it at different airports. Europe is considering its own version. This indicates that the information has now been more broadly disseminated but says nothing about the source, or methods by which the intelligence was gathered.
As well as the potential physical risk to an informant, there are clear political risks to well-intentioned regional allies who may have passed on such information. The tech ban has struck a heavy blow against state-owned airlines in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which have lost business to other carriers flying to the US and UK to which the ban does not apply.
Were one of these states to learn that a regional ally had been responsible, recriminations of some sort would be likely to follow. That, in turn, could damage trust in other areas, such as intelligence cooperation.
Countries surrounding Iraq and Syria, which have deep-rooted tribal connections in areas where Isis operates, have been central to the limited number of sources that the US and Britain have been able to cultivate from inside the organisation.
One western intelligence officer recently said real information from an Isis member was like “gold dust”. Other officials have told the Guardian that rare conversations from a handful of people give partial, tantalising insights into plots on foreign soil, but almost never serve up information on which they can conclusively act.
“That’s the nature of this work,” said one officer. “It is difficult and grinding but essential.”
The officer described a partnership with regional allies in which trust took a long time to build, but minutes to shatter. And increasingly, he said, a sense prevailed among allies that US approaches to how to deal with Isis – and its aftermath – may not be compatible with them. While Donald Trump has the power to declassify almost anything, his choice of subject matter and audience may support such fears.
There is no love lost for an ascendant Russia in much of the Middle East, and little trust in it either. Few in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia or Jordan would take comfort in Moscow knowing its secrets, or Trump being prepared to share them.