Trump may find limited options in drive to plug leaks

Transcripts of his contentious calls with foreign heads of state. Draft language for his controversial executive orders, on issues ranging from immigration to the interrogation of enemy combatants.

Not a month into his term, President Donald Trump has been the victim of unprecedented leaks of confidential and classified information, often targeting him directly.

And while he is not the first chief executive to grapple with a determined and resourceful enemy from within, driven by ideological opposition to his conservative policies, Trump is the first to see such activity this early in his presidency, with those bureaucrats opposed to him making use of digital age technology, such as private email accounts and encryption apps, that previous leakers did not have.

“There’s a major issue with national security here,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “I would ask [the president and his aides] to take every precaution that they have in their toolbox, because we are dealing with such unprecedented leaks…I don’t think there’s any measure that goes too far. If they have to stop sending emails, if they have to stop the distribution lists of discussions with foreign leaders, all of that’s going to have to be done and done in short order.”

To contend with so resourceful and determined an enemy within, however, Trump may find his options more limited than he would prefer. One element of policymaking that can mitigate against unauthorized leaks – namely, speed, and the implementation of policies so quickly that the bureaucracy does not have time to subvert them – the Trump White House already has tried, with decidedly imperfect results, in the issuance of its executive order on immigration.

“The president needed to take the time to really look at that executive order, to vet it properly,” former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta told Fox Business News’ Maria Bartiromo on February 5. “Instead, they rushed it out, rushed it out very quickly. It clearly had some problems – even they recognize the problems in implementing this – and it created more trouble than dealing with the problem that he was facing.”

Another option is to try to operate in secrecy from the bureaucracy, with information kept to a tight coterie of White House advisers. President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, famously tried this approach, formulating and conducting foreign policy largely as a two-man team in the bombing of Cambodia, the diplomacy that led to the opening of China, and the nuclear arms control accords they negotiated secretly with the Soviet Union.

Nixon’s taping system captured an exchange between the two men, from June 13, 1971, in which they mused aloud about their modus operandi:

NIXON: Well, I just wish that we operated without the bureaucracy.

KISSINGER: [laughing] Well, Mr. President --

NIXON: We do.

KISSINGER: [Laughs.] All the good things that are being done --

NIXON: Yeah.

KISSINGER: -- are done without --

NIXON: We do. We do. We do.

Yet the Nixon-Kissinger approach also led, directly or indirectly, to a number of negative outcomes: the wiretapping of seventeen National Security Council aides and newsmen; the establishment at the Pentagon of a spy ring that pilfered Kissinger’s briefcase and “burn bags,” collecting 5,000 classified documents over a thirteen-month period; and the pair of illegal break-ins, undertaken by a leak-plugging group that called itself “the Plumbers,” that triggered the Watergate scandal that ultimately toppled Nixon from office.

“The reason that Kissinger's channel with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin worked so well,” said Richard A. Moss, a historian at the U.S. Naval War College and author of Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow: Confidential Diplomacy and Détente, “is because it was kept really in a very small circle of people in the White House. I'm not sure that that's possible nowadays. The national security staff that Kissinger had at his disposal was approximately forty people strong; the current National Security Council is over 400 people.”

President Trump is known to harbor a soft spot for Nixon – a congratulatory 1987 letter from the ex-president was reported to be among the effects the incumbent planned to display in the Oval Office – and like the Quaker from California, the real estate developer from Queens has long seen himself as an outsider figure subjected to a vicious campaign of attacks, internal and external, by members of an entrenched establishment elite.

Yet sources said the Trump White House, while aware of its massive problem with leaks, is also aware of the need to employ measures to combat it that do not themselves stray over the line, as Nixon’s did, into illegality.

One such option is the use of so-called “false flag” operations. The Wikileaks archive of the emails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman in 2016, revealed that Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, proposed to Podesta that they plant a false rumor among the campaign staff, about when the former secretary of state would announce her presidential candidacy, to see if the erroneous date would leak and the leaker or leakers could be identified. “Would be good to do this soon since I'm nervous about our planning circle widening,” Mook wrote in March 2015.

Even before being sworn in, Trump revealed a certain familiarity with the technique. During his news conference on January 11, the president-elect recounted how he had withheld word of a pending meeting with intelligence officials from all relevant parties just so he could be in a position to trace the identity of a leaker.

“And what I did is I said, ‘I won't tell anybody. I'm going to have a meeting and I won't tell anybody about my meeting with intelligence’…Nobody knew – not even Rhona, my executive assistant for years, she didn't know – I didn't tell her. Nobody knew. The meeting was had, the meeting was over, they left. And immediately the word got out that I had a meeting.”