The media story about Jared Kushner’s approach to Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak to create a back channel is breaking two ways and along predictable political lines. Kushner’s supporters in the administration are stating that Donald Trump’s son-in-law did nothing wrong, arguing that establishing an alternative channel to foreign governments and other interested parties is not that unusual. In fact, such connections can prove useful in establishing common ground on some issues.
Democrats and most of the media are arguing otherwise, some based on the somewhat unsustainable view that anything that is not completely transparent having to do with the Russian “enemy” is intrinsically wrong. Others have also been noting that part of the arrangement proposed by Kushner apparently involved using Russian diplomatic communications channels to exchange information and views. If true, this is a bizarre twist to the tale, as it would permit Moscow to control the narrative and its pace to suit its own interests.
If Kushner actually suggested Russian communications to avoid using U.S. government or commercially available resources, he will have considerable explaining to do. And certainly some of the onus regarding what took place must fall on General Michael Flynn, who was reportedly at the meeting with Kislyak and should have known better than to accept using a foreign country’s communications system.
There have inevitably been suggestions that Kushner at a minimum should lose his security clearance immediately and therefore his access to classified information. But that view fails to appreciate that the clearances are a presidential prerogative and can be changed or reinstated by President Trump as he sees fit. One source observes that “In fact, the security clearance system itself is an expression of presidential authority. Its scope and operation are defined in an executive order (EO 12968), and its terms can be modified by the President at will.”
So it is likely that the Kushner story will become just another part of the endless special counsel investigation into the Trump administration’s alleged Russian links. Yet the real story should be the “leak” that revealed the details of the Kushner proposal. The leaker, whoever he was, provided highly classified and very restricted access information to the media; it indicated that the Kushner discussions with the Russians took place in Trump Tower and that a report on the proposal was then relayed back to Moscow using Russian diplomatic communications, which were intercepted, decrypted, and retained by the National Security Agency (NSA).
It is generally believed, correctly, that the NSA intercepts nearly all diplomatic communications originating from embassies in Washington, which is not to say that it is always successful at decrypting them. Decryption requires an enormous expenditure of time, money, and effort. It is almost always limited to communications of countries that are considered to be adversaries—which these days would include Russia, China, and Iran—or potential sources of information on transnational issues like terrorism or drug trafficking. And even when there is a major effort, the attempt to crack the encryption sometimes fails, particularly when one is dealing with a sophisticated opponent.
It is clear from the Kushner leaker’s tale that the Russians were confident that their diplomatic communications were secure. But the NSA had actually broken them and was reading their messages. Now that the Russians know that their communications are not secure, they will take necessary steps to tighten up their procedures and protocols, which means that the United States government will no longer be able to read their message traffic and will start all over with having to break into the new system. This reality will be enormously costly both to Russia and the U.S., and it will mean that a major intelligence advantage that Washington possessed will no longer be viable.
However one feels about the paranoid and reactionary post-9/11 level of global spying carried out by the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, being able to read an adversary’s mail provides a huge advantage if one wants to avoid surprises and mitigate factors that could result in unnecessary conflict. And, to be completely fair, it also gives one an advantage if you are planning on mischief yourself and want to know how an opponent will react. Either way, that ability would have been one of the crown jewels of the intelligence community—and losing that advantage over Russia is an enormous, self-inflicted intelligence failure. Yet the media has chosen to ignore that real disaster because they want the story to be Kushner and Trump, not the leaker who has done tremendous damage to the nation’s intelligence collection capability.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.