Late last week, Iran’s troubled space program attempted a rocket launch that was met with failure. This didn’t come as a significant surprise to many in the national security community, as Iran’s space program (which many believe is little more than a thinly veiled missile program) only began in 2004 and only reached orbit for the first time in 2009. It’s safe to postulate that any time Iran fails to successfully launch a rocket or missile many Western leaders breathe a sigh of relief, but President Trump took his victory lap a bit further, seemingly taunting Iran with what could have been a classified surveillance photo.
“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran,” Trump tweeted. “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.”
Almost immediately, Trump’s tweet was met with a slew of harsh responses from within the American intelligence community and the days that followed offered a steady flow of headlines indicating that Trump had committed some egregious error… but as you delve into those articles, you’re met with a great deal more speculation than you may have expected. In fact, these articles are littered with hypothetical situations in which the president may have been wrong, postulated on at length by writers and experts alike. Now, because Donald Trump is such a polarizing figure in American media, that approach may do well to drive traffic, but it also helps to create a general misunderstanding of the situation and the circumstances as we do know them.
While it’s potentially true that President Trump may have committed a real gaff by releasing the image, it’s also unequivocally true that the president could choose to declassify just about anything he wants for release. As an example, NEWSREP covered the forced separation of U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Ricardo Branch two years ago for mentioning the 160th’s involvement in the Bin Laden raid in a DoD e-mail to his supervisor, despite the fact that President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden had both just publicly thanked the 160th for their participation. When it comes to classified material, presidents don’t have to abide by the same rules as the rest of us.
“We had a photo and I released it, which I have the absolute right to do,” the president told reporters late Friday.
Of course, being allowed to post the image isn’t the same as being justified in doing so, and as many have pointed out — even if Donald Trump can post images from classified intelligence briefings on social media, he shouldn’t for good reason: when foreign nations get a look at intelligence we’ve gathered, it inherently provides an insight into how we gather it. The position of the photo in relation to the target, the level of detail included in the photo, the types of things identified in the photo, and more can all provide America’s opponents with glimpses into our intelligence gathering apparatus and even potentially burn assets utilized in the photo taking effort. These are legitimate concerns about operational security that should have been addressed by Trump and Co. prior to this tweet hitting the internet… The thing is, for all we know, that’s exactly what did happen.
Throughout all of the postulation about what sort of violations of the status quo Trump may have committed, thus far, there’s no evidence to suggest that Trump didn’t go through the appropriate channels prior to posting the image. The upper left hand corner of the image is blacked out — that’s the portion of the image that would normally indicate its level of classification. Blacking it out suggests that the image likely came to Trump’s office as a classified image. Had trump requested that the image be formally declassified, officials could have reviewed it, assessed that it wouldn’t compromise any intelligence gathering assets, and altered the image to remove it’s classification heading prior to Trump taking what looks to be a cell phone picture of the tablet he was viewing it on.
In other words, it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump did go through the appropriate steps prior to releasing the photo — it’s also possible that he didn’t because, as the president, he doesn’t strictly have to. While plenty of folks have chosen to assume one possibility or the other based on personal feelings toward the man or historical precedent, the fact remains that from our vantage point outside of the Oval Office, all anyone can do is speculate. However, even if everything about Trump tweeting that photograph was done properly, that still doesn’t address whether or not doing so was a good decision.
“We spend some $70 billion annually on our intelligence capabilities, while countless professionals put their lives on the line,” said Edward Price, the former senior director of the National Security Council under Barack Obama. “And yet, Trump seems to have put at risk a key asset for absolutely no benefit.”