Trump has legal authority to declassify intelligence

Despite the blowback, Trump is right.

ByABC News
May 16, 2017, 4:15 PM

— -- President Trump tweeted Tuesday morning that he had the "absolute right" to share information about national security with Russian officials in the White House last week, after The Washington Post reported that the information was highly sensitive and classified.

The White House called the report "false" and denied that he revealed specific information about sources, methods and military operations to Russia.

Despite the massive blowback from the intelligence community and Democratic and Republican members of Congress, Trump is right.

Executive Order 13526

As president, Trump has the legal power to declassify information. He also has the authority to share information with whomever he wants, including foreign adversaries.

At the White House today, Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, defended Trump's disclosure and said it "is wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people."

Trump is protected under an executive order that was signed by Barack Obama in 2009 establishing a uniform system for "classifying, safeguarding and declassifying national security information."

The order allows the president to determine the system of designating classified information, and he is the ultimate authority over U.S. intelligence agencies, which gather and classify the information.

The Supreme Court confirmed as much in its 1988 ruling in Department of Navy v. Egan.

"[The president's] authority to classify and control access to information bearing on national security … flows primarily from this constitutional investment of power in the president and exists quite apart from any explicit congressional grant," the court said.

'This is unprecedented'

The intelligence community has been left spinning in light of the revelations that Trump allegedly disclosed classified information.

But the problem isn't legal — it's political, said Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard University.

"It is a matter of policy and prudence," he explained. "Careless disclosure can dry up sources, whether it be the identities and lives of those in the field or the cooperation we get from liaison with other services, who have to protect their sources and methods."

While experts said that presidents may disclose classified information, it is rare for them to do so.

"This is unprecedented," said Kate Martin, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress who has more than 30 years of intelligence and national security expertise.

As the head of the executive branch, Trump has the legal authority to disclose intelligence information, she said, but "the system assumes that a president acts in the interest of U.S. national security and that a president would not disclose intelligence information in a way that could be harmful simply in order to boast about his own access."

"Apparently, [McMaster] said Trump made the decision at the spur of the moment to share the information, without having gone through the process, which means he did not consider the harm that would follow the disclosure," she added.

The basic rule for confidentiality in the intelligence world, Martin said, is that officials share classified intelligence only with people who have a need to know it; otherwise, "you don't share it."

She added, "We've never had a president who defended himself by saying, 'Oh, it's lawful,' even though it's harmful to national security."

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