The New York Times accidentally exposes a high-level intelligence leak

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New York Times Publisher Arthur G. Sulzberger has an opinion piece in Wednesday’s edition lamenting the growing attacks on press freedom worldwide. Sulzberger is, of course, correct. Independent journalism has always been a risky endeavor in China, Russia, Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan, and across most Arab states, for example, but it is now becoming increasingly dangerous in places like Turkey, Poland, and Hungary.

It is about Egypt, however, that his article suggests a serious breach of intelligence by a rogue American official. Sulzberger explains:

Two years ago, we got a call from a United States government official warning us of the imminent arrest of a New York Times reporter based in Egypt named Declan Walsh. Though the news was alarming, the call was actually fairly standard. Over the years, we’ve received countless such warnings from American diplomats, military leaders and national security officials.

But this particular call took a surprising and distressing turn. We learned the official was passing along this warning without the knowledge or permission of the Trump administration. Rather than trying to stop the Egyptian government or assist the reporter, the official believed, the Trump administration intended to sit on the information and let the arrest be carried out. The official feared being punished for even alerting us to the danger.

Sulzberger’s animus toward President Trump may be burying the lede. For an American official to know in advance that Egyptian security officials planned to arrest Walsh would require one of two things: either a human intelligence source inside the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate or an intercept of communications within the General Intelligence Directorate.

While tipping off Walsh, without telling him the reason, might be have been both wise and humane, for a rogue employee to call Sulzberger (and on an open line at that) basically signaled to Egypt’s government either that they were penetrated or otherwise compromised. Given Trump’s antics as well as the cartoonish coverage of the president often consumed by those entirely inside a bubble antagonistic to him, it is easy to assume the worst about his instincts and motives. But given the circle within Cairo that knew of the supposed detention order for Walsh was extremely small, it is quite possible that the apparent lack of immediate action was due more to protect sources and methods.

The apparent intelligence leak in question, therefore, likely involved top secret/sensitive compartmented information — the type whose leak can put lives in danger. That Sulzberger reveals such leaks are common simply underscores the belief in the White House that the intelligence community or foreign service have become political actors and that the firewall between professionalism and political activism has broken down.

This is not to minimize the situation Walsh faced, if Sulzberger’s recollections are accurate. Egypt under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi today has become eerily similar to 1970s-era Iraq, when the belief that the strongman ensured moderation was enough for U.S. officials to paper over the leaders’ dictatorial tendencies and increasingly credible reports of human rights violations.

That Walsh left Egypt without incident is a good thing. But plugging the leak within the intelligence community or the State Department is crucial lest fear of leaks convinces future administrations to make policy without their counsel.

Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner‘s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.

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