Many people may have missed the brief dust-up this week when the Wall Street Journal reported on information from an unnamed source that a half-brother of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, killed in an apparent assassination in February 2017, was a CIA informant.
The half-brother, Kim Jong-Nam, was killed when “two women smeared his face with the nerve agent VX” at the Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia.
The U.S. and South Korea attributed this murder to North Korea; the Kim regime denies it.
Here’s the only thing you need to remember about this “leak.” It may or may not be true, but that’s not even important. What’s important is that there was absolutely no U.S. national security reason for anyone to say this to the Wall Street Journal.
There’s no legitimate reason to tell WSJ this, whether it’s true or not. Regardless of all other circumstances – all other circumstances – the only effect this “leak” can have is to sow suspicion and friction in the relations between the U.S. and North Korea.
Viewed from what’s going on at the moment, in 2019, it’s a way of spiking the negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. That’s all it is. It serves no other purpose. (The Washington Post has helpfully added some of its patented insider detail in the days since, which serves to keep the theme alive.)
Now fast-forward to Trump’s response to the WSJ article. The Atlantic’s David Graham summarized it on Monday (emphasis added):
Trump was asked about the revelation as he left the White House for a trip to Iowa, and his answer was jarring.
“I see that, and I just received a beautiful letter from Kim Jong Un,” Trump said. “I think the relationship is very well, but I appreciated the letter. I saw the information about the CIA with regard to his brother or half brother, and I would tell him that would not happen under my auspices. I wouldn’t let that happen under my auspices. I just received a beautiful letter from Kim Jong Un.”
Graham was appalled. In his view, Trump is siding with North Korea. He’s “saying he wouldn’t use spying to better understand the country’s biggest overseas challenge.” He’s “sending a clear message to any would-be informants: The United States doesn’t have your back.”
That message was actually sent already, by whoever made the “leak” to the WSJ. But let that pass.
Graham continued to fulminate for a few more paragraphs. The rest of the mainstream media chorused indignation on cue, accusing Trump of treason.
Even some of Trump’s milder critics and supporters wished, on principle, that the president hadn’t vowed not to recruit any more Kim half-brothers as CIA sources. Couldn’t Trump have just said something like “We don’t comment on intelligence matters”?
And that’s where Trump gets what almost no one else seems to: that the answer is no. Trump couldn’t remain silent in obedience to a convention about not tipping your hand on intelligence matters.
Intelligence community leakers can continue to try to sabotage his administration’s policies as long as Trump does observe such conventions.
The convention here ties Trump’s hands – but not the hands of the leakers, who have willing accomplices in the media. The truth of this, and how the intel community leakers are exploiting it, could not be illustrated more starkly.
Remember: there was zero legitimate reason for the “leak” about Kim Jong-Nam. It was gratuitous, unnecessary, done in bad faith; indeed, it either exposed an intelligence source and method, or purported to. It could have no other purpose than policy sabotage.
No moral imperative compels Trump to sit still for that. In fact, he not only owns the intelligence apparatus on behalf of the American people; he was elected for the purpose of liberating it from the extortion game played by the leakers.
The sacredness of conventions about intelligence is non-invokable by people – leakers – who violate those conventions every other day. Trump is putting them on notice that he is in charge of what U.S. national priorities and policies are in foreign affairs. They can’t hold him hostage to leaks by hiding behind the conventions of intelligence secrecy: something they themselves are willing to burn to the ground whenever it suits them.
I wouldn’t use the word “beautiful,” myself, in relation to Kim Jong-Un or any enterprise we have undertaken with him. But as regards putting the intelligence leaking industry in its place and giving it a rhetorical knee-capping, Trump did exactly the right thing.