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A President who threatens national security

Updated 3:09 PM ET, Thu September 12, 2019

Editor's Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) - It's tempting to file away the news that the US urgently removed one of its most valuable spies from Russian President Vladimir Putin's office as just another astonishing development of the Donald Trump era. But this one deserves closer attention. This was not just another covfefe moment, not one more instance of bizarre events that would trigger national shock in any other administration but now land on the growing pile of daily outrages. This is different.

CNN reports that US intelligence agencies -- who had cultivated a secret source in the Kremlin for years, decades by some accounts, until the agent had grown so close to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he could send the CIA photographs of the documents on Putin's desk -- made the decision to pull him. They did so partly because they grew alarmed at the President's mishandling of state secrets, worried that the risk to the source was so great that the benefits he provided to US national security would have to be sacrificed in order to save the agent's life.

This means that the President's behavior is such a clear threat that the country is having to, in effect, weaken its own security to protect itself from the fallout of Trump's actions.

The administration calls the story "incorrect," and the CIA describes parts of it as, "misguided speculation." In addition, the New York Times said its sources say that the agent was extracted because of fears that media speculation about how US intelligence learned that Putin had personally directed the Kremlin's interference in the 2016 election with the goal of helping Trump win the presidency, could expose the spy.

CNN reporter Jim Sciutto said he spoke with five different government sources, including some with direct involvement in the discussions. All the reporting concurs that concerns for the agent's safety emerged in 2016, and he was exfiltrated in 2017. By then, Trump already had a stunning track record of revealing classified information to precisely the wrong people, including a man known as a top Russian spy to US intelligence officials, then-Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak.

In any case, three observations about this incident point to how disturbing it should be to Americans.

First, the loss of the agent is fantastic news for Putin and dismal news for the United States. The man who used to run the CIA's Russia operations, John Sipher, noted that recruiting and developing a source at this level is extremely difficult, "may happen once a generation, if ever." Russia remains a key US antagonist -- Robert Mueller, during his congressional testimony, said that Russia's 2016 meddling "wasn't a single attempt. They're doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign." Russia has meddled in elections in multiple countries, including US allies, and opposed many vital US strategic goals across the world. The loss of the spy was a clear win for the Kremlin, a US foe, and a loss for America and its friends. The Kremlin has denied that the US spy had access to Putin.

Second, Trump's handling of classified information is scandalously irresponsible. According to CNN's reporting, the decision to remove the Moscow agent became final after a mindboggling White House meeting in May 2017. It was already astonishing that Trump invited the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Amb. Kislyak not only to the White House but to the inner sanctum, the Oval Office, just after US officials had accused Moscow of attacking US democracy. But Trump went on to reveal to his guests -- again, US adversaries -- highly classified intelligence provided by Israel, about plans by Syria-based ISIS to use laptops to blow up passenger planes. The revelation endangered Israel's sources in Syria, where Putin allied with the dictator Bashar al-Assad.

That's just one of multiple cases of mishandled information. A couple of weeks ago, Trump tweeted what experts said was a classified image of an Iranian missile test. He has made other inappropriate revelations of classified intelligence.

As president, Trump has the power to declassify secrets, as long as he is not doing so with the deliberate intention of hurting the United States. At the very least he is undisciplined and careless with America's secrets. That pattern provides a very reasonable explanation for intelligence officials to decide they had to bring out America's valuable Moscow spy.

Third, Trump's relationship with and attitude toward Putin remains odd and unsettling. That is plainly visible to the public and could not have escaped the attention of intelligence officials as they made the decision to lose critical clandestine access to the Kremlin.

Trump received classified information -- perhaps including information about that spy's existence -- when he was briefed about Russia's 2016 election interference. He has repeatedly claimed he doesn't believe US intelligence conclusions that the Russians meddled, and the President says he takes Putin's word , as he did in that cringe-worthy press conference with Putin in Helsinki last year.

Trump has a penchant for meeting in private with Putin, and reportedly concealing the contents of the conversations. A couple of months after the US plucked the spy out of Moscow, Trump met privately with Putin in Hamburg, during a G20 summit. After that encounter, Trump demanded the interpreter's notes. The behavior would be disturbing on its own, but when combined with Trump's handling of classified materials, and Putin's track-record of interfering in the US political system for Trump's benefit, it triggers even louder alarms.

The former spy's life may be in danger.

Former Russian spies have already turned up dead in other countries, or survived Russia's assassination attempts.

For Americans, this is a chilling moment in a surreal time. US intelligence officials had very good reasons for worrying about the safety of an invaluable asset, as a direct result of who occupies the Oval Office. Trump, the president who promised to make Americans grow "tired of winning," has caused a major loss to national intelligence, one whose consequences are unknowable, unquantifiable, but whose impact is clear: America is now less secure.

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