"Ad hoc" disclosure of intel. sets Trump apart, experts say

News that President Trump shared "inappropriate" -- and possibly highly classified information -- about an ISIS plot with Russian diplomats sent shockwaves throughout Washington, D.C., and beyond.

But it wouldn't be the first time a sitting president has shared classified information. Past presidents have shared secret intelligence, and the president has broad authority to declassify information, as the highest U.S. government official. What differentiates Mr. Trump's disclosure -- a revelation he has confirmed -- is the justification for it and the approach, according to experts in presidential history and national security.

"I've never seen anything like this in terms of this kind of aspect -- the apparent recklessness involved," said Chris Edelson, assistant professor of government and a director of Politics, Policy and Law Scholars Program at American University in Washington, D.C.

Past presidents have generally only shared classified information after deliberation and for a specific purpose. But, according to Mr. Trump's own national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, Mr. Trump decided to share information with the Russian diplomats during the course of their meeting last week, and the president was unaware of where the intelligence originated. Sources have confirmed to CBS News that the information originated from Israeli intelligence sources, and it's unclear if the president had the explicit approval of the Israelis to share it.

"Presidents have shared classified information at strategic moments," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, mentioning former president John F. Kennedy's decision to do share material on Soviet Missile sites in Cuba  to garner international support for his foreign policy goals. "... Some presidents, like George W. Bush have allowed other leaders to sit in on meetings with classified material when there is a common objective."

"But in all these cases it is done with great care, caution, and planning," Zelizer continued. "This is never done in an ad hoc and on-the-spot matter. The language is vetted, the objective is thought through, and the justification is always significant enough to take this step. This was very different, suggesting that the president is not cognizant of his responsibilities and the dangers this poses. It shows that he is not listening to advisers and capable of risky actions that have huge ramifications here and abroad."

Edelson reiterated that past presidents' decisions to reveal information weren't done "ad hoc."

Bush shared his classified presidential daily briefings with other foreign officials, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and even Russian President Vladimir Putin, as he waged a war on terror. But those briefings weren't shared on a whim, Edelson said. The information shared was selective.

Former President Jimmy Carter was the first president to acknowledge the U.S. was operating spy satellites in an October 1978 speech at Cape Canaveral in Florida, while he was trying to persuade the Senate to ratify an arms agreement with the Soviet Union. Spy satellites were a part of the National Reconnaissance Organization, a Department of Defense entity whose very existence was classified until 1992. Carter still didn't call out NRO by name.

More recently, former vice president Joe Biden -- not former president Barack Obama -- disclosed at a dinner that SEAL Team 6 was responsible for killing Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, only days after the 2011 military raid. Biden's off-the-cuff comments marked the first time U.S. officials publicly acknowledged the existence of SEAL Team 6, by name. The administration later disclosed further classified details about the raid operation. Biden and the Obama administration were criticized by some for the disclosure as jeopardizing the military members' safety.

But the president still can't necessarily share any classified information he wants, and generally, there's still a process for declassifying information, Edelson said. The president, he said, still needs to comply with laws like the Espionage Act, which criminalizes disclosing information about national defense with the awareness that such a disclosure could inflict harm.

"The law does apply and the president doesn't have absolute authority," Edelson said.

Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice in D.C., said the Espionage Act is broad, but there's a "decent chance" Mr. Trump violated it.

Beyond that, sharing intelligence can jeopardize trust with allies, who may be more wary to share information with the U.S. if they believe that information might be compromised, Edelson said.

"We will think twice before conveying very sensitive information," said Danny Yatom, Israel's former head of Mossad, on CBSN Tuesday evening.

"If I were a member of Congress, I'd have a lot of questions here," Edelson said.

  • Kathryn Watson

    Kathryn Watson is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.