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Trump confirms sharing secrets with Russia, and defends right to do so

Reports suggest Israel shared highly classified information on IS plot with US
Trump and Lavrov meeting last week (AFP)

Donald Trump confirmed on Tuesday that he had shared information with Russia last week, and defended his right to do so, hours after US media reported he had divulged top-secret information on the Islamic State (IS) group.

The US president defended his "absolute right" to share information with Russia, tweeting that, "As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts terrorism and airline flight safety."

His message came after the Washington Post said he had revealed to Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, highly classified information gathered by an ally, on an alleged Islamic State group threat to use laptops on a passenger plane.

The information was declassified in the act of Trump telling Lavrov and Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.

Just before Trump’s tweets, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the story was "nonsense" and that it was not worth confirming or denying.

"For us it is not an issue, it's more nonsense," Peskov said when asked about the report. "It's not an issue for confirming or denying."

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Trump added that he had shared the information with Russia for "humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against IS and terrorism".

Declassifying information is a presidential privilege and is not illegal, but the intelligence reportedly came from a US ally who did not authorise Washington to share it with Moscow.

That development that could shatter trust that is essential to intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation, and place obstacles in the fight against IS.

Israeli link?

The top secret intelligence that Trump shared with Russia appeared to have come from Israel, the New York Times and other news outlets reported on Tuesday, citing current US intelligence officials.

Israel has not yet commented on the reports, but Ron Dermer told the New York Times that the two countries remain allies in the fight against militancy.

“Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump,” Dermer said.

In an attempt to downplay the seriousness of the information given to the Russians, Trump’s national security advisor, HR McMaster, said the president’s conversation with the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador to the US was “wholly appropriate”.

“What the president discussed with the foreign minister was wholly appropriate to that conversation and is consistent with the routine sharing of information between the president and any leaders with whom he’s engaged,” McMaster said.

Trump’s action endangered the life of Israel’s source inside IS, ABC News cited US officials as saying.

“The real risk is not just this source, but future sources of information about plots against us,” said Matt Olsen, a former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center who is now a contributor at ABC.

Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, said the incident will make Israeli intelligence agencies more reluctant about sharing sensitive information with Washington.

He told ABC that Trump’s behaviour will “inevitably cause elements of Israel's intelligence service to demonstrate more caution”.

FBI Director Comey fired

Last week, Trump threw his administration into turmoil by taking the almost unprecedented step of firing his FBI director James Comey.

Comey had been overseeing investigations into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia to skew the 2016 election.

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The meeting with the Russian officials came a day after that firing, and was already controversial in itself - a red carpet welcome for top aides of Vladimir Putin just months after being hit with US sanctions for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. 

Trump's administration was left red-faced after Moscow surprised the White House by releasing pictures of what was meant to be a closed-door meeting.