WASHINGTON — The intelligence finding that President Trump divulged to Russian officials during a meeting last week at the White House involved an advance in bomb making developed by the Islamic State that could be used against commercial aircraft, according to a U.S. official.
Operatives from the Islamic State, or ISIS, have determined how to implant and mask an explosive inside the battery of a laptop computer, increasing the likelihood that a bomb can be slipped past screeners onto an airplane.
The battery with the explosive charge still functions enough to allow airport security officials to power up the laptop, a standard test to determine if the machine is safe, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because officials are not authorized to speak publicly about intelligence matters.
The release of classified information was described in a memo to government agencies after the meeting between Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and was first reported by the Washington Post. Such notices are standard operating procedure after classified material has been divulged, an event that is referred to as "spillage," the official said.
Trump's disclosure of the city where the unfolding plot was being hatched was considered "code-word" information, a super-secret classification.
The official — and the White House — played down the value of the information Trump released. It was known to many in the government, and given ISIS’ shrinking footprint, there are only a few cities that it could have come from, the official said. The New York Times reported that Israel was the foreign partner that passed along the intelligence.
Trump and his Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, have defended the disclosure of information to the Russians. Trump, in a tweet, pronounced "an absolute right" to informing the Russians of the threat. McMaster, meanwhile, told reporters that it "wholly appropriate," and added that Trump wasn't aware of its source.
But a senior congressional staffer confirmed that the information divulged by Trump involved laptop computers and batteries. This official said the disclosure did harm U.S. intelligence collection efforts and that Trump may have tipped the Russians off to other sensitive sources and methods for collecting information. The staff member spoke on condition of anonymity, because staff were not authorized to speak publicly on intelligence matters.
In Brussels on Wednesday, U.S. Homeland Security officials and their European counterparts exchanged security information as U.S. officials pressed their plan to ban laptops and tablets from the cabins of trans-Atlantic flights.
The American plan would expand a ban established in March for in-flight laptops and other large electronics for U.S.-bound flights from 10 airports in eight countries in the Middle East and Africa. The expansion involves routes carrying up to 65 million people annually on more than 400 daily flights, according to Homeland Security. The concern, officials stated at the time, was that explosives could be smuggled aboard in those consumer electronic devices.
The International Air Transport Association, which represents more than 250 airlines in more than 100 countries, estimated the ban would cost more than $1 billion annually in lost time to passengers.
Agencies with a need to know about disclosures such as the one made by Trump made to the Russians are notified of spillage because it can affect their operations. In this case, Homeland Security needed to be notified of the issue as it oversees threats against U.S. interests.
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