President Trump’s public announcement Thursday that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress planned to travel to Afghanistan to visit US troops violated years of security procedures intended to protect the lives of both US officials and the people they are expected to see in dangerous conflict zones.
Former government officials who helped arrange foreign travel for US officials criticized the president’s public announcement that he was cancelling the congressional delegation’s use of military aircraft. The public nature of his announcement — a letter released by the White House — made it all but impossible for the delegation to safely arrange other means of travel.
“When they do the threat assessment, what enables these trips to go forward is that they are done as a surprise visit,” said Molly Montgomery, a former State Department official who did advance preparation for trips by the secretary of state during the Obama administration. “From a security perspective, the element of surprise is one of the best ways to mitigate a threat.”
“Afghanistan in particular is tough because there are only a couple of ways to go between the airport and the embassy,” said Montgomery, who also served as special adviser to Vice President Mike Pence on Europe and Eurasia and is now a vice president at Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategic advisory firm.
Brett Bruen, a former US diplomat and the director of global engagement in the Obama White House, said the president’s public revelation of Pelosi’s travel plans also affected the security of others.
“Not only did he endanger the speaker and her delegation, he endangered American officials, contractors who use the same travel arrangements,” he said. “I served in Iraq. You’re extremely sensitive to operational security movements because, in a place like that, you’re constantly being targeted.”
"You never give advance notice of going into a battle area. You just never do. Perhaps the President's inexperience, didn't have him understand that protocol. The people around him, though, should have known that. That's very dangerous," Pelosi herself said to reporters Friday morning.
"And then – so we're saying, well, it's not only been our safety, that's one thing, but the more important thing is the people who we would be meeting with, our civilians there, our own troops, first and foremost – again, they take so many risks for us. We didn't want to heighten the risk for them."
Bruen, now director of the consulting firm Global Situation Room, said that extremist groups look for information with which they can paint a picture of how to target American interests, and in particular American officials. “The attack in Syria is a pretty clear illustration of that risk,” he added, referring to an attack on Wednesday in Manbij, Syria, that left four Americans dead. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, which struck a restaurant that had been visited by US members of Congress last year and was a favorite of US troops.
The president’s letter announced the cancellation of the military aircraft for the delegation due to the government shutdown. It was widely seen as a response to Pelosi’s request that the Trump postpone president postpone his State of the Union address because the government shutdown made security preparations difficult.
Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill, said that the delegation was planning to fly commercially, as Trump’s letter suggested they do, as an alternative.
But revelations of the trip by the president apparently prompted the State Department to reconsider whether the trip was a safe one for the members of Congress to make.
The State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service updated its assessment of the risk Pelosi’s congressional delegation faced in Afghanistan after Trump revealed the trip, Hammill said in a statement.
“In the middle of the night, the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service provided an updated threat assessment detailing that the President announcing this sensitive travel had significantly increased the danger to the delegation and to the troops, security, and other officials supporting the trip,” Hammill said in a statement. “This morning, we learned that the Administration had leaked the commercial travel plans as well.”
Asked how severe the State Department considered the threat to be after the assessment, Hammill said he had no further comment beyond his statement. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment, saying it is only answering questions regarding the safety of human life and property during the shutdown.
But former officials say that just publicly highlighting plans for commercial travel endangered those making the trip.
“There may be information that’s not classified about security arrangements, but you don’t want it to become available to any extremist group that now can hang around the airport on the belief there may be officials coming in,” Bruen said.
Hammill said in his statement that the delegation had planned on flying commercially, but canceled the trip after the State Department updated the threat assessment and learning that the administration had leaked the commercial travel plans.
"The fact that they would leak that we were flying commercial is a danger not only to us but to other people flying commercially. It's very irresponsible on the part of the President," Pelosi said.
The White House denied any such leaks.
The letter is hardly the first time the president has taken a lackadaisical approach to matters of American safety and security. In 2017, he reportedly shared Israeli intelligence with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the then-Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, when they visited him in the Oval Office. He appeared to confirm that he’d shared the intelligence by telling the press, “I never mentioned the word ‘Israel.’”
That same year, he ordered strikes on Syria and discussed them as they were happening with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his resort, Mar-a-Lago, where the strikes were “after-dinner entertainment” for other guests in the room, according to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. The president also apparently insists on using his iPhones, even after having been told that Russian spies are eavesdropping on calls. He also left his phone behind in a golf cart.
The publicizing of Pelosi's plans also contrasts with the secrecy imposed on Trump's own Christmas visit to US troops in Iraq when a tweet from a British plane enthusiast sparked concerns that the president's safety had been compromised.