Those who thought the domestic surveillance Ed Snowden exposed was perfectly acceptable and lawful are finding it much harder to stomach with Trump in charge. The Lawfare blog, which routinely hosts articles supportive of government surveillance activities, has taken on a new tone over the past few months. The lesson being learned: if a power can only be trusted in certain people’s hands, then it really can’t be trusted in anyone’s. This belated realization is better than none, but one wonders if the drastic change in tone would have followed an election that put Hillary Clinton in the White House.
That’s not to say the first month of Trump’s presidency has borne any resemblance to a “peaceful transition of power.” The federal government isn’t just leaking. It’s hemorrhaging. Underneath the recent ouster of Mike Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Advisor, is something disturbing.
What’s disturbing isn’t the surveillance — although in “normal” circumstances it might be. Flynn was dumped because recorded phone calls captured him discussing sanctions with Russian officials. This domestic surveillance isn’t unheard of. The fact that this information — including the content of the calls — was leaked to the public is more notable.
Calls to foreign officials are fair game for US surveillance efforts. The last-minute removal of restraints on sharing unminimized US persons data/communications by the Obama administration just served to ensure Flynn’s calls would end up in the hands of multiple federal agencies. The timing of the loosened restrictions is worth noting though, as Marcy Wheeler does in this post about the Flynn ouster.
Finally, remember that for a great deal of SIGINT, FBI wouldn’t need a warrant. That’s because Obama changed the EO 12333 sharing rules just 4 days after the IC started getting really suspicious about Flynn’s contacts with Russia. That would make five years of intercepts available to FBI without a warrant in any counterintelligence cases, as this one is.
But what Lawfare’s Adam Klein is concerned with isn’t the sharing of unminimized communications between agencies. As he points out in his post, all of that’s perfectly legal. What he’s more concerned with is the actions of the intelligence community, which has made all of this public.
[T]his case illustrates why surveillance law treats U.S.-person information with the same healthy fear we associate with nuclear waste and biohazard material—that is, with the vigilance reserved for things that are inherently dangerous if not closely guarded. As Eli Lake wrote this week in Bloomberg View, selective leaking of U.S.-person information “gives the permanent state” (or political appointees entrusted with the information) “the power to destroy reputations from the cloak of anonymity.” Even if not leaked to the press, such information can be misused: J. Edgar Hoover and his subordinates infamously used salacious information gleaned from FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., to pressure King to retreat from public life.
That’s what’s happening and that’s a cause for concern. The NSA and others have always had these powers, but we were assured they wouldn’t be abused. In this case, the abuse isn’t in the collection or dissemination (all of it now “lawful”), but in the use of leaked information to kick out a National Security Advisor.
Trump has made few friends in the intelligence community since he became president, comparing the CIA to Nazis and making comments about unprofessional behavior. The problem for Trump is he’s fighting with agencies particularly well-armed to take him down. But that’s not what we want from our intelligence agencies. They’re not tools of government accountability. They’re tools for totalitarianism restrained only by oversight and a rigorous set of rules. (I mean, in theory…) But the IC appears to be ignoring the checks and balances put in place to guard against the destruction of the government’s head by its body.
It’s one thing to cheer for the public flailing of a President you don’t like. It’s quite another to cheer on the dangerous, easily-abusable network of domestic surveillance that makes it possible.
So, the issue here is more the leaks than the surveillance. The surveillance has its own problems, but the willingness to leak information damaging to US persons — even if it prevented someone who possibly shouldn’t be a National Security Advisor from keeping his job — is a disturbing indicator of just how much power these agencies (at least 16 of them) now wield, thanks to information sharing.
The other problem is the hypocritical way Trump and his supporters are dealing with the leaked info. Trump wants an investigation to uncover the source of the leaks. Fair enough (albeit somewhat hypocritical, given his love of Wikileaks…). But the House Oversight Committee and Trump himself have no interest in taking a deeper look into the allegations against Mike Flynn. Nonsensically, House Oversight Committee head Devin Nunes said the recording of the phone calls was itself “disturbing.” This is something someone involved in intelligence oversight should already know is a perfectly lawful interception under statutes he helps shape and define.
It’s a dangerous time to be a whistleblower, as the administration appears far more interested in going after leaks it doesn’t like than potentially-illegal behavior by its own staff. And it’s just as dangerous to be the target of intelligence committee animosity. No more dangerous than it’s always been, but in recent days, we’ve been given a pretty clear picture of how quickly lawful surveillance can ruin a person’s life.