Privacy And National Security Concerns Play Second Fiddle To Administration's Attempts To Control The Narrative
from the privacy-violations-are-coming-from-inside-the-house! dept
Rep. Devin Nunes, who heads the House Intelligence Committee, has been all over the privacy/security map in recent weeks. He’s publicly decried the supposed “illegal surveillance” of former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn while trying to avoid undercutting the NSA programs and presidential authority that make it all this spying possible.
His hypocrisy knows no bounds. Nunes has repeatedly suggested NSA spying activities (under Executive Order 12333) should receive even less oversight. Now he’s complaining the spy infrastructure he wholeheartedly supports is too big and dangerous, now that it’s resulted in Mike Flynn’s departure.
But it goes even further than that. Nunes is utilizing an informal network of what he calls “whistleblowers” to leak him details of investigations. Then he immediately goes and discusses these investigations in public. Barton Gellman (who handled some of Snowden’s leaks) points out just how far Nunes has gone in defending both Mike Flynn and Trump White House.
Three named officials—two Trump appointees and arguably his leading defender on the Hill—appear to have engaged in precisely the behavior that the president describes as the true national security threat posed by the Russia debate…
The offense, which in some cases can be prosecuted as a felony, would apply even if the White House officials showed Nunes only “tearsheet” summaries of the surveillance reports. Based on what Nunes has said in public, they appear to have showed him the more sensitive verbatim transcripts. Those are always classified as TS/SI (special intelligence) or TS/COMINT (communications intelligence), which means that they could reveal sources and methods if disclosed. That is the first apparent breach of secrecy rules. The second, of course, is the impromptu Nunes news conference. There is no unclassified way to speak in public about the identity of a target or an “incidentally collected” communicant in a surveillance operation.
When communications of US persons is “incidentally” collected, the information is minimized and the names redacted. Gellman points out “customers” (other government agencies/officials) can ask for the names to be revealed. But the policies governing dissemination mean the NSA doesn’t just hand out this info to anyone. The fact that Nunes knew whose communications were swept up along with the targets means the real breach of privacy isn’t the NSA’s incidental collection, but the unmasking of those incidentally-collected. That means the same White House that’s so upset about Trump being spied on is the one asking for an unminimized copies of the collected communications.
The names could only have been unmasked if the customers—who seem in this case to have been Trump’s White House appointees—made that request themselves. If anyone breached the president’s privacy, the perpetrators were working down the hall from him. (Okay, probably in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door.) It is of course hypocritical, even deceptive, for Nunes to lay that blame at the feet of intelligence officials…
This raises an even more interesting question about what’s going on at the White House. Officials are asking for unminimized reports on incidental collections. But for what reason? Gellman theorizes it may be some form of an unofficial backdoor search.
There is no chance that the FBI would brief them about the substance or progress of its investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections to the Russian government. Were the president’s men using the surveillance assets of the U.S. government to track the FBI investigation from the outside?
If so, it’s an interesting way to obtain information a government agency (the FBI) won’t share with you: get it from the intelligence agency that’s feeding it to the FBI. If this is what’s happening, it’s another example of the Trump White House — and those subservient to it — ignoring national security rules to further their own ends. This abuse likely isn’t unusual, but it’s definitely hypocritical for those engaging in it to make comments about the sanctity of privacy and/or national security while doing damage to both.