Trump Wiretapping Circus Turns Real Surveillance Issues into Crazy Sideshow

Fight over government control ignores issue of snooping on all the rest of us.


Erik S. Lesser/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

Edward Snowden may be a household name now, but the sad reality has been that federal surveillance-related issues and stories have been getting less attention and do not draw the interest of Americans the way they did back when Snowden first started blowing the whistle.

So one might assume that surveillance experts and anybody who writes about "deep state" would maybe be excited that President Donald Trump's tweets over the weekend claiming that President Barack Obama tapped Trump Tower would lead to an increased visibility of these issues back in the press.

Count this surveillance reporter out—and maybe a little frustrated. Part of the problem is that distilling the extremely complicated system of federal foreign surveillance regulations into general news stories leads to confused and mistaken reporting. I'm not going to go over what all the reporting about Trump's claim of being wiretapped is getting wrong but Julian Sanchez over at Just Security has a helpful explainer of what people might be misunderstanding. I will echo Sanchez's note that President Barack Obama's administration has been working on changing the regulations to relax raw intelligence sharing between federal agencies for a while now and has nothing to do with Trump. The Breitbart piece that seems to have inspired a lot of this weekend heat seems to conflate different types of surveillance authorities all under the same umbrella.

Now take all that confusion about how foreign intelligence surveillance actually works and add the current panic-based, personality-focused news cycles, fed by both Trump supporters and opponents and happily abetted by media outlets. There is plenty to discuss about problems with how surveillance authorities are granted here in the United States—the incidental collection of our own private data, the opaqueness of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), and the potential for intelligence sharing to be abused domestically to bypass the warrant requirements of the Fourth Amendment.

But none of those policy issues are being brought up in this fight at all. It's all about Trump vs. President Barack Obama. This fight just turns real surveillance issues into political intrigue and just another tool in the battle over who controls the executive branch. Everything about this issue has been and will continue to be analyzed in the terms of what it all means for Trump—and only Trump.

Last Thursday, just two days before this wiretap complaint blew up on Twitter and in the media, White House representatives told Reuters that it didn't support any potential reforms to federal surveillance laws that might restrain the government's authority to collect data and communications of Americans. That is to say, at the same time that Trump is complaining that the federal government was inappropriately snooping on him, his administration does not want to do anything at all to reduce the likelihood that the federal government inappropriately snoops on you.

So, frustratingly, this whole circus makes it feel even less likely to result in positive reforms to surveillance authorities, because it's turned the entire civil rights issue into a chest-thumping contest about whether Russia is unduly influencing Trump or his people.

A panel of experts and I will be reminding citizens about how this fight actually impacts their own privacy rights at South by Southwest in Austin this Friday. Hopefully we'll be able to explain to folks that there's a whole lot more to this than Trump being upset.

NEXT: That Time Town-Hall Revolts Helped Drive Two-Thirds of Congress Out of Office

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  1. So this is what it takes for the conservatives to start caring about the 4th Amendment?

    1. What, you’ve given up on liberals already? Unfortunately the parties seem to be in lockstep on this, and voters don’t really care that much until they hear about a specific abuse.

  2. Yeah, it was never going to be about your 4th Amendment rights being violated. As with many things, there are two tiers to the surveillance state. The one that gets Dianne Feinstein and the Fourth Estate interested is the one where the CIA spies on the Senate committee investigating them. The other is the one where your iPhone can’t have encryption and or a passcode and no one gives a shit.

  3. Typical Trump, even when he’s the one being wiretapped, he still has to make it all about him.

    1. Too bad there’s no evidence he was wiretapped, but yes, it’s all about him. Not that his malignant narcissism is anything to worry about.

      1. There’s plenty of evidence. Whether there is proof is another matter, but we shall see. So far the DOJ hasn’t denied that there was any wiretapping done.

        1. I’m sure there is “proof”. The POTUS has access to all sorts of good information regardless of how much the politicos in the NSA try to hide it from him.

          If the Admin just declassifies it and dumps on the public, all the talking heads and partisan idiots like DanO will just poo-poo it, declaring it fake.
          Getting congress to investigate…as is their job…is smart. Let’s see Clapper called in from of a Congressional inquiry that has hard copies of the FISA warrants and try to lie his why out of it again. Let’s see Lynch up there. Let’s see these lying aholes be forced to use the 5th.

  4. I’m here to comment on the alt-text. I’ll finish reading the piece later.

    1. So where’s your comment on the alt-text?

        1. Ah, thanks. I missed that part.

          1. Just joshin’! I LOVE IT!

            Ditto for the article. Keep up the good work, Shackleson.

    2. Speaking of the alt text, Trump has plenty of help from the chattering classes to make everything about him.

      Reason has been especially busy rendering him assistance.

  5. “The Breitbart piece that seems to have inspired a lot of this weekend heat seems to conflate different types of surveillance authorities all under the same umbrella.”

    Ummm…I thought the NYT wrote an article that discussed how President Obama reclassified intelligence on Trump so it could be widely shared?

    1. Yea also guardian and louise mensch for heat street

      1. Oh, also it looks like WSJ, too

        1. The Glibs? think you are really Tulpa, or maybe Mary, or quite possible a John K. sock, or, or, or…
          Care to comment? It’s really important.

          1. Where has this been said?

            1. At the Glib site, where conspiracy theories abound.

              1. I didn’t see anything that said that. Link?

          2. Hey, I got banned from posting at Glibertarians but I still obsessively hang out there and read every single comment too. We should totally hang out some time.

            1. Honestly, not to be a jerk, but you strike me as kind of a moron. I imagine you have a bumper sticker that says ‘i’m with Her’ and you probably argued to people how President Obama was the most ‘libertarian’ president ever.

              Sorry, but no.

              1. No…he is a moron. He’s a prog Troll just stirring the pot.

  6. Good article by scott as usual

  7. I was under the impression that every phone conservation in America is recorded and stored in that NSA super facility. And that they access the recordings via warrants.

  8. “But none of those policy issues are being brought up in this fight at all. It’s all about Trump vs. President Barack Obama. “

    I don’t understand why this means that libertarian journalist should count himself out, then.

    The size, authority, and misbehavior of our intelligence services here is the important message from libertarians on this, and if pointing that out benefits Trump in some way, who cares?

    There are two big libertarian stories that aren’t related to Trump or Obama.

    1) Setting foreign policy is the purview of the president and Congress–not the intelligence services. If the intelligence service are going to completely pummel the president on every appointment and during every election because they don’t like his foreign policy prescriptions, e.g., working with Putin on ISIS, then we have an unaccountable bureaucracy setting foreign policy and violating the Hatch Act.

    2) The intelligence bureaucracy has gotten so large since 9/11, and like any bureaucracy, it’s throwing its weight around to protect its budgets, its responsibilities, and its turf. The NSA has some 35,000 employees alone. We may have as many people in our intelligence services as GM employees building America’s cars–except the NSA, CIA, and FBI don’t build anything. Why are they so large? Why do they need to be so large?

    Why can’t you make those cases–regardless of whether it helps or hurts Donald Trump?

    1. Because Trump, Ken. God, what don’t you get here?

  9. conversation, geez

  10. sometimes things you consider just political intrigue will turn into real results or just a deeper state where no one knows who is watching who.

  11. In fact, this story really isn’t primarily about Trump at all. It’s about one Barack Obama, and the the eight years of the blatant Nixonian abuses of power he was able to get away with thanks to his sycophantic lickspittles in the “mainstream” media, starting almost from day one with his disgusting politicization of the I.R.S. against groups he didn’t like, and ending with this shameful act.

    Of course, the so-called “libertarians” at Reason don’t want to address that, so they choose to handwave it away. Wouldn’t want to get disinvited to the really good cocktail parties or anything.

    1. Alternative article headline: “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Deep State”?

    2. Or, maybe Obama really wasn’t Nixonian.

      Where is the evidence that, say, Obama himself directed Lois Lerner to harass Tea Party groups?

      And no I am not defending the harassment.

      1. Is there any evidence that Trump coordinated with the Russians? When has evidence ever stopped certain publications from spreading a narrative?

        1. So if a publication pushes a false narrative, your response is to push some other false narrative?

          1. No. I’m saying that to suddenly demand evidence seems very opportunistic.

          2. So if a publication pushes a false narrative, your response is to push some other false narrative?

            Obviously. It’s the oldest trick in the book.

          3. Of course. Since Obama divided us all, WakaWaka has no choice to continue to be a racist

        2. Yes, there’s evidence to suggest Trump’s people coordinated with Russians. Donald Trump’s campaign chairman and chief strategist Paul Manafort resigned over his Russian connections and we are now learning from hacked text messages that this guy’s daughters were convinced their father was working with the Russians to leak the Clinton campaign hacked emails. Now, I’m not saying Manafort’s daughters’ suspicions that their father was working with Russians is proof of that claim but it’s evidence that is worth considering.

          1. Actually, the correct answer is that there is as much evidence that the Russians ‘hacked’ Podesta’s e-mails or that the Trump campaign coordinated with them as there is that President Obama wiretapped Trump towers.

            Try again

            1. Look at those goalposts go!

              1. Has ‘goalposts’ become your way to dodge things that you can’t answer (which seems to be A LOT of things)

      2. Did he fire her when it was revealed by her?


        Did he demand any type of repurcussions?


        Then who the heck do you think is responsible?

        1. Did he fire her when it was revealed by her?

          I do not believe he could fire her.

          1. They sure did stonewall the release of her e-mail correspondence for the duration of their tenure. Nothing fishy there I’m sure.

      3. “Where is the evidence that, say, Obama himself directed Lois Lerner to harass Tea Party groups?”

        He was the Executive in charge and her boss and yet he in no way tried to punish her for her actions and indeed stood up for her. So, regardless of whether he directly ordered the attacks, he effectively condoned them.

    3. one Barack Obama

      Holy shit, this must be serious, Mikey is using his real name! The world as we know it is crumbling beneath us.

    4. Domestic Dissent,

      The Reason staff have been addressing the Obama administration’s abuses for years. Yoy must be new here.

      1. He is just upset that Reason hasn’t gone full Breitbart on Obama and declared him to be a secret Kenyan Muslim terrorist.

        1. He was fathered by Malcolm X, you know. It’s true. I read it from Gateway Pundit


    5. In fact, this story really isn’t primarily about Trump at all. It’s about one Barack Obama

      Who? Never heard of him.

      Now, if you’re referring to Block Insane Yomomma, there is no evidence that he called for some wiretap of one of Trump’s properties, regardless of how Trump worded his morning tweets.

  12. “I will echo Sanchez’s note that President Barack Obama’s administration has been working on changing the regulations to relax raw intelligence sharing between federal agencies for a while now and has nothing to do with Trump.”

    I’m not sure that’s so.

    The leaks that went to news organizations announcing that the CIA, FBI, and NSA had all been cooperating on wiretapping Trump’s campaign came out on January 19–the day before inauguration day.

    The story you linked to announcing that Obama was allowing those three agencies to cooperate with each other is dated January 13.

    If Obama suddenly found a way around the Hatch Act to protect himself and and intelligence agencies after Trump had won, why should we assume it has nothing to do with Trump? They were going after Trump in October when the campaign was really hot, the contents of the wiretap made it to the White House according to the leaks in January, and that was at a time when Obama was openly campaigning for Hillary. If Obama retroactively made what the security services did legal the week before Trump takes office, I don’t know how you can be so sure that change had nothing whatsoever to do with Trump.

    For all you know, it had everything to do with Trump.

    1. It has been literally worked on for years. Years. It has nothing to do with Trump. If you can’t accept something that simple, there’s literally nothing else to discuss and that’s exactly why I end up throwing my hands in the air over this crap.

      1. Honest question: That is not how the NYT frames this. Is there something they are missing?…..cking.html

        1. It’s 2-0 right now Shack. Could you make it three points for you? I’m not trying to be jerk. It’s just a question. I wouldn’t doubt that the NYT was incorrect. I’m just wondering, because other outlets are pimping the same report.

        2. That’s a completely different story. The rule change I reference is about raw intelligence gathering under a completely different surveillance authority. It is absolutely completely different and is completely unrelated to the rule change the administration completed last December. It involves a completely different surveillance authority under an executive order, not FISA regulations. Breitbart confused two different surveillance programs.

          1. Well now I’m just confused. I don’t believe in nothing anymore, man

            1. Reason is doing the same thing almost all the rest of the media is doing. It’s the political news version of the Shell Game or Three Card Monte. “Look over here”.

              It’s nothing but a cheap trick – a distraction. Don’t fall for it. If you look over there, you will never find that pea under any of the shells.

              1. It’s the political news version of the Shell Game or Three Card Monte.

                I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but you’re the only one who ever falls for it.

          2. So, you’re saying it’s different?

              1. Yeah, but that’s different.

                1. Are you guys about to kiss?

      2. Then give us a better link!

        Don’t link us to a story the week before Trump was inaugurated and months after he was elected and tell us that Obama’s changes–had nothing to do with Trump.

        This is from your story on January 13.

        “Attorney General Loretta Lynch just signed off on changes that will increase the ability of the National Security Agency (NSA) to share some raw intercepted data with other agencies before the process of filtering out private information from people unconnected to actual targets.”

        “One Final Expansion of the Surveillance State as Obama Heads for the Door”…..rveillance

        That sounds like it makes the sharing between the NSA, FBI, and CIA perfectly legitimate from then on–and legitimized the information they gathered by wiretapping Trump’s campaign.

        That change wasn’t made years ago. That change was made the week before Trump was inaugurated.

        1. Click the last link in that piece.

          1. Mind you, just because this massive expansion of raw intel sharing has nothing to do with Trump doesn’t mean I think it’s good.

            1. I think its disingenuous to proclaim that the expansion of internal intel sharing had nothing to do with Trump.

              That is a guess on your part and frankly with the number of things it appears that Obama did and is doing to actively disrupt the new administration it would not be a stretch to think this intel action was one piece of a largely effort to align the deep state to continue to push an agenda.

          2. I’ve seen the link, and I saw the part where Susan Hennessey says those changes had been in process for “eight or nine years”.

            My dad worked at the Customs Department. I remembered him telling me that they’d been trying to merge the Customs Department, the INS, the Border Patrol, etc. into one department since Nixon Administration. I remembered him saying that they were always talking about doing it–their roles and officers were often in the same place falling all over each other to do the same job. They even had the same mandate!

            I double checked with the family unit earlier today–he said it went back before the Nixon Administration. They’d started to plan to merge those departments back in the 1960s. For forty years they wanted to do that, and every president tried. Once Bush Jr. got religion on terrorism, suddenly everything fell into place.

            Just because they talked about our intelligence sharing intelligence for eight or nine years doesn’t mean they didn’t actually start doing it ahead of Trump becoming president or because of the investigation into Trump’s campaign.

            My folks thought about moving from DC to San Diego for years before they finally did, but if the opportunity for the transfer hadn’t come up when it did, they might still be in DC. It was the transfer that made it happen–not thinking about it for years.

          3. Moral of the story? I don’t know that Obama pushed those rule changes through because of Trump–and you don’t know that the investigation into Trump and Trump becoming president didn’t have anything to do with it either–certainly not because they’ve been thinking about sharing intelligence for years.

            That the Obama administration made the change they needed in order for what they and their security services did to make it legal moot point–just as Trump was about to assume office and be in a position to investigate them–is interesting. Correlation isn’t enough for a conviction, but that and that fact that the information obtained in the wire taps was given to the White House while Obama was campaigning for Hillary certainly suggest that an investigation is warranted.

      3. Scott if the Obama administration was spying on candidate Trump, how long the policy changes were in the works doesn’t change the fact they were spying on the Trump campaign.

      4. “worked on for years”

        so what?

        There are hundreds of programs being “worked on” in the government. Most of them will never be implemented.

        You are making a bold assumption that the implementation of a program was apolitical, particularly with the clear evidence of political activity by the Obama administration. He has a clear history of going after the other side. Why assume that he didn’t here? oh…yeh. because Trump.

    2. Sure, Obama could have done it all just to harass Trump, but don’t you think there should be more concrete evidence than just “I question the timing”? After all presidents campaign for the candidates of their party all the time. I don’t think the fact that Obama campaigned against Trump during a presidential campaign really constitutes enough concrete evidence that Obama is now going to go all Nixon and start spying on Trump. Sure he might have, but the evidence seems thin.

      1. The change didn’t “make Obama” spy on him. He did that already.

        The change dealt with the DISTRIBUTION of the “intel”, as amazingly nothingburger-ish as it may be to a collection of hacks trying to destroy a duly elected President because they do not agree with his policies.

        1. collection of hacks trying to destroy a duly elected President because they do not agree with his policies.

          Something never before seen in politics.

          1. Actually, no. It is very rare that an outgoing administration actively seeks to de-legitimize the incoming administration. Say what you will about Trump, but President Obama oversaw the most disgraceful transition of power since John Adams refused to attend Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration.

            1. Which absolutely refutes what I said about what damikesc said about what chemjeff said about what Ken said.

            2. Yeah, like he is supposed to bend over backwards for a moron who wasted a lot of his time with the batshit crazy birther issue. And now Trump wastes everyone’s time with this dumbass tweet about Obama ordering a wiretap of him.

  13. Hopefully we’ll be able to explain to folks that there’s a whole lot more to this than Trump being upset.


  14. “That is to say, at the same time that Trump is complaining that the federal government was inappropriately snooping on him, his administration does not want to do anything at all to reduce the likelihood that the federal government inappropriately snoops on you.”

    Again, we shouldn’t make the case for the NSA’s, CIA’s, FBI’s abuses because Trump doesn’t agree with us on this issue?

    I think we should call out their abuses regardless of whether Trump agrees with us!

    Are you against the drug war–except when its victims supported the war on drugs?

    Do you only favor gay marriage for non-evangelicals?

    I’m a pro-freedom libertarian–and whether the hypocrites are being hypocritical is beside the point.

  15. RE: Trump Wiretapping Circus Turns Real Surveillance Issues into Crazy Sideshow
    Fight over government control ignores issue of snooping on all the rest of us.

    How many times does it have to be said?
    Surveillance of our obvious betters oppressing us can not be tolerated for any reason.
    However, Surveillance by our obvious betters oppressing us must be openly accepted on all us unenlightened fools for our own good, for the good of the collective and for the good of the ruling elitist turds who enslave us all.
    Please memorize this because it is tiresome to keep repeating it.

  16. I just read the Julian Sanchez link and checked out a few things on wikipedia, so now I am an expert on the subject.

    1. Well I just read your comment and now I’m more expert than you.

      1. There is proof Barack Obama personally ordered the wiretapping of Donald Trump. It’s right there! LOOK!

        1. Sanchez’s piece was posted after Trump won the election. Can’t ignore that coincidence.

  17. So Nixon fucked up by not calling the burglary a terrorism investigation. See how smart Obama is?

    1. Imagine if the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act had been passed a few years earlier than it was. Old Tricky Dick just might conceivably have been able to get official judicial sanction for his crimes.

  18. The remaining Trumpkin-trolls here are not just scraping the barrel. They’ve gone through the bottom and are halfway to the cellar.

    1. He’s right. They’re so pathetic. They sit around and hang out and obsessively read all of the articles and comments at a website where they aren’t welcome. LOL. Sad!

      1. Did you forget to change your sock?

        1. I laughed. Forced me to look. First comment is DanO. (with a period). Next comment is DonO, (with a comma).

  19. On a practical level it’s not even necessary to wiretap those who suffer from diarrhea of the mouth.

    1. I know right? And Nixon didn’t need to burgle the Watergate. He smoked McGovernment.

  20. The real problem here is that we have to count on shitty agenda-driven neo-nazi publications with no journalistic standards whatsoever to get things right or else the president might nuke something.

    1. I guess you don’t realize that that Breitbart piece was just a compilation of information published by outfits like the NYT, WP, CNN, etc over the last months.

  21. Ably assisted by the likes of

    By claiming and then mocking how much of a mess this circus is to grade Drumpf on the curve, they conclude that real surveillance is being maligned.

    No, YOU are doing it. Call out Drumpf’s racism, because that is what this is. Just like his birtherism attacks.

  22. just before I saw the receipt that said $7527 , I accept that my mom in-law wiz like actually making money in there spare time from there pretty old laptop. . there aunt had bean doing this for less than twenty months and at present cleared the dept on there apartment and bout a great new Citroen CV . look here……

  23. Check out the NYT story today about Wikileaks/CIA, including a bit about Samsung smart TV voice data being collected.
    The top reader comment blames the Russians for exposing our spying techniques bc, I presume, the lefties are shitting their pants now about Russia. Well, maybe everyone is shitting their pants about Russia, I don’t know, but many of the other comments are sarcastically calling on Wikileaks to release Trump’s tax returns. So I assume it’s most Leftist whiners who are all of a sudden in love with govt spying.

  24. While I am as concerned as any libertarian with government intrusion into privacy, the wiretapping and intelligence battle going on are neither fake surveillance nor a meaningless sideshow. The wiretapping and leaking information on political opponents puts our free elections at risk, and battles between the executive branch and the intelligence services are incredibly destabilizing and could lead to civil war. Obviously, Trump Tower has been under surveillance: for example, the meeting between Flynn and the Russian ambassador took place in Trump Tower, and was one of many leaks. With the Wikileaks dump today, we now know that the CIA has the ability to record and retrieve data from our cell phones, and even Samsung TVs have secret mics in them. They also have the ability to control cars and assassinate undesirables with no trace at all. The CIA also has in its possession malware that has the ability to alter the footprints of hacking–so conceivably it was the CIA who hacked the DNC and Hillary’s private server and used this malware to blame the Russians. This is no mere sideshow to be pushed under the table.

  25. Weirdly, though, Rep. Nunes (R-CA), chairman of House Intelligence is now saying that this fight might cause him to delay Section 702 reauthorization. The same Rep. Nunes who has fought heavily against all attempts at reform apparently is considering changing his mind because of pique and being a Trump ally.

    I just don’t know what to think of this, but a block of Section 702 would be great.

  26. I can see what your saying… Raymond `s article is surprising, last week I bought a top of the range Acura from making $4608 this-past/month and-a little over, $10,000 this past month . with-out any question its the easiest work I’ve ever had . I began this five months/ago and almost straight away started bringing in minimum $82 per-hr .

  27. just as Phillip implied I am alarmed that someone can get paid $6887 in one month on the computer . published here………….

  28. like Elizabeth implied I’m amazed that a stay at home mom able to earn $7417 in 4 weeks on the internet . read here…………. (((( ))))

  29. What surprises me is how many people want to suggest that Trump’s accusations against Obama are “unprecedented”. I guess everyone has forgotten about Bobbie Kennedy’s surveillance of Dr Martin L. King, Jr with the assistance of good old J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI when Bobbie was running the DOJ back in the good old days! Dr King was a totally private citizen. And unlike Mike Flynn or Mr Sessions, he was not in line for any appointed government office or position. Just what were the charges against Dr King that motivated Bobbie and J. Edgar to spy on him?? (Probably marching without a proper parade permit I guess.)

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