Donald Trump

Will the Prospect of Taking Trump Down Ruin Chances for Surveillance Reform?

Privacy concerns that are worth debating get sucked into White House fight.

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Nunes
Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Newscom

It looks like whatever House Intel Committee Chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California) might have been attempting to accomplish yesterday when he held a press conference to reveal some post-election surveillance of Trump's transition team may have backfired.

Nunes, a Trump ally, was clearly attempting to draw attention to the argument that the intelligence community was violating the privacy of the incoming Trump administration in its data and information collection. He said the information he had received showed that the surveillance and data collection of Trump team communications was "incidental," meaning they likely were not surveillance targets themselves.

But Nunes running to the press and not actually informing the rest of his peers in the House Committee first subsequently made the story about Nunes and what he was trying to accomplish instead. Trump's critics, both on the left and the right, worry that Nunes' behavior is an attempt to interfere with a congressional investigation of any possible ties between Trump and the Russian government and whether anything possibly illegal has happened. Was this all about trying to help Trump? Trump himself immediately jumped on Nunes' comments in a Time interview to defend his wiretap conspiracy tweets, which at least suggests some interesting timing. Nunes has since apologized to his Democratic counterparts in the House for not telling them first before going to the press.

There is likely a very noncontroversial explanation for the data collection that implicates nobody in particular and helps inform Americans about how federal surveillance actually works if people are willing to—for however briefly—set aside their feelings about Trump. Folks may recall that prior to taking office, Trump and his transition team decided to start contacting and communicating with world leaders. In all likelihood the National Security Agency (NSA) had active permission to engage in surveillance of such people. It's not necessarily an indicator of a criminal investigation; it's the business of international intelligence.

So members of Trump's team may have ended up dragged into "incidental" surveillance because of the people they were talking to. As such, what happened with Trump's folks is a perfect opportunity for Americans to understand how "incidental" surveillance of citizens' works, what happened to the data, and the inherit risks of this level of collection for all of our privacy so at least we're all informed about how all of this works.

Privacy and civil liberties activists are calling for reforms to surveillance authorities in order to reduce the likelihood that private data or communications get retained and exposed the way it might have happened with Trump's team.

Also of interest: Nunes has said that actually, some of the names in these reports were still "masked" (redacted), but he was able to tell who the reports were talking about based on the context. In the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations about mass collection of data from Americans' phone and online communications, government officials (all the way up to President Barack Obama himself) attempted to assure people that nobody was reading through all of our emails or listening in to all of our phone calls. But they were collecting loads of metadata (where and who we were communicating with, for how long, when and how frequently, et cetera), and experiments have shown that enough metadata is available out there to extrapolate a lot about our private behavior.

But as long as this is a fight only over the behavior of Trump and his team, it's going to be tough to have a discussion or call for reform of these tools. As I noted yesterday, even vocal Democratic critics of the extent of federal surveillance are using all this to try to attack Trump's administration as potentially breaking the law even knowing full well that's not necessarily what the information collection means.

Mind you, it could very well be that Nunes is indeed trying to taint an investigation and that the Trump team might have been involved in some unseemly, even illegal behavior. That he's doing a terrible job at it probably says more about Nunes' poor political savvy than anything else. I'm not here to assist in defending Trump (not that he needs me to). I'm here to warn about the politically driven false choices tainting the debate. What the two "sides" in this fight are presenting to the public are not contradictory claims, and I'm going to keep trying to hammer that through. It's possible that Trump and/or his allies are involved in corrupt or illegal dealings with a foreign country and that it's normal and expected for our federal intelligence agencies to be using surveillance tools to get at the truth. It's also possible that the intelligence community is abusing access to surveillance data and leaking information for the deliberate purpose of discrediting and hamstringing the Trump administration. And this administration is—like it or not—legally and democratically in charge of the executive branch of the government.

If Trump's foes are fine with data collected by surveillance possibly being abused to discredit him, that doesn't bode well for the possibility of ratcheting back the surveillance of all the rest of us.

NEXT: Neil Gorsuch Vows to 'Respect' Supreme Court Precedent. That Does Not Mean He Will Always Uphold Precedent.

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  1. Yes. The answer is undeniably and infuriatingly yes.

  2. I’m not here to assist in defending Trump (not that he needs me to). I’m here to warn about the politically driven false choices tainting the debate.

    You took what is classic and erudite Reason and deformed it askew under the cumbrous distraction of shouty Trump animus.

    Please resist turning this into something perfunctory or else your letters will take on the foolish ghoulish hue of a WSJ or CNN inciter-scribe.

    1. YEAH STOP DISSING DRUMPF!!!

      SNOWFLAKES NO LIKE

      1. AC is the greatest Snowflake.

  3. If Trump’s foes are fine with data collected by surveillance possibly being abused to discredit him, that doesn’t bode well for the possibility of ratcheting back the surveillance of all the rest of us.

    I doubt that Trump’s foes were ever really that interested in dialing back mass surveillance to begin with. Now that they’ve gotten a taste of the potential upside (attacking a political foe) what little resistance they might have once had to mass surveillance is likely out the window.

    1. Wish it weren’t so but I agree with you. I post a bit at Mother Jones and they are now solely interested in using surveillance as a weapon. Not that they are really the voting base for pols like Wyden/Udall and others on the left who raised recent concerns. But the left is the only side that can still get agitated, in theory, about past concerns (Hoover, Watergate, the stuff that led to FISA in the first place). Paul/Amash/etc have never had much of a chance of getting more of the right to be much concerned and this stuff isn’t gonna do anything either re Trump’s supporters efforts to get more unwarranted surveillance.

    2. I doubt that Trump’s foes were ever really that interested in dialing back mass surveillance to begin with.

      Maybe that applies to progs, but principled libertarians are Trump’s foes as well. Too bad there aren’t enough principled libertarians to actually create much change.

      1. Principled people is what is really lacking.

  4. Dear Reason webfolks: as you may have gathered from the spam that your squirrels ate, your website commenting system is still pretty broke. If you are just waiting to dazzle the world we some new fangly system, I urge you to do so sooner rather than later.

    1. Hell, just embed disqus or something similar and be done with it.

      1. There is a solution that is actually worse than disqus and worse than the current squirrel revolt:

        A website I used to frequent very often stopped taking comments –

        To comment on this article and other [redacted] content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.

        Needless to say, I won’t be doing that – and I have largely stopped visiting that site anyway.

        1. You’re right, that would be worse.

        2. Huffpo did that a few years ago. I like to think it was partly because of me.

  5. Remember Jonathon Pollard? What about Yosef Amit? Pollard was the American spying on us for Israel who got a life sentence, Amit was the Israeli spying on Israel for the US at the same time and he got three months. We spy on the Brits and the Germans and the Australians just like we spy on the Russians and the Chinese and the Iranians – and they all spy on us and each other. Everybody’s spying on everybody else but we’re supposed to pretend we don’t know about it because it makes life easier if you act like your friends are your friends and your enemies are your enemies and there’s a nickel’s worth of difference between ’em.

    1. Someone ought to tell all these governments that spying is cheating.

      1. “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

    2. That is the reason the list of countries that spy on us is classified. We can’t say out loud what level of threat our friends represent.

      1. It’s right there on Wikipedia.

    3. Yeah, I never understand why people act all surprised when some spy is uncovered. Doesn’t everyone know that everyone spies on everyone else to the extent that they can get away with it?

      1. Correction. Everyone spies on everyone else; some agents are caught, and some of those are punished.
        Neither changes the magnitude of spying activity.

        “Spying” has been, historically, and probably still is only a tiny (although necessary) part of intelligence collection and analysis. Most CIA analysis is reported to be based on public sources like newspapers and television or radio broadcasts. In the past, up to the time of satellite communications, most NSA collection was from broadcast radio telecommunications. Once satellites were in common use beginning in the 1960s, NSA (and the other Five Eyes agencies, and their counterparts in other countries) added collection from spillover in the coverage ellipse from the satellites, and they doubtless still do both. They, and signals intelligence agencies from other countries, have added collection from internet backbones and other sources as communications shifted to use those facilities. In reality, the main change in the 65 year history of the NSA is the exponential growth in communication volume that accompanied the reduction in cost to nearly zero. There probably is far less communication surveillance per person now than there was in the late 1940s through the early 1970s; the hardest problem for all signals intelligence agencies almost certainly is ignoring what they do not care about, which is the uninteresting communications of nearly all of us.

  6. “Will the Prospect of Taking Trump Down Ruin Chances for Surveillance Reform?”

    What are/where these chances for surveillance reform you speak of? What part of ‘There is no such thing as absolute privacy in America’ do you not understand?

    1. Yeah I don’t think they need an excuse to not reform surveillance use against citizens.

    2. The part of Nunes’s statement that nobody seems to address is this:

      “Details about U.S. persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value, were widely disseminated in the intelligence community,” he continued. “Third, I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked.”

      So it was given to a lot of people even though it had no foreign intelligence value. Why? And names were unmasked, which may be illegal. So did this information make it’s way to the Obama White House, or not? Seems like the only way to get that kind of question asked is for Trump to tweet about it first.

      1. I saw that and I can’t figure out why they keep talking like their policies and procedures keep unauthorized unmasking at bay. Yet, stories have been floating around for years about people in the IC doing exactly that. It’s why we now have the term loveint. If all this surveillance info is just sitting around, you better believe that people are going to use it for their own personal gain. And, I’ll bet that political intelligence is a lot more valuable to a bureaucrat or politician than foreign intelligence. Hell, if love stuck analyst are doing it, You better believe that pols and bureaucrats are.

  7. Will the Prospect of Taking Trump Down Ruin Chances for Surveillance Reform?

    Oh, most definitely!

  8. Mind you, it could very well be that Nunes is indeed trying to taint an investigation

    By forcing his choad into the spotlight, Nunes is trying to grundle down the investigation.

    Maple bar.

    1. By forcing his choad into the spotlight

      That’s a good way to get some nasty burns.

  9. “Trump’s critics, both on the left and the right, worry that Nunes’ behavior is an attempt to interfere with a congressional investigation of any possible ties between Trump and the Russian government and whether anything possibly illegal has happened”

    Except Nunes said it had nothing to do with Russia, which is the strange part here. I’m also amazed at how quickly the media starts to dismiss anonymous information, all of a sudden, because it benefits Trump.

    1. If it ain’t fake, we no take.

    2. Media leans Republican, what do you expect?

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  11. LOL

    Drumpf is not getting taken down because Republicans are in charge of Congress.
    And if the Democrats were the first thing Pelosi would do is a “Taking Drumpf Down is Off the Table” pledge.

    1. LOL!!!!111!!1!1!!!11111!! Drumpf! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

      1. Funny isn’t it, Drumpfista?

        Let’s you avoid commenting on the fact that you Republicans are corrupt

  12. Civil War 2.0 can’t happen soon enough.

  13. So reason.com Republicans posing as libertarians want to ignore Drumpf’s lies and his connections to Russia because we may not have surveillance reform.

    1. They’re not Republicans! You can’t prove it! They never said they supported Trump! TAKE THAT BACK!!

  14. my buddy’s mother gets 66 each hour on the internet, she has been out of a job for twelve months.. the previous month her payment was 16114 just working on the internet four hours per day. go here to this
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  15. Why are we concentrating on “Taking Trump Down?”

    Impeachment is a response to a seriously illegal act – one that has already been performed.

    Anyone talking about impeachment now is saying that their visceral dislike is grounds for impeachment. I don’t recall seeing that dislike, no matter how strong, is grounds for prosecution anybody, let alone impeachment.

    Reason and its writers such as you, Scott Shackford, should stop contributing to this blatantly ridiculous idea. As a wise man once said, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem!

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