Democrats Shouldn't Dismiss Spying Claims So Quickly

They were once concerned about "incidental" data collection by the NSA.


House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes told reporters yesterday that members of Donald Trump's presidential transition team—and possibly Trump himself—may have been caught up in surveillance during the last days of the Obama administration. Nunes says the surveillance, by both the FBI and NSA, looked to be legal "incidental collection" that had nothing to do with concerns over Russia collusion.

If true, this isn't the wiretapping of Trump Towers, as Trump claimed in his infamous tweet a few weeks ago, but it is spying in any commonly understood sense of the word. The NSA routinely listens to calls and reads emails of Americans and collects other data "incidentally" from third parties, avoiding warrants. Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which has been found constitutional, states that government doesn't need a warrant to collect information on Americans as long as the target of the collection is a foreigner.

That's one thing. But if we're to believe Nunes, the names of Trump associates were "unmasked," and "details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value, were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting." CNN reported that some of the communications picked up were of Trump transition officials talking about the president's family. What possible need was there for those details to be passed around in an intelligence report? Who ordered the unmasking of the people involved? Was the information properly minimized? If the investigation wasn't aimed at collusion with the Russians, what investigation ensnared the president-elect and his transition team?

While the answers might not vindicate Trump, they are legitimate questions.

If it turns out intel wasn't properly minimized, this is the kind of abuse that civil libertarians have long warned undermines Americans' privacy, a Fourth Amendment right. Many Democrats (and a few Republicans) have been warning about the exploitation of 702 for years. Only last year, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken (D) admitted that "information that we get through 702 can be misused." The American Civil Liberties Union also opposes it ("We Must Rein in President Trump's Spying Powers" reads one headline. Right.). Some Senate Democrats specifically worried that the NSA could spy on politicians. The case of former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) illustrates that it's probably easier to smear a politician than to blackmail one. But in 2014, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) sent a letter to then-NSA Director Keith Alexander asking him whether NSA had spied on members of Congress "or other American elected officials." Spying, he wrote, gathers "any other data from a third party not made available to the general public in the regular course of business," among other things.

We can argue with this definition of spying if you like, but the NSA's public affairs office answered: "NSA's authorities to collect signals intelligence data include procedures that protect the privacy of U.S. persons. Such protections are built into and cut across the entire process. Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons."

Intelligence agencies cannot share details about American citizens with no foreign-intelligence value. If Nunes is right, how were these procedures not broken? If a Bush-era intelligence agency had engaged in "incidental collection" of Barack Obama's phone calls in 2008, and then disseminated that information, the Earth would have stopped in its orbit. (Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) claims Obama's phone calls were intercepted 1,227 times and then masked. Being caught up in surveillance doesn't necessarily mean you're guilty of anything.) Now, because the person involved is named Donald Trump, journalists sprinted to the nearest media platform to push back against the story.

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), said in a statement that he has "grave concerns with the chairman that a credible investigation cannot be conducted this way." It could very well be that Nunes is attempting to give the president cover. He's a partisan, after all. That doesn't make the incident potentially less serious. For one thing, the idea that the president shouldn't be shown intelligence is nonsensical. But if partisanship is disqualifying, we might as well shut down Washington, D.C. I mean, the other day, Schiff tweeted that the Russians hacked our election.

When it comes to conspiracies about the NSA or FBI or collusion or wiretaps, my default position is hard skepticism. That goes for Nunes' claims as well. This, however, is not the default position of the media at large, especially on accusations against the administration.

Journalists, many of whom take every conspiracy about Russian and Trump seriously, have no reason to dismiss the potential abuses of the NSA. Even if intel agencies failed to minimize frivolous information, it is still an abuse. Nunes might be misleading Americans, but as far as I know, he's not made any bizarre allegations in the past. It's not implausible that information legally obtained about Trump was subsequently abused by a government agency. In fact, Democrats have been warning us for years that something like this would happen.


NEXT: From Newspaper Hoaxster to Twitter Hoaxster

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  1. Excellent summary.

  2. The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), said in a statement that he has “grave concerns with the chairman that a credible investigation cannot be conducted this way.”

    So many ways to view that statement. 1. It’s not a denial or rebuttal, maybe because what Nunes said is true, maybe because what Nunes said is a gloss on a truth that Schiff is not willing to fully reveal. or 2. Schiff doesn’t like Nunes’ tat response to all of his party’s tit in this game of selective leaks.

    1. Schiffs become the media’s favorite talking head in their McCarthyist smear campaign. Largely because his role on the house ic means he has inside information that he’s sharing about the ties between Trump and Russia.

      Iif he is accurately reporting on the evidence presented to the committee, he is publicly leaking classified information which is a felony. In fact, he is high dudgeon over Nunes recent statements for that very reason.

      But if Schiff is not accurately reporting the classified info presented to the committee, i.e. publicly lying, he is committing no felony and anyone with inside information that sets the record straight is committing a felony.

      1. If Schiff is saying Nunes can’t be trusted since he revealed classified info doesn’t that prove what Nunes was stating, and Schiff and others on the investigation are just trying to hide info from the public that proves Trump is right.

        Schiff’s denial are proof of Nunes’ and Trump’s claims

    2. The people who say not to trust Nunes yet trust Schiff are idiots. Nobody should trust either. There is an internal war going on in the intelligence community right now. Nobody has any idea what’s happening and nobody can trust anybody. I find it hard to believe that there was any outright collusion and dastardly schemes by the Trump team if we were listening to the communications with all these Russian contacts for 6 months and Obama did nothing.

  3. “If true, this isn’t the wiretapping of Trump Towers, as Trump claimed in his infamous tweet a few weeks ago, but it is spying in any commonly understood sense of the word. ”

    That’s just splitting hairs. For all practical purposes, Trump is mostly right, and the massive amount of writers that harshly criticized him are mostly wrong. If this story is substantiated, it will be a significant win for Trump.

    1. Drumpfistas are cute when they are staunch

  4. the democrats are worried about the Russians spying on the democrats while at the same time those same democrats are spying on Trump. A little diversion by the Democrats maybe

  5. “It could very well be that Nunes is attempting to give the president cover” Or Nunes told the president about this in a public forum because he knew the other members of the panel were going to brush it under the table. .If Nunes had wanted to inform the president he could have done it in private not in front of cameras for the whole world to hear about our corrupt system.

  6. FACT:

    In it’s final days in office, the Obama administration changed the rules for the NSA so that collected intelligence could be circulated within the government before privacy protections are put into place. This directly led to this entire ‘scandal’.

    So really, the only ‘debate’ here is if that was an intentional loosening of the rules to bring about this very result, or if this happened ‘accidentally’ as a result of that rule change. It’s also perhaps notable that the media has been hammering on Trump somehow colluding with the Russian government sans any evidence whatsoever and these leaks are the direct cause of that, even though every single last government official with knowledge of this subject says that it’s not only a premature conclusion but that there is absolutely no evidence of that whatsoever.

    What should be obvious is that this rule change enables the very things that many, many people have been worried about for years. The fact this article makes no mention whatsoever of this rule change makes me think that the author hasn’t been paying attention at all. I’m not defending Trump because he’s Trump, I’m attacking what has become a leviathan that violates our rights en masse. The fact it happened to The President of the United States means it’s happening to all of us. QED.

    1. FACT:

      Drumpf lied when he claimed that Obama had wire tapped Drumpf tower.

      Just like when he claimed that Obama was not born in the USA.

      Redefining this to be a surveillance issue is a shameless defense of Drumpf and his lies.

      1. If you’re that partisan, there is no hope for you.

        How do you know that Trump Tower wasn’t where he was making his phone calls from? Would that, or would that not, imply that he was wire tapped at Trump Tower even if Trump Tower wasn’t physically wire tapped. (I.E. sitting at his desk in Trump Tower, talking on his Cell Phone to Vlad or Ivan whomever.) It’s a bullshit semantics game if ever I’ve seen one.

        Is Trump a jerkwad? Absolutely. Does that justify the government leaking information obtained through a FISA court wiretap on someone else on a Presidential candidate of the United States of America when that collection was incidental? Absolutely not. These are literal police state tactics, and it concerned Democrats before the target was Trump. Now, not so much.

        If we only come to the defense of those we agree with on issues like this, there will be no one left to defend us when the target is ourselves. (Although, obviously, if you’ve spoke to any foreign nationals your conversations are no doubt already on file with the NSA without privacy protections as well. So you already are the target in those circumstances.)

        1. And for the record, Trump’s outrageous claims could mean that the media laughs at this story which would enable Trump to simply turn around and use the apparatus of the United States intelligence agencies to do exactly what was just described to the Democrats in the next elections. Just let it ‘leak’ that so-and-so was talking to the Russians, or has a mistress in Europe, etc.

          Spoiler Alert: Pretty much everyone in the United States government speaks to the Russians at some point if they’re an elected official, which also means those records on now on file within the U.S. intelligence community ready to be broken out at the right time. It’s J. Edgar Hoover all over again only x1000.

  7. Lol.

    Drumpfistas at trying to redefine what is being dismissed:

    That Obama wire tapped Drumpf tower.

    1. So you’re going to use Trump’s tweet as the issue, which neatly deflects from the fact that Trump and his campaign & transition team were quite definitely picked up through FISA wire taps as incidental information which was then disseminated throughout the U.S. government (which, notably, was only allowed due to a last minute rule change by the Obama administration) and ultimately leaked to the press. Where those wiretaps were specifically placed seems to be the issue you want to zero in on.

      You would need to be a partisan retard not to see what’s right in front of your face. I’m not saying that the Obama administration purposefully did any of this to specifically discredit Trump. I’m saying that the loosening of these rules will have predictable results, namely that American names and conversations will be circulated throughout the United States intelligence community without regard for their privacy. It would also seem that this information can and will be leaked by those same agencies in order to damage political opponents.

      So what you’re saying, in effect, is you think Trump should be allowed to damage the Democrats by selectively leaking their conversations with foreign diplomats. Sure, sound great. Idiot.

      1. “You would need to be a partisan retard not to see what’s right in front of your face.”

        I think that sums it up pretty well.

  8. Please stop saying “unmasked” that is not a thing anymore.
    “On January 3, 2017, the Director of National Intelligence, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, issued the “Procedures for the Availability or Dissemination of Raw Signals Intelligence Information by the National Security Agency under Section 2.3 of Executive Order 12333” (the “Raw SIGINT Availability Procedures”). The procedures were approved by the Attorney General on January 3,

  9. Based on comments here and elsewhere, there seems to be little understanding about how the government actually conducts their “snooping”. Federal law enforcement and ALL the intelligence agencies have unfettered 24/7 access in both Europe and the US to every phone call, email, tweet, post and virtually all digital transactions. Tech companies (hardware and software) isps, telcos, banks, credit companies and just about every other entity that keeps records on the public all cooperate fully and provide technical assistance as needed. Indexing and access to this data continues to get more sophisticated requiring little more than an internet search to obtain the desired data. This doesn’t mean that the feds are listening to every phone call, it just means they have the ability to listen and also record at will, sans warrants, probable cause, etc. There is no digital privacy. If it’s on the web or the airways the feds can get it.

  10. Lets talk spying and lying. Way back in 2002, the NSA started collecting ‘everything’. They got quite good at it and had the assistance of companies like ATT who could ship your email to your boss to a sever in Poland on its way to one office over, and the inbound data is collected as foreign. Using that massive tribe of data has been a subject of amendments to the original rules, FISA rulings and, in 2008, Bush modified Executive Order 12333 – which said the N.S.A. could share the raw fruits of such surveillance after the director of national intelligence and the attorney general, coordinating with the defense secretary, agreed on procedures. It took another eight years to develop those rules.

    Obama didn’t change any rules or author new ones, DNI, DoD and DoJ finally put the Bush-ordered change into a final form for sign off at DoJ in December and POTUS on Jan 3.
    Hilariously?, it’s only now that our 16 different intelligence services can look at the same data stream on an investigation that before, relied only on NSA analysts judging if something was relevant to domestic crimes or suspicious enough to have other fed crime units evaluate.
    NSA now approves or denies requested streams rather than filter internally? and forwarding limited data. As info came into focus about Russian efforts, it scared the hell out of many agencies. The ‘stream’ went out to many.

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  13. The real question is whether DOJ via FBI requested and got FISA warrants and did were the results shared with Obama’s administration in the white house. Given all the dodged answers of late “Obama didn’t physically install anything in the Trump Tower”, I’m inclined to say the answer is yes. This is playing out just like the IRS clusterfk.

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