Trump’s rhetoric hampers his aides’ surveillance push
President Donald Trump’s claims that the Obama administration illegally spied on him are complicating his national security team’s efforts to win permanent congressional renewal of crucial online surveillance powers.
The Trump administration’s top national security and law enforcement officials have begun an intense push to convince lawmakers about the importance of the spying tools allowed under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s Section 702, which is due to expire at the end of year.
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But their message is running into an awkward obstacle — some of Trump’s rhetoric. That includes his March tweet claiming that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower,” which provided an early public relations victory for privacy-minded Democrats and civil libertarian-oriented Republicans who want to rein in federal agencies’ ability to eavesdrop on digital communications.
Trump and his supporters have also complained about news reports alleging that U.S. spy agencies intercepted communications between Russians and some of his aides during the 2016 campaign.
Trump’s complaints don’t necessarily relate directly to the Section 702 programs, which are aimed at surveilling non-U.S. citizens located overseas. But that distinction often becomes lost among critics of the government’s spying powers, supporters of the law say.
“It’s made it harder for us, there’s no doubt about it,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee’s defense subpanel. “If I’m a little conflicted on this, you can imagine what some of the folks are who kind of lean in that direction already. It’s going to make it harder for us.”
And for many civil libertarians who have long battled administrations over surveillance laws, it almost feels as if the president is lobbying on their side — and against his own national security team.
“Now you have this third party,” said Arthur Rizer, the national security and justice policy director for the libertarian-leaning R Street Institute. “You have the Twitter account of the president.”
That has “changed the landscape,” he added. “Trump has created the perfect storm where you have these unlikely allies coming together because they’re seeing boogeymen everywhere.”
Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the National Security Agency and cybersecurity subpanel who supports reauthorizing the spying program with some revisions, agreed that Trump’s comments have sown confusion about the program.
“The difference is that the intelligence community understands both the substance and value of 702; the president couldn’t put two facts together on 702,” Himes said. “He will forever link 702 with his fantasy that he was wiretapped.”
The Trump administration’s intelligence and law enforcement leaders call the 702 tools essential to fighting overseas terrorists, criminals, spies and hackers, as well as to help curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Renewing them without any alterations would also fit in with Trump’s pledges of “law and order” and vows to crack down on terrorism.
In recent weeks, Trump’s national security team launched a full-bore sales pitch to lawmakers and reporters about the value of the 702 surveillance powers. Top officials held an all-Senate briefing with lawmakers on the topic, following up on a field trip the NSA had hosted for House members. And in late September, senior lawyers and intelligence officials from five U.S. national security agencies gathered to brief reporters on the privacy-enhancing tweaks the government has made to 702 surveillance efforts over the years.
“This is clearly a major issue for the intelligence community,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told reporters. “It’s one of the absolute top priorities for us.”
For many who don’t want to change the programs, their frustration lies in the fact that Trump’s complaints about alleged Obama administration spying didn’t even directly deal with Section 702’s tools, which currently allow agencies to collect digital chatter linked to over 100,000 foreign targets.
A different section of FISA, which isn’t expiring this year, covers warrants to wiretap Americans suspected of working for foreign governments.
“I don’t think the president’s comments are meant to mean anything about 702,” said Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who is part of a four-person, bipartisan group working on a reauthorization bill.
However, evidence acquired under 702 can also be used by agencies to seek a FISA warrant to surveil an American citizen. That distinction has allowed some critics to conflate the two topics in their efforts to alter the 702 statute.
“They are separate processes,” Stewart said. “Now they overlap with each other, obviously — you have to have both in order for them to work. But they are actually different processes. We’re trying to make that distinction for people.”