When whistleblower Edward Snowden first came forward three years ago, he described to The Guardian an intelligence system that subverts the power of democratically elected government and runs “outside of the democratic model.” NSA analysts, he warned, have the authority to target anyone at any time, and he feared a less than scrupulous commander-in-chief might someday be in a position to exploit those resources.
Now with the security team being assembled by President-elect Donald Trump, many are anxious at the prospect of a surveillance state under the next administration.
The president elect—who has repeatedly expressed admiration for dictators like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un—will have at his disposal the surveillance resources to dig up dirt on political adversaries, journalists critical of his administration, or activists.
With great power comes great responsibility
“[Trump] is someone who displays a kind of personal vindictiveness that makes Nixon look Christlike,” Julian Sanchez, a privacy-focused research fellow for the Cato Institute, told Wired. “There’s every reason to be worried about those instincts and how they’d lead him to attempt to abuse this surveillance power.”
Others are mollified with false belief that the NSA’s surveillance powers have been curtailed by law since Snowden’s revelations.
But former NSA counsel Susan Hennessey told Wired that the agency’s regulations don’t protect it from a president set on abusing its capabilities. “No one should kid themselves about the idea that in the wrong hands, it couldn’t do quite a bit that’s very scary,” she said.
The fate of current NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers remains uncertain, and Trump has yet to pick a director of national intelligence—although he is reportedly considering Carly Fiorina for the position.
But here’s what we do know about the team Trump has picked to fill key security positions.
National Security Adviser: Mike Flynn
As National Security Adviser, Flynn will attend daily intelligence briefings and act as a gatekeeper to President Trump on a wide range of issues. He will also oversee the National Security Council, a White House department of about 400 people involved in making policy recommendations.
Past national security advisers include a long list of shrewd, strategic thinkers, from Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski to Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and current adviser Susan Rice.
By contrast, Trump’s pick has falsely claimed that Democrats are trying to impose Sharia law in the United States and has become perhaps best known as the man behind the infamous ”Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, after tweeting a link to a baseless story connecting Clinton’s campaign to a sex cult and human trafficking. “U decide – NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc…MUST READ!” Flynn shrilled.
“If the national security adviser is going to be the direct conduit between the president and the national security world, of course it’s a concern that that adviser is being taken in by conspiracy theories and fake news,” Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, told Fortune. Whoever has the president’s ear on international affairs, Nichols said, should have “a firm grip on what’s true and what’s false.”
Barry McCaffrey recently told MSNBC that some of Flynn’s tweets “border on demented.” Powell, a retired four-star general who served under three Republican presidents, slammed Flynn in personal emails as a “right-wing nutty” and “a jerk.” And Daniel W.
Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, concluded in a column for The Washington Post that Flynn “should be kept as far away from power as humanly possible.”
After leading the cheers of “lock her up” at the Republican Convention, it has come to light that Flynn—who was fired as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s top spy organization— was investigated by the Pentagon for inappropriately sharing classified information.
Flynn’s appointment is not subject to Senate confirmation. However, Democratic senators are asking the Obama administration to review his security clearance since he “reportedly has a record of mishandling classified intelligence.”
CIA Director: Mike Pompeo
Trump’s choice to lead the CIA is a fierce advocate for expanding surveillance at home and abroad, and he’s called for “the traitor Edward Snowden” to be executed.
While sitting on the House Intelligence Committee, Pompeo fought Congressional efforts to rein in the NSA’s bulk collection of American’s data.
Instead, in an editorial earlier this year he advocated for “a fundamental upgrade to America’s surveillance capabilities.” Pompeo laid out a road map for expanding those powers, including re-establishing the collection of all metadata; combining it with financial and lifestyle information on American citizens in a searchable database; and removing legal and bureaucratic impediments to surveillance.
The Freedom, Security & Technology Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology blasted Pompeo for his desire to give government the power to collect “the 21st-century equivalent of a dossier” on all Americans through the collection of digital data.
“If there is one thing that everyone across the political spectrum believes, it’s the fundamental American value that government has no business peering into your private life without at least some indication that you’ve done something wrong,” Gabe Rottman, deputy director of the digital advocacy group, told Politico. “This would be exactly that.”
The ACLU also slammed Pompeo, saying his position on digital spying raises “serious civil liberties concerns about privacy and due process.” The organization has vowed to fight his appointment. “These positions and others merit serious public scrutiny through a confirmation process,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a statement. “His positions on mass surveillance have been rejected by federal courts and have been the subject of several lawsuits filed by the ACLU.”
In Congress, Pompeo was not one of those calling for mandated backdoors into encrypted communications, saying it would “do little good.” But he warned that using encryption for personal communication “may itself be a red flag,” which suggests that merely using “good security practices could invite government scrutiny under his watch,” The Atlantic reported.
Attorney General: Jeff Sessions
Civil liberties advocates have called Trump’s pick for Attorney General “a catastrophe for privacy” and “a nightmare scenario.”
While serving as the Senator from Alabama, Sessions tried to add an amendment to the Email Privacy Act, a bill reforming electronic privacy law that passed in the Republican-controlled House. His amendment would have required technology companies like Google and Microsoft to turn over communications without any oversight by a court if the government said it was an emergency. “Never mind that companies already routinely hand over user data without being compelled in legitimate emergencies,” Wired wrote.
“When it comes to surveillance powers, he’s more catholic than the Pope,” said Cato Institute fellow Julian Sanchez. “He wants to grant more authorities with fewer limitations than even the law enforcement or intelligence communities are asking for.” Indeed, a former homicide detective called Sessions’ emergency exception amendment “unwise and unsafe” in an editorial for The Hill.
As a senator, Sessions also repeatedly worked to block NSA privacy reforms. “Sessions pushed for spying powers beyond even those supported by his Republican congressional colleagues and intelligence agents,” Wired wrote. “He fought reform of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2012 and against the USA Freedom Act that in 2015 placed new limits the NSA’s spying powers after the revelations of Edward Snowden—a law that passed a Republican House and Senate and was even endorsed by NSA director Michael Rogers.”
Robyn Greene, policy counsel at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, told Wired that Sessions was a dangerous choice for the role of enforcing legal limits on intelligence agencies like the NSA. “Unless Congress picks up the mantle of aggressive oversight of the intelligence community, we’re looking at a situation that makes the Hoover era looks like child’s play,” Green said.
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty
In light of these developments, it might be a good time to revisit Snowden’s words with The Guardian:
The greatest fear I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures [about government surveillance] is that nothing will change. People will know the lengths that government is going to grant themselves powers, unilaterally, to create greater control over American society and global society.
But they won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things, to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.
And it’s only going to get worse. Until eventually there will be a time where policies will change—because the only things that [currently] restricts the surveillance state is policy…A new leader will be elected, they’ll flip the switch, say that because of the crisis, because of the dangers that we face in the world, we need more authority, we need more power.
And there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it.
And it’ll be turnkey tyranny.