House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) recently announced that Trump transition team members were under inadvertent NSA surveillance after the 2016 elections. On the surface, Nunes’ comments appear to corroborate White House claims that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower phones. Mr. Trump has taken comfort in the report’s findings claiming that they “somewhat vindicate” him.
They don’t. The National Security Agency (NSA) is the primary government entity charged with monitoring, collecting and processing information for foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence purposes. NSA agents can only conduct direct surveillance on phone conversations initiated outside U.S. territory. There are only two ways the federal government can initiate surveillance on a foreign target.
First, senior intelligence officials can obtain a special court order confirming that their proposed wiretap procedures are constitutional, non-invasive, properly directed at a foreign target and protect domestic callers. These court orders typically allow the Justice Department to monitor a target for up to one year.
In the alternative, the Attorney General and National Intelligence Director could certify that there is not enough time to obtain a warrant and that critical national security information would be lost if the government had to wait for court approval. Under this second method, the government must submit a report within seven days after initiating surveillance.
NSA agents could have tapped phone calls to, and from, Trump Tower only if domestic callers were speaking with vetted foreign intelligence targets. The mere fact, however, that Trump staffers were inadvertent surveillance targets does not prove much. Since 2013, the NSA has inadvertently collected millions of U.S. citizens’ phone records. These files document call sender and recipient telephone numbers, call duration and location, as well as phone identification information.
We should not evaluate this evidence in a vacuum, though. The NSA’s inadvertent data collection becomes more suspicious when viewed in concert with other factors. For instance, Congress is currently investigating Trump’s administration for its alleged connections to the Kremlin. Several Trump confidants have also resigned because outsiders questioned their rosy rapport with Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
— Habib Olapade ’17
Contact Habib Olapade at holapade ‘at’ stanford.edu.