• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Lock Him Up

Looking at the president.


March 6, 2017

In talks about government surveillance I gave after June 2013 when the Edward Snowden revelations came out, I commonly joked that I was sending him a $25 Amazon Gift Card. I thanked him for bringing issues about the significance of the USA-Patriot Act and FISA Amendment of 2008 into the open. This week I want to send one to Donald Trump. His claim that President Obama tapped his Trump Tower phone has the same effect.

I first became curious about these issues when Flynn resigned. News reports stated that the NSA monitored his communications with Russian diplomats. I understood how that could occur. Immediately after the events of September 11, Bush ordered the NSA to monitor all international communications for “conversational detail,” under the reforms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act included in the USA-Patriot Act. In an unknown number of cases, the monitoring escalated to content. To accomplish this feat technically, telecommunication companies created special, unmarked “closets” for NSA staff. The New York Times disclosed this activity in 2006. As a result, Congress passed the FISA amendment in 2008. This Act provided cover for the content monitoring as a matter of government surveillance and gave legal immunity to the telecommunication companies that were concerned about their liability under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.  When Snowden disclosed that such activity was, in fact, occurring, it was no surprise to anyone who followed these events and who understood the implications of the FISA “secret” courts.

I was therefore not surprised that NSA captured Flynn on international communications with Russian diplomats. What did surprise me is that the man who was to become the National Security Advisor did not anticipate that he would be subject to this kind of surveillance before having those talks on delicate topics. I also found it curious that Trump did not make more out of the surveillance, although I offset that thought with the recognition that he wanted to sweep the whole matter under the rug. Moreover, since his primary concern is for himself, he did not want to draw any additional attention to such surveillance because of the on-going investigations into his connections with Russians especially about the DNC hack.  Maybe he didn’t really didn’t know anything from Russia about it?  

Poof! went that thought the minute I learned of his allegation about President Obama. Trump does not know how to keep his mouth shut. Whenever pressed towards accountability, he projects (“you’re a puppet!") and deflects. Either he finally understands how the NSA under FISA operates and is concerned about what the investigation will produce, or he has learned that the intelligence community has definitive evidence.  Good money is on communications between his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and someone significantly placed in the Putin government. And so he deflects … I pray that the American people will not be so swayed by this obvious tactic to obfuscate information about the most important issue in his presidency and for our body politic.

Now I want to get Trump that gift card. Behind the smoke and mirrors is a lesson in law, policy and technology of government surveillance as well as the significance of cybersecurity in our democratic republic. He is doing the public a service to bring these issues out in bold relief. I am also prepared to give him extra points for becoming a contender for poster child of Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. This is the law implicated in the DNC hack. A book, perhaps a basic law primer, would make good use of that card. After all, he should have lots of time to read when the dust settles. Soon enough, it will be time to lock him up. 


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