Ironically, in the see-saw struggle over the alleged surveillance campaign of Donald Trump by former president Obama, there may just be a silver lining for privacy lovers everywhere. Why? Because new light may be shed on the nefarious workings of the subterranean spy community and its procedures.
Just a couple of months into Trump's unconventional presidency, events have turned out even more bizarre than expected. Trump has made accusations that his predecessor, Barack Obama, secretly wiretapped his residence and offices, both during and after the election. It is easy to try to dismiss this charge as another reckless tweet from the “Tweeter-in-Chief,” but what if there is some truth to the allegation? And does it have any effect on the freedoms of average citizens?
If true, then, in the topsy-turvy world of government surveillance and politics, the hunters have become the hunted. The Commander-in-Chief is getting a dose of the medicine he will dispense to citizens. Too bad the other Hunter-in-Chief, Barack Obama, is out of office. He deserves to have been surveilled and held accountable for unleashing the forces that wreaked such havoc on privacy, whistleblowers and journalists - the most onerous assault in the history of presidencies.
But what if there is even an iota of credence in the charges? If this can happen to a high-profile politician, indeed the President-elect at the time, what does this presage for us mere mortals?
Trump, per usual, ignited this political brush fire in a series of tweets in early March. He accused Obama of tapping his phones and called his predecessor a “bad or sick guy.” Then, a noted Trump surrogate from right-leaning Fox News, former judge and prosecutor Andrew Napolitano, threw gasoline on the embers.
Napolitano alleged during an interview on the network that intelligence sources confirmed to him that the Obama administration used GCHQ, with whom US spooks are cozy, to spy on Trump so that there would be “no American fingerprints on this.” This could be nonsense or make perfect sense, given Obama’s modus operandi.
The usually tight-lipped British spy agency took the bait and maybe protested too much. It retorted:
“Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then President Elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”
Much has been made of the vigorous, categorical denial, with congressional intelligence leaders on both sides of the aisle denouncing Trump’s allegations. That’s when the President’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, threw further fuel onto the fire. He added:
“At the end of the day the (intelligence) committee has not been provided all the information. “President Obama… didn’t use the NSA, he didn’t use the CIA, he didn’t use the FBI and he didn’t use the department of justice – he used GCHQ.”
But back to Obama. As a result of past privacy assaults that he ordered or oversaw, I have little doubt that Obama had Donald Trump, the candidate and the President-elect, spied upon. Or, at the very least, that he saw the information from his agencies, and stowed it away for future ammunition. And, in the best traditions of politics and the presidency, he made sure his fingerprints were nowhere to be found - that he would remain beyond reproach.
Of course, there are the perfunctory and expected denials all round - especially from a supposedly "livid" Obama. However, couched in the denials is the wiggle room of political speak. A savvy chief executive will always distance himself from a potentially explosive situation, and provide multiple layers of insulation between him and the event to preclude blowback.
So a president could deny ordering surveillance. Of course he can. Better to have his acolytes at the Justice Department, appointed and beholden to him, instigate and organize it in order to provide him political cover. Also, let’s face it: Trump is a not only a political neophyte, but is not savvy in spy-speak. He speaks of wiretaps. How gauche! The spooks at the CIA, NSA, and GCHQ have moved way beyond that antiquated surveillance practice. They’re into microwaves, smart TVs, and more now.
So a politician can cover himself by limiting the denial to wiretapping, while a whole other range of spying could have occurred. Trump finally acknowledged this, and backed away a bit from his initial allegations. He said that the word wiretap “covers surveillance and many other things.”
There’s something fishy going on here somewhere. Of course, the easiest thing to do is dismiss it as more Trump psycho-babble. Except that the frenzied actions from all quarters to vehemently deny so swiftly and emphatically the President’s allegations smells funny. It’s as if Trump is sniffing around Pandora’s Box and they’re all afraid he will open it. It’s as if they’re trying to protect their ancient sacred turf, and Donald is the interloper.
God forbid that the privacy-craving public should know the tools the spooks have, and the lengths they would go to, to “collect it all” and know it all. Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had it right when he quipped after the election, in alluding to Trump’s suspicions of the intelligence community, that they would “get back” at Trump, and that they “have six ways from Sunday …” to do just that. Like now, maybe?
Editor's note: I would just like to note that Trump, Spicer et al. have yet to produce a single iota of proof to back up their allegations.