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Donald Trump says ‘no computer is safe’ when it comes to privacy

January 3, 2017

PALM BEACH, Fla. — President-elect Donald Trump says that “no computer is safe” when it comes to keeping information private, expressing new skepticism about the security of online communications his administration is likely to use for everything from day-to-day planning to international relations.

Trump rarely uses email or computers despite his frequent tweeting.

“You know, if you have something really important, write it out and have it delivered by courier, the old-fashioned way. Because I’ll tell you what: No computer is safe,” Trump told reporters during his annual New Year’s Eve bash. “I don’t care what they say.”

Trump has repeatedly cast aside allegations by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia tried to influence the presidential election through hacking. President Barack Obama earlier this week ordered sanctions on Russian spy agencies, closed two Russian compounds and expelled 35 diplomats the U.S. said were really spies. The Russian government has denied the allegations.

Trump, who has said that he plans to meet with intelligence officials next to week to learn more about the allegations, said he wants U.S. officials “to be sure because it’s a pretty serious charge.” He pointed to intelligence failures over the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, and declared himself an expert in the area.

“I know a lot about hacking. And hacking is a very hard thing to prove, so it could be somebody else,” he said.

He added, cryptically, that he also knows “things that other people don’t know. And so they cannot be sure of the situation.”

Trump made the comments during his annual New Year’s Eve bash at his Mar-a-Lago club. Hundreds of guests gathered in the club’s grand ballroom, including action star Sylvester Stallone and romance novel model Fabio. Reporters were invited to watch as guests arrived.

Earlier in the day, Trump ditched his press pool, traveling to play golf at one of his clubs without a pool of journalists on hand to ensure the public has knowledge of his whereabouts.

A member of Trump’s golf club in Jupiter, Florida, posted a photo on Twitter of Trump on the greens Saturday morning and said about 25 U.S. Secret Service agents accompanied the president-elect. Reporters had not been advised of the visit to the club.

Transition aide Stephanie Grisham confirmed that Trump had made a “last-minute trip” to Trump National Golf Club Jupiter, which is about a half-hour drive from Mar-a-Lago, where Trump has been spending the holidays. He returned to the estate at midafternoon.

Grisham said that she and other aides weren’t aware of the trip and “appreciate everyone’s understanding.”

“We are in the home stretch of this transition period and don’t anticipate any additional situations like this between now and inauguration,” she said in a statement.

Trump, both as a candidate and during the transition, has often scoffed at tradition, such as allowing a group of reporters to follow him at all times to ensure the public knows where he is. Not long after his election, Trump went out to dinner with his family in Manhattan without informing the pool of his whereabouts.

The practice is meant to ensure that journalists are on hand to witness, on behalf of the public, the activities of the president or president-elect, rather than relying on secondhand accounts.

The White House also depends on having journalists nearby at all times to relay the president’s first comments on breaking news.

Trump aides appear to have made an effort in recent weeks to offer additional access, allowing reporters to camp out outside a doorway at Mar-a-Lago to document staff and Cabinet candidates’ arrivals and departures. Aides also are providing information about his meeting schedule.

Every president and president-elect in recent memory has traveled with a pool of journalists when leaving the White House grounds. News organizations take turns serving in the small group, paying their way and sharing the material collected in the pool with the larger press corps.

Before he went golfing Saturday, Trump tweeted an unusual New Year’s message to friends and foes: “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!”

With the arrival of 2017, another New Year’s message moved on Trump’s Twitter account at about midnight.

This one was decidedly more upbeat and carefully prepared — illustrated with a photo that included his holiday message next to it, including a hashtag and abbreviation referring to his campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.

“To all Americans- Happy New Year & many blessings to you all! Looking forward to a wonderful & prosperous 2017 as we work together to #MAGA.”

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Donald Trump is about to control the most powerful surveillance machine in history

November 15, 2016

The US intelligence agencies are among the most powerful forces to ever exist, capable of ingesting and retaining entire nations’ worth of data, or raining down missiles on targets thousands of miles away. As of January 20th, all that power will be directly answerable to Donald Trump.

It’s still early, but a picture is starting to emerge of how the president-elect could use those powers — and it’s not a pretty sight. Since the September 11th attacks, the US government gives the president almost unlimited discretion in matters of national security, with few limitations or mechanisms for oversight. That includes NSA surveillance, as well as the expanding powers of the drone program. And from what Trump has said on the campaign trail, his targets for using those powers may cut against some of America’s most important civil rights.

The crown jewel of that system is the NSA, and there’s reason to think it will grow even more secretive and voracious in the Trump administration. Trump’s current transition team includes two of the NSA’s foremost defenders — Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and former congressman Mike Rogers — a move that suggests the agency will be moving toward more invasive collection and less transparency than ever before.

To a large degree, those changes can be carried out completely in secret, without authorization from Congress or even the FISA court. The majority of the NSA’s operations are authorized under a little-known presidential mandate called Executive Order 12333, which authorizes collection of data inside and outside US borders for national security purposes. Because it’s an executive order rather than a law, it can’t be challenged in court or overturned by Congress, and it places almost no limits on what the NSA can collect.

“Executive Order 12333 contains nothing to prevent the NSA from collecting and storing all such communications — content as well as metadata — provided that such collection occurs outside the United States in the course of a lawful foreign intelligence investigation,” a former State Department section chief wrote in 2014, explaining the importance of the order. “No warrant or court approval is required, and such collection never need be reported to Congress. None of the reforms that Obama announced earlier this year will affect such collection.”

We don’t know how thoroughly the NSA has exploited that authorization in the past, but, EO 12333 will give Trump a clear path to push the authorization even further. More importantly, because of the secrecy shrouding even the most routine NSA policies, we might not have any idea when a change in policy is made. “It’s very much within the authority of the president to make changes there,” says the Brennan Center’s Elizabeth Goitein, who co-directs the center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “There could be a significant expansion of those activities without the public having any knowledge of it.”

Secrecy is crucial because it enables more invasive and disruptive forms of surveillance, according to University of Washington Professor Ryan Calo, who has written extensively on the topic. As long as surveillance programs are secret, it’s nearly impossible to hold them in check — and without a steady stream of whistleblowers, any new programs are likely to stay secret. As Calo told The Verge, “It’s very difficult for the public to resist surveillance that they don’t know about.”

That blank check is particularly troubling given the views Trump expressed on the campaign trail. At a rally last November, he stated explicitly, “I want surveillance of certain mosques,” a view he maintained in later speeches. Trump also stated he would take similar measures toward the Black Lives Matter movement, calling the group a “threat” and saying “At a minimum, we’re going to have to be watching.”

There’s also concern about Trump’s penchant for personal feuds, seen on the campaign trail against the Khan family and Alicia Machado. “This is a person who does not suffer criticism particularly well, and holds grudges against political enemies,” Goitein says. “One of the things we saw when we had unfettered intelligence agencies in the past, like J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, was surveillance and harassment of political enemies. I certainly think that’s something we need to be on the lookout for.”

Beyond surveillance, the Trump administration will also inherit unprecedented powers to unilaterally kill suspected terrorists. Since the drone programs began, US drone strikes have killed as many as 5,000 people, including at least one US citizen, and none of those powers have been meaningfully weakened under the Obama administration. There’s an involved chain of command when those strikes are made through the Joint Special Operations Command, but the CIA operates a separate drone strike program that’s far more malleable. The ACLU had urged Obama to curtail those powers before leaving office, but he declined to do so. The result, two ACLU lawyers wrote earlier this year, is that “whoever prevails in November will inherit a sweeping power to use lethal force against suspected terrorists and militants, including Americans.” Combined with Trump’s outspoken enthusiasm for torture and targeting terrorists’ families, the result could go beyond many of the most barbaric elements of the Bush-era War on Terror.

Trump’s first hurdle in carrying out that agenda may be simple workforce issues. A report last week in The Washington Post found significant opposition to Trump in the intelligence community, stoked by the president-elect’s refusal to accept the Director of National Intelligence’s conclusion that the Russian government was responsible for the theft and leaking of emails from the DNC. Because of that bad blood, insiders predict a significant backlash if the incoming president scrapped the previous administration’s rules on drone strikes or attempted to restart the CIA’s torture program. The Daily Beast found similar unrest at the Pentagon, as old guard officials anticipated being replaced by a younger generation. Still, with the power to promote and dismiss leaders at will, it’s difficult to say whether staff unrest will end up being more than a speed bump for Trump’s ambitions.

There’s also Congress, still controlled by Republicans but arguably containing as many surveillance opponents as ever. “I think the relationship between the Trump administration and the Republicans will be interesting,” says Calo. “A congressman like Justin Amash is going to be just as vehement about the need for citizen privacy as he was under Obama.” Still, it seems unlikely that those efforts will be more effective under Trump than they were under Obama.

In some ways, the problem is larger than even Trump himself. These presidential powers are still new, and Obama is the only president to enter office with them already in place. For scholars like Goitein, that sweeping power is the real issue. “Before 9/11, the law required suspicion of criminal or terrorist activity before we could conduct surveillance, and that’s no longer the case,” she says. “We have taken some pretty dramatic steps to expand executive power, and I’d say no matter who had won the election, we’ve reached a point where we really need to rethink whether that’s in our best interests.”

It’s a point that was echoed by none other than Edward Snowden, who responded to Trump’s electoral win in a livestream on Thursday. An occasional critic of Hillary Clinton, Snowden struck a tone of hope and resilience, putting the election in the context of troubling new surveillance laws in Russia and China.

“Something we need to remember is that we are never farther than a single election away from a change in government, a change in policy, a change in the way the powers in our system are used,” he said from an undisclosed location in Russia.

“What we need to start thinking about now is not, How do we defend against a President Donald Trump?” he continued. “How do we defend everyone everywhere?”

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