We all value our privacy. If the phone conversations of important people can be wiretapped and their privacy violated – what more for us ordinary citizens with no capability to secure our phone lines or equip our homes with extensive and sophisticated security measures.
President Trump just made allegations that his phone has been wiretapped the month before last year’s election by no other than the former president – Barack Obama. And he claims that it was only recently when he found out about it. Knowing his penchant for publicity and drama, many will likely doubt the credibility of his claims although it is common knowledge that the government has the capacity to wiretap or do other forms of privacy breach to get important information they are after.
President Trump’s claim on Twitter early Saturday that he had “just found out” that “President Obama was tapping my phones in October,” an accusation for which he offered no evidence, has set off another spasm surrounding his young administration. On Sunday, Mr. Trump’s spokesman said the administration was asking Congress to investigate the president’s allegation.
There is ample reason for caution because Mr. Trump has a history of making attention-grabbing and politically explosive claims that have no basis in fact. As things stand, a plausible explanation is that Mr. Trump was merely riffing off a March 3 article on the alt-right website Breitbart.com. It laid out a theory circulating in some conservative circles that President
So, the question now is if the then U.S. president can indeed order such a thing (wiretapping) to be done on an American citizen?
Not legally. There are two lawful ways that allow government officials to target people in the United States for surveillance and to collect the contents of their phone calls and emails: criminal wiretaps, called “Title III” warrants, and national security wiretaps, called Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, orders. Both types of wiretapping are ordered by federal judges, after applications from the Justice Department.
In this case, the server issue isn’t technical in nature but has to do more with the people it is serving. We’re quite unsure too how the Trump Tower server has been linked to that of a Russian bank.
What about the computer server registered to Trump Tower?
Several news media outlets have reported that investigators last year were puzzled by data transmissions between a computer server registered to Trump Tower and a computer server associated with a Russian bank. Although Mr. Trump on Twitter talked about his “phones,” in theory a judge might determine that the computer address of the server was a facility being used by a foreign power, Russia, to communicate, and authorize surveillance of it.
Isn’t there a report about an October surveillance court order involving that server?
Yes. The Breitbart story relied heavily on a Nov. 7 article by a British writer on the news and opinion website HeatStreet. It claimed that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had approved a “warrant” in October in connection with activity between Russian banks and the server, which it said — and Breitbart repeated — was in Trump Tower. It further stated that “it is thought in the intelligence community” that this purported warrant permitted the collection of emails and other communications of Americans connected to the server investigation, which “thus covers Donald Trump.”
As expected, winning the presidency did not dampen Trump’s love for social media, especially his Twitter account that is once again back in the spotlight. It has all the elements of a juicy piece of news (gossip?): shady computer server + connivance with Russia = unauthorized surveillance (wiretapping).
None of this involves wiretapping Trump Tower. However, it is possible that Trump picked that up from a Breitbart article that in turn relied on a Heat Street piece that claimed the warrant was issued because of evidence of links between a “private server in Donald Trump’s Trump Tower” and a Russian bank. In fact, the server in question, set up by a marketing company hired by Trump, was physically located in Philadelphia.
Barack Obama’s spokesman responded to Trump’s tweets by saying that “neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen.” Notably, this statement does not deny that someone in the Obama administration ordered surveillance of Trump Tower, simply that the White House did not – which isn’t meaningful, since in a properly functioning executive branch the Justice Department would make that decision on its own without White House interference.
So, it is likely that President Trump’s wild imagination conjured up ideas of wiretapping in the infamous Trump Tower when his claims were mostly unfounded and based on hearsay from a pro-Republican website like Breitbart.
Although we do not discredit his claim because it is something the government frequently does when it involves issues of national security (remember the email controversy involving Hillary Clinton), but Twitter is not the likely platform for such announcements for a person of his stature.