Observation Deck

Donald Trump Has the Keys to the Most Invasive Surveillance State in History

Will he use it to impose absolute power?


Americans have been warned for decades about the potential consequences of the U.S. surveillance state — the largest, most powerful, and most intrusive in the world — falling into a would-be tyrant’s hands. With Donald Trump’s inauguration looming, I have to wonder: Was anyone paying attention?

In the summer of 1975, on NBC’s Meet the Press, Sen. Frank Church issued an early admonition. He had just completed a comprehensive investigation of the U.S. intelligence community, and he came away stunned by what he discovered at the National Security Agency (NSA), even in the digital Stone Age. “That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left,” Church said. “There would be no place to hide…. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America.”

Thirty-six years later, while reporting on the NSA’s new data center in Utah, I heard another warning. Sitting in an Italian restaurant, William Binney, a crypto-mathematician, described how he had automated the agency’s global eavesdropping network. He had quit soon after discovering that George W. Bush’s administration had turned the system on the American public, just as Church had cautioned might happen. “They violated the Constitution setting it up,” Binney told me. “But they didn’t care. They were going to do it anyway, and they were going to crucify anyone who stood in the way.” He held his thumb and forefinger close together. “We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state,” Binney said.

In 2013, Edward Snowden echoed Binney. “A new leader will be elected, they’ll find the switch, say that, ‘Because of the crisis, because of the dangers we face in the world, some new and unpredicted threat, we need more authority, we need more power,’” Snowden said in an interview with Glenn Greenwald. “And there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it. And it will be turnkey tyranny.”

Is Trump about to start the ignition? The public doesn’t yet know all the details of his plans for the NSA and other intelligence agencies. It probably never will, given the clandestine nature of surveillance. Yet the signals to date are disturbing.

In one campaign speech, Trump said of the ability to hack his political enemies, “I wish I had that power. Man, that would be power.” He has also expressed support for the NSA’s collection of telephone metadata, which is now outlawed. “As far as I’m concerned, that would be fine,” Trump said in a December 2015 radio interview. “When you have the world looking at us and would like to destroy us as quickly as possible, I err on the side of security.” His recent picks for attorney general (Jeff Sessions) and head of the CIA (Mike Pompeo) agree. “Congress should pass a law re-establishing collection of all metadata, and combining it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database,” Pompeo wrote in the Wall Street Journal in January 2016. “Legal and bureaucratic impediments to surveillance should be removed.”

Trump has presented distressing views on spying that would target specific communities and individuals. “I want surveillance of certain mosques,” he told a rally in November 2015. He has called the Black Lives Matter movement a “threat” that, “[a]t a minimum, we’re going to have to be watching.” Also troubling are the repercussions that Trump’s opponents might face. Infamously, Trump said on Fox and Friends in 2013 that Snowden is “a terrible traitor” and, “You know, spies in the old days used to be executed.” Trump’s CIA pick favors exactly that course of action. “I think the proper outcome would be that [Snowden] would be given a death sentence,” Pompeo said on C-SPAN last February.

As president, Trump is also going to be able to alter U.S. spying machinery more or less as he sees fit. Having a Republican-controlled Congress will help if, say, he wants to overturn the Patriot Act and restore metadata collection. But he will have plenty of room to maneuver even without Hill support. Executive Order 12333, which dates back to the 1980s, governs most of the NSA’s activities. The order focuses on the agency’s data collection from overseas locations—but because so many U.S. communications pass through foreign links, it has a major effect on Americans. John Napier Tye, a former State Department official, was alarmed when he discovered how vulnerable the order was to abuse; in a 2014 Washington Post op-ed, he argued that it had “never been subject to meaningful oversight from Congress or any court.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, agreed, telling McClatchy in 2013 that “the executive controls intelligence in the country.”

Then there is Presidential Policy Directive 28. Issued by Barack Obama in 2014 following the Snowden revelations, PPD-28 established guidelines for the NSA’s international spying. Surveillance can’t be used, for instance, to give U.S. companies a competitive edge or to quell dissent abroad. Trump could rescind that directive and issue another one that might provide him with intelligence on rival companies to his business empire or on foreign groups opposed to his policies.

As proof that his administration should be granted more spying power, he might also point to a sweeping surveillance bill passed in the United Kingdom in late November. Dubbed the “snooper’s charter,” the bill requires telecommunications companies and internet providers to keep records of individuals’ browsing histories for 12 months and to give security agencies access to the data. One press freedom group said the law “could effectively serve as a death sentence for investigative journalism.” The home secretary, though, called it “essential” and “world-leading legislation.” It’s easy to imagine Trump, always one for competition, seeking to retake the lead.

Tempering the effects of Trump’s Orwellian tendencies will require whatever resistance Congress, courts, and activists can muster. It will also require personal attention. Just as technology can be a weapon of the powerful, it can also be used to defend against them. Recent advances in end-to-end encryption services and atomizers that hide web browsing are becoming more common and user-friendly. Americans would do well to educate themselves about how to protect their privacy. Otherwise, the Trump years could prove to be the nadir that Frank Church once presaged — “the abyss from which there is no return.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of  FP magazine.

Illustration by Matthew Hollister

James Bamford is a columnist for Foreign Policy and the author of The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. He also writes and produces documentaries for PBS.  Twitter: @WashAuthor