Not content to just search staffers’ phones, officials are considering high-end security software for White House networks.
The White House is searching for technology to shut off the leaks that have roiled the Trump administration in its first weeks and already caused the resignation of one top aide and a political firestorm for another.
White House IT officials met with at least one private firm selling a network security system that would give administration officials control over how staffers use computers and cellphones to transmit sensitive information, according to people familiar with the matter.
The move is part of broader push by the administration to rein in leakers across the federal bureaucracy and in the White House after a string of embarrassing disclosures to the media since Trump took office, the people said.
The leaks have ranged from details of President Donald Trump wearing a bathrobe to watch late-night television, to disclosures of National Security Advisor designee Michael Flynn’s communications with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Trump has denounced the leakers and vowed to hunt them down.
Now, the White House is searching for a high-tech solution akin to the defense systems used by companies to stop wayward employees from stealing proprietary data. The quest underscores the administration’s desire to better control the news cycle — and perhaps to quash dissent.
The White House declined to comment.
“The technology itself can be used for good or ill,” said a former senior administration official. “The real question is how they plan to implement that kind of technology: What data does it include, who has access to the collected data, how is it going to be acted upon.”
“The answers to those kinds of questions will determine whether or not the activities are designed to catch a potential Snowden, or whether they are designed to suppress any dissenting thoughts,” the official said, referring to Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked a massive trove of classified material.
Since the Snowden disclosures, the government has invested billions in mitigating so-called “insider threats.” A 2011 executive order established a National Insider Threat Task Force and required agencies that handle classified information to set up programs to prevent leaks.
Last month, Trump exhorted the FBI to find “the leakers” that “could have a devastating effect” on the United States. This week, lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence committees said their investigations into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election will include leaks of classified information to the press.
Such statements have sent a chill through the national security bureaucracy. “People are really nervous about talking” and being perceived as “part of the deep state trying to undermine Trump,” said a former CIA officer with experience in Russia. “The microscope is on us right now.”
The disclosure in the Washington Post that Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence about discussing sanctions against Moscow with the Russian ambassador was the most explosive leak of the Trump administration’s early days. It led to the retired lieutenant general’s resignation, throwing the national security decision-making apparatus into disarray. The story described a phone call intercepted by American spies; the disclosure of such highly classified information is barred by law.
Desperate to crack down on unauthorized leaks to the media, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has called staffers into his office for “phone checks” to examine whether they are communicating with reporters, according to a Politico report. During that meeting, Spicer warned aides not to use secure messaging applications such as Signal. According to CNN, Trump personally approved the plan to probe aides’ phones. According to a Reuters report, the White House has restricted access to a computer system used to prepare memos for the president as part of an effort to plug leaks.
But surveillance and monitoring tools under consideration may only go so far to contain leaks, experts said. By using encrypted messaging tools on personal computers or phones from home networks, White House staffers may be able to evade most anti-leak technology.
Network security tools sometimes struggle to detect the small, discrete breaches that can serve as the basis of a news story. In the Trump era, damaging leaks go “from Donald Trump’s mouth” to a staffer who might tell another staffer about it, who might in turn tell a reporter. That trail of information might never cross a computer network and involves a small number of people.
“It’s not like you are building a conspiracy,” Aitel said of leaking.
The disclosure of unauthorized information can be divided into two rough categories: sensitive (and perhaps embarrassing) but unclassified; and classified. By disclosing Trump’s late-night habits to the media, Trump staffers may be risking their jobs but are unlikely breaking laws. By describing the classified contents of the intercepted phone conversations, they may open themselves to prosecution.
As Carrie Cordero, a former national security official at the Department of Justice, puts it, “There’s leaks — and then there’s leaks.”
The disclosure that American intelligence agencies intercepted a phone call between Flynn and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during which the two men discussed sanctions imposed on Russia related to its meddling in the U.S. election now lies in the crosshairs of investigators.
Speaking to reporters this week, House Intelligence Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes said his panel’s probe into the Kremlin campaign will examine who had access to the transcript of Flynn and Kislyak’s conversation.
Nunes said he had seen no evidence of extensive communications between the Trump campaign and Russia, omitting to mention that his panel has not yet received any evidence as part of its investigation into Russian meddling.
“The only serious crimes we have are leaks that have come out of our government to the press and others,” Nunes said.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images