The US wiretapping row raises important questions on surveillance

Faisal Al-Shammeri

Published: Updated:

One of the biggest stories making headlines in Washington these days centers on allegations of ‘wiretapping’ during the presidential campaign, which involves senior officials over the Congressional Intelligence Committee memos, issued during the election to The Office of the Presidency of the United States. It is important to understand what words mean and in this case the issue relates to the meaning of ‘wiretapping.’ Simply put, there was nobody from the US Government who stealthily snuck up to the Trump Tower in the dark of night, lowered himself from the rooftop to surgically remove a window pane and applied clamps to a hard phone line in order to listen to phone calls. The crucial questions are what forms of surveillance were actually used, who issued the orders for the surveillance that was needed to monitor officials in the Trump Campaign, and who had an interest in viewing the intelligence gathered?

These would be a good place to start for the question on surveillance because there was no ‘wiretapping.’ Nobody wiretaps frequently, if at all. Wiretapping as an effective form of surveillance is beyond outdated and not a frequently used practice in today’s world. How do you ‘wiretap’ an iPhone, iPad or Galaxy? You can hack these devices but not ‘wiretap’ them. There is the means of electronic surveillance among many, many others. In today’s world everything is more or less on mobile networks, stored on networks, or clouds, and simply not accessible by means of ‘wiretap’.”

Potentially bigger scandal than Watergate?

Surveillance is something that happens all the time. All states engage in surveillance - in one form or another. Some is used to monitor criminal activity, terrorism, while in other cases surveillance is used to keep track of the actions of foreign agents, diplomats and intelligence operatives, among many others. Countries surveil one another, including those who have friendly relations. However, the current matter at hand in Washington is different in context and potentially considerably larger in magnitude.

To protect its interests it is also widely known that Israel spies on The United States nearly as much as China or Russia does.

Faisal Al-Shammeri

What we know at the moment is that surveillance of the Trump campaign did occur. We also know that it began well before the President became the official nominee for his party. We also know that officials at the highest levels of the US Government had access to it and that senior officials within the White House Cabinet also had access to it. Potentially, this could be a White House, weaponizing the American Intelligence Services, to obtain the use of clandestinely obtained intelligence, for the purpose of using it against the opposition party. If this turns out to be true, then it would potentially mark the most considerable abuse of power since Watergate. In addition to the initial questions posed in the opening paragraph other questions should be considered as well. Were there any other candidates placed under the same surveillance techniques? Where those surveilled in both parties of just one?

The Russian connection

The allegation of Russia interfering in the election is critically important as well. As we have been told the issue in this story is the manipulation by Moscow into the Presidential election as the decisive factor that propelled the then candidate into the Office of the Presidency. But it should be clearly and emphatically stated that not only do nation-states spy on one another, many do interfere in the transition of power where the possibility exists to do so. We know that the previous administration interfered in the previous election in Israel with the goal of removing Netanyahu from power with the ambition of placing the opposition in power. To protect its interests, it is also widely known that Israel spies on The United States nearly as much as China or Russia does. Tel Aviv has a strategic interest of the highest order to know what senior officials in any US Administration are thinking. It has also been that Moscow meddled in Ukrainian presidential elections throughout the last decade. If it is in the interest to do so nation-states will interfere in an election, surveil or spy, or manipulate the transition of power if they feel that they can successfully execute such activities for obtaining an outcome that will be favorable for them and if it is in their strategic interest. Soviet Russia almost certainly would not have missed an opportunity to do and subsequently The United States would not have passed one up either to work with Soviet dissidents or its assets within The Communist Party.

The issue ultimately becomes that if Russian interference did result in one candidate losing and another being propelled into the Office of the Presidency, then proof should be provided. This is an allegation of the highest order if a campaign knowingly used this interference as the decisive factor in winning an election. And since it is the outside interference of Moscow that is the essential element in this story of ‘wiretapping’ then it too deserves clarity. If this can be proved, then it becomes understandable how the surveillance of a campaign becomes permissible. However, if none is provided or if this activity never occurred then the original questions need to be looked into with the utmost urgency: (1) What forms of surveillance were actually used, (2) who ordered that surveillance was needed to monitor officials in The Trump Campaign, (3) who had an interest in viewing the intelligence gathered, and (4) who actually viewed the intelligence.

Faisal Al-Shammeri is a political analyst based in Washington DC. He tweets @mr_alshammeri

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