Trump falsely links NSA counterterrorism program to Mueller probe

President Donald Trump


By SHANE HARRIS | The Washington Post | Published: July 3, 2018

In a tweet Tuesday, President Donald Trump falsely connected the recent deletion of information from an intelligence-agency database to the special counsel's investigation of whether his presidential campaign conspired with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election.

"Wow! The NSA has deleted 685 million phone calls and text messages. Privacy violations?" Trump wrote, a reference to the National Security Agency's decision, announced last week, to purge records legally obtained as part of its counterterrorism and foreign intelligence missions. "They blame technical irregularities. Such a disgrace. The Witch Hunt continues!"

The president routinely calls the special-counsel investigation, led by Robert Mueller III, a witch hunt. But the NSA program to which the president referred is used primarily for counterterrorism. The president offered no evidence to suggest how the program was connected to Mueller's probe. The special counsel also obtains communications using law enforcement tools such as subpoenas and warrants.

Trump's tweet appears to be the latest instance in which the president, frustrated by an investigation that has hung over his administration, has tried to implicate the intelligence agencies he commands in a conspiracy against him.

The president's assertion that the NSA may have committed privacy violations echoes his previous claims of privacy violations against him, including the false assertion that the Obama administration had "wiretapped" Trump Tower in New York City to spy on his campaign. More recently, the president has claimed, without evidence, that the Obama administration placed a human spy inside his campaign.

The FBI did use a confidential informant, who had worked with intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the past, to try to learn information from Trump campaign aides about their suspected interactions with Russians.

Trump is an advocate of strong counterterrorism authorities. It was not clear what provoked his tweet. News of the NSA deleting its records is several days old.

"It's disturbing that the President seems to get his information from cable television and not from his own intelligence experts," said Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which oversees the NSA.

Spokesmen for the committee's Republican chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., did not respond to a request for comment.

Last week, the NSA announced with little explanation that it was purging 685 million records showing who has called and texted whom. The NSA can legally obtain that information from telecommunications companies.

In a statement, the agency said it began deleting the records in May after analysts discovered "technical irregularities in some data received from telecommunication service providers."

Officials explained that telecom companies had provided more information about Americans' communications than the NSA was legally entitled to receive. Rather than try to delete that information on a case-by-case basis, the agency decided to purge all of it from its systems, officials have said.

The records dated as far back as 2015. Intelligence experts have said that the incident points to deeper, systematic failures in how the NSA collects information about Americans' communications.

The NSA program has been modified from an earlier version that allowed the agency to collect the phone records of all Americans, regardless of whether they were implicated in an investigation. Congress curtailed that authority after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed the surveillance program.

The precise cause of the technical problems that led to the recent overcollection is not clear. The White House has also offered no information. A spokesman for the NSA referred a request for comment to the White House.

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