WASHINGTON – You can add impeachment to the long list of controversies that have exposed President Donald Trump’s apathetic or clueless attitude toward cybersecurity.
Gordon Sondland confirmed that both he and Trump knew they were talking on an unsecure phone line on July 26, when the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union was on his cell phone in a crowded Kyiv restaurant. Diplomats have testified that it was an especially colorful call on which the pair allegedly discussed a plan to pressure Ukraine to launch controversial investigations into the 2016 election and former vice president Joe Biden.
“He was aware that it was an open line, as well,” Sondland said, noting he has “unclassified conversations all the time from landlines that are unsecured and cell phones. If the topic is not classified – and it’s up to the president to decide what’s classified and what’s not classified.”
That’s just the latest in a string of massive breaches of normal security procedures by the Trump administration that could be highly dangerous – and potentially give spies from other nations a heads up on major U.S. policy decisions or open up officials to coercion and blackmail.
The security lapses, which a slew of other top officials, including Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, have also reportedly committed, are especially striking given how the president rallied crowds during the 2016 campaign by attacking Hillary Clinton for playing fast and loose with security by using a private email server while she was secretary of state. “But her emails” was a regular refrain on Twitter soon after news of the Sondland call first broke from transcripts of closed door testimony.
The fact that Sondland was in Ukraine when he took the call almost guarantees the Kremlin was listening in on the conversation, experts say. That also suggests a top U.S. adversary knew about the Trump pressure campaign on Ukraine that’s at the heart of the impeachment inquiry long before Congress did.
“It would be highly unusual to have a call at that level on an unsecure phone that deals with U.S. policy because you can almost guarantee that it’s going to be intercepted,” Chris Painter, the State Department’s top cybersecurity official during the Obama administration, told me. “It’s absolutely essential that government officials have operational security when there’s a chance our adversaries can pick up those communications because they will use them against us.”
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called the restaurant call “a serious security breach that raises significant counterintelligence concerns” and demanded the State Department launch an investigation.
Trump himself has refused sophisticated security features on his personal cellphone and refuses to swap his phones out regularly because he finds it too burdensome.
Trump adviser Stephen Miller, former chief of staff Reince Priebus, former National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland and former adviser Steve Bannon have all been caught using personal phones, email accounts or messaging apps to conduct official business as have Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
And the revelations are still coming. Just yesterday The Daily Beast reported former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley emailed about confidential information with aides on an insecure BlackBerry when she lost the password for her classified system.
“The government worked hard to secure a set of devices to enable communication because we know that foreign intelligence services strongly target the diplomatic communications of the United States,” Michael Daniel, Obama’s White House cybersecurity advisor and now president of the Cyber Threat Alliance, told me. “The government has invested a lot of money, time and effort in trying to secure those communications and you would want our diplomatic corps and others to be availing themselves of those capabilities.”
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