At Mar-a-Lago, Trump Puts Government Affairs on Display for All to See
One of many potential security breaches
by KEVIN KNODELL
“The president receiving the news about the missile incident from North Korea on Japan with the prime minister sitting next to him,” Richard DeAgazio wrote on his public Facebook profile at 9:07 in the evening on Feb. 11, 2017.
The post included the above photo.
Pres. Donald Trump and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe were at the Mar-a-Lago, a private golf club the Trump family owned in southern Florida. DeAgazio — a retired investor who joined Mar-a-Lago three months earlier — documented the events of the evening on social media.
This included posting photos of himself posing with White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, as well as a military aide reportedly carrying the “nuclear football,” a piece of gear that enables the president to launch a nuclear attack.
“HOLY MOLY!!! It was fascinating to watch the flurry of activity at dinner when the news came that North Korea had launched a missile in the direction of Japan,” DeAgazio later posted with more photos.
“The prime minister Abe of Japan huddles with his staff and the president is on the phone with Washington, D.C. the two world leaders then conferred and then went into another room for hastily arranged press conference. Wow … the center of the action!!!”
Trump and Abe were a spectacle for the Mar-a-Lago guests who were there that night. Many members of the intelligence community weren’t similarly impressed.
But regardless of how serious this particular incident actually was, it’s just one of the Trump administration’s potential security breaches.
During the 2016 election campaign, Trump and his surrogates repeatedly promised he would protect sensitive American intelligence. Though he had no background in national security matters, his opponent was uniquely damaged on this front.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was rightly scrutinized and took harsh criticism for maintaining a private e-mail server and using it to conduct government business. While serving as Secretary of State, rather than use an official account on government computers, Clinton had her own equipment in New York, as The New York Times first reported.
Clinton used the same e-mail address for both her job as the nation’s top diplomat and for personal matters that likely included the activities of the Clinton Foundation,which in turn led to widespread concerns about potential conflicts of interest. On top of that, because she would often send messages from her own private Blackberry cellphone rather than a more secure device, experts worried that foreign spies might have been able to break in and steal sensitive information.
Clinton’s staff admitted to deleting tens of thousands of e-mails rather than turn them over to the State Department on grounds they were “personal,” and she was frequently caught lying about several aspects of the scandal.
A subsequent FBI investigation found that Clinton and several of those working with her were sloppy in dealing with the server and e-mails, as well as how they handled classified information. Though the Bureau didn’t recommend criminal charges, director James Comey testified to congress that if someone working in intelligence or diplomacy had done something similar, they may have faced severe consequences.
This caused anger among those who believed Clinton was being held to a different standard than lower ranking intelligence and military personnel who had suffered much stiffer punishments for lesser security breaches. Coupled with the tragic Benghazi fiasco, Clinton’s e-mails were one of the top scandals to plague her throughout the election.
“Hillary Clinton … sent classified information, even during her travels overseas, jeopardizing the national security of the American people by allowing her emails to be hacked by foreign intelligence services,” the Trump campaign’s website charged.
But recent episodes, such as DeAgazio’s social media posts, raise questions about how Trump himself is treating classified information, as well as his relationship with the American intelligence community.
Since taking office, Trump has continued his prolific use of Twitter. Though his team now has control over the official presidential account, he’s used his personal one to engage in feuds with entities ranging from Republican Senator from Arizona John McCain to retail outlet Nordstrom. Much like Hillary Clinton, he opted to continue using a reportedly unsecured personal mobile device, in his case a smartphone running Google’s Android operating system.
He seems to be using the Android phone primarily to post to his Twitter account. But using the social media site requires a connection to the internet, which can expose the device to security vulnerabilities if so-called “two-factor authentication” — such as a password plus a special code to use certain functions — aren’t in place.
If any president were to decide to use a smartphone on an unsecure wireless network, it’s possible could he or she could be exposing location and other personal information on the device to anyone with the right skills, from spies to criminals. “Donald Trump for the longest time has been using a insecure Android phone that by all reports is so easy to compromise, it would not meet the security requirements of a teenager,” computer scientist Nicholas Weaver told NPR.
Weaver’s appraisal was harsher than that of others, but mobile devices can indeed be quite vulnerable. Hackers can access a phones camera and microphone functions to snoop on their targets.
In 2013, when Edward Snowden met with reporters in Hong Kong to leak files he’d stolen from the National Security Agency, he told them to put their phones in a refrigerator, on the off chance someone had hacked the devices. He believed this was the best way to block other people from listening — or looking — in on the gathering.
The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency, with the help of the NSA, have tracked numerous terrorists through their cellphone signals — and then killed them. In some cases, nicknamed “touchdowns,” the phone itself is the official target of the strike.
At Mar-A-Lago, DeAgazio’s photos showed Trump using a phone at the table, though it’s not clear what specific device he had in his hand. But rather than relocate to a private location, Trump and Abe decided to get the initial information on North Korea’s missile launch at the patio in full view of guests while continuing their meal.
In addition, “the patio was lit only with candles and moonlight, so aides used the camera lights on their phones to help the stone-faced Trump and Abe read through the documents,” according to CNN. DeAgazio’s photos clearly show the cellphone flashlights.
The White House insisted no classified information was on display in the dining area. Officials reportedly moved Trump and Abe into a more secure location to discuss those details after they’d finished their meal.
But this was hardly the first time concerns about security in the Trump administration had come up. Not long after Trump’s inauguration, several twitter users found that both the @potus and @realDonaldTrump accounts appeared to be linked to the personal Gmail account of White House social media director Dan Scavino.
Morning World. Question for the day is "Is gmail Gov approved?" Off to work, have a Great Day & Sail Safe! @POTUS #GhostOfNoNation
Google stores Gmail account information on its own servers. Since at least 2010, there have been various reports of hackers — including Chinese government cyberspooks — breaking in to those privately managed computers to lift personal details.
A hacker who anonymously tweets under the name of @WauchulaGhost made the discovery, which TV Guide managing editor Alex Zalben first reported. By February 2017, someone appeared to have connected the account to an official White House email address.
Then, on Feb. 13, 2017, National Security Advisor Mike Flynn resigned from his post over questions about his communications with the Russian embassy in D.C. before the inauguration. Even before joining the Trump team, the retired U.S. Army general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency had faced harsh criticism for his seemingly cozy relationship with Russian state media outlet RT.
In 2015, Flynn shared a table with Russian Pres. Vladmir Putin during RT’s 10th anniversary gala banquet. He had made several paid appearances on the network before joining Trump’s campaign.
“In the course of my duties as the incoming National Security Advisor, I held numerous phone calls with foreign counterparts, ministers, and ambassadors,” the retired officer wrote in his resignation letter. “Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador.”
On Feb. 14, 2017, The New York Times reported that unnamed former and current government officials told them members of Trump’s campaign, as well as surrogates, had “repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials” leading up to the election. The evidence turned up during investigations into the Kremlin’s interference.
While the exact content of those conversations remain unclear, none of this statement is likely to calm members of America’s Intelligence Community. The Trump team’s relationship with U.S. spies has been strained throughout the transition and into taking office, in no small part due to exactly these sort of security concerns.
All of America’s intelligence services have come to the conclusion that the Russian government to at least some degree meddled in the U.S. election, through a mixture of propaganda and targeted hacks. Trump in turn was deeply critical of these findings.
He questioned the basic competency of intelligence officials. Through his aforementioned personal Twitter account, the president compared them to Nazis on twitter and suggested that he trusted WikiLeak’s founder Julian Assange more than their reports.
“In light of this, and out of worries about the White House’s ability to keep secrets, some of our spy agencies have begun withholding intelligence from the Oval Office,” John Schindler, himself a controversial former NSA analyst and War College professor, claimed in piece for The Observer, describing a “revolt” by America’s spies.
“For decades, NSA has prepared special reports for the president’s eyes only, containing enormously sensitive intelligence,” he continued. “In the last three weeks, however, NSA has ceased doing this, fearing Trump and his staff cannot keep their best [signal intelligence] secrets.”
Some of America’s allies have apparently followed suit. Israeli media reported that Tel Aviv’s intelligence agencies were considering reducing cooperation with their American counterparts at least as long as Trump is in the White House over concerns information could leak to Russia — a key ally of Israel’s rival Iran.
But at the Mar-a-Lago, the paying members seemed to enjoy having a front row seat to the inner workings of the American presidency. That was finally enough to raise bipartisan concern.
On Feb. 14, 2017, Republican Jason Chaffetz, a representative from Utah and head of the House Oversight Committee, announced a probe into how White House staff handled the situation. “Accounts and photographs from other diners seem to indicate these communications occurred in the presence of other guests,” Chaffetz wrote in a letter to White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
But DeAgazio, who obviously enjoyed himself, told The Washington Post that he wasn’t concerned that this could be a breach of security.
“He chooses to be out on the terrace, with the members,” DeAgazio said. “It just shows that he’s a man of the people.”
The Mar-a-Lago Club’s membership “initiation” fee is $200,000 — double what it was before Trump’s election. After that the annual membership fee is $14,000.
That’s apparently the going rate for “the people” — or anyone else — to get a very different view of their government in action.