U.S. President Donald Trump’s frequently contentious relationship with the country’s intelligence agencies took another turn Tuesday when he questioned whether the National Security Agency is out to get him as part of a “Witch Hunt.”
The president lashed out at the NSA, which oversees much of the U.S. government’s electronic surveillance, on Twitter, calling the agency “a disgrace.”
“Wow! The NSA has deleted 685 million phone calls and text messages,” Trump tweeted. “Privacy violations? They blame technical irregularities.”
"The Witch Hunt continues!" he added.
Tuesday's tweet refers to a move the NSA announced last Thursday, when the agency said it was deleting all of what are termed call record details — phone numbers, and dates and times of such calls — that had been collected since 2015.
An NSA spokesman, Chris Augustine, tells VOA the agency chose to delete at least 685 million “call detail records” — used to home in on legitimate and legal intelligence targets — because a glitch allowed the agency to receive without authorization “some numbers of people the targets had not been in contact with.”
Augustine added that at “no point in time did NSA receive the content of any calls, the name, address or financial information of a subscriber or customer, nor cell site location information or global positioning system information.”
Both the NSA, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA and other key intelligence agencies, are declining to comment on the president’s tweet, referring all inquiries back to the White House.
But some former U.S. intelligence community members are speaking out and criticizing the president.
“He attacks the NSA and our broader intelligence community for the same reason that criminals attack law enforcement,” said Ned Price, a former senior director of the Nation Security Council under President Barack Obama.
The NSA, which operates within the Defense Department, is responsible for cryptographic and communications intelligence and security.
“He sees them as a threat,” Price, who worked for a decade at the Central Intelligence Agency, told VOA. “What we don’t yet know is if this is born purely of paranoia or a desire to keep hidden his actions.”
A former attorney in the NSA's Office of General Counsel says Trump’s tweet about the agency, whose activities are highly classified, has left her “near speechless.”
In a series of tweets, Lawfare Executive Editor Susan Hennessey said a presumption of bad faith has “profoundly warped” public debate and understanding of the intelligence community’s mission and tools, adding “that’s been true for a long time, but I never in my life thought I’d see it championed by the White House.”
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee also is reacting to the president’s criticism of the NSA, calling it a false claim.
“If the President wanted to know what happened, which was self-reported by the NSA, he could ask,” Congressman Adam Schiff tweeted. “Instead he watches TV and tweets nonsense as if he’s a Fox pundit, and not head of the Executive Branch.”
This is not the first time Trump has taken on U.S. intelligence agencies.
During the run-up to his January 2017 inauguration, Trump took issue with the CIA’s determination that Russia intervened in the election to help him, as the Republican nominee, defeat the Democratic Party’s candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Following the release of an unverified dossier compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, Trump, as president-elect, accused U.S. intelligence agencies of leaking “this fake news,” and he tweeted: “Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
As president, Trump also has heaped scorn on the FBI, accusing it of planting an informant in his election campaign.
Additionally, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, accusing him of disloyalty and being a “showboat” and a “grandstander.”
And he has publicly expressed regret for hiring Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Session heads the Justice Department, which oversees the FBI and is responsible for oversight of foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence activities of the entire U.S. intelligence community.
Sessions, much to the chagrin of Trump, recused himself from oversight of the special counsel’s investigation of Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.