war on the rocks

Whispers from the Past: Political Figures Caught Up in NSA Intercepts

April 14, 2017

Word that President Donald Trump as well as some of his family and associates may have appeared in National Security Agency (NSA) intercepts as masked (and in some cases later unmasked) identities has caused a great deal of sturm und drang in the United States. Many Americans are convinced that the mentions of Trump-linked personalities in signals intelligence reports indicates that the “deep state” or the Obama administration was “surveilling” them and that this is a dangerous politicization of the intelligence community.  Eli Lake of Bloomberg View, for instance, wrote:

One U.S. official familiar with the reports said they contained valuable political information on the Trump transition such as whom the Trump team was meeting, the views of Trump associates on foreign policy matters and plans for the incoming administration.

Lake’s source is doubtless correct that these reports contained “valuable political information,” even if his conclusion that there is a legitimate “unmasking” scandal afoot is off base. Because America is important, foreigners spend a lot of time talking amongst themselves about Americans. The NSA targets the communications of influential foreigners, so we should expect the names of Americans to appear on a routine basis. Moreover, American officials who are named in intercepts often have reason to be grateful for that fact.

Consider this recently declassified NSA intercept from January 1973, part of a substantial collection of once extremely sensitive intercepts the agency posted without fanfare on its website. Back in the day, NSA entitled this particular report, “U.S. Ambassador to Rome Reportedly to Succeed [U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth] Bunker in Saigon; Kissinger Reportedly Apprehensive About Possible Negotiations Failure, Surprised by Nixon’s Defense of [South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van] Thieu.” On its face, this title makes it look like NSA is collecting on the ins and outs of State Department personnel deliberations and on the activities of President Richard Nixon and his senior aides. Shady stuff, indeed.

Actually, not really. Reading the full report makes clear that nothing of the sort was going on. In fact, the NSA says the series of intercepts

provided National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and other senior American negotiators with unique insights into how their South Vietnamese allies were reacting to developments at the Paris Peace Talks with North Vietnamese envoy Le Duc Tho.

This particular report gave the text of a message from South Vietnamese Ambassador Pham Dang Lam in Paris to Thieu in Saigon. Saigon’s ambassador reported that an unnamed source close to the White House told him that U.S. diplomat Graham Martin had agreed to become ambassador to South Vietnam and had sought and received assurances from Nixon that the Communists would not be allowed to take over South Vietnam. Lam also advised Thieu that Washington Post reporter Murrey Marder had told him that National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger seemed afraid that the Paris Peace Talks would fail and was at odds with President Nixon over certain unspecified points.

This was potentially valuable information to Nixon and Kissinger because it gave them insight into what the South Vietnamese government thought the White House was planning. This information could be used to keep a step ahead of the South Vietnamese. The intercept also hinted to Nixon and Kissinger that Murrey Marder could possibly be used to influence the South Vietnamese or pass a deniable message to them. Also, the information about Kissinger’s pessimism and the disagreement with Nixon was potentially invaluable. If Kissinger meant to convey those impressions, then the intercept told him that he had succeeded. If, on the other hand, he had accidentally shown some of his cards, he was now aware of it and could take steps to repair the damage.

Nixon and Kissinger realized the value of having the NSA report foreign views of what they were doing. That is why you will see the notation “TOHAK” on this intercept and others in this lengthy series. “TOHAK” means “to Henry A. Kissinger.”

This is why I would say to Trump: Calm down, ask to read the intercepts in which you, your family members, and associates are allegedly named. The intercepts can be valuable to you. They may tell you what foreign actors really think of you and the people around you. Surely a great negotiator like you can find a way to exploit that knowledge to produce a win for the United States.

 

 

Dr. Mark Stout directs graduate programs in Global Security Studies and Intelligence at Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences Advanced Academic Programs in Washington, DC.  He has previously worked for the Department of the Army, the State Department, the CIA, and the Institute for Defense Analyses.