Hillary’s Phone and the True Security Risk to the United States

By Stephen Bryen

Larry Klayman’s Judicial Watch has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to obtain the release of documents regarding Hillary Clinton’s efforts to gain approval for use of an iPhone or iPad to conduct official business while she was secretary of state (Judicial Watch, Inc. v. U.S. Department of State (No. 1:15-cv-00646)).  The notion is that no such documents exist –that is, during the time she was Secretary of State Ms. Clinton was allegedly using an iPhone, iPad or both and allegedly never asked for clearance.

Unfortunately there is widespread use of smartphones and tablets by US officials, mostly without permission.  While these are supposedly for private use and not official business (the latter would entail getting an approval), not much has been made of the use of these devices.  But the truth is they constitute a huge security risk for two important reasons: smartphones and tablets are unsafe; officials conduct business on them notwithstanding the risks and in spite of regulations that would require approval to use them.

While the practice no doubt has led to the compromise of sensitive information, most of the time we don’t hear about it.  A foreign intelligence service with access to a senior official’s phone would not want to disclose they were listening in, because that would give away an intelligence gold mine.  We do know, of course, following disclosures by Edward Snowden, that the US on its own and in cooperation with foreign intelligence services such as GCHQ in the United Kingdom and the BND in Germany, routinely spy on the smartphones and tablets of foreign officials.  Indeed, it appears the BND cooperated with NSA in spying even on Chancellor Merkel’s smartphones (over the years at least five of her smartphones were compromised in this way).  Even so, anxious not to come up against her own intelligence services or to lose American support on issues of paramount importance to Germany, Mrs. Merkel has defended the BND and tempered her anger over NSA-led spying in Germany aimed at German officials and corporations.

Nuland’s Phone

With Ukraine in an uproar in 2013, violent protests in the street, Victoria Nuland called Geoffrey Pyatt, the US Ambassador in Kiev. A full transcript of their conversation was leaked to the press.  Here is just one small part of what Nuland and Pyatt had to say:

“Voice thought to be Pyatt’s: I think we’re in play. The Klitschko [Vitaly Klitschko, one of three main opposition leaders] piece is obviously the complicated electron here. Especially the announcement of him as deputy prime minister and you’ve seen some of my notes on the troubles in the marriage right now so we’re trying to get a read really fast on where he is on this stuff. But I think your argument to him, which you’ll need to make, I think that’s the next phone call you want to set up, is exactly the one you made to Yats [Arseniy Yatseniuk, another opposition leader]. And I’m glad you sort of put him on the spot on where he fits in this scenario. And I’m very glad that he said what he said in response.

“Nuland: Good. I don’t think Klitsch should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”[1]

Our two genius diplomats, working on an open line, spoke in uncomplimentary terms about Ukrainian leaders.  Nuland and Ambassador Pyatt made it even worse by acting as if they were the decision makers on who would take over leadership in the Ukraine.

It isn’t clear what type of phone, landline or cellular, Pyatt was using, but Nuland’s call seems to have been made on a mobile phone.  Had she called from her office and had Pyatt been in his, they would have used a secure telephone.

As for the wiretap, that was the easiest part.  The Ukrainian telephone system was put there by the Russians before Ukraine became independent.  Its trunk lines passes through Moscow.  While Nuland’s phone conversation call could have been leaked by anyone, the Moscow connection seems the most likely source.  The Russians would surely gain from embarrassing the United States.[2]

A Danger to State Department Employees

State Department officials posted overseas are at significant risk using commercial smartphones and tablets.  Most of the time they are on diplomatic assignments with their families, meaning that the already blurry line between “official” business and personal affairs dissolves into nothingness, especially if the host country is unwelcoming or dangerous.  Even assignments to posts in such “safe” places as European capitals is a risk, because there are moles in the local intelligence services and police and because terrorists today use sophisticated intercept tools as part of their arsenal of weapons to track targets. A good example is France where Islamic radicals exploited social media connections, especially Facebook, to identify targets in the Jewish community. When you think about the vulnerability of families of diplomats using smartphones equipped with accurate GPS the fact of their personal vulnerability is easy to understand.

Who is Responsible?

It is easy to say that public officials are responsible for their behavior, and if they are using smartphones and tablets without government approval, they create a security risk.  But what if they got approval to use these devices from their agency?  Does that make it acceptable?[3]

The truth is that using commercial smartphones by government officials is extraordinarily risky and dangerous.  It means, as already noted, that conversations can be intercepted, contacts identified, and locations pinpointed.

While convenient to say that officials are acting improperly, or agencies have given approval thoughtlessly, it is even more the case that proper security policy is lacking, not just in the State Department, but throughout the US government. The Pentagon, for example, or the military are no better than State, neither is the White House any safer than the Department of Homeland Security.

We are bombarded these days by different cyber plans concocted by the US government, most of which are unmitigated garbage that achieve nothing. If our government just got smart about smartphones it would be a significant achievement.  That our government security experts have failed, and failed dismally, should tell you more than you may want to know about our lack of security and preparedness.


1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26079957

[2] Excerpted from my forthcoming book, Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers (Transaction Publishers, 2016).

[3] The Defense Department has recently “approved” three smartphones as “secure,” which is a reckless and unjustified step that enhances the danger of using smartphones and tablets in official business.

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