Investigative journalist Ewan MacAskill has dismissed US President Donald Trump's accusations that his predecessor Barack Obama wiretapped his offices as an antiquated view of how “the security services work in the digital age”.
Twittering away on Saturday, Donald Trump claimed Barack Obama had ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower in October ahead of November's election.
Trump wrote: “How low has President gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
MacAskill responded: “Trump's tweets suggest he is stuck is a cold-war time warp, with spies still using the kind of techniques found in John le Carré novels rather than 21st-century surveillance.”
MacAskill highlights that Trump is comparing the situation to the Watergate Scandal, involving spies who broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee to plant wiretaps to modern-day interception of communication data.
As one of the journalists who was in the room when NSA leaker Edward Snowden broke the news of mass surveillance conducted by a number of three-letter agencies around the world, MacAskill highlights that this isn't the case.
MacAskill writes: “Among the many intercept programmes revealed by Snowden was Tempora, run by the NSA's UK counterpart GCHQ, and shared with the Americans. This was a kind of wiretap on a scale that would have been beyond the imagination of the American civil war soldiers who climbed telegraph poles, or the FBI agents breaking into King's hotel room to plant a bug.”
He explains: “GCHQ placed intercepts on the network of fibre-optic cables that carry much of the world's internet traffic, offering a window into the world of an estimated two billion users of the worldwide web.”
According to MacAskill, US security services can “set up a cell network tower and, once a phone connects, they can take it over. They can mimic the process of the phone closing down and make it appear blank, whereas, in reality, a mic remains live.”
He said they also “can use malware to take control of the camera, ensuring there is no light or any other indication that would allow a person to know they are being watched”.
So MacAskill asks, “Who needs wiretaps when there are so many potential listening devices around these days? Even the word ‘wiretap' is antiquated. The security services and privacy advocates are more likely now to talk about ‘interception', a more accurate description of what they do.”
James Clapper, former director of US national intelligence, said Obama-sanctioned wiretapping is a thing of fiction. MacAskill brands him as an unreliable witness, however, as he “misled Congress in 2013 by stating there was no mass surveillance in the US.”
Likewise, FBI director James Comey denied any wiretapping. But MacAskill also discredited Comey's words as “tainted”, given his intervention in the just-gone US election race where he made “damaging comments about Hillary Clinton's emails” which some have said won Trump the election.
There have also been denials of such activities from Obama's own national security team, which MacAskill said are more credible as “though a president enjoys sweeping powers – he cannot order the security services to mount the kind of operation Trump has in mind”.
Trump has so far offered no evidence to support his claims. Some commentators have said he appears to have picked up the notion that the wiretapping happened based on an article from right-wing website Breitbart, which was previously run by Steve Bannon, Trump's chief advisor.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, chose not to comment on this and instead sent his deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to speak to the press on the matter. Speaking on ABC news, she said, “I will let the president speak for himself.”