President Donald Trump told the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, in a July 26 phone call that Ukrainian officials needed to move forward with “investigations,” presumably against former Vice President Joe Biden. We know about this because Sondland made the call at a crowded restaurant in Kiev on his personal cellphone, according to the sworn testimony of David Holmes, a U.S. Embassy staffer who was at Sondland's table and overheard the whole conversation, including Trump's end of it. And Holmes was not the only staffer at the table during the call, according to The Associated Press.
Beyond that, it's also very likely Russian intelligence officers and other foreign intelligence services and diplomats were listening in to that call. Even if Moscow or others did not intercept the Sondland-Trump phone call electronically, where senior U.S. diplomats go — particularly ones known to speak loudly in public places, are part of Trump’s inner circle and disregard operational security practices — foreign intelligence officers will physically follow.
Security blunders and poor operational security have become synonymous with this administration. Here are the top eight security lapses:
1. Using personal cellphones to conduct government business.
From the start, Trump has used his own unsecure personal cellphones to conduct government business, including with foreign leaders. Doing so avoids the White House switchboard, which logs all presidential phone calls. We also know it has likely allowed foreign intelligence services, including Russia and China, to intercept his calls and exploit the information they have gathered from those calls. Despite warnings from national security officials, Trump continues to prioritize his personal preference over security.
2. Confiding in foreign “strong men” leaders.
Trump has not tried to hide that he prefers the company of ruthless dictators with atrocious human rights records, such as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissii. These personal relationships and his own foreign policy naiveté have led to a number of security blunders.
In 2017, he jeopardized a human intelligence source by passing highly classified intelligence to Russian officials, according to news reports. That same year, Trump announced the formation of a joint U.S.-Russian cybersecurity unit after a private meeting with Putin, even though we are one of Russia’s primary cyber targets. This June, Trump said he would not let U.S. agencies collect intelligence on North Korea because of his personal relationship with Kim, and he has repeatedly downplayed advances in North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
3. Wielding security clearances as a gift and punishment.
Last year, according to The New York Times, Trump used his presidential authority to grant his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a top secret security clearance even though multiple members of the White House’s personal security office and then-White House counsel Don McGahn recommended that he should not receive one because of concerns about his background investigation. Trump has also wielded security clearances as a cudgel to punish his critics, such as removing the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan.
4. Politicizing declassification.
In September 2018, Trump suddenly ordered the immediate declassification of documents from the FBI’s then-ongoing investigation into his own campaign’s ties with Russia. The documents would have included interviews with sources and even the text messages of those he views as his personal enemies: former FBI Director James Comey, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former FBI investigators Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, and Justice Department official Bruce Ohr.
5. Rudy Giuliani’s tech follies.
Trump’s personal lawyer and former cybersecurity adviser Rudy Giuliani’s missteps with his iPhone are infamous. While acting as a personal envoy, adviser, henchman and lawyer for Trump, he has more than once butt-dialed reporters and left lengthy and revealing voice messages. Less than a month after Trump named him a cybersecurity adviser in 2017, he had to seek help in an Apple store to unlock his iPhone. This month, journalist Roger Sollenberger wrote in Salon that Giuliani accidentally texted him a password to an unknown account. These incidents do not instill much confidence.
6. Declassification by tweet.
Trump has a habit of declassifying sensitive maps and images on the spot rather than for actual national security needs — which is the reason the president is the ultimate declassification authority. In August, he tweeted high-resolution imagery of the aftermath of an accident at an Iranian space facility, coupled with the taunting message, “Best wishes and good luck in determining what happened.” Experts said the image revealed sensitive information about the particular collection platform that captured the image and U.S. capabilities in general. In March, Trump erroneously claimed that the Islamic State terrorist organization would be “gone” by that evening and showed reporters a map created by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the classification banner crossed out seemingly with a black pen. He then later tweeted the same maps.
7. Using private email accounts and encrypted messaging apps to conduct official business.
At this point, it has been well-documented that Kushner, Ivanka Trump and other administration figures have routinely used their own personal email accounts and messaging apps to communicate with other government officials and foreign officials, likely breaking federal records laws. This coming from the administration that ran a whole campaign against Hillary Clinton’s use of her personal email server when she was secretary of State.
8. Looking to Fox News for intelligence analysis.
Finally, it is hard to find a bigger security blunder than Trump ignoring the advice and analysis of the government’s top experts in the intelligence community, while paying close attention to information and guidance from biased sources such as Fox News media personalities.
A destabilized world: Republicans are now the party of national insecurity on threats from guns to missiles
The implications of these security lapses are significant. First, in terms of intelligence collection, it has probably never been easier for foreign services to scoop up information about what is happening in Washington, given the administration's widespread use of personal cellphones and personal emails.
Second, the careless attitude about security and sensitive information makes it harder for U.S. intelligence services to persuade potential human sources of information to work for us, or to feel confident that we will safeguard the intelligence we receive from foreign partners. They have no guarantee that the president of the United States will not expose them or the intelligence at any time.
Cindy L. Otis, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is a former CIA officer who now works in cybersecurity. Her new book, “True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News,” will be published in May. Follow her on Twitter: @CindyOtis_
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump's worst security blunders from Oval Office to Ukraine restaurant