President ElectTrump inspires scramble on spying powers

Civil liberties groups want President Barack Obama to rein in the federal surveillance apparatus before his successor takes over.

Tech and civil liberties advocates are imploring the Obama administration to rein in the government’s massive surveillance apparatus before President Elect Donald Trump takes office, fearful he will carry out his campaign promises to register Muslims, spy on mosques and punish companies that offer Americans unbreakable encryption.But many national security experts and former administration officials say the effort is almost certainly doomed to fail. “I don’t know how you tie the king’s hands in just the weeks going out,” said Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama.

And some civil libertarians blame Democrats for being too content to allow President Barack Obama to wield the sweeping, post-Sept. 11 surveillance powers he inherited from George W. Bush, rather than rolling them back so that no future president could use them.

“We shouldn’t be relying on the benevolence of the leaders put in power after an election to ensure that people’s privacy and civil liberties are protected,” said Neema Singh Guliani, a legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.

“You have a situation where the executive branch has control of a surveillance apparatus that is unparalleled in history,” said Trevor Timm, a surveillance critic and head of the activist group Freedom of the Press Foundation. “And because the Obama administration either retained the right to use a lot of these unprecedented powers, or expanded them, they are now in the hands of somebody who many people consider to be a madman.”

While Obama imposed some checks on executive spying powers, several of the major limits are presidential fiats that Trump could roll back unilaterally. Congress imposed other restrictions when it passed last year’s USA Freedom Act, but civil libertarians say that in practice the White House can escape some critical oversight.

That prospect is terrifying to people who fear Trump will follow through with some of his more radical promises, even if his team has wavered or backtracked on exactly what those pledges even mean. That alarm only heightened when Trump revealed that his choice for CIA director is Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), a surveillance hawk that wants to undo recently imposed congressional constraints on digital snooping.

Hoping to head Trump off, civil liberties, digital rights and watchdog groups are pleading with Obama to take a series of actions to weaken the surveillance state. Those include releasing classified inspector general reports and the secret legal rationales behind the government’s spying efforts, which could help advocates challenge Trump in court. Some also urged Obama’s team to purge the NSA’s databases of some of the information they hoover up, wiping out reams of data that are focused on foreigners but incidentally drag in details on an unknown number of Americans.

Thirty advocacy groups banded together this week in a letter telling Obama to take action, writing: “No less than our shared legacy of a vibrant democratic government is at stake.”

Trump’s critics point to his apparent zeal for strongman tactics, noting that as a candidate he proclaimed that “torture works” and pledged to Authorize tactics that are “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” When asked about the alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee, Trump shot back: “Honestly, I wish I had that power. I’d love to have that power.”

Trump also called on people to boycott Apple after the company refused to help the FBI unlock an encrypted iPhone used by one of the suspects in last year’s terrorist-inspired mass shooting in SanBernardino, Calif.