Federal workers turn to secret messaging to oppose Trump policies, nominees
February 05, 2017 FoxNews.com
Some federal employees are gearing up for a cyber-battle against President Trump, and they are creating a hidden messaging system to elude detection.
According to POLITICO, employees of agencies that seem on the chopping block of the new administration are setting up new email addresses and turning to encrypted messaging apps to hold group conversations with other anti-Trump staffers, and to communicate with the press.
They’re also using these cloak-and-dagger methods to work on letters that take exception to Trump policies, POLITICO reported.
Career employees at the State Department have amassed some 1,000 signatures on a memo that expresses condemnation of Trump’s executive order that imposes a travel ban on immigrants and that puts a hold on refugee admissions from seven Muslim-majority countries deemed hotbeds of terrorist activity.
Employees of other agencies, such as the Labor Department and Environmental Protection Agency, also have turned to off-the-grid messaging to urge U.S. senators to oppose Trump Cabinet nominees and warning against the president’s plans to make cuts in some agencies.
Such off-grid communication can work, and stay within legal boundaries, say experts, so long as it is done during personal time and on personal equipment.
“It could work, but it depends on whether they are using their office computers or networks,” said Jim Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to Fox News. “If they are, they’ll be detected, even if they use encryption. If they are using private accounts or devices, it would require a warrant to find them and they aren’t violating any law if they stick to opinion.”
Lewis served as a Foreign Service officer with both the State and Commerce departments.
“Illegal surveillance would lead to a lawsuit against the [agency] that conducted it [and] the workers would win,” Lewis added. “Encryption is a problem in that it can hide communications between two people but can be a handicap if you want to share material widely.”
Some State Department employees see it as their civil duty to flag any policies or proposals that they believe will be detrimental to their agency’s role, POLITICO said.
“I think we all have to look within ourselves and say ‘Where is that line that I will not cross?’” one Foreign Service officer said about opposition toTrump's ban, according to POLITICO.
One of the most high-profile acts of dissent occurred when Acting Attorney General Sally Yates ordered the Department of Justice’s lawyers not to defend the ban order in court.
Trump abruptly fired her.
Recently, news surfaced about a Secret Service agent who last year said in a Facebook post that she would not sacrifice her life for Donald Trump if he became president.
Employees of the National Parks Service raised eyebrows when the agency’s Twitter account had a retweet of photos showing crowds at Trump’s and Barack Obama’s inaugurations.
The agency removed the retweet and described it as an error.
But so-called “unofficial resistance teams” at the park service, EPA and NASA have been apparently using alternative accounts to take jabs at Trump and his policies.
One tweet, cited by POLITICO, said: “Can't wait for President Trump to call us FAKE NEWS. You can take our official twitter, but you'll never take our free time!”
Many of the federal workers turning to under-the-radar means of communicating are using Signal, a smartphone app that can be used to send encrypted messages.
“It seems Trump is going after people who oppose things that he’s doing, so it makes sense that federal workers would be concerned about making their political ideas known,” said Jonathan Katz, director of the Maryland Cybersecurity Center at the University of Maryland.
“The [Signal] app is well-designed, it’s secure, it would be difficult to collect widespread information from it,” Katz said to Fox News. “But if [the government] wants to target a specific individual, it could do that.”
Federal workers turn to encryption to thwart Trump
Agency employees are turning to Signal and other incognito forms of communication to express their dissent.
Politico By Andrew Restuccia, Marianne LeVine and Nahal Toosi 02/02/2017
Federal employees worried that President Donald Trump will gut their agencies are creating new email addresses, signing up for encrypted messaging apps and looking for other, protected ways to push back against the new administration’s agenda.
Whether inside the Environmental Protection Agency, within the Foreign Service, on the edges of the Labor Department or beyond, employees are using new technology as well as more old-fashioned approaches — such as private face-to-face meetings — to organize letters, talk strategy, or contact media outlets and other groups to express their dissent.
The goal is to get their message across while not violating any rules covering workplace communications, which can be monitored by the government and could potentially get them fired.
At the EPA, a small group of career employees — numbering less than a dozen so far — are using an encrypted messaging app to discuss what to do if Trump’s political appointees undermine their agency’s mission to protect public health and the environment, flout the law, or delete valuable scientific data that the agency has been collecting for years, sources told POLITICO.
Fearing for their jobs, the employees began communicating incognito using the app Signal shortly after Trump’s inauguration. Signal, like WhatsApp and other mobile phone software, encrypts all communications, making it more difficult for hackers to gain access to them.
One EPA employee even got a new, more secure cellphone, and another joked about getting a “burner phone.”
“I have no idea where this is going to go. I think we’re all just taking it one day at a time and respond in a way that seems appropriate and right,” said one of the EPA employees involved in the clandestine effort, who, like others quoted in this story, was granted anonymity to talk about the sensitive discussions.
The employee added that the goal is to “create a network across the agency” of people who will raise red flags if Trump’s appointees do anything unlawful.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While many workers across the federal government are still in wait-and-see mode, the first two weeks of the Trump administration — with its flurry of executive orders that have in some cases upended lives — have sent a sobering message to others who believe they must act now.
In recent days, career employees at the State Department gathered nearly 1,000 signatures for what’s known as a “Dissent Channel” memo, in which they express their anger over a Trump executive order that bars immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries and halts refugee admissions to the country. The number of signatures was extraordinarily high, even though the letter was submitted after White House spokesman Sean Spicer essentially warned the dissenting diplomats they were risking their jobs.
The executive order on immigration and refugees caused widespread panic at airports, spurring protests and outrage around the world.
It also led to what has been the most high-profile act of defiance yet from a Trump administration official: Acting Attorney General Sally Yates on Monday ordered the Department of Justice’s lawyers not to defend the order in court. Yates was fired that same night.
Current and former employees of the Labor Department, meanwhile, are using their private email accounts to send around a link to a letter asking senators to oppose the nomination of Andrew Puzder for secretary of their agency. The employees may sign on to the letter using Google Docs. The letter will not be submitted to the Senate HELP Committee, and the signatures will not be made public, unless 200 current employees sign on.
A federal worker familiar with the letter’s circulation said that it’s being signed by hundreds of current and former DOL employees.
According to a draft of the letter obtained by POLITICO, the employees write that they have "serious concerns" about the fast-food magnate’s willingness to protect the rights of workers given some of his past comments and actions.
The draft of the letter criticizes Puzder's comments about women, and cites his restaurants’ advertisements, some of which feature women in bikinis eating burgers. Puzder has defended the ads.
"One of us once heard a colleague ask, quite seriously, whether it would violate workplace rules of civility and prohibitions against sexual harassment to view Mr. Puzder’s ads on a government computer," the letter says. "We think the question is a good one."
The federal employees interviewed for this story stressed that they see themselves as nonpartisan stewards of the government. But several also said they believe they have a duty to speak out if they feel a policy is undermining their mission.
Drafts of the Dissent Channel memo signed by the State Department employees insist, for instance, that instead of protecting U.S. national security through his new executive order on refugees and immigrants, Trump is endangering the United States by bolstering the terrorists’ narrative that the West hates Muslims.
“I think we all have to look within ourselves and say ‘Where is that line that I will not cross?’” one Foreign Service officer said.
Since Trump was elected in November, many State Department employees have also met quietly for other reasons. Groups of Muslims who work at Foggy Bottom, for instance, have held meetings to discuss fears that they could be subject to witch hunts and see their careers stall under the new administration. A few of Trump’s top aides have spoken out against radical Islamism in such harsh terms that some Muslims believe the aides are opposed to the religion of Islam as a whole.
Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, indicated that it’s too soon to say whether there’s a broad trend of bureaucratic resistance to Trump taking hold.
"Quite a few federal employees seem to be looking for constructive ways to express discontent," he said. "Meanwhile, tension is still growing, not subsiding."
EPA employees are uniquely concerned about their future, having faced barbs from Trump advisers who have toyed with cutting the agency's staff by two-thirds and from other Republicans who want to eliminate the agency altogether. So career staffers are discussing the best way to alert the public to what’s happening behind the scenes.
“I’m suddenly spending my days comparing the importance of the oath I took when I started my career service and the code that I have as an American,” an EPA employee said.
EPA employees have started reaching out to former Obama administration political appointees, who they hope will help them spread the word about any possible improper conduct at the agency.
“It’s probably much safer to have those folks act as the conduit and to act as the gathering point rather than somebody in the agency,” the employee said. “You’re putting your career and your livelihood and your paycheck at risk every time you talk to somebody.”
Organizations such as the Government Accountability Project, which advocates for whistleblowers, have been busy as federal employees fret about what their new bosses may ask them to do.
“We’ve had a significant number of federal employees who have contacted us in recent weeks,” said Louis Clark, the nonprofit’s CEO. “It has to be the largest influx of people trying to reach us that we’ve seen.”
The largest group of callers? “The people who want to know what to do if they’re asked to violate the law,” Clark said.
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said EPA employees are in perhaps the “deepest pit of despair” among his group’s membership.
He said his group has been fielding calls on everything from what triggers a reduction in the federal workforce to how long they can carry health insurance benefits if they are pushed out.
Asked how EPA employees are feeling, Ruch said, “In the broadest sense, scared and depressed.”