White House Putting Political Appointees in Charge of Presidential Records Act Compliance

Axios has a story about how the White House is gutting the CISO staff put into place in the wake of the 2014 APT 29 operation in which Russia targeted the White House. They story is based off the October 17 resignation letter of Dimitrios Vastakis, who was in charge of White House computer network defense, which describes how hostility towards CISO staff has led most of the senior people to resign.

What Axios doesn’t describe, however, is Vastakis’ expressed concern about the effect: that political appointees will be in charge of everything, including compliance with the Presidential Records Act.

I have seen the planned organizational structure for the cybersecurity mission going forward. It essentially transfers the entire mission to the White House Communications Agency (WHCA). All key decision making roles and leadership positions will no longer by [sic] staffed EOP individuals. To me, this is in direct conflict with the recommendations made by the OA Office of General Counsel (OA GC). The main concern of OA GC was the oversight of PRA data and records. Considering the level of network access and privileged capabilities that cybersecurity staff have, it is highly concerning that the entire cybersecurity apparatus is being handed over to non-PRA entities.

That is, it’s not just that Russia will be able to hack the White House again. It’s also that some SysAdmin who knows fuckall about security but who knows how badly Trump needs to suppress or alter key records of his Administration will have the direct access to do that.

In the wake of Trump’s attempt to bury his recent efforts to hide potentially criminal conversations with foreign leaders in a particularly secure server (and in the wake of email or social media retention scandals going back to the first President that Bill Barr helped cover up crimes, Poppy Bush), this concern seems unbelievably important.

27 replies
  1. TooLoose LeTruck says:

    I guessing this isn’t legal…

    But what could go wrong… putting your personal hatchet men and water boys in charge of highly sensitive ‘state secrets’?

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      It’s worse, because it’s not just highly sensitive secrets that are at risk from the acts of unqualified political appointees loyal only to Trump. It is the entire flow of communications from the White House.

      This move would effectively gut the PRA. That’s probably OK with Billy Barr. He would regard the congressional record-keeping mandates in the PRA as an affront to the unlimited authority of el Presidente. In his view, that would make it inherently void and of no effect.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I hear that the NYT, too, just let go a good cyber security expert. I sense a pattern emerging.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        I can’t see a good reason for either move. The corruption inherent in Trump’s move is obvious. That the NYT would eliminate a position rather than change people is dangerous, if less obviously corrupt. It makes no sense for a medium increasingly dependent on digital communications.

        • BobCon says:

          The Times is a really big organization. They have the budget to fund this position and with all of their foreign bureaus, they have the need.

          This is a weird move and hints at some odd internal politics.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Reminds me of Trump’s refusal to use USG phones with standard security protocols. He’s apparently afraid his own government might listen to “his” communications.

          What he does not understand is that using private phones – sometimes an aide’s or private party’s – allows any government with suitable technology to listen in. That would include a host of US enemies. The stupid, it burns.

        • P J Evans says:

          I understand he also doesn’t want to have to learn how a new phone works – even if it’s the same as his old one, that way.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Press phone app, press on whole numbers 0-9 until you’ve completed the telephone number, hit enter. Or have someone do it for you.

          Working the browser on another phone would be harder, as it would not have saved his Fox and porn sites. He probably still uses IE with the factory settings.

          Yea, I can see how rocket science might be beyond him.

        • P J Evans says:

          Once it gets past basic telephone, I’d be lost, anyway. But at least I know it and I stick with a dumb phone.

  3. Geoff says:

    This ties in, in a way, IMHO, with Mr Taylor heading back into the administration’s service after retirement. Clearly, reluctant to do so, and with a spouse trying to dissuade him, yet, he heeds the call.

    Meanwhile, in this story, you see an agency with a poisonous head facing waves of resignations out of disgust, or out of principle (I wont work for that criminal, etc.). And bit by bit the guardrails are dismantled.

    You can’t come out openly and say you are remaining in the service of a criminal to be the last adult standing, the one that defends the Constitution and rule of law, otherwise, the syndicate will find a way to pitch you overboard. So you have to bite your tongue and get badmouthed for keeping this crook as your employer. (this might be one way to look at some of the Generals, yet, they never ended up spilling any beans, they just ultimately got fired, and then kept largely quiet anyway. So perhaps they don’t really qualify.)

    Up to this point, we’ve had the anonymous letter writer, trying to back up this theory (plus his or her upcoming book) plus the whistleblower, who have been the only ones to do anything to try to contain the authoritarian’s instinct. It could be that anon just thought, well, I haven’t seen anything yet that is way beyond the pale, and now we have Ukraine, which clearly is obviously so to many people. But so far, as far as we know, aside from whats app text messages (which we shouldn’t even allow gov people to use, as it seems any time they do, it’s to skirt the law and avoid record keeping) we have mostly just obstruction, and not that much outright destruction of evidence. (Ive probably forgotten other incidents of destruction. There’s so much to keep up with.) Anyway, the “lockbox” (sorry still laughing at the Gore v Bush SNL debate that WP re-ran today) with the actual transcripts, hopefully, is just obstruction. Putting out false transcript as CYA propaganda, while the truth remains hidden. It wouldn’t take much though, to go from that to outright elimination of history by destroying or altering the record. And one has to wonder, if Trump were to lose and not be re-elected (and actually leave office) who might end up going back into that record and finding the truth? Which sets up a very dangerous incentive to do far worse with respect to historical revision.

    This post gives a glimpse of just how frightening the territory we would be entering if the desperation of this group brings them to this. The question remains, is there anyone left to take not and stand up to this? Which brings us back to Taylor, who, while perhaps not explicitly stating that this was his goal, perhaps went back expressly because of what he saw happening, perhaps when Ivanovich was forced out. This does though, bring up the question of how he managed to get back in, when he must have been viewed as a potential safeguard to the rule of law. Either someone is a complete moron for letting him in, or on the other hand, someone is a hero, and realized we needed someone non-criminal in the loop.

    As an aside, it continues to bug me that they keep calling this a shadow foreign policy, or a second channel. It’s anything but. It’s going around the legit channel, using criminal means to serve personal/political ends. It was a parallel extortion racket.

  4. SomeGuyInMaine says:

    Sad but not surprised.

    This essentially will make it easier to “wipe for prints” before leaving the scene of the crime.

    Yoo hoo Congress?!

  5. pseudonymous in nc says:

    PRMPA was an immediate response to Nixon; the PRA codified it going forward, and it’s strained to cope with digital comms and personal and/or encrypted and/or self-destructing messaging. If there’s a reckoning and aftermath for the current administration, it may be in updating the PRA to reflect how it was circumvented. (Though Moscow Mitch would probably block it.)

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      It’s not as if Congress hasn’t had warning that the PRA has needed updating for technological and political reasons. BushCheney routinely failed to comply with the PRA. Among other things, it needs real teeth for non-compliance.

  6. Marinela says:

    What is to prevent that the phone discussions with world leaders are not altered, or removed of damaging information for Trump, if the gatekeepers are mostly political?
    Any way to detect if some of these “transcripts” are in fact accurate?

  7. PhoneInducedPinkEye says:

    It’s astounding how many “guardrails” against corruption, voter disenfranchisement, honest functioning of gov, depend entirely on all parties agreeing they matter and should remain in place.

    If nothing else this era hopefully illustrates the need for explicit enforcement more graphically than pretending voter ID is about fraud .

    Shoutout to MW for pointing out T is in “JDA” w/ RU mob a couple weeks before reporting on Thing 1 And Thing 2 claiming executive privilege broke. Why I read.

  8. RobertJ says:

    “[those] who control the past control the future” – 1984

    Another alarming observation – Orwell would have had much to say about the ongoing efforts to defend the Trump regime using legal and other arguments that hinge on narrow definitions and interpretations of words and phrases.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Good observation, made even more poignant by the longer quote: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

      It’s one reason Republicans, especially the Cheney hordes in Texas, are so adamant about controlling school textbooks and curricula. And one reason Trump is so adamant about having his memory hole.

      The PRA was enacted to hold presidents accountable, at least to history. Bringing it back to life is one more task this administration will bequeath to the next Congress and president.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Turns out, “CNN buried the lede in their story on Parnas & Fruman yesterday.” Rudy’s grifters were headed to Vienna not just to interview Sean Hannity. They could have done that in NYC. They were there to help him interview, “the corrupt Ukr prosecutor everyone in Europe wanted to fire.” https://twitter.com/emptywheel

    Hence, Attorney General Bill Barr’s visit to SDNY and Rupert Murdoch the same night that Parnas and Fruman were arrested. Get all the latest dope, brief Rupert on it, and assure him that his most lucrative media asset, the one that keeps Faux Noise afloat, is “in the clear.”

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Police chiefs are famous for not wanting to discipline their officers for excessive force. Prosecutors are famously reluctant to prosecute them. Mayors back them, not wanting to alienate unions with elections always on the horizon. The two recent cases in Ft. Worth are exceptions.

    Police also know the drill about what to claim when they murder someone. Let’s say, for being black and awake at night in their own home, or eating ice cream in front of the TV. Their usual mantra is, “They were afraid for their lives.”

    It is amazing what now constitutes a capital crime. Running away from the police, for example, might increase suspicion but usually lowers risk of harm. But even when unrelated to a crime, it now qualifies:

    New Video shows a Fresno [CA] Police Officer shooting a 16-year-old boy in the back of the head as he ran away. The police officer thought Isiah Murrietta-Golding might be armed and reaching for a gun in his waistband.


    Alex Tabarrok concludes that, “If this were Iraq it would be a clear violation of the rules of engagement.” https://twitter.com/ATabarrok

  11. Chaparral says:

    Public attribution of the White House attack was unclear at the time.


    We now know that American cybersecurity forces were immediately clear that the attack on unclassified servers at the White house was attributed to ATP 29 Cozy Bear, a unit of RUSSIAN MILITARY intelligence.


    The attribution came from the Dutch cyberintelligence hack into Russian GRU systems motivated by the 17 July 2014 shoot down of the MH17 airliner with heavy Dutch loses. The Dutch watched this attack take place realtime and notified US cybersecurity forces. This was the first of a series of RUSSIAN MILITARY attacks on the US government, including the State Department and DNC server hacks that the Dutch watched happen and immediately notified US authorities.

    Weakening security in a system that is an obvious military target and has previously been aggressively attacked by foreign military forces is more than incompetence. Maybe it cannot be proven to rise to the treasonous level of knowingly giving aid to a known enemy. Nevertheless, this is clearly a dereliction of duty.

    Security for these systems should be a military affair.

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