You’re not strip-searched when you walk into the Situation Room, the windowless chamber beneath the White House where the most sensitive conversations in the country take place. There’s no electronics detector or recording device scanner guarding the door of secure spaces where sensitive content is discussed and viewed.
Instead, White House personnel are briefed on security protocols and trusted to do their jobs – which includes mitigating the risk of unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information. This, at the most basic level, entails trying to keep our most sensitive places free from foreign objects like hackable devices.
There are multiple reminders — from the Situation Room receptionist reminding visitors to drop their devices in special boxes to visual signs in key locations around secure facilities — but at the end of the day, it works on an honor system: Staff are hired, and trusted, to put American national security ahead of everything else, whether it’s a desire to sell books or being able to check email during a long meeting.
Which is why it was so disturbing to learn that Omarosa Manigault Newman, the former Trump aide whose forthcoming White House tell-all has already prompted the president to call her a “low life,” a “loser” and “wacky,” was able to record her own firing by Chief of Staff John Kelly: It speaks to a culture of calculated disregard for rules that I certainly never encountered in serving across two administrations, Republican and Democrat alike.
White House staffs’ cellphones and other personal devices are basically beacons beckoning foreign intelligence agents. If Omarosa or any other White House personnel brought unauthorized devices into the Situation Room or any of the other secure spaces on the White House grounds, we should assume that intelligence agents from sophisticated intelligence services in China and Russia — who have been hacking U.S. devices for years — were listening.
Hacking electronics isn’t a new spy game, and our biggest adversaries are really good at it. That’s why security professionals sweep spaces abroad when President Trump goes to foreign meetings and why most government personnel in my experience, if they accidentally bring a device into a secure space, get it scrubbed for bugs to limit any damage.
Now, every White House staffer has more reason to question whether their colleagues are yielding to some ulterior motive and recording conversations for future use.
Omarosa knowingly made herself a more vulnerable foreign asset by repeatedly bringing a recording device into a secure space. White House personnel like Omarosa are highly valuable and highly vulnerable targets for foreign intelligence services because of their access to content that foreign agents want to collect on. That makes every electronic device used by White House personnel a prime hacking target. Cellphones, iPads — and yes especially President Trump’s personal cellphone — are high-value targets in general, and that goes double for devices that penetrate the Situation Room.
All White House staff are supposed to go through security clearance investigations that review counterintelligence risks and get regular security briefings on what to watch out for and how to do their jobs in a manner that mitigates the risk of counterintelligence penetration. Foreign intelligence agents want to make White House staff their witting or unwitting assets, and Omarosa knew the risks, ignored them, and knowingly opened herself up to exploitation.
The security rules don’t change in secure spaces, by the way, based on how highly a conversation is classified. So it doesn’t matter that Kelly was merely firing Omarosa and speaking about unclassified information. She still violated the security of the space by bringing in an unauthorized device. Foreign intelligence services are good at what they do, and we have no way of knowing what a “recording device” can do to systems and cameras in the secure space that it penetrates well after Omarosa left the room.
In fact, Omarosa was likely not the only one to treat the rules with shocking callousness. If she felt brazen enough to bring a prime hacking target into a secure space like the Situation Room or other offices in the White House that are secure, we don’t know how many other staffers felt similarly and taped other conversations.
The damage is already done in terms of foreign intelligence relationships. America’s foreign intelligence partners share sensitive information with us based on the premise that it will be treated responsibly. Some of that foreign intelligence ends up in secure conversations in places like the Situation Room, and now our intelligence partners know that hackable devices violated the security of these spaces, opening them up to unauthorized listeners. So this is just about us: It’s also about our partners’ content and sources and methods. This could lead to diminished intelligence sharing.
And it could lead to internal mistrust, too: I went to work every day, for four years, trusting that my conversations with colleagues were private. The Situation Room was the safest place I knew — that’s why we worked on the Iranian nuclear deal in that room, sensitive operational discussions and more. Now, every White House staffer has more reason to question whether their colleagues are yielding to some ulterior motive and recording conversations for future use. This could lead staff to talk less, share less, and suspect each other more.
The Omarosa episode is unfortunately only the latest example of rule-breaking in this president’s White House. The abuse of the security clearance system, which came to light after former staff secretary Rob Porter was granted an extended interim clearance and access to highly classified information despite his history of alleged domestic abuse, was an earlier example of playing dodgeball with established processes and procedures. Only the president can fix this culture — he can start by giving up his cellphone. There’s no time like the present to lead by example.
Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on the White House National Security Council for four years under President Barack Obama and in the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her on Twitter @sam_vinograd.