Silencing the civil service: Republicans crack down on federal workers' communication

Fearing a Trump crackdown, some federal workers at the EPA turned to encryption apps to communicate

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published February 16, 2017 4:30PM (EST)


After charges that the Trump transition team was trying to scare employees at the Department of Energy — by sending a request for an inventory of all agency employees or contractors who attended meetings or conferences on climate change — some civil servants who felt they needed to protect the long-term interests of their agency and nation took to covert methods of communication. And although The Washington Post reported his week that White House staffers are using an app called Confide, which deletes messages once they are read, President Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress are now going after federal workers who use similar tools of communication.

As recently reported by Politico, fewer than a dozen career employees at the Environmental Protection Agency downloaded the encryption apps WhatsApp and Signal shortly after Trump was sworn into office to discuss how to handle a potential gutting of the agency. The apps make it harder for hackers to access conversations as encryption scrambles data and lets only a person with the correct passcode have access.

While most civil servants stay in their jobs from one administration to the next, regardless of who's in power, Trump has signaled with his picks for leading certain agencies that he seeks drastic change that could lead to deep cuts. Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general nominated by Trump to run the EPA, has a record of routinely suing the regulatory agency and backing the fossil fuel industry, which has helped finance his political career. Trump's pick to run the Department of Energy, Rick Perry, wrote in his book that he thought the science showing humans were contributing to climate change was a "contrived phony mess.”

Dissenting bureaucrats have created new email addresses in order to discuss how to deal with Trump's political appointees without drawing the White House’s wrath. (In 2013 President Obama’s former EPA director, Lisa Jackson, was criticized by congressional Republicans for her use of a private email under a pseudonym.)

Republicans, desperate to shut down embarrassing leaks, have now set their sights on the handful of civil servants who have turned to encrypted messaging apps.

“Reportedly, this group of career officials at the EPA are aiming to spread their goals covertly to avoid federal records requirements, while also aiming to circumvent the government’s ability to monitor their communications,” a letter sent to the EPA inspector general this week from Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas and Rep. Darin LaHood of Illinois read.

Smith and LaHood, who are chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and the vice chairman of the subcommittee on oversight on the Science, Space and Tech committee respectively, argued that the use of encrypted messaging circumvents federal record-keeping laws, and asked EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr. to "determine whether it's appropriate to launch a full-scale review" of EPA workers' use of encrypted apps.

"[T]he Committee is concerned that these encrypted and off-the-record communication practices, if true, run afoul of federal record-keeping requirements, leaving information that could be responsive to future Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and congressional requests unattainable," Smith wrote.

The letter requested a response from the inspector general by Feb 28.

The right-leaning watchdog group, Cause of Action Institute, is also seeking access to the EPA employees' communications via encryption apps under the Freedom of Information Act. “An encrypted app is basically a way to avoid transparency," Henry Kerner, the institute's assistant vice president, told Politico.

For their part, EPA employees say they are being targeted only for being critical of Trump and claim they have not used encrypted apps for official government business.  "I don't think anybody can dictate which apps we use on our personal time, for personal conversations," one EPA employee told Politico.

Such off-grid communication can work, and stay within legal boundaries, experts say, so long as it is done during personal time and on personal equipment. Jim Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, explained to Fox News that “If [civil servants] 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 further explained, “Illegal surveillance would lead to a lawsuit against the [agency] that conducted it [and] the workers would win.”

A provision of the Whistleblower Protection Act  makes it illegal for a civil servant to be fired "for refusing to obey an order that would require the individual to violate a law," as these servants swear an oath to uphold the Constitution at the outset of their careers.

Unfortunately for Trump and his conservative allies, however, it's not just federal workers at EPA who appear to be organizing against any oncoming assaults. At the National Security Council, some nervous staffers have been reportedly meeting at a bar after work to talk about scrubbing their social media accounts of anti-Trump talk. Workers at the State Department are also meeting privately, including federal Muslim employees who are concerned for their jobs, Politico reported. Career employees at the State Department amassed some 1,000 signatures protesting Trump’s Muslim travel ban.

Another letter, by former and current Department of Labor workers, raised concerns about the nomination of Andrew Puzder as secretary of labor, citing the fast food magnate's anti-discrimination lawsuit beleaguered past as well as his history of anti-worker rhetoric and practices. Puzder withdrew his nomination on Wednesday.

Some former civil servants have been more explicit and open about their activism during the Trump era.

After Trump ordered the EPA to eliminate the climate change page from its official website, more than 400 former employees signed an open letter to the Senate urging the rejection of Pruitt to head the agency because he “has shown no interest in enforcing environmental laws.” The EPA has about 4,800 current staff in its Washington headquarters and 11,000 nationally, including in 10 regional offices. "I've never experienced this kind of outcry in the past," John J. O'Grady, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238 in Chicago, told Inside Climate News after a recent rally of EPA employees in the city.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

MORE FROM Sophia Tesfaye

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Civil Servants Donald Trump Donald Trump Resistance Encryption Epa