What's Behind a Cellphone Call From Ukraine? | Opinion

Americans are sure to learn more this week about the unsecured July 26 call between Gordon Sondland, Donald Trump's ambassador to the European Union, and the president.

Sondland, who is set to publicly testify Wednesday, used his cellphone to speak candidly with Trump from the outdoor section of a central Kyiv restaurant about the Ukrainian president's willingness to investigate the Bidens and the Democrats, David Holmes, the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, said in his deposition Friday.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Holmes, who is set to publicly testify Thursday. Holmes expressed shock at the total lack of security around a presidential call, especially since Sondland was in Ukraine, a country largely regarded as under heavy Russian surveillance and intelligence collection.

The U.S. government goes to great lengths to ensure that secure, real-time communications are available to its officials stationed around the world. Such communications are critical to commanding and directing global military and civilian agencies. Secure communications are meant to instill confidence among members that they can speak openly and without worry of intercept by nation states. And they are available at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

So why would the ambassador and the president of the United States not avail themselves of existing secure communications lines?

An unsecured call might be justified during the immediate need to make contact—a point when seconds matter. But the call was relaxed, according to Holmes, and not a prelude to an imminent important meeting.

For over a decade, I was involved with secure communications protocols and systems, in both the field and secure facilities. No matter the location, there were two goals: First, to ensure the facilitation of secure communications; second, to formalize communication and to ensure that official notifications, orders and reports could be passed and received. The latter goal was just as important as the first. Secure communications comes with a specific formality, whereby records and logs exist as part of routine business. Many who work in secure facilities, handling classified information and using secure communications, often complain about the bureaucracy that comes along with managing and cataloging communications.

The bureaucracy and the administrative management of communicating on secure lines leads many to try to limit discussions to unclassified level whenever possible. Using a secure line usually means using a device in a classified space, which means that all parties on the call must be cleared at or above the same level. Before the call can begin, clearances must be checked and access must be granted to the space where the phone exists. The bureaucracy and record-keeping begin before the call is even scheduled.

"Standard procedure is using secure communications between government officials to make sure both parties are protected—and everything is logged," a former military attaché who served in embassies in former Soviet bloc countries told me. "Unofficial channels of communications have been used by government officials since the Cuban Missile Crisis to make backdoor deals to benefit both countries. However, this case is highly suspect since it was not between countries but between members of our government."

It's "Jersey used car salesman type of bullsh**," the former attaché said. "It would be documented and flagged."

Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump walks outside the White House on November 13. Alex Wong/Getty

Trump has adopted many unorthodox approaches with communications, including speaking to the world via Twitter. While the president's tweets have caused security nightmares, his administration has defended them as based on his desire to speak directly to the American people. Jared Kushner, of course, also proposed setting up a back-channel of communication between Trump and Moscow. Could it be that Trump was looking to make an end run around official government channels by speaking to Sondland on an unsecured line?

Most Americans understand that there is a difference between using a work email for work and using it for personal business. Take, for example, the uproar over the anti-Trump texts between former FBI agent Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, which were uncovered because they were sent over official devices. Or consider Hillary Clinton's much-publicized use of a private server. Critics have alleged that Clinton used a private server as secretary of state to avoid records of communications. Which could easily be Trump's motivation for allowing the unsecured call with Sondland. Afterall, if Trump were going to commit a crime, perhaps he and his ambassador would be less worried about the Russians listening into their plans than our own government.

Naveed Jamali is a columnist for Newsweek who spent three years working undercover for the FBI against Russian military intelligence. He tells the story in his book How to Catch a Russian Spy. He is a member of Left of Bang, a group of military veterans working to prevent gun violence.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

What's Behind a Cellphone Call From Ukraine? | Opinion | Opinion