And exactly what could a President Trump do with the NSA? First, Hennessey says, there’s the question of what he could undo: He could, for instance, rescind the executive actions of President Obama aimed at reforming the NSA after Snowden’s revelations. Presidential Policy Directive 28, for example, issued in 2014, was designed to ensure that the NSA’s signals intelligence branch wouldn’t use its powers to promote American business interests or suppress political dissent abroad, and that it would minimize its invasion of the privacy of not just Americans but also non-Americans whenever possible. Trump could also defang or coopt the executive branch’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which opposed and helped to end the NSA’s mass collection of Americans’ cell phone records last year.
More fundamentally, Hennessey and other former NSA staffers worry that Trump could redefine the priorities of the NSA’s foreign intelligence mission. He could, for instance, refocus American spying efforts to take the agency’s eyes off Russia and instead target that country’s adversaries, like Georgia, Ukraine, or even the European Union. Given Trump’s murky financial ties to Russia, it’s still not clear how he would approach its authoritarian government if he were to take power. “Trump has indicated he has unusual views about Vladimir Putin as an individual and Russian activity around the world that’s very problematic for the security interests of the US,” Hennessey says. “We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the intelligence community’s high level priorities and the ability of the president to shift them.”
Despite what people believe, the NSA is significantly restrained in some of its activities as compared to its compatriots. As an example, there is still no evidence that the NSA conducts economic espionage for the purpose of enhancing specific American business’ interests. The United States does conduct economic espionage for trading and global threat assessments, but not to share the collected information with domestic businesses. A Trump presidency could change that and, in the course, truly blend best-of-class government surveillance with nationalist economic policies. While that might sound appealing to Americans it could also initiate a full-scale trade war…and one where the people of the world would likely come out far poorer.