Senator Calls on State Dept. to Investigate Appointees’ Use of Personal Devices for Work

David Holmes, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 21.

David Holmes, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 21. Andrew Harnik/AP

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Impeachment hearing revelations highlight a larger security problem, Democrat says.

A ranking Senate Democrat is calling on the State Department to review its political appointees’ use of insecure, personal devices for national security purposes in the wake of impeachment hearing revelations.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to the State Department earlier this week expressing concerns about senior officials’ use of unsecured personal devices to conduct national security work. He said U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland’s conversation on his cell phone with President Trump about potential Ukraine investigations showcased a widespread problem in the department.

“Ambassador Sondland’s security breaches are not isolated,” Menendez wrote. “Numerous other reports allege widespread use of personal cell phones as a regular means to communicate on highly sensitive matters among and between numerous senior State Department political appointees of the current administration, as well as between those officials and other officials elsewhere in the U.S. government, including President Trump himself.” 

Bill Taylor, top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, revealed in his public testimony last week that one of his staffers while at a restaurant in Kiev overheard a phone conversation between Trump and Sondland on July 26, the day after the Ukraine call that led to the impeachment inquiry. 

The staffer, who was later revealed to be David Holmes, embassy staffer in Kiev, said during his closed-door deposition on Nov. 15, “The president’s voice was very loud and recognizable, and Ambassador Sondland held the phone away from his ear for a period of time, presumably because of the loud volume.” Holmes, who is testifying publicly on Thursday, confirmed that the call was about the investigations the president wanted Ukraine to conduct.

“In my experience, generally, phone calls with the president are very sensitive and handled accordingly,” said Holmes, on Nov. 15. “I believe at least two of the three, if not all three, of the mobile networks are owned by Russian companies, or have significant stakes in those. We generally assume that mobile communications in Ukraine are being monitored.” 

It is not clear if this call was on a personal phone; however, on Wednesday when asked if he used a secure line for the call, Sondland said, “No, it was an open line,” and that the president was aware of this.

Also, Fiona Hill, former top White House official for Europe, said during her closed door testimony on Oct. 14, “Sondland was using his own personal cell phone at all times as well as his government-issued cell phone. I became extremely concerned that his communications were not going to be secure.” 

In his letter, Menendez cited the “embarrassment, political fallout and official U.S. apology” following the 2014 interception and leak of a call between a former State Department assistant secretary and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine as a “grim reminder” of the importance of secure communication lines. In this administration he said there is an “apparent culture of indifference to classification matters and information security emanating from President Trump.” 

According to a Washington Post report:

Trump himself has refused sophisticated security features on his personal cell phone and refuses to swap his phones out regularly because he finds it too burdensome. Trump adviser Stephen Miller, former chief of staff Reince Priebus, former National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland and former adviser Stephen K. Bannon have all been caught using personal phones, email accounts or messaging apps to conduct official business as have Jared and Ivanka Kushner.

Menendez is asking the department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security to investigate personal cell phone use of political appointees at the department and take disciplinary action if there are security breaches. He requested that by Dec. 2 the department submit a plan to address this issue and a timeline for implementing it. 

On Thursday, President Trump denied that Holmes could have overheard the call, “I have been watching people making phone calls my entire life. My hearing is, and has been, great,” he tweeted. “Never have I been watching a person making a call, which was not on speakerphone, and been able to hear or understand a conversation. I’ve even tried, but to no avail. Try it live!”