Listening In

Putin's Latest Dirty Trick: Leaking Private Phone Calls

The same government that gives asylum to NSA outlaw Edward Snowden is intercepting and leaking the private phone calls of its adversaries.



In the last seven weeks, intercepted phone conversations between Western and Ukrainian officials have mysteriously surfaced on the Internet. U.S. intelligence officials tell The Daily Beast these phone recordings are part of a deliberate Russian strategy to collect and publicize the private conversations of their adversaries.

It started in the first week of February. As Ukraine’s political elites were scrambling to form a new government, a recording of a cellphone call emerged between Victoria Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. The intercept featured Nuland privately saying, “Fuck the EU,” and disclosed the preferences of two senior U.S. diplomats for who should serve in Ukraine’s interim government.

A month later, a phone call between European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Estonia’s foreign minister Urmas Paet appeared on the Internet. In the conversation, Paet discussed a theory that the snipers who fired on demonstrators in Ukraine may have been anti-Russian provocateurs.

This Monday, a third private phone call suddenly appeared on the Web. This time it was Yulia Tymeshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister, saying, “It’s about time we grabbed our guns and killed those damned Russians together with their leader.” 

All three intercepted phone calls were invaluable to reinforcing Russia’s desired narrative: depicting the West as meddling in Ukrainian affairs and Ukraine’s new leadership as implacably hostile to Moscow. Not coincidentally, all three calls received major play on the Kremlin-funded Russian propaganda station known as RT. And all three are almost certainly the handiwork of Russia’s intelligence services.

At least this is the assessment of current and former U.S. intelligence officials interviewed by The Daily Beast.

“We see them engaged in counter-information campaigns,” said Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “They are very aggressive, they are using old style thuggery, cut-your-ear-off KGB tactics and they are using this leaking of collected information to their advantage.”

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Rep. Rogers said he believed the “Russians are behind” the leaked phone calls. “They are playing to win and now we need to decide what U.S. policy is, if we want to push back on that particular policy.”

Other U.S. officials who spoke to The Daily Beast said they concurred that the spate of the leaked phone calls was part of a deliberate intelligence strategy to intercept and selectively publicize the private conversations of Western and Ukrainian officials.

Moscow has been aggressively spying on Western officials for years. But the pattern of intercepted and then leaked conversations casts a new light on how far Russia is willing to go in its information and intelligence war over Ukraine.

With the United States itself under fire internationally for its own surveillance of foreign leaders, the Russians have been able to anonymously collect and disclose their own snooping to date with little political price. An added irony is that Russia is granting asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed American spying on foreign leaders and communications networks, as his host country engages in the very kinds of electronic monitoring Snowden has spoken out against.

“In the post-Snowden era, it’s very difficult for the United States to turn around and say how disgraceful it is to spy on telecoms,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security services who is also a professor at New York University. “From [the Russian] point of view, it’s a relatively cost-free, but a potentially very useful technique.”

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Galeotti said he suspected the main culprit behind the intercepts was the FSB, Russia’s primary intelligence service. In 2003, the FSB took over most of the functions of Russia’s Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information, which served as the state’s equivalent of the NSA. Galeotti said Russia has plenty of ways it can tap into telecommunications networks inside Ukraine, through agents it has placed inside the Ukrainian security services.

But Russia also has other more technical means of vacuuming up electronic communications. Galeotti pointed to Russia’s deployment of the Beriev A-50 surveillance and early warning aircraft to neighboring Belarus as evidence that Russia was engaged in more intensive electronic spying in Ukraine. “This aircraft can be used for electronic surveillance,” he said. “Without going out of Belarusian airspace, it can suck up a fair amount of electronic communications inside Ukraine.”

In some ways, Galeotti said the leaks of intercepted phone calls harken back to the Soviet era. Back then, Galeotti said, the Soviet KGB (the forerunner to the FSB) would leak intercepted intelligence to a friendly foreign newspaper and then it would be picked up on the official Soviet media like Pravda.

This time around, it appears that the Russians are relying heavily on RT. This month, the editor of RT, Margarita Simonyan boasted of her network’s scoop about the intercepted phone call between Ashton and Paet in the course of a response to journalists who thought it more newsworthy to cover the on-air resignation of RT anchor Liz Wahl.

“A rival media anchor’s resignation is certainly much more newsworthy and more relevant to the Ukraine crisis than two European leaders saying opposition henchmen may have been killing people,” Simonyan wrote sarcastically.

For now, however, some of the targets of Russian surveillance have called out their eavesdroppers. A tweet posted yesterday from Tymoshenko that complained her intercepted phone call was selectively edited, ended with these two words: “Hello FSB.”