Feb 7 A senior U.S. State Department officer and
the ambassador to Ukraine apparently used unencrypted cellphones
for a call about political developments in Ukraine that was
leaked and touched off an international furor, U.S. officials
said in Washington on Friday.
In the call, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland
used an expletive in apparently disparaging the idea of relying
on help from the European Union in negotiating a political
solution in Ukraine.
The U.S. officials said the conversation between Nuland and
ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt was likely intercepted at the Ukraine
end and that they believe both Ambassador Pyatt and Nuland were
speaking on cellphones.
An official familiar with the matter said State Department
employees, including officials at a senior level, are not issued
cellphones that use encryption.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed this at a
regular briefing. "All Department of State government-owned
BlackBerry devices have data encryption. However, they don't
have voice encryption," she said.
The U.S. officials said Pyatt was in Ukraine at the time of
the call, although it was not clear where Nuland was.
They did not give the date of the call, although they said
it was recent. The issues that Nuland and Pyatt discussed
occurred in the last few days of January.
The audio clip was first posted on Twitter by Dmitry
Loskutov, an aide to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry
Rogozin, a diplomatic source said. A second intercepted audio
conversation, between senior European Union diplomats, was
posted on YouTube around the same time.
The Obama Administration has not formally acknowledged the
authenticity of the audio clip or accused any specific party of
Nuland, who met President Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev on
Thursday, described the bugging and leaks as "pretty impressive
tradecraft" but said it would not hurt her ties with the
In the call, apparently made at a time when opposition
leaders were considering an offer from President Viktor
Yanukovich to join his cabinet, she suggested that one of three
leading figures might accept a post but two others should stay
out. In the end, all three rejected the offer.
The leak coincided with accusations from Moscow of U.S.
interference in Ukraine. Washington and European countries back
those opposing Yanukovich, a close Kremlin ally.
On Friday one senior U.S. official in Washington said: "The
quality of the recording would certainly indicate that this was
not the work of simple hackers, but rather an intelligence
service with an interest in distracting from the efforts of the
people of Ukraine to recover their own government."
The posting of the conversation surfaced as the U.S. faces
international uproar over its own electronic eavesdropping
disclosed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward
Snowden last year.
One document leaked by Snowden appeared to indicate that the
U.S. had tapped the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela
Merkel, prompting President Barack Obama to announce that spying
on foreign leaders was being curtailed.
Mark Weatherford, a former deputy under secretary for
cybersecurity with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security,
said that some senior government officials were issued mobile
handsets that are capable of encrypting conversations but
typically do not use them.
"It is expensive. They are different phones. They are
cumbersome," said Weatherford, now a principal with the Chertoff
Group, a Washington-based consulting firm led by former senior
U.S. security and intelligence officials.
He said that the conversation that was intercepted would
have remained private had the two officials used encrypted
Chris Morales, research director with the cybersecurity firm
NSS Labs, said hacking into an unencrypted mobile phone line
does not require a lot of training and can typically be done
using equipment and software that is widely available.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Jim Finkle;
editing by David Storey and David Gregorio)