(Reuters) - 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 recording it.
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 Ukrainian opposition.
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 devices.
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