Shortly before the Obama administration approved a deal granting Russia 20% of America's uranium, US intelligence agencies discovered that the Kremlin had "dramatically improved their ability to decrypt certain types of secure communications and had successfully tracked devices used by elite FBI surveillance teams," according to Yahoo News, which interviewed 50 current and former intelligence and national security officials.
In September 2011, Vladimir Putin announced the launch of his third presidential campaign, only to be confronted during the following months by tens of thousands of protesters accusing him of electoral fraud. Putin, a former intelligence officer, publicly accused then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of fomenting the unrest.
It was around this time that Putin’s spies in the United States, operating under diplomatic cover, achieved what a former senior intelligence official called a “stunning” technical breakthrough, demonstrating their relentless focus on the country they’ve long considered their primary adversary. -Yahoo News
Here are the core claims:
- Around 2012, US officials realized that Russians had massively breached the FBI's communications - including "hacking into computers not connected to the internet," and compromising the FBI teams' "cellphones outfitted with “push-to-talk” walkie-talkie capabilities" used as backup communications devices.
- "Russians were able to intercept, record and eventually crack the codes to FBI radio communications."
- The intelligence allowed Russian spies in American cities "including Washington, New York and San Francisco" key insights into how FBI surveillance teams were operating.
- The intercepted communications likely contained the "actual substance of FBI communications," and "opportunities to potentially shake off FBI surveillance and communicate with sensitive human sources, check on remote recording devices and even gather intelligence on their FBI pursuers."
- "Mobile listening posts" were deployed in which "Some Russian intelligence officers, carrying signals intelligence gear, would walk near FBI surveillance teams. Others drove vans full of listening equipment aimed at intercepting FBI teams’ communications."
- The Russians could only crack "moderately encrypted communications," not the strongest types of encryption employed by the US government for sensitive transmissions.
- After the breach was discovered, the FBI switched back to encrypted radios - and "expensive venture" according to one former counterintelligence official.
- The revelations caused the CIA to curtail certain types of communications with overseas sources, and "had to resort to a whole series of steps" to prevent Russian eavesdropping.
- The Russians primarily operated out of government compounds in Maryland and New York - both shuttered by the Obama administration in response to 2016 election hacking allegations - played a central role in the espionage. They were "basically being used as signals intelligence facilities," according to the report - citing a former senior national security official.
How did this happen?
According to the report: "A former senior counterintelligence official blamed the compromises on a “hodgepodge of systems” ineffective beyond the line of sight. “The infrastructure that was supposed to be built, they never followed up, or gave us the money for it,” said the former official. “The intelligence community has never gotten an integrated system.”
The limitations of the radio technology, said the former senior officials, led the FBI’s surveillance personnel to communicate on the backup systems.
“Eventually they switched to push-to-talk cellphones,” said a former counterintelligence executive. “The tech guys would get upset by that, because if they could intercept radio, they might be able to intercept telephones.”
That is indeed what happened. Those devices were then identified and compromised by Russian intelligence operatives. (A number of other countries’ surveillance teams — including those from hostile services — also transitioned from using radios to cellphones during this time, noted another former official.)"
Fallout and damage control
In addition to embarking on sweeping and expensive technology upgrades, 'unnerved' US officials scrambled to shore up holes in our security - switching back to encrypted radios - an "expensive venture."
Once the compromises of FBI communications devices were confirmed, U.S. officials scrambled to minimize the exposure of mobile surveillance team operations, quickly putting countermeasures in place, according to former senior officials. There was a “huge concern” about protecting the identities of the individuals on the teams — an elite, secret group — said the former senior counterintelligence official. U.S. officials also conducted a damage assessment and repeatedly briefed select White House officials and members of Congress about the compromise. -Yahoo News
"Anytime you find out that an adversary has these capabilities, it sets off a ripple effect," said one former senior national security official. "The Russians are able to extract every capability from any given technology. ... They are singularly dangerous in this area."
Mark Kelton, who served as the chief of counterintelligence at the CIA until he retired in 2015, declined to discuss specific Russian operations, but he told Yahoo News that “the Russians are a professionally proficient adversary who have historically penetrated every American institution worth penetrating.”
This remains a core worry for U.S. spy hunters. The number of ongoing espionage investigations into U.S. government personnel — at the CIA, the FBI and elsewhere — including those potentially recruited by Russia, “is not a little, it’s a lot,” said another former senior counterintelligence official. -Yahoo News
What's more, FBI officials were concerned that some of its assets had been compromised - consequently cutting off contact with some of its Russian sources.
Meanwhile, some of the FBI's Russian sources stopped cooperating with their American handlers. "There were a couple instances where a recruited person had said, ‘I can’t meet you anymore," revealed a former senior intelligence official.
"We didn’t understand that they were at political war with us already in the second term once Putin was reelected and Obama himself was reelected," said Obama's former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, Evelyn Farkas (of "spilling the beans" Russiagate fame).
Read the rest of the report here.