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Kushner-Kislyak meeting: did US decrypt a Russian signal or was Trump Tower bugged?

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 12: Trump Tower stands along 5th Avenue in Manhattan as police stand guard outside following an earlier protest against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in front of the building on March 12, 2016 in New York City. A member of the New York Police Department (NYPD) stated that the police will now keep an around the clock presence at the location due to the number of protests and threats against Donald Trump. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Since the Washington Post first disclosed that Donald Trump’s son in law Jared Kushner discussed in December with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak the idea of setting up a back channel, several US officials have sprung to Kushner’s defence.

President Trump’s National Security Adviser, General H.R. McMaster, says that he is unconcerned

We have back-channel communications with any number of individual (countries). So generally speaking, about back-channel communications, what that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner.  So it doesn’t pre-expose you to any sort of content or any kind of conversation or anything. So we’re not concerned about it.

About that McMaster is absolutely right.

A similar lack of concern has also been expressed by John F. Kelly, the President’s Homeland Security secretary

He’s a great guy, decent guy. His No. 1 interest, really, is the nation.  So, you know, there’s a lot of different ways to communicate, back channel, publicly with other countries. I don’t see any big issue here relative to Jared.

Perhaps the single most pertinent point about this whole story has however been made by Senator Lindsey Graham, who is not normally considered one of the President’s friends.  He is reported to have said the following

You’ve got the ambassador to Russia (sic) reporting to Moscow on an open channel.  I don’t trust this story as far as I can throw it….The whole storyline is suspicious.

Lindsey Graham is referring to the claim that US intelligence learnt about the Kushner-Kislyak meeting by intercepting a report about it which Kislyak sent to Moscow.  If true that would mean either that Kislyak reported to Moscow via an open (telephone?) channel or that US intelligence decrypted the report he sent about the meeting to Moscow.

In either case alerting the Russians that the US intercepted Kislyak’s report amounts to a major leak of classified information potentially damaging to the national security interests of the US, and compromising its future intelligence gathering capability.

Is the story however even true?  Lindsey Graham is right to be skeptical.

The Russians have long been known to take the security of their communications extremely seriously.  A sign of this is that they began using one-time pads to encrypt their most secret communications as long ago as 1930, long before most other powers.  One-time pads produce encryption which is unbreakable, and it is known that the Russians still use this technique for their most secret communications.

The security provided by using one-time pads, and the extent to which it has defeated US attempts to read Russian signals traffic, can be illustrated by the story of the Venona Project.

The Soviet company that manufactured one-time pads for the USSR’s intelligence agencies during the Second World War made the mistake of producing around 35,000 pages of duplicate key numbers because of the disorganisation caused by the German advance on Moscow in 1941.  The US detected the mistake, and in 1943 set up the Venona Project to try to exploit it.  The idea was to use the mistake to decrypt Soviet signals traffic, thereby reproducing – if only to a certain degree – the US and British wartime success in breaking the German and Japanese codes.

In the event it seems that only signals traffic transmitted between 1942 and 1948 was compromised, with the vast bulk of this traffic being sent between 1942 and 1945, and that only a small fraction of this traffic was ever successfully decrypted.  This despite the fact that US intelligence persisted with the Venona Project from 1943 until 1980 ie. over a span of 37 years.  Whilst the Venona Project did provide the US with some insight into Soviet intelligence gathering activities in the 1940s, by the time it was finally wound up in 1980 this would have been of no more than historical interest.

The fact the US persisted with the Venona Project for so long shows that up to 1980  – ie. throughout the whole period of the Cold War – it must have failed to decrypt other Soviet signals traffic.  That must have been why it devoted so much time and effort to decrypting the small number of Soviet signals from the 1940s that it thought it could decrypt.

The Venona Project is sometimes spoken of as US intelligence success.  In reality it is testimony to the US’s greater intelligence failure.

Of course it could be that since 1980 US intelligence has been more successful in decrypting Soviet and Russian signals traffic.  Russia experienced an existential crisis during the 1990s.  A large number of defections happened during this period, and it would not be surprising if the general collapse of morale caused signals discipline to collapse.  However that would have been reversed when Vladimir Putin – a former intelligence officer – came to power.  By now it is highly likely that the security of Russian signals traffic has been restored to at least the level it had before the USSR collapsed.

Today, though the Russians continue to use one-time pads for their most secret communications, for their less secret communications they use – like other powers – other forms of computer generated encryption, which is less time consuming and labour intensive than one-time pads.

Conceivably Kislyak might have used one of these less secure channels when reporting to Moscow. However even if Kislyak reported to Moscow through one of these less secure channels, it is still unlikely US intelligence would have been able to decrypt his report.

The Vault 7 documents show that the CIA cannot decrypt commercially encrypted communications such as those passing through the mobile phone WhatsApp platform.  Presumably the Russians use more secure forms of encryption for their signals traffic than this.  If the US has not managed to break WhatsApp’s encryption, then it is unlikely it can have succeeded in breaking the encryption of even that part of Russia’s signals traffic which does not depend on one-time pads.

There is a further reason for doubting that the US is decrypting Russian signals traffic.

One other person is known to have been present at the meeting between Kushner and Kislyak.  That person is General Michael Flynn, who was to become for a short period President Trump’s National Security Adviser.

Up to 30th April 2014 General Flynn was one of the most senior intelligence officials in the US, having been appointed Director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency (the “DIA”) in 2012.

As a former Director of the DIA Flynn would presumably know if US intelligence was decrypting the Russian embassy’s signals traffic.  However he clearly didn’t think it was, since the whole idea of the back channel that he and Kushner proposed to Kislyak involved him communicating directly with Russia’s military leadership through the supposedly secure channels of the Russian embassy so as to keep his discussions secret.

Perhaps despite having been one of the US’s most senior intelligence officials Flynn was ill-informed about the US’s success in decrypting the Russian embassy’s signals traffic.  Or perhaps the breakthrough came in the short period after he left the DIA.  However I have to say that neither of these possibilities look to me at all likely.

Flynn’s participation in the Kushner-Kislyak meeting, and his support for the idea of the back channel discussed during the meeting, is a strong reason to doubt that the Russian embassy’s signals are being decrypted by US intelligence.  Everything else that is known about this question also points to that conclusion.

As to the possibility that Kislyak reported to Moscow about his supposedly secret conversation with Kushner about setting up a supposedly secret back channel between the Trump transition team and Moscow over an open channel, I have to say that I find that every bit as unbelievable as does Lindsey Graham.

There are of course other possibilities.

Possibly the US has a spy in the embassy and is able to read Kislyak’s reports to Moscow that way.  Or perhaps it has a spy in the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, who is reporting to Washington about Kislyak’s reports from the other end.  Or perhaps someone in Moscow gossiped about Kislyak’s report on an open line, and the US found out about it that way.

Whilst any of these alternative possibilities is theoretically possible, I have to say that none of them looks to me very likely.  The fact the obviously bogus Trump Dossier has been given the credence by the US intelligence community that it has, points to the US lacking high placed informants in Russia’s Washington embassy or in the Foreign Ministry in Moscow or at the highest levels of the Russian government.

Frankly the story of US intelligence learning the details of the Kushner-Kislyak conversation from an intercept looks to me like a cover story intended to conceal the actual way US intelligence obtained this information.

If US intelligence did not learn the details of the Kushner-Kislyak conversation from a Russian source, then they must have learnt it either from an informer within the Trump transition team or through electronic eavesdropping.  If it was the latter then that means that one way or another Trump Tower was bugged.

The New York Times when reporting the story – apparently after speaking to the same officials who leaked the story to the Washington Post – has actually hinted that US intelligence did not learn of the Kushner-Kislyak meeting from a Russian source.  This is how the New York Times reports it

American intelligence agencies first learned about the discussion several months ago, according to a senior American official who had been briefed on intelligence reports. It is unclear whether they learned about it from intercepted Russian communications or by other means.

(bold italics added)

Obviously someone has realised that the claim that US intelligence obtained the details of the Kushner-Kislyak meeting from a Russian source is simply too implausible, and exposes those who have leaked the story to accusations that they have revealed too much about the US intelligence gathering capabilities, for it to be wise to persist with it.  The result is that there is now an attempt to row back on this claim, as we see in the New York Times report.

Why however invent a cover story?  There is one possible reason.

US intelligence learnt about the Kushner-Kislyak meeting either very shortly after it happened or as soon as it took place.  We can be sure of this because of the publication by the Washington Post shortly after the meeting of an article about earlier back channels which was obviously inspired by the proposal to set up a back channel made during the Kushner-Kislyak meeting (see my discussion of this in my previous article).

Whilst it is possible that information about the meeting came from an informant, the speed with which US intelligence learnt about the meeting must increase the possibility that the information about the meeting came from electronic eavesdropping.

After Donald Trump’s famous tweets that former President Obama had had his phone in Trump Tower tapped there followed strenuous denials that Trump Tower was ever bugged.  Here is how the BBC reported these denials on 20th March 2017, the day after former FBI Director James Comey gave public testimony to the House Intelligence Committee

FBI Director James Comey for the first time on Monday confirmed to the House Intelligence Committee that the agency is investigating possible links between Russia and Mr Trump’s associates as part of a broader inquiry into Moscow’s interference in last year’s election.

He also disputed Mr Trump’s wiretapping claims.

“With respect to the president’s tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” he told the panel.

After Mr Trump’s tweets earlier this month, the New York Times quoted unnamed senior officials reporting that Mr Comey had said the claim was false and had asked the justice department to publicly reject it.

Mr Clapper said the intelligence agencies he had supervised did not wiretap Mr Trump last year, and nor did the FBI obtain a court order to monitor Mr Trump’s phones.

As intelligence director, he told NBC, he would have known about a “court order on something like this”.

This is a reference to the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which can grant wiretaps on the grounds of national security.

Several senior Republicans have rejected the allegations after congressional committees looked into them.

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr said on 16 March there were “no indications” that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the US government either before or after Election Day 2016.

Earlier that day, House Speaker Paul Ryan also said “no such wiretap existed”.

And the previous day, House of Representatives Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes said: “We don’t have any evidence.”

“I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower,” he told a news conference.

“Are you going to take the tweets literally?” asked Rep Nunes. “If so, clearly the president was wrong.”

What about the Justice Department?

It hasn’t said yet. It has asked for more time to respond to the House Intelligence Committee’s request that it provide evidence.

But Mr Comey on Monday also said the justice department found no evidence to support the president’s allegations.

(bold italics added)

If US intelligence learnt of the Kushner-Kislyak conversation through electronic eavesdropping, then these denials were untrue, since the meeting between Kushner and Kislyak took place in Trump Tower, which must in that case have been bugged.

Perhaps the bugging was only temporary, and specifically targeted Kislyak, and perhaps Kushner’s and Flynn’s comments were picked up “incidentally”.  However if such bugging did take place, then even if it was only temporary, and even if it specifically targeted only Kislyak, some at least of the people who were denying that bugging of Trump Tower ever took place were lying, or at the very least they were being economical with the truth.

If so, then that would explain the need for a cover story.

Obviously this is speculation.  However – as I hope I have shown – it is speculation based on fact.

I would add that earlier denials that US citizens involved in the Trump campaign were placed under surveillance, and claims that their communications were only intercepted “incidentally”, have turned out to be untrue, with the revelation that a previously undisclosed FISA warrant was obtained during the election period authorising surveillance of Carter Page.

Perhaps those who say that Trump Tower was never bugged are telling the truth, and perhaps US intelligence obtained the details of the Kushner-Kislyak meeting some other way, possibly from an informant.

As things stand however, disclosure of US intelligence’s knowledge of the Kushner-Kislyak meeting, and the painstaking but unconvincing attempt to create a cover story to explain that fact, has re opened the question of whether Trump Tower was bugged, making that a question which now deserves to be revisited.

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