Russia ‘Breached’ FBI Comms; Obama Waited 4 Years To Expel Spies

Back in December 2016, President Obama expelled 35 Russians and seized two Russian-owned properties. At the time, we were told it was in retaliation for election interference—but that wasn’t the whole story, it seems.

According to secret-squirrel sources, the people and real estate were involved in cracking encrypted FBI radio communication. If true, this puts a whole new spin on the expulsions.

But the problem was discovered in 2012. In today’s SB Blogwatch, we wonder what took so long.

Your humble blogwatcher curated these bloggy bits for your entertainment. Not to mention: The Egg.


44’s Parting Shot

What’s the craic? Zach Dorfman, Jenna McLaughlin and Sean D. Naylor claim this “Exclusive: Russia carried out a ‘stunning’ breach of FBI communications”:

 Two rural East Coast estates owned by the Russian government [and some] diplomats, played key roles in a brazen Russian counterintelligence operation … according to former U.S. officials. … The Russians had dramatically improved their ability to decrypt certain types of secure communications.

[It] gave Russian spies in American cities … key insights into the location of undercover FBI surveillance teams, and likely the actual substance of FBI communications. … The breaches also spoke to larger challenges faced by U.S. intelligence agencies in guarding the nation’s secrets.

According to four former senior officials … the Russians were able to intercept, record and eventually crack the codes to FBI radio communications. [It] was part of a larger sustained, deliberate Russian campaign targeting secret U.S. government communications throughout the United States. … 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.

A former senior counterintelligence official blamed the compromises on a “hodgepodge of systems.” … Revelations about the Russian compromise of the radio systems … “kick-started the money flowing.”

Officials were also unsure about how long the Russians had been able to decipher FBI communications before the bureau realized what was happening. … Ultimately, officials were unable to pinpoint exactly how the Russians pulled off the compromise. … New security practices were instituted in sensitive government facilities [including] moving communication away from windows and changing encryption codes more frequently, as well as more expensive adjustments.

But what’s this? Ken Dilanian and Tom Winter are coming—“They may not have cracked the codes, but Russian agents gained insight into the activities of secret FBI teams”:

 There is no evidence [that] Russian spies … ever cracked the codes and obtained the contents of the communications, two former senior FBI officials tell [us. But it] provided Vladimir Putin’s government unprecedented insights into the activities of secret FBI surveillance teams.

The breach occurred sometime around 2010, and was well understood by 2012. [It] came at a time when the U.S. was developing its own capability to identify covert Russian communications.

From March through May of 2010, FBI agents in New York were able to detect specialized encrypted communications sent from the laptop of a Russian spy, Anna Chapman. [She] was arrested along with nine other Russians [and] deported to Russia.

C’mon, there’s gotta be more to it than that. Michael Weiss calls the report, “A chilling read”:

 Russian intelligence officers used to figure out which of their assets in the US was under heavy surveillance or blown by trailing FBI agents and seeing where they aggregated en masse: i.e. if they were following that asset. This involved heavy HUMINT and SIGINT.

[It] will have been a breakthrough method of doing counterintelligence in the US. Assets and agents can have been tipped off or pulled from the field or de-activated based on Russian insight into whom the FBI was after.

During the Cold War, far more many agents of the USSR got away with it than were successfully caught and prosecuted. Even those heavily implicated in VENONA and known to have been spies.

Bringing a known or suspected agent to book does not happen if doing so would compromise classified means of exposure such as VENONA or heavily protected human sources. (It was practically an open secret that Philby was NKVD while he served in MI6.) So the idea of a Russian mole within the US intelligence community isn’t far-fetched.

On what grounds? Ken Hansen is shocked—SHOCKED:

 Yeah, yeah, Russia bad – I get it. … Is anyone surprised? … What part of this story wasn’t known in Dec. 2016?

My point is, this is a “dog bites man” story, nothing shocking really – “the Russians were spying on us? Amazing! I can’t believe it!” Said no one, ever.

Are we going to keep playing whack-a-mole deporting Russian agents? I suspect this was leaked to secure funding for new technology for FBI, much like Comey who said he “leaked” his memos on conversations with the President to create a Special Counsel investigation.

But why did it take the Administration so long to act? Jeff Swanson—@swanson1954—suggests doublethink ungood:

 Is it possible that Obama … used this to advantage by releasing rabbit holes and bad data, much like US letting Russia get bad blueprint data and bad parts for the F-14 years ago?

Wait. Pause. Archtech spots something curious:

 While the CIA—whose mandate is to spy on foreign nations—naturally employs many assets, it comes as a surprise to learn the the FBI has assets of its own. … (An asset is a citizen of a foreign nation, subverted and employed by another government to spy on his own country.)

The FBI’s role is to enforce the law within the USA and its foreign possessions. That role includes counter-intelligence: thwarting foreign spying.

I did not know that the FBI also spies on foreign nations. But I suppose I should have known.

Do we have technical details? Jon Fingas gets digital: [You’re fired—Ed.]

 The Russians could reportedly only crack “moderately encrypted” radio systems like those the FBI used, and not the strongest protections, but that was still worrying — and it wasn’t certain just how. … The FBI clamped down by switching to new, better-encrypted radios.

Pretty thin stuff. So we’re left to speculate—and Jaime2 does exactly that:

 Maybe the Russians were taking advantage of the Dual_EC_DRBG debacle? The timing is pretty close.

Meanwhile, Sappho Faires—@SFinEville—recalls the expulsions of 2016:

 Everyone in the Bay Area saw the smoke coming from the chimneys at the Russian Consulate as they were preparing to leave. Man, I would love to have seen the docs they burned.

And Finally:

The Egg—A fascinating short story by Andy Weir
[Triggers: auto accidents, religion, Kurzgesagt v/o guy]

Hat tip: Artifus, via b3ta


You have been reading SB Blogwatch by Richi Jennings. Richi curates the best bloggy bits, finest forums, and weirdest websites… so you don’t have to. Hate mail may be directed to @RiCHi or sbbw@richi.uk. Ask your doctor before reading. Your mileage may vary. E&OE.

Image source: DonkeyHotey (cc:by)

Featured eBook
7 Reasons Why CISOs Should Care About DevSecOps

7 Reasons Why CISOs Should Care About DevSecOps

DevOps is no longer an experimental phenomenon or bleeding edge way of delivering software. It’s now accepted as a gold standard for delivering software. It’s time for CISOs to stop fearing DevOps and start recognizing that by embedding security into the process they’re setting themselves up for huge potential upsides. Download this eBook to learn ... Read More
Security Boulevard

Richi Jennings

Richi is a foolish independent industry analyst, editor, writer, and fan of the Oxford comma. He’s previously written or edited for Computerworld, Petri, Microsoft, HP, Cyren, Webroot, Micro Focus, Osterman Research, Ferris Research, NetApp on Forbes and CIO.com. His work has won awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors, ABM/Jesse H. Neal, and B2B Magazine.

richi has 70 posts and counting.See all posts by richi