WASHINGTON - A Russian promising to turn over stolen hacking tools and compromising information on President Donald Trump fleeced American spies for $100,000 last year, The New York Times reported Friday.
In a story worthy of a John le Carre novel that included secret handovers of USB drives in a small West Berlin bar and coded messages delivered over the National Security Agency’s Twitter account, CIA agents reportedly spent much of last year trying to buy the hacking programs, which had been stolen from the NSA, back from the Russian.
The seller, who was not identified but had links to both cybercriminals and Russian intelligence, tantalized the U.S. spies with an offer of the NSA hacking tools, which had been advertised for sale online by a group called the Shadow Brokers.
Some of the tools, developed by the NSA to break into the computers of U.S. rivals, were used by other hackers last year to break into computer systems around the world, including a global malware attack last May.
The seller, reached through a chain of intermediaries, wanted $1 million.
The $100,000, delivered in a cash-stuffed suitcase handed over in a Berlin hotel room, was an initial payment by U.S. agents dubious that he had what he was promising.
The seller also repeatedly pressed U.S. agents with offers of kompromat — compromising materials — on Trump, the Times said, citing U.S. and European intelligence officials.
Although an investigation was already underway back in Washington on the link between Moscow and the Trump campaign, the agents did not want to get involved in anything that smelled of the politics back home.
The story — which was also reported by The Intercept, an online magazine on national security matters — paints a classic spy-versus-spy story where the U.S. agents aren’t ever certain about who they are dealing with and whether they are being played by their Russian counterparts.
U.S. intelligence officials say Russia interfered with the 2016 election to help defeat Hillary Clinton and continues to use disinformation to sow confusion in the American political system.
The Intercept reported that the operation created rifts in the CIA, which is led by Trump loyalist Mike Pompeo but has many staffers still smarting over the president’s repeated harsh comments about the intelligence community’s role in the investigation into Russian meddling.
The Russian’s first delivery turned out to be hacking tools the Shadow Brokers had already released.
He kept pushing his offer of kompromat on Trump, including shady financial records and a sex video that the U.S. spies didn’t really want.
In the end, the deal broke down last month — the Russian did not come up with any of the unreleased NSA materials, and the Trump-related materials were either already known or untrustworthy.
The Russian was told by the Americans to leave Western Europe and not return.
The story emerged the same day that the White House, citing national security concerns, formally notified the House intelligence committee that Trump is “unable” to declassify a memo drafted by Democrats that counters GOP allegations about abuse of government surveillance powers in the FBI’s Russia probe.
White House counsel Don McGahn said in a letter to the committee that the memo contains “numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages” and asked the Democrats to revise the memo with the help of the Justice Department. He said Trump is “inclined” to release the memo in the interest of transparency if revisions are made.
The president’s rejection of the Democratic memo is in contrast to his enthusiastic embrace of releasing the Republican document, which he pledged to make public even before reading it. The president declassified it this month, allowing its publication in full.
The president has said the GOP memo “vindicates” him in the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller. But congressional Democrats and Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Rep. Trey Gowdy, who helped draft the GOP memo, have said it shouldn’t be used to undermine the special counsel.
On Friday, White House spokesman Raj Shah said Trump discussed the Democratic document with the White House counsel’s office, FBI Director Christopher Wray and another top Justice Department official.
The president had until Saturday to decide whether to allow the classified material to become public after the House intelligence committee voted Monday to release it.
In declining to declassify the document, the White House also sent lawmakers a letter signed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Wray, as well as a marked-up copy of the memo, laying out portions it considers too sensitive to make public. Among those passages are some that the Justice Departments says could compromise intelligence sources and methods, ongoing investigations and national security if disclosed.
The document in question was authored by Democrats on the intelligence panel. They say it disputes many claims in the GOP memo, which accused the FBI and Justice Department of abusing their surveillance powers in obtaining a secret warrant to monitor former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
The memo’s release would have capped off a week in which Republicans and Democrats on the committee have publicly fought, with the panel now erecting a wall to separate feuding Republican and Democratic staffers who had long sat side by side.
The disagreements have escalated over the last year as Democrats have charged that Republicans aren’t taking the panel’s investigation into Russian election meddling seriously enough. They say the GOP memo, led by chairman Devin Nunes, a California Republican, is designed as a distraction from the probe, which is looking into whether Trump’s campaign was in any way connected to the Russian interference.
Trump declassified the GOP-authored memo over the objections of the FBI, which said it had “grave concerns” about the document’s accuracy.
In the so-called Nunes memo, Republicans took aim at the FBI and the Justice Department over the use of information from former British spy Christopher Steele in obtaining a warrant to monitor Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. The main allegation was that the FBI and Justice Department didn’t tell the court enough about Steele’s anti-Trump bias or that his work was funded in part by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
They argued that the reliance on Steele’s material amounted to an improper politicization of the government’s surveillance powers.
Democrats have countered that the GOP memo was inaccurate and a misleading collection of “cherry-picked” details.
They noted that federal law enforcement officials had informed the court about the political origins of Steele’s work and that some of the former spy’s information was corroborated by the FBI. They also noted that there was other evidence presented to the court besides Steele’s information, though they have not provided details.
The Democratic memo is expected to elaborate on these points.
House Republicans who have seen the document had said portions will almost certainly have to be redacted to protect intelligence sources and methods. Earlier this week, White House officials said the Democratic memo would go through the same national security and legal review as the Republican document. But White House chief of staff John Kelly hinted at possible redactions, saying the Democratic version is “not as clean” as the GOP’s.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, has said he will be scrutinizing the process closely.
Schiff wants the FBI and Justice Department to provide their redactions to him directly so he can compare them to any information withheld by the White House. Schiff said the comparison will help to expose any material blacked out for political purposes or to conceal embarrassing or damaging information about the president and his associates.