Copyright ©2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A senior U.S. diplomat's in a little trouble for saying something undiplomatic. Victoria Nuland thought she was having a private phone conversation while talking about developments in Ukraine with America's ambassador to that country, but someone was listening in and recording it. Victoria Nuland used an old Anglo-Saxon epithet and later apologized to allies in Europe for it.

So who was recording the diplomat's conversation? NPR's national security editor, Bruce Auster, has this report on how the phone call might have been intercepted.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPED CONVERSATION)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY VICTORIA NULAND: What do you think?

AMBASSADOR GEOFFREY PYATT: I think we're in play.

BRUCE AUSTER, BYLINE: They had no idea just how much in play. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt and Victoria Nuland were discussing what to do about the political crisis in Ukraine; who to support among the opposition, who not.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPED CONVERSATION)

NULAND: So I don't think Klitsch should go into the government. I don't think it's necessary, I don't think it's a good idea.

AUSTER: What they were saying was being taped. Nuland won't talk now about what she called a private diplomatic conversation, although she did admit it was, quote, "pretty impressive trade craft that tripped her up." So who did it and how?

RICHARD BEJTLICH: Somehow this phone was tapped.

AUSTER: That's Richard Bejtlich, chief security strategist at cyber security company, FireEye. He thinks Russia is behind this, and he's not alone. Here's what might have happened. The phone call would likely not have been on a secure line. That's actually not so unusual among diplomats. And if the call was in the open, Bajtlich says the decent quality of the audio is a clue to how it was intercepted.

BEJTLICH: Given you've got a very nice, clear conversation between both parties, you know, just hear one clearly and the other one very faintly, it's much more likely that the telephone system itself was tapped.

AUSTER: It might also have been done by malicious software on the phone itself. Now, we need to be clear. Russia has denied involvement, but the White House and the State Department have pointed fingers at Moscow. And Bajtlich suspects that Russia can target the call of a high profile American using Ukraine's phone network.

BEJTLICH: So if the ambassador is located in the Ukraine, that call has to get out through Ukraine and at that point it's open for interception.

AUSTER: Odds are, calls like this one have been intercepted for years and not just by Russia. What's different this time, rather than listen to the tapped call, learn from it and file it away, someone decided that the real payoff was to get the audio out on YouTube. Eavesdropped plus social media equals diplomatic embarrassment. Bruce Auster, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.