Russia was reading the FBI communications during the Obama administration
A report published by Yahoo News on Monday described a “brazen Russian counterintelligence operation that stretched from the Bay Area to the heart of the nation’s capital” during the presidency of Barack Obama. The operation penetrated FBI communications to a “stunning” degree, according to officials quoted in the story, but was misunderstood and downplayed by the intelligence community and the Obama administration, which was ostentatiously attempting to “reset” relations with Russia when the operation began.This appears to be another example of how communications were compromised during the Obama administration which was also struck with numerous cyber attacks coming from Russia, Iran, and China.
Yahoo News tied their years-long saga of counterintelligence cat-and-mouse to several major news events, including the 2016 mass expulsion of Russian diplomats – ostensibly ordered in retaliation for Russian “meddling” in U.S. elections, but actually because those Russian diplomatic facilities were hives of electronic surveillance activity – and the more recent story about the CIA extracting a Russian asset in 2017. According to the report, a significant number of Russian assets stopped talking to U.S. intelligence agencies because they were afraid their identities would be discovered.
To make a very long story short, the Russians took advantage of the Obama administration’s much-ballyhooed “reset” in relations to set up an aggressive network of electronic monitoring devices in the United States, the effort gaining further momentum after Russian President Vladimir Putin became convinced the U.S. was manipulating protests in Russia to delegitimize elections with allegations of vote fraud.
The Russians threw themselves into the job of cracking FBI communications and hit the jackpot sometime in 2011. According to Yahoo News:
That effort compromised the encrypted radio systems used by the FBI’s mobile surveillance teams, which track the movements of Russian spies on American soil, according to more than half a dozen former senior intelligence and national security officials. Around the same time, Russian spies also compromised the FBI teams’ backup communications systems — cellphones outfitted with “push-to-talk” walkie-talkie capabilities. “This was something we took extremely seriously,” said a former senior counterintelligence official.
The Russian operation went beyond tracking the communications devices used by FBI surveillance teams, according to four former senior officials. Working out of secret “listening posts” housed in Russian diplomatic and other government-controlled facilities, the Russians were able to intercept, record and eventually crack the codes to FBI radio communications.
Some of the clandestine eavesdropping annexes were staffed by the wives of Russian intelligence officers, said a former senior intelligence official. That operation was part of a larger sustained, deliberate Russian campaign targeting secret U.S. government communications throughout the United States, according to former officials.
The two Russian government compounds in Maryland and New York closed in 2016 played a role in the operation, according to three former officials. They were “basically being used as signals intelligence facilities,” said one former senior national security official.
Some of these decryption efforts were not terribly subtle, as the Russians would literally follow FBI surveillance teams on foot and monitor their communications or drive around in vans packed full of radio gear, listening for FBI calls. The FBI was using radios designed more for light weight and easy mobility than communications security, and their system was regrettably slapdash. Eventually they started using cell phones, which were also compromised by Russian intelligence.