During the first Cold War, American and British spies would sometimes place coded messages in newspaper classified ads to communicate with each other. And according to new reports in the New York Times and The Intercept, the National Security Agency (NSA) has updated the tactic, using its public Twitter account to send secret messages to at least one Russian spy.
That’s just one relatively small detail in much more salacious articles about NSA and CIA agents traveling to Germany in an effort to recover cyberweapons that had been stolen from US intelligence agencies. A Russian spy allegedly offered up the stolen cyber tools to the Americans in exchange for $10 million, eventually lowering his price to just $1 million. The Russian spy allegedly claimed to even have dirt on President Trump.
According to the reports, the unnamed Russian met with US spies in person in Germany, and the NSA sometimes communicated with the Russian spy by sending roughly a dozen coded messages from the NSA’s Twitter account. The one important question: Were the messages sent via direct message or were they sent out as public tweets?
The New York Times report leaves some ambiguity, but according to James Risen in The Intercept they were very public:
Officials gave the Russians advance knowledge that on June 20, 2017, at 12:30 p.m., the official NSA Twitter account would tweet: “Samuel Morse patented the telegraph 177 years ago. Did you know you can still send telegrams? Faster than post & pay only if it’s delivered.”
That tweet, in exactly those words, was issued at that time.
The NSA used that messaging technique repeatedly over the following months, each time officials wanted to communicate with the Russians or reassure them that the U.S. was still supporting the channel. Each time, the Russians were told the text of the tweets in advance and the exact time they would be released. Each tweet looked completely benign but was in fact a message to the Russians.
Gizmodo has reached out to the NSA for confirmation, though we’re not holding our breath about getting an on-the-record confirmation either way.
The detail from the story that’s getting all of the attention, of course, is the fact that US intelligence agencies may have been willing to buy dirt on President Trump, including an alleged videotape of Trump with sex workers that was taken in 2013. The portions of the tape shown to US spies couldn’t be verified as actually being Trump and US intelligence suspected that they might be getting set up by the Russian government.
From the New York Times:
The Russian claimed to have access to a staggering collection of secrets that included everything from the computer code for the cyberweapons stolen from the N.S.A. and C.I.A. to what he said was a video of Mr. Trump consorting with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room in 2013, according to American and European officials and the Russian, who agreed to be interviewed in Germany on the condition of anonymity. There remains no evidence that such a video exists.
But as strange as it may seem, Trump cheating on his wives seems like old news. The alleged pee tape, part of the so-called Steele Dossier, could be released tomorrow and it’d probably be met with a collective shrug among Americans. News that President Trump had paid former porn actress Stormy Daniels some $130,000 shortly before the 2016 election to keep quiet about their affair certainly didn’t make many waves beyond the late night talk shows.
The breaking news here is not only that US intelligence tried to buy the cyberweapons that were stolen in an effort to assess precisely what had been lost, but that the NSA uses its public Twitter account to send secret messages. Now that’s a story of real intrigue for the New Cold War.
Sending public messages while hiding in plain sight is called steganography and ensures that not only is the message secret, but the method of delivery won’t be suspected by anyone who doesn’t know it’s going on. The message is so public that nobody is thinking to look for it there, aside from perhaps those in the tinfoil hat crowd.
Russian spies reportedly used public websites to communicate coded messages back in 2010 before a large Russian spy ring was broken up. But this might be the first time that such a high-profile US intelligence Twitter account has been used in such a way.
Gizmodo has reached out to the NSA for comment and will update this post if we hear back. We’re not exactly expecting the NSA to hand over their entire cache of secret messages. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Update, 7:50am: This article has been updated with information from The Intercept, which received confirmation that the tweets in question were public.
Update, February 12, 2018, 1:30pm: The NSA finally got back to us about this story and emphatically denies that it ever sent coded messages via its public Twitter account.
Plain and simple from the NSA:
The NSA flatly denies using its Twitter account to send coded messages.
There’s no beating around the bush with “we can neither confirm nor deny” bullshit. So either the New York Times and The Intercept are being led astray, or the NSA is lying.