WASHINGTON, DC: A Russian man promising 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 USB-drive handovers 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 back from the Russian hacking programs stolen from the NSA.
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The seller, who was not identified but had links to both cyber criminals and Russian intelligence, tantalised the US spies with an offer of the NSA hacking tools that had been advertised for sale online by a shady group called the Shadow Brokers.
Some of the tools, developed by the NSA to break into the computers of US rivals, were used by other hackers last year to break into computer systems around the world, including the 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 US agents still dubious he really had what he was promising.
The seller also repeatedly pressed US agents with offers of compromising materials, or kompromat, on Trump, the Times said, citing US 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 nationals security matters -- paints a classic spy versus spy story where the US agents aren't ever certain about who they are dealing with and whether or not they are being baited and played by their Russian counterparts.
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US intelligence officials say Russia interfered with the 2016 election to help elect Trump, 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 Russia meddling investigation.
The Russian's first delivery turned out to be hacking tools the Shadow Brokers had already released. And he kept pushing his offer of kompromat on Trump, including shady financial records and a sex video that the US 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, according to the Times.