Foggy Bottom Phone Follies

The real problems with an intercepted phone call about Ukraine.

A leaked telephone conversation about Ukraine’s political crisis between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt has received considerable attention—but primarily for the wrong reasons. The fact that Nuland used foul language in dismissing the European Union’s potential role in finding a way forward in Ukraine in a telephone conversation with a colleague should hardly be surprising, particularly in view of the EU’s poor handling of the matter. What is more damning than the undiplomatic f-word is what the conversation reveals about the Obama administration’s security practices and its foreign policy double-talk.

Regarding security, how could a senior official in Washington and a U.S. ambassador abroad think that they could have an extremely sensitive conversation like this on unsecured cell phones, as U.S. officials have now acknowledged? Each should have known that a conversation about the possible composition of another sovereign nation’s government was not merely private or confidential but highly secret. While it remains unclear who recorded and leaked the conversation, each should also have known that Russia has been highly suspicious of U.S. activities and intentions in Ukraine and would accordingly monitor American communications to the best of its capabilities.

Bizarrely, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki has reacted to the fiasco by decrying it as “a new low in Russian tradecraft” while simultaneously stating that “I don’t have any other independent details about the origin of the YouTube video” beyond the fact that a middle-level Russian official tweeted it. Since the official in question—Dmitry Loskutov, an aide to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin—tweets regularly and had previously posted a number of items about U.S. foreign policy, NATO, the EU, and relations among all of the above, this is not particularly incriminating. In fact, since Rogozin and Nuland were each ambassadors to NATO, and Nuland is now responsible for relations with both Europe and Russia, it is not surprising that Loskutov might follow Nuland’s activities more closely than most. He tweeted about one of her public speeches a month earlier.

It is plausible and even likely that Russia’s security services could have recorded the call, though Ukraine’s security services could be another suspect, as could private security contractors working for an oligarch in either country. But why make accusations like this without producing any real evidence—and, indeed, probably before the State Department or other U.S. agencies have had enough time for a preliminary investigation? It looks like an effort to shift responsibility for a major security breach away from the State Department and onto a foreign power that everyone knows spies on us and everyone knows is a target of our espionage. Someone spying on the U.S. isn’t news; U.S. officials failing to take basic precautions against spying should be.

Even more important is what the conversation says about the Obama administration’s policy and rhetoric in Ukraine. Reporters in the State Department’s February 6 daily press briefing—particularly Reuters correspondent Arshad Mohammed—deserve credit for pushing Ms. Psaki to explain how the U.S. could deny charges of interference in Ukraine’s domestic politics while “U.S. diplomats are purportedly discussing who should and should not be in a Ukrainian government,” as a reporter put it in the transcript, and talking about a plan to make it happen. The transcript of the exchange is remarkable for the verbal contortions Ms. Psaki performs in trying to argue that the U.S. is “engaged with what’s happening on the ground” but not interfering.

It is not unreasonable for the Obama administration to apply different standards to its own conduct than it applies to others’ conduct, especially in the middle of what is clearly a geopolitical competition between Washington and a Russia with some neoimperial impulses over the future of Ukraine. But like in many other areas of life, too much of a good thing can become a big problem. Knowing the content of their confidential conversations and probably their interagency meetings, U.S. officials might have been wise to contain their moralistic outrage over Russia’s conduct. By not doing so, the administration has significantly undermined its own credibility—again. Many still remember the pious U.S. complaints about Chinese government-sponsored hacking immediately before Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s online surveillance.

Beyond the reactions of foreign governments, another problem is what the whole affair says to Americans already skeptical of their government and of this administration. It will be a further blow to both for them first to hear assurances that the United States supports a process not an outcome and then to find that senior officials are trying to produce a very specific result.

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