The CIA has denied a New York Times report saying American spies paid $100,000 to a shadowy Russian who vowed to give up stolen National Security Agency cyberweapons and compromising information on President Trump. The money was delivered to a Berlin hotel room in September and was intended as the first instalment of a US$1 million reward, according to USA officials, the Russian and communications reviewed by the Times, the newspaper reported. The theft of the secret hacking tools had been devastating to the NSA, and the agency was struggling to get a full inventory of what was missing.
The operative's "eagerness" to provide them with the supposed damaging information, those officials said, led them to suspect he was attempting to bait them into stoking animosity between the American intelligence community and the president as part of a Russian operation to sow division within the US government.
"These leaks have been incredibly damaging to our intelligence and cyber capabilities", said Leon E. Panetta, the former defense secretary and director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The NSA, which produced the bulk of the hacking tools that the Americans sought to recover, said only that "all NSA employees have a lifetime obligation to protect classified information".
Those involved said that they initially became wary that the deal was not on the up and up because the Russian insisted so heavily on including the compromising information he claimed to have on President Trump and then quickly dropped his asking price from $10 million to $1 million when the Americans began to lose interest.
The seller, reached through a chain of intermediaries, wanted US$1 million.
There was no sound in the video clip or evidence that the man was Trump.
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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 Times claimed it obtained four of the documents the Russian tried to give to American intelligence, noting that the newspaper did not pay for the documents. They saw the information, especially the video, as the stuff of tabloid gossip pages, not intelligence collection, USA officials said. The cyberweapons had been built to break into computer networks of Russia, China and other rival powers. The Intercept clarified that someone in the USA intelligence community apparently vetted the scraps of info they obtained and determined that "while a significant part of it was accurate and verifiable, other parts of the data were impossible to verify and could be controversial", according to a document seen by the publication.
The Russian also said he was holding on to the NSA cyberweapons "at the orders of senior Russian intelligence officials".
Part of that effort, the officials said, appears to be trying to spread information that hews closely to unsubstantiated reports about Trump's dealings in Russian Federation - including the purported video, whose existence Trump has repeatedly dismissed.
The unidentified seller tantalised United States spies with an offer of the NSA hacking tools that had been advertised for sale online by a shady group.
USA officials suspect that at least some of the sellers are working for Russia's spy services. All are purported to be Russian intelligence reports, and each focuses on associates of Trump. But the reports, according to the Times, draw nearly entirely from publicly available news reports. They were also fearful of political fallout in Washington if they were seen to be buying scurrilous information on the president.