President Trump responded Saturday to a news report alleging that U.S. spies paid a Russian who claimed he could provide classified information stolen from the National Security Agency and promised compromising information about the president and his connections to Russia.
“According to the [New York Times], a Russian sold phony secrets on ‘Trump’ to the U.S.,” Trump wrote in a Twitter message. “Asking price was $10 million, brought down to $1 million to be paid over time. I hope people are now seeing & understanding what is going on here. It is all now starting to come out — DRAIN THE SWAMP!”
The report said that U.S. officials didn’t want the information about Trump, who didn’t address the attempt to retrieve the classified National Security Agency material, which was considered extraordinarily important to intelligence operations.
In his tweet, Trump appeared to refer to his long-standing accusation that intelligence agencies are trying to discredit him by investigating his connections to Russia.
Possible Trump campaign ties to Russia are being scrutinized by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is also investigating whether the president or any of his aides tried to obstruct an investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
The president has called the Russia investigation a “witch hunt.”
U.S. officials have said that information stolen from the NSA included computer code used in classified government hacking operations. That information was obtained by a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers, which officials privately say they believe is connected to Russia.
The intelligence community was involved in an effort to investigate and determine whether it could gain access to stolen government data, according to a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. It was determined later that the offer was bogus and the people behind it couldn’t produce any of the stolen government data, this official said.
The Times reported Friday that “after months of secret negotiations,” a Russian with suspected ties to the country’s intelligence apparatus and to Eastern European criminals “bilked American spies out of $100,000 last year.”
The Russian had promised to deliver the stolen computer code, the Times said. But officials determined that information he was offering had already been published online.
The CIA declined to pay for it, the Times reported. But in September, an American businessman delivered a $100,000 payment. “Some officials said it was United States government money but routed through an indirect channel,” the newspaper reported.
A CIA spokesman disputed the Times report and one in the Intercept that the U.S. intelligence community had looked into whether it could obtain the NSA data and also had been offered damaging information about Trump.
“The fictional story that CIA was bilked out of $100,000 is patently false,” the spokesman said.
An NSA spokeswoman said, “The NSA flatly denies that it paid any money to anyone as alleged in the New York Times story.”
Early in the negotiations, the Russian had asked $10 million for the NSA material but then dropped his asking price to just over $1 million, sparking concerns among U.S. officials that his real intent might be to feed them false information about Trump to discredit him or the special counsel’s investigation and the intelligence community, the Times reported.
The Washington Post could not verify claims of any money changing hands. And it wasn’t clear why an intelligence agency would pay for information that it hadn’t verified first, because that would fly in the face of routine intelligence tradecraft.
Also unclear is why the United States would think that it could retrieve stolen computer code and be assured that it would never be given to anyone else or released publicly.
“To try to buy something back like that” is folly because “you’d never have confidence that they’ve secured the code,” said a former senior intelligence official, who was not aware of the reported negotiation.
However, the former official said, if the NSA and CIA were satisfied that their interlocutor had bona fide intelligence, paying for it might be a smart move. “If I were in a position of being able to buy knowledge of what was compromised for $100,000 or $1 million, shoot, that’s an easy decision — because there’s a lot of uncertainty about what was taken” in the Shadow Brokers heist of NSA hacking tools. “That’s peanuts. That’s not even a rounding error with the budgets we’re talking about.”