Why CIA, NSA can’t spy on Putin?


Earlier this month, as Russia began its move in Crimea, U.S. spy agencies reportedly found a worrying silence in the spot where they were listening most attentively — the digital space around Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military brass. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday, U.S. intelligence services could not intercept any communications on the start of the Crimean invasion. One U.S. official called it a piece of “classic maskirovka,” the Russian spy term for masking sensitive data. But at least part of the radio silence may have a simpler explanation: Putin, by his own admission, does not have a cell phone for the Americans to tap.

Nor can he be called a man of the Internet age, which he has long derided, most recently on March 20, two days after he formally annexed Crimea from Ukraine. During a meeting that day with Russian industrialists, one of them cited documents that could be found online. “I rarely look at that,” Putin retorted, “into that place where you apparently live, that Internet.”

Outmoded as that may sound, the remark was in line with Putin’s long-established communication habits, which have apparently made him a very hard target for foreign spies. Unlike German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose phone was tapped for years by the U.S. National Security Agency, Putin does not do text messaging. He has no social-networking pages. He gets his news from the daily briefings of his own spy agencies. And as early as 2005, at the start of his second term as President, Putin said that he does not own a cell phone.

“If I had a mobile phone, it would never stop ringing,” Putin said when asked about this most recently in 2010. “More than that, when my home phone rings, I don’t ever answer it.”

That seems astounding for the leader of a country that has more activated cell phones than people and more Internet users than any other nation in Europe. But in some ways Putin’s technophobia is part of a Russian tradition older than the telephone itself: an aversion to blabbering that has been hardwired into the national psyche after a century of life in an industrial police state. In Soviet times, the eavesdropping..

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