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Russia got NATO secrets in Polish crash

May 13, 2010
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NATO code compromise

The recent crash of a Polish military transport that killed most of Warsaw's senior civilian and military leaders was not only a human catastrophe for a key U.S. ally. NATO sources said that, in addition to the loss of nearly 100 pro-U.S. Polish leaders, the crash provided Moscow with a windfall of secrets.

The crash killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski in western Russia on April 10 and decapitated Poland's military, killing two service chiefs, key military aides and several national security officials, many of whom were carrying computers and pocket memory sticks that contained sensitive NATO data.

Perhaps the most significant compromise, according to a NATO intelligence source, is that the Russians are suspected of obtaining ultrasecret codes used by NATO militaries for secure satellite communications.

The compromise of the codes is considered what electronic spies call a "break" for Moscow code-breakers. New NATO codes almost certainly were issued to allied militaries immediately after the crash.

But if the Russian electronic intelligence service, known as the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information, was able to recover and use the communication key code from the wreckage, electronic spies will be able to decode months' or perhaps years' worth of scrambled communications that are routinely gathered electronically for just such an occasion.

The coded communications, if decrypted, would reveal some of NATO's most intimate secrets, such as plans for defenses and even the identities of agents or allied eavesdropping sources.

Other Polish and NATO secrets also were believed to be aboard the jet, and so far Russia's government is refusing to cooperate fully with Poland's government in providing details on the cause of the crash, or even to turn over the Polish jet's black boxes.

Additionally, Poland's interim government has not pressed the Russians for answers to questions about the crash, such as why Russian aviation authorities, without any investigation, ruled that pilot error caused the crash minutes after the jet crashed short of the runway in fog at Russia's Smolensk airport. Polish security and aviation authorities also were denied access to the crash site.

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