Call it a “rocky start”: U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul used his Twitter account to lash out at domestic news operation NTV, which he accused of hacking his e-mail account and cell phone in order to follow the Ambassador about town. The accusation has prompted a sharp response from critics in Russia.
McFaul cried “foul” using his Twitter account, @McFaul, on March 29, after being tailed to a meeting by a group claiming to be reporters for NTV, prompting the new Ambassador to assume there were dark forces working behind the scenes.
“Everywhere I go NTV is there. Wonder who gives them my calendar? They wouldn’t tell me. Wonder what the laws are here for such things,” he tweeted on Thursday. A little while later, he sounded off again, saying he believed that details of his schedule were being mined by members of the press who had hacked into his e-mail and phone. “I respect press right to go anywhere & ask any question. But do they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone,” he tweeted.
NTV reporters argued with McFaul that they learned of his schedule through sources, not by hacking into the Ambassador’s email or cell phone. Things got worse for the Ambassador after the exchange was aired on Russian television and he was heard apparently describing his new host country as “wild” – a statement he later retracted and blamed on his poor Russian language skills.
McFaul, who served as an adviser to President Obama on Russia and Central Asia, is a controversial figure in Russia and has been critical of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. A professor at Stanford and fellow at the Hoover Institute, McFaul is an expert on democratic revolutions in the former Soviet Bloc and his appointment to Ambassador in December, 2011, was widely criticized in Russia, and seen as a signal of support by the U.S. to pro-democracy activists within the country. At the time of his confrontation with the NTV news crew, McFaul was visiting Lev Ponomaryov, head of the group For Human Rights and a noted political activist.
The tension since his arrival have prompted the State Department to raise concerns about the Ambassador’s personal safety with the Russian government, according to a published report.
Though McFaul’s allegations of hacking are unproven, other diplomats have been targets of cyber attacks. Most recently, unknown attackers believed to be based in China set up a phony Facebook profile for NATO Senior Commander and US Navy Admiral James Stavridis. That account was then “friended” by senior officers in both the U.S. and British military, potentially exposing sensitive information. Security experts within government and in the private sector have also warned about a far-flung campaign of digital espionage that targets the U.S. State Department and U.S. diplomats stationed around the world.