By John Helmer, Moscow
Thousands of years after spies were invented, and thirty years before the digital computer, there was SIGABA (lead image), an electric motor-powered mechanical apparatus for ciphering and protecting one’s communications from being intercepted or overheard by one’s enemies.
Invented by two employees of the US National Security Agency, secretly patented in 1944 but not declassified until 2001, its name was assigned by the US Army which used it throughout World War II. The Germans called it the American Big Machine, but they couldn’t break its rotor system for coding . The Germans had their own version of the electric-motor cipher machine called Enigma, but it was broken by the Poles and British. Whether the Soviets had broken SIGABA or Enigma isn’t known for sure; probably not. What is certain is that they were more successful at using spies instead of machines.
So it comes as a surprise that last week in Germany, President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump agreed, in front of their respective foreign ministers, to form a working group of their subordinates to devise a scheme for protecting them both from the most modern machines for cracking ciphers. That’s to say, machines operated by their enemies. The working group won’t be allowed to share details of the machines they currently use on each other.
How pointless the working-group agreement will be was revealed unexpectedly for the Russians, halfway into their talks, when the president’s wife, Melania Trump, knocked on the meeting-room door, and came in to make sure her husband hadn’t been cracked by Putin. She suggested it was time for Trump to leave.
This break-in is unprecedented in the history of more than two centuries of American-Russian state negotiations. Unreported by most US media, but corroborated by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Melania Trump cracked her husband’s code in front of America’s enemies. This is what Putin meant when he told the press that at the meeting with Trump, he had discovered “Mr Trump’s television image is very different from the real person.”
Several SIGABA machines are still preserved in working order. Combined with the cipher keys revealed by Tillerson and Mrs Trump, SIGABA allows the text of Putin’s description of the meeting with Trump to be decoded. Tillerson also admitted publicly that “several times” he tried himself to stop the meeting and remove Trump from the room. According to Tillerson, “they [sic] even sent in the First Lady at one point to see if she could get us out of there…We went another hour, so clearly she failed.”
Tillerson’s briefing lasted for 24 minutes; it is available only in audio recording, without pictures. For more, open to listen . The disclosure of the Melania break-in starts at Minute 21.
Putin’s briefing of the press lasted a little longer, 32 minutes. There were no crossovers of reporters attending both press conferences, although at least one US reporter did ask Putin questions. The Kremlin recording allowed release of both audio and video , plus an official English-language transcript; click to read . As he reported his personal impression of Trump at the meeting, Putin’s face and body movements are less revealing than his words. That’s because he was controlling himself, shoulders locked behind hands gripping the lectern, feet planted to the floor. He was speaking in code.
Source: The Kremlin videotape , minute 0925 to 10:00
English text . The President is showing red patches on either side of his face. Dermatologists call this rosacea, a condition that may be caused by stress, heavy exertion, the banya, or damp weather. Humidity in Hamburg last Thursday and Friday averaged 75%.
This is what Putin said: “As regards personal relations [with Trump], I believe that they have been established. This is how I see it: Mr Trump’s television image is very different from the real person; he is a very down to earth and direct person, and he has an absolutely adequate attitude towards the person he is talking with; he analyses things pretty fast and answers the questions he is asked or new ones that arise in the course of the discussion. So I think that if we build our relations in the vein of our yesterday’s meeting, there are good reasons to believe that we will be able to revive, at least partially, the level of interaction that we need.”
SIGABA decodes these remarks sentence by sentence. These are the results:
- In cipher: “as regards personal relations, I believe that they have been established.” SIGABA: “I’m obliged to state the obvious for in over two hours of conversation there was no basis to detect that Trump has qualities which can be predicted, let alone trusted.”
- In cipher: “Mr Trump’s television image is very different from the real person”. SIGABA: “Familiarity with such an individual is impossible so I cannot refer to him by his first name. He has demonstrated he uses a slightly smaller vocabulary than his television scripts have allowed, awkward as they have been for Trump to read them from his prompter….”
- In cipher: “he is a very down to earth and direct person.” SIGABA: “The man is a simpleton.”
- In cipher: “he has an absolutely adequate attitude towards the person he is talking with.” SIGABA: “His attention span and cognitive capacity are so limited, he prefers bluff and bluster, but this all-or-nothing approach isn’t capable of reciprocal understanding, let alone negotiating. Tillerson tried to extricate him several times. The problem is so serious, his wife was despatched to save him from exposing himself to us, as he did. His impulse control is poor. He trusts only women – he thinks they are simple enough for him to manage.”
- In cipher: “he analyses things pretty fast…” SIGABA: “His comprehension is slow, and works by breaking down complex topics into simple slogans. Then he has trouble sequencing. He can’t remember what he has said or thought before, so he isn’t capable of consistency. He tweets so he can look up what he’s just said.”
- In cipher: “he answers the questions he is asked or new ones that arise in the course of the discussion.” SIGABA: “He has one-line statements for North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, cyber security, nuclear arms, missile systems, elections, sanctions. These are neither consistent nor negotiable. He is incapable of either.”
- In cipher: “So I think that if we build our relations in the vein of our yesterday’s meeting…” SIGABA: “If is the operative word – there’s no telling what will happen next because Trump is in charge of nothing, not even of his wife, and nothing he says can be relied on. Tillerson is as impotent as his boss.”
- In cipher: “there are good reasons to believe that we will be able to revive, at least partially, the level of interaction that we need.” SIGABA: “The best that can be hoped for is that Tillerson can control the working groups to which he’s persuaded Trump to delegate everything of substance. So everything with the Americans is partial. I have gained nothing I need.”
The Kremlin publicity version isn’t divulging the state secrets revealed by the SIGABA machine. One reason is that the decrypts confirm Russian intelligence assessments Putin has been receiving on Trump. This secret also means another one — the briefings Putin gets from press arranged by his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov (right), have proved false. Peskov’s version of the success of the meeting can be read in RT here . “Accusations that Trump is somewhat incompetent or that he is a novice, can be classified as delusional trash,” Peskov told Russian state television, intimating he was addressing western media, not the General Staff or SVR. “He has expert knowledge, he is a very determined negotiator and skilful at using his knowledge to put his position across.”
Kremlin insiders acknowledge that Peskov tried to order the omission from the Russian press of details of Tillerson’s and Mrs Trump’s attempts to stop the meeting before the 60-minute mark. Instead, Peskov has announced that “a ‘certain affection’ had developed between the Russian leader and Trump’s wife, Melania, who sat next to the Russian president at the official G20 dinner, revealing that the two discussed several issues on the summit agenda, including gender equality and women’s economic participation.”
Peskov in cipher: “We can now confidently declare that this was a win-win encounter.” SIGABA: “There is no confidence. This was a lose-lose encounter — for Peskov.”