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U.S. spy chief: Russia "certainly" a suspect in diplomat comment flap

Director of U.S. National Intelligence James Clapper appears before the House Intelligence Committee on "Worldwide Threats" in Washington Fe
Director of U.S. National Intelligence James Clapper appears before the House Intelligence Committee on "Worldwide Threats" in Washington Fe

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - American intelligence agencies "certainly" consider Russia a possible suspect behind the release of a telephone call recording that surfaced last week in which a U.S. diplomat was heard crudely disparaging the European Union, the U.S. intelligence chief said on Tuesday.

"Well, we don't know," National Intelligence Director James Clapper said when asked during a Senate hearing if Moscow intercepted the call between the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State and top U.S. diplomat for Europe.

"They would certain be ... on the potential list of suspects," he added.

The audio clip was made public on YouTube last week, landing Nuland in some hot water for using an expletive in apparently disparaging the idea of relying on help from the European Union in negotiating a political solution in Ukraine after weeks of street protests against its pro-Moscow government.

The leak coincided with accusations from Russia of U.S. interference in Ukraine's affairs. Washington and European countries back demonstrators who oppose Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, a close ally of Moscow.

U.S. officials have not hidden their belief that the recording was likely made by the intelligence services of Russia, where Nuland served earlier in her career.

Russian officials have denied they were behind the eavesdropping and the posting of the call on the Internet.

The public posting of the conversation surfaced as the United States faces an international uproar over its own electronic eavesdropping - including on foreign governments - disclosed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden last year.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, also asked Clapper if it was "fair to say" that Russia is spying on U.S. diplomats.

"I think that's a fair assumption, yes sir," Clapper responded.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, editing by G Crosse)