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Post-Snowden, why were U.S. diplomats talking on insecure line?

Not long before Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was secretly recorded cursing the European Union’s efforts in Ukraine, two European Union officials were caught in a very similar situation, complaining about the United States.

In the first recorded conversation, EU diplomat Helga Schmid was speaking to the EU’s ambassador to Ukraine, Jan Tombinski, discussing perceived slights.

“The Americans are going around telling people we’re too weak, while they are tougher on sanctions,” Schmid can be heard saying. “It really bothers us that the Americans are going around naming and shaming us.”

But what matters more than the content of the calls – in hers, Nuland was recorded saying “F--- the EU” – is the context: Both calls were made by senior diplomats in Kiev, both were discussing the crisis there, both were recorded and both audio recordings were anonymously put up on YouTube.

And both came eight months into the new world after the revelations by Edward Snowden, the former contract worker for the National Security Agency whose leaks, if nothing else, have shown that electronic surveillance of pretty much everything is ubiquitous.

Yet here you have two high-ranking American officials – Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt – discussing sensitive matters apparently on an unsecured line, just days after a similar call had been recorded and, embarrassingly, put online.

Nuland, who refused to comment on the specifics of a conversation meant to be private, did note during a news conference Friday in Kiev that the static-free recording “was pretty impressive tradecraft. The audio was pretty clear.”

But she didn’t address why she was exposing herself to the obvious threat of being recorded. In the wake of the NSA spying scandal, the U.S. administration has repeatedly defended its actions using the line of reasoning: “Everybody does it.”

But if everybody does it, why wasn’t Nuland more careful, especially since it’s pretty well-known that the Russians don’t like her very much?

Secretary of State John Kerry tells a story about how his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, praised him for getting rid of Nuland, the former spokeswoman for the State Department. “I didn’t fire her,” Kerry corrected. “I promoted her,” to her current post as the senior U.S. diplomat for European and Eurasian affairs.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to say what kind of device Nuland was talking on when she contacted the ambassador. She noted, however, that the BlackBerry that Nuland would have been issued by the State Department would have carried data encryption but not voice encryption.

Employees are barred from discussing classified information on their phones, Psaki said. When she was asked whether that’s what Nuland was doing, Psaki replied without elaboration that that’s not how she would describe it.

Psaki said that one leaked phone call didn’t signal weaknesses across the whole system of diplomatic communications. She said the department was constantly evaluating how to make communications more secure.

In the released call, Nuland can be heard plotting how to support certain Ukrainian opposition figures and discussing how the Russians would try to scuttle American plans.

The diplomatic fallout from the incident was difficult to gauge. European officials, publicly at least, objected to Nuland’s “f-bomb” reference to the EU, and Nuland apologized Friday; that apology was accepted.

In its entirety, the comment appears to bemoan the inability of EU diplomats to get anything done in Ukraine. As the discussion focuses on the U.S. and United Nations taking action, Nuland said, “That will be great to help glue this thing and get the U.N. help glue it, and, you know, f--- the EU.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, through her spokesman, called the remark “totally unacceptable.”

The curse, however, appears to be in line with what EU officials already knew about the U.S. outlook on Ukraine, as the other recording made clear. Outside of officialdom, the reaction wasn’t overly severe. Patrick Keller, a foreign and security policy expert at Berlin’s prestigious Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung foundation, called the reaction “ridiculously overblown.”

Joerg Wolf, the editor in chief and a foreign policy expert at the Atlantic Community, a Berlin-based research center, said the honest reaction to Nuland’s comment was that it showed she was deeply invested in the situation. But he added that given the manner in which it was exposed, there’s also a bit of classic German schadenfreude going on around Berlin, which is still smarting over the revelation that the NSA had been spying on Merkel’s phone calls for years.

“There is very little sympathy for Americans being spied upon, at least right now,” Wolf noted.

There’s also little surprise at the sentiment she expressed, said Peter van Ham, a transatlantic relations expert at the Dutch research center the Clingendael Institute. She isn’t the only one who feels that way, he admitted.

“The EU doesn’t have a great track record on foreign and security matters,” he noted. “Europe has largely ignored Ukraine for six years.”

Then, discussing the content of the call, he laughed, while adding, “What does it say about your effectiveness if you’re being compared unfavorably to the U.N.?”

But he noted that in the Ukraine crisis, Europe – and therefore the EU – will have to be part of any Ukrainian solution that doesn’t see the nation move fully into the Russian camp.

Volker Perthes, the executive chairman of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, noted that before judging Nuland’s comments, it would be good to know whether she’d had enough sleep or a bit to drink, and that she has every right to expect privacy when speaking with a colleague.

“It establishes that, sure, others (not only the NSA) are listening in to telephone conversations,” he wrote in an email response. “But we knew that before, didn’t we?”

Hannah Allam contributed to this report from Washington.