Putin's soccer ball gift to Trump may be bugged, or worse — and the US may never know

  • President Donald Trump received a soccer ball from Russian President Vladimir Putin at a their joint press conference in Helsinki, Finland on Monday, and it could be a listening device. 
  • Russia's spycraft and ingenuity is first class, and history is replete with its triumphs in stealing US secrets via bugs.
  • The US can never really know whether or not the ball has been somehow altered, so they should probably stick it in a museum. 

President Donald Trump received a soccer ball from Russian President Vladimir Putin at their joint press conference in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday, and the US may never know if it's actually a listening device or some kind of spy gadget.

Quite simply, Russia has devised some of the most ingenious spy devices and methods of all time, and there's plenty of reason to think they could have had the ball bugged.

While the Secret Service will almost certainly examine the ball, that hasn't stopped Russia intelligence before.

In fact, in 1945 the Soviets gave the US a gift so inventive and subtle that it covertly broadcast from the US Ambassadors office for seven years until being exposed by dumb luck.

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President Donald Trump meets with Vladimir Putin in Finland
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President Donald Trump meets with Vladimir Putin in Finland
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a meeting in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
HELSINKI, FINLAND - JULY 16, 2018: The national flags of Russia and the United States seen ahead of a meeting of Russia's President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a meeting in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R), U.S. President Donald Trump (C) and First lady Melania Trump attend a meeting in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
HELSINKI, FINLAND - JULY 16: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY MANDATORY CREDIT - 'KREMLIN PRESS OFFICE / HANDOUT' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) (L-R) US First Lady Melania Trump, US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and his wife Jenni Haukio pose for a photo during their meeting in Helsinki, Finland on July 16, 2018. (Photo by Kremlin Press Office / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R), U.S. President Donald Trump (C) and First lady Melania Trump attend a meeting in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they meet in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a meeting in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
HELSINKI, FINLAND JULY 16, 2018: US President Donald Trump (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin give a joint news conference following their meeting at the Presidential Palace. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin react at the end of the joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
U.S. President Donald Trump receives a football from Russia's President Vladimir Putin during their joint news conference after a meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (C), U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and First lady Melania Trump pose for a picture with a football during a meeting in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
HELSINKI, FINLAND JULY 16, 2018: US First Lady Melania Trump, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and US President Donald Trump (L-R) after a news conference at the Presidential Palace. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)
U.S. First Lady Melania Trump holds a football thrown to her by U.S. President Donald Trump during his joint news conference with Russia's President Vladimir Putin after a meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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"The Thing"

At the close of World War II, Soviet children presented the US Ambassador with a large, hand-carved wooden Great Seal of the United States. The Ambassador installed it in his office without knowing that it contained a covert listening device. The Soviets had coerced Leon Theremin — the Soviet inventor who lends his name to the theremin, a bizarre electronic instrument played exclusively by hand gestures that create the spooky wailing sound beloved of old sci-fi movies — into designing the mechanism. 

Using absolutely no power and emitting no frequencies of its own, a mechanical microphone inside "The Thing" captured conversations held in the office. The Soviets beamed a radio frequency at the device, which bounced back the sounds in the office.

It went completely undetected until British spies, listening for the Russians, started overhearing the Ambassador's conversations too. The device represented the first of its kind, and something the modern world wouldn't wrap its mind around until modern RFIDs decades later. 

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Two Britons poisoned with Novichok nerve agent near where Russian spy was struck down
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Two Britons poisoned with Novichok nerve agent near where Russian spy was struck down
Forensic investigators, wearing protective suits, emerge from the rear of John Baker House, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Deputy Chief Constable of Wiltshire Police Paul Mills addresses the media outside the Bowman Centre community hall, after two people were hospitalised and police declared a 'major incident', in Amesbury, Wiltshire, Britain, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Deputy Chief Constable of Wiltshire Police Paul Mills addresses the media outside the Bowman Centre community hall, after two people were hospitalised and police declared a 'major incident', in Amesbury, Wiltshire, Britain, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Police officers guard outside a branch of Boots pharmacy, which has been cordoned off after two people were hospitalised and police declared a 'major incident', in Amesbury, Wiltshire, Britain, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Police officers stand next to a section of playing field near Amesbury Baptist Church, which has been cordoned off after two people were hospitalised and police declared a 'major incident', in Amesbury, Wiltshire, Britain, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Sam Hobson, aged 29, talks to television crews outside Amesbury Baptist Church, after describing himself as a friend of the two people who were hospitalised, and as a result, police declared a 'major incident', in Amesbury, Wiltshire, Britain, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A police officer stands in front of Amesbury Baptist Church, which has been cordoned off after two people were hospitalised and police declared a 'major incident', in Amesbury, Wiltshire, Britain, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Fire and Rescue Service safety equipment lies on the ground at the site of a housing estate on Muggleton Road, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Police officers stand in front of a housing development on Muggleton Road, which has been cordoned off after two people were hospitalised and police declared a 'major incident', in Amesbury, Wiltshire, Britain, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A police officer stands in front of Amesbury Baptist Church, which has been cordoned off after two people were hospitalised and police declared a 'major incident', in Amesbury, Wiltshire, Britain, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Wiltshire Police Chief Constable Kier Pritchard speaks at a news conference at Antrobus House, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 5, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Police officers stand in front of Amesbury Baptist Church, which has been cordoned off after two people were hospitalised and police declared a 'major incident', in Amesbury, Wiltshire, Britain, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Police officers guard the entrance to a housing estate on Muggleton Road, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 5, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A police officer stands in front of a housing development on Muggleton Road, which has been cordoned off after two people were hospitalised and police declared a 'major incident', in Amesbury, Wiltshire, Britain, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A police officer stands in front of a housing development on Muggleton Road, which has been cordoned off after two people were hospitalised and police declared a 'major incident', in Amesbury, Wiltshire, Britain, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - JULY 04: Police officers stand at a cordon around a public litter bin next to a supported housing project, thought to be connected to a man and woman from Amesbury who are in hospital after being exposed to an unknown substance on July 4, 2018 in Salisbury, England. The pair, who are in their 40s, are in a critical condition after being found unconscious at an address in Muggleton Road, Amesbury. The town is around 10 miles from Salisbury where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in a suspected nerve agent attack. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - JULY 04: A police officer stands at a cordon around a public litter bin next to a supported housing project in Salisbury, thought to be connected to a man and woman from Amesbury who are in hospital after being exposed to an unknown substance on July 4, 2018 in Salisbury, England. The pair, who are in their 40s, are in a critical condition after being found unconscious at an address in Muggleton Road, Amesbury. The town is around 10 miles from Salisbury where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in a suspected nerve agent attack. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - JULY 04: A police officer stands at a cordon around a public litter bin next to a supported housing project in Salisbury, thought to be connected to a man and woman from Amesbury who are in hospital after being exposed to an unknown substance on July 4, 2018 in Salisbury, England. The pair, who are in their 40s, are in a critical condition after being found unconscious at an address in Muggleton Road, Amesbury. The town is around 10 miles from Salisbury where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in a suspected nerve agent attack. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Deputy Chief Constable Paul Mills give a statement to the media outside the Bowman Centre in Amesbury, north of Salisbury, southern England, on July 4, 2018. - Two people have been hospitalised in a critical condition for exposure to an 'unknown substance' in the same British city where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a nerve agent earlier this year. British police declared a 'major incident' after the couple, a man and a woman in their 40s, were discovered unconscious at a house in a quiet, newly-built area in Amesbury. (Photo by Geoff CADDICK / AFP) (Photo credit should read GEOFF CADDICK/AFP/Getty Images)
AMESBURY, ENGLAND - JULY 04: Police officers stand at a cordon around an area of grass near to Amesbury Baptist Centre as Wiltshire Police declare a major incident after a man and woman were exposed to an unknown substance on July 4, 2018 in Amesbury, England. The pair, who are in their 40s, are in a critical condition after being found unconscious at an address in Muggleton Road, Amesbury. The town is around 10 miles from Salisbury where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in a suspected nerve agent attack. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
AMESBURY, ENGLAND - JULY 04: Police on the scene outside an Amesbury branch of Boots pharmacy as Wiltshire Police declare a major incident after a man and woman were exposed to an unknown substance on July 4, 2018 in Amesbury, England. The pair, who are in their 40s, are in a critical condition after being found unconscious at an address in Muggleton Road Amesbury. The town is around 10 miles from Salisbury where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in a suspected nerve agent attack. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - JULY 04: Police officers on the scene outside Harcourt Medical Centre by Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury, thought to be connected to a man and woman in Amesbury who are in hospital after being exposed to an unknown substance on July 4, 2018 in Salisbury, England. The pair, who are in their 40s, are in a critical condition after being found unconscious at an address in Muggleton Road, Amesbury. The town is around 10 miles from Salisbury where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in a suspected nerve agent attack. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
A police officer stands guard behind a housing estate on Muggleton Road, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - JULY 04: A police cordon is in place at Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury, thought to be connected to a man and woman in Amesbury who are in hospital after being exposed to an unknown substance on July 4, 2018 in Salisbury, England. The pair, who are in their 40s, are in a critical condition after being found unconscious at an address in Muggleton Road, Amesbury. The town is around 10 miles from Salisbury where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in a suspected nerve agent attack. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - JULY 04: A police officer stands at a cordon at Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury, thought to be connected to a man and woman in Amesbury who are in hospital after being exposed to an unknown substance on July 4, 2018 in Salisbury, England. The pair, who are in their 40s, are in a critical condition after being found unconscious at an address in Muggleton Road, Amesbury. The town is around 10 miles from Salisbury where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in a suspected nerve agent attack. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Forensic investigators wearing protective suits enter the rear of John Baker House, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Police cordon around Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury, Wiltshire, near to Amesbury where a major incident has been declared after it was suspected that two people might have been exposed to an unknown substance. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
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Sonic attacks

Just as the US had no idea about "The Thing," it is also scrambling to understand a recent rash of possible "sonic attacks" happening to Americans abroad. US State Department employees overseas have experienced a range of symptoms consistent with damage from sound frequencies in a disturbing trend that's caused brain injuries in Cuba and China

Sound frequencies can harm humans, but the scientific communities and US government have yet to point to any suspected culprit in the episodes. Basically, something is hurting US diplomats with sound in some of its former Cold War rivals, and the US has no idea what it is, or if it's even an attack.

Better safe than sorry

"The Thing" and the ongoing and mysterious brain injuries sustained by US diplomats overseas both point to the limits of the US's knowledge, even at its most top-secret levels. As early as the 1850s, US diplomats have marveled at the ingenuity and persistence of Russia's spies.

The US can look, but simply can't know if anything from Russia, let alone from Putin himself, is somehow a spying device. Though it seems silly to suspect something as harmless as a soccer ball may be a clandestine tool to hurt or spy on the president, history tells us the notion can't be dismissed even after a thorough examination. 

"If it were me, I’d check the soccer ball for listening devices and never allow it in the White House," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham warned on on Monday.

Luckily, whether or not the ball is a completely ordinary gesture of sporting goodwill or a covert listening device, the best place for it, as a gift from Putin to the US, is still probably a museum. 

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