Dead Drop: May 18

Noun.

  1. A location to secretly pass information without a face-to-face meeting.

Each week we hope to give our readers tidbits of gossip from the world of national security and intelligence. The Dead Drop is a source of fun or intriguing news you can't get anywhere else.

Got a tip for us? Email us at thecipherbrief@protonmail.com and share the scoop. We promise to protect our sources and methods.


Below is our recent intelligence collection:

LEAK WEEK: This has been quite the week for stories about leaks, leaks about stories, and people sticking the shiv in each other just for fun.  On May 13thAxios carried an article with the fun headline: “White House leakers leak about leaking.” Reporter Jonathan Swan asked folks why the ship of state was so leaky at the top. Answers: personal vendettas and making sure there is an accurate record of what is going on at the White House. One (anonymous) tipster said he (or maybe she?) studies “other staffers’ idioms” and uses that in their background quotes to throw the scent off them. (Pro-tip for White House leakers: at the end of every leak you give a reporter, include the word “Sad!”)  The Daily Beast reported published a story claiming that Ezra Cohen-Watnick, when he was monitoring intelligence programs at the NSC, was trying to find ways to surreptitiously monitor the phone calls and emails of fellow White House officials to track down leakers. Cohen-Watnick, who we have written about before, was one of the original “Flynn-stones” a staffer loyal to National Security Advisor Mike Flynn.  The Daily Beast story says it is unclear if Cohen-Watnick was ever able to deploy his own White House plumbers’ operation, but says that he was known for holding “loud secret meetings” in earshot of people passing by, about finding leakers. There are numerous legal and technical obstacles to mining government employees’ communications for leaks – and while Ezra may have found it too hard at his old gig – he is now an advisor to Attorney General Jeff Sessions with a whole new set of tools in his toolbox. Leak week was kicked off, of course, by White House staffers leaking that a fellow staffer made a stupid and insensitive joke about Senator John McCain.  Offended that a White House official would make that kind of comment in front of a dozen other administration officials – the leaker(s) decided to share the words with the media – ensuring that millions of people (including the McCain family) could be similarly offended. Sarah Huckabee Sanders berated her colleagues about the leak –and accurately predicted that her tongue-lashing would, itself, leak. Naturally, the President wanted in on the action – and tweeted that “The so-called leaks coming out of the White House are a massive over exaggeration put out by the Fake News Media.”   And then he undercut the message in the same tweet by saying “leakers are traitors and cowards and we will find out who they are!”

MORE BUCKS FOR THE BANG:  The Washington Post reports that U.S. Air Force accidentally misplaced a box of explosive grenade rounds.  Don’t you hate it when that happens?  In this instance, airmen from the 91st Wing Security Forces were traveling between two ICBM sites in North Dakota when the explosives apparently fell off a truck. The Air Force ordered 100 airmen to walk the entire six-mile route between the facilities but came up empty.  The red-faced guys in blue are now offering a $5,000 reward for leads about the missing munitions. The good news is that the ordnance is designed only to be launched from a certain type of automatic grenade launcher – so if someone finds the rounds – unless they find a launcher that falls off a truck as well, trying to use the grenades is, according to the Air Force, destined for “catastrophic failure.”

ERROR BNB: The government of Ecuador may be regretting having offered asylum to Julian Assange in their London embassy. The Guardian reports that the country has spent at least $5 million on a secret intelligence budget just to protect their guest. Some of the money is said to go toward spying on people who interact with Assange.  Documents also showed that Ecuador may have spent a lot of money on trying to improve Assange’s image.  One outfit requested $180,960 for a year’s worth of media consultancy in 2014.

MY WORK HERE IS DONE: Late last week, as momentum for Gina Haspel’s confirmation to become CIA Director was reaching a peak, long-time Agency spokesman Dean Boyd revealed to friends that he would be leaving his job to take a new position with the National Counterintelligence Security Center within the ODNI.   Boyd said the transition had been months in the planning.  His successor at Langley is Brittany Bramell, who joined the CIA last fall. She had previously worked for Uber and in a variety of positions on the Hill.  The Dead Drop tried to pry a little more intel out of the Office of Public Affairs, but they were all busy celebrating news that Gina Haspel had been confirmed as CIA Director.

POCKET LITTER: Bits and pieces of interesting /weird stuff we discovered:

  • Down Boy: The New Republic has a lengthy profile of John Kiriakou who they describe as “The CIA Spy Who Became a Russian Propagandist.” Kiriakou, reasonably fresh out of the slammer for leaking the name of a CIA officer to the media, now hosts a show on Sputnik radio. The article recalls that a 2013 profile in The New Yorker described Kiriakou as having “the exuberance of a Labrador retriever.” While struggling in his post-prison life, Kiriakou was surprised that the Kremlin-backed media outlet offered him a well-paying job “out of the blue.” Kiriakou fashions himself a whistleblower. At his sentencing in 2013, however, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema declared “This is not a case of a whistleblower” adding “This is a case of man who betrayed a solemn trust.” She told him at the time “Perhaps, you’ve already said too much,” which may make him a good candidate for the Sputnik gig.
  • Not So Fast, Whiskey Cavalier: We have previously mentioned an upcoming TV series on ABC called “Whiskey Cavalier” in which an FBI agent (Scott Foley), who is in a bad place after a breakup, is thrown together with a tough-as-nails CIA officer (Lauren Cohan) as part of an inter-agency team of spies. According to advance publicity, “office politics will take as much space as globe-trotting espionage.” At ABC’s “upfronts” this week (where networks promote their upcoming seasons to potential advertisers) word came out that the series will not debut until early 2019.  From the trailer just released, that should give them plenty of time to blow up more stuff.
  • Going the Extra Mile: Coming this summer is a movie called “Mile 22” staring Mark Wahlberg “as an operative from the CIA’s most highly prized unit, who is tasked with retrieving and transporting an asset through 22 life-threatening miles of dangerous territory.” No word on exactly where that territory is – but since the flick is produced by STX Films (which like many other Hollywood outfits these days is heavily funded by China) – we are betting the tricky turf is not China.  The official trailer is here.
  • Mind the GAP:  AP reports that clothing purveyor GAP has apologized for selling t-shirts emblazoned with a map of China that did not include Taiwan as part of the image.  Apparently, the Beijing government got its shorts in a knot over the perceived slight. No word on whether GAP plans to sell t-shirts with a map of Russia that includes Crimea.
  • Apolitical Accolades:  In a time when sexy, politically-charged headlines are selling lots of stories in Washington, a WTOP reporter is winning accolades for leaving politics at the door.  J.J. Green, a national security correspondent with WTOP Radio is the winner of the 31st Annual Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense.  He’ll be honored on June 4th as he’s presented the $5,000 prize by Michael Ford, son of the late president.  Judges for this year’s award pointed out Green’s apolitical reporting on the issue of Russian cyber attacks against the U.S.  See, elections and Russia aren’t always political issues….

NETWORK NEWS: Not a day goes by when members of The Cipher Brief Network aren’t making news.  Here are just a few examples from this week:

  • Gamesmanship:Gordon Chang commented on a segment for NBC Nightly News on Wednesday that the U.S. should not be too surprised about Kim Jong Un’s recent provocative statements regarding the upcoming summit meeting. “This is a page out of their playbook,” he said.
  • Deep Six the Deep State Talk:An article in The Nation talked about General Michael Hayden’s latest book, The Assault on Intelligence, saying that “Hayden patiently—and, at times, not so patiently—makes the case for why the Deep State, well, doesn’t exist.”
  • Force for Darkness:Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral Jim Stavridis was on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Tuesday talking about President Trump’s surprising defense of the Chinese telecom outfit ZTE.  Stavridis said the whipsawing of U.S. policy “makes your head spin like Linda Blair in The Exorcist.”

IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING:  Got any tips for your friendly neighborhood Dead Drop?  Shoot us a note at TheDeadDrop@theCipherBrief.com