Dead Drop: November 27

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.

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Below is our recent intelligence collection:

WARNING:  Before reading The Dead Drop, note that the following content contains humor and sometimes pronounced snarkiness that might not be suitable for people who are unable to occasionally laugh at themselves or their preferred political party.

A NEW (OLD) GANG IN TOWN:  By now, just about everyone has opined about President-elect Biden’s initial picks for national security posts.  All of his picks so far have experience at senior levels in the community and often in the building they are being nominated to lead (with Senate approval.)  Biden’s pick for national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, was national security advisor for VP Biden in the Obama White House.  While experienced in government, none of President Trump’s four national security advisors had worked in a White House before. Biden’s pick for DNI, Avril Haines, had been Deputy CIA Director.  Neither of Trump’s DNI’s had worked in the intelligence community before.  And SECSTATE candidate Tony Blinken was Deputy SECSTATE not long ago. Neither of Trump’s Secretaries of State had diplomatic experience.

THE REVIEWS ARE (COMING) IN: Most of the reaction to Biden’s picks has been positive. The LA Times called it a “Goldilocks Cabinet – neither too left or right.” One observer who was not too impressed was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who in an interview with Fox News said these folks “…lived in a bit of a fantasy world. They led from behind. They appeased.” Pompeo took a shot at comments from Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s UN Ambassador nominee, who said earlier in the day that “..America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back.”  But according to Pompeo: “Multilateralism for the sake of hanging out with your buddies at a cool cocktail party, that’s not in the best interest of the United States of America.”  Pompeo had just returned from a ten-day post-election world tour which included a free weekend in Paris.

PARDON ME: Now that the administration is moving inexorably toward the “We didn’t lose but we might be leaving” stage of post-election analysis, it is time to think of what other surprises might be in store for us between now and January 20, 2021 at noon. Speculation is picking up on who might be granted a presidential pardon, clemency or other favor in the next two months. In addition to the traditional turkey pardons, we’ve recently seen the Justice Department release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard from strict parole conditions that will allow the former U.S. Navy civilian who did 30 years in prison move to Israel – the country for which he was convicted of spying for in 1985. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was pardoned in a tweet a day after the President pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey. Who else might be lining up for a “get out of jail free card”?  Supporters of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden (that include outgoing Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard) are also making the case for their guys to be bestowed with absolution.  Recall that Donald Trump said back in 2016 that he “loved” Wikileaks and besides – Russia, Russia, Russia. Beyond that there may be preemptive pardons for a “non-zero number” of people with “Trump” in their names.

DEAD DROP INVESTMENT TIP:  There are some who speculate that President Trump might pardon himself.  But others suggest it is not at all clear whether it is legal for a president to do so.  For strategist thinkers, it would be legal for Donald Trump to resign (say on January 19th) and have his successor, President Pence, do the honors.  If it happens it would make Joe Biden the 47th – not the 46th President of the United States. We think that someone might want to take a flyer on copyrighting the term “Biden 47.” If the above scenario comes to pass – think of all the money you can make on licensing bling.  Now, we can hear some of you scoffing and saying that the 46/47 scenario will never happen.  To that, we will remind you that this is still 2020.

CONGRATS ON YOUR ELECTION: The folks at Diplopundit noticed that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated the president-elect on his victory on November 21.  Well, not THAT president-elect.  Pompeo sent best wishes to Surangel Whipps Jr. who will be the tenth President of the Republic of Palau.  In a tweet, Pompeo also congratulated the people of Palau for “carrying out the democratic process.”  Oh, and on November 13th Pompeo commended the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines for their free and fair election. Four days before that there were kind words for the Burmese election. And on November 4 it was high-fives to the Bolivian president-elect.  No word on whether any of these elections were the result of dicey CIA-created software peddled by the Venezuelans.

HOW TO SAVE THE STATE DEPARTMENT:  Look for a lot of changes in the Biden Administration’s State Department. Less swagger – more collaboration if an article in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs is any guide.  The piece by former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield (Biden’s nominee for UN Ambassador) has some interesting assertions. The authors say the U.S. Ambassador to Iceland under President Trump, Jeffrey Ross Gunter, was so persnickety that he went through seven career deputies in two years.  Since 2017, they say “nearly a quarter of the senior Foreign Service” has left including 60 percent of career ambassadors. Another fun-fact in the piece is the notion that the State Department trains nearly twice as many Portuguese speakers as it does Arabic or Chinese speakers.

CLANDESTINE KIDS:  We hear that two former CIA officers, Christina and Ryan Hillsberg have a book coming out next June titled, License to Parent: How My Career As a Spy Helped Me Raise Resourceful, Self-Sufficient Kids. Christina was an analyst and Ryan was a member of the CIA’s clandestine service. They say their blended family of five kids provided a home laboratory for adapting CIA training to child rearing. We don’t know how transferable the skillset is – but as a sales pitch it apparently works.  CBS has reportedly optioned the book as a possible TV series.

CRISES FOR ADULTS: Former senior CIA officer (and Cipher Brief expert) Marc Polymeropoulos also has a book coming out next June. His is called Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA, being published by Harper Collins.

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

GOODBYE AND GOOD RIDDANCE: An always interesting national security feature story is one about a venerable piece of equipment that has finally come to the end of its service life and is tearfully sent off into retirement. This is not one of those stories.  Task and Purpose recently spotted a story in the Omaha World-Herald about a 56-year-old Air Force WC-135 jet that has been dispatched on Friday the 13th and sent to the boneyard in Arizona where aircraft go to die. The plane used to detect radioactive particles in the air as part of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. While the mission was sterling – apparently the plane was crap. Airmen nicknamed aircraft tail number 582 “Lucifer’s Chariot.” And one of its former pilots was quoted as saying “You are the reason I drink.” The plane has a history of engine fires, generator failures, broken landing gear, hydraulic leaks and more.

SO, THAT’S WHERE HE WENT: Dr. Vince Houghton recently left his post as curator and historian at the International Spy Museum but his explanation of where he was going was somewhat cryptic.  Now we know. NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum announced that Houghton has signed on as their new director.

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