Dead Drop: November 17

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@proton.com and share the scoop. We promise to protect our sources and methods.


Below is our recent intelligence collection:

“CONSIDERING THE SOURCE”: Retired DNI Jim Clapper told an agent for the Dead Drop what it’s like to be called a “political hack” by President Donald Trump. In case you missed it, the President speaking to reporters on Air Force One enroute to Hanoi defended his sympathetic take on Vladimir Putin’s denial that the Russians interfered with the U.S. election. In doing so, the president, without prompting, said it wasn’t 17 American intelligence agencies who blamed the Russians … “Well, it’s three. And one is Brennan and one is whatever. I mean, give me a break. They’re political hacks. So, you look at it – I mean, you have [former CIA Director John] Brennan, you have [former DNI James] Clapper, and you have [former FBI Director James] Comey. Comey is proven now to be a liar and he’s proven to be a leaker.” Clapper tells us “my Trumpist career progression since the election has been from ‘Nazi’ to ‘swamp drainee’ to a member of the ‘fake news,’ and now a ‘political hack,’ (on Veteran’s Day, no less).” The retired three-star general added: “It’s not the first time Trump has said bad things about us. As John (Brennan) said Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, ‘it’s a badge of honor.’ My family was more offended than I was.”

WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? BBC News reported recently that the State Department has entered into a $2.8 million contract with a Russian security firm founded by an ex-KGB general to provide security for the U.S. embassy and diplomatic missions in Russia. According to justification documents posted online, the U.S. had no other choice since the Russians expelled so many U.S. personnel recently – and because no U.S. private security firms had “the requisite licensing or desire to operate in-country.” The lucky winner of the sole source contract is “Elite Security Holdings” – a Russian firm created by Viktor Budanov, a former KGB general who, according to the BBC, was a close friend of British spy and defector to Russia, Kim Philby. Viktor Budanov reportedly once ran KGB operations in East Germany and was then the boss of Vladimir Putin.

NO ONE LEFT TO GUARD: The news of the Elite Security Holdings contract broke around the same time that it was reported that the State Department is about to offer $25,000 buyouts to staffers who agree to quit or take early retirement by April. According to The New York Times, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s plan is to cut his worldwide workforce by eight percent — cutting something just shy of 2,000 people. Readers will recall that when the Russians expelled 755 U.S. personnel in August, President Trump thanked Putin since “We want to reduce our payroll.” Looks like the plan is coming together nicely.

SPEAKING OF DIPLOMACY ON THE CHEAP: Following the stories about Donald Trump Jr.’s exchange of communications with WikiLeaks, Julian Assange jokingly suggested that he was ready to become Australia’s ambassador to the U.S tweeting: “Dear @DonaldJTrumpJr our offer of being ambassador to the US still stands. I could open a hotel style embassy in DC with luxury immunity suites for whistleblowers. The public will get a turbo-charged flow of intel about the latest CIA plots to undermine democracy. DM me.”

MAYBE ASSANGE HAS A SHOT: The Aussies wouldn’t appoint someone as irresponsible as Assange to a diplomatic post, would they? (Assuming he could escape the Ecuadorian embassy in London without being arrested). Well, it appears Canberra appoints some unusual folks – for example, a diplomat assigned to their UN mission who was playing the “trust game” with a pal on the roof of his residence after a night of drinking. According to The New York Post, the diplomat, trying to prove to a mate that he could be trusted, leaned back over of ledge and trusted that the man would catch him before he fell. He did not. The diplomat was 30 years old.

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

  • Mustache Cover Up: com’s trolling through the declassified CIA CREST database has come up with remarks drafted for then-CIA Director William Webster when he was scheduled to speak at Bohemian Grove men’s camp in 1988. Despite the fact that it was a (semi) public speech – parts of Webster’s (almost 30-year-old) remarks about recent intelligence successes are still redacted. But the censors did allow the release of an anecdote told in the speech about an undercover CIA officer whose fake mustache fell off in mid-operation.
  • GOV Re-Do: The office of the Director of National Intelligence launched a refreshed version of its website this week. According to a review by Federal News Radio – the site “not only highlights individual workers, it encourages visitors to learn their background, follow their story, and delve into the material they’ve produced working for the Intelligence Community.” The DNI press release about the revised site featured a black and white photo of nine unnamed people staring at a camera – because nothing says “transparency” more than a B&W shot of anonymous folks.
  • @Umpire43 – You’re Out! Parts of the Twittersphere lit up last week when someone calling himself @Umpire43 (AKA Doug Lewis and DJ Lewis) alleged that a Washington Post reporter was calling around Alabama offering “1000$” to women willing to say bad stuff about Roy Moore. Some folks quickly pointed out that the dollar sign at the end of an amount is not the way we do it in the U.S. – but IS how things are done in Russia when writing out rubles. The Daily Beast this week had a lengthy article pointing out many of the lies “Lewis” has peddled over the years – hijacking the name of a dead Navy SEAL and claiming to have earned military awards that range from implausible to impossible. His profile picture (until it was taken down recently) was a shot of a Navy Mass Communications Specialist rating badge. @Umpire43 variously claimed to have served in the Navy in the 60’s, 70’s and ’80s. The Mass Communications Specialist rating…was created in 2006.
  • What do former CIA Directors do to keep busy? Lots of things. Sit on boards, make speeches etc. We stumbled across a report this week that former CIA Director Jim Woolsey took part in a webinar titled: “The State of Hemp: Industry Leaders Speak.” He is a natural for the job since he is reportedly also a member of the “North American Industrial Hemp Council.”

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:

WHAT’S ON THEIR NIGHTSTAND? (Our contributors tell us about what they’re currently reading)

Former DNI Jim Clapper is finishing up his own manuscript but has a selection of books on his nightstand for inspiration: Thank You for Being Late, by Tom Friedman; Raven Rock, by Garrett Graf; The Billion Dollar Spy, by David Hoffman; and Code Girls by Liza Mundy. “I read multiple books at once…I like everything Tom writes—thoughtful and enjoyable,” Clapper tells us. He says he is into Code Girls “because it’s a great history of cryptology, and many figures in it were contemporaries of my Dad’s.”

SECURITY QUOTE OF THE WEEK:

“Over the longer term, vendors should be encouraged to use an open-source model for the core of their products and platforms more frequently. Use of open-source software from a highly active and engaged community can help to significantly reduce the risk of source code inspection by other nations. While it may sound counter-intuitive, open source code historically has delivered improved security through the many developer contributions and inspections. This “wisdom-of-the-crowd” approach makes it less likely to have significant residual vulnerabilities in the first place.”

Jill Singer, who leads AT&T business activities serving the Intelligence Community

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