Dead Drop: March 16
- 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:
FOGGY BOTTOM BOUND? As long-predicted, and long-denied, President Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to become Secretary of State. The impact of that decision (and Trump’s plan to elevate Agency #2 Gina Haspel to CIA Director) has been discussed at length on other pages of The Cipher Brief and elsewhere. Here at The Dead Drop, however, we thought we would look at another angle. If Pompeo does indeed go to the State Department – will he take anyone from Langley with him? The advice being offered by long-time bureaucrats is for Pompeo to travel as lightly as possible. The signal it would send to the already beleaguered State Department if he showed up with a large “landing party” as part of a hostile takeover, would be bad. “There are plenty of highly-experienced, career diplomats,” who Pompeo can deputize to fill important positions,” one former official told us. There certainly are lots of openings at State – with the possibility of more coming every day. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Steve Goldstein was reportedly fired just hours after Tillerson – for committing truth about the lack of warning Tillerson received regarding his impending defenestration. Goldstein, a former BP senior VP, had been in his State Department job for 99 days. One Pompeo pal who might tag along to State is current CIA Chief Operating Officer Brian Bulatao. The long-time Pompeo cohort is relatively new at Langley having assumed the COO job (previously known as Executive Director) last June 1. He might feel a bit lonely at Langley after his sponsor decamps. Don’t expect to hear anything about such a move until after Pompeo is confirmed by the Senate for his new position, however. Folks on the Hill consider it especially bad form for nominees to talk publicly about who they will put in what position until they are approved by the full Senate.
PAUL PLOT: Who gave Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., bad information? On Wednesday, the Senator announced that he would oppose Trump’s nominations of Mike Pompeo for Secretary of State and Gina Haspel for CIA Director. In the case of Pompeo, Paul’s objection vaguely had something to do with his perception of the CIA director’s position on Iran. But regarding Haspel, Paul was very clear on what has him peeved. “To really appoint the head cheerleader for waterboarding to be head of CIA, I mean, how could you trust somebody who did that to be in charge of the CIA?” he asked. “To read of her glee during the waterboarding is just absolutely appalling.” Paul told MSNBC: “On Mrs. Haspel, if you read her quotes, when she was present during waterboarding, she was gleeful at the waterboarding and sort of gloating at the fact that the guy is acting as he’s struggling to breathe and drowning in fluid. This is not what America stands for.” Apparently, he was referring to a ProPublica story from over a year ago which claimed that they learned from a book written by a former CIA interrogator that Haspel confronted Abu Zubaydah in his black site cell and mocked him. Although ProPublica did not identify the book – the quotes in the story match ones contained in “Enhanced Interrogation” written by James Mitchell and published in late 2016. One problem – OK, maybe two. The person described in Mitchell’s book is referred to as “he.” Intelligence officials have told reporters the “he” was not Ms. Haspel. The other issue with Senator Paul’s characterization is that CIA officer involved was not mocking Abu Zubaydah’s reaction to waterboarding – but was commenting on how the terrorist was faking mental illness symptoms from the comfort of his cell months before enhanced interrogation started. (The book says the symptoms disappeared when the male Chief of Base challenged Abu Zubaydah on them.) Mitchell addressed some of the issues on Fox Business News on Wednesday afternoon.
STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: Right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s Infowars website was promoting a tweet this week from Julian Assange. The WikiLeaks founder and fugitive from justice in turn was promoting a three-part article from the World Socialist Web Site raising the alarm that “an extraordinary number of former intelligence and military operatives from the CIA, Pentagon, National Security Council and State Department are seeking nomination as Democratic candidates for Congress in the 2018 midterm elections. We’re not sure what has gotten people ranging from Jones, Assange and the Socialists alarmed – but considering who they are – whatever it is, we’re for it.
LOOSE LIPS SINK (AIR) SHIPS? Defense News reported on Monday that the U.S. Air Force has developed a case of lockjaw. Apparently alarmed by airmen engaging in excessive communication, the Air Force has slashed “access to media embeds, base visits and interviews” until the service can “retrain” their entire public affairs team and senior commanders on the importance of maintaining radio silence. Frankly, if you were to have asked us – we would have guessed that the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army were all having rougher times with the media coverage these days – but apparently the Air Force feels that some secrets have escaped, and they are going to clamp down on their communicators to try to prevent it from happening again.
POCKET LITTER: Bits and pieces of interesting /weird stuff we discovered:
- Mostly Corrected: On Thursday evening, ProPublica issued a lengthy “correction” apologizing and attempting to explain the errors in their reporting. Agency officials welcomed the publication acknowledging their mistakes — although some current and former officials tell us that there remain factual inaccuracies in the correction as well.
- Dead Wrong: Buzzfeed, citing two anonymous sources, is reporting the CIA’s Special Activities Center is hunting and killing terrorists. “Small teams are locating and killing bad guys. That’s what we are doing,” one of the sources said. “Your story is wrong,” said CIA spokesperson Ryan Trapani, in a rare on-the-record denial.
- That’ll Show ‘Em: Politico’s Europe edition reports that one of the steps the U.K. government is considering in response to Moscow’s attempted murder of a former Russian spy on British soil, is to cancel the license which allows the Kremlin-backed RT television network to air in Britain. There currently are probably more Brits eyeballing the Russian embassy in London looking for guys carrying nerve agents than there are watching RT – but it’s the thought that counts. Britain did order the expulsion of 23 Russian “diplomats,” which undoubtedly will make more of an impression on Moscow.
- Late to the Grill: Pundits and the media have said if CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel is to be approved for her position – she is going to face some tough questioning by members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence regarding the Agency’s “enhanced interrogation program.” Cynics have pointed out to us that the same committee spent several years producing a report on EITs (published in 2014 by Senate Democrats) – but that those who put that report together elected to not talk to Haspel or any other CIA officer knowledgeable about the program. Better late than never?
- Perp Walk: Amid all the excitement over the Tillerson twitter toss, Pompeo promotion and Haspel hiring, on Tuesday – news outlets managed to squeeze in some reporting that Trump’s personal assistant, John McEntee, had been fired because he could not obtain a security clearance. The stories said McEntee had been escorted off White House grounds. According to some accounts, he is under investigation for criminal wrongdoing. Sounds bad, eh? Maybe not so much. As far as getting the bum’s rush from the 18-acre White House complex, one veteran of presidential service told us that everyone gets escorted out on their last day. “You turn in your ‘hard pass’ (badge) and someone has to walk you out to the gate on your final day.” And McEntee was immediately hired to work on Trump’s reelection campaign, so he has that going for him.
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:
- Skullduggery: Former CIA Russia-hand Daniel Hoffman appeared on the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery” and said the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in the U.K. has the hallmarks of a Russian hit.
- Chemical Agents: Fellow Agency Russian operations boss, Steven Hall, wrote an op-ed for the The Washington Post published on Tuesday, arguing that if Russia is allowed to get away with their chemical attacks in Britain, all of the West would be at risk of similar provocative acts.
- Proxy Wars: The Iranian threat is evolving, and the country now has “proxies everywhere, and they’re providing each with advanced weapons technology” according to recently-retired CIA Iran watcher Norman Roule. He was interviewed on Israeli-run I24 News.
- An End-Game in Syria? Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral Jim Stavridis wrote for Time about four things the United States can do to try to resolve the seven-year-long civil war in Syria.
- Calgary Stampede: Former DEA Agent Mike Vigil was quoted in Canadian media about the risks that tourists face when they vacation in places like Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, despite warnings about drug cartel related violence in the region. Apparently, Canadians are still heading south of the border in droves.
- A Welcomed Rexit: Writing in The Hill, former Obama administration defense and homeland security official Todd Rosenblum shares his view that replacing Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo is “a net gain for American national security.”
- A Pro’s Pro: Former DNI James Clapper and former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden were among those singing the praises of CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel on CNN. Hayden also has an op-ed in The Hill titled “America needs Gina Haspel to lead the CIA.”
WHAT’S ON THEIR NIGHTSTAND? (Our contributors tell us about what they’re currently reading)
“I have picked up two classics on Sub-Sahara Africa, ‘The Conquest of the Sahara: A History’ by Douglas Porch, who teaches the Naval Postgraduate School. It recounts French colonial adventures across the wide expanse of North Africa. This was a valuable reference to better understand the historical underpinnings of colonial expansion in the last century that takes on a new perspective in the light of militant Islamic objectives in the region ranging from ISIS to Boko Haram. Also, I’m re-reading ‘The Green and the Black: Qaddafi’s policies in Africa,’ published in 1988. Although somewhat dated, this collection of essays illustrates Qaddafi’s engagement with African regimes and takes on a different light given the recent Western engagement in the region.” — Alex Bolling, CIA chief of station and deputy chief of station in several war zones in the Middle East, North Africa and Southwest Asia