Dead Drop

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


Below is our recent intelligence collection:

GLAD HE DIDN’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY: On Fox News Sunday and in a Wall Street Journal interview on Monday, outgoing CIA Director John Brennan questioned the depth of the incoming president’s understanding of the Russian threat and expressed extreme displeasure that Trump appeared to have compared his officers to Nazis.  Trump just let the criticism roll off his back – said no one ever.  No, Trump issued a series of tweets in which he blasted Brennan, speculating the outgoing spy chief might have been the leaker of a dodgy dossier which suggested that Trump had gotten himself into a variety of sticky situations in the past.

WHO DUNNIT? Departing DNI James Clapper says he believes the leak of the fact that Trump was briefed on a “dossier” which had been floating around for months did not come from the Intelligence Community.  And Brennan insists he was not the leaker. The summary document, which had been prepared for sharing with the PEOTUS, was reportedly also given to the Obama White House and the “Gang of Eight” on the Hill – which includes four Democrats.  It is not hard to imagine someone in that group finding the motivation to share with CNN “the fact of” a briefing (without the specifics.) It was a short trip down the slippery slope from that to Buzz Feed posting the entire contents of the unproven and salacious documents. Senator Rand Paul seems to think the leak did come from the CIA and told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that whoever leaked it should go to jail.

WHY’D THEY DO IT? Setting aside the question of who leaked the existence of the briefing – was it wise to do a briefing in that manner in the first place?  Put Washington Post icon Bob Woodward firmly in the camp of “NO.”  On Fox News, Woodward called the dossier a “garbage document” and said that “Trump’s right to be upset about that.” Woodward called for the IC to apologize for their shoddy judgment of directly telling Trump about it. If the intelligence community felt the President-elect should know about the allegations, he said, they should have found a back-channel way of getting the word to him without the risk of the briefing becoming public knowledge. (Because we all know how much Bob Woodward hates leaks.) Woodward’s comments drew an almost immediate “thank you Bob Woodward” tweet from Trump. Woodward did not mention that his old running mate, Carl Bernstein, was among the reporters who helped bring the “garbage” report to light on CNN.

PRO-TIP FOR TRUMPSTERS: The incoming Trump crowd undoubtedly now have a warm place in their hearts for Bob Woodward. One political PR veteran who has been around Washington for a long, long time offered this word of caution.  “At the start of each administration, going back about four decades, Bob Woodward says or writes something that convinces the newcomers that he understands and secretly agrees with them.” (On Sunday Woodward said that Trump’s views had been “under reported”.) “But,” our source reminds us, “after getting unprecedented access to each new administration, he generally ends up writing a book or books that causes them to regret cozying up to him.”

WHAT DOES THE BRIEFER SAY?  David Priess, a former CIA Briefer and author of ‘The President’s Book of Secrets’ stopped by The Cipher Brief’s Georgetown Salon this week and shared insights into how and what gets delivered to ‘Customer No. 1’.  Our CEO & Publisher Suzanne Kelly asked whether – based on his own experience – he thought there was any reason at all to present the dossier to the President-Elect:  ‘There are two things you take in as a Briefer.  One, for me, was the President’s Daily Brief.  It’s the actual assessment produced for the president and the handful of people the president has designated to receive it. But then you also supplement that with things that are useful to that particular customer…That could include raw intelligence information. That could include other assessments that don’t quite make the cut for the president’s book, but that are still worth it for that person… I know briefers who took in open source articles. Maybe they’re bringing in things from The Cipher Brief to the top customers today, if it’s something that’s relevant to that customer. It’s a customer-service job, it’s a relationship management job.’  See, Mr. President-Elect, they were just looking out for you…except for that whole leaking thing.  That probably blew the whole ‘relationship management’ part.

MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the media who spread “fake news” about his pal, Donald Trump, are “worse than prostitutes.”  He went on to cast doubts on some of the allegations against Trump. “Why would he run to a hotel to meet up with our girls of limited social responsibility?” Putin asked. Adding…”they are, of course, the best in the world.”

GIFT RETURN: It seems an article in The Cipher Brief, by former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell this week was closely read in the Kremlin.  In the piece, called “Putin’s Perfect Gift,” Morell speculates that Russian President Vladimir Putin might send Donald Trump an inauguration gift: Edward Snowden in handcuffs. Within 48 hours “RT,”  (a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Putin PR machine), published an article quoting Snowden’s Russian lawyer as denouncing the idea as “nonsense.” Shortly thereafter, the Russian Foreign Ministry  announced on Facebook that Snowden’s residency visa had been extended to 2020. Spokesperson Maria Zahharova said that Russia does not betray its principles (no word or what they might be) and that it does not hand out “gifts.” 

CHELSEA MOURNING: With a stroke of a pen on Tuesday, President Obama did something that Donald Trump has been unable to do – get members of the Intelligence Community to shift their anger from the incoming administration to the outgoing one. President Obama used his executive powers to commute the sentence of Private Chelsea Manning who had been serving a 35-year sentence for handing over more than 700,000 classified documents to Wikileaks. Obama pretty much reduced the sentence to time served, about seven years. Time served, one observer told us, “amounts to five minutes in jail for every classified document Manning exposed.”  Anonymous White House insiders say there was a humanitarian aspect to the President’s decision – moved, apparently, by Manning’s complaints about the burden of being a transgendered woman serving time in a men’s prison. “I thought the whole point of being in prison was that it was not supposed to be a lot of fun,” a military veteran told us. The big winner of Tuesday’s pardons and commutations may have been retired General James “Hoss” Cartwright – who not only escaped potential time in the slammer for lying to the FBI about talking to two reporter about the STUXNET virus, but also escaped a lot of public notoriety due to the Manning flap.  Cartwright’s good fortune went under reported due to the heavy focus on Obama’s order to make Manning a free woman.

WELCOME TO THE 21st CENTURY: The CIA is no longer making researchers who want to review declassified documents to travel to the National Archives in Maryland to do so.  As we told you in October, the Agency has finally agreed to make the documents viewable using an amazing new tool:  the Internet.  According to a CIA press release, 12 million pages of documents are now available online through the Agency’s Electronic Reading Room.

SAVE THE DATE: Rumor has it that The Cipher Brief team is plotting their first major annual network event for this summer.  In true covert style, all the details aren’t out there yet, but our sleuthing has revealed it’s going to take place on an Island somewhere in the Southeast.  Care to take any guesses?  Send them, along with any topics you’d like to see covered at said conference to TheDeadDrop@Thecipherbrief.com.

THE BREAKFAST CLUB:  The Dead Drop hears that the Aspen Institute unveiled its Cybersecurity & Technology program last week at a private breakfast in DuPont Circle.   The main attraction was a conversation between the former Assistant Attorney General for Homeland Security John Carlin (the new head of the program) and outgoing Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco.  There was a notable list of cyber-minded experts in the room including IBM’s Robert Griffin and former Secretary for Policy at DHS Stewart Baker.   If the goal was to make sure all sides see how much they have in common when it comes to the cyber threat, we’d give the show a thumbs up.  Maybe we’re dating ourselves or maybe we’re just nerds, but it brought to mind the mid 80s hit movie that put five high school students from different worlds together, stuck em in detention and let em figure out how much they all had in common, too.  Given the challenges facing both Government and the private sector on the cyber front, maybe the 2000s remake should consider something similar.

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

  • U Gotta Be Kidding: We stumbled across a New Zealand press account of a resurfacing of a History Channel documentary from 2015 that we had somehow missed.  In the program, “Hunting Hitler,” former CIA officer Bob Baer is said to speculate that Adolph Hitler may have faked his own death and escaped Germany in a U-boat bound for South America. Spoiler alert:  Baer tells one interviewer that "No one expects to find Hitler and there are no first-hand witnesses alive that are credible who actually saw him [in South America]." BTW, Der Fuehrer would be about 127-years-old now. 
  • Marrowing Experience:  Netflix is out with a documentary called “Hostage to the Devil” about the mysterious death of a Catholic priest (who is said to have inspired the book The Exorcist.) The priest died of a fall after he spoke with a four-year-old child he believed was “possessed.” Normally the paranormal is beyond our scope at The Dead Drop, but the allegation is turning heads because one of the people in the documentary supporting the “devil made him do it” theory is Robert Marrow who is identified as an “ex-CIA agent.”  It is unclear whether Marrow has high-confidence in the explanation.  We note that the priest was 78, an age at which falling down is not always the result of Satan’s shoves.
  • Our Fave Tweet of the Week: @gregpmiller over at The Washington Post tweeted on Thursday that President Trump will visit CIA Headquarters this weekend.  Miller – like us - wondered if the President will be dropping in on Russia House. 

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:

  • Mashugana Reports: Former CIA and NSA director General Mike Hayden told the Jerusalem Post on Monday not to believe reports that, just before the inauguration, U.S. intelligence officials were urging Israeli counterparts not to share too much information with the Trump administration due to concerns about Trump’s ties to Moscow.
  • We have found the enemy: (and they are us).  Former Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin and retired NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis were among those telling NBC News that they are distressed at war between the incoming president and the intelligence community over Russian hacking etc.  Stavridis told NBC a week ago that the relationship between Trump and the outgoing IC leaders was “irreparably broken at this point” (an observation which only grew more clear in the days that followed.) McLaughlin rued the bad start and noted that in the IC “There’s an overwhelming desire to actually serve any president as best you can.”
  • Messy Legacy: General Jack Keane was quoted in the Financial Times about “Obama’s messy foreign power legacy” noting that: “There are now two powers which are willing to challenge the international order,” referring to Russia and China. “They refuse to accept the international order that the U.S. helped organize.”

WHAT’S ON THEIR NIGHTSTAND?  If you’re looking for a good read recommendation, TCB Expert John Sipher (a former Russia House guy) is reading Operation Thunderbolt by Saul David about the Israeli raid to free hostages at Entebbe.  The successful raid was important in building Israeli national security and provided impetus for improvements in U.S. Special Forces.

HOMELAND RECAP:  She’s baaacckk.  If you missed last Sunday night’s premiere of Homeland, then you missed Cipher Brief Expert Mike Sulick’s ‘most-excellent’ review of what the Homeland team nailed and failed. Don’t worry.  We have your six.  Check it out here.

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