Dead Drop: February 17

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MIKE, WE HARDLY KNEW YE: In a world where the President’s counselor says he has “full confidence” in his national security advisor at 4:12 PM, an hour later his press secretary says the guy is under review, and three hours later the man is gone –it is very hard to publish a weekly column. For all we know, while we were typing the previous sentence, Mike Flynn has been rehired. What can be learned from the Flynn flap?  Presume every phone call you make is being transcribed somewhere. Presume folks you have previously offended will not be able to resist leaking and spinning what was in your calls.  And, no matter how big you get, remember you will still fit under a bus.

SECOND CASUALTY: All the attention Monday night and into Tuesday was focused on the departure of Mike Flynn after a fun-filled 24 days as National Security Advisor.  But spare a thought for his deputy, K.T. McFarland – late of Fox News.  When the White House announced Flynn’s exit – they also announced that retired Lt Gen. Keith Kellogg would be the acting National Security Advisor until a permanent replacement could be identified. But Kellogg had been the executive secretary of the NSC – at best #3.  What about McFarland who was – and at last report is– #2?  It is pretty clear that getting passed over as “acting” was a vote of no confidence.  Dead Drop sources tell us McFarland will be departing soon – perhaps under the cover of the new appointee being giving the option of bringing in his own deputy. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday, however, that McFarland “wants to and has been asked to remain as deputy..”  Color us unconvinced.

WINNERS & LOSERS: So, who gains with Flynn’s subtraction? Among the possibilities are the other people at the White House who have been under intense fire – like Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and Counselor Kellyanne Conway.  To avoid the impression of freefall – the administration might be reluctant to remove any of the above-named folks, who have also been under fire, any time soon. Then there is Stephen Miller, the 31-year-old “senior advisor” to the President, who appeared on four Sunday shows last week and seemed to impress only one person – the President.

REARRANGING THE DECK CHAIRS:  The New York Times reported Thursday that President Trump plans to bring a billionaire buddy, Stephen Feinberg, into the White House to study the structure of the intelligence community.  Feinberg has no apparent background other than owning some companies that provide physical security or make handguns – but it could be worse.  Reportedly, at one-point Trump had considered making Feinberg the head of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations – the clandestine part of the Agency.  The Times story, which largely replicates a story from last week by Reuters, raises a number of interesting questions sparked by Feinberg’s assignment.  For example – what does this signal to Dan Coats, Trump’s nominee to become Director of National Intelligence. If you were Coats, wouldn’t you think, “Hey, that’s my job!” 

COMBATING THE PRESSThe Washingtonian reported this week that Fox News-contributor Carl Higbie has recently interviewed for the currently-not-vacant White House press secretary position.  The magazine quotes Higbie as confirming having been interviewed, before he later (sort of) denied it. Higbie would be an interesting choice for the job.  A former First Class Petty Officer and Navy SEAL who, according to press accounts, had his military discharge downgraded from “honorable” to “general.” With a less-than-honorable paper – it might be hard for Higbie to get the top secret security clearance required for a position like the one he aspires to – but you never say never in the current environment.

UNCLEARED TAKE OFF –  Way back at the first part of this week, word leaked out in Politico that a former military officer picked to be a senior official on Mike Flynn’s National Security Council staff – was sent packing because the CIA refused to authorize a top secret, special compartmented information (TS/SCI) clearance. The individual, Robin Townley, had been slated to serve as NSC senior director for Africa.  But without a clearance – filling such a slot is impossible.  We are not sure what derailed Townley, but he is certainly not the first political appointee to fail to get the intelligence seal of approval.  What IS unusual is that the details of his rejection were quickly leaked to the media.  One former intelligence official told us that “normally, unless there is criminal wrong-doing, the person is allowed to quietly withdraw for ‘personal reasons’ and not have their name dragged through the mud.” In this case, it appears someone was settling scores – either with Townley, or more likely with his sponsor General Flynn.

TOO SOON? –  Here at The Dead Drop – we thought we would be the first to ask: Where will the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library be built?  Perhaps at Fordham in the Bronx where the president got his college start – or the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania where he finished his BS.  The “Obama Presidential Center” will be at the University of Chicago.  Bush 43’s library is at SMU, 41’s is at Texas A&M.  The Bill Clinton Library in Little Rock is not associated with a university but is administered solely by the National Archives and Records Administration.  So maybe the Trump Library can be built at Mar-a-Lago.  Wherever it is – we’re sure it will be huuugggee.

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

  • Short Honeymoon: After burying the hatchet with the intelligence community in January and declaring his great respect for the IC (when not lecturing on crowd size), the President returned to his old ways on Wednesday – blaming so-called “intelligence” for giving out classified information “like candy” to the “fake media” who treated that “wonderful man” General Flynn so badly. No explanation of why he felt the need to fire the general. One pundit compared Trump targeting leaks to “caught thieves blaming security cameras.”
  • Plug the leaks! President Trump took to Twitter Thursday morning to write, “The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers!  They will be caught!”  He might be tempted to turn an eye to Israel.  Earlier this week, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he has threatened to force his cabinet ministers to take polygraph exams to stem leaks from cabinet meetings.
  • Talking heads: Several recently former government officials from the Obama administration are starting to show up as paid contributors to major TV networks. Among those we have spotted are David Cohen, who stepped down as CIA Deputy Director on January 20 and is now on the payroll of NBC News.  Also, Jen Psaki, ex-Obama communications director is a paid contributor for CNN, and Marie Harf, a State Department spokesperson has landed a paid gig on Fox News.  Others who have been out of government a bit longer are also signing up.  Dr. Evelyn Farkas, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense from 2012-2015 and is now at the Atlantic Council, has also joined NBC’s stable of talking heads. Jeremy Bash, who was chief of staff to Leon Panetta at both the CIA and Pentagon, signed on to NBC’s rolls not that long ago as well. No doubt there are others we have missed. Who will be the first ex-Trump administration official to sign up somewhere?   Maybe General Flynn can work a deal with RT.

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:

  • Ambassador Joe DeTrani writing in the Washington Times about how the U.S. has reached a tipping point with North Korea.
  • Former CIA attorney Robert Eatinger  and former head of the clandestine service John Bennett were interviewed on NPR this week defending the appointment of Gina Haspel to be the Agency Deputy Director.
  • In an opinion piece in Time Magazine, Admiral James Stavridis described North Korea’s Kim Jong un as “untested, unlearned, and unpredictable” and someone “possessed of a really bad haircut.” Stavridis explains why China is key to any solution of the North Korean problem.

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

Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO:

“The book I’m reading right now is this very powerful memoir by Svetlana Alexievich called, Secondhand Time. She’s a Belarusian who is kind of chronicling the disorientation and the disaffection of the Soviet people after the breakup of the Soviet Union. And it explains a lot of why we’ve seen kind of the resurgence of nationalism and anti-Western feeling in Russia, not because of what we did – although there is a tendency to scapegoat the West – but because of sort of the sense of loss, a vacuum that came with the collapse of all these varieties that they thought were permanent and were sort of like their safety blanket. So that’s something I recommend to others who want to understand the mind of today’s Russians.”

SECURITY QUOTE OF THE WEEK:

The Congressional Research Service recently soberly opined that the cost of keeping one U.S. soldier in Afghanistan was approximately $3.9 million a year.  It seems untenable to keep doing this forever and at some point, we are going to have to think about bringing our troops home and letting the chips fall where they may.  They don’t call it the graveyard of empires for nothing.”

-Kevin Hulbert, former CIA station chief

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