RISING TO THE DEFENSE: Some CIA watchers couldn’t help but notice that agency director Mike Pompeo was among a small group of administration officials sent out to defend the president’s mental acuity recently. Pompeo appeared on CBS News’ Face the Nation and Fox News Channel’s Fox News Sunday on the same day. While the CIA director fielded questions on threats ranging from North Korea to Iran, the initial questions on both shows, not surprisingly, focused on Trump’s fitness for his job. Pompeo, also not unexpectedly, leapt to POTUS’s defense, saying Trump is “completely fit” for office. While that was likely music to the president’s ear, Trump might not have agreed with another assessment from Pompeo who, in response to a question, denied that there is any “deep state” at CIA and that he can’t believe there ever was. Observers noticed that he also was at Camp David over the weekend as the president met with Cabinet officials to discuss the upcoming legislative agenda. Some observers have questioned whether Pompeo steps beyond the role of intelligence adviser and provides policy and political advice as well. Also noteworthy was that Pompeo’s nominal boss, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, didn’t seem to be on the Camp David guest list.
WELL THAT SETTLES IT: According to Radio Free Europe, Russian officials have rejected comments made by CIA Director Pompeo that Russia is attempting to interfere with the 2018 congressional elections and have been messing with the U.S. electoral process “for decades.” “We have not meddled and will never meddle into the domestic affairs of other countries, ” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said. This will come as welcome news to the Ukrainians, among others.
DEEP HONOR: President Trump took a break from talking about the ‘deep state’ last week to present one of the national security community’s highest honors to former NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett. Our own spies tell us that Ledgett, (a Cipher Brief Expert, of course!) received the National Security Medal during a private ceremony in the Oval Office. Not a bad way to cap an almost 30-year career at the NSA.
Ledgett’s former colleagues sang his praises Wednesday, although some said there was an inherent awkwardness in Trump paying tribute to a career intelligence official while routinely taking shots at the spy agency workforce, dismissing their conclusions on issues like Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, and accusing them of political bias.
GOOD HELP IS HARD TO FIND: Muckrock.com has published a bunch of historical documents that ask (but don’t answer) the question: Why was Richard Nixon’s job application turned down by the FBI in 1937? Nixon had just graduated third in his class at Duke Law School and apparently fancied himself a G-man. The documents include a report of a personal interview Nixon had with a special agent who concluded that the young man was neat, had “ordinary” features, was not nervous and “perhaps” had executive ability. Apparently, a couple decades later, J. Edgar Hoover tried to find out why Nixon was not the one for the FBI in ‘37 – but did not come up with a satisfactory answer. There were some hints that a potential appointment to the bureau was scuttled when Congress failed to appropriate enough funds to bring on sufficient additional staff in the late 1930’s.
LEAKS ABOUT LEAKS? The Hill reports that Republican-led congressional investigators are looking into whether senior FBI officials improperly leaked information to the news media during the 2016 election. The Hill quotes from text messages exchanged between FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok and bureau lawyer Lisa Page. The text messages “which were reviewed by The Hill” (was this a leak?) suggest that Strzok and Page knew about certain articles in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other news outlets before they were published. Our favorite part of the story has the two FBI folks, for unclear reasons, trying to track down information and a photo on New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo. Strzok describes Apuzzo as “TOTALLY schlubby” – which, no doubt, is a technical surveillance term used at the FBI – and which Apuzzo is likely to print out and frame for posterity.
POCKET LITTER: Bits and pieces of interesting/weird stuff we discovered:
- (Don’t) Let Me Call You Sweetheart: Stars and Stripes reported that Army Major General Ryan Gonsalves’s nomination for a third star was pulled following an Army Inspector General investigation alleging that he disrespected a young female congressional staffer during an October 2016 meeting at Fort Carson, Colorado. Accounts to the IG by meeting participants varied, but some said the general cited her youth and Democratic affiliation, and called her “sweetheart.” Other participants said the general acted professionally. Gonsalves denied calling the staffer “sweetheart,” but the IG’s office determined that the evidence “did not support his recollection,” Stars and Stripes reported.
- What? No Vodka? The fun folks at the Voice of Vladimir Putin (AKA RT) sent CNN Moscow correspondent Matthew Chance a gift package of milk and (based on the picture) perhaps cookies. The accompanying note said: “Foreign Agent Holiday Care Package. Yours Truly, RT.” It seems the folks at RT are miffed at recent U.S. policy changes that require their U.S.-based correspondents to register as foreign agents.
- The Sneakiest Place on Earth: The website “HowStuffWorks” has an article and accompanying podcast describing Walt Disney’s efforts to quietly buy up lots of land in Central Florida in the 1960s, when he was secretly planning to build Disney World. The article says Disney hired former OSS Chief “Wild Bill” Donovan and former CIA operative Paul Helliwell to obtain the land at low cost and figure out how to maintain total control over it in perpetuity.
- USS LITTLE LUCK: Sometimes the U.S. Navy elects to hold the commissioning ceremonies for new ships near the place for which the ship was named. The ceremony for USS New York, for instance, was appropriately held in New York Harbor. But since the littoral combat ship Little Rock was named for a place that is inland, the Navy elected to hold the festivities in Buffalo, New York. In December. In a snow storm. Still, a good time reportedly was had by all. Then the ship got underway headed for her new home port of Mayport, Florida. Unfortunately, Little Rock made it only as far as Montreal where, according to Navy Times, the ship has been ice bound since Dec.. 27. While the ship is not at liberty to head to warmer climes just yet, no doubt it will be sprung by spring.
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:
- “Not consistent with observable facts”: Former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell was on CBS News’s Face the Nation on Sunday, disputing a New York Times story that alleged the U.S. intelligence community had underestimated the North Korean nuclear threat.
- Desperately wanting different things: Retired Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was on CBS News explaining how North and South Korea reached an agreement regarding the Olympics. North Korea “desperately wanted the legitimacy that’s conferred by participating in the Olympic movement,” Winnefeld explained, and South Korea “desperately would like to have a disturbance-free games.”
- Some “Bloody Nose”: An article in New York magazine quotes retired NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral James Stavridis regarding speculation that some in the Trump administration are debating the wisdom of a limited military strike against North Korea that would give Kim Jong Un “a bloody nose.” A conventional military response from the North would be very costly, according to Stavridis, who foresees “no military options which would result in fewer than several hundred thousand casualties and perhaps as many as 2 million to 3 million.”
WHAT’S ON THEIR NIGHTSTAND?
One excellent book I recently received is FUTURE WAR by Robert H. Latiff. I wrote a book jacket endorsement for it: “A thoughtful and thought-provoking book that addresses a range of political and sociological issues beyond what the title Future War infers. It comports with the highest tradition of ‘truth to power.’ A compelling book.” —Honorable James R. Clapper, former U.S. Director of National Intelligence
SECURITY QUOTE OF THE WEEK:
“There is an old saying that chaos generally generates more intelligence than it retards, and I mean that in a metaphorical sense. It generally stimulates communication and activity, and therefore the thoughtful intelligence collector is likely to get more from it than not. But you would have to be agile and on the front balls of your feet, which is why if you are sitting on a source over a long period of time, you prefer stability and say, ‘Nobody mess with the environment here, because I have this stable, reliable and enduring source.’ But increasingly, that is not the nature of the world…In general, more noise generates more intelligence.” – Chris Ingles, quoted in Cyber Vigilantes & Hacktivists: Double-Edged Sword Against ISIS