Dead Drop: March 30

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H.R. HEAVE HO TIMELINE: Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s eventual departure as National Security Advisor did not come as a surprise. There were lots of rumors that the three-star general’s days in the West Wing were numbered. But the exact timing of his axing was a bit of a shock. The consensus tick-tock timeline reported in places like Axios went like this: On Thursday, March 22, the president met with NSC candidate John Bolton at the White House. Later that afternoon, President Donald Trump supposedly informed McMaster that he was out. Around 5 p.m. that day, senior communications officials at the White House learned of the move – although they reportedly heard rumors all day long that something was up. Then at 6:26 p.m. Trump tweeted the announcement that McMaster was out and Bolton was in. But here is an interesting twist. We that we hear that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, (AKA “MBS”) who met with Trump at the White House on Tuesday, March 20th, told several people at social events on Wednesday that the president confided to him the previous day that Bolton would replace McMaster. So, it looks like MBS may have been informed before HRMcM. The Dead Drop has also been told that Bolton has, until recently, served as an adviser for various Saudi Arabian private entities. If so, the Kingdom is probably happy with the change of leadership at the NSC.

BOLTON BUDS: Soon after word was out that a new National Security Advisor coming on board on April 9, there were stories saying John Bolton intends to “clean house” at the NSC, getting rid of some holdover staffers from the previous national security advisor’s team, and the one before that, and the one before that. If that happens, who might he bring in? One guess we have heard if Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst who was Bolton’s chief of staff when Bolton was Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs.

IT IS ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE: L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer III, former diplomat and man with three first names, gained his greatest fame as the controversial head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. It was he who issued CPA Order Number 1, 15 years ago, directing the “De-Ba’athification of Iraqi Society” which some people think started the slippery slope toward anarchy in post-Saddam Iraq. What has he been up to since then? The website Task and Purpose tells us that for the past several years, the 76-year-old Bremer has been a ski instructor at the Okemo Mountain Resort in Vermont. No, really.

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

  • The Company They Keep: Looking for a reason to support CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel’s nomination to be the next CIA Director? Look no further than the fact that the Putin-powered publication “RT” has re-published complaints about her selection from a collection of disgruntled ex-government employees including former CIA officers Valerie Plame and convicted leaker John Kiriakou, who call themselves “Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.” The RT endorsement of “VIPS” is enough to convince some of us that Haspel is the right woman for the job.
  • Disappearing Planes: In case you missed it, last week at an event in the White House, President Trump introduced Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson (calling her “Marillyn Lockheed”) and then proceeded to tell those present that her company makes “that beautiful F-35” adding: “It’s stealth. That means you cannot see it.” Turning to Ms. Hewson he asked: “Is that correct?” Hewson, demonstrating that she may be cabinet material, agreed with the president. OK, so maybe the F-35 is just hard to see on radar – but it’s the thought that counts.
  • Cryptic Comments: According to Crypto Currency News, Roberto Escobar Gaviria, the brother of drug lord Pablo Escobar, has announced the creation of his own currency and has released a book that claims Bitcoin is actually the creation of the CIA. So that’s how the Agency funds its covert operations!
  • Get ‘Em While They Last: With the president’s decision to throw 60 Russian officials out of the United States, Team Putin may need to temporarily scale back some of their U.S.-based efforts. Maybe they’ll have to suspend publication of their newsletter, dubbed the “Russian Embassy Weekly.” The latest edition of the publication touts Trump’s phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on his election victory, quotes Ambassador Anatoly Antonov expressing “strong objection” to the U.S. decision to expel Russian diplomats and calls for people to “Help London. Calm Downing Street.” Regarding that last point, the Russian Embassy seemingly suggests that the Brits should just maintain a stiff upper lip over their government’s claims that Putin’s operatives used chemical nerve agents on British streets.
  • No Secrets Worth Stealing: Out of solidarity, many of the United Kingdom’s allies have joined in and expelled Russian intelligence officers from their countries too, following the attempted nerve agent poisoning in the U.K. The New Zealand Herald says the government of New Zealand would like to join in but, according to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, they can’t find any undeclared Russian intelligence officers in their country. If you know of any Russians spying on the Kiwis, please drop a line perhaps via Twitter to ‪@jacindaardern, who would be most appreciative.
  • Still No Atheists in Fox Holes: Some 67 lawmakers recently sent letters to the Navy Department, endorsing the service’s decision to reject the application of a “non-theist” (AKA “atheist”) to become a Navy chaplain. Navy chaplains serve both sailors and Marines. From what we can tell from an article in the Navy Times, applications of non-believers to become chaplains don’t have a prayer.

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:

  • Very Happy – Very Un-Trumpian: Former CIA and NSA Director General Mike Hayden was on CNN’s New Day on Tuesday commenting on the announcement of 60 Russians being expelled from the U.S.
  • Brains, Brawn, Bounced. Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral Jim Stavridis wrote in Time Magazine about his long-held admiration for ousted National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and what the general’s departure might mean for U.S. security.
  • Haspel Help: Former #2 in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, Rob Richer, wrote in The Washington Post that many of the critics of Gina Haspel’s nomination to lead the CIA (including some Agency alumni) either do not know her or her record well – or at all. Haspel was chief of staff during Richer’s tenure. He described her as courageous, selfless and devoted to the people she worked with and led.
  • Kiss-up, Kick-down: Former Deputy Secretary of State (and new addition to The Cipher Brief network of experts) Tony Blinken had an op-ed in the New York Times this week reminiscing about the time John Bolton failed to receive Senate confirmation on his nomination to become U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. (Bolton eventually received a recess appointment.) Blinken recalls the assessment of former Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Carl Ford, who termed Bolton “a “kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy” and a “serial abuser” of people beneath him in the chain of command.” Should be a good fit at NSC.
  • Shining Light on the “Sunshine Policy”: Former Acting and Deputy Director of the CIA John McLaughlin writing on com tells us what we can really expect from the upcoming North Korea talks. McLaughlin, who just returned from a week in South Korea, says the view of the talks in Seoul is far different than that in Washington.
  • Things Go Worse with Coke: Former chief of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration Mike Vigil is quoted in a Business Insider article about the difficulty Colombia is facing trying to root out the cocaine trade. Alternate crop development hasn’t worked, Vigil says, “because growing breadfruit, bananas and other crops does not come close to fetching the prices that coca does.”

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

“With all the technical tools available to us it is easy to de-emphasize the value of real world observation and field research. David J. Danelo’s ‘The Field Researcher’s Handbook: A Guide to the Art and Science of Professional Fieldwork’ reminds us that all we know about the world shouldn’t be observed via a computer monitor. As John le Carré once penned, ‘A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.’”

Cipher Brief Cyber Advisor Matt Devost

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