Dead Drop: March 9

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BREAKING THE CODE ON CYBER HIRES: The Economist is out with an article about the U.S. intelligence community’s search for creative ways to compete for talent among cybersecurity analysts and data scientists. It is a tough nut to crack since employers on the outside often pay much more for the needed skills. The Economist says National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency chief Robert Cardillo now encourages certain staff to work temporarily for private firms while still drawing a government salary. They return after six months or a year with new skills – and fatter bank accounts.

PORN TO RUN: The Intercept reported late last week that a decade ago, when the situation in post-invasion Iraq was pretty dicey, NSA used to exploit captured laptops, hard drives, CDs, etc. and often found pornography that had been the property of prisoners who claimed they were devout Muslims. According to the story – the U.S. would use the discovery to “humiliate” and break down the detainees and gain their cooperation. So, who is outraged that the Americans would use “porn for black ops”? Sputnik, one of Vladimir Putin’s house organs, expressed horror at the dirty pool – and dredged up stories like one about a woman who was a former CIA employee who posed for Playboy two decades ago – as evidence that the U.S. intelligence community is somehow obsessed with sex. This would never happen in Mother Russia.

FALLING SPARROW: The 20th Century Fox flick “Red Sparrow” (about a Russian intelligence operative who specializes in the seductive arts) went over like a lead balloon at the box office last weekend. The film, based on a well-regarded novel by 33-year CIA veteran Jason Mathews, took in an estimated $17 million over its opening weekend – which sounds pretty good until you hear that it cost at least $100 million to make and market according to The New York Times. Matthews was interviewed on NPR this week and said the film gets the espionage tradecraft right, although he added that in the real world, Russian “sexpionage” is conducted by young ladies who are “independent contractors” rather than intelligence service staff members.

LORDY, THERE ARE TAPES? Speaking of sparrows – the same week the Red Sparrow movie debuted, a Belarus-born woman who calls herself a “sex coach” was offering to release videos proving Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election – if someone would kindly get her sprung from prison in Thailand. Maybe that is why Jason Matthews’ movie is not filling theaters – his fiction has been outpaced by the news.

NEW VENTURE FOR IN-Q-TEL’S PORTER: Dr. Lisa Porter, until recently executive VP of In-Q-Tel Labs, has been nominated to be Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. In-Q-Tel is the U.S. intelligence community’s venture capital outfit – with a mission of identifying private technology that can be employed by the government. Now it appears, Porter is following that same path.

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

  • Ruby Rub Out: The National Inquirer apparently has a story out explaining “How the CIA Faked Jack Ruby’s Death.” We say “apparently” because only the headline and a photo is available online – and we haven’t had time to go to the supermarket checkout line to find out why the CIA would have faked the death of the guy who shot Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV nearly a half-century ago.
  • Cooked-Up Claim: Last September, we told you about a lawsuit filed by a CIA officer who claimed his former boss, a base chief at an undisclosed dangerous location, put her troops at risk by focusing on cooking, baking, socializing, entertainment, exercise and shopping. Well, on March 1, a federal judge dismissed the complaint saying that the whistleblower’s lawsuit failed to establish that the CIA had an obligation to conduct an inquiry into his complaint. The officer, who filed the case under the pseudonym “James S. Pars,” says his career was damaged for kvetching about the cooking. Now his lawyer says the court ruling may put the freeze on other agency employees wishing to complain about their bosses.

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:

  • No Nukes Is Good Nukes: Ambassador Joe DeTrani writing in the Washington Times explains that the time is ripe for unconditional talks with North Korea if Pyongyang is prepared to talk about the possibility of dismantling their nuclear program in a verifiable manner.
  • Russian Indictments – “No Trespassing” Signs: An Associated Press article quotes John Carlin, former chief of staff to Bob Mueller at the FBI, explaining why the recent indictment against Russians accused of meddling in the U.S. election is not a feckless exercise. According to Carlin, the indictment sends a signal to other potential meddlers that there are consequences for such acts.
  • 19th Century Whack-a-mole: The aforementioned John Carlin joined former Obama homeland security and counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco in writing an op-ed for The Washington Post saying that: “In the modern world, law enforcement and national-security professionals are too often forced to use 19th- century tools in a global, 21st-century world.”
  • Yankee Stadium of Espionage: Former CIA Russia hands Stephen Hall and former Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin were quoted in a lengthy New Yorker piece about the controversial “Steele dossier.” Hall credited Steele’s old outfit, Britain’s foreign intelligence service MI6, as being in the major leagues of intelligence gathering. Sipher noted that many people misunderstand the information Steele collected. “It’s a collection of dots, not a connecting of the dots,” he said – while saying the material was “generally credible.”
  • Drug Fix: Former DEA agent Mike Vigil is quoted in a Vice News story which claims the Drug Enforcement Administration took years to fix a secret program linked to a massacre in Mexico.
  • Virtual Reality: Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral Jim Stavridis, writing for Bloomberg View says that many of the weapons that Vladimir Putin bragged about recently are fantasy but his chilling tone is the new reality.

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

“I recently read ‘Dreamland’ by Sam Quinones. Most people are beginning to understand there is an opioid epidemic in our country, but know little about it. If you want to read the definitive work on its origins and tragic effects, Quinones’s book artfully describes it.” – Adm. (ret.) Sandy Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

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.