Dead Drop April 15

WATERBOARDING OVER THE DAMN: Last week The Dead Drop told you that active duty military leaders are going out of their way to avoid answering media questions which are premised on claims made on the presidential campaign trail. Some in the intelligence community, however, seem to be taking an alternative approach.  On Monday, NBC News touted an “exclusive” interview with CIA Director John Brennan.  (Exclusive, we guess, unless you count his recent appearances on 60 Minutes, NPR, and the lecture circuit).  In any case, correspondent Richard Engel spent most of his on-air time grilling Brennan about harsh interrogation tactics like waterboarding.  Brennan said that his institution will not carry out some of the techniques he hears being bandied about on the campaign trail. The position is not all that new – former CIA Director Mike Hayden has been telling reporters that if some future president wants to resume waterboarding he “better bring his own damn bucket.” 

That’s because of the controversy over lawyers under one Administration telling the workforce that something is within legal standards, only to have another President come in and look at whether they should prosecute the people who carried out those legal orders. The tactic of waterboarding was declared legal when first ordered by the last administration in 2002 and 2003.  

What is unclear though, is whether Brennan means he would disregard a legal order from the next president if he disagreed with the technique.  The difference between the active duty military approach (“please don’t make us address those things!”) and the current CIA approach (“I don’t care who the next President is – we aren’t doing it!”) is interesting. Presumably in a Trump or Cruz administration, the current senior military officers would still be on active duty but top leadership at places like the CIA would almost certainly change. Shockingly, Trump isn’t mincing words over how he feels.  He went so far on Monday as to call Brennan’s comments “ridiculous.”  

ANYBODY BUT ALL THOSE FOLKS RUNNING: The one thing that most American voters seem to agree on is that there is no clear leader in the Presidential race.  One result of a particularly colorful campaign season is some way out of the box thinking. Earlier this week, the Military Times newspaper came out with a tutorial about how highly respected retired Marine 4-star James Mattis could become president in three simple steps: 1- declare himself a candidate, 2- ensure no other candidate gets 270 electoral college votes, and 3- since there is little love lost on the Hill for Hillary, Bernie, Trump or Cruz – have Congress install Mattis as commander-in-chief.

Then on Monday the well-wired Washington columnist David Ignatius wrote a thumb-sucker piece in the Washington Post listing, “Five military leaders Republicans could draft to run for president.” Ignatius’s list includes the aforementioned “warrior monk” General Mattis and adds General Stanley McChrystal, Admiral Mike Mullen, and General David Petraeus (who admittedly before going “All In” would have to deal once again with that security flap involving his biographer).  The fifth name Ignatius floated was former Congressman Mike Rogers who was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.  Rogers previously served in the FBI and spent three years in the Army.  (While three years is not a lot – it is three years more than the combined record of all the other currently declared candidates).

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE.  Another name The Dead Drop hears bandied about is retired Admiral Bill McRaven, who ran the military operation that nailed Osama bin Laden.  Navy SEAL McRaven is currently Chancellor at the University of Texas.  Stories going back to last fall speculated about McRaven as a potential Democratic candidate. Supporters note that Dwight D. Eisenhower was President of Columbia University when the Republican party asked him to run for POTUS.  

Finally, The Dead Drop hears that Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supremo and currently Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, has been approached by several folks with very deep pockets urging him to get into the race. They came with expert polling that shows that the country might welcome a warrior/scholar as its leader.  Stavridis has published six books and regularly appears on network news shows to share his thoughts about what’s going on in the world.  Despite being a member of the Cipher Brief network, (as is General McChrystal) Stavridis would neither confirm nor deny to us that he’s been approached – but stressed how much he loves his current gig.  Sure.  That’s what they all say.

REALLY TOP SECRET TOP SECRET: Dead Drop sources who understand the government’s classification system (and many who think it’s ridiculously overreaching) agree on a couple things stemming from President Barack Obama’s interview with Fox News on Sunday.  In response to questions from host Chris Wallace about Hillary Clinton’s email issues —  Obama seemed to stress that there is an over-classification problem, saying: “…there’s classified, and then there’s classified.  There’s stuff that is really top secret top secret, and there’s stuff that is being presented to the president or the secretary of state, that you might not want on the transom, or going out over the wire, but is basically stuff that you could get in open source.”  All true, our sources say.  But they also agree that the President’s remarks are likely to be used in the future by defense lawyers representing low-level government employees accused of mishandling or leaking classified information. The subject came up at Monday’s White House press briefing. Journalists asked spokesman Josh Earnest about the POTUS’s explanation of what is really classified.  Earnest’s answer: “It’s complicated.”  Wanna know just how insane it is?  Read Cipher Brief CEO Suzanne Kelly’s coverage of John Brennan’s disclosure of the drone program back in 2012.  Deadly drones and the classified conundrum.

SECRET SUPPER – If you are – or were – an insider in the intelligence business, the place to be on Thursday night was the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation dinner.  The organization’s annual Richard M. Helms Award was presented this year to Admiral Bill McRaven, the former Navy SEAL who is now chancellor of the University of Texas System—the same person whose name is being bandied about for president (see above).  Those present at the jam-packed event included CIA Director John Brennan, and about a half dozen of his predecessors, a couple U.S. senators, a handful of Congressmen, and a plethora of current and former government officials.  The Foundation’s main mission is to provide educational support for the children and spouses of CIA officers who die in the line of duty. More than 70 students have benefitted from the Foundation’s support in the nearly 15 years since it was created and we understand over 100 more students are known to be in the pipeline.  In addition to a stirring speech from McRaven – we understand there was a moving video showing how the Foundation was created following the death of Johnny Micheal Spann, a CIA clandestine service officer who was the first American to die in Afghanistan post 9-11.  A highlight of the evening were remarks by Alison Spann who was just nine years old when her dad died.  Thanks to the Foundation, Alison recently graduated from Pepperdine University and is now a reporter for a local television station in Mobile, Alabama.

PASSING OF A LEGEND:  Over the weekend, one of the most colorful and controversial CIA case officers of his era, Duane “Dewey” Clarridge died at the age of 83.  One of The Dead Drop’s sources described Clarridge as someone who was “unafraid to make decisions – always in the thick of things.”  He established the Agency’s Counterterrorist Center and promptly “kicked some terrorist ass.”  Clarridge was known for “smoking two or three big cigars a day, and drinking a bottle or two of the best red wines money could buy.” Our source says Clarridge was “decisive, had a clear view of what needed to be done to accomplish the mission and was unafraid of lawyers and government bureaucrats.”


Spoiler alert.  If you’re running behind in your binge watching and don’t want to know what happened on the most recent edition of the popular FX show – read no further. What follows is expert analysis by Cipher Brief networker and highly experienced clandestine service alumni Mike Sulick:

The Americans, Season 4, Episode 5

In Episode 5, The Americans shifts to the bizarre relationship between Soviet illegal Philip Jennings and FBI secretary Martha, who is not only his spy but his “wife.” The episode opens with the neglected wife Martha alone in her apartment downing a valium with a glass of wine. She is a bit distressed. After all, her secret hubby disappeared the whole weekend at the very time her FBI supervisor alerted his staff that some copies made on the office machine are unaccounted for – the same machine she uses to copy the Bureau’s secrets for the KGB. Besides that, she wonders if it was a coincidence that FBI agent Aderholt invited her to dinner the same night.

Philip apologizes profusely, only telling her it was an “emergency.” He undoubtedly didn’t want to upset Martha even more by telling her he and his real wife were quarantined because they might have been infected by a U.S. Government bio-warfare specimen. He promises it will never happen again and gives her a number so she can contact him – of course, she has to call him from a pay phone. By the end of the episode, Philip believes she is in real danger and is feeling serious pangs of guilt about her plight.

Philip and his wife Elizabeth still have to deal with the problem of their daughter’s mentor, Pastor Tim, and his knowledge of their true identities. To win him over, the couple crafts an inventive ploy. They bring to their meeting with the pastor a fellow man of the cloth, supposedly a priest from El Salvador. To add a bit of real history, the priest claims his mentor was Oscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated in 1980, presumably by members of a government death squad. The priest explains to Pastor Tim how Philip and Elizabeth obtained information that saved him from the same fate, noting that the government’s death squads were financed by the United States.

Nailed it:  Elizabeth Jennings senses trouble when Philip tells her about the latest developments with Martha. She wisely advises him to have Martha followed full time by Hans, the KGB informant who is a graduate student from South Africa and whom she trained in surveillance techniques. The tactic reflects the true nature of surveillance and counter-surveillance, the cat-and-mouse game in which one side follows an agent to protect him or her and the other tries to unmask a spy. In this case it works. Through Hans’ counter-surveillance, the illegals discover that FBI agent Aderholt, Stan Beeman’s colleague, is the mysterious person following Martha.

Nailed it: Philip’s concerns about Martha’s safety reflect a core principle of the spy business. While some may question the morality of espionage, intelligence officers take seriously their moral responsibility to protect the security of their sources. Philip’s wife Elizabeth understands this as well and sympathizes with him, telling him “we’ll do everything we can for her.” Ironically, she comforts him by initiating a scene of passionate lovemaking. Espionage sometimes does make strange bedfellows. Philip’s concerns for his source are not unique to the KGB. When FBI agent Stan Beeman learns that his KGB source Nina has been executed, he sadly comments “When I joined counterintelligence, they told me this would happen, losing someone.”

Nailed it: Disguised in her blonde wig, Elizabeth meets again with her fellow Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman, Young Hee, who teaches her how to prepare a Korean dish. During the session, Elizabeth and Young Hee discuss their respective families and past lives. While it’s only one brief scene, Elizabeth is slowly building rapport with her target and developing their personal relationship further. It’s still unclear why Elizabeth is cultivating the lady, but we do know that their bio-warfare source William doesn’t have access to the top secret “Level 4” at his lab and I’m betting Young Hee or her husband just might be able to play a role in gaining the access they need.  

Failed it… probably: Sure, they’re KGB but, while meeting with Pastor Tim, Philip explains that they’re working for human rights too. Our illegals also admit that their government makes mistakes. They don’t cite any specific examples but Stalin’s purges, the mass execution of Polish officers in Katyn forest, citizens betraying their own family members to the KGB for supposed anti-Soviet comments, and gulags and mental institutions for dissidents come to mind as starters. Pastor Tim has already told the couple that “I know what spies do” and he clearly doesn’t think it involves the defense of human rights. After the meeting, Elizabeth asks Philip, “Is this going to work?” Seems like even our illegals themselves know this approach may be doomed to fail.

NOMINATING CONVENTION: Got any tips for us on why certain military, IC civilian, and other government alumni would be great presidential candidates? Super.  Pass them along.  In the weirdest of political years, almost nothing is too crazy to consider.  Hit us up at [email protected]  Anonymity assured.