Dead Drop April 29

TWO SPOOKS IN CONCERT.  The Aspen Security Forum took its act on the road last week with a conference in London.   One highlight was a joint interview by John Scarlett, Former Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service of the UK and John McLaughlin, former Acting and Deputy Director of the CIA.  There is a video of their: “Reflections from the Intelligence World,” which is worth watching – not only for the wisdom of the two main participants (full disclosure — McLaughlin is a frequent contributor to The Cipher Brief and member of our network) but also for the venue.   While the session was held at Lancaster House in London, the video gives the appearance that the conference was held at Downton Abbey.  Rather posh.

RÉSUMÉ BUILDER?  Being the #2 at an intelligence agency usually means logging lots of time in conference rooms but not so much in the spotlight.  CIA Deputy David Cohen had an unusually high profile week appearing on the Charlie Rose television show last Friday and making a speech at the NYU School of Law last Thursday.  (We saw a tweet last week that Cohen told the NYU audience that “National security is a political issue by nature” – which seems like an unusual take.)  The Dead Drop doesn’t recall a Deputy CIA Director doing high profile interviews while still in office before.  Deputy Secretaries of State?  Deputy Defense Secretaries?  Sure. But not the #2 from Langley.  With nine months left in the administration, Dead Drop wonders is Cohen working on a legacy thing?  Or auditioning for a role in the next administration?  Around Langley, the buzz about Cohen is that he is a smart guy—who is still learning the intelligence business and someone who maintains a low profile when representing CIA at Deputies Committee meetings.

SEAL OF DISAPPROVAL: Retired Admiral Bill McRaven wrote a scathing OP-ED that appeared in the Tampa Tribune on Sunday ripping the powers that be for rescinding a planned promotion for fellow SEAL Brian Losey for a second star – a promotion first proposed in 2011!  Losey was described as a “no-nonsense: officer who apparently rubbed some folks wrong – resulting in a series of whistleblower complaints. McRaven says a string of IG investigations determined that Losey had not “violated any law, rule or policy.”  Despite the Navy nominating Losey for promotion over the course of several years – McRaven says “certain members of Congress chose to use Losey’s case to pursue their own political agenda.” McRaven didn’t name names – but Senator John McCain was among the most vocal in opposing Losey’s promotion.  Eventually the Navy caved and pulled the plug on the second star.  Several Dead Drop sources tell us that senior uniformed officials now feel pressure to pull their punches when applying discipline on their troops – or face running afoul of whistle blowers, IGs, and possibly having their careers held hostage.

U.S. AGGIE FORCE?  Word is that retiring U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh is a leading contender to become the next Dean of the Bush School at Texas A&M University. Welsh may lack a PhD but he has a lot of supporters across the state of Texas – including the aforementioned Admiral Bill McRaven who is chancellor of the University of Texas System.  There seems to be a min-trend of retired four-stars landing prestigious academic posts in recent years – including Admiral Jim Stavridis (a member of The Cipher Brief Network) who is Dean of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts (where he picked up his PhD in 1984.)

NEW PCLO PLAYER:  The CIA announced this week the appointment of Benjamin Huebner to serve at the Agency’s first full-time Privacy and Civil Liberties Officer (PCLO).   The job is not a new one – but in the past the occupant of the position had additional duties – and the privacy gig was just a sideline.  There probably are a few government jobs more challenging than being in charge of privacy and civil liberties for a spy agency – but not many.  In its press release, the CIA was willing to share that Huebner comes to the new position from the Department of Justice.  The Dead Drop wishes him luck.

The Americans, by Michael Sulick

Spoiler Alert:  If you don’t want to know (yet) what happened in the most recent episode of the FX series, The Americans – stop reading now.

The Americans, Season 4, Episode 7

The previous episode ended with a cliffhanger when our illegals’ spy, FBI secretary Martha, left the safehouse where she was ensconced while the KGB planned her exfiltration to the USSR. This episode continues to focus on Martha’s plight as both the FBI and the Soviets desperately race to find her first.

FBI agents combing the U.S. discover the gravestone of a dead child whose name and date of birth match the alias that our illegal Philip Jennings used with Martha, further proof that she is consorting with the KGB. To make matters worse, the FBI has also found a marriage certificate—the KGB illegal wasn’t Martha’s mysterious boy friend but her husband.  Meanwhile, the KGB residency organizes the exfiltration, Elizabeth and her informant Hans scour the nation’s capital searching for Martha, and Philip waits anxiously in a KGB safehouse in case his runaway spy calls. Martha, wandering aimlessly around the city, calls her parents only to say she’s in deep trouble and loves them, while the FBI listens in to glean any hint of her whereabouts and plans.

Martha briefly contemplates jumping off a bridge but then calls Philip, who finally persuades her to reveal she’s in Rock Creek Park. Parks, especially those in the nation’s capital, have been notorious venues for clandestine meetings and dead drops. In the 1940s, Soviet spies Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss often met in Rock Creek Park. A half century later, CIA spy Rick Ames left his final delivery of documents to the Russians under a footbridge in the same park before he was arrested.

Philip conveys Martha’s location to Elizabeth by phone and she rushes to the site. Martha is none too happy to see Elizabeth. Jealous “wife” that she is, Martha asks Elizabeth if she’s sleeping with her husband, and our Soviet illegal, realizing that their FBI mole is already at the breaking point, wisely lies that she is not. Martha still raises a ruckus and Elizabeth, afraid that they might attract too much attention, stuns her to stop her rant and leads her away.

Martha is taken back to the safehouse. Elizabeth counsels Philip that he should tell Martha he will join her later, just to give her enough hope to board the plane to Moscow. Instead, Philip decides to tell Martha the truth—he’ll never join her in the USSR but she will be well taken care of, respected, and honored. I can’t help thinking of some real American spies who defected to the Soviet Union. Glenn Michael Souther, a U.S. Navy photographer, ended up committing suicide. CIA officer Edward Lee Howard became a raving alcoholic and wound up dying from a broken neck after a fall in his home (at least, that was the official Russian version of events). I can envision Martha swilling a lot more red wine and popping valium for the rest of her “new life” in the USSR.

Nailed it: The FBI was well aware that the KGB often used the identities of dead infants or young children to fashion alias personas for illegals. Given the time constraints of 40 minute TV episodes, in this case the FBI discovers Philip’s fake identity in record time.

Failed it: The FBI director orders Agent Beeman to engage his contact, KGB officer Burov, to determine if the Soviets already have Martha. Continuing his insubordination, Beeman flatly refuses since he’s positive Burov won’t succumb to blackmail. The director’s desperate move is clearly a “Hail Mary” pass, and street agent Beeman assesses the situation far more wisely than his agency head. Does the FBI director really believe a loyal KGB officer would give the FBI information about a source they’re planning to exfiltrate? 

Nailed it: Because of Beeman’s refusal, the Deputy Attorney General tells the FBI director that Agent Gaad can’t control his subordinate. In response, Gaad essentially tells the deputy AG to butt out and let him run his own operation. Gaad notes to Agent Beeman that his career is over anyway. He’s the head of FBI counterintelligence, and the KGB seduced and married his secretary. Besides that, the KGB bugged his office and another one of his agents died in an apparent suicide—which the FBI now realizes was a murder orchestrated by the KGB to protect Martha. Given these colossal failures, Gaad’s appraisal of his dismal career prospects is right on the mark.

Failed it, then nailed it: As we said about the previous episode, the KGB probably wouldn’t have made the basic tradecraft error of sending Philip to meet another agent instead of allowing him to stay with his distraught spy Martha. After all, she has just learned that life as she knows it is over, and she has to escape to the Soviet Union. The consequence of the KGB’s faulty judgment would certainly be plausible in a real situation—Martha runs away. Of course, the implausible KGB misjudgment creates better drama for the viewers through the intense FBI and KGB hunt for the runaway spy. Philip and Martha also seem to have forgotten other pressing tasks while searching for Martha—the deadly biowarfare specimen sitting in a freezer and their daughter’s mentor, Pastor Tim, who knows they’re KGB spies and still isn’t swayed by their ludicrous claim that they’re working for world peace.