Dead Drop: April 6

IN DEFENSE OF DIPLOMACY: About 200 retired U.S. Ambassadors have written to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and ranking member, motivated by President Donald Trump’s nomination of Mike Pompeo to become the next secretary of state. The ambassadors don’t endorse or condemn the pick – but tell the committee that the nomination presents an opportunity to “focus public attention on the urgent need to restore the power and influence of American diplomacy.” In the letter, they note that “of the nine senior leadership positions reporting to the Secretary of State, eight are now vacant.” They added that “over 50 ambassadorial posts are unfilled, as are 16 of the State Department’s 22 Assistant Secretary positions.”

INTERESTING CHOICE OF WORDS: While perusing our copy of the Russian Embassy Weekly newsletter, we noticed that they quoted Ambassador Anatoly Antonov telling NBC’s Savannah Guthrie “that (the) atmosphere in Washington is poisoned.” This comes on the heels of reports Russian operatives who may have tried to poison not just the atmosphere but doorknobs in the U.K. And Newsweek reported over the weekend that “suspected Russian agents have been spotted cruising the neighborhoods (in America) of some defectors protect by CIA security teams.”

RT GOES DARK: CNN reported late last week that the Russian-backed English language TV network “RT” was about to disappear from many Washington, D.C., area television sets. MHz, the main distributor for RT’s programming around the nation’s capital, ended the network’s broadcasts and cable distribution on April 1. Moscow shouldn’t take it personally. The blackout also affected other international networks such as France 24, China’s CGTN and Germany’s Deutsche Welle. But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pals do think it is aimed at them. RT blames the Justice Department’s decision to make the company register as a “foreign agent” as leading to the plug being pulled. Their distributor, MHz, disagrees. The founder and CEO of MHz networks blamed capitalism, not the DOJ, for the action. Apparently, the owner of the license to air RT and other networks in the D.C. area sold the spectrum to a higher bidder.

RT DEFENDS SINCLAIR: You can’t keep a bad organization down. While it may be hard to find on the airways of DC, RT still has social media available to help them carry their message. The Putin-funded propaganda network RT reported on this Trump tweet on April 2: “The Fake News Networks, those that knowingly have a sick and biased AGENDA, are worried about the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast. The “Fakers” at CNN, NBC, ABC & CBS have done so much dishonest reporting that they should only be allowed to get awards for fiction!”

“Bias is still evident on every mainstream network, and Trump’s hammering of CNN and others is not without merit,” the RT “news” piece claims. “After the election, CNN continued to obsessively publish false stories linking the Trump administration with Russian interests,” the RT defense of Sinclair concludes.

SPUTNIK DEFENDS RUSSIA: The Putin News Network, known as Sputnik, interviewed a Polish politician named Janusz Korwin-Mikke (who is chairman of the “Liberty” party.) Korwin-Mikke says in his expert opinion, the poisoning of ex-Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in the U.K. “…was done by the CIA. It was the CIA who presented false data on Iraq’s weapons and things like that. It was the CIA who was interested in turning American and global public opinion against Russia.” Sputnik’s interviewer said “Let’s hope that common sense will prevail,” regarding anti-Russian talk in the U.S. But Mr. Korwin-Mikke cautioned: “No, don’t rely on that. Democracy is in power. And when democracy is ruling, common sense is powerless.”

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT: If you have a couple hours to spare, treat yourself and read the lengthy story on the Bellingcat website about “David Jewberg,” a fictitious U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and Pentagon Russian analyst. It seems someone has gone to extraordinary lengths to invent a social media identity using that clearly-bogus name. According to Bellingcat, “Jewberg” is frequently quoted in the media in Ukraine and Russia. “Jewberg’s” postings include pictures of fake Pentagon ID cards, photos (which turn out to be someone else) and commentary (often written in Russian) that appears supportive of Russian opposition groups. At one point, “Jewberg” had active Facebook, LinkedIn and Google Plus profile accounts. (Some of which have recently disappeared.) Exactly why someone would go to all the trouble is a mystery. (And to do it so badly – “Jewberg” is a term often used as an anti-Semitic slur, for instance on white supremacist forums like Bellingcat says the fake persona is somehow connected to Latvian-born American financier Dan K. Rapoport. According to the The New York Times, Rapoport is the former owner of a Washington, D.C. home sold in January 2017 to Ivanka Trump and family, who has ties to the opposition against Putin. Frankly, we can’t make heads or tails out of this tale – but it is a timely reminder that some of the “expert commentary” you read on the internet may not only be not so expert – it might be the work of some phony cabal.

GARAGE SALE! The folks at Task & Purpose tell us that the U.S. Special Operations Command got a little carried away with the credit card last year and bought “way, way too much combat gear.” A Pentagon Inspector General audit found that SOCOM blew at least $26.3 million on unneeded handheld radios, night vision goggles and the like. The IG said the gear will be “subject to return, redistribution, or disposal.” So, we figure if you hustle down to SOCOM’s headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, you might be able to get a sweet deal on night vision goggles or some other cool toys.

TARGETING THE TARGETTER: Former CIA analyst Nada Bakos filed suit against the CIA this week following a two-year-long battle to get her manuscript, “The Targeter: My Life in the CIA on the Hunt for the Godfather of ISIS” through the agency’s Publication Review Board. The Daily Beast quoted Bakos as saying: “My goal is to be able to release my book, without divulging classified information.” She added, “There are lessons learned for all of us after going through something as destabilizing as the Iraq war—how to not fall into large-scale war in response to a specific threat.” The book is available for pre-order on Amazon with an estimated publication date of Feb. 1, 2019, but the courts and continued slow-rolling from the government might have something to say about that.

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

  • Little Luck Becomes Unstuck: About three months ago, we told you about USS Little Rock, the Navy’s newest littoral combat ship, which had been placed into commission in a ceremony held in Buffalo – in December – in a snow storm. The ship then got underway heading for her new home of Mayport, Fla. Unfortunately, a brief pit stop in late-December in Montreal turned into a 3-month-long port visit when the ship was blocked in by ice. The good news, according to the S. Naval Institute, is that spring has sprung – as has been the Little Rock, and the ship is now making its way to Florida just in time for summer. No word on how many crewmembers learned French while frozen to the pier in Montreal.
  • Fly me to the moon: We stumbled across a website called “Infinity Explorers,” which carries an interview with John Lear who claims to be a former CIA pilot (and son of the inventor of the Learjet.) He may well be. The somewhat more surprising part is Lear swears there are some 250 million “humanoid aliens” living on the moon…or more exactly, in underground facilities just below the lunar surface. Lear also showed up several years ago promoting a theory that no airplanes actually hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. Never mind those live TV pictures you thought you saw.

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:

  • Wrong Question or Wrong Answer: Former CIA and NSA Director, General Michael Hayden was on CNN Tuesday shortly after Trump said that he thinks he could have a good relationship with Vladimir Putin. Hayden says sure, Trump could have a positive relationship – if he gives Putin exactly what he wants.
  • Russia is not a friend to the U.S.: Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and retired Navy four-star Admiral James Stavridis was on MSNBC following the president’s press conference with Baltic-country presidents on Tuesday. Stavridis explained that Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are strong in pointing out a continued threat from Russia…a warning that may fall on deaf ears in the West Wing.
  • Dented Capability: Former Acting and Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin contributed to an NBC News report on “How does the U.S. decide which Russians to throw out of the country?” Assessing the impact of the expulsions, McLaughlin said, “This may put a temporary dent in their capability, but Russia is a national security state that puts great emphasis on espionage and deals with or brooks no public controversy about it. They will replace their losses, and we also have to factor in how many ‘illegals’ they have here, which I don’t know.” 

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

    “My current book is one that speaks mightily to our day: Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life by Robert Dallek. You see FDR grow from the not-so-serious son of a privileged family, through increasingly challenging jobs, his struggle with polio, his  political maturation, and his magnificent leadership of the war effort from 1941-45 in partnership with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Stalin (and what a challenge it was to juggle these personalities). You are reminded that the US was firmly isolationist in the 1930s, complete with the original America First, right up until Pearl Harbor in 1941.  It is a reminder mostly of what kind of leadership it takes to move a nation, to lead public opinion. And what strong presidential leadership really looks like.”

    John McLaughlin, former CIA Acting Director

    IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING: Got any tips for your friendly neighborhood Dead Drop? Shoot us a note at [email protected] or [email protected].