Dead Drop: August 4

WHITE HOUSE WATCH: A fascinating tidbit in an Associated Press story this week about John Kelly’s assumption of the duties of White House Chief of Staff.  AP cites “a person familiar with the discussions” as saying that in the early weeks of the Trump administration, SECDEF James Mattis and then-DHS Secretary Kelly agreed “that one of them should remain in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House.” Exactly what the ex-General on watch would do if he didn’t like an order – is unclear.  Perhaps warn the other general not to bother to come back from overseas.

FIRE PROOF, NO MORE: Last week The Dead Drop mentioned an article in The Atlantic about Ezra Cohen-Watnick, an NSC official they called “The Man McMaster Couldn’t Fire.” (We previously told you about the 31-year-old Cohen-Watnick in a Dead Drop back in March.) Well, this week McMaster fired him. Young Ezra was just the latest Steve Bannon/Mike Flynn acolyte shown the door at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.  Earlier in the week, another NSC official, Rich Higgins, was thanked for his service and ejected, and Derek Harvey, the NSC’s senior Middle East adviser, was bounced as well. It looks like Generals Kelly and McMaster have joined forces as the pro-Bannon body count continues to rise.

THIRD NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR THE CHARM? Last week, The Dead Drop mentioned that General McMaster might be on thin ice at the White House himself, and that CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s name was among those floated around as a possible replacement.  Pompeo (wisely, perhaps) let it be known that he’d prefer to stay in Langley.  Well, this week’s version of the rumor is that the President is unhappy with how things are going in Afghanistan and unhappy with the recommendation of some (including McMaster) to send more troops there.  So, some are suggesting that Trump give McMaster a fourth star and send him to run U.S. operations in Afghanistan and bring Pompeo (kicking and screaming) into the White House. Which raises the question – if that happened, who would be sent to Langley?  Perhaps Jared Kushner could add CIA Director to his list of part-time jobs – or, alternatively, we understand that Anthony Scaramucci is free.

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE: While H.R. McMaster has scored some successes in recent days in draining his personal swamp, his opposition is not going down without a fight. No better illustration than a website that has been created called “McMaster Leaks,” which invites readers to “Post your leaks about H. R. McMaster.”  Included on the site are largely anonymous shots across the General’s bow – with items like: “McMaster has insulted Hope Hicks, a loyal Trump ally who is also beloved by the base.”  The item is linked to the source of the allegation. 

SHIP OF STATE LEAKING FROM THE TOP: All of Washington (especially including the FBI) are scratching their heads about the leak to the Washington Post of the transcripts of two Donald Trump conversations with heads of state. We are told the universe of people who have access to such transcripts is usually small. Since the transcripts do not make the President look good – one might think the unauthorized disclosure is the work of the “deep state” – the alleged entrenched bureaucracy that wants to resist Trump at all costs.  But it could also be the work of supporters of recently fired NSC staffers who are merely lashing out and wish to make things even more difficult for H.R. McMaster – since the NSC was likely the entity that created, classified, and stored the documents.

LEAKS: NOT A NEW THING – Several reminders this week that the leaks that President Trump and his Attorney General (or at least the guy who was AG when we last checked) complain about – are not a new phenomenon. Muckrock posted a recently declassified 1984 CIA IG memo which portrayed the media as the “principal villains” in the Agency’s battle against leakers. CIA staffers at the time had proposed new legislation, a special FBI unit, and a special prosecutor to go after leaks.  To drive home the point about how long leaks have been part of our national life, a Washington Post story on Wednesday focused on suspicions that Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, might have been peddling state secrets.

LEAKS ABOUT LEAKS: Late last week, the news site “Circa” (which has been called the new Breitbart) carried a story which alleged that FBI General Counsel James A. (No, not that James A.) Baker is the “top suspect” in a criminal investigation into leaks. Circa cited three sources who, of course, spoke only on the condition of anonymity.  Circa said that Baker is a close confidant of ousted FBI Director James Comey (which naturally makes him a target of certain Trump supporters.) The Dead Drop’s question is this: if you leak information about the target of a criminal investigation into leaking, is your leak a crime? If you know the answer to that question – leak it to us.

NEW PDDNI:  Sue Gordon will be the Principle Deputy Director of National Intelligence, essentially the Chief Operating Officer of the IC, under DNI Dan Coats.    The Senate voted Thursday to confirm Gordon, just before the senators escaped to the airport to begin their summer recess.   Gordon, a career CIA officer will pack her bags at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency where she has served as the Deputy Director, and move over to the offices of the DNI.  As The Cipher Brief CEO & Publisher Suzanne Kelly recently wrote, Gordon “will inherit a messy global threat landscape and even messier political landscape at home,” but she’s a “straight shooter” and  “might be just the woman for the job.”

OLD SPY REUNION: The CIA’s annual reunion of its retirees and their spouses is scheduled to be held next week. A variety of speakers, including Deputy Director Gina Haspel, are slated to bring the old spooks up to speed on what is happening both in the world – and at the George Bush Center for Intelligence.  One alumni noted that this year’s event has been allotted just two hours – while the session last year was twice as long.  No doubt the difference is because the world is a much safer place in 2017.

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: The International Spy Museum has revealed plans to hold their inaugural “The Honorable William H. Webster Distinguished Service Award” at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington on November 29th. The event will honor an individual who has served in the field of National Security with integrity and distinction.  The Spy Museum is lining up sponsors for the event which will support the non-profit institution dedicated to the education of the public about espionage and intelligence and support the museum’s community outreach programs.

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

  • Pro Tip for POTUS: If President Trump wants the public to forget allegations of Russian influence on his team – he might want to quit referring to his new chief of staff (as he did in a tweet on Friday) as “General Secretary Kelly.”  A bit too close a title to the old Soviet supremo.
  • Natural Fit: One of our favorite satire websites, The Duffle Blog, has a post this week about the President naming a decorated Army General to the post of communications director. They were talking about General Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf – AKA “Baghdad Bob.”
  • Hersh Gets Harsh: Obscure Canadian website CA just published a transcript of a rambling phone conversation with Seymour Hersh (who they dub the “World’s Greatest Investigative Journalist”). Hersh claims that “RussiaGate” is just a CIA-planted lie to get President Trump. The transcript is full of parenthetical “mumbles.”  We can’t entirely follow Hersh’s logic but he stopped mumbling long enough to declare Obama CIA Director John Brennan “an a##hole,” adding that “Clapper is sort of a better guy but no rocket-scientist,” and he said, “the NSA guys are f###ing morons.” Hersh says he retired from the New York Times in 1972. Apparently he has not mellowed in the ensuing 45 years.

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:

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

Mike Hayden, former Director of the NSA and CIA:

“David Ignatius has another novel coming out shortly (November 2017), The Quantum Spy.  I read the galleys, and here is what I provided for the book jacket.  ‘A work for now and forever. A contemporary adversary: China. A contemporary problem: quantum computing. And the ageless battle of spy versus spy.  Couldn’t put it down.’” 


The message that Kim is trying to send the U.S. is, at minimum, that North Korea has a deterrent to any U.S. effort to overthrow him and his regime. Essentially Kim is saying, ‘If you attack me, I will be able to bring about extraordinary death and destruction on you, so don’t attack me.’”

-Michael Morell, former Acting and Deputy Director of the CIA.

What hits or misses did you pick up?  You can slip them to The Dead Drop anonymously – no thumb drives required.  Send your thoughts to [email protected]