Dead Drop: December 16

WAIT, WHAT?  It comes as no surprise that President-elect Trump is declaring war – but it is a bit startling that the target is the CIA.  In case you have been off the grid for a while – we’ll simply summarize that the CIA reportedly thinks that the Russian government hacked DNC computers and did other things with the intent of helping Trump get elected.  And Trump is offended by that suggestion. He lashed out saying that this is a “ridiculous” claim brought to you by the same wonderful people who told you Saddam had WMD. Meanwhile the DNI is not entirely sure about what the Russians’ motivation was – but is not disputing the fact they were hacking around.

The flap has resulted in mass derangement on all sides of the question.  Here are just a few examples of some wacky stuff:

The Dead Drop assesses with high confidence that this is not the last food fight between Trump and a major agency that is (or soon will be) working for him.

NEVER IS HEARD A DISCOURAGING WORD:  In an unsigned shot across the CIA’s bow, Trump transition folks dissed the CIA’s views on election tampering by saying, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”  While it is true that CIA (and every other intelligence service on the planet) got that call wrong, it is worthwhile remembering that the Intelligence Community was cheered on in that assessment by the Bush Administration, including John Bolton, rumored Trump pick for Deputy Secretary of State.  But the CIA “are the same people” who also fought against efforts from the White House to assert non-existent connections between Saddam and 9/11.  “All administrations want to hear what they want to hear,” one CIA alumni told us. “The Trump team has made it clear there are some judgments they are unwilling to consider.”

WALK-IN TO RICHES: Before the news broke earlier this week that according to NBC, U.S. intelligence officials now believe with “a high level of confidence” that Vladimir Putin was personally involved in interfering with the U.S. election – a well-placed former CIA official speculated on how a smoking gun might be found. If the U.S. government is going to find out the details of the Russian election hacking, it’s probably going to come from a walk-in, not from a recruited spy or other aggressive collection efforts, a CIA veteran tells The Cipher Brief.  There are probably people doing the cyber work for the Russians, wrestling with their conscience right now and “beginning to be tormented a little bit” because he or she knows that someone in Langley will pay a lot of money for information on what really happened.  According to this former senior CIA officer who managed Soviet affairs, during the Cold War the most valuable Soviet assets were volunteers. In this case, he said “It’ll be a volunteer. That is, unless there already is one.”

NAME GAME:  This flap over Russian meddling has been going on long enough – it needs its own name.   HACKER-GATE?  MOSCOW DECIDES WHO RULES? VLAD VOTES?  Send us your suggestions.

CHECK YOUR BRIEFS: In an interview on Fox News Sunday, the President-elect reacted to criticism that he seems to be turning the “President’s Daily Brief” into the “President’s Weekly Brief.”  Trump told Chris Wallace: “First of all, these are very good people that are giving me the briefings.  If something should change from this point, immediately call me.  I’m available on one minute’s notice.  I don’t have to be told – you know, I’m like a smart person.  I don’t have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day for the next eight years.  It could be eight years – but eight years.  I don’t need that.”   

(Eight years? Has Putin told him the outcome of the 2020 election already?)

Skipping over the question of how the President-elect knows the briefings contain the same thing every day, if he only takes them once a week, The Dead Drop’s sources raise a couple points. First, the briefings now available to Trump are crafted to the liking of Barack Obama, who (rumor has it) remains president until noon on January 20.  After that, if Trump wants a change in style or content, as the prime customer, he can order it up.  Secondly, the briefings are said to be opportunities for the principal and senior intelligence officials to engage in a dialog about what the articles mean, and what additional intelligence is needed.  And finally, Trump is missing the opportunity to score some points in his response.  The tradition of a president receiving an in-person daily briefing is a relatively new one. Despite the fact that Trump previously trashed Obama for not paying enough attention to the briefings – he might find it useful to take note that as recently as the Clinton administration – the president reportedly got most of his briefings in writing and generally skipped the one-on-one fireside chat with his briefer.

POCKET LITTER: Bits and pieces of interesting stuff we found lying around

  • Where do novelists come up with this crazy stuff? Former CIA case officer and accomplished novelist Jason Matthews has a book coming out next August called, “The Kremlin’s Candidate” about Russian President Putin messing around in U.S. presidential politics.
  • Michelob, Marlboros, and Mad Dog Mattis: Psychologist and former CIA enhanced interrogation maven James Mitchell respectfully disagreed with Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis on whether terrorists can be cajoled into giving up critical secrets with just a beer and some cigarettes. In an OPED in the WSJ, Mitchell suggests that if Mattis had been captured by our enemies, he would not have caved easily – and so it is folly to think that people like alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would do so either.
  • IS SECRETARY OF DEFENSE TAKEN? In addition to meeting with Kanye West on Tuesday, President-elect Trump also met with former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.  No word on what position Lewis might play in the new administration.
  • USS The Deplorables? Some folks are mounting a petition drive to urge the White House to name the next major U.S. Navy ship the “USS The Deplorables.” Outgoing Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has been criticized by some for politicizing ship monikers –  so maybe this suggestion is fair game.  We imagine Navy ball caps with the name emblazoned on it would sell quite briskly.
  • UNKIND CUTS: Joe Scarborough warned the President-elect not to mess with the CIA. “The CIA can cut the new administration to shreds every week with selective leaks, and they will if this relationship is not cleaned up. And to have somebody as your national security advisor, who is accusing the C.I.A., who I said yesterday, is the organization that is on the tip of the spear in the fight against terrorism every day, accuse them of lying. It’s just, it’s mind boggling.”
  • YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BELIEVE THIS!  OK, maybe you will.  CIA alumni Phil Houston has an article in Mediaite giving five ways to detect fake news. He says watch out for: crazy claims, incredulous introductions, audacious repetition, hyper hyperbole, and a void of validation.
  • NO COMMENT NO MORE: The CIA is now allowing public comments on its Facebook page.  Well, sort of.  The Agency posted a 400+ word-long set of instructions for anyone who would like to comments on stuff there. The most common words in the instructions are “do not” – e.g.  “Do not post advertisements, prize contests or giveaways,” and “Do not post graphic, obscene, sexually explicit or racially offensive comments or content.”  The incoming comments are moderated – meaning there is some poor bureaucrat who we suspect is going to get a lot of exercise hitting the “delete” key.

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:


“It is an attack on our very democracy.  It’s an attack on who we are as a people.   A foreign government messing around in our elections is, I think, an existential threat to our way of life.  To me, and this is to me not an overstatement, this is the political equivalent of 9/11.  It is huge and the fact that it hasn’t gotten more attention from the Obama Administration, Congress, and the mainstream media, is just shocking to me.”

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

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