Dead Drop: December 9

PARDON ME? Apparently, a lot of people are looking for “get out of jail free” cards.  There was a flurry of stories over the past week of folks courting public opinion to upend past and potential judicial proceedings.  For example, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, facing a potential general court martial for abandoning his post in Afghanistan (and who was held by the Taliban for five years before being swapped for five Taliban commanders imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay) , has reportedly asked President Obama for a pardon. No doubt he would like one before January 20th since Donald Trump once called him “a no-good traitor who should have been executed.” Then there is former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling who is doing 3.5 years in the federal slammer for leaking classified information to a reporter.  According to AP, Sterling is “now pinning his hopes for an early release on a federal appeals court, which will soon consider whether to reverse his convictions.” And then there is NSA leaker Edward Snowden, who told Yahoo news anchor Katie Couric in a face-to-face interview in Moscow that he is not counting on a pardon by President Obama.  In his defense, he asserted that former CIA Director David Petraeus had disclosed “far more highly classified information than I ever did.”  Of course, Petraeus’ disclosure was in the form of written notes in little black books shared with his biographer and never exposed to the public – and Snowden’s came in the form of boatloads of highly classified information published on the Internet – but facts are stubborn things.

SECARMY OF ONE: The Washington Post reported Thursday that a leading candidate for Secretary of the Army is retired Colonel James Hickey. Hickey personally led the mission in Iraq that captured Saddam Hussein.  Since hanging up his uniform, he has been on the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee, among other things, where he captured the admiration of Senator John McCain, who called him “one of the most outstanding officers I’ve ever had the opportunity of dealing with.” Appointing Hickey might be a savvy move – not only putting in office someone who can command respect of the troops but also a person who can get along well with (the sometimes irascible) McCain.

GREAT ESCAPE? Got some time to kill in LA?  There is a new tourist attraction that has opened called “Spy Mission Escape Room.”  According to a press release we saw, the place is run by a former CIA officer Luke Wagoner.   The site reportedly offers “players with realistic spy missions and scenarios. Players must work together with their team of players, solve fun brain-teaser challenges, and complete the mission in order to win.”  How do they do that?  Again, according to the release: “During Intelligence’s first mission, players have one hour to infiltrate a rouge (sic) soviet general’s secret study and stop a nuclear event in order to win. Mission challenges are focused on problem solving, teamwork, and require players to think like a spy to complete the mission and ‘save the world.’”  Who would want to spend their time undertaking these “missions” on Wilshire Blvd?  The site says escape rooms like this attract a wide variety of players including corporate team building events and “bachelorette parties.” 

ANY VOLUNTEERS? Former CIA contractor James Mitchell, who was a central player in setting up and carrying out the Agency’s harsh interrogation program of top al Qaeda terrorists, is out promoting his new book, Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying To Destroy America. At an event at the American Enterprise Institute this week, Mitchell described how he had personally waterboarded the only three terrorists ever subjected to the tactic AND had waterboarded two U.S. government attorneys (volunteers of course) when the Justice Department was trying to determine if the practice amounted to torture. (Even after the experience, the lawyers declared that it was not.)  But Mitchell lamented that he was one down in the count of lawyers versus terrorists and hinted that he would like to even things up.  Even though there were several attorneys in the audience, none seemed to step forward. Video of Mitchell’s conversation with Marc Thiessen is here.

GREEN LIGHT AT THE STRIP MALL: The Washington Post on Wednesday carried a lengthy story about a local man who claims that after years of waiting, the CIA’s Publication Review Board (PRB) notified him that he had clearance to go forward with his screenplay about legendary OSS operative Betty McIntosh. Ellis Cohen says he found out in an odd way. A mysterious man allegedly walked up to him at an undisclosed Maryland strip mall and said, “Your screenplay with the Central Intelligence Agency that has been embargoed has been lifted.” This explains a lot to Dead Drop contacts who have had their own writings delayed for months or years awaiting clearance. “It must take a lot of time for the PRB to personally visit strip malls to deliver news to authors,” one veteran said.  Either that or Cohen is totally making this up and the Washington Post just played into his fake news promotion scheme.

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

  • I-Spy: The Jerusalem Post had a favorable review of the International Spy Museum in Washington.  Despite the “International” in its name – we are not predicting a branch of the museum being opened in Israel any time soon, however.
  • Clown Show: Former CIA and FBI official Phil Mudd really needs to open up and let us know what he really thinks. One of the most entertaining talking heads on TV these days, Mudd told CNN viewers Tuesday that the Trump national security transition was “a clown show.”
  • Hire Me! A Q&A in the Washington Post’s On Leadership blog with CIA Deputy Director David Cohen looks like a clever way to get your resume out there before the end of the administration.  Cohen told the Post his management mantra is “No jerks, no whiners, no peacocks.”  That might rule out working at a lot of places.
  • Generally Speaking: Lots of chatter about President-elect Donald Trump hiring so many retired generals to fill important positions in his administration.  But Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense column reminds us that when President Obama first came to office, he had General Jim Jones at the NSC, General Eric Shinseki at VA, and Admiral Denny Blair at DNI.

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:

Pompeo Gets Thumbs Up from Hayden/IC – Former CIA and NSA Director Mike Hayden has told radio talk show host John Catsimatidis, regarding Trump’s CIA pick, Congressman Mike Pompeo, “The word from the intel community was they thought that was a pretty good pick…”

Subtraction at NSA:  Former NSA boss General Keith Alexander reportedly told cybersecurity executives this week that he hears employees are abandoning “the Fort” (as some call NSA)  in record numbers. The reasons – low morale in the inside and high pay on the outside, noting that some people going to cyber outfits are getting seven figure jobs…making five times what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs gets.

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

John Sipher, former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service

“I am re-reading To End a War, by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, about the wars in Yugoslavia and the Dayton Peace accords.  I was in the Balkans through much of that time and believe that it can provide clues as to how we should look at the slaughter in Syria today.”


“The magic of CIA comes from the magicians not the institution.  To grow this magic, CIA must have a diverse workforce in order to be relevant and effective.” 

-Douglas Wise, former CIA officer and Deputy DIA Director

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