Dead Drop: February 16

IT IS HIS SWAMP: Late last Friday, The New York Times and The Intercept published stories which alleged that in 2017, through an intermediary, the CIA paid $100,000 in an apparent scam to some mysterious Russian who offered details on NSA hacking tools that had been stolen by Russia. The Russian allegedly offered to sweeten the deal by throwing in negative information about President Donald Trump. The stories said that the CIA had no interest in the Donald dirt. Trump apparently missed that part of the story and on Saturday morning tweeted: “According to the @nytimes, a Russian sold phony secrets on ‘Trump’ to the U.S. Asking price was $10 million, brought down to $1 million to be paid over time. I hope people are now seeing & understanding what is going on here. It is all now starting to come out – DRAIN THE SWAMP!” Later that afternoon the CIA took an unusually aggressive shot at the reporters of the story saying: “The people swindled here were James Risen and Matt Rosenberg” (the authors of the two stories.) The agency added “the fictional story that CIA was bilked out of $100,000 is patently false.” Pompeo doubled down on that at the Senate intelligence committee worldwide threat hearing this week, saying “the same two people who were proffering phony information to the United States government, proffered that same phony information to these two reporters…The Central Intelligence Agency did not provide any resources – no money – to these two individuals who proffered U.S. government information, directly or indirectly, at any time.”

Intelligence community alums The Dead Drop consulted say that it is entirely plausible that the IC would try to gather info on the stolen NSA tools – but that the alleged tradecraft described in the two stories seems implausible at best. What most caught our eye, however, was the president believed what he calls “the failing New York Times” – and seems to have forgotten that in the fall of 2017 when the matter supposedly came to a head – HE was in charge of the swamp.

HIS CHOICE: The Washington Post had a page one story Saturday hyperventilating over reports that President Trump has “broken with tradition” and generally doesn’t read his daily intelligence briefing but instead relies solely on oral briefings. PDB-savvy intelligence officials we talked to were not very alarmed at the news, however. They tell us that every president receives and processes intelligence differently. The issue is not how they get the intelligence but what they do with it. We understand that some intelligence professionals made that point to the Post journalists when they were working on the story – but apparently it did not fit with the general theme and was not included in the story.

THE IMPORTANCE OF REPLACING EARNEST: The International Spy Museum announced this week the hiring of retired Col. Christopher Costa as their executive director. According to the announcement, Costa brings with him “over 30 years of experience in national security, counterintelligence and counterterrorism, unconventional warfare and human intelligence from his work for the White House, Department of Defense, and U.S. Armed Forces. Most recently, he served as Special Assistant to the President & Senior Director of Counterterrorism for the White House National Security Council.” Costa has big shoes to fill replacing highly-regarded CIA veteran Peter Earnest who has been with the Spy Museum since its founding in 2002. And Costa has a big challenge ahead with the museum scheduled to move into a huge new facility at L’Enfant Plaza in southwest D.C. in 2019.

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

  • Deep State Delusion: Former Trump White House guy without a clear job, Seb Gorka, was on Fox News Channel’s “Justice with Judge Jeanine” on Saturday explaining how the Rob Porter scandal might have come about. Turns out it was the CIA’s fault. No, really. Citing what he says was CIA interference in granting security clearances of some unnamed person Team Trump wanted to serve on the NSC staff, Gorka said, “If they want to gum up the works, if they want to make the Trump administration’s job harder and harder, they play bureaucratic slow rolls.” How does this relate to allegations of Porter’s alleged spousal abuse? According to Gorka: “There may be a deliberate minefield put in place where they know somebody like this has skeletons in their closet, and they slow roll everything to just make things like this explode a few months later.” He added, “The president has to assert control over this system.”
  • Broken Hearted: The CIA’s social media team has a well-earned reputation for imaginative, colorful and sometimes thought-provoking postings on Twitter, Facebook and the like. But some observers think they went a bit too far on Valentine’s day with a post that said: “Long before current traditions of #ValentinesDay sprang forth, spymasters worldwide have used the amorous arts to obtain secrets from their enemies. Known as ‘honey traps’ or ‘honeypots,’ rivals ensnared their adversaries in a game of love, lure & lies.” It was one of a series of tweets based on a CIA website article about “Romeo Spies” and Mata Hari etc. Naysayers, however, think the “honey traps” tweet gives the false impression that the CIA employs such tactics. We are assured, however, that their intelligence collectors (male and female) use only their wits. #TRYINGTOOHARD
  • Leaping Lizards! The former head of Iran’s military, Hassan Firuzabadi, told journalists this week that western spies used lizards to “attract atomic waves” in an effort to find Iranian atomic weapons projects. According to press accounts, Firuzabadi said foreigners brought “a variety of reptile desert species like lizards, chameleons” etc. in a failed effort to spy on Iran.
  • Pickled News: If you think the threshold for news in the U.S. is low – consider for a moment the U.K. The Express newspaper published a story that purports to reveal an “astonishing image of earth” in the year 2118 taken by a time traveler on a secret mission for the CIA. The story includes a YouTube video of some guy in an ill-fitting suit who says that back in 1981, he was sent to the future by the CIA – and he can prove it! Then he whips out of his jacket a grainy picture of what he says are next-century buildings. The structures look more like deformed pickles to us.

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:

  • Respectfully Disagree: Former DNI Jim Clapper was interviewed on NPR Thursday morning and took issue with a statement by Vice President Mike Pence who asserted this week that, ”Irrespective of efforts that were made in 2016 by foreign powers, it is the universal conclusion of our intelligence communities that none of those efforts had any impact on the outcome of the 2016 election.” Not so, Clapper said. The IC found no evidence of the Russians changing vote tallies – but offered no judgment regarding whether the meddling changed any minds – although his personal conclusion is that it could well have done so.
  • Four-Step Program:  Former House intelligence committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and former National Security Agency deputy Rick Ledgett teamed up to write an Op-Ed for The Washington Post on Wednesday to offer recommendations on steps the Trump administration and Congress should take immediately to make the country less vulnerable to future foreign attacks on our electoral system. “We are running out of time to defend ourselves from further foreign attempts to influence the vote,” they say.
  • It will get better and then it will get worse: Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and retired Adm. James Stavridis was on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Tuesday saying that the fundamentals in Korea are not good despite a little warming surrounding the winter Olympics.
  • If contacts between U.S. and Russian intelligence are cut, we should all be fired: Former senior CIA clandestine service officer Rolf Mowatt-Larssen gave a wide-ranging interview with RT (aka “Russia Today”). Host Sophie Shevardnadze asked him about reports of politicization in the U.S. intelligence community.
  • Shenanigans: Another former senior CIA Russia-hand, John Sipher, was on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Wednesday talking about the implications of people without permanent security clearances working in the White House and having access to the nation’s most sensitive secrets. “We have the third string in the White House,” Sipher said.


“I am currently reading ‘Ghost Ranch’ by Lesley Poling-Kempes, which traces the history of a fabled area in the high desert of northern New Mexico. Ghost Ranch was the first love of Georgia O’Keefe’s life, and her depictions of it catapulted the ranch to international recognition. Ghost Ranch has become a magical sanctuary and a cultural Mecca.” — Mike Vigil, former Chief of International Operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration

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].