Dead Drop: February 24

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MCMASTER OF THE UNIVERSE: Dead Drop sources almost universally breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday when President Trump appointed LT Gen H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor.  McMaster literally wrote the book on speaking truth to power (his two-decades-old “Dereliction of Duty” shot to #1 on this week). It was announced that the 3-star general will remain on active duty while in his new post. The White House claimed that Brent Scowcroft, the role model of how to handle the job running the NSC staff, remained on active duty in the Air Force when he first held the job in the Ford Administration.  But Military Times reports that Scowcroft’s military bio says he was officially retired from the Air Force about a month after getting the job. LT Gen. Colin Powell remained on active duty when he served as Ronald Reagan’s last national security advisor – which allowed him to return to the Pentagon as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush ’41.

OK, SO MAYBE WE WERE WRONG: Last week, The Dead Drop opined that by being passed over to be the acting National Security Advisor, K.T. McFarland’s days on the NSC staff might be numbered.  But then it was reported that President Trump’s first pick to replace Mike Flynn, retired VADM Robert Harward, turned down the job when he was told that he would not have the authority to build his own team at the NSC and would have to work with the crew assembled by Flynn. So apparently in the view of whomever makes decisions at the White House – McFarland is not strong enough to be the number one – but too good to let the new top dog replace as number two.

BOB, WE HARDLY KNEW YE: Speaking of VADM Bob Harward, when he turned down the National Security Advisor’s job, it was widely reported that according to people close to him that the Admiral was concerned about the financial sacrifice that would go along with taking the job. But most significantly, his friends said he viewed the job in the Trump White House as a “s*** sandwich.” Harward was scheduled to appear on “ABC’s This Week,” and we were looking forward to hearing him find a way to express that sentiment in terms suitable for Sunday morning TV.  But guest host Jonathan Karl announced that just an hour before air time Harward informed ABC that he would be unavailable. 

REINCE REBUTTAL: Yet on Fox News Sunday, WH Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told Chris Wallace “…the president has said very clearly that the new NSA director will have total and complete say over the makeup of the NSC and all of the components of the NSC, and there is no demand made by President Trump on any candidate for NSA director at all.”  And at his briefing on Tuesday Press Secretary Sean Spicer vigorously denied that Harward would not have had a free hand in building his own team—but that is not the way folks close to the admiral heard it.

PLUMBING THE DEPTH OF LEAKS: A president complaining about leaks is not a new thing.  In January 1983, President Reagan reportedly told his staff that  “I’ve had it up to my keister with these leaks.” Those were gentler times.  Nowadays people would just say they have had it up to their ass.  With leaks, like everything else in Washington, where you stand depends on where you sit.  Those sitting on the Democrat side of the aisle – who were in favor of prosecuting leakers during the Obama administration—are often saluting those leaking stuff over the past month as patriots. Trump supporters take quite a different view.  On CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, former Agency Acting Director Michael Morell noted “…just because it’s intelligence information that was leaked doesn’t mean it was leaked by the intelligence community or CIA.” And proving that irony is in short supply internationally, the Putin propaganda channel, RT, had former Trump advisor Roger Stone on to complain that “CIA leaks like a sieve” and “Obama holdovers should be probed” (marking the first time ever the Russians endorsed complaints about the CIA being too loose with secrets).

YELLING JOURNALISM: On Thursday of last week, the Wall Street Journal put out a story claiming that U.S. intelligence was withholding information from the President, because they feared the sensitive intelligence might find its way into Russian hands. The original story contained denials from both the White House and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The next evening, CBS News reported in their nightly broadcast that “an angry President Trump called CIA Director Mike Pompeo and yelled at him for not pushing back hard enough” about the WSJ report. According to CBS, only after the butt chewing did the CIA issue its own written statement denying that the Agency was playing keep-away from the POTUS. Several hours after the CBS story aired – the online version of the story was amended to include a statement from the CIA spokesman denying that a phone call between the President and CIA Director on this subject ever occurred.  So what happened? Did CBS fail to check – or did the White House and CIA fail to respond to questions in a timely fashion? Inquiring minds would like to know.

FAKE NEWS?  Last Saturday, CBS News White House correspondent Major Garrett put out a tweet saying, “two people familiar with the matter” told him that Trump Secretary of the Navy nominee Philip Bilden was “likely to withdraw” perhaps that same weekend. That same day, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer responded that “Those people would be wrong. Just spoke with him and he is 100% committed to being the next SECNAV pending Senate confirm.” Given the White House’s expression of complete confidence in Mike Flynn hours before he was fired – we were not convinced. But on Sunday, the Pentagon put out a statement from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis saying that Bilden remains “fully committed” to the job. So where did the “Bilden bolts” rumors come from?  One source speculates that supporters of former Congressman Randy Forbes, once considered the leading candidate for the SECNAV job, might be engaging in some wishful thinking.

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

  • OH DEARE:  On Tuesday  February 15, the McClatchy News Service carried an opinion piece calling for the firing of an NSC official named Craig Deare, who was the senior director for the Western Hemisphere.  The author of the piece, Martin Anderson, accused Deare of having a “checkered record of support for and involvement with some of the Western Hemisphere’s most notorious human rights abusers.” And three days later, Deare was marched out of the White House.  But not for complaints cited by Anderson (which also included claims that Deare had once falsified his own Army performance report).  No, according to AP and other media report, Deare got the axe for criticizing the President, chief strategist Steve Bannon, and others at what he thought was an “off-the-record” session earlier in the week at the Woodrow Wilson Center.  Note to NSC staffers: there is no such thing as “off-the-record”—especially when criticizing your boss.
  • GOOD START: Publishing sources tell us that former CIA analyst Karen Cleveland penned her first novel called, Need to Know, about a young mom and CIA analyst who uncovers a Russian sleeper cell in the U.S.  The folks at Ballantine books liked it so much, they reportedly bought two books from Cleveland, and Universal has purchased the film rights for Charlize Theron, in what is rumored to be a seven-figure deal.

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:

  • Politics—not national security kept Guantanamo Bay open, according to former National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen who was interviewed on PBS’s Frontline.
  • Former NATO commander, Admiral Jim Stavridis, was among the security mavens at the Munich Security Conference last weekend and writes in Time Magazine about how President Trump’s foreign policy positions are “alarming Europe.”
  • Lisa Monaco, former Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism in the Obama Administration told the RSA conference in San Francisco last week that much of the Trump Administration’s draft plans on cybersecurity appear to be lifted from the Obama playbook.

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

Eliot Cohen, Director of the Strategic Studies program at SAIS and former Counsel to the State Department:

“I’ve been re-reading Darwin Ortiz’s terrific book on the psychology and showmanship of conjuring, Strong Magic, and, unfortunately, the history of the 1920’s and 1930’s, in the form of Zara Steiner’s definitive, two volume international history of that period, The Lights that Failed, and Triumph of the Dark. The parallels with our time are uncomfortable, which is why I often scurry back to Ortiz!”


“Leaks are one of the things that every administration has to deal with. In my experience, the best way to deal with leaks is for the president and the administration to develop loyalty within the intelligence agencies, and you develop that loyalty by doing the right things for the country. If you do that, the people will be loyal to you and will refrain from leaking. But if that relationship of trust is not there, if there isn’t a team spirit and the feeling that everyone is on the same team, then you’re going to get a hell of a lot of leaks taking place no matter what you do.”

-Leon Panetta, former CIA Director and former Secretary of Defense

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