Dead Drop: January 27

MR. TRUMP, STARE DOWN THIS WALL!  Well, President Donald Trump’s visit to CIA HQ was eventful.  As one CIA veteran told us – “Trump gave a great five-minute speech” at Langley. “Unfortunately,” he observed, “it was buried amid ten minutes of inappropriate stuff.”  Newly former CIA Director John Brennan let it be known (via tweets from his former Deputy Chief of Staff Nick Shapiro) that he was “deeply saddened and angered at Trump’s despicable display of self-aggrandizement.” So how did things go so wrong?  The Dead Drop hears that the visit was planned on very short notice – but was originally intended to feature the swearing in of Trump’s CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, in front of the iconic Wall of Honor – a site used for swearing in all new CIA officers these days.  When Senate Democrats delayed Pompeo’s confirmation a few days – the visit went ahead, but the event was repurposed as a pep talk.  An experienced White House advance team would have warned the President about the CIA HQ lobby being viewed as “hallowed ground” by Agency officers – but Trump’s advance people are experienced only in handling campaign like events.  (Whether Trump would have listened to advice to keep things serious is another question – but apparently, that was advice he never got).

STANDING OH? President Trump defended his appearance at CIA during his interview with ABC-TV’s David Muir Wednesday.  Trump said to Muir, “I have great respect for the people in intelligence and CIA. I’m – I don’t have a lot of respect for, in particular one of the leaders. But that’s okay.” He added that he got “the biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning had won the Super Bowl, and they said it was equal.”  We didn’t know the Super Bowl was played at Langley.

DO OVERS? If Team Trump wants to demonstrate that the President gets the importance of the wall to the CIA community – they might schedule him for a return visit to CIA around Memorial Day, when the Agency dedicates new stars that have been approved to be added to the wall, and when family members of those memorialized over the years gather. The event is always closed to the press, because the names of all those represented by stars are read out loud – including those who still cannot be identified—and many of the current agency employees in attendance are currently under cover.  While Trump’s participation would not be a media event – his words – demonstrating that he gets the importance of the wall could be subsequently released as they have been in the past.

BLINKING RED WARNINGS: NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly reported this week that Steve Hall, a CIA veteran who ran Russian operations asked her: “…what happens when the CIA collects a stellar piece of intelligence that maybe puts Vladimir Putin in a bad light?” She said Hall asked rhetorically: “…what happens when the CIA briefs Trump, and he wants to know the source?” Kelly said Hall asked one more rhetorical question: “How can you say, no, we don’t trust you with the sourcing of that information?”

GOOD LUCK WITH THAT:  Josh Gerstein, a reporter with Politico, has filed a FOIA lawsuit against the CIA, DNI, and Defense Department seeking expedited access to documents relating to possible blackmail information the Russians are alleged to be holding over the head of President Trump. LawNewz quotes Gerstein’s lawyer Mark Zaid as expressing surprise that the CIA doesn’t share his sense of urgency in responding to the request.

SELDOM HURD:  There was a time when service on one of the Congressional Oversight Committees meant that you had to toil in obscurity.  But in recent years, assignment to the Senate or House Intelligence Committees has been a ticket to lots of air time.  Case in point, Texas Congressman Will Hurd, who was appointed to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) this week to take the slot vacated by Mike Pompeo . Hurd was almost immediately invited on CNN’s The Situation Room to discuss President Trump’s weekend visit to CIA, the possibility of returning to enhanced interrogation, etc.  Hurd, who is a former member of CIA’s clandestine service himself, made an early miscue telling Wolf Blitzer that “the CIA is not always depicted positively within the press, either. They don’t have a press shop. They don’t fight back.”  Blitzer jumped in to say, “I will correct you. They do have a press shop, a public affairs office. I have worked with them. Reporters work with them. So, they do speak to the news media, but usually on what we call background, not for attribution. But they do have a public affairs office.”  Hurd recovered by saying, “Yes, but they’re not coming on shows like this. They’re not talking about what they did or why they didn’t do this. That is something that you do not see official spokesmen and women from the CIA happening.”

NEW CREW: Now that Mike Pompeo has been sworn in as Director of the CIA, The Dead Drop hears he is busily searching for a Deputy and looking to fill other critical position like Chief of Staff and perhaps Executive Director.   For the number two slot – we hear he is focusing on someone with a background in the clandestine service – talking both to current officials and retirees who might be enticed back to the fold.  Pompeo was asked during his confirmation hearing whether he would keep in place the structural changes that his predecessor, John Brennan, put in place.  He said he would study the steps which the old regime called “modernization” and everyone else called “reorganization.”  The betting here is that, at least initially, Pompeo will have bigger fish to fry than re-wiring the rewired wiring diagram.  That said – the folks most unhappy with the “reorganization” tended to be from the Directorate of Operations – the outfit Pompeo is looking to for a Deputy.

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

  • History of the Wall: Back in 1990, the first journalist allowed to videotape the Memorial Wall at CIA headquarters, was a very young Wolf Blitzer.  In a tweet this week, Blitzer dug up the video in which he explained the significance of the Wall – which at the time had just 53 stars.  Today it bears 117.
  • Just a Daesh of ISIL: Jamie McIntyre of The Washington Examiner has noticed one more change in the post-Obama world.  The Trump administration seems to have settled on what to call those evil SOBs in the Middle East. So far they have consistently called them” “ISIS.”  Obama folks seemed to prefer “ISIL”…except when they went with “DAESH.”  Now, if they can just clear up how to spell Qaddafi.

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)

Harvard Law School Professor Jack Goldmith’s (very extensive) reading list includes:

Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914; Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War; Sean McMeekins’ The Ottoman Endgame and July 1914; Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans; David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace; and Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919.   “I’m reading about World War I because I was trying to understand the history of the modern Middle East better, and then I just became interested in the earlier period, which is fascinating, in its own right.”


 “The so-called peace process is not ready for prime time. Neither side is prepared to make decisions on the core issues. There is very little confidence and interest.  Nor is it a forgone conclusion, by any means, that the incoming administration is going to focus heavily on this issue. Let’s be clear, if the embassy is moved to Jerusalem, you can probably hang a “closed-for-the-season” sign on the peace process for a while.”

– Aaron David Miller, former adviser to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations

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