Dead Drop: July 21

NEXT SHOE TO DROP – GIVING U.S. SPIES THE BOOT? Back in December, when the Obama administration threw 35 alleged Russian intelligence officials out of the U.S. (and shut down Russian compounds in Maryland and New York), a tit-for-tat response seemed inevitable.  But Vladimir Putin elected not to immediately respond – winning him praise from President-elect Trump.   Perhaps the Russians were expecting the Trump administration to quickly return the keys to those “recreational” compounds and allow replacement “diplomats” to take up residences in the U.S.  But since circumstances have not permitted that, the Russian foreign ministry is sending signals that their patience is running thin.  The website IntelligencePost points out that Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, says there are “too many” U.S. intelligence agents in the American Embassy in Moscow. Her boss, Sergey Lavrov, says the seizure of the diplomatic compounds was “outrageous” adding, “We are thinking about particular steps now. I do not believe this should be discussed in public, with all respect for the mass media.”

FLASH GORDON:  On Wednesday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held a confirmation hearing (video here) for Sue Gordon to be the next Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence (PDDNI). As part of the proceedings,  Vice Chairman Senator Mark Warner (D- VA) introduced into the Congressional Record a column about Gordon, by The Cipher Brief publisher and CEO Suzanne Kelly. Warner noted that the column contained a “whole series of wonderful compliments” from people who have worked with Gordon as well as the great expectations being placed on her if she is confirmed into the new role. The nomination of Gordon, who played basketball at Duke, is considered a slam dunk.

FAKE NEWS 2017:  If you were surfing social media sites over the weekend, you might have seen an “explosive” story from some outfit called “YourNewsWire,” which said a dying 79-year-old CIA agent named Malcolm Howard claimed on his deathbed that he was involved in the controlled demolition of World Trade Center 7, the third building brought down on 9/11. has labeled the story false – and notes that YourNewsWire is a well-known fake news site.  The bogus deathbed confession parallels very closely another phony story from the site (run by a former BBC producer), which asserted that a dying MI-5 agent admitted assassinating Princess Diana. Some observers, by the way, assert that YourNewsWire has been “used by the Russians as a proxy site to spread disinformation.”

JOHNNIE WALKER BLACKMAIL? There is a story going around that a hacker, who calls himself “Johnnie Walker,” says he has pilfered a bunch of emails from a private Gmail account of a senior State Department intelligence official who focuses on Russia.  According to accounts in places like Foreign Policy, the archive of emails includes some sent to “CIA officers and other intelligence agencies, mainstream media, NGOs, and international funds” that would “give you evidence of who is responsible for agenda formation in many countries worldwide, especially where the situation is insecure.” Foreign Policy says they are withholding the name of the hacked government official at the request of the State Department. It is unclear why “Johnnie Walker” is spreading the pilfered emails – although a number of experts suggest that the theft looks like the work of the Russians.

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

  • All news is local: Everyone in the news business is getting onboard the Russian meddling train.  KOAT-TV in Albuquerque, NM recently dusted off a five-part investigative series they produced two decades ago about Edward Lee Howard.  The New Mexico-native was a CIA trained operative who the Agency fired – and later defected to the Soviet Union. There is no apparent connection to election meddling, but the current scandal gave KOAT an excuse to roll out interesting interviews they conducted in Moscow with Howard – sometime prior to his 2002 death, a death reportedly caused by a fall.
  • Shred of truth: The Daily Beast reports that the National Archives has given the CIA its tentative approval to destroy a lot of old files the Agency says lack historical value. Among the files are reportedly documents relating to the leak of classified information as well as medical records, security clearance information, and “personality files.” NARA says that significant leak case files are preserved elsewhere – so the housecleaning will have no negative effect.

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:

  • Former DOE and CIA official Rolf Mowatt-Larssen writing in the Washington Post explains that everything we know about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russians last summer “is in line with what intelligence analysts would expect an overture in a Russian influence operation to look like.”
  • The annual Allen & Company event in Sun Valley, ID, attracted its usual crowd of media moguls and tech billionaires like: Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg, Rupert Murdoch, Jeff Bezos, Les Moonves – and Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Current CIA Director Mike Pompeo and his predecessor, John Brennan, were also reported to be there. Also spotted among the attendees were two Cipher Brief Network stalwarts – former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell and retired four-star General Stanley McChrystal. 

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

Daniel Markey, Academic Director of the Global Policy Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies:

“I just finished reading Tom Miller’s China’s Asian Dream and Nadege Rolland’s China’s Eurasian Century? These books are essential correctives for anyone who doubts the significance of what China is doing on its western periphery (as compared to China’s relatively well-covered activities along its eastern seaboard). Both volumes make a compelling case that China’s Belt and Road Initiative is revealing of a broader ambition and an evolving economic and strategic approach to continental Eurasia that will have important global implications.” 


“The Russians had to find out whether [the Trump campaign] was amenable to just having a conversation – they don’t have to commit to anything. The Russians are very good at saying: okay, let’s just take the first, tiny baby step: ‘would you be willing to at least discuss if we had information or a way to help you?’”

-Steve Hall, former member of the Senior Intelligence Service at the CIA

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