Dead Drop: June 2

JARED-GATE: Former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell explained earlier this week in The Cipher Brief why we should not “Over Connect the Dots on Jared Kushner’s Russia Dealings.”  And just about every high visibility talking head has been asked to weigh in with the media on reports that First Son-in-Law, Jared Kushner suggested setting up a secret communications channel with the Russians during the presidential transition period.   We collected a few of the comments:

  • General Michael Hayden:  On CNN “…what manner of ignorance, chaos, hubris, suspicion, contempt would you have to think that doing this with the Russian ambassador was a good or appropriate idea?”
  • John McLaughlin: On MSNBC: “the first reaction would be ‘is this a prank? …I can’t keep out of my mind that if an American intelligence officer had done anything like this, we’d consider it espionage.”
  • Former NCIS official Malcolm Nance: (Also on MSNBC) “This one incident requires Jared Kushner and all of his immediate staff to have their clearances pulled right now and to have the FBI descend on there and to determine whether this is hostile intelligence in the White House, one step from the president.”
  • Former Assistant DCI Mark Lowenthal in the Washington Post: “If you’re going to create a back channel that relies solely on the Russian communications and apparatus, that’s a really serious issue.”
  • Senator John McCain on CBS: “I know some administration officials are saying this is standard procedure,” he said. “I don’t think it’s standard procedure prior to the inauguration of the president of the United States by someone who is not in an appointed position.”
  • Former CIA and FBI official Phil Mudd on CNN: “We don’t know what he said and whether anything he said was either inappropriate or illegal,” and the “conversation about treason and espionage has to stop.”
  • National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster in a White House briefing: “We have back-channel communications with a number of countries. So, generally speaking, about back-channel communications, what that allows you to do is to communicate in a discreet manner.” adding “No, I would not be concerned about it.”
  • Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on Fox News Sunday: “Any channel of communication back or otherwise is a good thing,” and  “It doesn’t bother me.”

IRAN-A-RISK: The folks at continue to dig through the CIA’s recently made public, user-friendly CREST database searching for interesting stuff.  This week they turned up an October 1978 memo in which CIA Director Stansfield Turner reports on a conversation with national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in which Zbig asks about what’s all this opposition to the Shah of Iran?  The question may have come a little late – since the Shah was deposed less than four months later. In its response, the Agency was uncomplimentary of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, saying he presented no specific program but was “rich in pious generalities.”  CIA did nail it when talking about planned U.S. investment in Iran, saying such expenditures were “probably dead for the present.”

EAR WORMS: The website has collected ten songs that it says was used by the CIA and the military to “torture” detainees.  They helpfully provide links to YouTube videos for each song in case you want to crank your amp up to 11 and sing along.  We are not sure how accurate (or complete) the list is – but agree that forcing someone to listen to the “Meow Mix” commercial is cruel and inhuman.

STUMP THE STARS: Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones was asked to brief the State Department press corps on Tuesday regarding the President’s recent trip. A reporter asked why State criticizes Iranian elections but never Saudi Arabia.  Jones took a deep breath, said “umm” a couple times and then paused for 20 full seconds before trying an answer. To see how long a twenty second pause is – check out the video on  Caution.  Do not adjust your computer.  It is not frozen.  This is just diplomacy at work.

IT DON’T MEAN A THING, IF YOU AIN’T GOT THAT BLING: Much was made a couple weeks ago when the Saudis presented President Trump with a very flashy necklace.  It was the “Order of King Abdulaziz”  — also known as the “Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud.” Some critics noted that Trump appeared to bow when receiving the award.  As nice as it is – we understand that President Obama received a similar award, six months into his first administration, and President’s Bush (43) and Clinton also landed the snazzy chain. Oh, and Vladimir Putin has one too.  The Dead Drop hears, however, that the Saudi’s made sure that the version given to Trump contained more gold and diamonds than usual – a sure way to impress the recipient.

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

  • UFOlogy: has an interview with “UFOlogist” Steven Greer about Greer’s theory that the government is hiding the truth about alien visits.  Greer says that many aliens have been killed in crash landings on earth. Interviewer Amanda Marcotte asked him how come the visitors “cannot stick the landing.”
  • Semper What?  The website chose Memorial Day to publish an essay titled, “The Marine Corps has a ‘toxic masculinity’ problem.”
  • Foam of the Brave:  AFP reports this week on Theresa McCulla, who ditched a career as a CIA analyst focusing on “European media” – for a job as the “brewing historian” for the National Museum of American History. Talking like an intelligence analyst, McCulla says beer allows us “to ask questions about immigration, labor, consumer taste, advertising… You can look at any era of history and use beer as an engaging lens to look into it.”

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:

  • General Mike Hayden, former CIA and NSA Director, told the Washington Times that U.S. leaders should feel “a sense of disappointment and shame” over American leaks of British intelligence regarding the Manchester bombing.
  • John McLaughlin told the New York Times that he did not blame the British for temporarily halting intelligence sharing with the U.S. in response to the leaks. “It’s particularly damaging in a terrorism case,” he said.
  • Michael Morell on CBS-TV’s Face the Nation Sunday said that the President’s strategic shift to focus on Iran as expressed in his recent trip to the Middle East was “positive.” Adding that the President “reassured Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab allies there that we will have their back on Iran, which they see is an existential threat to them. They didn’t believe that President Obama had their back. They now believe President Trump does.”
  • Former DNI James Clapper on CNN talking about how Russia “absolutely” meddled in the 2016 U.S. election.

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

Jim Jeffrey, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey:

I’m reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital in 21st Century, a deep dive into the economic roots of our middle class malaise. The headline is the happy economic social and political regime we take as given—the sunny late 40’s through early 70’s—was a historical anomaly generated by the liberal order’s effort to save itself from physical, ideological, and economic disaster of 1914-1945. The result was a shift away from capital towards labor in national accounts. The current situation represents a “return” to “normal” since the 18th century of a tilt towards capital and thus huge income disparities and despair of lower and lower middle classes. Grim. Controversial. But a guide.  


“Reaching out to the Russians during the transition is not necessarily a crime.  It may be bad policy, but it is not necessarily a crime.  I thought, “Okay, something else to be investigated, but certainly not a smoking gun.”  Whether a crime was committed, of course, depends entirely on the intent of the outreach and on what was discussed and decided – all of which we do not know with any degree of certainty.”

-Michael Morell, former Acting and Deputy Director of the CIA.

What hits or misses did you pick up?  You can slip them to The Dead Drop anonymously – no thumb drives required.  Send your thoughts to [email protected]