Dead Drop: June 30

HUGE: HUGH HEWITT HALF HOUR:  MSNBC  has given a Saturday morning TV show to conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt. A lot of left-leaning outfits are not too happy about that, arguing MSNBC is their home turf – a counter to Fox News.  They are unhappy that Hewitt’s toehold in the weekend lineup (he gets just 30 minutes at 8 a.m. on Saturdays) means that their favorite network is tilting slightly right. In his first show on June 24th, Hewitt interviewed CIA Director Mike Pompeo who told Hewitt that President Trump is an “avid consumer” of intelligence reports. Pompeo railed against leaks saying they are in part fueled by the “worship” of leakers like Edward Snowden.

SEZ WHO?  Less noticed in Hewitt’s interview with the CIA chief was Pompeo’s efforts to downplay the importance of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. “The intelligence community has said that this election was meddled with by the Russians in a way that frankly is not particularly original,” he said. “They’ve been doing this for an awfully long time, and we are decades into the Russians trying to undermine American democracy.” He added, “So in some ways there’s no news, but it certainly puts a heightened emphasis on our ability to figure out how to stop them.”

That is a dramatically different take than the view of senior officials from the last administration.  The Washington Post’s lengthy “Hacking Democracy” story over the weekend included Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough describing Russian interference in 2016 as an attack on the “heart of our system.” And former acting CIA Director Michael Morell told The Cipher Brief in December that he viewed reports of Russian interference as “the political equivalent of 9/11.”  One Russia-watcher told us, “earlier Soviet attempts to interfere were limited in scope and scale (placement of articles in newspapers and magazines) compared to this effort, which was massive in scope and scale.  The difference between a couple of rifle shots and a fully loaded B-2 with 2,000 pound bombs.”

BACK CHANNELS ARE BACK:  Speaking of Pompeo and leaks, the New York Times reported late last week that the CIA Director Pompeo  engaged in secret talks with his Syrian counterpart, Ali Mamlouk, in an effort to free Austin Tice, an American journalist, who is believed to be a prisoner of the Syrian government. The NYT reports that the initial call sparked further communications but in the end proved fruitless..

STATE OF DISARRAY? Something to shout about.  Politico reported Thursday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is so frustrated with interference and leaking from White House staffers that he blew his lid last week in a meeting in Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’s office. Four people, familiar with the encounter, then leaked the details. What is at the heart of the matter?   The Washington Post reported recently that Tillerson is insisting on appointing nominees who have certain skills, while the White House wants them to have demonstrated strong loyalty to the President. Apparently, the universe of people who fit in both categories is somewhat limited.  One demographic which seems to be favored is sport team moguls.  Last week the White House announced the President’s intent to nominate Woodie Johnson, owner of the New York Jets, to be Ambassador to the U.K. and Jamie McCourt former owner of the LA Dodgers to be Ambassador to Belgium. Hey NFL fans:  share with us your recommendations for where controversial Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder might be sent.

UNIFORMLY STUPID: It is not often you hear an Inspector General describe a decision as “stupid,” but an editorial in the Military Times newspapers quotes the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction saying a decision by the former Afghan Defense Minister  to outfit Afghan troops in “forest camouflage” uniforms “just simply stupid.”  The selection is reportedly a pattern which “boldly stands out in the vast majority of Afghan environs.”  The U.S.  has spent about $28 million on the outfits, even paying a 40% markup premium. The result, Military Times says, makes “Afghan troops sharp-dressed targets.”  Of course, DoD is no slouch at making bad choices when it comes to uniforms – for example making sailors wear “digital blue” camo, which ensures they blend in with the sea if they fall overboard.  That is like designing school crossing guard uniforms so that they blend in with pavement.

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

  • Lordy, There Were Tapes!’s latest discovery from CIA’s Crest database is a 1954 memo which seems to suggest that the CIA believed Senator Joe McCarthy’s staff bugged Agency officers.  Apparently, Tail-Gunner Joe was looking for commies but only found people who were cavalier in handling federal funds.
  • Chairman of the Board (Game):  Last July, the Dead Drop had an item about veteran CIA analyst Volko Ruhnke who designs board games – both in the private sector and as part of his Agency training mission. Now the gaming website, Polygon, has published an interview with Ruhnke in which he explains his work on behalf of the Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis at the Agency.
  • “Spidey Senses”: Two former CIA clandestine service officer combined to publish a list of 15 tips for parents traveling with kids to try to stay safe.    The tips range from threat assessment to listening to your “spidey senses” to avoid waking up “naked and penniless in some alley.”  Yeah, we hate it when that happens. And it is a bummer for the kids.

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)

Tom Kennedy, Raytheon CEO “

One interesting read, which ties into cybersecurity, is a book called Ghost Fleet, by P.W. Singer and August Cole. It typifies how cyber is going to impact war and defense, but in that you can also see how cyber can affect the commercial world. Drones, high energy lasers, the Zumwalt were all there in the book, so actually a lot of our products were actually in that book.”


“As described by a former colleague who was leading the effort, the periodic desire to work with the Russians on terrorism is akin to someone who buys a baboon as a pet, only to be surprised to have their face ripped off.  Then, after recovering, goes out and buys another baboon.   “How many times do we have to get our faces ripped off by the Russians before we realize that we have fundamentally different goals?”

-John Sipher, former member of the CIA Senior Intelligence Service

TIP YOUR SERVER:  Got any gossipy news nuggets that are yearning to be free?  Drop us a line at [email protected] and share the wealth.  No one will track it back to you.  Promise.