Dead Drop: March 3

MISS US? U.S. journalists have started to receive emails from “the Office of Barack Obama” inviting them to sign up for a mailing list to receive “statement notifications and email updates.” The homepage of the Obama website carries a photo of the ex-POTUS and ex-FLOTUS from behind looking out at the Washington Monument and the words: “Welcome to the office of Barack and Michelle Obama.  We love you back.”  POTUS 45 will probably take that as confirmation that the press is in the tank for his predecessor.  No word on where the server containing the media mailing list will be kept.  We’re betting it will not be in the basement of the Obama’s house.

A BILLION HERE, A BILLION THERE: Pretty soon it adds up to real money.  The Department of Homeland Security sent out a notice late last week – announcing that they intend to formally solicit bids to design and build several prototype wall structures “in the vicinity of the United States border with Mexico.”  Some estimates suggest that President Trump’s great wall may cost upwards of $20 billion. Congressional Republicans, however, say that it could be closer to $12 to $15 billion. The procurement process will take place in two phases, according to the announcement. The first phase will require vendors to submit a “concept paper” of their prototype by March 20. In the second phase, a select group of businesses will submit proposals by March 24 in response to a full request for proposal that will include a price. “Multiple awards are contemplated by mid-April for this effort,” CBP said in the posting. “An option for additional miles may be included in each contract award.”  For a piece of $20 billion – it might be worth learning how to build a wall.

OK, SO MAYBE WE WERE WRONG (AGAIN):  In last week’s Dead Drop, we told you that CBS’s White House correspondent Major Garrett had tweeted that Trump Navy Secretary nominee Philip Bilden was pulling out.  But we added that both Sean Spicer – and a more reliable source, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, said it wasn’t so.  This past Sunday – it became so. Politico reported  that Bilden bolted.  Mattis issued a statement saying, “This was a personal decision driven by privacy concerns and significant challenges he faced in separating himself from his business interests.”

DER SPIEGEL REFLECTS ON GERMAN SPYING ON MEDIA: The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel says it has seen evidence that the German intelligence agency, the BND, had apparently been spying on numerous foreign news organizations.  The New York Times account of the story says the BND surveilled “phones, faxes or emails” of organizations including – the Times itself, plus the BBC and Reuters. According to the NYT, the BND issued their standard response to inquiry, which asserts that they “are obliged to explain (their) actions only to the German government or relevant bodies of Parliament.”

CAN HE DO THAT? A lot of people were shocked – and amused – over the weekend when news leaked that White House press secretary Sean Spicer had called an “emergency meeting” of his staff.  When Spicer’s subordinates arrived at his west wing office, they were reportedly directed to place their cell phones (both government-provided and personal) in a basket so a White House lawyer could check for evidence that they had been leaking to reporters – perhaps through the use of encrypted messaging apps. Is that legal?  Experts have told us that White House employees have far fewer rights than typical civil servants.  So, it is likely that the thinking at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was, “You don’t have to allow this search – but you don’t have to work here, either.” Going forward, any White House employee who wants to leak – and is too dumb to get a burner phone for that purpose to leave at home—probably should get fired anyway.

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

  • Mis-taken: NBC premiered its new show called “Taken,” which, according to TV Guide, is about “a former Green Beret who must cope with a great personal tragedy while simultaneously adjusting to his new job as a CIA operative.” The series is (sort of) based on a movie by the same title about an ex-CIA operative.  Only this one is a prequel – except in modern times (not 30 years ago).  We’re guessing that the show will be filled with nail-biting plot twists, particularly since the showrunner, Executive Producer Alexander Cary, comes from the Showtime hit, Homeland.  We’re looking forward to watching the plot unfold.
  • I-Spy: The International Spy Museum is hosting an event on Monday March 6th with Yossi Melman, author of Spies Against ArmageddonThe book describes the Mossad’s efforts against the Iranian nuclear program.  Space is limited – so if you are interested, sign up quickly. In addition to hearing Melman – the sign up site says attendees also get a “bagel and shmear.” 

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 Acting and Deputy Director of the CIA Michael Morell had an OP-ED in the Washington Post this week saying that radicalized U.S. citizens pose a  greater threat to America than do citizens of the countries in President Trump’s travel ban.
  • On Monday, 121 retired generals and admirals signed a letter addressed to Congressional leadership asking that they do not gut the State Department budget. Four members of The Cipher Brief network, Generals Mike Hayden and Keith Alexander, and Admirals Jonathan Greenert and Jim Stavridis were among the signatories.   Stavridis told MSNBC he was among those who helped organize the letter campaign, saying it would be a mistake to increase the defense budget at the expense of soft power.
  • John McLaughlin, former CIA Acting and Deputy Director, told VOA that the assassination of Kim Jong Nam appears to be a strategic move by his half-brother to forestall possible alternative leaders in North Korea.
  • Joe DeTrani, former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea had an OP-ED in the Washington Times Wednesday, saying that while it is understandable that the Trump administration wants to distance itself from the VX using North Korean regime – it was a mistake for them to call off planned unofficial Track 1.5 talks.

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

Ronald Marks, President of Intelligence Enterprises who served 16 years with the Central Intelligence Agency:

“I’ve been re-reading @War – The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex, by Shane Harris.  It’s a fantastic book on the fifth domain of warfare (cyber) and a tour d’horizon of the players and the challenges that lie ahead.”


“In short, the most effective way to defeat the most challenging and elusive aspect of today’s decentralized jihadi threat is not to face it head-on but rather to vigorously attack the environment in which it thrives. It is about treating the soil in which weeds grow, not about cutting the weeds one by one.”

Jacob Olidort, Special Advisor on Middle East Policy and Syria Country Director at the Defense Department

IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING:  Got any tips for your friendly neighborhood Dead Drop?  Shoot us a note at [email protected].