The Dead Drop: August 14

New York Times journalist Robert Draper had a lengthy story over the weekend which alleged that U.S. intelligence officials writing a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Russian efforts to interfere with the upcoming 2020 election pulled some punches to avoid annoying the Commander in Chief. The story quotes former DNI Dan Coats on the record saying one of his staffers requested that he modify the assessment and that Coats declined. Shortly thereafter, the president showed Coats the door – earlier than expected.  The implication in the article is that the NIE had something to do with his departure (though sources tell us there was already growing frustration on both sides of the relationship). The new acting DNI and other officials presided over the completion of the NIE which contained softened language. Instead of saying (as initially drafted) that the Russians favored the current president, it allegedly just said they figured their chances of improved relations with the U.S. would diminish with a different person in the Oval Office. Former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell tweeted that if the story is true “it is the first example the public knows of the IC tailoring a written product to avoid angering POTUS. That would be the IC politicizing its own work.” Well, are the allegations true? DNI John Ratcliffe’s office issued a statement saying “This hyperpartisan smear piece with demonstrably false accusations against both the Trump Administration and the nonpartisan men and women of the Intelligence Community is embarrassing even for The New York Times.”  That raises an obvious question.  What accusations in the piece are “demonstrably false”?  ODNI Director of Strategic Communications Amanda Schoch Tweeted after the NYTimes piece was published that “Reports that a National Intelligence Estimate was manipulated or politicized are patently false. We stand by the integrity of our analytic process and the dedicated Intelligence Community officers who serve this nation.” We dug a little deeper and an Intelligence Community official told us “The piece lacks an understanding of the rigorous and collaborative analytic process, mischaracterizes events, and confuses loosely sourced assumptions with facts.”  A source familiar with the coordination process shared with The Dead Drop that the timelines in the NYTimes article aren’t accurate and said they seem to have been changed to ‘advance a false thesis’.  Well, glad we got to the bottom of that one.

BEIRUT’S BAD LUCK CONTINUES: Is there any city on the planet with more bad experience at falling victim to explosions? Beirut was the scene of a horrific bombing of the U.S. embassy on April 1983 which resulted in 63 deaths.  On October 23 of the same year, the U.S. Marine Barracks was bombed, killing 241 U.S. military personnel, and a barracks housing French paratroopers was also bombed killing 58 more.  So, it was entirely understandable when a massive explosion took place in Beirut on August 4, that a lot of people jumped to the conclusion that it must have been a bomb.  Initially, President Trump said that “his generals” told him it looked like an attack by a bomb of some kind.  But  Secretary of Defense Esper backed off from that – and then backed off from his back off. We noticed that former CIA officer Bob Baer jumped into the fray on saying that based on his extensive experience in the Middle East (and after looking at the videos) he was convinced that “this is not just ammonium nitrate.” Baer was not saying the explosion was an attack, but he was convinced that there were military explosives involved. “You look at that orange ball (of fire), and it’s clearly…a military explosive.”  But some other experts disagree.  For example, Rachel Lance, a biomedical engineer writing for says “the chemical rearrangement of ammonium nitrate answers a lot of the public questions about the videos”  and without getting all Bill Nye on you here –she says one of the byproducts of ammonium nitrate is the red or orange hued plumes. The folks at Bellingcat also did a deep dive on the science and say while an official explanation has yet to be confirmed, the signs all point to the 2.700 tons of ammonium nitrate that has been sitting in the port since 2013.

The Cipher Brief has become the most popular outlet for former intelligence officers; no media outlet is even a close second to The Cipher Brief in terms of the number of articles published by formers.” —Sept. 2018, Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 62

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