Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Director of Nation Intelligence (DNI)) James Clapper have recommended that National Security Agency (NSA) director Adm. Michael Rogers be removed from his position, according to a Nov. 19 report in the Washington Post.
The recommendation was delivered to the White House in October, the newspaper reported based on information of “several U.S. officials familiar with the matter.”
Rogers has led the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command since April 2014. In that role Carter and Clapper both act as his supervisors. Rogers’ term at the NSA and Cyber Command is due to end in this spring.
The call for Rogers’s dismissal has several components. Despite being brought on following the Edward Snowden information release to make sure such disclosures did not repeat, “Instead, in the past year and a half, officials have discovered two major compromises of sensitive hacking tools by personnel working at the NSA’s premier hacking unit: the Tailored Access Operations (TAO).” the report said. One involved Booz Allen Hamilton [BAH] contractor Harold Martin III who is accused of carrying out the largest theft of government material. Some of his activities took place before Rogers headed the agency, but some of it continued on his watch while some of the most sensitive tools were breached, officials said in the report.
Martin was arrested in August after moving from a job at the NSA to a Defense Department acquisitions agency. His theft was discovered when some of the tools he is accused of stealing were released on the Internet in August. This included computer code “based on obscure software flaws that could be used to take control of firewalls and networks.” An unnamed former TAO operator characterized this as the “keys to the kingdom” in the report.
The Washington Post report disclosed a second previously unrevealed breach of cybertools discovered in the summer of 2015, also carried out by a TAO employee. This person was also arrested, but the case has not been made public and the individual is not thought to have shared the information with other countries, the report said.
Following these incidents Rogers “was put on notice” by Clapper and Carter that he had to get better control of internal security and improve his leadership style. The report noted that “there have been persistent complaints from NSA personnel that Rogers is aloof, frequently absent and does not listen to staff input.”
FBI agents investigating the Martin case were reportedly “appalled” at how lax security was at the TAO. A “senior administration official” said in the report that Rogers has led the agency at the time of some of the most egregious security breaches and that while it is clearly a large bureaucracy, “I think there’s a compelling case that can be made that some of the safeguards that should have been put in place were either not fully put in place or not implemented properly.”
The report also highlighted that Carter has been unimpressed with Rogers’ handling of Cyber Command’s offensive against ISIL/the Islamic State. Officials reportedly said cyber operations against the group’s networks in Syria and Iraq have not provided much utility. U.S. hackers did successfully disrupt some ISIL networks in the previous month, but this as the first time, officials said.
The report said the previous expectation has been that Rogers would be replaced before November’s election, as part of an announcement about the change of the leadership structure at the NSA and Cyber Command. This was originally not meant to be any kind of public firing, an official said in the report. If this had occurred, President Obama would appoint an acting NSA director to allow his successor to nominate their own choice.
Rogers’ replacement plan was delayed because of its connection to Carter and Clapper’s plan to separate the NSA and Cyber Command into separate chains of command with separate leaders. The separation was stalled by other issues, including Congressional opposition.
Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain (R-Ariz.) threatened to block any nominee in this situation if the administration also proceeded with a plan to split the leadership into two positions at NSA and Cyber Command. McCain is reportedly concerned that placed Cyber Command under its own leadership will reduce its effectiveness because it is presently very dependent on the NSA for capabilities.
On Nov 21 McCain released a letter to Carter urging him to suspend any efforts to develop and implement rules and regulations at the department that would change long-standing policy during the presidential transition and lame-duck session of Congress.
The argument to split the two cyber positions is that their missions are often fundamentally different, the spies and military hackers should not compete to use the same networks, and the job of leading both organizations is too vast for one person, the report said.
Concurrently, Rogers announced a major NSA reorganization plan in February, NSA21, to better change for the future. That plan had Rogers merge the NSA’s spying and hacking arms with the computer-security division into a single Directorate of Operations. Current and former officials said this effort deepened discontent with Rogers because “Any leader knows that when you institute change, you have to be there. You have to help heal the wounds, be very active. He was not.”
According to the Washington Post, Rogers spurred extra consternation because he traveled to New York to meet with President-Elect Trump on Nov. 17 without notifying superiors. Rogers is reportedly being considered as Trump’s nominee to replace Clapper as DNI. Officials commenting for the report said this visit was “apparently unprecedented for a military officer.”
In response to the Washington Post article, several Republicans expressed concerns.
Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, sent a letter to Carter and Clapper on Nov. 19 asking them to provide an explanation of the report’s allegations.
“Since Admiral Rogers was appointed as NSA Director in April 2014, I have been consistently impressed with his leadership and accomplishments,” Nunes said in the letter.
Nunes also said he is concerned the article may contain unauthorized disclosures of classified information. Nunes said he will convene an open-session hearing soon so the panel can understand the truth in the report and the impact of the proposed separation of NSA and Cyber Command.
Similarly, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, released a statement on Nov. 20 saying he is concerned about the proposed NSA-Cyber Command changes.
"I am concerned by press reports that the Obama Administration is considering changing the relationship between U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, as well as their leadership, on its way out the door. The new administration should have the opportunity to review the situation and to make any decisions.”
McCain also released a statement on Nov. 20 supporting Rogers. “Any suggestion that Admiral Rogers should be fired is certainly unwarranted. He has my full confidence, and I hope he will have further opportunities to serve our country,” he said.