The Complex

This Congressman Kept the U.S. and China From Exploring Space Together

Long-serving Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia announced his retirement on Tuesday -- a move that's being met with cheers across America's, and the world's, space community. The congressman has repeatedly, consistently used his position as chairman of the relevant appropriations subcommittee to thwart international cooperation in space.

Perhaps his most consequential -- and most ridiculous -- legacy: Year after year, Wolf did everything he could to utterly prevent NASA from working with China in any capacity.

Space is unique in its borderlessness; a satellite could fly over dozens of nations in a single orbit. It is also mind-bogglingly expensive, so cooperation between national space programs -- sharing the massive costs and risks -- is very common, and increasingly so. Because of its inherently international status, everything about using space -- from communications frequencies to orbital slots -- has to be hammered out by international agreement, or at least discussed among the international community. China has one of the foremost space programs in the world, and it lags behind only Russia and the United States (and in some cases Europe) in virtually all measures. (And in some others China has pulled ahead.) On the topic of space, where international cooperation is so crucial not simply for coordination of national programs but cooperating for mutual benefit, it would be terribly counterproductive to wholly ignore such a participant, wouldn't it?

Not according to Wolf. Under legislation sponsored and largely championed by Wolf, NASA is wholly prohibited from spending money on any collaboration with China. That means no NASA employees attending Chinese-sponsored conferences, it means no calls to the Chinese National Space Agency on NASA phones, it definitely means no putting components or scientific instruments on one another's spacecraft (for reference, NASA's Curiosity rover has crucial parts and instruments from Canada, Germany, Spain, Finland, Russia, and many others). "If my Chinese counterpart comes here, I'm forbidden to even buy him a cup of coffee," said one high-ranking NASA employee after yet another Wolf missive landed on his desk.

In fact the U.S. ban means a one-or-the-other choice for other nations: Because the United States cannot collaborate with China on any international projects, partners must all spend money either in a U.S. partnership or a Chinese one. It is said that China wanted to buy in to the International Space Station consortium, a program that could certainly use the money, but was barred from doing so by U.S. refusal. So China launched its own space station, Tiangong-1, and is planning a much larger and more capable follow-on. In scientific and economic realms, U.S. institutions are busy forging bonds in China that affect the policy of both governments. Space can be a unique, mutually beneficial stage for collaboration and geopolitical trust-building measures; instead, it is currently a matter of distrust and fear.

Few doubt (at least publicly) that Wolf's concern is genuine. In 1996, before most of these regulations, a Chinese rocket carrying an American satellite blew up after launch, and China used the subsequent investigation to get the secrets of the satellite's design. The result was a modification of the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR) law, placing satellites, spacecraft, and related components solidly on the United States Munitions List (USML) and removing authority to reclassify from the president. Placement on the USML means long and arduous reviews by the government to even discuss relevant plans with foreign nationals. The change was a disaster for the U.S. space manufacturing industry. The space industry is both highly competitive and highly international, and the new demands added costs and complications that many foreign companies simply declined to bear.

A famous incident was that of Bo Jiang, a contractor working on optics at NASA Langley. Suspicion first fell on Bo when Rep. Wolf held a press conference to declare that anonymous NASA employees had advised him of security lapses regarding Bo, who was detained at the airport before his departure to China. At the same press conference, Wolf called on NASA to take down all public information for a security review, including the voluminous NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS) that contains virtually the sum-total of NASA's scientific studies, and begin a massive review of all foreign nationals at NASA. Bo was released, cleared of espionage, and NTRS came back online with almost zero changes. NASA, highly technical administration that it is, employs and contracts a large number of foreigners, and the disruption was enormous.

This is but one issue stemming from Wolf, at great frustration to NASA's employees. Wolf's legacy in preventing cooperation with China will almost certainly be reversed eventually -- the costs of such stringent legislation are simply too great to ignore. In the meantime, Wolf's retirement will bring an end to one of the most adversarial relationships NASA has with its political overseers.

Who replaces Wolf at the subcommittee's helm is yet to be determined, but it is difficult to envision another chairman so disparaging. Many NASA employees will breathe a happy sigh of relief tonight.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Complex

NSA’s Top Geek: ‘I Don’t Know’ If There’s Another Snowden

On June 17, Chris Inglis, the deputy director of the National Security Agency, and Lonny Anderson, the agency's director of technology, went to the White House to brief officials on one of the biggest leaks of classified information in U.S. history. Eight days earlier, a former NSA contractor named Edward Snowden had publicly identified himself as the source of the leaks, which by that point had revealed some of the most secretive and controversial collection programs in the agency -- and more revelations were certainly to come.

White House officials asked Anderson, who manages the agency's computer networks, point blank: "Is there another Snowden?"

"I don't know," Anderson replied. As he recalled months later, "That wasn't the answer they were hoping to hear."

It was a frightening conclusion, but a logical one. That's because, contrary to much of what's been reported about Snowden's work at the NSA, it wasn't his position as a systems administrator and the broad access to networks and databases that came with it that allowed him to steal so many secrets. Rather, Anderson said, "the lion's share" of the information Snowden obtained was available to him because of his top-secret security clearance -- TS/SCI -- which allowed him to access so-called sensitive compartmented information.

That's an important distinction, because it means any number of the thousands of people at the NSA with the same clearance level could have done what Snowden did -- not just the smaller number of systems administrators, who have a kind of "super user" access that isn't granted to all other employees. That helps explain why Anderson couldn't tell the White House that there were no more Snowdens. Theoretically, there could have been thousands of them.

Anderson, who's part of the NSA's senior leadership team, is one of the few officials who knows what Snowden took, how he took it, and whether another individual could disclose the same amount of information. In a recent interview with the Lawfare blog, which will be aired on Wednesday as part of a podcast series, he offered fresh details about how Snowden made off with so many secrets, and how the NSA is dealing with the fallout.

The agency has greatly expanded the number of people with those high-level clearances in order to encourage employees to share information. Anderson said that 70 percent of NSA's current workforce joined after the Sept. 11 attacks, when it became the official policy of the intelligence community to expand access to secrets.

When it came time to remove NSA documents, "[Snowden's] tactics, techniques and procedures were pretty simple," Anderson said. One of Snowden's jobs was to move documents from one part of the NSA network to another, where they were to be "tagged," making it easier to keep track of who was reading the documents and sharing them. Ironically, this tagging process, which had been underway for some time, was done in part to know if personnel were improperly accessing or copying documents from the NSA networks.

"He set up a process that allowed him repeatedly to pull data off the system using his job to move data from one environment to another," Anderson said, using his job as a "cover for action."

The NSA wasn't clueless about what Snowden was doing, but apparently no one knew his motivations. "He was not a ghost. It's not like he was so stealthy that we didn't see his activities. But it was part of his job description" to move the documents from one place to another, Anderson said.

He added, "Where I think we were negligent -- if we were negligent -- where we were is that we allowed him some form of anonymity as he did that. Someone wasn't watching all of that. So the lesson learned for us is that you've got to remove anonymity from the network." Eventually, Anderson said, everyone on NSA's internal networks will be tracked. "Nobody on the network, from the director on down...can do anything on the network that's not observed," he said, a description that seems at odds with NSA's reputation for being able to track other people's movements.

In cases where Snowden did use his systems administrator privilege to obtain information, it was "to get access to some data that he normally wouldn't have been able to see," Anderson said. He made clear that this was a small portion of what Snowden ultimately took. But it points to another breakdown in the NSA's internal controls, and it's another reason why the agency has slashed the number of people with that kind of "privileged access" to the networks -- by 30 percent, Anderson said.

What Snowden could do as a systems administrator, as opposed to an employee without those privileges, was to "exfiltrate," or remove data from the NSA networks, Anderson said. "That, a normal user would not have been able to do." He acknowledged that the NSA's information control regime  is not currently designed to alert officials when documents are being removed by a systems administrator. That's going to change, Anderson said. In the future, individuals will also be locked out of the networks if they remove data without authorization.

Anderson objected to some of Snowden's more alarming assertions about what else he was able to do while working at the secretive intelligence agency, namely that he had the ability to order up wiretaps on individual citizens, including President Obama.

"He couldn't have," Anderson said. Snowden didn't access raw signals intelligence -- the phone calls or e-mails that the NSA collects -- but rather documents about NSA programs and policies, Anderson explained.

Despite the shock to the system that Snowden created inside NSA, Anderson said that the agency will not revert to its earlier policies of more strictly limiting information. "We can't go back to pre 9/11 ‘need to know,'" unless "it's broader than what it was," Anderson said. Somewhere between restricting access to information to only a few people, and making it available to thousands, the NSA is going to have to find its sweet spot.

"Our whole approach has been, this happened, and now we're going to fix it," Anderson said.

Anderson said that employees at an NSA facility in Hawaii where Snowden worked and copied the secret documents "are particularly hard hit" by the revelations. "He sat next to them. They helped him become a better systems administrator. They helped him write script. They helped him learn how to use the tools that he used against us... because they thought he was one of them."

Anderson's message to the Hawaii employees reflects the broader reaction at the NSA to one of the most damaging security breaches in history: It could have happened to anyone. "Snowden could have happened anywhere," he told them. "He could have happened here. He could have happened at any other place at NSA. He could have happened at any place in the [intelligence community]. And he could have happened in any place across the government."

That remains to be seen. The NSA in still in the midst of an investigation into Snowden's leaks, led by Richard Ledgett, who's likely to become the next deputy director of the agency, replacing Chris Inglis, according to sources with knowledge of the matter. What recommendations for action he makes may have a lot to do with just how scathing a forthcoming report by a presidential review panel is about NSA's internal security. Reportedly, the panel has recommended "dozens of changes to structure, transparency and internal security."

NSA employees may be dusting themselves off after Snowden's leaks. But a house cleaning could also be in their future.