The Complex

Next NSA Chief Urges Transparency … Then Says Nothing

There is little doubt that Adm. Michael Rogers will be confirmed as the next head of the National Security Agency and the U.S. military's Cyber Command. Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) even preemptively congratulated Rogers during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, drawing chuckles from the nominee. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who introduced Rogers to the committee (and has known Rogers since high school), said that, "Being a Republican, I have not supported a lot of the nominees of the president," but that "this is the best American you could have picked for the job."

Rogers has been tapped to succeed Gen. Keith Alexander, who will retire later this month. He'll take the helm of an NSA in crisis, struggling under new scrutiny that has resulted from former contractor Edward Snowden's ongoing leaks about its secret surveillance efforts.

Snowden is living in exile in Moscow, but he cast a shadow over the hearing all the same. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) asked whether the NSA was infringing on the rights of ordinary citizens by collecting reams of so-called metadata on their phone calls, emails, and web surfing. The spy agency, he said, should instead focus its efforts on targeting individual militants and terror threats. "It seems to me," Cruz said, "the focus overall of our intelligence and defense community and law enforcement community is directed far too much at law-abiding citizens and far too little at individualized bad actors."

Cruz is an ultra-conservative Republican, but his comments echoed remarks Snowden made in a video presentation at Austin's SXSW technology conference. Speaking by video from Moscow yesterday, Snowden said that large-scale surveillance could be an obstacle to actually identifying terrorists, citing the Boston Marathon bombing and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 2009 "underwear bomber," as threats that were missed because the NSA was processing overwhelming quantities of effectively useless data.

Cruz followed up with questions about the Boston bombing and the Fort Hood shooting, which Rogers declined to answer.

In the months since his name first leaked as the Pentagon's choice for the job, an array of prominent current and former officers have argued that he is uniquely qualified for the job. Retired Adm. James Stavridis, the former head of the military's European command, called him "a walking résumé for this job." If there were any lingering doubts that he could also meet the political requirements of leading the embattled spy agency, that seems resolved now. Rogers, it turns out, is a consummate politician: He consistently suggested that he agreed with members of the committee, even as he just as consistently refused to give direct answers to their questions.

Rogers, for instance, repeatedly stressed that the NSA needed to be as clear with the public about what it does as possible. "I would attempt to be as transparent as possible with the broader nation about what we're doing and why. I would try to ensure a sense of accountability about what the National Security Agency does," he said. "The nation places a great deal of trust in this organization. It has an incredibly important mission. It's a mission that involves attention in our society, given the fact that the fundamental rights of the individual are so foundational to our very concept of a nation. I welcome a dialogue on this topic, I think it's important for us as a nation. I look forward to being part of that dialogue."

That dialogue, though, didn't take place during this morning's hearing.

"As a nominee," Rogers said, he "could not comment on the value of the [NSA's metadata collection program]." Nor, he said, was he prepared to discuss potential cyber-vulnerabilities in U.S. infrastructure without moving to a closed session. He demurred on questions about what the NSA could have done differently to prevent the Boston Marathon bombing and the Fort Hood shooting, citing a lack of familiarity with the intelligence efforts involved.

"To what extent do you believe Russia is conducting cyberattacks against the Ukraine, and what could the U.S. do to help the Ukraine better defend itself against cyberattacks from Russia?" asked Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH).

"In an open, unclassified forum, I am not prepared to comment on the specifics of nation-state behavior," Rogers replied. (Though he went on to clarify that "As we will work with the Ukrainians and others to figure out what are the best ways to address [their issues], whether it's the Ukrainians ask for specific technological assistance -- I think we'd have to work through everything on a case-by-case basis.")

Later in the hearing, Rogers said that he understands the reasons behind the pressure for the NSA to become more transparent. The discussion frequently circled back to the leaked information about the agency's surveillance programs. Rogers said he supported new policies to move NSA-collected metadata to a third-party organization. "I believe with the right construct we could make that work," he told the committee. Rogers also agreed with Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) that telecommunications service providers should be legally protected for sharing information with the government, saying that they should be afforded "some level of liability protection" and that businesses would be "much less inclined" to share their data without legal safeguards.

He also discussed -- obliquely, of course -- the NSA's internal investigation into the records stolen by Snowden and reiterated, as Snowden said yesterday, that "the United States government ... still [has] no idea what documents were provided to the journalists, what they have, what they don't have."

"We have an in depth and analytic effort ongoing within the department to determine that," Rogers said. "We have tried to identify exactly what the implications are of what he took."

Rogers said that the Snowden leaks had given U.S. adversaries "greater insights into what we do and how we do it" and said that the disclosures had increased the risks to American lives, though he did not specify how. But he declined to join Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in calling Snowden a "traitor."

"I don't know that I would use the world ‘traitor,'" said Rogers, "but I do not consider him to be a hero."

Though much of the hearing focused on the challenges the NSA is facing, Rogers also made clear that he believed cyber capabilities would play an increasingly important role in the wars of the future. "Clearly, cyber will be an element of almost any crisis we're going to see in the future," Rogers said. "It has been in the past; I believe we see it today in the Ukraine, we've seen it in Syria, Georgia -- it is increasingly becoming a norm."

Rogers, despite pressure from members of the committee, refused to discuss the details of a high-profile cyberattack on an unclassified Navy Intranet that took place during his tenure as the Navy's chief of cybersecurity.

"As a matter of policy and for operational security reasons, we have never categorized who, exactly, publicly penetrated the network," he told Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK).

"Well, no," said Inhofe, "this has been discussed in an unclassified session for quite some time, that we're talking about Iran in this case."

"I'm sorry, sir, not to my knowledge," replied Rogers, who carefully omitted Iran from his discussion of the incident. Speaking about the cyberattack, Rogers said that the damage done "was of concern," but that "they did not decide to engage in any destructive behaviors. My concern was 'what if that was their intent?'"

All of which suggests that Rogers will be a fitting successor to Alexander. He has mastered the NSA's ability to pay lip-service to transparency, while publicly saying very little.

Rogers will likely be confirmed before Alexander's retirement later this month.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

U.S. Navy Stepping Up Involvement in Search for Missing Airliner

The Malaysia Airlines flight that mysteriously disappeared 35,000 feet over the Gulf of Thailand on March 8 has prompted a massive maritime search involving dozens of aircraft and ships from 10 countries, including both the United States and China. But it has also underscored the lingering technological shortcomings and fragile communications networks bedeviling many of the nations in a region where territorial and political disputes continue to simmer, analysts said.

The U.S. Navy has dispatched two guided-missile destroyers, the USS Kidd and the USS Pinckney, to assist in a search now spanning waters from Malaysia to Vietnam. The ships each carry two MH-60R Seahawk helicopters that are designed for search-and-rescue missions and equipped with infrared cameras. The U.S. ships are working in tandem with vessels from China, Singapore and Malaysia, Pentagon officials said Monday, but it wasn't immediately clear how much they are in communication. The Pinckney investigated floating debris Sunday, but didn't find any pieces of the missing airplane.

The U.S. effort is bolstered by a single P-3C Orion, a maritime patrol aircraft equipped with high-tech antennas and other surveillance equipment. The plane was originally designed to find enemy submarines. This time around, Navy officials hope it will be able to find wreckage from the presumably downed plane. The U.S. also will keep the USNS John Ericsson, an oiler run by U.S. Military Sealift Command, in the region to help if needed. It will allow the Seahawks to refuel quickly.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was a massive Boeing 777-200 aircraft bound for Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, and disappeared with some 227 passengers and 12 crew members aboard. The other countries involved in the search include Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia, the Philippines and New Zealand.

Thus far, the countries appear to be cooperating reasonably well on the search effort despite it occurring in close proximity with the South China Sea, an area rife with territorial disputes between numerous nations. But the United States is the only nation that has the technological capability of searching deep below the surface for the missing plane, said Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

"Pretty quick, someone is going to have to take the lead on who is going to go out and get the FDRs, the flight data recorders," Harmer said. "We're familiar with the Gulf of Thailand, but somebody has to ask us."

That's where the issues get a little more complicated. The Vietnamese and Malaysians are likely to want taking a leading role in the mission, considering the airline flew out of Kuala Lumpur and disappeared while flying through Vietnamese airspace. Beijing is also likely to take keen interest in what happened because more than 150 of the passengers were from China, according to the airline.

But it's unclear so far which nation will take the overall lead in overseeing the investigation. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said in a statement Saturday that it was sending a team of investigators to an Asian nation to help, but declined to specify the nation.

"The country that leads the investigation will release all information about it," the safety board said in a cryptic statement.

The search for the missing plane is also complicated by the limited technology capabilities of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia, countries which are modernizing their armed forces but still lag generations behind the United States, said Harmer, a former MH-60 helicopter pilot in the U.S. Navy. In most accounts of what occurred, officials have said that the transponder for the airline stopped transmitting its location over the Gulf of Thailand. Left unsaid, he added, is that if aviation officials in those countries had been monitoring the plane more closely they might have still had a sense of where it went down. Aircraft in the region aren't tracked nearly as closely as they are in the United States and Europe, and don't always receive a response when reaching out to air traffic control authorities.

"I can't tell you how many times I called Malaysian air traffic control," he said, "And just wouldn't hear back."

It's also unclear whether previously simmering political tensions between nations in the Pacific will come into play, said Michael Auslin, an expert on Asia issues at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. Cooperation has been reasonably good so far, he said, but it could become more complicated as time progresses.

"Certainly the immediacy of a crisis like this helps with cooperation now," he said. "But I think at some point you could see tensions and concerns based on where the wreckage is found.... It makes things more difficult when you don't have working relationships with trust."

U.S. Navy photo