The Complex

Did Obama Order a New Cyber Attack?

On June 21, 2013, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, issued a classified order authorizing the military to conduct an operation in cyberspace. That the order came down through the military chain of command, from President Barack Obama to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and then to Dempsey, seems beyond doubt. The question is, did the military actually launch a cyber attack on a computer network -- which would be one of the few in documented history -- as a result of the order?

That's the intriguing possibility raised by an Air Force document released earlier this month that contains a single, veiled reference to a "execute order," or a command to initiate military operations. One sentence in the 15-page document, which is filled with military jargon, states that command and control procedures governing the Air Force's offensive and defensive operations in cyberspace "are addressed in a classified CJCS Execute Order (title classified) issued on 21 Jun 13." (The acronym refers to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.) The existence of the document was first disclosed by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.

An execute order is the equivalent of a green light for battle. But the document says nothing about whether this particular order was followed by any further instructions or if it precipitated a cyber strike by the Air Force. And it says nothing about what the target might be. The United States used a cyber weapon to disable centrifuges inside an Iranian nuclear plant between 2007 and 2010. If the Air Force order pertains to an actual attack, it would be one of the few documented instances of the military doing battle on a computer network.

But former military intelligence officers, including two with first-hand experience conducting offensive operations on computer networks, urged caution, saying that the document could could be a kind of "standing order" and indicate that the Air Force is gearing up for a possible cyber attack, but not that it has necessarily conducted one. The Army, for instance, has for several years had a standing execute order that describes the duties and responsibilities of all aspects of cyber operations within the Army's own computer networks, but it didn't direct forces to carry out a specific operation, like an attack, said one former official.

An order to strike a computer network would also come from the commander of U.S. Cyber Command, who oversees cyber war and defense for all branches of the armed forces, the formers officials said. The current commander, Gen. Keith Alexander, is expected to step down soon and would be replaced by Adm. Michael Rogers, whose nomination is pending in the Senate. If there had been an attack, it would likely be spelled out in another document, called an "operational order," from the cyber commander, one former official said.

Of course, such an order might exist. The Air Force document makes no mention of one. If Alexander did issue it to Air Force cyber forces, it would probably have been pursuant to the execute order given by Dempsey in June.

The Air Force didn't provide a comment for this article in time for publication.

Even if there was no cyber attack, the document further shows how Obama and his top military advisers have been laying out plans for the military to conduct operations in cyberspace and offers a rare glimpse into the bureaucratic workings of America's growing cyber force. It shows that, just as in conventional operations, rules and regulations, chains of command, and official hierarchies govern nearly every move the military makes.

The military's cyber war plans and the measures it takes to protect government networks are among the most highly classified secrets in the in the military. Senior officials have publicly declared cyberspace a "fifth domain" of operations where the armed forces must be ready to use force -- just as they are on land, in the air, at sea, and in space. And U.S. military and intelligence officials say the threat of cyber attacks from American adversaries, including China, Russia, and Iran, is growing.

The Air Force in particular has some of the most technologically savvy and experienced groups of cyber warriors in the armed forces. In an interview with Foreign Policy last July, Lt. Gen. Michael Basla, the Air Force's chief of information dominance and its chief information officer, said that Obama had begun to lay out lines of authority for conducting cyberspace operations.

Those rules are spelled out in a classified presidential directive that Obama issued in October 2012, but was never published. Revealed last year by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the directive makes clear that only the president can authorize the military to conduct cyber attacks, with the exception that the secretary of defense may give the order in the event of a national emergency, such as an imminent attack on a U.S. power grid or piece of critical infrastructure that could result in loss of life or significant damage to the economy. It also instructs the military to identify potential targets and be prepared to strike at them on the president's order.

The directive went out eight months before the Air Force execute order, suggesting that the latter could be an effort to codify the procedures for conducting a cyber strike should the president ever call for it.

"An execute order like this could describe a specific operation, but it could also be an order to implement a broad-based policy," like the president's directive, one of the former military intelligence officials said.

William Belcher / U.S. Air Force

The Complex

Intel Community Loses Key Defender With Rogers's Retirement

The retirement of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers sent shockwaves through the intelligence community on Friday, as the powerful Republican from Michigan announced his intentions to quit Congress and pursue a career in conservative talk radio. The decision comes as public trust in America's spies, in particular the NSA, is at an all-time low -- making the loss of the one of their staunchest defenders a particularly harsh blow for the beleaguered agencies.

"I have always believed in our founders' idea of a citizen legislature," Rogers said in a statement. "I had a career before politics and always planned to have one after. The genius of our institutions is they are not dependent on the individual temporary occupants privileged to serve."

Rogers will host a national radio show syndicated by Cumulus, which is also home to a range of popular right-wing bomb throwers including Mark Levin, Don Imus and Michael Savage. "We are thrilled to have Chairman Rogers join our team," said Lew Dickey, the CEO of Cumulus.

Rogers has long been one of the most stalwart allies of the intelligence agencies. An Army veteran, he also worked for five years as a special agent in the FBI. As association of former agents endorsed him last year as a potential successor to Robert Mueller as the FBI Director. (President Obama ultimately nominated James Comey, a lawyer and former deputy attorney general.)

In the wake of leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Rogers was a frequent defender of the spy agency's surveillance programs and a vehement critic of Snowden, whom he accused of betraying the United States by giving classified intelligence to foreign governments, an accusation for which Rogers has offered no evidence. This week, Rogers and his senior colleague on the House Intelligence Committee, C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger (D-Md.), proposed legislation to modify the NSA's program of collecting Americans phone records. It mostly comports to a proposal from the Obama administration that would end the NSA's collection of the records, but would still give it access to that information, which would be held by phone companies.

Rogers will be leaving Washington at a precarious time for the agency and U.S. intelligence operations, which are under particular scrutiny by the Senate Intelligence Committee. There, members are expected to vote next week on releasing a classified summary of a 6,300-page report on the CIA's program of detaining and interrogating terrorists. Relations between the agency and the Senate have hit rock bottom over the report. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.), the committee chair, who herself has been a usually dependable ally of the spy agencies, has also promised a top-to-bottom review of all U.S. intelligence operations. With Feinstein on the warpath and Rogers retiring, the intelligence agencies are losing two of their most important defenders.

On Friday morning, Michigan political watchers were as equally as puzzled by the announcement as Washington insiders. "I don't think anybody saw it coming," said Lori Wortz, a Michigan political operative who has worked with Rogers in his capacity as a state and federal candidate. "Maybe his brother had a heads up, but he certainly didn't tell anyone in his close inner-circle."

Rogers's brother, Bill Rogers, a state lawmaker, has hit Michigan's term limits at the state-level and could potentially run for the vacant federal seat. "He could take it," said Wortz. "There's not necessarily a name that stands out as a natural next-in-line person. But whoever runs, they'll have to start pretty quickly because there's not a lot of time."

Mandel Ngan / AFP