The Complex

Exclusive: Top Pentagon Policy Official Is Stepping Down

Derek Chollet, a key figure on the Obama administration's national security team, told his staff Wednesday that he'll be leaving the Pentagon in January.

As assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, Chollet advises Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on policy issues related to Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere. He also has oversight for security cooperation programs, including foreign military sales, in these regions. His decision hadn't been made public until now.

Chollet, well regarded within both the White House and the Pentagon, had long been seen as a front-runner to be the next undersecretary of defense for policy, the Defense Department's No. 3 job.

After nearly six years serving in Barack Obama's administration, Chollet told staff Wednesday, July 30, that it's time for him to devote his energy to other endeavors, including his family. His departure is sure to spark speculation that Chollet, like other prominent Democratic national security officials, may be leaving to recharge his batteries before taking a senior post in a potential Hillary Clinton administration.

"I also intend to remain very engaged in the issues of the day and the important debate about America's role in the world, but more on that later," he said in an email to staff obtained by Foreign Policy.

A defense official said Chollet would remain active after he left. "I expect you'll see him writing a book and lending his voice on any number of topics," the official said. "He's got a lot of credibility."

The international security affairs office will also see a few more personnel changes in the next month.

Elissa Slotkin will be returning in August as the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. She had been performing the duties of the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy while Brian McKeon waited for the Senate to confirm him to that post, which it finally did on Monday.

Lisa Kenna, a career foreign service officer whose last job was as a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Jordan, will also be joining the international security affairs office in August as a senior advisor. Before Jordan, she was on the National Security Council staff at the White House.

"Lisa will provide much needed bandwidth in the front office, helping all of us manage multiple crises as well as special projects that are beyond the in-box," Chollet said in his email.

As for who will replace Chollet, it remains to be seen, but Slotkin is looking like an obvious candidate.

"No decision has been made on a replacement, but with Elissa going back to ISA [international security affairs] as the principal deputy, she would obviously be on the shortlist of contenders," the defense official said. "It's worth noting that over the last year, filling in as she did in the policy front office, she has become a close and trusted advisor to the secretary."

Chollet's goodbye email to staff reveals how busy a time it has been inside the Pentagon's policy office.

"Whether it concerns Ukraine, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Libya, the NATO summit, the [European Reassurance Initiative/Combating Terrorism Partnership Fund], the African leaders summit, or the Unaccompanied Children issue, we have been at the center of the action, and you have really stepped up," Chollet said.

Before his Pentagon job, Chollet worked at the White House as special assistant to the president and senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff. From February 2009 to 2011, Chollet served in the State Department as the principal deputy director of the secretary of state's policy planning staff. From November 2008 to January 2009, he was a member of the Obama-Biden presidential transition team.

He also has connections to the Center for a New American Security, where he was a senior fellow.

During Bill Clinton's first administration, he served as chief speechwriter for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke and as special advisor to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.

From 2002 to 2004, Chollet was foreign-policy advisor to U.S. Senator John Edwards (D-N.C.).

Gordon Lubold contributed to this report.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images News

The Complex

The NSA's Patents, in One Searchable Database

What do a voice identifier, an automated translator, a "tamper-indicating" document tube, and a supersecure manhole cover have in common? They're all technologies for which the secretive National Security Agency (NSA) has been granted patents by the U.S. government, giving the agency the exclusive rights to its inventions.

The four technologies represent a tiny fraction of the more than 270 sleuthy devices, methods, and designs for which the nation's biggest intelligence agency has been granted a patent since 1979, the earliest year for which public figures are available. As the patent holder, the NSA can license the particular technology -- for a fee -- to anyone who wants to use it, so long as the patent hasn't expired.

The NSA's cryptologists and computer scientists have been busy over the years inventing methods of encrypting data, analyzing voice recordings, transferring digital files, and removing distortion from intercepted communications -- all things you'd expect from the world's largest and most sophisticated eavesdropping agency. And the digital spooks have patented gadgets straight out of a James Bond flick, such as tamper-indicating envelopes and finely tuned radio antennas.

But then, inexplicably, is a patent for a new-and-improved child car seat, which can be modified to accommodate both toddlers and older, taller kids.* The national security benefits of this device are neither obvious nor spelled out in the patent. But the car seat's inventors promise to finally overcome a "well known … measure of inconvenience" plaguing parents across America, who are forced to install new, bigger car seats as their children grow up, the patent states.

Foreign Policy obtained the NSA's list of patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. You can download the entire list here or browse the patents by the dates they were filed. We've linked each one to the underlying documents, which include plain-language descriptions, the name of the particular inventor, and in some cases diagrams of the device.


List of All Patents Filed by the NSA

Scroll through the list to see patents filed by the NSA through the years. Click through on each to see full details from the Patent and Trademark Office.

The NSA employs tens of thousands of cryptologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists who routinely come up with novel ways to protect -- and steal -- electronic data. As a rule, the agency tries to claim the legal rights to its employees' inventions, an agency spokesperson said. But in some circumstances, employees can claim the rights or file a patent on devices they invented on their own time, even if those inventions are based on knowledge that they accumulated while working at the agency.

That's the case with former NSA Director Keith Alexander, who told FP in an interview on Monday, July 28, that he will seek as many as nine new patents for a computer security system he's building at his consulting business, IronNet Cybersecurity Inc. Alexander led the NSA for nearly nine years, and he also served as the commander of U.S. Cyber Command. Those two positions gave him rare and privileged access to some of the most classified information in the government and could give him a leg up on other cybersecurity entrepreneurs.

As busy as the NSA's inventors have been, the agency is far from the most prolific patent-filer. That title goes to the Navy, which obtained 383 patents in 2013 -- unsurprising since the armed forces are constantly coming up with new weapons, communications, and sensing technologies, patent lawyers said. (The Army, with 155 patents, and the Air Force, with 44, were also big patent holders.)

Still, at the NSA, the last decade has been one for the patent record books. The agency has obtained 127 patents since 2005 -- the year that Alexander became director. During his time in office (Alexander retired in March), the NSA obtained almost as many patents as it did in the previous 25 years.

*Correction, July 30, 2014. An eagle-eyed reader (sadly) points out that the NSA did not actually invent a car seat. Becuase of a clerical error, the patent was never changed to refelct the actual asignee, Chrysler Corporation. At the end of this document is a "certificate of correction" from 1993 that was, apparently, never processed. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Web site still lists the NSA as the car seat's patent holder. (Return to reading.)

Photo via Getty Images News