A potential structural change to the US surveillance apparatus has thrown the tenure of the National Security Agency director, Michael Rogers, into doubt and increased the likelihood that Donald Trump will have a chance to substantially reshape the US intelligence agencies.
Even before Trump’s presidential victory, which Rogers last week said followed efforts by “a nation-state” to influence the electoral outcome, US intelligence was roiled by FBI director James Comey’s unprecedented interference in the election. US intelligence is experiencing internal turmoil just as Trump is placing hardliners in key national security roles.
Sources confirmed to the Guardian on Saturday that Rogers’ job as head of the NSA was in jeopardy, as his superiors ponder a decision that would divorce the surveillance giant from its adjunct military command, the US Cyber Command (Cybercom).
Since its 2010 inception, Cybercom, a cyber security and digital-attack entity, has been a conjoined twin with the surveillance and cryptographic specialists of the NSA. While the NSA collects vast communications and digital data and performs acts of subterfuge, Cybercom is charged with protecting US military networks and attacking the digital networks of foreign adversaries. Also since Cybercom’s inception, critics have fretted that the two missions – espionage and military operations in cyberspace, are not a natural fit.
A resolution to that debate has long been deferred, since the NSA’s technical expertise was considered essential to creating Cybercom. Rogers testified to Congress in 2015 that he “strongly recommend[s]” keeping both entities united.
But in recent years, splitting the so-called “dual hat” arrangement, whereby a single military officer runs both enterprises, has taken on momentum. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence (DNI), has recommended the divorce.
“I do think that we’ve reached the point where each of these responsibilities, as, you know, the Cybercom commander and director of NSA, are large enough and of sufficient magnitude that they should be separate,” Clapper told a New York audience last month.
Should the split go forward, Rogers would be a casualty. Sources said Ashton Carter, the US defense secretary, would replace Rogers at Cybercom. Carter has lost confidence in Rogers following high-profile security breaches at the NSA, precisely the situation Rogers was tapped in 2014 to prevent after whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosures. With a post-divorce NSA run by a civilian, instead of a general or flag officer, Rogers would be out of a job.
It is unclear whether Barack Obama will resolve the NSA-Cybercom future before leaving office. Clapper this week announced he would resign once Trump took office, a move likely to limit his influence over what is sure to be a contentious reshuffling – and one that Obama cannot make unilaterally. The chairman of the Senate armed services committee, John McCain of Arizona, has vowed to reject the next NSA director if Obama “prematurely” separates the NSA and Cybercom.
The precariousness of Rogers’ directorship was first reported by the Washington Post. NSA representatives did not immediately return a request for comment.
On Saturday night, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, Republican Devin Nunes of California, reacted angrily after learning of the NSA turbulence not from the administration, but from the Washington Post.
Nunes sent a terse letter to Clapper and Carter demanding an immediate explanation or refutation of the Post’s claims, which were soon independently corroborated by other outlets, including the Guardian.
Threatening both senior officials with themselves potentially disclosing classified information, Nunes announced his intention to “convene an open-session hearing at the earliest possible opportunity.” Nunes instructed the cabinet-level officials to finish arranging the schedule by Monday.
With the hard-line bent to Trump’s announced security advisers, the hearing is likely to attract great attention throughout the US intelligence and broader security communities.
Rogers may end up having a stabilizing force in Trump. The Post reported that Rogers, without notifying his superiors, met with Trump on Thursday in New York. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Rogers was Trump’s leading candidate to replace Clapper as DNI, though the Intercept reported the Trump team was considering abolishing the position altogether.
Should Rogers leave the NSA, Trump would have a freer hand to remake the surveillance giant in his image than supporters or critics expected. The NSA directorship is not tied to the presidential calendar, and Rogers’ predecessor, army Gen Keith Alexander, for example, served for nine years.
Trump has openly mused about having “that power” to hack his political adversaries, a position that has led Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the intelligence committee, to vow opposition. McCain, speaking in Halifax on Saturday, warned Trump that he would reject a return to torture that Trump has long foreshadowed.
“I don’t give a damn what the president wants to do, we will not waterboard. We will not torture people,” McCain told the Halifax International Security Forum, according to the Daily Beast reporter Tim Mak.
But Trump’s national security team is filling with hardliners. His choice for CIA director, Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican in Congress, has called for a surveillance expansion and views personal use of encryption as grounds for suspicion. Like Pompeo, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, Mike Flynn, has implied that Muslims in general are complicit in terrorism. On the campaign trail, Trump proposed keeping a database of US Muslims.
It is unclear what relationship Trump will have with the FBI, where he has substantial rank-and-file support. Days before the election, Comey publicly suggested a renewed investigative focus on Hillary Clinton, which Clinton believes cost her the White House – only to reverse himself in the final moments.
Observers have been split over whether Comey’s days at the bureau are numbered, and the director is not known to have met with Trump since the election.
At Trump Tower on Saturday, the president-elect took a meeting with retired Marine Corps general Jim Mattis, whom conservatives attempted to convince to run for president against Trump.
Trump has yet to decide on a Pentagon chief. A leading contender, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, has been tapped for attorney general. Mattis, a revered figure in military circles, would need a waiver from Congress to become defense secretary as he has not been retired from the military for the requisite seven years.