Questions surround Trump NSA director’s job

Questions surround Trump NSA director’s job
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President Trump’s decision to elevate the U.S. Cyber Command has thrust National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers into the spotlight.

Rogers serves at the helm of both Cyber Command and the NSA, “dual-hat” leadership that has linked the intelligence agency to a cyber warfighting unit.

But that could change now that Trump is elevating the cyber unit to its own independent command.

A Pentagon official told reporters on Friday that Trump has asked Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Pompeo creates 'action group' for Iran policy | Trump escalates intel feud | Report pegs military parade cost at M Mattis aide tapped to lead Southern Command State Dept. alarmed about Russian satellite's ‘abnormal behavior’ MORE to recommend a flag or general officer to lead the new Cyber Command. That individual, once confirmed, would serve as the commander of both Cyber Command and the NSA until a decision is made to separate them.

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Rogers could serve in the role, but it’s also possible Trump could go in a different direction. Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the current director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been mentioned as a possible candidate.

“The president has simply asked for the secretary's recommendation on a nomination. The decision on who that individual will be has not been made,” said Ken Rapuano, assistant secretary of Defense for homeland defense and global security. “It could be anyone.”

Rogers, a four-star Navy admiral, replaced Keith Alexander as the head of both bodies in 2014 as the NSA faced blowback over Edward Snowden’s disclosures of domestic spying programs. He has had to contend with more controversy over leaks that have cast a shadow on the secretive intelligence agency and has overseen a major reorganization of the NSA’s operations.

More recently, Rogers became a central figure in the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, an issue that has dogged Trump’s presidency.

Rogers sat beside then-FBI Director James Comey in March as he disclosed publicly that the bureau was investigating whether associates of the Trump campaign coordinated with Moscow in its effort to influence the election.

After Trump fired Comey, Rogers was left as the last intelligence head standing of the group that accused Moscow in January of meddling in the election.

The Washington Post reported in May that Trump had made separate appeals to Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsCNN: Trump intel chief not consulted before decision to revoke Brennan's clearance Study: 3 of every 10 House candidate websites vulnerable to hacks West Virginia set to allow smartphone voting for those serving overseas MORE to publicly deny the existence of evidence showing collusion during the election. The officials are said to have denied the president’s requests.  

The decision to elevate Cyber Command has opened up speculation that Rogers could lose his powers.

“What Will Happen to Admiral Mike Rogers, the Spy Who Knew Too Much?” a headline in The Daily Beast read on Friday.

During an appearance before Congress in early June, Rogers refused to comment on the Post report but insisted that he had never been directed or pressured “to do anything I believe to be illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate” by the president.

“I think when he made that testimony, that sort of took him off the hot seat for the White House,” said Steve Bucci, a former Pentagon official who now serves as a visiting fellow at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation. “I hope there’s no politics that come into play there — but it’s Washington, so it’s always a possibility.”

While some say Rogers has done a good job and should stay on, others disagree.

Bucci, who served with Rogers and knows him personally, said that not keeping Rogers in either role at Cyber Command or NSA would be a mistake.

“If they send him off to retirement, that’s the nation’s loss,” he said.

John Schindler, a former NSA analyst, disagreed, saying that Rogers’s reorganization efforts were not received well by the agency’s workforce.

“I think Rogers has been a pretty bad director of NSA,” Schindler said. “To be blunt, I think NSA would be thrilled to see Rogers leave.”

Until the Pentagon recommends someone to lead the new unified combatant command, Rogers is expected to remain in his current dual-hat role.

Should he be nominated to lead Cyber Command, he would eventually lose control of the NSA once the decision is made to separate the two. If someone else were nominated for the Cyber Command leadership role, Rogers would serve at the NSA under that individual until the separation occurs.

Rapuano, the defense official, said Friday that there is no “explicit timeline” for the separation.

The issue of separating Cyber Command and NSA was a source of heated debate during the Obama administration and has divided lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“Right now, it’s this very strong, symbiotic relationship and much of what U.S. Cyber Command does — both the tools they use and the information that they need — is developed by NSA and informs their work,” Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a June interview.

“I think it’s going to be very hard, at this juncture right now, to separate them out. Clearly, we’re not ready to have that happen yet, but we can wait and see.”

Then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter and then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reportedly pushed for the split during Obama’s final months, setting off alarm bells among some in Congress who feared the move could be made too hastily. Rogers himself has cautioned that such a separation needs to happen at the right time and through the right process.

Eventually, lawmakers inserted language in fiscal year 2017 defense policy legislation that required the Pentagon to certify that the missions of Cyber Command and NSA won’t be negatively impacted before initiating the split.

Carter and Clapper also reportedly pressed Obama to fire Rogers last fall.

Clapper was reportedly driven by his belief that the NSA should be led by a civilian. Carter was said to be more concerned about Rogers’s performance leading Cyber Command’s offensive operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Adam Segal, a cyber policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that he could envision a scenario in which Rogers is removed from either post, given the preference among some for a civilian leader of the NSA.

“I think there are reasons why you could argue … it’s time for new blood in both new jobs,” Segal said.