Ex-NSA director says Mueller report highlights risks of foreign interference

Ex-NSA director says Mueller report highlights risks of foreign interference
© Greg Nash

Former National Security Agency (NSA) Director Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersConservatives lash out at CNN for hiring Andrew McCabe Hillicon Valley: House panel subpoenas 8chan owner | FCC takes step forward on T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Warren wants probe into FTC over Equifax settlement | Groups make new push to end surveillance program House Homeland Security Committee subpoenas 8chan owner MORE says the full report by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerMueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony MORE shows just how important it is for the government to be laser-focused on stopping interference in its elections by foreign governments.

“That should be totally unacceptable, totally unallowable, and we ought to be focused on what are we going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Because it’s not going to go away,” Rogers said in a wide-ranging interview with The Hill.

Rogers, who retired his uniform a year ago, urged the public to read Mueller’s report to judge its findings independently, describing the breadth of the Russian effort as chilling.

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“I think the breadth of the Russians’ effort, the amount of time, the complexity of that effort — it didn’t surprise me, but again, I think it’s something that ought to make people step back and say, ‘Wow, this wasn’t a casual effort,’ ” Rogers said. “This was a broad, sustained, comprehensive strategy about how we are going to attempt to influence and impact the 2016 election.”

Rogers also offered details on what he terms his “new life” and reflected on his accomplishments and the challenges he faced as one of the nation’s top intelligence officials.

Since leaving the NSA, Rogers has taken up roles in the private sector advising Claroty, a company focused on protecting industrial control networks, and Team8, an Israel-based cyber think tank and venture capital firm, on cybersecurity.

“Cybersecurity was what I did when I was in uniform. It wasn’t just a job, it was something I really cared about and I thought was important to our nation as well as our friends and allies around the world,” Rogers said. “I asked myself, how can I stay involved and try to help be part of the solution, not part of the problem?”

Rogers shepherded the agency through a controversial time. He was appointed by President Obama to helm the NSA in 2014, after the Edward Snowden leaks cast deep public scrutiny on the agency’s domestic collection activities.

He worked at the NSA under Obama and for more than a year under President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? MORE and was frequently asked heated questions on Capitol Hill about U.S. surveillance activities and, more recently, Russian interference and the Trump administration’s response to it. That topic largely eclipsed his final 16 months on the job.

Rogers, who also served as commander of U.S. Cyber Command, said he believes his team succeeded in supplying the nation with critical intelligence and protecting U.S. assets from digital sabotage, while largely avoiding political fights.

“We provided great insight to help defend our nation and our friends and allies,” Rogers said. “We did it in a legal framework that we strictly adhered to. We were mindful of the society that we’re a part of. We strove hard to try to generate insights to try to protect and defend them. At the same time, we realized that we’re an extension of them, so we wanted to make sure that we give it the same values and the same respect to privacy and the right to the individual.”

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Rogers would not comment on politics at length in the interview but said the crucial detail he often stressed to his underlings was to ignore the political conversation and focus on the mission.

“I always told the team we are intelligence professionals and just remember what that means,” Rogers said. “We’re not about a particular party, we’re not about a particular administration, we’re not about a particular person.”

“We just lay out our conclusions and we don’t worry about are others going to agree, are they going to disagree,” he said.

To do so was unlikely an easy task under the Trump administration. Trump has criticized the intelligence community and at times cast doubt on the conclusions of the nation’s intelligence officials, including publicly undermining the assessment about Russian interference.

Rogers said one of the things he is proudest of is that Mueller’s 448-report “validates” the assessment the NSA, FBI and CIA released in early 2017, before FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyThe road not taken: Another FBI failure involving the Clintons surfaces Sarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE’s firing and the special counsel’s appointment.

“It says, in fact, yes, it did occur, and it doesn’t question the findings of the intelligence community assessment or what we outlined,” Rogers said. “Instead, it magnifies, provides greater detail, and enjoys the benefit of, hey, it’s three years later so we’ve learned even more.”

Rogers was interviewed by Mueller, and his name appears in a section of the report analyzing whether Trump obstructed justice. According to the report, Trump called Rogers after Comey revealed the existence of the probe into links between his campaign and Russia, airing frustration with the investigation and asking Rogers if he could do anything to refute news stories linking him with Russia.

Rogers told Mueller in June 2017 that he did not take the request as an order and that Trump didn’t ask him to push back on the Russia probe itself.

Rogers, who misses his time in government after a 37-year career, is drawing on that experience to advise companies on how to secure systems that powers critical infrastructure as well as those that holds often sensitive electronic data.

He teaches at Northwestern University’s Kellog School of Management as an adjunct professor and gives the occasional speech — though his public appearances are a far departure from the hours-long congressional hearings he grew accustomed to as NSA director.

Rogers described the cyber realm as one of both tremendous opportunity and risk. He said technology, a huge economic engine, also opens up organizations to compounding threats from criminals or others who want to exploit its vulnerabilities. Society’s hyper-connectivity has also aggressively increased the attack surface, posing a nagging problem for those trying to secure most digital systems.

“The ability to have a secure infrastructure — both [information technology] and [operational technology] — is going to be foundational to company’s ability to be economically competitive in the world we’re living in,” Rogers said. “I’m interested in, what can I do to try to help that.”