The outgoing NSA and U.S. Cyber Command chief told lawmakers CyberCom is not sitting on its hands when it comes to potential Russian cyber interference, but it lacks the authority to do more absent additional presidential direction.
Adm. Michael Rogers testifies at the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Facing a barrage of questions from Democratic senators in a Feb. 27 hearing, Adm. Mike Rogers, outgoing National Security Agency director and head of U.S. Cyber Command, reiterated and expanded upon his previous statement that neither he nor his organizations have received any new direction or expanded authority from the White House to retaliate against alleged Russian cyberattacks on U.S. election infrastructure.
Rogers told lawmakers he does have limited authority to direct U.S. Cyber Command to take unspecified proactive measures to disrupt foreign cyber activities abroad and blunt the impact of future attacks on U.S. election infrastructure.
However, he acknowledged that this authority is constrained, and when asked by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) what he needed to do more, Rogers put the onus firmly on Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and President Donald Trump.
"I'd need a policy decision that indicates there's specific direction to do that," said Rogers. "I would then be tasked to tee up some specific options that… would be reviewed by the secretary in the chain of command, the secretary would ultimately make a recommendation to the president… and then based on that we'd be given specific direction potentially and specific authority."
Later, under additional questioning from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Rogers was even more explicit.
"I have taken steps within my authority, trying to be a good proactive commander," he said. "I haven't been granted any additional authorities, capacity, capability. No, that's certainly true."
Some have pointed out that Cyber Command's position in the military hierarchy means it may not be the best vehicle for retaliating against a foreign country in peacetime settings.
"It is important to note that such an action from CYBERCOM would be legally considered a military attack against Russia, which has massive implications," said Ryan Duff, director of cybersecurity at Point3 Security and a former cyber operations tactician at U.S. Cyber Command, on Twitter. "I would expect any response ordered would come from the CIA under covert action instead of military action by CYBERCOM."
In a Feb. 26 post on The Cipher Brief, Jason Healey, a senior fellow for the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council, laid out how any counterpunch against Russia by U.S. Cyber Command would be "incredibly risky" and potentially lead to escalating behavior on both sides, even if policymakers did determine that such a response was necessary.
"One side will go a bit too far, punch a bit too hard, pull a trick a bit too dirty, and ignore the double-tap of 'too much' from the other," wrote Healey. "At what point will U.S. Cyber Command -- if it gets its sought-after new agility and looser rules of engagement -- need U.S. European Command and NATO to tag into the fight?"
Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) referenced previous comments made by Rogers that the organizational structure to authorize use of offensive cyber capabilities against foreign countries was similar to that of nuclear weapons in that only the president can give the green light. Inhofe asked if there were any discussions about moving that authority down the chain of command.
Rogers acknowledged that military officials are having serious ongoing discussions about making a policy change in that arena.
"The secretary of defense has been very aggressive in articulating how this concerns him. There's an ongoing discussion at the moment that I hope is going to come to a head in the near term," said Rogers.
In one of his final public appearances before retiring, Rogers spent little time discussing pressing issues under his purview, such as how best to structure a potential split in NSA and U.S. Cyber Command leadership following President Trump's elevation of CyberCom to an independent combatant command in August 2017.
Instead, he spent much of his time responding to questions about Russian election interference and the role U.S. Cyber Command plays in the defense of the nation's cybersecurity from lawmakers who expressed confusion about the fragmented nature of cybersecurity policy authority across different departments.
Rogers was asked what he was doing to protect U.S. election infrastructure and to police defense contractors who turn over source code to foreign governments for inspection. The Department of Homeland Security is the chief federal agency charged with coordinating with state and local election officials on cybersecurity and the Defense Security Service has primary jurisdiction over the cybersecurity of defense contractors.
At one point, Rogers appeared exasperated, saying the nation has a structure in place with well-defined responsibilities and cautioning lawmakers against stretching Cyber Command resources too thin by viewing it as "the end-all, be-all of everything" when it comes to cyber defense and offense.
"Quite frankly, one of my challenges [is] you just look at the things we've talked about in the last 40 minutes where you ask 'why doesn't cyber command do this [or that]'…the challenge for us is about prioritization, aligning mission with resources and trying to figure out what is our role with a broader set of partners."
Shaheen was not convinced, responding that the structure laid out by Rogers has not produced an easily understandable national cybersecurity strategy.