Atop his twin perches at the National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM), Rogers is the man who possesses the virtual receipts of interactions between Russian officials, cyber cut-outs and Trump associates. But a highly bureaucratic change announced by the Pentagon on Friday—one immediately overshadowed by the firing of Steve Bannon—puts Rogers’ future within the Trump administration in jeopardy.
“It’s critical that Admiral Rogers is unequivocally in charge as the investigations proceed into determining the role that the Russians played in the U.S. presidential elections,” a former senior intelligence official told The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity.
On Friday, the Pentagon said it was enacting a long-expected plan to elevate the young CYBERCOM into a standalone four-star command, out from the shadow of its nuclear-weapons parent, the U.S. Strategic Command. It’s a recognition that war now occurs digitally as well as physically.
But even if CYBERCOM is moving out of its parents’ house, it still has to contend with its big brother: the NSA.
Almost as soon as CYBERCOM was created in 2009, observers wondered when it would leave the bottom of NSA’s bunk bed for its own big-boy room—a development long delayed until the military felt CYBERCOM had developed enough of its own technical expertise to stop borrowing from NSA. CYBERCOM and NSA have two distinct but at-times overlapping missions: the military command is responsible for protecting U.S. defense networks from attack, while the NSA is about surveillance.
Friday’s shift leaves Rogers—commander of both NSA and CYBERCOM—twisting in the wind. Where he lands will tell a lot about whether Trump seeks revenge for a Russia probe that threatens his presidency; or whether he’s learned from the debacle of firing FBI Director Jim Comey that he needs Rogers on the inside, where he can potentially control the admiral.
First comes CYBERCOM. Rogers helms it—for now.
A U.S. defense official told reporters that the president had instructed Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to nominate someone to lead CYBERCOM. Only once that person is selected and confirmed by the Senate would the new command be elevated. And only after that would the Pentagon recommend whether to split the “dual hat” arrangement whereby the same person runs both CYBERCOM and the NSA.
Mattis could theoretically nominate Rogers to serve again in the same job in the newly elevated command, Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, told reporters at the Pentagon Friday. Or he might nominate someone else, leaving Rogers’ future murky.
That uncertainty is compounded by Mattis’ looming decision about removing the “dual hat.” Under a plan put together by the outgoing Obama administration late last year—one that caused a furor on Capitol Hill—NSA would be helmed by a civilian and not a serving military officer. Mattis is under no obligation to follow through on that. But he’s got to decide what the rules for a post-CYBERCOM NSA leadership will be.
While all this is still incipient, there are only a few options for the Trump administration and Rogers.
One is the status quo. Mattis re-nominates Rogers to CYBERCOM—he’s already a four-star officer—and punts on the NSA separation. Rogers would keep both of his jobs and be no worse off than he currently is.
Another is Mattis giving CYBERCOM, which has only ever been led by Rogers and his predecessor Army Gen. Keith Alexander, to another officer. Rogers would lose the most prestigious military command that doesn’t deal with the Middle East (Central Command) or elite U.S. forces (Special Operations Command). While he would keep NSA for now, he would have to wonder if the administration would leave him with NSA—or compel him to retire from the military to do so.
A third is that Rogers loses CYBERCOM and NSA both. Under that scenario, the Trump administration has gotten rid of the last U.S. intelligence chief responsible for concluding—and publicly stating—that Russia intruded into the 2016 election to benefit Trump.
Right now, the significant aspect of the coming tectonic shift at Fort Meade—home to both NSA and CYBERCOM—is the uncertainty facing Rogers. He has only held his posts since 2014; his two predecessors combined, Alexander and Air Force Lt. Gen. Mike Hayden, ran NSA since 1999. A trained signals-intelligence officer might view the shift as a signal that his service is no longer wanted—setting up a question for Rogers: how much does he want to stay at Fort Meade?
All this occurs amidst the backdrop of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump. No matter what, Rogers is certain to be interviewed by Team Mueller. If he remains in the administration, retaining his ongoing access to the most sensitive classified information the U.S. possesses, he will be more constrained in what he says, likely prompting Mueller to compel disclosure through grand juries and judges if the ex-FBI chief is unsatisfied by what he learns.
The former senior intelligence official said that keeping Rogers’ fate uncertain will be ominous both for the Russia probes and for protecting U.S. networks against further Russian intrusion.
“The removal of or an erosion of authorities for Adm. Rogers’ mandate as [NSA director] and commander of CYBERCOM at this juncture would result in a loss of deep expertise and knowledge,” the ex-official said.
“Clear lines of responsibility, authority and accountability for Adm. Rogers are vital during a time when cyber threats are on the rise and it would be detrimental to the myriad investigations should the Trump administration introduce uncertainty into Adm. Rogers’ future at this juncture.”
Rogers has already shown himself to be under some constraints through continued service.
The Washington Post has reported that Trump pressured Rogers to publicly exonerate him in the Russia scandal and push back against the probe. Rogers reportedly resisted and has certainly made no such exoneration. But in June, during testimony to the Senate intelligence committee, Rogers enraged senators by refusing to answer their questions about Trump’s reported demand.
Rogers said only that he didn’t “feel pressured” to lend Trump a hand, but would not discuss their interactions. He didn’t cite any legal reason for rebuffing his Senate overseers and only said answering felt “inappropriate.” Maine independent Angus King shot back: “What you feel isn’t relevant, admiral. What you feel isn’t the answer.”
In a statement, Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, backed the CYBERCOM elevation, both on its own merits and as a precursor to splitting it off from the NSA, “a step I believe is in the interests of both entities.”
With huge changes underway at Fort Meade, Mike Rogers is going to have to think about what’s in his own best interests next.
—with additional reporting by Kim Dozier