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NSA Director Rogers On DNC Hacking, Cyberwarfare And ISIS


When it comes to warfare - the weapons, the budgets, the personnel - America is king. But the United States has not yet conquered cyberwarfare. And we were reminded of that again last week ahead of the Democratic National Convention. Some 20,000 emails were leaked to the website WikiLeaks. Days later, it came to light that Democratic campaign systems had been breached. Now, I had a chance yesterday to speak with Navy Admiral Michael Rogers. He's head of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency. I asked him a question on a lot of people's minds.

Were the Russians responsible for this hack of the Democratic National Committee?

MICHAEL ROGERS: So let's start off with an easy question.

GREENE: OK (laughter). Exactly.

ROGERS: Clearly, an ongoing issue of significant concern to the nation - it's not something I'm going to talk the specifics about. This is an ongoing investigation. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has overall lead for the federal government on this, and we're supporting that effort. But I'm not going to get into the specifics of that ongoing effort.

GREENE: We've heard from some officials, some of your colleagues in the administration - James Clapper, the head of intelligence at the White House; John Brennan, the head of the CIA, suggesting that it appears this was Russia. Are you willing to go that far?

ROGERS: Not going to talk about the specifics of an ongoing investigation.

GREENE: How should we think about this? I mean, is it possible that what happened is one specific, isolated attack on a political institution, the United States, or could this be part of something much bigger that all of you are following? This is sort of just one piece in the puzzle.

ROGERS: I think we all need to step back and ask ourselves - so what are the implications of living in this digital age that we find ourselves in now, where massive amounts of information are now being transmitted routinely? We do it in our personal lives. We do it in our work lives. And that technology has now enabled actors to access that data, oftentimes against the will of the data owner. That's clearly what we're seeing in this scenario. And in addition, you're now seeing people attempting to use information as a way to influence, strategically, specific events and directions.

GREENE: And you think that's what was going on here?

ROGERS: That's my sense. Again, we'll have to see how it all plays out.

GREENE: So in this new environment, I asked Admiral Rogers who exactly sets the rules when it comes to cyberwarfare. Is there some rule book that countries have to abide by?

ROGERS: I wouldn't say that there's a single codified legal framework. There's certainly a series of customs and traditions over time. One of the implications of this new world we find ourselves, from a digital framework, is asking ourselves - how does that framework potentially need to change? I'm the first to acknowledge, we are not in a world of clear definitions right now in this arena. I wouldn't want to pretend otherwise.

GREENE: Well, given that - let me just ask you - I mean, John Brennan, the director of the CIA, said late last week that spying on another country's political institutions is basically fair game. So is it safe to say that what happened, this hack into the DNC, is something that the United States might do to another country?

ROGERS: I'm not going to get into the specifics of what the United States does or does not do.

GREENE: But do you agree with Director Brennan that - I mean, that's fair game to spy on each other's political institution?

ROGERS: I'm not going to get into specifics of what other nations do or do not do.

GREENE: As Americans think about this, if it turned out to be Russia, would it be more comforting to know that it was coming from the top levels of a government of a country like Vladimir Putin, or would it be better if this were not being directed by a leader and actually just coming from some rogue actors lower down?

ROGERS: David, I'm a little confused by the question. I guess, broadly, I would just say look, I don't think it's in any nation or group's best interest when we see this kind of behavior in which we're taking access to data and we're trying to use it, if you will, which it appears to be - again, it's early. We'll work our way through this. But these emails were clearly leaked for a reason, and they were leaked, I believe, to achieve an effect.

This wasn't something that was done indiscriminately, arbitrarily. Someone clearly put a lot of time and effort, both to acquire the data as well as to - the when they chose to release it and the how they chose to release it. One of my senses is this is not something that it's only going to happen this one time, this idea that you would attempt to steal significant amounts of privately held data with a view towards potentially attempting to achieve a strategic outcome or impact.

GREENE: OK, listening there to Admiral Rogers alongside my colleague Mary Louise Kelly who covers national security for NPR. Mary Louise, not the most forthcoming guest I've ever encountered (laughter).

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: You get a lot of no-comments very (unintelligible).

GREENE: Yeah, exactly. You're probably used to this. So a few things that he said, though - I mean, this hack in the DNC, very well planned. The FBI leading the investigation, does that tell us something?

KELLY: Not necessarily. That's how you might expect this to play. And the NSA is certainly playing a big role in the investigation, as we know. They maintain these vast troves of data. And so, for example, they can take what might seem to be an insignificant piece of information from this hack and run it against all the other data that they've got and look for patterns. As to what they found, you know, so far, they're saying the evidence against Russia is not definitive but certainly powerful. And you heard...

GREENE: But...

KELLY: You heard Admiral Rogers there being very careful about not laying the blame on Russia.

GREENE: Very careful, but suggesting that whatever happened here, whoever did this, did sort of cross a line if it was trying to sort of shape an election.

KELLY: Well, we know that they're spying on our politicians, on our institutions. And we are spying right back. That is the whole point of having an intelligence service.


KELLY: What has thrown people in this case is what you heard Rogers dancing around there. That if this proves to be an attempt, not just to learn what the U.S. is thinking, predict what the U.S. may do next, but actually influence what the U.S. may do next, that does cross a line. That's new, and that would be a big deal.

GREENE: All right, a big deal indeed. Admiral Roger and I, we also spoke about the war against the Islamic State.

The attacks in Paris and Brussels have seemed to suggest that ISIS is really able to do a lot of planning and communicating in a very unhampered way. I mean, there are money transfers. There's recruitment happening. What has to happen to change that and start taking those strengths away from that group?

ROGERS: Well, I think there's a commitment on the part of the U.S. government - and others because this is a broad international coalition - to not only fight ISIL in the traditional kinetic areas and on the ground in Syria and Iraq, for example. But we acknowledge we also need to interdict them to forestall their ability to execute operations within the cyber and the information domains. It's one reason why, for example, the Department of Defense has publicly acknowledged that we are using cyber as an offensive capability in Syria and Iraq against ISIL.

GREENE: What does that mean? What's an example of using cyber as an offensive capability?

ROGERS: Just as you are seeing us drop kinetic weapons against targets in Syria and Iraq, we're doing the same thing figuratively, if you will, against ISIL capabilities in Iraq and Syria using specific, you know, software applications, so to speak.

GREENE: What is a cyberbomb?

ROGERS: (Laughter) Again, I'm not going to get into specifics. It's not because I'm necessarily trying to hide anything. But I'll tell you what my concerns are.


ROGERS: In Syria and Iraq, we find ourselves facing a learning and agile adversary in the form of ISIL. And I'm just not interested because even as your listeners, with very valid reasons, trying to make sure they understand - what are we doing?

GREENE: They hear something like cyberbomb - I mean, you know, you probably want to know what a cyberbomb is.

ROGERS: Sadly, many others who don't necessarily have our nation's best interests at heart are also interested in aggressively working to try to gain understanding - what are they doing? How are they doing it? Who are they doing it against? How do I defeat Cyber Command and the Department of Defense's efforts to contest me within the cyber and the information domain? I just don't want to help them.

GREENE: But it's something new and aggressive that you're doing that you weren't doing, say, a year ago against ISIS.

ROGERS: Correct.

GREENE: NSA Director Michael Rogers there. Mary Louise Kelly, you cover national security. Do you know what a cyberbomb is?

KELLY: I have asked so many people that very question. If you ever find out what the heck a cyberbomb is...

GREENE: I'll call you.

KELLY: Let me know. I think it's safe to say we are talking everything from hacking ISIS bank accounts so they can't make payments to knocking apps offline that ISIS uses to communicate.

GREENE: Some of the new stuff that he says is going on now. Mary Louise Kelly, thanks so much.

KELLY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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