NSA of­fi­cial says Rus­sian med­dling tests U.S. met­tle

Re­tir­ing deputy chief warns about Krem­lin’s at­tempts to af­fect elec­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY ELLEN NAKASHIMA ellen.nakashima@wash­post.com Julie Tate con­trib­uted to this re­port.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment has not fig­ured out how to de­ter the Rus­sians from med­dling in demo­cratic pro­cesses, and stop­ping their in­ter­fer­ence in elec­tions, both here and in Europe, is a press­ing prob­lem, the top civil­ian leader of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency said.

The NSA was among the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies that con­cluded that Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin or­dered a cy­ber-en­abled in­flu­ence cam­paign in 2016 aimed at un­der­min­ing con­fi­dence in the elec­tion, harm­ing Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton and help­ing elect GOP nom­i­nee Don­ald Trump.

“This is a chal­lenge to the foun­da­tions of our democ­racy,” said NSA Deputy Di­rec­tor Richard Led­gett, 58, who is re­tir­ing at the end of April, in an in­ter­view at Fort Meade, Md., the agency’s head­quar­ters. “It’s the sanc­tity of our process, of eval­u­at­ing and look­ing at can­di­dates, and hav­ing ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion about the can­di­dates. So the idea that an­other na­tion state is [in­ter­fer­ing with that] is a pretty big deal and some­thing we need to fig­ure out. How do we counter that? How do we iden­tify that it’s hap­pen­ing — in real time as op­posed to after the fact? And what do we do as a na­tion to make it stop?”

The lack of an­swers, he said, “as an Amer­i­can ci­ti­zen . . . gives me a lot of heart­burn.”

Led­gett, known as a straight­shoot­ing, un­flap­pable in­tel­li­gence pro­fes­sional, be­gan his NSA ca­reer in 1988 teach­ing crypt­anal­y­sis — how to crack codes — and rose to be­come the agency’s top civil­ian leader. The NSA, with 35,000 civil­ian and mil­i­tary em­ploy­ees, gath­ers in­tel­li­gence on for­eign tar­gets over­seas through wire­taps and in­creas­ingly by cy­ber­hack­ing. Its other mis­sion is to se­cure the gov­ern­ment com­put­ers that han­dle clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion and other data crit­i­cal to mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence ac­tiv­i­ties.

Asked whether the NSA had any inkling that the Krem­lin was go­ing to or­ches­trate the re­lease of hacked Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee emails last July, he de­murred. “I ac­tu­ally don’t want to talk about that.”

At the same time, he said, what Moscow did was “no strate­gic sur­prise.” Rather, “what may have been a tac­ti­cal sur­prise was that they would do it the way they did.”

Cam­paigns of pro­pa­ganda and dis­in­for­ma­tion, dat­ing back to the Soviet Union, have long been a sta­ple of the Krem­lin’s for­eign pol­icy. Now, how­ever, it is mak­ing ef­fec­tive use of its hack­ing prow­ess to weaponize in­for­ma­tion and com­bine it with its in­flu­ence op­er­a­tions, or what in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials call “ac­tive mea­sures.”

“In gen­eral, if you’re re­spond­ing to na­tion-state ac­tions like that, you have to find out what are the levers that will move the na­tion-state ac­tors and are you able and will­ing to pull those levers?” said Led­gett when asked how the United States should re­spond.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion slapped eco­nomic sanc­tions on two Rus­sian spy agen­cies in­volved in hack­ing the DNC, three com­pa­nies be­lieved to have pro­vided sup­port for gov­ern­ment cy­ber op­er­a­tions, and four Rus­sian cy­ber of­fi­cials. The ad­min­is­tra­tion also or­dered 35 Rus­sian op­er­a­tives to leave the United States and shut down Rus­sianowned fa­cil­i­ties on Mary­land’s Eastern Shore and on Long Is­land be­lieved to have been used for in­tel­li­gence pur­poses.

Yet, in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials in­clud­ing NSA Di­rec­tor Michael S. Rogers and FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey said on Mon­day that they be­lieve Moscow will strike again — in 2020, if not in 2018.

So should the gov­ern­ment mull other op­tions, such as hack­ing Rus­sian of­fi­cials’ emails or fi­nan­cial records and re­leas­ing them in a bid to em­bar­rass or show cor­rup­tion? “I think ev­ery ele­ment of na­tional power is some­thing we should con­sider,” he said. “That would prob­a­bly fall un­der some­thing like a covert ac­tion. But if that’s the right an­swer, that’s the right an­swer.”

Led­gett is prob­a­bly most well known for lead­ing the agency task force that han­dled the fall­out from the leaks of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion by for­mer NSA con­trac­tor Ed­ward Snow­den in 2013. The dis­clo­sures prompted a na­tional and global de­bate about the proper scope of gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance and led Congress to pass some re­forms, in­clud­ing the out­law­ing of bulk col­lec­tion of Amer­i­cans’ phone meta­data.

But the dis­clo­sures also caused great up­heaval in NSA’s col­lec­tion ef­forts, hurt morale, and dam­aged re­la­tions with al­lies and with tech firms that en­able court-or­dered sur­veil­lance, Led­gett said. “It was a ter­ri­ble time for the agency,” he said.

He over­saw the probe of the in­ter­nal breach; re­la­tions with Congress, the White House, for­eign gov­ern­ments and the press; and the ef­fort to pre­vent a re­cur­rence. “There was a bit of a nar­ra­tive on the out­side about this evil agency that hoovered up all the com­mu­ni­ca­tions in the world and rooted through them for things that were in­ter­est­ing, and that wasn’t ac­tu­ally true.”

The op­er­a­tional hit was sig­nif­i­cant, he said. More than 1,000 for­eign tar­gets — whether a per­son or a group or an or­ga­ni­za­tion — al­tered or at­tempted to al­ter their means of com­mu­ni­ca­tions as a re­sult of the dis­clo­sures, he said. They “tried with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess to re­move them­selves from our abil­ity to see what they were do­ing,” he said.

The agency, which has some 200 sta­tions world­wide, re­worked ca­pa­bil­i­ties in­clud­ing vir­tu­ally all of its hack­ing tools. “In some cases, we had to do things very dif­fer­ently” to gather the same for­eign in­tel­li­gence as be­fore.

Raj De, a for­mer NSA gen­eral coun­sel, said Led­gett was re­lied on heav­ily by both Rogers and Rogers’s pre­de­ces­sor, Keith B. Alexan­der. “He has re­ally been a source of steadi­ness for the agency,” said De, now head of the Cy­ber­se­cu­rity & Data Pri­vacy prac­tice at Mayer Brown, a global law firm. “What is par­tic­u­larly no­table about Rick is his will­ing­ness

“This is a chal­lenge to the foun­da­tions of our democ­racy.” Richard Led­gett, deputy di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency

to en­gage with all types of peo­ple, to keep an open mind.”

In De­cem­ber 2013, Alexan­der, when he was the NSA di­rec­tor, said that Snow­den should be given no amnesty. But Led­gett told CBS’s “60 Min­utes” then that “my per­sonal view is yes, it’s worth hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about.”

In his in­ter­view last week, how­ever, he said what he meant was that by en­gag­ing Snow­den in con­ver­sa­tion, the agency might have been able to learn what ma­te­rial had not been re­leased and where it was.

To­day, he said, there is no longer any need to talk to Snow­den. “He’s past his use­ful­ness to us.” Snow­den, who is liv­ing in Moscow un­der a grant of asy­lum, has been charged with vi­o­lat­ing the Es­pi­onage Act, and Led­gett said he should not be par­doned. “I’ve al­ways been of the idea that ‘Hey, I think he needs to face the mu­sic for what he did.’ ”


The lack of an­swers to fight Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in elec­tions “gives me a lot of heart­burn,” NSA Deputy Di­rec­tor Richard Led­gett says.

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