America's hacker in chief says his cyber troops are giving as good as they are getting in battles on the internet and he's not worried about perceived conflicts between the Trump administration and the intelligence community.
Adm. Michael Rogers, who heads the National Security Agency and the military's Cyber Command, gave few details on America's offensive cyber attacks in remarks to an Air Force Academy crowd last week. But merely acknowledging that American troops are engaged in a battle is rare for a government entity so tight-lipped that NSA has been said to stand for "No Such Agency."
Rogers told cadets that cyber operations are growing in importance and could be decisive in future conflicts. But it's more than defending American networks from foreign intrusions.
"You get to work the total range of offense and defense," he said.
He compared the emerging environment of cyberspace to the Cold War era when America stood equally challenged. Today, the nation faces well-armed opponents that can target America's military advantages in space and cyberspace.
"We have not lived in that environment for a long time," said Rogers, who entered the Navy in 1981 at the height of tensions with the Soviet Union.
At several points, Rogers compared internet warfare to battles on land and sea.
"What are you going to do when they get inside the wire?" he asked, before answering his own query. "You have to learn how to fight in this space like any other domain."
Like other battles, online fights are conflicts where troops fight enemy troops.
Of hacks, he said, "It took a human to create it. It took a human to select the target."
The veil of the nation's most classified programs shrouded much of what Rogers had to say. The admiral never said who his cyber troops might be attacking or how attacks were carried out. He also didn't specifically address any attempts to hack American computers by foreign powers.
Rogers acknowledged difficulties in attracting and keeping the troops needed for internet warfare. Those qualified for the work can get a much bigger paycheck in the civilian world, he said.
To recruit the military's hackers, Rogers says he's appealing to patriotism.
"The way we compete is we do something that's important for our nation and we do something bigger than ourselves," he said.
There's also another attraction that draws cyber warriors - all the hacking with none of the prison sentences.
"We are doing things that legally you can't do anywhere else," he said.
Through the 2016 campaign, America's cyber enemies made headlines, including for the alleged Russian attack on the Democratic National Committee that revealed embarrassing emails.
The fallout from the Russian revelations has drawn Twitter fire from President Donald Trump.
"Russia talk is FAKE NEWS put out by the Dems, and played up by the media, in order to mask the big election defeat and the illegal leaks!" the president wrote on Twitter Feb. 26.
Trump has also accused intelligence agencies of conspiring to oppose his presidency by leaking reports that tied the election hacking to Russia and questioned Trumps personal ties to Russia.
"Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to "leak" into the public," Trump wrote on Twitter nine days before he assumed the office. "One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?"
Rogers, though, dismissed talk of a feud between the White House and the nation's spies.
"We're going to be fine," he said.
The admiral said he's told his troops to focus on their mission.
"Never forget what we're a part of and what our values are," he said.
Those values are quickly evolving for cyber warfare troops.
In internet warfare, like current battles against the Islamic State, America's offensive focus is on what the military terms "proportional response," Rogers said. That means you don't respond to a gunshot with a nuclear warhead.
"We apply force in the name of our nation state in a very limited and specific way," he said.
He said America's military hackers also worry as much about collateral damage as their comrades dropping bombs.
"We acknowledge the potential for damage being greater than we anticipated is very real," he said.
Rodgers discussion of American cyber tactics, even in the broadest of terms, is a departure for his agency. Past NSA offensives, including the 2010 Stuxnet attack that disabled Iran's nuclear weapons program, have gone unacknowledged.
Offensive capabilities possessed by NSA and Cyber Command have long been rumored but seldom discussed.
The discussion of America's internet battles was delivered to a receptive audience. More than 1,000 cadets gave the admiral a standing ovation accompanied by loud cheers.
Rogers used his time at the academy to entice a few cadets into joining the war effort in cyberspace.
"The reason I'm out here is because you are the future," he told cadets. "You are worth my time."
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240