If President Obama had posted a classified ad for the job he asked Vice Adm. Mike Rogers to take, it might look something like this:
Wanted: Military Officer to Lead National Security Agency and Cyber Command
You will be the target of intense criticism, from civil-liberties advocates to members of Congress. A majority of the public opposes the once-secret phone and Internet surveillance you will do. Your future workforce is already demoralized after massive leaks. Your boss — who happens to be the president of the United States — wants you to reform a massive spying bureaucracy. You will inherit some enemies: not just the alleged terrorists you’re trying to hunt, but a rogue former contract employee who won’t stop telling all your secrets. You will be in the media spotlight, trying to get the public — and irritated allies — to trust you, but all the details of your work will be in the shadows.
Whether you approve or disapprove of the NSA’s mass-surveillance programs, you have to admit leading the agency would be a tough task — especially now.
Perhaps Sen. Jack Reed said it best at Rogers’s confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee: “Congratulations,” the Rhode Island Democrat told Rogers. “I don’t know if that’s in order or not, but congratulations.”
But those who know Rogers say the Navy official is the ideal candidate to carry out Obama’s pledge to reform the troubled surveillance programs Edward Snowden exposed.
Rogers, who currently runs the Navy’s cyberwarfare arm, has technical skills as a cryptographer and experience liaising with intelligence and law-enforcement agencies as a former intelligence director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
At Tuesday’s confirmation hearing, Rogers appeared to strike a balance between advocating reform and continuing programs meant to protect U.S. citizens from attacks.
Roger affirmed his support of the surveillance operations to hawks in the Senate such as John McCain. He assured Ted Cruz he was in favor of Obama’s reform directive to transition the data the NSA collects to a digital warehouse outside the government.
And Rogers deftly handled potential critics like Sen. Mark Udall, who has vociferously criticized the now-public sweeping surveillance programs that capture what he views as too many Americans’ personal data, as well as the government’s lack of public transparency.
“I believe one of my challenges as the director, if confirmed, is how do we engage the American people, and by extension their representatives, in a dialogue in which they have a level of comfort as to what we are doing and why,” Rogers told Udall. “That is no insignificant challenge for those of us with an intelligence background, to be honest.
“But I believe that one of the takeaways from the situation over the last few months has been [that] as an intelligence professional, as a senior intelligence leader, I have to be capable of communicating in a way that highlights what we are doing and why to the greatest extent possible,” Rogers said.
Rogers is a good match for the two-pronged job of leading the NSA and Cyber Command after the White House decided to keep one person in charge of both, said Mike Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
“Although Mike’s an intel guy, he’s not a sneaky spook,” said Leiter, who is on the NSA’s advisory board. “He’s a very open guy with his communication.”
That will be helpful, because his main tasks ahead include a lot of communication — or at least, a lot more public speaking than his predecessors did. Rogers must explain the progress or hurdles of Obama’s reforms and tell the American public how the NSA carries out its mission and still respects civil liberties, Leiter said. “We have to get back to a position where the executive branch, legislative branch, judicial branch are on the same page — that they think the things that are being done are legal, and proper, and balancing security and civil liberties,” he said. “That’s obviously what has been thrown out of joint for the past months of Snowden.”
Rogers is already starting to wrestle with his new political pressures, using some verbal acrobatics Tuesday to describe Snowden, the leaker whom intelligence leaders have decried as causing massive and historic security damage but whom some civil-liberties advocates have praised. “I don’t know that I would use the word traitor,” Rogers said. “But I certainly do not consider him to be a hero.”