The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad NSA Job Mike Rogers Actually Wants

US Navy Vice Admiral Michael Rogers testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on his nomination to be admiral and Director, National Security Agency (NSA) and Commander of United States Cyber Command on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 11, 2014.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
March 11, 2014, 12:43 p.m.

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.”

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