There is little doubt that Adm. Michael Rogers will be confirmed as the next head of the National Security Agency and the U.S. military's Cyber Command. Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) even preemptively congratulated Rogers during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, drawing chuckles from the nominee. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who introduced Rogers to the committee (and has known Rogers since high school), said that, "Being a Republican, I have not supported a lot of the nominees of the president," but that "this is the best American you could have picked for the job."
Rogers has been tapped to succeed Gen. Keith Alexander, who will retire later this month. He'll take the helm of an NSA in crisis, struggling under new scrutiny that has resulted from former contractor Edward Snowden's ongoing leaks about its secret surveillance efforts.
Snowden is living in exile in Moscow, but he cast a shadow over the hearing all the same. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) asked whether the NSA was infringing on the rights of ordinary citizens by collecting reams of so-called metadata on their phone calls, emails, and web surfing. The spy agency, he said, should instead focus its efforts on targeting individual militants and terror threats. "It seems to me," Cruz said, "the focus overall of our intelligence and defense community and law enforcement community is directed far too much at law-abiding citizens and far too little at individualized bad actors."
Cruz is an ultra-conservative Republican, but his comments echoed remarks Snowden made in a video presentation at Austin's SXSW technology conference. Speaking by video from Moscow yesterday, Snowden said that large-scale surveillance could be an obstacle to actually identifying terrorists, citing the Boston Marathon bombing and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 2009 "underwear bomber," as threats that were missed because the NSA was processing overwhelming quantities of effectively useless data.
Cruz followed up with questions about the Boston bombing and the Fort Hood shooting, which Rogers declined to answer.
In the months since his name first leaked as the Pentagon's choice for the job, an array of prominent current and former officers have argued that he is uniquely qualified for the job. Retired Adm. James Stavridis, the former head of the military's European command, called him "a walking résumé for this job." If there were any lingering doubts that he could also meet the political requirements of leading the embattled spy agency, that seems resolved now. Rogers, it turns out, is a consummate politician: He consistently suggested that he agreed with members of the committee, even as he just as consistently refused to give direct answers to their questions.
Rogers, for instance, repeatedly stressed that the NSA needed to be as clear with the public about what it does as possible. "I would attempt to be as transparent as possible with the broader nation about what we're doing and why. I would try to ensure a sense of accountability about what the National Security Agency does," he said. "The nation places a great deal of trust in this organization. It has an incredibly important mission. It's a mission that involves attention in our society, given the fact that the fundamental rights of the individual are so foundational to our very concept of a nation. I welcome a dialogue on this topic, I think it's important for us as a nation. I look forward to being part of that dialogue."
That dialogue, though, didn't take place during this morning's hearing.
"As a nominee," Rogers said, he "could not comment on the value of the [NSA's metadata collection program]." Nor, he said, was he prepared to discuss potential cyber-vulnerabilities in U.S. infrastructure without moving to a closed session. He demurred on questions about what the NSA could have done differently to prevent the Boston Marathon bombing and the Fort Hood shooting, citing a lack of familiarity with the intelligence efforts involved.
"To what extent do you believe Russia is conducting cyberattacks against the Ukraine, and what could the U.S. do to help the Ukraine better defend itself against cyberattacks from Russia?" asked Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH).
"In an open, unclassified forum, I am not prepared to comment on the specifics of nation-state behavior," Rogers replied. (Though he went on to clarify that "As we will work with the Ukrainians and others to figure out what are the best ways to address [their issues], whether it's the Ukrainians ask for specific technological assistance -- I think we'd have to work through everything on a case-by-case basis.")
Later in the hearing, Rogers said that he understands the reasons behind the pressure for the NSA to become more transparent. The discussion frequently circled back to the leaked information about the agency's surveillance programs. Rogers said he supported new policies to move NSA-collected metadata to a third-party organization. "I believe with the right construct we could make that work," he told the committee. Rogers also agreed with Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) that telecommunications service providers should be legally protected for sharing information with the government, saying that they should be afforded "some level of liability protection" and that businesses would be "much less inclined" to share their data without legal safeguards.
He also discussed -- obliquely, of course -- the NSA's internal investigation into the records stolen by Snowden and reiterated, as Snowden said yesterday, that "the United States government ... still [has] no idea what documents were provided to the journalists, what they have, what they don't have."
"We have an in depth and analytic effort ongoing within the department to determine that," Rogers said. "We have tried to identify exactly what the implications are of what he took."
Rogers said that the Snowden leaks had given U.S. adversaries "greater insights into what we do and how we do it" and said that the disclosures had increased the risks to American lives, though he did not specify how. But he declined to join Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in calling Snowden a "traitor."
"I don't know that I would use the world ‘traitor,'" said Rogers, "but I do not consider him to be a hero."
Though much of the hearing focused on the challenges the NSA is facing, Rogers also made clear that he believed cyber capabilities would play an increasingly important role in the wars of the future. "Clearly, cyber will be an element of almost any crisis we're going to see in the future," Rogers said. "It has been in the past; I believe we see it today in the Ukraine, we've seen it in Syria, Georgia -- it is increasingly becoming a norm."
Rogers, despite pressure from members of the committee, refused to discuss the details of a high-profile cyberattack on an unclassified Navy Intranet that took place during his tenure as the Navy's chief of cybersecurity.
"As a matter of policy and for operational security reasons, we have never categorized who, exactly, publicly penetrated the network," he told Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK).
"Well, no," said Inhofe, "this has been discussed in an unclassified session for quite some time, that we're talking about Iran in this case."
"I'm sorry, sir, not to my knowledge," replied Rogers, who carefully omitted Iran from his discussion of the incident. Speaking about the cyberattack, Rogers said that the damage done "was of concern," but that "they did not decide to engage in any destructive behaviors. My concern was 'what if that was their intent?'"
All of which suggests that Rogers will be a fitting successor to Alexander. He has mastered the NSA's ability to pay lip-service to transparency, while publicly saying very little.
Rogers will likely be confirmed before Alexander's retirement later this month.
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