The retirement of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers sent shockwaves through the intelligence community on Friday, as the powerful Republican from Michigan announced his intentions to quit Congress and pursue a career in conservative talk radio. The decision comes as public trust in America's spies, in particular the NSA, is at an all-time low -- making the loss of the one of their staunchest defenders a particularly harsh blow for the beleaguered agencies.
"I have always believed in our founders' idea of a citizen legislature," Rogers said in a statement. "I had a career before politics and always planned to have one after. The genius of our institutions is they are not dependent on the individual temporary occupants privileged to serve."
Rogers will host a national radio show syndicated by Cumulus, which is also home to a range of popular right-wing bomb throwers including Mark Levin, Don Imus and Michael Savage. "We are thrilled to have Chairman Rogers join our team," said Lew Dickey, the CEO of Cumulus.
Rogers has long been one of the most stalwart allies of the intelligence agencies. An Army veteran, he also worked for five years as a special agent in the FBI. As association of former agents endorsed him last year as a potential successor to Robert Mueller as the FBI Director. (President Obama ultimately nominated James Comey, a lawyer and former deputy attorney general.)
In the wake of leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Rogers was a frequent defender of the spy agency's surveillance programs and a vehement critic of Snowden, whom he accused of betraying the United States by giving classified intelligence to foreign governments, an accusation for which Rogers has offered no evidence. This week, Rogers and his senior colleague on the House Intelligence Committee, C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger (D-Md.), proposed legislation to modify the NSA's program of collecting Americans phone records. It mostly comports to a proposal from the Obama administration that would end the NSA's collection of the records, but would still give it access to that information, which would be held by phone companies.
Rogers will be leaving Washington at a precarious time for the agency and U.S. intelligence operations, which are under particular scrutiny by the Senate Intelligence Committee. There, members are expected to vote next week on releasing a classified summary of a 6,300-page report on the CIA's program of detaining and interrogating terrorists. Relations between the agency and the Senate have hit rock bottom over the report. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.), the committee chair, who herself has been a usually dependable ally of the spy agencies, has also promised a top-to-bottom review of all U.S. intelligence operations. With Feinstein on the warpath and Rogers retiring, the intelligence agencies are losing two of their most important defenders.
On Friday morning, Michigan political watchers were as equally as puzzled by the announcement as Washington insiders. "I don't think anybody saw it coming," said Lori Wortz, a Michigan political operative who has worked with Rogers in his capacity as a state and federal candidate. "Maybe his brother had a heads up, but he certainly didn't tell anyone in his close inner-circle."
Rogers's brother, Bill Rogers, a state lawmaker, has hit Michigan's term limits at the state-level and could potentially run for the vacant federal seat. "He could take it," said Wortz. "There's not necessarily a name that stands out as a natural next-in-line person. But whoever runs, they'll have to start pretty quickly because there's not a lot of time."
Mandel Ngan / AFP