NSA nominee unknown to privacy advocates

The president’s nominee to take over the helm of the National Security Agency (NSA) is mostly a stranger to privacy and civil liberties advocates.

They say that Vice Adm. Mike Rogers will have a lot of work ahead as he takes over for Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA’s current chief, during a period of dramatic changes to soothe concerns about the agency’s snooping on millions of Americans.

“He has not been on my radar in any detail,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ project on government secrecy. “He takes this position at a moment of intense political turmoil that is unlike what he had likely faced in his previous career.”

Rogers has spent more than 30 years in the Navy, and is an expert in cryptology. Since 2011, he has led the U.S. Cyber Fleet, the Navy’s cyber command. Before that, he served as the director of intelligence for both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. Pacific Command.

As NSA director, Rogers will also be taking over the U.S. Cyber Command.

A White House review group last year suggested that the president split the two roles, citing “a pressing need to clarify the distinction between the combat and intelligence collection missions.” Late last year, the White House rejected that suggestion and decided to stick to one “dual-hatted” role.

“He’s probably in the more traditional role of the director of the NSA, to be less of a public figure. It’s only in the last few years really that people like Alexander and [former Director Michael] Hayden have emerged in a very prominent way,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said.

“In that respect, the selection is not that surprising. But our focus really is on the changes ahead, and I think that’s likely the question that he’s going to be facing,” Rotenberg said.

It is evident that Rogers will have his job cut out for him.

President Obama announced a series of reforms to the embattled NSA earlier this month, after leaks from former contractor Edward Snowden revealed to the public the extent of the agency’s surveillance operations.

The president said that NSA officials would need to obtain a court order before searching a database of records about virtually all Americans’ phone calls, and that agents would only be able to get call data about people two steps removed from a suspected terrorist, instead of the current three. He also called for the phone records database to be shifted out of government hands, but was not specific about where exactly it might go.

“Virtually all the details still need to be filled in,” said Harley Geiger, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s freedom, security and surveillance project.

Critics have urged Obama to end the program outright. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a small federal commission tasked with protecting privacy rights, voted  3-2 earlier this month that the program was illegal and should be ended.

Intelligence officials have defended the phone records program. Last week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that it was an “important tool” that helped to detect terrorist threats.

“The president was a little bit more ambiguous as to what the alternatives should be,” Geiger said. “He wanted to maintain the same capabilities but it’s unclear what form that will take. I would imagine that the NSA staff has a very significant role to play in evaluating these alternatives.”

Aftergood noted that an insider like Rogers, with decades of military history, might be exactly the person to follow through on reforms at the NSA

“I think any attempt to graft an outsider onto the NSA would create problems of its own,” he said. “And so someone promoted from within is probably well-positioned to make the changes that Congress decides are necessary.”

Rogers will need to be confirmed by the Senate in order to take up the helm at the U.S. Cyber Command.

Rick Ledgett, whom Obama selected to be the next deputy director of the NSA, would not need to go through the Senate.

In a statement, Clapper praised Ledgett for his “remarkable career in signals intelligence” and his “keen insight of the entire intelligence enterprise.”

Ledgett previously led an NSA task force focused on handling how to mitigate the damage done by Snowden’s leaks to the public.

Despite that background, though, Aftergood said he did not see Ledgett’s promotion as an indication of a new dedication to secrecy at the agency.  

“Everybody over there is pretty passionate about preventing leaks,” he said. “And if it wasn’t Mr. Ledgett, it was going to be someone else who would view the world pretty much the same way.”

Transparency at the agency and its bulk collection of phone records will be the two biggest challenges facing Rogers when he enters office, Geiger said.

“There are other things, but those are two of the really big ones,” he said.

“And if the NSA director is not working on those problems, then they’re not really addressing the fundamental issues underlying the debate.”