President Obama’s pick to lead the National Security Agency (NSA) pledged on Tuesday to protect privacy rights while at the helm of the spy agency.
Appearing before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Vice Adm. Michael Rogers, who would also be taking the reins as the head of the U.S. Cyber Command, said that he would work to make the embattled agency’s surveillance efforts more transparent.
If he takes office, Rogers said he would be “ever-mindful” that the agency needs to work “in a manner which protects the civil liberties and privacy of our citizens.”
“I will be an active partner in implementing the changes directed by the president with respect to aspects of the National Security Agency mission and my intent is to be as transparent as possible in doing so, and in the broader execution of my duties, if confirmed.”
Though many members of the Armed Services Committee have been supportive of the intelligence operations, the panel is also is home to some of the agency’s loudest critics.
“There does have to be a balance struck between achieving our national security goals and protecting the constitutionally guaranteed rights of American citizens,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
“I worry about the NSA’s surveillance and metadata programs and the risks that such programs could pose to the constitutionally protected rights of American citizens.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said the NSA has had a pattern of intruding on people's lives and, in doing so, ignoring actual threats to the country.
"It seems to me 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," he said.
Rogers has spent more than 30 years in the Navy, and has been in charge of the branch’s cyber command since 2011. He has also been the director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. Pacific Command.
As a cryptology expert, he is a relative unknown to privacy and civil liberties advocates, though he will be taking over the NSA amid turmoil unlike any the agency has ever seen.
Tuesday’s hearing was Rogers’s first public appearance since being nominated by President Obama in January.
Defenders of the NSA’s programs have criticized Edward Snowden’s leaks about the operations, which they said have damaged national security. By revealing secrets about the agency’s operations, they say, Snowden has made it easier for potential terrorists to avoid detection.
Rogers agreed with those sentiments on Tuesday.
“Do you believe that the disclosures that he made have potentially put at risk the lives of Americans and our allies were at greater risk because he has released this type of classified information?” asked Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).
“Yes ma’am,” Rogers responded.
“I don’t know that I would use the word traitor, but I certainly do not consider him a hero,” he added in response to a later question.
Rogers told lawmakers that a public lack of understanding about the NSA’s work had led to the broad support for Snowden and his leaks.
“I believe that one of the takeaways from the situation over the last few months has been, 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,” he said.
“One of my challenges is I have to be able to speak in broad terms in a way that most people can understand. And I look forward to that challenge.”
The most controversial program Snowden revealed is the NSA’s bulk collection of records about the length, frequency and numbers dialed in Americans’ phone calls, which is called metadata.
Defenders have said that the efforts have contributed crucial pieces of the puzzle to fighting terror. Had the government had the programs in place before Sept. 11, 2001, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said there was a “a strong probability that we would have been able to determine that a major attack was going to occur.”
“The potential [for officials to intervene] surely would have been much greater,” Rogers said.
Spies at the time had kept tabs on plotters of the attack, and the 9/11 Commission Report pointed blame at the FBI and the CIA’s inability to communicate with each other.
In a speech earlier this year, Obama called for the phone metadata program to be terminated “as it currently exists” but in a way that “preserves the capabilities we need” by transferring the records database out of the NSA’s hands.
“We can end bulk collection and focus on terrorists and spies without infringing upon the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans,” said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a critic of the agency’s operations. “The status quo must change and I look forward to working with you to make those changes.”
Obama is reportedly considering multiple options for that shift, including having phone companies or some outside party hold the data.
“I believe, sir, with the right construct, we can make that work,” Rogers said, responding to a question from committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).
“I believe we can make either scenario possible, whether the service providers did it or whether a third party did it. There’s definitely some challenges we need to work through but I’m confident in our ability to do so.”
Rogers does not need to be confirmed by the Senate to take the reins as director of the NSA, however he does need confirmation to lead the Cyber Command.
A White House advisory group advocated for splitting the two roles, but the Obama administration rejected that option last year.
“I just believe where we are right now, many of their missions and functions are so intertwined and related, that to not do it this way would create real concern,” Rogers said, defending the decision.
“I will be busy,” he added.