Obama’s Likely Pick for NSA Chief Is a Master Spy. It May Not Be Enough.

Obama’s Likely Pick for NSA Chief Is a Master Spy. It May Not Be Enough.

Vice Admiral Michael S. Rogers, the odds-on favorite to be nominated by President Obama as the next director of the National Security Agency, has all of the intelligence and military credentials for the position. "A walking resume for this job," said retired Admiral James Stavridis, who recently served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and has known Rogers for more than a decade.

But is Rogers a master politician? That may be the more important question if he takes over the helm of the country’s biggest spy agency at one of its most perilous moments, when leaks about the the NSA’s inner workings have damaged its credibility in the eyes of a large number of lawmakers and the public.

Those who know the Chicago native and have tracked his rise to admiral don’t doubt his professional qualifications for the NSA job. Over a career in the Navy spanning more than 30 years, Rogers has worked in cryptology, signals intelligence (or electronic eavesdropping), and recently helped write the Navy’s strategy for cyber warfare and "information dominance" in the Internet age. He has touched the major bases of NSA’s mission, and has earned the trust of the military’s top brass in stints at the Pentagon. And today, at age 53, he runs the Navy’s signals intelligence and cyber warfare operations – much in the same way the outgoing NSA Director, Gen. Keith Alexander, also runs the U.S. Cyber Command.

But he has a less demonstrable track record when it comes to interacting with members of Congress — some of whom want to scale back the NSA’s surveillance authorities. It’s unclear how he’d deal with the NSA’s bureaucratic partner — and arguably its rival — in cyber security operations, the Homeland Security Department, where President Obama plans nominate former Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson as the next secretary. And Rogers has never had to make the public case that the country’s intelligence apparatus is not abusing its legal authorities.

Rogers has certainly performed for tough crowds. As the director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2009 until 2011, he regularly briefed the top leaders of the armed forces and the civilians who run the Defense Department. "He’s just a steady hand. You never saw a ruffled feather," said retired Admiral Gary Roughead, who was the chief of naval operations when Rogers was the intelligence director, or J2. That position has been a stepping stone to the NSA. Mike McConnell, another Navy admiral, was the J2 during the Gulf War and became NSA director in 1996.

Roughead acknowledged, though, that Rogers would be taking over the NSA at an unusually sensitive time, when some lawmakers have questioned whether the NSA’s surveillance activities, such as the collection of Americans’ phone records, violate the Constitution. But he predicted that the admiral would carefully examine all the legal and political issues surrounding the NSA’s missions and ultimately make a credible leader.

"Obviously he’s aware of the discussions and the debate that have taken place," Roughead said. "But as he has approached all things, he’ll do it in a very thoughtful, principled way." Roughead described Rogers as a "very confident, and very principled officer."

Stavridis described him as "an extraordinary strategic communicator who is superb as a speaker and writer" who was "much in demand on the Hill, especially from his days as the Joint Staff J2 and preppping Admiral [Mike] Mullen [the chairman] for encounters up there."

Terry Roberts, a personal friend of Rogers who worked with him at the Defense Department when she held senior civilian positions, described him as having equal parts intellectual heft and personal charm. "He’s just a disarming kind of guy," she said. "He’s a great people person. The first thing he does when he sees you is ask about your kids."

Rogers is a familiar face on Capitol Hill. From March to June 2011, he participated in at least nine briefings on U.S. military operations in Libya for various members of Congress and their staff, as well as the intelligence, armed services, and foreign affairs committees in the House and the Senate.

In July 2012, Rogers testified before Congress about the Navy’s contribution to the nation’s growing cyber forces, and he seemed closely aligned with Alexander, the man who he would replace as the overall U.S. cyber commander. (There is no legal requirement that the NSA director also serve in that position, but experts generally think that the administration will keep the arrangement that way for now.)

Rogers said that 75 percent of the Navy’s approximately 14,000 personnel working on cyber issues were devoted to keeping the networks running — essentially systems administrators and tech support. "That’s a percentage that from my perspective is totally out of whack," Rogers said.

He advocated moving much of the Navy’s support functions to an automated cloud computing model called the Joint Information Environment, which would hopefully free up some of those tech personnel to be trained in defense and offensive cyber warfare. That is the same strategy that Alexander has advocated, so that he can increase the ranks of cyber warriors under his command by several thousand in the coming years.

From that perspective, Rogers would be likely to continue Alexander’s strategy of rapidly growing America’s cyber armed forces. But in his testimony, he didn’t spend any time discussing his views on how to do that while respecting Americans’ privacy and preserving civil liberties. Nor did lawmakers raise the question.

In a Navy blog post last year, Rogers wrote that "cyberspace is the fifth warfighting domain that intersects the other four which are sea, land, air, and space." In that sense, too, he is in line with Alexander, and the prevailing policy of the armed forces. If Rogers did suddenly reverse course and scale down the NSA and Cyber Command’s war functions, it would be a dramatic departure from his own view and those of his colleagues.

Intelligence sources told Foreign Policy that even before the recent controversies over global surveillance that have engulfed the NSA, Rogers was the top pick among Navy brass and intelligence officials to replace Alexander, who has served in the position longer than any of his predecessors and will retire next years. Aside from his professional credentials, it is the Navy’s turn to put forward an NSA director, who by law must be a commissioned military officer and by tradition comes in rotation from each branch of the armed forces. Alexander is an Army general and his predecessor served in the Air Force.

Rogers started his career in the early 1980s as a surface warfare officer, one of the career tracks that ambitious young officers follow on their way up to flag rank. But after a few years, Rogers switched over to a narrower specialty: cryptology, which turned out to be a wise career move. Over time, he specialized in signals intelligence gathering and eventually moved into cyber issues.

"He’s the best in the business as far as I’m concerned," said Roughead.

 Rogers’ background gives him credibility at the agency he may be about to take over, said retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, for whom Rogers worked on the Joint Staff. Rogers is a "card-carrying crypy," Schwartz said. "He is a siginter by profession and is well respected and that is an important credential.

Rogers may face a steeper learning curve in the NSA job than Alexander, who had numerous acedemic and technical credentials when he became director, including a masters degrees in systems technology and physics. "While he might not have academic credentials that Keith Alexander has, I think that Mike has the operational experience, the field experience, both with siging and cyber," Schwartz said.

Roberts said the Navy was grooming Rogers for the NSA directorship when they put him in charge of the Tenth Fleet and also the U.S. Fleet Cyber Command, his current positions. Normally, the command of a numbered fleet is reserved for aviators (pilots), ship drivers, and submariners. Putting an officer from the intelligence world was a public vote of confidence in Rogers’ leadership potential, and was done to make him competitive for the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command jobs, Roberts said.

A military officer who knows Rogers but wouldn’t speak to whether he’d be tapped to replace Alexander called him "absolutely brilliant" when it comes to intelligence and surveillance matters. "He has a grasp on the cyber environment that very few naval officers have." The officer described Rogers as an inclusive, collaborative leader, a consensus-builder who inspires his people.

Roughead said Rogers was a leading proponent of the Navy’s concept of "information dominance." In principle, it means incorporating cyber warfare and intelligence collection into the way the Navy fights, whether at sea, in the air, or on computer networks.

"Mike was the young rising star and a thought leader in how we were proceeding" with the strategy, Roughead said.

In his current position, Roughead helped write the Navy’s information dominance strategy for the next four years. It takes an encompassing, almost universal approach to information and data and views information technology as an essential component to fighting wars, as important as ships, aircraft, and submarines.

"Whether characterized as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, networks, communications, space, cyber, meteorology, oceanography, or electronic warfare, the Navy is inextricably and irreversibly dependent on information," the strategy reads. Information provides a source of power but can also be an incapacitating weakness if not protected. Mastering the information domain is critical to the Navy’s future success."

In that sense, too, he is not far apart from Alexander, whose appetite for data is famous — some would say notorious — in the intelligence community. Such an expansive view, that effectively sees any and all data as relevant to the NSA’s mission, may not meet with the warmest reception as lawmakers debate whether to ratchet down NSA’s data collection.

But Roberts, who said she’d had lunch with Rogers a few months ago, was confident that he’d make a strong personal impression even among lawmaker inclined to be hostile to the agency. "He’s so articulate and direct that, while they might not like what he’s saying, they’ll respect him."

Gordon Lubold contributed reporting.