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New NSA choice reflects desire to get past criticism

Feb. 18, 2014 - 12:26PM   |  
Vice Adm. Michael Rogers, commander, Fleet Cyber Command, has been nominated to lead the National Security Agency and Cyber Command.
Vice Adm. Michael Rogers, commander, Fleet Cyber Command, has been nominated to lead the National Security Agency and Cyber Command. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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WASHINGTON — President Obama's recent nominee to head the NSA will confront a host of problems if confirmed in his new job, including a demoralized workforce, frayed relations with Capitol Hill and angry foreign intelligence partners.

"He's got a lot of rebuilding to do," said James Lewis, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Vice Adm. Michael Rogers, a career Navy man not well known outside the military, was nominated by Obama to head the NSA. The Senate is expected to hold a confirmation hearing on the nomination within weeks.

The NSA has been battered by a stream of revelations from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whose exposure of secret programs involving data collection has drawn criticism from Capitol Hill and civil liberties advocates.

Obama has announced some new changes in the way data is collected, but left most programs in place, arguing that a robust intelligence collection effort is critical to safeguard the country. "We cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies," Obama said in a speech last month that addressed the criticism.

The current NSA director, Army Gen. Keith Alexander, announced plans to retire this spring after eight years in the job. Alexander was a fierce defendant of the NSA's intelligence efforts, but during most of his tenure he worked quietly behind the scenes.

Rogers, currently commander of U.S. Fleet Cyber Command and U.S. 10th Fleet, won't have that luxury.

Alexander had the "trust and confidence of the political leadership," Lewis said, which gave him a lot of leeway in running the agency. Rogers will likely face more scrutiny from Congress and civil liberties advocates.

Still Obama's selection of Rogers reflects the White House's desire to put the controversy behind it without a major overhaul of critical intelligence programs, analysts say.

"He's not going to put someone from the ACLU as head of the NSA," said Martin Libicki, an analyst at Rand Corp. "I think he was a logical choice."

Rogers began his naval career in 1981 as a surface warfare officer. But early in his career he shifted to cryptology, a critical field in the Navy since ships must communicate with each other securely over great distances.

Because of the reliance on secured communications the Navy has developed a close relationship with the NSA, Libicki said.

Even though Snowden's revelations have focused public attention on data collection programs and countering terrorism, the real challenge for the NSA will likely be defending against cyberattacks, analysts say.

The United States has said China has made numerous cyberattacks in an effort to steal business secrets in the United States and there are fears that Iran could launch a cyberattack on U.S. infrastructure.

Those worries "have been overshadowed by all the squealing about privacy," Lewis said. "He has to defend the country. He's got to bring all those pieces together."

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