WASHINGTON » It’s not hard to understand why veterans of the National Security Agency argue that 2013 was the worst year since Harry S. Truman got the place running 62 years ago.
It started with Edward J. Snowden’s leaks of stolen NSA documents and ended with a holiday letter to families of agency employees declaring that despite what everyone was hearing on television and reading in the papers, their relatives were heroes, not violators of privacy rights.
In recent weeks it has gotten tougher. President Barack Obama has moved from lukewarm defenses of the agency’s programs to embracing recommendations to take the bulk collection of telephone call records out of its hands.
Google and Yahoo say they are equipping themselves with new technologies designed to defeat NSA interception, and the general counsel of Microsoft blogged not long ago that "government snooping potentially now constitutes an ‘advanced persistent threat,’" a phrase normally used to describe China’s most sophisticated hackers.
And to stop leakers, the agency plans to step up monitoring the calls, emails and financial transactions of agency employees, a move the NSA’s privacy critics find particularly rich in irony.
On Monday, when Snowden spoke to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, from Moscow – his voice and image shaky because it was being passed through a series of computer servers to ensure his security – he taunted the agency about its ignorance of what is coming next. "The U.S. government still has no idea what documents I have because encryption works," he declared.
The man chosen by Obama to navigate this bureaucratic, political and public relations disaster is Vice Adm. Michael S. Rogers, who on Tuesday will face members of the Senate at his confirmation hearing, an event not likely to be accompanied by the thunderous applause that greeted Snowden in Texas. Friends of Rogers in the intelligence community, who have worked with him in his current job running the Navy’s Fleet Cyber Command, say they wonder whether he has a sense of what he is wading into.
"Why would anyone in his right mind be director of NSA right now?" asked John R. Schindler, a former NSA officer who is now a professor at the Naval War College. "It’s a massive political headache."
Schindler, echoing intelligence officials who know Rogers, said he is "superbly qualified" to guide the agency’s cyber and surveillance programs. But he added that "no director in the agency’s history has ever walked into this big a challenge."
"Rogers is taking over what they call in the Navy an ‘unhappy ship,’" he said.
It is Rogers’ particular bad luck that he is not appearing in front the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has largely embraced the surveillance programs it is supposed to oversee. Because he will also be the head of U.S. Cyber Command, the Pentagon’s cyberwarfare unit, he will be appearing before the Armed Services Committee, whose members include some of the agency’s significant critics, from Democrats like Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, who has described the agency’s domestic surveillance as a violation of American principles, to Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has taken the opposite view, saying, "The federal government has not been effective enough monitoring and surveilling bad guys."
The question resonating inside the NSA these days is whether Rogers is prepared to become the public face — and public defender — of such an embattled agency, a job his predecessor, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, took on with gusto. Just last week, Alexander was at Georgetown University, defending the agency’s programs, arguing that the Snowden disclosures have weakened American cyberdefenses, and gently mocking how much oversight the agency receives. "We’re reviewed by the general counsel and the inspector general" of the Departments of Defense, the director of National Intelligence, the White House, Congress and many others, he said, giving a taste of how many minders Rogers will have to face.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that Rogers has always been an insider. "He’s never had to deal with a surveillance program, much less defend it," one of his friends and colleagues said. He’s a crippy," shorthand for cryptologist. "He’s never had to speak in public about these issues, much less endure senators showing off for the cameras."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a former Army officer who serves on the committee and knows Rogers, described what awaits the new director as "a complicated set of legislative issues, political issues and constitutional issues."
But in the end it may be the White House that poses his largest challenge. Obama may have signed off on many of these programs during his first four years in office, but officials at the NSA and Cyber Command complain that his embrace of the agency has been tentative at best. Over the agency’s objections, he accepted his committee’s recommendation that the NSA should not be able to hold on to bulk data from telephone calls, but still has not received the ideas he asked for about what private-sector mechanism should be set up to allow court-ordered searches, a system that Alexander fears could be clunky and slow.
There are other, less politicized but more complex battles Rogers is about to wade into.
The telecommunications companies that, reluctantly or not, allowed the NSA to tap its cables and wander through its circuits are now far more hesitant, fearing the backlash of being described as an NSA collaborator. Microsoft, Google and other are now urging Obama to embrace two strong recommendations from his own advisory committee on surveillance.
One would direct the government to work to strengthen commercial encryption, rather than work to weaken it. And another strongly discourages the government from stockpiling an arsenal of cyber vulnerabilities — the highly-sought "zero day" flaws — so that if they need to attack a country with cyber weapons, they have the ammunition in place. To America’s high-tech companies, the problem with the NSA is that it never considered the economic cost of using those weapons, opening up vulnerabilities that others can exploit, and undercutting international confidence in American products. So they want the NSA to swear off use of those tools.
Intelligence officials are horrified at the thought, calling it unilateral disarmament. "If you told the Army not to stockpile artillery shells, what are they likely to say back?" asked on senior intelligence official.
Inside Cyber Command, these are the most critical issues, on which billions of dollars are being spent. It is a subject Obama never mentioned during his January speech on surveillance, turning the hard decisions on encryption and cyber weapons over to a committee, headed by Michael Daniels, the head of his cyber office.
Daniels will not talk about the study, White House officials say. But one senior administration official said the White House was likely to side with the intelligence agencies. "Harry Truman created the NSA to break codes," he said. "No one can figure out why it makes sense to make that harder."
David E. Sanger, New York Times