SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Speaking Friday at the RAND Corporation's biennial postelection conference, called Politics Aside, National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers delivered his most candid — and, at times, combative — remarks to date about the image problems facing the shadowy agency, sounding defensive even as he emphasized the need for increased "dialogue" with the public.
"We don't monitor the behaviors of American citizens," Rogers insisted. "That's not what we're about. That's not our mission. That's not what we're here to do. So we've got to work our way through this."
Rogers, a Navy admiral, took over the NSA in April. (He also serves as head of U.S. Cyber Command.) At the time, he said NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was "probably not" working for a foreign intelligence agency, despite frequent speculation to the contrary. But at Friday's RAND event, Rogers insisted that Snowden's revelations have damaged America's counterterrorism efforts all the same.
"For those who would argue that the media leaks have had no impact, I would argue you don't know what you're talking about," Rogers said. "I'm watching groups change their behavior. I'm watching groups talk about the disclosures and say, 'Look, we can't use this because the Americans are onto it.' That's not a laughing matter to me."
Although he refused to elaborate, Rogers confirmed recent reports that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) is among the groups "shutting the NSA out" in this manner. "Clearly targets change their behavior," he said. "ISIL's no different than any other one."
Again and again, Rogers expressed frustration with the tenor of the ongoing national debate over the NSA's intelligence-gathering activities — particularly the blowback against the agency's bulk collection of data from domestic phone records. "You can argue, is the law right, is the law good, is the law bad? That's a fair discussion for us as a society, as a nation, to have," he said. "But every review to date has come back [saying] that NSA fully complies with the law."
What's needed now, according to Rogers, is for the public to stop "vilifying" the NSA and instead engage in a conversation that's less "simplistic and one-sided." "It's been particularly frustrating for [our] workforce," he added. "They are citizens just like you. They come to work every day and they say to themselves, 'I've got an important mission. I've got a framework as to how I execute that mission. How do I go about generating the insights we need to help defend the nation?' They do not — do not — come to work and say to themselves, 'Hey, how can I systematically override the laws and the authorities that I've been granted?'"
When asked how he plans to make the NSA more transparent, Rogers didn't hesitate. "That's why I'm here today," he said. "That's why I'm here."
At one point an audience member stood up and told him, "I'm afraid of you."
"I think that's, quite frankly, because you just don't know much about us," Rogers snapped back. He went on to joke that "I probably don't know much about you either — as it should be."
Still, he acknowledged that there are limits to how transparent the NSA can actually be. "We've got to be comfortable talking about what we do, why we do it and what we do not do," he explained. "The challenge for me is then taking it to the next level of 'Well, then how do you do what you do?' Because not only are many people with valid reasons interested in that, but a lot of [terrorist] groups around the world are interested too."
Ultimately, Rogers concluded, these are tricky issues that are only beginning to be hashed out — in the public, in the press and in Congress, which is currently considering a bill that would end what critics call "the worst abuses of the NSA's surveillance authority." "This is foundational to the future for the world around us," Rogers said. "The level of privacy versus secrecy, and the role of the government versus the role of the private person — we have watched that change over time, and it will continue to change. ... We've got to sit down as a nation and have a true discussion about what privacy means in the digital age."
Asked how he pitches jobs at the NSA to top tech recruits, Rogers cracked another joke. "We're gonna let you do some really neat stuff," he said. "Some really neat stuff that, quite frankly, you can't legally do anywhere else."