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The Head of the NSA Is on a Charm Offensive

Admiral Michael Rogers took his apology tour to Canada. Can he repair his agency's tattered reputation?
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
February 26, 2015, 10:00pm

NSA head Admiral Michael Rogers addresses troops. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

"I'm into beards right now."

Admiral Michael Rogers is grinning at a room of military men and women at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defense. He just took a question from a Canadian navy officer sporting facial hair. ("You, sir, with the beard.") Now, he's pointing at another scruffy defense type.

The crowd, collection of private defense contractors, bureaucrats, and enlisted people, laugh and exchange looks.

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This guy is the head of the NSA?

After nearly two years of intense scrutiny over the American spy shop's mass surveillance programs, Rogers is making a full-court press to repair the agency's troubled legacy. That means portraying a shinier, happier version of the behemoth spy agency that led widespread surveillance on Germany's chancellor, prominent Muslims, and, well, everybody.

To do so, he's adopted the frantic schedule of a traveling salesman, accepting invites to anywhere that will have him in order to extol the virtue of President Barack Obama's magical privacy elixir—a concoction of remedies that will put limits on the American intelligence community's civil-liberties-infringing snooping campaign.

This itinerary has the spy chief criss-crossing the world, giving versions of his sales pitch to various audiences: universities like Stanford and Duke, business audiences in various chambers of commerce, and even the eggheads in Silicon Valley.

Rogers even set up a series of sit-downs with Hollywood creative types, in an effort to inject some more NSA-friendly narratives in mass media.

One thing Rogers will not do, however, is admit that the NSA did anything wrong.

Speaking of Obama's pledge to put new limitations on the NSA's ability to snoop on both Americans and foreigners, Rogers said it was all "to try and highlight to our own citizens, as well as citizens around the world: NSA executes its mission within a legal framework within a set of legal priorities."

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The strategy behind Rogers's PR blitz seems to have three parts: explain the NSA's mandate and how the agency stays within it, give the organization a veneer of transparency, and talk up the importance of cyber defense.

The first part is tricky. After all, the revelations from Edward Snowden appear to show that, in a vast multitude of ways, the NSA completely disregarded its mandate and US law in surveilling Americans and foreigners.

In fact, virtually the second that Rogers stepped on stage on February 19 for his presentation at the Canadian security conference, the Intercept published a story with details of how the NSA used some shadowy techniques to get a hold of encryption keys to millions of SIM cards.

But Rogers tried to assuage concerns.

"One of the things I'll often get is: 'Yeah, but you're interested in privacy data.' I'm going: Stop. Under the law, if I get information on US persons, I have specific legal restrictions that now go into effect that control what I do with the data, who I share it with, and how I restrict access to it," he told the crowd.

"I don't want privacy data."

That is, of course, at odds with virtually every document that has come from the Snowden leaks—but Rogers surely knows that few believe him at this stage.

"The NSA is obviously still dealing with the aftermath of the media leaks," he said, avoiding saying Snowden's name.

"In the structure we built in the 1970s, that we really use today, we counted on the power of the court and the role of a Congress," Rogers said when he was last in Canada, in November, for a three-day meeting of the Halifax Security Forum. "We increasingly don't trust our mechanisms of governance. So what do you do when you have an oversight mechanism that your population fundamentally has low trust in? What do you do when the court that you counted on to act as that neutral arbiter, people look at and go, 'It's a rubber stamp. We don't believe it, we don't trust it'? I'd be the first to admit, I'm still trying to work my way through it. So how do you set up an oversight structure in this time and place that resonates with people? Clearly the one that we've had to date, people are suspicious of."

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No matter how you feel about the NSA, Rogers has a point—even if things were working properly, would anyone believe that?

As I chatted over beers after the talk with two staffers who work for Rogers, it was clear that the agency feels like it's been slighted. There's an eye-roll whenever Snowden is mentioned. Yet those who work under Rogers are willing to admit that the leaks were a natural blowback to the culture of secrecy that plagued the NSA for years. While they'll always stop short of saying that the NSA ever behaved badly, they're willing to recognize that the leaks brought about something positive: more transparency, more accountability, more safeguards.

His staff said Rogers is more than willing to fire NSA staffers if they step outside the agency's mandate, and he has done so before. They seemed quite proud of that. Of course, that's not something they can brag about publicly—they can't even identify their own staff. Being transparent is very difficult under those conditions.

Rogers uses the word partnership a lot. Also: trust and cooperation. It gives the same impression as every office PowerPoint from Human Resources you've ever seen.

Defense is also a word that comes up often. Rogers won't mention the NSA's proactive data-collection mandate without shoehorning in a mention of his cyber-defense responsibilities. He makes mention of the Sony hack, and the NSA's role in investigating it, at least a dozen times in his stump speech. He's making a very serious effort to rebrand the NSA as a digital fire department, running around to defend critical infrastructure that keeps our lights on and our movies streaming.

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Rogers is built like a Navy man, but he's got a goofy face and seems perpetually like he's trying to impress you. He's got bags under his eyes like he's a new father to octuplets. He occasionally sounds outright frustrated.

"It's a terrible place for us to be as a nation," Rogers said in Ottawa, of the culture of skepticism. "Quite frankly, it's one of the reasons that I try to do things like this. It's why I say I'll take any question on any topic. Because I want to make sure that people understand, whether I'm talking about my foreign intelligence mission in the NSA or whether I'm talking about the NSA's information assurance mission, it's all about partnerships."

It's interesting that in Rogers's pitch to the public, he's making quite a different pitch to his partners in snooping. Indeed, the metadata king goes to great lengths to butter up his friends.

He not only asked for increased cooperation between the NSA and private industry but flatly said that there should be very little in the way of barriers at all.

"I believe we have to set up mechanisms to allow the private sector to share information with us in government," Rogers told the crowd. "I believe that we have got to set up mechanisms so that the private sector can share information with us in the government in a real-time, automated, machine-to-machine basis. In the cyber world, speed and agility are everything."

He also tried to chat up the Canadians. In attendance was Defense Minister Jason Kenney, who is responsible for the NSA's smaller, Canadian brother, the Communication Security Establishment (CSE).

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"What're we comfortable with? What're we not comfortable with? What's the role of the private sector, what's the role of the public sector? What's the level of oversight and control we'll have in place so that our citizens are comfortable with the idea of the exchange in Canada? It involves us sitting down with our private counterparts and saying, 'Look, let's walk through the specifics of exactly what we need with each other,'" Rogers said, often looking directly at Kenney, who was seated in the front row.

During the Halifax Security Forum appearance, Rogers shared a stage with Justice Minister Peter MacKay.

Several of MacKay's talking points sounded plagiarized from Rogers ("risk has never been higher and trust has never been lower") but, as a Canadian, he had the luxurious benefit of not facing the same sort of scrutiny as his American counterpart.

Indeed, the Snowden revelations that have dogged Obama appeared to spook Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who told an American crowd that he's not "a big believer" in metadata collection, "not just because they have a potential to infringe on civil liberty but usually [they] overwhelm you with data in a way that you can't actually process."

In actuality, the CSE is one of the NSA's most critical partners. Many of the Snowden documents reveal the extent to which the Americans deployed the Canadian agency for intelligence gathering. Some of the leaked presentations show that CSE had actually tapped internet cables to collect signals intelligence.

So even though Obama, while getting the screws, set up some caveats on the NSA's surveillance powers, the Canucks haven't received the same sort of public torture necessary to force action.

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