The Head of the NSA Is on a Charm Offensive

Admiral Michael Rogers took his apology tour to Canada in order to repair relations with the citizenry it spied on.

by Justin Ling
Feb 26 2015, 5:17pm

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

"I'm into beards right now."

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

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

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 travelling 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.

His 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 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."

The strategy behind Rogers' PR blitz splits into three pitches: 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-defence.

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, The Intercept published a story with details of how the NSA used some shadowy techniques to get ahold 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 knows that nobody believes him.

"The NSA is obviously still dealing with the aftermath of the media leaks," he said. Rogers refuses to say the word "Snowden."

"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."

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

Chatting over beers after the talk with two staffers who work for Rogers, it's clear that the agency does feel like it's been slighted. There's an eye-roll whenever Snowden is mentioned. Yet, those who work under Rogers—and, really, Rogers himself—are willing to admit that the leaks were 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 when you can barely talk about transparency.

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.

"Defence" is also a word that comes up often. Rogers won't mention the NSA's proactive data-collection mandate without shoehorning in mention of his cyber-defensive 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 trying to defend critical infrastructure that keeps our lights on and our movies streaming.

In the absence of being able to build trust in the NSA, Rogers appears to be trying to build public trust in himself.

But despite the volume of evidence that details the agency's madcap adventures in surveillance not even Orwell could fathom, Rogers' earnest pitch does nip at the fringes of cynicism. He's 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' 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 Defence Minister Jason Kenney, who is responsible for the NSA's smaller, Canadian brother, the Communication Security Establishment (CSE).

"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, lets 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 that 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, Canada's 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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