The NSA has a new director, Admiral Michael Rogers. If his first public comments are any indication, a new era in the relations between the spy agency and the public may be in the offing. Admiral Rogers has begun his tenure by downplaying the role Edward Snowden has played in the history of cyber-espionage and has played down the damage caused by Snowden’s disclosures.
You may recall that the events of a year ago were characterized by his predecessor, General Keith Alexander, as the worst security failure in US intelligence history. Admiral Rogers acknowledged that some terrorists had made changes in their manner of communications as a result of the revelations but fell short of labelling the event a doomsday scenario.
Rogers said the NSA had overheard terrorist groups “specifically referencing data detailed” by Snowden’s leaks. “I have seen groups not only talk about making changes, I have seen them make changes,” he said. But he added: “You have not heard me as the director say, ‘Oh my God, the sky is falling’. I am trying to be very specific and very measured in my characterizations.”
It is not known what Rogers may have thought or said while not in the capacity of director. On the other side of the Atlantic, the outgoing head of MI6, Sir John Sawyers, was more animated in giving evidence to a parliamentary committee. He said Britain’s enemies were emboldened and gleeful. “Al Qaida is lapping it up”, he said.
It was in June 2013 that that Snowden handed the documents to the Guardian and the Washington Post initiating a raging debate around the globe about mass surveillance techniques of the NSA. To avoid another Snowden debacle, Admiral Rogers outlined new security measures. They included the use of two people, rather than one, to access sensitive data. He also said that the NSA would have to be more transparent in order to restore public trust, unlike his predecessors.
In fact Rogers outgoing nature and reputation for straight-shooting is believed to be an advantage in future public discourse about the agency’s role. In this vein his comments have dispelled the notion floated by some in US and British spy circles that Snowden was working for the Chinese, Russians or any other spy agency. He refrained from getting deeper into the discussion of Snowden’s intentions or the agency’s posture going forward with regard to Edward Snowden.
At first glance, his deportment is a refreshing departure from his predecessor, General Alexander’s, often inflammatory rhetoric. Alexander had described the leak of tens of thousands of documents from the NSA and the British GCHQ as “the greatest damage to our combined nations’ intelligence systems that we have ever suffered.” Headed by Alexander, the agency portrayed Snowden as a traitor and maintained the drumbeat for his return to the US to face charges of espionage.
In all his protestations, Alexander conveniently overlooked the damage the NSA had caused with the average citizen and his worry over privacy. He also side-stepped the irrevocable damage the revelations caused between the tech companies and the consumer over the tech companies’ willing compliance in the area of mass data gathering. This public backlash has obligated internet and telecom companies to develop new technologies to prevent the wholesale collection of data by spy agencies. The tech companies are insisting on search warrants before handing over information.
Admiral Rogers confirmed that the pressure put on the White House by the general public and foreign leaders has led to the abandonment of monitoring of the foreign leaders, most notably Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany. As far as in individual wreaking as much havoc as Edward Snowden, Rogers was more circumspect. He acknowledged that, despite best efforts, no one can say “ with 100% certainty that no one can compromise our systems from the inside.”