Washington (AFP) – President Barack Obama has nominated a U.S. Navy officer, Vice Admiral Michael Rogers, to take over as head of the embattled National Security Agency.
Rogers, 53, would take the helm at a fraught moment for the spy agency, which is under unprecedented pressure after leaks from ex-intelligence contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extent of its electronic spying.
“This is a critical time for the NSA, and Vice Admiral Rogers would bring extraordinary and unique qualifications to this position as the agency continues its vital mission and implements President Obama’s reforms,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who recommended Rogers for the post, said in a statement Thursday.
If confirmed by lawmakers, Rogers would also take over as head of the military’s cyber warfare command.
In response to the furor triggered by the Snowden media leaks, Obama has proposed reforms to rein in the NSA’s spying authority in some areas.
Rogers, who trained as an intelligence cryptologist, would succeed General Keith Alexander, who has served in the top job since 2005.
He currently heads the U.S. Fleet Cyber Command, overseeing the navy’s cyber warfare specialists, and over a 30-year career has worked in cryptology and eavesdropping, or “signals intelligence.”
Although well-versed in code-breaking and digital warfare, Rogers will be confronted with civil liberties and privacy questions under an intense public spotlight.
His confirmation hearings in the Senate are likely to be dominated by the ongoing debate about the NSA’s espionage, and whether its sifting through Internet traffic and phone records violates privacy rights and democratic values.
Hagel said he was “confident that Admiral Rogers has the wisdom to help balance the demands of security, privacy and liberty in our digital age.”
Like Alexander, the naval officer would not only run the powerful NSA but would also serve as chief of the U.S. military’s Cyber Command.
Obama has decided to keep the “dual-hatted” arrangement, even though some top officials recommended splitting up the two jobs.
The president also rejected suggestions to name a civilian as NSA director.
The Pentagon announced that the new NSA deputy director would be Richard Leggett, making him the agency’s senior ranking civilian, acting as a chief operating officer.
Leggett has managed the NSA’s media leaks task force, which evaluated the effect of Snowden’s disclosures of reams of classified information.
In a December interview with CBS television’s “60 Minutes,” Leggett said he would be open to “having a conversation” with Snowden about a possible amnesty in return for a full accounting of what the ex-contractor took and where the files are now.
“I would need assurances that the remainder of the data could be secured, and my bar for those assurances would be very high,” he said.
Snowden faces an array of espionage charges in the United States and has been granted asylum in Russia.
Describing himself as a whistleblower, Snowden has said in media interviews that he feels vindicated by the public debate over the NSA’s role that has followed his leaks.
AFP Photo/ MC1 Nate Guimont