Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Navy Vice Adm. Michael Rogers was involved in the NATO campaign in Kosovo in 1999. This version has been corrected.
Vice Adm. Michael S. Rogers has been groomed for this moment.
Nominated by President Obama to become the next director of the National Security Agency and head of the military’s cyberwarfare command, Rogers was talent-scouted over the past several years by senior military and intelligence officials, who saw a leader in the personable officer.
“He was the best there was, and he was going to lead us into the cyberfuture,” said retired Adm. Gary Roughead, who in 2011 picked Rogers to head Fleet Cyber Command, the Navy’s cyber organization, which was seen as a steppingstone.
Rogers’s steady rise reflected a consensus among senior officials that the Navy cryptologist and intelligence officer had the temperament and strategic vision to confront the challenges of carrying forward a spy agency founded in 1952 and a cyber command launched in 2010 for a new form of warfare.
But not even they could have foreseen the stresses that the NSA is now enduring. Revelations over the past seven months about its surveillance activities have put the agency’s leadership on the firing line, facing stern — often angry — questions from lawmakers and criticism from allies over the scope of the NSA’s intelligence-gathering.
And those questions are likely to be aimed at Rogers as he undergoes a confirmation hearing that could be held as early as this month. If confirmed, Rogers, 54, will succeed Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who is retiring in March as the longest-serving NSA director in history after more than eight years at the helm.
“He comes in at a moment of high drama, congressional churn and European outrage,” said Michael Allen, former staff director to the House Intelligence Committee and author of “Blinking Red.” “He’s stepping into the storm. He’ll need all his skills to satisfy the demands for privacy as well as the need to protect NSA’s mission.”
In a 2012 interview with The Washington Post, Rogers said one of his primary goals in the Navy was to integrate cyber operations and strategy into the Navy’s traditional range of activities. “We need to make sure that commanders understand cyber is a core facet of operations and warfare of the 21st century,” he said. “It’s not something that some specialized set of individuals who have no connection with the operational world are going to do for you.”
By all accounts, Rogers marries smarts and dedication with humor.
One retired Navy officer recalled how he and Rogers were at a Navy course for new admirals in 2007 that included a good dose of “touchy-feely stuff, like Myers-Briggs personality tests — ‘What kind of leader are you?’ ” At the end, Rogers got up and, in front of the chief of naval operations, did a parody of the whole course and had everybody rolling in the aisles.
“It was really funny and well done and it took a lot of mojo to get up in front of the Navy four-star — the CNO — and do that,” recalled the former officer, who would only discuss a former colleague on the condition of anonymity. “If it hadn’t been as funny as it was, it would have been a stupid move.”
A Chicago native, Rogers and his wife, Dana, have two grown sons, one of whom is a Navy lieutenant. The president’s nominee began his career as a surface warfare officer in 1981. After a few years he became a cryptologist, intercepting signals from enemy radar and communications systems for intelligence analysts.
In the Navy, which in 2005 broadened the job of cryptologist and rebranded it as information warfare officer, Rogers’s skills included the growing field of computer network operations, to include attacks, defense and deception.
The cryptologist’s job is seen as specialized, narrower than that of all-source intelligence officers. Gen. Peter Pace, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, feared that Rogers, who was on his staff, might be “stereotyped as a specialist, whereas he was . . . also a person of enormous intellect and capacity to think at a much larger level.”
Pace picked him to head the Chairman’s Action Group, an in-house think tank to advise on policy and see issues over the horizon. “The CAG is the think-out-of-the-box guys,” said one longtime colleague.
Rogers was adept at getting the dozen or so officers “to all play together in the sandbox,” said Pace, now retired, “not to average their thinking but to make sure that everybody’s voice got heard and to be able to package it for me in a way that I could get all their views in a concise report.”
In late 2007, Adm. Timothy J. Keating, who was head of Pacific Command and had become a Rogers fan, put him forward for the position of director of intelligence at Pacific Command. Then-Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, a retired Navy vice admiral and a former NSA director, supported the move.
Officials viewed the post as one that would broaden Rogers’s résumé and set him on a path to NSA headquarters at Maryland’s Fort Meade. In 2009, a job as the intelligence director on the Joint Staff opened up, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, named Rogers to the post.
“Every senior officer in the Navy knew of Mike Rogers and fought to get Mike on their staff,” said retired Adm. James G. Stavridis, the former NATO commander in Europe who has known Rogers for some 20 years.
In 2011, in the run-up to the NATO bombing campaign against Libya, Rogers “was instrumental in helping me understand what was going on,” Stavridis said, adding, “He was able to provide us visibility into Libya and was able to do that in real time so that we could make decisions in combat throughout that operation.”
That year, Roughead, then chief of naval operations, picked Rogers to head the 10th Fleet/Fleet Cyber Command. In that job, Rogers provides the Navy’s cyberwarriors to the combatant commands and to U.S. Cyber Command, which is a central headquarters for the military’s cyber-mission.
“I love the mission set,” Rogers said in the 2012 interview. “I find this very invigorating. It’s really challenging.”
One of Rogers’s biggest challenges at Fleet Cyber Command occurred last summer when an Iranian hacker managed to worm his way into the Navy’s unclassified network. Despite repeated efforts to root the intruder out and prevent him from regaining access, which included twice shutting down the entire e-mail system for a day, he would reappear. No data were taken, but the invader was “driving the Navy [network defenders] nuts,” said one military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the event.
On Thursday, the day Rogers’s nomination was sent to the Hill, the Pentagon also announced that Richard Ledgett has been selected to serve as NSA deputy director. As the senior civilian at the agency, he will succeed John C. Inglis, who retired in January.
If Rogers is confirmed, his first priority and largest challenge will be to restore trust in the NSA at home and abroad, colleagues say.
“He’s got to find a way to make people feel as though the NSA in particular is abiding strictly by the law,” Stavridis said. He’s got to “debunk” what Stavridis called “a lot of mythology,” and “he’s got to do that methodically, calmly, using all his key communications skills.”