Newly appointed National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers told a cybersecurity event Tuesday that former agency contractor and classified intelligence leaker Edward Snowden is “probably not” working for a foreign intelligence agency.
“Could he have? Possibly. Do I believe that’s the case? Probably not,” Rogers said according to The Guardian in one of his first public remarks at a Bloomberg Government forum since assuming the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command mantles in April.
Rogers nuanced remarks about Snowden, who he refers to as “our gentleman in Moscow,” were marked steps away from his predecessor Gen. Keith Alexander, numerous lawmakers on Capitol Hill and officials in the Departments of State and Defense, all of whom frequently describe the leaker with harsh rhetoric ranging from foreign espionage to treason.
“You gotta be very balanced. I thought he was an intelligent individual, articulate. [He] seemed fairly arrogant to me,” Rogers said about Snowden’s interview last week with NBC’s Brian Williams. “He clearly believes in what he’s doing. I question that; I don’t agree with it. I fundamentally disagree with what he did. I believe it was wrong, I believe it was illegal.”
Rogers also stepped back from his predecessor’s comments discussing how much the government knows about what Snowden stole. Officials in Congress and the Defense Department citing a classified Defense Intelligence report have alleged more than one million documents, while Gen. Alexander said last month he doesn’t believe anyone knows what Snowden “actually took.”
“We have a fairly good idea here, and I’m not going to get into specifics here,” Rogers said.
The new agency head also broke form by commenting on the latest Snowden disclosure leaked earlier this week revealing a sweeping photo capture program and facial recognition database.
“We use facial recognition as a tool to help us understand these foreign intelligence targets. Counter-terrorism is another big area — this has probably had more impact for us in the counterterrorism arena than anywhere else,” Rogers said.
Rogers indicated the agency was in a culturally difficult place with privacy increasingly giving way to technology, but said he was determined not to let the bulk surveillance revelations by former agency contractor Edward Snowden permanently characterize the NSA.
“One of the things that I try to tell the workforce out there is: this is not what is going to define us,” Rogers said. “We cannot go into this hunched-down crunch. We have an important mission.”
Rogers, who described himself as a “direct” person, said he would welcome a “broad dialogue of what we’re doing and why [it] is a good thing for us as a nation,” and indicated he was open to having a public debate about the agency’s legal surveillance authorities.
“There are groups and individuals out there who if they had their way, we would no longer exist as a nation,” Rogers said.
“Now, I’m not one who’s going to sit here and overhype the threat [or say] that in the name of this threat we have to make dramatic changes and curtail our rights, because if we go down that road, in the end, they’ve won. If we change who we are and what we believe and what we represent in the name of security, they have won. I have always believed that.”