WASHINGTON — Navy cryptologist Michael S. Rogers is President Obama's top choice to take over the embattled National Security Agency — which conducts electronic surveillance operations worldwide — and the Pentagon's cyber warfare command, officials say.
Rogers' experience includes 30 years in the Navy, where he rose to vice admiral and managed the intelligence portfolio for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Currently, he runs the Navy's cyber warfare arm.
If confirmed by the Senate, Rogers, 54, will succeed Gen. Keith Alexander, who is retiring after leading the NSA through one of the toughest periods in its history — the hemorrhaging of secrets by former contractor Edward Snowden. That will put Rogers in the public eye for the foreseeable future.
In the latest leak, the New York Times, ProPublica and the Guardian reported Monday that the NSA and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, can secretly collect an individual's location, age, sex and other personal data from smartphone applications, including such popular apps as the game Angry Birds.
Former colleagues praise Rogers' experience and judgment, and say he is suited for such a sensitive position.
"Mike was a class act — professional, dedicated, cheerful even under enormous pressure, wicked smart," John Nagl, a former Army counter-insurgency expert who knew Rogers when they both worked for the Joint Chiefs, wrote in an email. "I can think of no one I trust more implicitly to make the important calls about balancing privacy and national security that if confirmed he will make many times a day."
Richard "Dickie" George, the former technical director of the NSA's information assurance directorate, called Rogers "probably the best guy that we know of to take over that job."
"He's not an Alexander, but maybe that's good at this point in time," he added. "Alexander was trying to push the envelope as far as he could, but Rogers is much more conservative."
Alexander, who has led the NSA since 2005 and is the agency's longest-serving director, made no apologies for using the NSA's vast eavesdropping powers to collect everything possible within the law, both at home and abroad. Rogers is expected to give more weight to threats to privacy, risk of exposure and perceptions abroad.
Obama decided last month not to split the leadership of the NSA and Cyber Command, as some senior intelligence officials had advocated. He also decided not to end the NSA tradition of naming a uniformed officer, rather than a civilian, as director.
Alexander's civilian deputy, John "Chris" Inglis, recently retired, and Alexander is expected to leave in mid-March. Their departures were planned before Snowden began feeding thousands of classified NSA documents to journalists in June, shortly before he fled to Russia, but the change in leadership offers Obama a chance to reform the agency from within.
A White House spokeswoman declined comment, as did a spokesman for Rogers.
The Navy's cyber warfare arm is known as the 10th Fleet, although it isn't really a fleet. Headquartered within U.S. Cyber Command at Ft. Meade, Md. — also home to the NSA — it consists of about 15,000 officers, sailors and contractors who seek to defend the Navy from cyber attack and plan offensive operations.
"If you are not excited by the opportunity that cyber represents to the Navy then you do not have a pulse," Rogers told the Navy Times last year.