National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command Director Admiral Michael Rogers spent the day in Pittsburgh on Monday, making stops at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh as well as the National Cyber-Forensics & Training Alliance.
At CMU, Rogers fielded questions from students and faculty on topics ranging from the impact of the Edward Snowden leaks to U.S.-China relations to how foreign nationals can contribute to U.S. cybersecurity.
Kiron Skinner, director of the Institute for Politics and Strategy at CMU, moderated the conversation.
“It was an open, unscripted dialogue about privacy, security (and) civil liberties, all of the issues that have popped up in our national conversation since the Edward Snowden leaks,” she said.
During the hour-long conversation, Rogers stressed the need for respectful dialogue, particularly among those who disagree politically.
“We’re not talking to each other, we’re talking at each other,” he said. “When you talk at somebody, you don’t hear well, and you don’t really listen.”
Rogers faced a battery of questions from people who disagree with him, including Ron Bandes, a network defense analyst at CMU’s Software Engineering Institute, who asked if Edward Snowden’s revelations had a positive impact on civil liberties and if he could get a fair trial in the United States.
Rogers declined to comment on the specifics of Snowden’s case but said he believed broadly in the efficacy of the U.S. justice system. He also said that certain groups had cited parts of the Snowden revelations in their communications, as they strategized about how to get around U.S. intelligence gathering efforts.
Skinner said she was impressed with Rogers’ willingness to take questions and engage in respectful conversation.
“That to me gives me hope that NSA is becoming a much more public actor. We’re understanding it better,” she said. “We didn’t know much about it before the Snowden leaks.”
Rogers said he tries to breed that kind of open debate into the culture of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, adding that he encourages his staff to speak up if they believe the organization is doing something unethical, immoral or illegal.
He told a story about a conversation he had with his father when he was a young man as the Watergate scandal swept the White House and the national consciousness.
Rogers said he had a hard time understanding how something like that could happen, and he asked his father how he should respond if he was ever ordered to do something that he fundamentally disagreed with.
“He said, ‘Michael, don’t ever forget that you have a responsibility to ensure that your actions as a member of the armed forces are moral, ethical and legal. You must be willing to stand up if you find one of those three criteria is not being met. In executing that responsibility, you must also stand up and hold yourself accountable for what you did,’” Rogers told the small crowd. “All too often, we focus on the responsibility and we forget about the accountability.”
Rogers also laid out the four touchstones by which he runs the NSA and USCYBERCOM, saying that all his staff must obey the rule of law, hold themselves accountable to the U.S. citizenry, never cut corners and recognize that the agencies are powered by people, not technology.
He emphasized that point, saying he strives to “put a human face” on the two agencies.
“At their hearts they are enterprises powered by innovative men and women,” Rogers said. He acknowledged that students in the room were potential employees of NSA and USCYBERCOM.
Skinner said CMU is uniquely positioned to prepare students for careers in national security and cybersecurity, because of the multi-disciplinary nature of the university’s programs.
“In the cyber arena it becomes even more important, I think, than in traditional warfare, because you need to be able to have the decision analysts talking to the cryptographers and the computer scientists and the privacy experts, both the privacy engineers and the civil liberties experts,” she said.