WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s pick to lead the National Security Agency pledged on Tuesday to look for ways to build confidence in the beleaguered spy agency and, in a possible shift, stopped short of calling former contractor Edward Snowden a traitor.
Vice Admiral Michael Rogers, now the Navy’s top cyber warrior, was cautious during often terse exchanges at a Senate hearing on his confirmation to also lead the U.S. Cyber Command that saw critics and supporters prod him about the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records, a program exposed by Snowden.
Rogers spoke about the need for NSA transparency and accountability. But he did not signal a departure from the kinds of reforms already announced by President Barack Obama, including moving storage of telephone metadata - records of U.S. phone calls, their length and time - out of government hands.
“I would attempt to be as transparent as possible with the broader nation about what we’re doing (at the NSA) and why,” Rogers said.
The Senate does not confirm the director of the NSA, but it must approve the head of the U.S. military’s Cyber Command. Rogers is Obama’s choice for both positions.
He is expected to be approved by the Senate.
In his written responses to questions, Rogers also vowed to work to “restore the trust” of U.S. industry, damaged by media leaks.
Rogers’ appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee came a day after Snowden spoke to a U.S. forum via video-link from a secret location in Russia, saying proposed NSA reforms showed that he was vindicated in leaking classified material about NSA eavesdropping.
The leaks deeply embarrassed the Obama administration, which in January banned U.S. eavesdropping on the leaders of friendly countries and allies and began reining in the sweeping collection of Americans’ phone data.
Rogers said Snowden had done damage to U.S. security and put American lives at risk. But he did not echo U.S. critics in describing Snowden as a traitor, including outgoing NSA director, General Keith Alexander.
“I don’t know that I would use the word traitor. But I certainly do not consider him to be a hero,” Rogers said.
Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the panel is very close to agreement on new cybersecurity legislation.
Rogers said he considered liability protection for corporations that share information with intelligence agencies as a “critical element” in any new legislation.
“I would think they’d be much less inclined to do so without it,” he said.
If confirmed, Rogers would lead Cyber Command, the Pentagon unit that grapples with cyber warfare.
Rogers, as the current head of U.S. Fleet Cyber Command, himself dealt with a major attack on Navy networks last year, which lawmakers tried but failed to get him to publicly blame on Iran.
The intrusion did not compromise classified networks but cost around $10 million and took some four months to deal with, one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Rogers described the attack as “significant.” But he cautioned that it could have been worse; the hackers could have deleted files or harmed the network.
“In this case, they did not opt to engage in any destructive behaviors. And my concern from the beginning was, well, what if they had decided that was their intent?” he asked.
Writing by Phil Stewart; Editing by Cynthia Osterman