Adm. Michael Rogers at a Sept. 8, 2015 briefing.

Adm. Michael Rogers at a Sept. 8, 2015 briefing. Flickr image via Wilson Center

NSA Will Overhaul Its Workforce Next Year

Spy agency wants to ‘break down cylinders,’ tie domestic and overseas action together, and create an entirely new legal regime.

Come January, employees of the National Security Agency will see the fruits of a 10-month “director’s charge” review of the top-secret organization’s structure, its leader, Adm. Mike Rogers, said on Tuesday night.

The modernization effort titled “NSA21,” the first since the late 1990s, will address workforce development; collaboration and integration; innovation; and structure of the organization.

“It’s all about the data and the people,” said Rogers, speaking to an audience of contractors and current and former agency staffers at a banquet of the nonprofit Intelligence and National Security Alliance. One goal is to break down “cylinders” to improve collaboration and use information technology to enhance the mission, he said. “I’m a big believer” in partnership with the private sector and academia.

As NSA director and head of U.S. Cyber Command, Rogers acknowledged that his agency three weeks ago began a new “legal regime” governing its controversial domestic electronic surveillance program, as Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act expired and was replaced by the USA Freedom Act.

“We’re in the early stage of creating an entirely new regime,” the admiral said. Referencing the recently deadly terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., he said that in contrast to decades past, the agency is increasingly “tying action overseas to what’s happening domestically, and it’s only getting worse.”

Intelligence gathering and privacy protections are not mutually exclusive imperatives, Rogers said. “We must be mindful to do it in the legal framework in which the intelligence people are comfortable. Without the public support by the very citizens we’re protecting,” he added, the program “will have a tenuous future.”

Rogers surveyed the rapidly changing world scene since he last addressed the alliance 14 months ago. He mentioned terrorist attacks from Pakistan to Paris; ISIS’s expansion in Iraq; Putin’s surprise interventions in Ukraine and Syria; and the data breach at the Office of Personnel Management—all while the information technology environment grows more complex. “The challenge of encryption is that the targets get harder to access,” he said. “Cyber is so foundational to what we execute, and it will only get tougher before it gets better. It’s a clear signal we need to accelerate and apply more pressure in a resource-constrained environment, which is not an insignificant challenge.”

With a budget below the president’s request, Rogers said, “I have found myself focused on how to optimize resources, to find more money to reflect the environment of today and tomorrow, not the past. It forces us to come up with formal methods to assess the trade-offs to gain by investing somewhere else.” The recent Iran nuclear deal, Rogers noted, will test NSA’s ability to monitor Tehran’s compliance.

The “biggest constant is the power of the NSA workforce,” Rogers said. “Most people focus on our technology, yet I remind the team that we’re an enterprise powered by motivated men and women who’re up against equally motivated men and women who would do us harm.”

Retention at the NSA is “an amazing 95 percent,” Rogers said, and is almost that high among NSA’s scientists and engineers, in contrast to the norms of Silicon Valley, where employees “migrate” every two to five years. “NSA is a closed eco-system. But we must keep asking ourselves how to stay relevant for the future—we can’t stand pat.”

In a hint of what the NSA21 might contain, Rogers said, “a diverse workforce is better positioned to anticipate challenges of the future—and that means a whole lot more than skin color.”

Though his agency is still the “preeminent signal intelligence organization in the world,” Rogers warned that “if we do nothing [to change], I’m not sure we’ll be able to say that in 5-10 years.” He said he would like “to be able to say to those who will relieve us that we tried to set you up for your world, not ours.”