How do you lead a government agency that's been under intense scrutiny?

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills, in for Marco Werman, and this is The World.
Wanted: New boss for federal spy agency under intense scrutiny. And President Obama's pick for the job? Navy Vice Admiral Michael Rogers. Obama has nominated Rogers to replace General Keith Alexander as head of the National Security Agency. That requires senate confirmation. But assuming that happens, Rogers faces a challenging task at the NSA. That's according to James Lewis, senior fellow for technology and public policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

James Lewis: Well, he's got three big problems at NSA. The first is morale; the people at the agency feel like they were doing everything right. They had checked all the boxes on oversight and review, and they feel under tremendous pressure for doing what they thought was their job. He has rebuilding problems. Snowden's leaks damaged some of the collection capability by revealing some technologies, some programs. He's gonna have to do some rebuilding. And finally, the one everyone knows is he's got a huge public relations problem, a huge trust problem.

Hills: But hasn't President Obama helped pave the way for him, by saying, "Okay, we're not going to spy on our close allies anymore, and we're gonna have to reform some of the meta data collection." Isn't that already in place?

Lewis: Yeah, I think the President's speech laid out a good path for fixing the problem that the leaks have created. But saying what the path is and actually walking down it are different. I just was talking to a French diplomat yesterday, who asked me, "We loved the speech, but will they really go ahead and implement these things?" If they don't, you know, it's all back to square one. So implementation is the problem, and that falls a lot onto Admiral Rogers.

Hills: You've been following the NSA revelations very closely. What questions do you have at this point?

Lewis: Well, is it over? We all know the basic story. NSA spies on everyone all the time. Okay, got it, and they keep dribbling out stuff, but I wonder if it's over. Two, there's a whole set of things that haven't come out, because they detract from the narrative that this NSA being uniquely malevolent. And in fact, there's information on foreign intelligence agencies, both allied and opponents, like China and Russia. None of that has come out, so when do we get the whole picture? Finally, what's the political effect, and particularly in Europe? You know, people overstate the damage that the Snowden leaks have done. The one place where we have to pay careful attention, I'd say, would be Europe and particularly Germany, because the domestic audience in Europe, and the domestic audience in Germany's very concerned about the fact that some American agency was spying on them.

Hills: In all the data collection that the NSA is doing, what are they really looking for at this point?

Lewis: The president summed it up pretty well. They're looking for information that would help the counter-terrorism effort. This has been a huge concern, obviously, but the terrorist threat is not over, and there are people out there planning attacks on the US. And it's boring to beat the terrorist drum and wave the flag, and say... It's easy to overstate the threat, and we do need to step back a little bit from the global war on terror, and all the things that came with it. But we don't wanna pretend that there isn't still a threat.

Hills: James Lewis is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Thanks for speaking with us.

Lewis: Thanks very much.