Mike Rogers, the former Republican congressman from Michigan, says his job is normally to “scare the bejeezus out of people.” But what scares him, he said, is miscalculation.
“What if we get it wrong on North Korea,” he asked. “What if we get it wrong on some maritime small conflict in the South China Sea? What if we get it wrong on Iranian missile testing? What if that miscalculation can’t be put back in the bottle?”
That’s why the CNN National Security Commentator and former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said he wants intelligence agencies to be more aggressive in information gathering, and for everyone else to let them. He defended these positions in a keynote speech for the Heritage Foundation’s March 30 Intelligence event.
“Intelligence in the last couple of years has taken a beating, undeservedly,” Rogers said.
He said that the current situation in Europe, specifically Brussels and Paris, is a direct consequence of their attitudes towards intelligence agencies.
“Europe is suffering under the hangover of World War II,” Rogers said. They’re used to a model of intelligence agencies that aim to oppress the people, he said.
Rogers used Belgacom as an example. Intelligence agencies in Europe, concerned about threats using Belgium as a launching pad to the rest of Europe, began tracking communications through Belgacom, a large telecommunications company. But Rogers said when that fact was revealed to the public as part of the Edward Snowden leaks, public backlash forced the regulations to tighten, ending the program.
He said the American people are having the wrong conversation about intelligence agencies, that the country is suffering from the hangover of Snowden and the NSA files. He said that the country will pay a price for restrictions on how intelligence agencies can gather data, and may in fact already be paying the price.
“The political debate was ‘How do we restrict all these big, bad intelligence agencies from doing something really bad and awful?’” he said. “Now, they never found anything big, bad and awful. Everything was legal, and appropriate. We might not have liked what they were doing — that’s a different topic — but there was nothing illegal.”
He said that the U.S. is vulnerable, especially on the cyber front, to nations like Russia and China. Rogers said a Russian cyber-attack recently brought down Ukrainian power systems. Russia is now running training exercises and submarine patrols in the arctic, an area seeing lots of attention from major world powers recently.
Likewise, Rogers said, China has invested in “militarization of space” in order to remove U.S. intelligence advantages, particularly information-gathering satellites that are integral to systems like GPS.
“The threat matrix has significantly changed, just in the last few years,” Rogers said. “Strategically, we need to understand what the world is thinking.”
Rogers said there might be a strategic problem in how agencies are gathering intelligence, citing a recent quote from the director of the CIA, who said that the CIA does not steal secrets.
“That scared me to death,” Rogers said. “If you’re not stealing secrets, how … do you know what Chinese military leadership’s intentions are?”
He said that agencies need to be as aggressive as they can in accordance with the law in gathering strategic intelligence in order to avoid large scale conflicts, whether dealing with direct confrontation or at the behest of allies with whom the U.S. has a defensive pact. He said that it’s just as important that agencies know what Japan, the Philippines and other allied nations are thinking, because they can get the country into just as much trouble as enemies.
“We ought to go back and say, ‘What serves U.S. interests, and what serves the world’s interests, by the way?’” Rogers said. “And we should stop apologizing for helping Europe because we had an aggressive intelligence campaign … but none of that happened because of self-imposed restrictions … how many in Belgium today would like to have the ability to get an intel share-sheet that said ‘Hey, you’ve got a problem brewing in Belgium.’ But we lost that, and for what appreciable reason? None, I would argue.”
Rogers said that while other nations are aggressively pursuing espionage in the U.S., the public conversation is going in the wrong direction. He quoted former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey in saying that it’s interesting how the American people are more willing to trust companies than their government with their private data.
“We always joked in the intelligence space that we would love to get one-tenth of what Google has on you,” Rogers said. “And so the fight has been, I think, in the wrong direction.”
He said that the Fourth Amendment has been protecting the privacy of citizens since the inception of the nation, and that it tells how to move forward.
Daisy Thornton is Federal News Network’s digital managing editor. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she covers federal management, workforce and technology issues. She is also the commentary editor; email her your letters to the editor and pitches for contributed bylines.