By Senior National Security Producer Suzanne Kelly
Editor's note: This is part of a Security Clearance series, Case File. CNN Senior National Security Producer Suzanne Kelly profiles key members of the security and intelligence community.
Being the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee comes with its own unique set of challenges. For starters, every day begins with a mountain of briefings on subjects that all seem pressing when it comes to keeping the country safe: ongoing operations against al Qaeda, cyber espionage being waged against American companies, Russians revamping their nuclear fleet, and Iran's nuclear intentions.
As chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Mike Rogers helps oversee America's 17 Intelligence agencies. He is one of only four members of the House or Senate who hold such a high clearance level. The intelligence information he receives is restricted to just the chairmen and the ranking members of both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. It's a responsibility that can, and often does, keep him up at night.
"The intelligence committee is very different in the sense that its probably more engaged in activities than any other committee," says Rogers, R-Michigan. "We have a constant stream of information."
That information begins pouring in during the wee hours of the night. Rogers is usually up by 4 a.m., getting a first look, and sometimes he takes the show on the road, visiting the places where the concerns are highest. Rogers was in Yemen just weeks before the September drone attack that killed the American-born cleric for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Anwar al-Awlaki. It was still an ongoing operation at the time, with no guarantee that it would be a success. Rogers and ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger were briefed on targeting efforts and what possibilities and pitfalls the operation may bring. The only thing they didn't know was when it would occur.
But even successful operations bring only minimal comfort when another threat is looming. And in the case of Yemen and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, another threat is always looming. Yemen is one place where intelligence officials believe al Qaeda is not only holding, but might even be gaining ground.
"The place is a serious national security threat to the United States, I still believe that today. I think the fact that al-Awlaki has been taken off the battlefield means that it has probably moved down a lot, but it's still right up there and its operational tempo is still pretty good," says Rogers.
Like many in the intelligence community, Rogers won't talk about the drone program that killed al-Awlaki and fellow American and al Qaeda member Samir Khan specifically, even though he is one of the key people credited with pushing for its expanded use during the Bush administration. Rogers refers to the controversial drone program only as a series of "airstrikes."
"It has been very effective and very destabilizing. My concern always is that this is the shiny new toy that people get to see now and our airstrike capability was something people talked about for a very long time and not a lot of people understood what it was or what the scope of it was," says Rogers.
The job also comes with perks. Rogers counts one of them as access: he's one of the few people who have knowingly met with the men of SEAL Team 6, also known as the men who killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
"They are proud in the sense that very few people can even do what they do. I think they were honored. When they got their mission, they didn't know what their mission was. They were training for a period of time and they didn't even know what their mission was and when they were told, there was just silence and then cheering and they were honored to do that mission."
Rogers is aware that in his business, there is a often a disconnect between those who actually do the work, and those who oversee it. In a town where having to testify before congressional committees often prompts instinctual eye rolling, Rogers defends the work of his committee - even as he admits that as a former FBI agent, he once counted himself among those eye-rollers.
"This committee is very different. I can't stress that enough," says Rogers. "It's very unique, it's classified, it's closed, behind closed doors, so they're not coming up to cameras and lights. Not to say that there could be grandstanding in a town like Washington," he adds with a smile.
Rogers also sits on the House Energy and Commerce panel, but finds much of his time devoted to issues of national security, particularly when problems like cyber security make their way up the priority scale. Rogers and Ruppersberger recently launched an investigation into the threat posed by some Chinese companies working in the United States, specifically, Chinese-owned telecommunications companies. They're not looking only for the details of the threat, they also want to know what the U.S. government is doing about it.
"I'd been briefed for the umpteenth time about company X having their intellectual property ripped off by the Chinese," recalls Rogers. "At some point, the way to get after a problem is to acknowledge you have a problem."
Getting companies to publicly disclose the fact that they have been the victims of a cyber attack is a high hurdle to overcome. Admitting you are the victim of cyber theft could, after all, affect the stock price of your company. But the theft of entrepreneurial secrets can lead to a loss of jobs, which hits home for the Brighton, Michigan, native, who is proposing a plan that would encourage more companies to share information once they've been hacked, and to extend the reach of government help beyond the dot-gov domains to offer an increased assistance program for dot.com and dot.org's as well.
Not afraid to take that on
Rogers can sometimes be a little outspoken, and he enjoys taking his message to the Sunday talk shows. He raised a few eyebrows recently by saying that the United States shouldn't take intervention off the table when it comes to Iran, especially in light of the recent alleged plot to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S.
"I said we shouldn't take it off the table," says Rogers. "I didn't say our first plan ought to be military engagement."
He's also passionate about President Barack Obama's recent announcement about bringing home U.S. troops from Iraq. He's worried that a quick troop withdrawal will allow a stronger foothold for Iranian influence. He's also "incredibly nervous" about Iran's nuclear intentions, fearing they are close to producing a nuclear weapon, which he sees as a virtual guarantee for spreading further instability throughout the region.
"You have the Saudis now and there's a cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East right now that's fought through proxies in Bahrain and Syria and Iraq and I mean, dangerous, dangerous things - and to have all of that going on and Iran getting nuclear weapons, is horribly destabilizing and it triggers a Middle East arms race. Saudi Arabia will not let that go, you know they'll get them (nuclear weapons). Turkey said they won't be without them if Iran has them. You can just see this thing spiraling to the point where something disastrous would happen."
On his desk sits a History Channel DVD about snipers. "The guy who was here right before you was a documentary guy," he explains. "That was his last work and he just dropped it off. He just knows I'm a history buff."
And while his daily brief reading doesn't leave much time for other types of reading, there is one thing he makes sure to do on every trip abroad. It typically begins with finding the highest-ranking CIA person in the region.
"I ask him, 'What's the best book you've read on this region?'" says Rogers. "I was in Libya, this was 2004, and I was doing some stuff on the chemical and biological program and I asked for a book," he recalls. The person he asked, who of course will remain nameless, suggested a book called "Pirate's Coast." "It was the first covert action of the United States, it was done by Jefferson and it was about freeing the sailors when they got taken captive," recalls Rogers. "Read it like a novel, couldn't put it down."
At the end of the day, reality is far more compelling than fiction. Particularly when you know the ins and outs of the many efforts on behalf of the entire intelligence community to maintain national security.
"This is the system, if you will, that keeps America safe at the end of the day," says Rogers. "(The system) that hopefully stops that next big event."