US may split Cyber Command and NSA
National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander (Reuters / Doug Kapustin)
The White House is reportedly considering a structural change that would task two separate officials with overseeing the United States National Security Agency and the US Cyber Command when the man currently in charge of both operations retires next year.
Gen. Keith Alexander has been the top ranking NSA official since he was appointed director of the controversial intelligence agency in 2005, and five years later he landed the job of heading the newly-created USCYBERCOM upon the Defense Department’s decision to launch a unit in charge of the military’s offensive and defensive hacking campaigns. Last month Alexander announced he’d retire in the spring, however, and government officials now say the Pentagon may opt to divide the role of NSA chief and cyber commander among two individuals.
Brendan Sasso of Washington’s The Hill website first reported allegations of restructuring on Wednesday this week, quoting an unnamed “former high-ranking administration official familiar with internal discussions” who said the issue was being floated in DC. On Friday, the Associated Press elaborated on the report further and has since added credence to claims that two of the most critical roles within the Department of Defense could be divvied up.
According to Sasso’s source, the Pentagon is considering multiple plans, including one which would task a civilian with directing the NSA and a military officer with overseeing CYBERCOM. Also being considered, the source said, was putting two separate Pentagon officials at the top of both units. Alexander, 61, is a four-star Army general whose tenure in the armed forces includes a stint during the Persian Gulf War that earned him numerous awards.
Currently, Alexander’s position allows him in theory to both direct offensive operations against the computers of foreign military targets while also administering campaigns to collect intelligence on those entities.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the White House, told the AP that "The current arrangement was designed to ensure that both organizations complement each other effectively.” Upon recent revelations detailing the previously unknown scope of the NSA’s operations, however, officials within the government would likely surprise few if the reports that Alexander is replaced by two individuals prove accurate.
Adding to the AP, Hayden admitted that the White House is “in consultation with appropriate agencies” and “looking to ensure we are appropriately postured to address current and future security needs."
“Obviously we’re aware that some have proposed splitting the NSA and Cyber Command position,” added Laura Lucas Magnuson, another administrative spokesperson reached for comment by the Washington Post.
On his part Alexander went on the record last month to say his successor should be “dual-hatted,” telling attendees at an event hosted by Politico, “If you try to break them up, what you have is two teams not working together.”
“Our nation can't afford, especially in this budget environment, to have one team try to rebuild what the other team does,” Alexander said at the October event. That same month, he told the Washington Post that “You create more problems by trying to separate them and have two people fighting over who’s in charge than putting it all together.”
As the recent revelations attributed to NSA contractor-turned-leaker Edward Snowden have proved, however, the conduct of the nation’s highly secretive intelligence agency has escaped arguably much-needed scrutiny and oversight while being manned by Alexander during the last eight years.
Since June, documents disclosed to the media by Snowden have revealed information about far-reaching surveillance programs conducted by the NSA involving the collecting of intelligence against American citizens and friendly allies alike. At the same time, other documents released since the summer have shown a serious absence of oversight within the agency, despite insistence from administration officials — including Alexander himself — that appropriate safeguards are in place.
In August, the Washington Post published a top-secret internal NSA audit from the previous year documenting 2,776 infractions, including the unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications, in the preceding 12 months. And since the leaks first began, the NSA and the administration of President Barack Obama has been sued by the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and dozens of advocacy groups from all corners of the country.
Jason Healey, the director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told Sasso at The Hill that it might be in the nation’s best interest to split the roles of NSA director and cyber commander, and suggested poor choices could — or have — been done with Alexander manning the helm of both operations.
“Some things are better to have two centers of power,” Healey said. “If you have just one, it's more efficient, but you end up making dumb decisions.”
“We've now created a center of power that we would never allow in any other area,” Healey added to the Hill. “And it certainly shouldn't be allowed in something so critical to our future and national security as the Internet and cyberspace.”
Whatever route the Pentagon decides to take, the next NSA director will nonetheless be asked to report to the director of national intelligence — a position currently held by James Clapper, who approves of Alexander’s job leading both units. According to the Post, DNI Clapper told the White House that “the dual-hat construct has worked well” under Alexander, and a spokesperson of his added that “there are a number of potential benefits to having separate leaders.” Even still, Clapper rep Shawn Turner told the Post that the director still “thinks it’s important to take a thorough look at the possibility of separating the positions.”