White House considers appointing civilian NSA chief amid calls for reform
Administration also pondering plan to disaggregate embattled agency from new military command created around it
Spencer Ackerman in Washington
11 November 2013
In the first likely structural reform of the National Security Agency since the Guardian began publishing Edward Snowden's revelations,  the Obama administration is giving strong consideration to appointing a civilian to run the surveillance apparatus and splitting it from the military command that has been its institutional twin since 2010.
But skeptics say those plans appear more cosmetic than substantive, leaving alone the central questions of bulk surveillance and potentially leaving the military with diminished capacity to safeguard its data from foreign attacks.
General Keith Alexander is scheduled to retire from the agency in the spring of 2014. The White House is reportedly compiling a list of civilians to replace the embattled director, giving a new and potentially reassuring face to a surveillance agency now infamous for bulk spying.
A similar plan being considered would disaggregate the NSA from the new military command created around it for defending the US military's data and computer networks, an institutional divorce that also has a political upside for the administration -- though perhaps less of a military nor intelligence one.
"If this is what you need to buy off the Europeans, do it, or announce that you're doing it," said James Lewis, a cybersecurity researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
While the plan is not yet decided, it would represent the first time in the NSA's half-century of existence that a civilian would be at the helm. It would also represent an admission that the NSA does far more than provide support to military commanders at war, even in an age of counter-terrorism.
The NSA's military structure is not as entrenched in statute as other military commands, said Matthew Aid, an intelligence historian, making it relatively easy to change.
"NSA must be headed by a military general or admiral per the agency's 1952 charter, but it is not cast in stone," Aid said. "I'm not aware that there is a congressional mandate to that effect, or an executive order. Just tradition."
Giving additional leeway to the White House to appoint a civilian to the position, the Senate intelligence committee approved a bill last week that would, among other provisions, require the Senate to approve the NSA director for the first time. It contains no requirement that the director be a serving officer.
During a period of debate about the effect mass surveillance has on other US priorities, such as the relationship with allies spied upon by NSA, a civilian director might also bring a new perspective to the job. But removing NSA from its military roots would have no effect, on its own, on any NSA surveillance activity.
"There are actually good reasons we don't allow military deployment for domestic purposes: soldiers and cops have very different missions and training, and it may not be easy to switch between them seamlessly," said Julian Sanchez, a surveillance and privacy expert at the Cato Institute.
"There may be something to the idea that if NSA is going to be doing this much collection on domestic systems, you don't want leadership to have a combat-theater mindset. But you do still want that approach for the genuinely external collection. The real problem is that these two kinds of missions are increasingly difficult to disentangle.
"Obviously a civilian leader as such is not a guarantee of more scrupulous privacy protection," Sanchez continued. "David Addington [Dick Cheney's lawyer] wanted even more aggressive domestic surveillance, and was rebuffed by General Hayden [Alexander's predecessor]."
"Remember, the Senate recently confirmed both James Comey and Valerie Caproni in important positions and they have a demonstrated role in surveillance," added Michelle Richardson, the ACLU's surveillance lobbyist, referring to the new FBI director and a new federal judge.
"I'm skeptical about whether the process would result in a pro-privacy person in that position. It's absolutely not a substitute for substantive reform. Congress can't just confirm a new NSA director and wash its hands. There are fund constitutional and privacy issues they need to deal with head on."
Potentially more significant is another change under consideration by the White House and first reported by The Hill newspaper: cleaving the NSA from US Cyber Command, the military's new command for defending its networks from attack -- and attacking adversaries' networks.
US Cyber Command is the military's newest command, established in 2009 and operational in 2010. Its mission and its legal authorities remain in flux. Cybercom, as it is known, is not supposed to play a role in safeguarding the civilian internet, but the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security signed a memorandum in October 2010  pening the door for military backup should a cyberattack overwhelm civilian agencies' capacity to mitigate it. Although Cybercom insisted for the first few years of its existence that its role was defensive in nature, Alexander told a Senate panel in March that he was creating "27 teams that would support combatant commands and their planning process for offensive cyber capabilities."
Alexander is the only leader that Cybercom has ever had. From the beginning of the command's tenure, there has been concern about Alexander's dual role as its commander and the director of NSA, which is not supposed to perform cyberattacks. Based on a classified intelligence budget leaked by Edward Snowden, the Washington Post reported  that US intelligence agencies have performed at least 231 offensive operations online in 2011 alone.
The original rationale for integrating Cyber Command and the NSA had to do with the NSA's sophisticated technical knowledge, believed to outpace the expertise in a military that is still acclimating itself to the utilities, opportunities and dangers of online networks. Experts believe that circumstance persists -- but it might not be enough to keep the two organizations united.
"Someone has to sit down and say, is Cybercom ready to stand on its own?" said Lewis, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "My feeling is they're closer, but they're not there yet, and they still need NSA. But that may not be enough politically to stop the split."
Lewis said a split will require the administration to figure out how to apportion duplicative missions; the NSA and Cybercom have a reconnaissance role, for instance. NSA is unlikely to lose power in the split, Lewis said -- and in any event, the political benefit for the administration may be the overriding concern.
"Right now, Cybercom is people standing in front, but behind them, propping them up is NSA," Lewis said. "How soon can people knock those props away?"
Since the establishment of Cybercom, the navy reconstituted its 10th Fleet, inactive for decades, and devoted it to expertise in cyberspace within the new command. Its commander, Vice Admiral Michael Rogers, is widely considered a top pick to replace Alexander at Cybercom or, before the civilian leader plan emerged, at the NSA.
So is Lt Gen Michael Flynn, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who worked intimately with the NSA to overhaul the intelligence capabilities of the Joint Special Operations Command when he served as its intelligence chief in the mid-2000s.