WASHINGTON – Key senior administration officials have advocated splitting the leadership of the largest U.S. spy agency from that of the military’s cyberwarfare command as a final White House decision nears, according to individuals briefed on the discussions.
At a White House meeting of senior national security officials last week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he was in favor of ending the current policy of having one official in charge of both the National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. Cyber Command, said the individuals, who were not authorized to speak for attribution.
Also, officials appear inclined to install a civilian as director of the NSA for the first time in the agency’s 61-year history. Among those said to be potential successors to the current director, Gen. Keith Alexander, is his deputy, John “Chris” Inglis.
While officials have not made a final decision on either issue, National Security Adviser Susan Rice is expected to make a formal recommendation to President Barack Obama soon, said the individuals.
“Ultimately, the president will make this decision,” White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said. “At levels below the president, the interagency is still discussing the way forward. Given that we are still looking at the question of whether the (leadership) would be split, we are not yet considering preferred candidates.”
The question of whether one director should lead the NSA and Cyber Command — an arrangement some say invests too much power in one individual — has existed since the launch of Cyber Command in 2010. But it has intensified since June, when a series of disclosures based on documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden sparked controversy over the agency’s eavesdropping programs.
Hayden said Alexander’s planned departure next spring made this “a natural point” to look at the question. A decision may be announced within the next few weeks, along with recommendations from separate White House internal and external reviews of surveillance policies.
Some current and former officials say the NSA and Cyber Command have fundamentally different missions — spying and conducting military attacks — and that each deserves its own leader.
Last month Shawn Turner, a spokesman for Clapper, told The Washington Post that the director felt “there are a number of potential benefits to having separate leaders at NSA and Cyber Command and thinks it’s important to take a thorough look at the possibility of separating the positions.”
Supporters of the current structure, chief among them Alexander, say the current arrangement makes sense given that Cyber Command and the NSA operate on the same networks and that the former is highly dependent on the latter’s ability to gain access to adversaries’ computer systems for intelligence and to conduct potential operations. The two entities’ operations centers sit side-by-side at Fort Meade, Maryland, with personnel moving freely between both.
Whatever the outcome, said a senior administration official, the key is to ensure that the “interdependencies between Cyber Command and NSA can be preserved.” Said the official: “You wouldn’t want Cyber Command and NSA dueling for resources.”
Jeremy Bash, a former chief of staff to the secretary of defense and to the CIA director, agrees that the current arrangement should be preserved to avoid duplication of effort. But, he said, if the decision is made to split the leadership, whether a military or civilian official leads the NSA is immaterial.
“We should have the best person for the job regardless of whether they wear a uniform or not,” said Bash, who is now managing director of Beacon Global Strategies, a national security consulting firm. Bash said Inglis, who is a former air force pilot and who began his NSA career as a computer scientist, would be “terrific” as NSA director.
Since last year, the name most often mentioned to succeed Alexander at Cyber Command has been Vice Adm. Michael Rogers, head of the navy’s Fleet Cyber Command. Over more than 30 years in the navy, Rogers has worked in cryptology and signals intelligence and has been the top intelligence officer for both the joint chiefs of staff and the U.S. Pacific Command.