Should the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command be split up after Keith Alexander steps down?

October 16, 2013

National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander pauses while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, before the Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

The head of U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA, Gen. Keith Alexander, intends to retire, Reuters is reporting.

It doesn't appear that he's being forced out over this year's domestic surveillance controversy. Alexander's voluntary plans were first reported by Wired back in June. But news that the intelligence official has finalized his departure means that President Obama faces a choice: Will Alexander's successor have control over both the NSA and Cyber Command, or should he appoint two separate officials to manage each agency?

The two outfits are among the country's most powerful in cyberspace, making Alexander one of the most powerful men in cyberspace by extension. Given what we now know about what transpired inside the country on Alexander's watch at one agency and what took place outside the country during his tenure at the other, administration critics might seem to have a strong case to demand that Obama sever the leadership link that's joined the two offices. (Update: Earlier this month, the Post's Ellen Nakashima wrote about the complexities of having a dual-hatted cyber official. I highly recommend reading it.)

And yet it's not clear that doing so now would make much of a difference. Thanks in part to Alexander's own efforts, the counterterrorism-industrial complex has already spread beyond Fort Meade, where Cyber Command and the NSA are both based. As we've learned over the past few months, it now touches the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security, and possibly others.

On the offensive side of the ledger, Cyber Command is openly in search of capabilities that would let it infiltrate enemy networks. But secretly, the NSA also has its own team of elite hackers — known as Tailored Access Operations — that also acts as a digital SWAT team.

This isn't just idle duplication of effort. In fact, the intelligence community is building a massive cloud computing project that'll act as a force multiplier, allowing federal agencies to share information and work still more closely and efficiently.

Even if Obama wanted to disentangle Cyber Command from the NSA, there's so much inertia built into the rest of the system that adding another human to it isn't likely to act as a significant check — or add much additional transparency.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung · October 16, 2013