Christmas has come early for those awaiting the results of a White House review of NSA surveillance practices. The five-member task force dropped its big report a few weeks ahead of schedule Wednesday, and it's filled with suggestions for how to fix the spy apparatus. But in what may be a sign of things to come, Obama has already decided against one of the panel's recommendations.
The White House said on Friday that it would be keeping the NSA and the Pentagon's cyberwarfare directorate under the command of a single military leader. The current "dual-hatted" head of NSA and Cyber Command, Gen. Keith Alexander, has been at the center of the furor over NSA surveillance. But Alexander plans to step down in 2014, which raised the possibility several weeks ago of Obama changing the rules for Alexander's successor — or successors, as civil liberties advocates had hoped.
Obama's own intelligence panel evidently sympathizes with the idea. In a section of Wednesday's report headlined "Organizational Reform," the committee of insiders urged the president to
give serious consideration to making the next Director of NSA a civilian. NSA should be clearly designated as a foreign intelligence organization. ... The head of the military unit, US Cyber Command, and the Director of NSA should not be a single official.
According to a White House official, Obama's staffing decision had to be made before the panel wrapped its report because of the timing of Alexander's planned departure.
Privacy experts were skeptical of the panel at the outset, given that it was largely staffed by people close to the White House. As Brookings' Benjamin Wittes points out, the results of the panel actually turned out rather awkwardly for the president. But as we've now seen with Obama's decision on NSA/CYBERCOM leadership, that doesn't mean he's going to listen.