The Obama administration is considering ending a controversial policy that since 2010 has placed one military official at the head of both the nation’s largest spy agency and its cyber-operations command, U.S. officials said.
National Security Council officials are scheduled to meet soon to discuss the issue of separating the leadership of the National Security Agency and Cyber Command, a shift that some officials say would help avoid an undue concentration of power in one individual and separate entities with two fundamentally different missions: spying and conducting military attacks.
The administration is also discussing whether the NSA should be led by a civilian.
Officials said privately that the changes could help tamp the current furor over the NSA’s sweeping powers by narrowing the authorities assigned to its director. Because of heightened political sensitivities, what might ordinarily be an internal Defense Department policy matter is now being coordinated by the White House, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The White House sees an opportunity to address the issue with the NSA’s director, Gen. Keith Alexander, due to retire in March. Alexander has led the NSA since 2005 and Cyber Command since its full launch in 2010. He was nominated by President Obama in 2009 to head the command, which defends Pentagon networks and, when directed, attacks adversaries’ computers.
Administration officials say that no decision has been made. But other officials said privately that some in the administration are inclined to end the “dual hat” practice and put a civilian at the NSA’s helm.
“The political side says, ‘We’ve got to make a big change,’ ” said a U.S. official familiar with aspects of the deliberations. “You can’t take all this heat you’ve been taking and not do something.”
The White House has solicited views from the Pentagon and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. In recent weeks, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has outlined to the White House courses of action that could be taken, including splitting the roles and maintaining the status quo, along with the benefits of each, officials said.
Meanwhile, Clapper told the White House that he believes that under Alexander’s leadership “the dual-hat construct has worked well” and that if a policy decision is made to continue it, “we can . . . make it work,” said his spokesman, Shawn Turner. But Clapper also recognizes that both are “big jobs with an enormous amount of responsibility” and that “there are a number of potential benefits to having separate leaders,” Turner said. He added that Clapper “thinks it’s important to take a thorough look at the possibility of separating the positions.”
Laura Lucas Magnuson, a White House spokeswoman, said: “Obviously we’re aware that some have proposed splitting the NSA and Cyber Command positions. . . . The current arrangement was designed to ensure that both organizations complement each other effectively. That said, in consultation with appropriate agencies, we are always looking to ensure we are appropriately postured to address current and future security needs.”
Changing the policy would run counter to positions long held by senior defense officials.
Senior officials, including Alexander, have long argued that the current arrangement makes sense operationally, in part because Cyber Command depends heavily on the NSA’s capabilities.
“We all operate on the same network,” Alexander told The Washington Post last month. “You create more problems by trying to separate them and have two people fighting over who’s in charge than putting it all together.”
Hitching Cyber Command to the NSA “has provided a much greater ability for Cyber Command to leverage the intelligence resources of NSA,” a senior defense official said in an interview this year. “It helps Cyber Command see things from a global picture much better than they would [otherwise]. That’s a powerful relationship.”
Other current and former officials have argued that the NSA and Cyber Command have such distinct missions that they deserve separate leaders.
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, James G. Stavridis, former supreme allied commander of NATO, and Dave Weinstein, a strategic planner at Cyber Command, urged decision makers to use Alexander’s departure “as an opportunity to dissolve the marriage between the two agencies.”
“Not only do the organizations have starkly different cultures, their missions are vastly different, even contradictory,” they said. “There is, indeed, an overlap between military and intelligence missions in cyberspace. But it was a mistake to assume that they would complement, rather than impede, each other.”
The men said publicly what some military officials say privately — that the problem with the “dual-hatted” authority is that Alexander is “at once an operator and a collector in cyberspace and the arbiter for both.”
The result, Weinstein and Stavridis said, is “a dizzying conundrum for his staffs in both organizations, who find themselves having to read between the lines to ascertain which hat their boss is wearing at any given time.”
The Pentagon separately for several months has been studying options for the future of Cyber Command, including whether to elevate the organization to full combatant command status on a par with U.S. Central Command and U.S. Pacific Command. An alternative would be to elevate the command and give it budget authority similar to Special Operations Command.
That decision also has not been made. But some officials said the discussion seems to focus on separating the organizations and elevating Cyber Command. “The split gives you the political leeway to say, ‘Now that it’s a separate command, it ought to be a combatant command,’ ” one official said.
The move to a full combatant command seemed to be on a glide path last year, but concerns on Capitol Hill and a change in Pentagon leadership put the decision on hold. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees expect to be consulted whenever such changes are proposed, and department officials have pledged to do so.