Key senior administration officials have advocated splitting the leadership of the nation’s largest 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 R. Clapper Jr. said he was in favor of ending the current policy of having one official in charge of both the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, said the individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
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 B. Alexander, is his deputy, John C. “Chris” Inglis.
Although officials have not made a final decision on either issue, national security adviser Susan E. Rice is expected to make a formal recommendation to President Obama soon, said the individuals, who were not authorized to speak for attribution.
“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 that 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 a former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, sparked controversy over the agency’s surveillance programs.
Hayden said Alexander’s planned departure in the 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 that the NSA and Cyber Command have fundamentally different missions — spying and conducting military attacks — and that each deserves its own leader.
Earlier this month, a spokesman for Clapper, Shawn Turner, told The Washington Post that Clapper thought that “there are a number of potential benefits to having separate leaders at NSA and Cyber Command” and that “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 that the current arrangement makes sense given that Cyber Command and the NSA operate on the same networks and that Cyber Command is highly dependent on the NSA’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, with personnel moving freely between the two.
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 managing director of Beacon Global Strategies, a national security consulting firm. Inglis, who is a former Air Force pilot and began his NSA career as a computer scientist, would be “terrific” as NSA director, Bash said.
Since last year, the name most often mentioned to succeed Alexander at Cyber Command has been Vice Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the head of the Navy’s Fleet Cyber Command. Serving 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 U.S. Pacific Command.
Whether to split the roles and whether to install a civilian NSA head are two separate but related questions. The jobs could be separated but a military officer — such as Rogers — kept in charge. “We have as much trust in our military leaders as we do in our civilian,” said the administration official. “They’re as competent and as well trained, and in some cases maybe more focused.”