The Obama administration has decided to preserve a controversial arrangement under which a single military official is permitted to direct both the National Security Agency and the military’s cyberwarfare command despite an external review panel’s recommendation against doing so, according to U.S. officials.
The decision by President Obama comes amid signs that the White House is not inclined to place significant new restraints on the NSA’s activities and favors maintaining an agency program that collects data on virtually all phone calls of Americans, although it is likely to impose additional privacy-protection measures.
Some officials, including top U.S. intelligence officials, had argued that the NSA and Cyber Command should be placed under separate leadership to ensure greater accountability and avoid an undue concentration of power.
“Following a thorough interagency review, the administration has decided that keeping the positions of NSA Director and Cyber Command commander together as one, dual-hatted position is the most effective approach to accomplishing both agencies’ missions,” White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in an e-mail to The Washington Post.
The announcement comes as an external panel appointed by Obama to review U.S. surveillance policies submitted its report on Friday. According to some U.S. officials, the panel was expected to recommend that the NSA-Cyber Command leadership be split and that the agency’s phone program be modified by having the phone companies or a third party hold the records, not the NSA.
The five-member panel made more than 40 recommendations, which the White House is free to reject or modify as it conducts its own review of NSA surveillance. That review is expected to be completed in January.
“The big picture is there’s not going to be that much [additional] constraint” by the White House, said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “They’re really not hurting [the NSA] that much.”
NSA officials declined to comment.
Hayden said the internal review focuses on the NSA’s activities around the world, with an emphasis on the collection of intelligence about heads of state, coordination with close U.S. allies and partners, and the issue of whether the process of setting national intelligence priorities should be modified.
She declined to discuss details, saying the review was ongoing.
Some officials familiar with the decision to keep one person in charge of both the NSA and Cyber Command expressed disappointment. They say the missions of the two organizations are fundamentally different: spying and conducting military attacks. “It’s a mistake,” said another U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “Cyber Command and NSA each needs its own full-time head, and [Obama] could have continued the coordination and close working relationship between the two organizations without them being led by the same individual.”
But Mike McConnell, a former NSA director and director of national intelligence, said: “I think it’s the right decision. Combining the skills and capability of the NSA is essential for the successful operation of Cyber Command in its war-fighting mission.”
Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who is due to retire as NSA director in March after more than eight years at the helm, has long advocated maintaining the “dual hat” arrangement for the NSA and Cyber Command.
The NSA “plays a unique role in supporting Cyber Command’s mission, providing critical support for target access and development, including linguists, analysts, cryptanalytic capabilities and sophisticated technological infrastructure,” Hayden said.
The NSA has been the focus of new public scrutiny since June, when The Washington Post and other news outlets began disclosing documents leaked by a former agency contractor, Edward Snowden. One document revealed the existence of an agency program to collect billions of phone- call records of Americans for counterterrorism purposes.
Congress is debating whether to rein in that program or endorse it explicitly in legislation. Civil liberties groups have sued the government, alleging that the data collection violates privacy laws and the Constitution. The external panel, formally known as the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, was expected to recommend that phone companies or a third party retain the records and have the NSA transmit numbers suspected of terrorism links to be run against them.
The Senate Intelligence Committee rejected that approach in drafting legislation to codify the data-collection program. Industry officials have said that they do not wish to be custodians of such large amounts of data, which they said would become the target of local law enforcement and lawyers seeking information in divorce and criminal cases.
Significantly, sources said, the White House is not likely to terminate the program or to adopt the panel’s recommendation to have phone companies hold the data. Under the program, the NSA collects information such as when phone calls were made and how long they lasted, but not the content of the conversations.
The review panel also weighed whether to recommend that the federal court overseeing surveillance programs release significant opinions to companies that receive court orders to furnish data to the FBI or the NSA for domestic surveillance programs. These opinions are generally classified and would still not be released to the public.
Obama has said that he wants to improve public confidence in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s oversight of the NSA by “ensuring that the government’s position is challenged by an adversary.” The review panel was expected to make such a recommendation.
The White House also has been under considerable fire from European allies over revelations based on Snowden disclosures that the NSA had monitored phone calls of foreign leaders over the past decade, including those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Although collecting intelligence on “leadership intentions” is what Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. has called “a basic tenet” of espionage, the White House is expected to include a new level of review of such collection to assuage allies, sources said.
A third and separate review of NSA surveillance is being conducted by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent executive branch agency. It hopes to have its report completed by the end of the month.