Obama has chance to reshape the NSA

The upcoming retirement of National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander will give President Obama an opportunity to transform the agency.

Currently, he does not need Senate approval to appoint an NSA director, one of the most powerful positions in the intelligence community.

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Privacy advocates are hoping that Obama will pick someone who has a less expansive view of the NSA's surveillance power.

Amie Stepanovich, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said she hopes the president puts "somebody in charge who is more aware of these real constitutional and statutory issues and will make sure that individual rights are more protected."

Chris Finan, a former Defense Department official and fellow at the Truman National Security Project, said there is "wide spread recognition" in the executive branch that Alexander's retirement will be an opportunity to improve oversight of the NSA.

"I'm sure they're looking at this as an opportunity to address some of the privacy concerns," Finan said.

Administration officials said this week that Alexander plans to retire in the spring.  He is the longest serving director in the history of the NSA, having served since 2005.

The leading candidate to replace Alexander is Vice Adm. Michael Rogers, commander of the U.S. Navy's 10th Fleet and U.S. Fleet Cyber Command, according to Reuters. Little is known about Rogers' views on privacy and oversight issues.

Reuters also reported that Chris Inglis, the NSA deputy director, is expected to step down by the end of the year.

Alexander is also the head of U.S. Cyber Command, a team of military hackers that trains for offensive cyberattacks and protects U.S. computer systems.

He has led the NSA as it has come under intense scrutiny over the scope of its surveillance programs following leaks by former contractor Edward Snowden.

"General Alexander has served an extraordinary tenure and capably led these agencies through critical periods of growth and transition," Laura Magnuson, a White House spokeswoman, said.

But many people, including senior members of Congress, were shocked to learn that the NSA has been collecting records, such as phone numbers and call times, on all U.S. phone calls. The Patriot Act only authorizes the NSA to collect records if they are "relevant" to terrorism.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the original author of the Patriot Act, are working on legislation that would end the NSA's bulk data collection and tighten oversight.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), however, argues the programs are critical for national security. She is working on a bill that would make several changes to the NSA but preserve the core of its spying powers.

One of Feinstein's proposals would be to require that any new NSA director receive Senate confirmation.

But Stepanovich expressed skepticism that Senate confirmation would lead to a more privacy-friendly NSA director.

"Senate confirmation isn't necessarily a positive thing," Stepanovich said. "What it does do is it gives Dianne Feinstein and the Senate Intelligence Committee — which has not protected individual rights — even more power."

She said she hopes that the next NSA director will not also be in charge of U.S. Cyber Command.

Finan agreed that Alexander's dual roles have made oversight difficult.

"There are a select few in the White House who have full oversight," Finan said. "This has been an extraordinarily complex arrangement, and it has complicated oversight."

In addition to splitting the agencies between two leaders, Finan said the administration might consider strengthening the role of the NSA inspector general, who is intended to conduct independent oversight of the agency.

Finan said Alexander embodies the saying that "there is nothing as close to God on earth as a four-star general."

"Alexander probably has more power than any general since [Douglas] MacArthur," Finan said.