NSA chief likely to lose cyber war powers

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Senior military officials are leaning toward removing the National Security Agency director’s authority over U.S. Cyber Command, according to a former high-ranking administration official familiar with internal discussions. 

Keith Alexander, a four star general who leads both the NSA and Cyber Command, plans to step down in the spring.

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No formal decision has been made yet, but the Pentagon has already drawn up a list of possible civilian candidates for the next NSA director, the former official told The Hill. A separate military officer would head up Cyber Command, a team of military hackers that trains for offensive cyberattacks and protects U.S. computer systems.

The administration might also decide to have two military officers lead the two agencies. 

The fact that the administration is considering whether to split the commands isn’t a direct response to the revelations about the NSA’s surveillance operations, but it does reflect growing concern over the power of the NSA director and a shortage of oversight of the position.

It also is an indication of the growing importance of cyberattacks in military operations. 

But Alexander is lobbying policymakers to keep the positions united.

“I believe it has to remain dual-hatted,” he said last month during a discussion on cybersecurity hosted by Politico.  

“If you try to break them up, what you have is two teams not working together. Our nation can't afford, especially in this budget environment, to have one team try to rebuild what the other team does,” he said.

Laura Magnuson, a White House spokeswoman, declined to comment on the decision, noting that Alexander will not retire until next year. 

Congress is also reviewing whether one official should lead both the NSA and Cyber Command.

“Oh yeah, we're looking at it,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told The Hill. “I hope they're [the administration] looking at it too.”

But Levin said he doesn't have any final thoughts on what the Pentagon should do. 

Jason Healey, director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council, argued that uniting the two commands centralizes too much power in the hands of one general.

“Some things are better to have two centers of power,” Healey said. “If you have just one, it's more efficient, but you end up making dumb decisions.”

He argued that the current command structure is leading the United States to both conduct more surveillance and be more aggressive in attacking enemy computer networks. 

Alexander has so much clout within the administration that few are able to challenge him on national security issues, Healey said. 

He argued the government would never, for example, put one general in charge of gathering intelligence in China, commanding covert forces against China and setting policy toward China. 

“We've now created a center of power that we would never allow in any other area,” Healey said. “And it certainly shouldn't be allowed in something so critical to our future and national security as the Internet and cyberspace.”

Adam Segal, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the current command structure makes it difficult for anyone to fully oversee Alexander.

As NSA director, Alexander reports to James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. But for his Cyber Command responsibilities, he reports to U.S. Strategic Command.

There is a similarly divided oversight in Congress with the Intelligence committees having oversight of surveillance programs, but the Armed Services committees having jurisdiction over military cyber operations. 

“You want to be careful that the decisionmakers are able to evaluate the costs and benefits of both espionage and our possible military operations,” Segal said. “I think it's probably better put forward by two separate voices. That way it would be easier for them to weigh the values.”

Jim Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, acknowledged that there is an “appearance problem” with centralizing so much power with one commander. But he expressed concern that Cyber Command doesn't yet have the technical expertise to operate on its own.

“It's still small; it's still growing. There's a real shortage of bodies in the U.S. government,” Lewis said. “Cyber Command depends on NSA.”

Alexander has led Cyber Command since it was created in 2009. It's based at Fort Meade in Maryland along with the NSA headquarters. 

“I think Secretary [Robert] Gates and the decision and the rationale that he put into putting these together remains true today,” Alexander said at the event last month.

He warned that splitting the agencies would result in fights over resources and command decisions. 

“When they sit down together, you know what they call themselves? Team Cyber,” Alexander said. 

“They act as a team all the way, and the reason is we treat them as one team, not two. And that's what our nation needs.”