White House considers civilian for NSA chief

The White House is considering whether to name a civilian to lead the National Security Agency for the first time ever.

No decision has been made yet, but officials have drafted a list of possible civilian candidates for the post, a former administration official told The Hill last week.

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The current head of the NSA, Keith Alexander, a four-star Army general, plans to step down in the spring.

The move could help lead to more transparency and oversight in the wake of disclosures by Edward Snowden about the scope of the NSA's controversial surveillance programs.

But finding the right civilian candidate with the technical understanding and familiarity with intelligence gathering would be a difficult task.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said having a civilian director of the NSA is a "significant proposal."

"It sends a message that the NSA needs a better, non-military form of oversight," Rotenberg said. "With the other questions now being raised about the adequacy of accountability, we would see that as a step in the right direction."

Civilians lead other intelligence-gathering agencies such as the CIA, the FBI and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

But the NSA has always been led by a military officer since it was created in 1952. The NSA deputy director, currently Chris Inglis, is usually a civilian who has spent years in lower roles at the agency.

Rotenberg argued that Alexander has amassed too much power within the administration, allowing him to push more aggressive surveillance practices.

"The theory is that when you have civilian leadership of military functions you maintain the type of balance that's necessary to ensure that those enormous powers within the government don't become unaccountable," Rotenberg said.

Jim Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, warned that a civilian director could hamper the NSA's ability to provide intelligence for military operations.

"People don't often realize that's an important part of what NSA does," he said. "There might be more tension between the military and civilian roles of the agency."

He also argued that a civilian leader wouldn't necessarily do a better job protecting privacy rights than a military officer.

"There's a lot of squealing from some people about how Alexander has aggregated all this power," Lewis said. "I don't see that."

The Senate would likely have confirmation authority over any civilian NSA director — a power that it doesn't currently have.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is pushing legislation that would make the NSA director a Senate-confirmed position. She attached the provision to her committee's bill to re-authorize funding for the intelligence agencies.

The change would give Feinstein, a vocal supporter of many of the NSA's most controversial surveillance practices, more say in who the president picks for the job.

Alexander currently leads both NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, a team of military hackers that targets enemy computer networks and protects U.S. systems.

The White House would only name a civilian to head the NSA if it also decides to split-off Cyber Command under a different leader.

Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman, said it's a "natural point" to re-consider the NSA director's role.

"The current arrangement was designed to ensure that both organizations complement each other effectively. That said, in consultation with appropriate agencies, we are looking to ensure we are appropriately postured to address current and future security needs," she said.

"General Alexander remains both the Director of the NSA and Commander of Cyber Command through the spring of 2014, so no final decisions have been made."