Security Insiders: Next NSA Chief Should Be a Civilian

National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander Susan Walsh/AP

Two-thirds of National Journal's National Security Insiders support replacing the head of the National Security Agency with a civilian when Army Gen. Keith Alexander retires.

As the agency remains under the spotlight since media outlets have reported on its widespread surveillance programs disclosed by Edward Snowden, the White House is reportedly putting together a list of civilians to replace the embattled director—who also heads the U.S. Cyber Command—and is expected to retire in the spring. 

"The NSA's job has evolved enormously since the agency's creation decades ago. Its role within the civilian intelligence community, and civilian society more generally, is now much greater," one Insider said. "A civilian NSA director could better lead the NSA in today's environment." Since the agency was created in 1952, a military officer has been at the helm, and Insiders said the move could improve issues with transparency, especially with Congress. "The NSA has become an agency deeply involved with civilian intelligence-gathering. It is no longer simply a collector," one Insider said. "Thus it needs civilian oversight and leadership and congressional approval of that leadership."

Several Insiders specified that their preference has nothing to do with Alexander. "General Alexander is a national asset," one Insider said. "But too much power is concentrated in his hands. Having a civilian head of NSA is less important than having someone other than the commander of Cyber Command in charge of NSA." Replacing him, another Insider said, is "a politically and policy useful choice at this time, but the president should NOT lock him or his successors into this in perpetuity."

Others took veiled swipes at the current chief and his staff for failing to prevent the leaks that led to the current controversies. "The NSA's cavalier attitude toward internal security to prevent a Snowden incident is inexcusable," one Insider said. "It's a gross failure, and it's on his watch."

One-third of Insiders said it would be a bad idea to fill the NSA post with a civilian. "The problems at NSA do not derive from its military leadership, and it would be a phony fix to suggest that civilian leadership is the solution," one Insider said. "The president and his senior team need to take responsibility for what went on there five years into his administration, and they shouldn't be allowed to try to shift blame onto the military."

The White House could legally replace Alexander, but it should be clear-eyed about the agency's true purpose as a military intelligence agency under the Defense Department, one Insider said. "I have been a part of the NSA and its subordinate units for many years.... Although it has a substantial civilian workforce, it must have a military leader so that its primary mission—to support the specialized intelligence needs of military commanders in combat—is not forgotten," the Insider said. "The NSA is officially designated a Combat Support Agency. Military control is essential if it is to fulfill its role as a Combat Support Agency."

Alexander is doing an excellent job under a lot of pressure, another Insider added. "People do not realize how thoroughly NSA activities are subject to oversight by the Department of Justice, outside specialists, and especially the U.S. Congress."

Separately, Insiders are split 50-50 on whether to keep prosecution of sexual-assault cases within the military's chain of command. Some members of Congress and victim-advocacy organizations would support radically reforming the military justice system by stripping the chain of command's ability to decide whether to prosecute sexual assault cases in the military—a move the Pentagon would oppose. 

"Sexual assault is a criminal offense," said one Insider in support of transferring the cases to an independent military justice system. "Judgments made about possible criminal actions and prosecution should be made by law-enforcement and judicial professionals, as in civilian life. The chain of command is important, but not more so than impartial justice." This issue is too important to be left "in the system," another Insider said. "Male influence still dominates the military. Prejudices linger."

Yet the other half of Insiders disagreed, insisting commanders must remain in charge of this matter. "Sexual assaults are crimes like any other crimes. As a former commander, I know how important all criminal cases are, including sexual-assault cases," one Insider said. "There should be no exception to how they are handled under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which gives commanders a unique and important role in dispensing justice and investigating crimes within their command authorities. If a commander fails to discharge his/her duties in a fair, impartial, and thorough manner, then that commander should be replaced, not the military-justice system, which has an excellent track record in dispensing justice. If anything, current and prospective commanders should receive thorough training in how to handle sexual-assault cases. Most will discharge their duties properly, with fairness to both parties, and that is what justice should be all about." 

Others said the military should have some more time to reform. The military needs to have "one additional chance to see whether the chain of command can handle prosecution," an Insider said, "and if they fall short of acceptable prosecutorial outcomes, they lose the role they have now. But the larger issue is not prosecuting sexual assault—it's making progress preventing assault." 

But some Insiders were more certain in their opposition to the proposed congressional changes. "This is a prime example," one Insider said, "of how destructive good intentions can be."

Read more about the poll results on National Journal

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.