National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander

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

Security Insiders: Next NSA Chief Should Be a Civilian

Insiders are split on whether to keep prosecution of sexual-assault cases within the military's chain of command.

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