Here's a tough call for any person to make: An Air Force general conducting a drone strike on an Al Qaeda leader abroad overhears communications between the terrorist and his subordinates about a plot to blow up an American subway line. Does the general keep eavesdropping to identify the imperiled subway system or kill the high-value target?
This should not be one person’s call to make, but that's exactly how it works today at the Defense Department’s National Security Agency.
Since 2010, one individual -- the agency's director – has had to decide whether to destroy adversary computer networks or continue spying on those networks. This is because NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander also leads Cyber Command, a Defense organization that attacks adversary computer systems.
With Alexander expected to depart by April, many former administration officials are urging a division of power.
It wouldn’t require navigating Capitol Hill gridlock. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel need only consult with President Obama to divide the directorship.
"It is a DoD policy decision, not law, that defines and establishes the command structure for Cyber Command and the National Security Agency," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Damien Pickart said.
In 2009, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates recommended that Obama reassign then NSA Director Alexander to the role of joint NSA-Cyber Command chief, he added.
“The process for selecting his successor is ongoing,” NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said of what will happen after Alexander leaves next year.
Some former officials say the current dual-hatted role harms U.S. military strategy.
“You've got a tension between the intelligence people who want to learn and the war people who want to win," said Jason Healey, former White House cyber infrastructure protection director. “The intelligence people don't want you to act on that information, because you're revealing the fact that you know it," and "the warfighting commander will say, ‘But by leaving that [communication line] open, it’s helping the enemy."
Concern about the concentration of decisionmaking power within NSA has become part of a larger debate over surveillance overreach at the agency. This spring, ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden ignited the discourse by revealing classified cyberspying operations on American citizens and allied leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Vines said Alexander’s departure “has nothing to do with media leaks; the decision for his retirement was made prior.”
Former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden told Nextgov he expects the administration will appoint a dedicated Cyber Command chief either after Alexander exits or after his successor exits.
"As the role or cyber in military and intelligence operations grows, it is inevitable that the two jobs - director of NSA and head of Cyber Command -- will be split if not now then in the next cycle," he said.
Cyber Command and NSA both operate in the same military domain, so they have had the advantage of being able to share resources and approaches -- but each deserves its own powerful leader, said Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, who researches current and future defense needs.
"They are both crucially important, and dividing one’s time between them is not ideal," he said. “You’d never propose the head of the Marine Corps also be simultaneously the CIA director. To put it in sports terms, many a good sports team has made the mistake of dual hatting a skilled coach and GM. The same holds here, all the more so, given while it was certainly within the letter of the law, it wasn’t truly in the spirit.”
It remains to be seen whether lawmakers will pressure the White House to change the organizational chart.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., recognizing the benefits and drawbacks of the dual-hatted role, directed the Pentagon to study the issue and report back later this fall, a committee aide said.
The 300-day report, called for in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act enacted Jan. 2, must examine, among other things, “the ability of the existing management structure of the command and the agency to identify and adequately address potential conflicts of interest between the roles of the commander of the United States Cyber Command and the director of the National Security Agency.”
Staff for Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said they are reviewing the issue, but have no other comment. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, declined to comment on her stance, as did her counterpart on the House Intelligence Committee, Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.