WASHINGTON — The White House is considering a proposal to split the work of the single military commander who now oversees both the National Security Agency and cybersecurity operations, presenting an opportunity to reshape the spy agency in the wake of harsh criticism of its sweeping surveillance programs.
Army Gen. Keith Alexander is top officer at both the U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA, and he’s retiring next spring.
White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Thursday that no final decision has been made about how to handle the commands after Alexander leaves, but it’s a “natural point” to consider a change.
The consideration of a split, first reported Thursday in The Washington Post, comes in the wake of revelations about the agency’s widespread monitoring of telephone, email and social-media data from documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The concentration of power over two such different missions has been controversial, and dividing the leadership has been under discussion for some time at the Pentagon. Alexander’s departure gives President Barack Obama a chance to make changes at the two agencies, both headquartered at Fort Meade, Md.
“The current arrangement was designed to ensure that both organizations complement each other effectively,” Hayden said. “That said, in consultation with appropriate agencies, we are looking to ensure we are appropriately postured to address current and future security needs.”
Alexander has led the NSA since 2005 and he added the Cyber Command to his duties when that entity was created in 2010 as attacks against U.S. military networks escalated. It is responsible for both offensive and defensive capabilities — defending department networks and conducting cyber operations against U.S. enemies.
The NSA has been one of the most secretive of all U.S. intelligence operations. Alexander has vigorously defended its activities as lawful and necessary to detect and disrupt terrorist plots.
Alexander said secrecy about how the programs work was needed “not to hide it from you, it’s to hide it from those who walk among you and are trying to kill you.”
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.