Photo: Dan Stuckey
NSA Director Keith Alexander is reportedly leaving his post as head of the agency, after six months of fervently defending the US government's decision to spy on the internet activity of citizens around the world.
Alexander will step down by April or May of next year. What's more, the agency’s deputy director Chris Inglis also plans to retire by the end of next year, anonymous US officials told Reuters today.
Though the news comes in the midst of a global public backlash over the NSA's widespread surveillance programs, it's worth pointing out that Alexander had revealed his plans to retire before Edward Snowden leaked details of PRISM in June. Officials didn’t give a reason for his departure.
This will leave the top two spots in the NSA open for President Obama to fill, giving the president a chance to reshape the controversy-laden agency. Aside from being criticized as the architect and top cheerleader for government snooping, Alexander has caused tension in some circles in Washington for having amassed a sweeping amount of power that harkens back to the J. Edgar Hoover years.
Alexander's headed up the NSA since 2005, the longest anyone’s held the position, and is also commander of US Cyber Command—a position that got him promoted to a four-star general. His unique position as the head of both agencies gives him the responsibility of spotting a threat in cyberspace as well as the authority to launch an offensive attack. Blurring that line between military action and intelligence gathering has some people nervous, especially in the formative years of shaping America’s cyber-strategy.
Now Obama's in a position to decide whether to separate the two positions and force a divide between the defensive and offensive aspects of cyberwarfare. No decision’s been made on who will replace Alexander as NSA director, but officials told Reuters one likely candidate is Mike Rogers, the current head of the Navy's Cyber Command.
"Rogers has worked hard to ensure that the Navy has sufficient sailors trained to take on added cyber responsibilities for U.S. Cyber Command," the official told Reuters.
Even if the president does move to curtail the reach of the NSA's surveillance programs—which he’s promised to reform—it could be hard to scale back the power that comes with the position Alexander’s leaving open.