Fallout from Snowden leaks could hinder next NSA chief

Gen. Keith Alexander to depart as NSA director next spring

Whoever succeeds Gen. Keith Alexander as the next director of the National Security Agency will be stuck weathering the fallout from the Edward Snowden media leaks for the conceivable future.

The NSA on Thursday confirmed that Alexander would step down as the agency's director in the spring. Deputy Director John Inglis will also be leaving the agency in January, the NSA noted.

Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on cybersecurity on June 12, 2013. (Photo: Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

In an emailed statement, NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said Alexander's planned exit had nothing do with the Snowden leaks. Rather, his decision to quit was made in March 2013, before the disclosures were made.

"The transition date for Gen. Alexander will occur in the spring of 2014 in accordance with the most recent extension decision made by the Secretary of Defense in March 2013," Vines said.

Vines said Alexander's tenure had been extended three separate times -- in 2009, 2010 and in 2013. "He's served well beyond a normal rotation," and is leaving in accordance with previously announced plans, Vines noted. The NSA is in the process of selecting a successor, the spokeswoman added.

Alexander, who will be 63 at the time of his departure, is the agency's longest serving director. Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. defense secretary during the George W. Bush administration, appointed him director in 2005. He was given additional responsibility as commander of the U.S. Cyber Command in 2010.

Notice of Alexander's departure comes amid continuing public and congressional turmoil over the NSA's surveillance activities. Snowden's revelations about the agency's data collection and data mining practices have fueled widespread privacy and civil rights concerns in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The four-star general has, in many ways, been the face of the controversy over dragnet surveillance practices by U.S. intelligence agencies. Alexander himself has stoutly defended the agency's practices as vital to national security. He has consistently downplayed concerns that the agency may have overstepped its authority in collecting data on U.S. residents.

In testimony before Congress earlier this year, Alexander blasted news media reports as inaccurate and exaggerated in their descriptions of the agency's data collection activities. Alexander insisted to lawmakers that the NSA has the authority to collect all U.S. phone records and put them in a "lock box" from where they could be searched as needed. He maintained that the activities disclosed by Snowden are legally sanctioned and vital to protecting the nation from more 9/11-like attacks.

In comments to The Hill on Thursday, a White House spokeswoman described Alexander's tenure as "extraordinary" and praised him for capably leading the NSA and the Cyber Command through periods of both growth and transition.

While the administration's comments suggest a cordial relationship between the White House and Alexander, some have maintained that the opposite is true.

In comments to the Standard-Examiner newspaper, several former NSA executives who claimed to be close to Alexander described him as dispirited and angry over a perceived lack of support from the White House in the wake of the Snowden disclosures.

Among those quoted by the newspaper is Joel Brenner, the former NSA inspector general, who claimed that both NSA leadership and employees felt abandoned by the administration. According to the Standard-Examiner, former NSA officials feel that while President Obama has not distanced himself from the NSA's data collection activities, he has not been supportive of the agency either, especially in the face of all the criticism the agency has received in recent months.

Whoever replaces Alexander will likely spend a long time handling the congressional backlash from Snowden's revelations, said John Pescatore, director of emerging security trends at the SANS Institute.

"The Snowden exposure is analogous to the Nixon Watergate revelations, which swung the U.S. pendulum away from collecting information on potential domestic activities," Pescatore said. "It led to many of the intelligence failures that enabled the terrorist attacks of September 2001 to succeed."

"So I'd say the new director of the NSA will be in a defensive, protective crouch for a several years, trying to minimize the damage caused to NSA and Cyber Command's charters," by the fallout from the Snowden leaks, Pescatore said.

This article, Fallout from Snowden leaks could hinder next NSA chief, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

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