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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.


(Charles Dharapak/AP)

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."

1. The White House is considering replacing the head of the NSA with a civilian when Gen. Keith Alexander retires. Would that be a good idea?

(46 votes)

  • Yes 65%
  • No 35%


"It really makes little difference and would simply be a cosmetic change. Civilians can have as little regard for laws, civil liberties, and human rights as generals and admirals. It was the CIA under George Tenet that engaged in torture (waterboarding)."

"Either a top civilian or a senior military would be best—to get the best, experienced person."

"Because NSA activities have taken center stage in U.S. foreign relations, the director should have strong policy and political as well as intelligence skills. Some military officers have all of them, but most fall short in the policy and political domains."

"Further, military culture tends to disdain the give and take of politics, and military life offers inadequate exposure to civilian priorities and sensitivities."

"It's a good idea, but it will be very hard to find and keep the right civilian."

"Although part of the Department of Defense, NSA serves national intelligence needs, not just military ones."

"It is a long-standing intelligence-community tradition that the director of NSA be a uniformed flag officer. Insofar as the likely source of so much of the grief enveloping the community can be linked, in part, to tradition, a break with tradition is in order."

"The head of NSA should be picked on best qualifications. The choice should be agnostic as to past military experience."

"Not because of all the controversies—these are just two different jobs."


"It would not make a difference. My experience of NSA senior civilians would indicate to me that they are even worse than people like Alexander."

"This person really does need to understand military culture."

"This is not the central issue. The question is that of oversight and accountability. That is critical whether the head of NSA is a military person or a civilian."

"Actually, neither yes nor no—give the job to the most qualified person, military or civilian."

"USDI is the civilian leader, confirmed by the Senate, who has authority, direction, and control today of NSA; the position was separated from ASD C3I (by the intelligence committees et al) and raised in stature to both focus on intelligence and increase the power of the role. There are several good reasons to have a military leader at NSA, beginning with the critical mass of military talent that serves in the agency. We should not confuse personalities with governance, and they should change at a profoundly different pace."'

2. Should the Pentagon strip the prosecution of sexual-assault cases from the military's chain of command and transfer that responsibility to an independent military-justice system?

(46 votes)

  • Yes 50%
  • No 50%


"Sexual assault is a criminal offense. 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."

"Yes. The current system simply is not working."

"This issue is too important to be left 'in the system.' Male influence still dominates the military. Prejudices linger."


"The military needs to have one additional chance to see whether the chain of command can handle prosecution, 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."

"Any action that weakens the authority of commanders is a step toward ineffective armed forces. The armed forces exist to fight America's enemies. They should not be used as instruments with which women members of Congress to express their discontents."

"Commanders should be held accountable for failing to act on complaints of assault."

"That's a bandaid. Fix the problem in the chain of command if one exists."

"Why should sexual-assault cases be distinguished in this respect from other crimes?"

"The Collins-McCaskill bill ensures commanders can't abuse their power and increases accountability and is the right step to take."

"Command means command. And the accountability that comes with it."

"This effort is being driven by the same congressional hysteria that produced the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security. Enough!"

"Nothing in the military happens without intensive involvement by commanders. Stripping them of their authority will lead many of them to simply wash their hands of the issue. This is a BAD idea."


National Journal's National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of more than 100 defense and foreign policy experts. They include: Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Mark Brunner, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, John Hamre, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Linda Hudson, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Larry Prior, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Frank Ruggiero, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Richard Wilhelm, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.

This article appears in the November 19, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.

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