NSA Command Shift Signals Surveillance Reform
Policy + Politics

NSA Command Shift Signals Surveillance Reform


On Thursday, two key National Security Agency officials announced they will be leaving the agency next year. NSA Chief Keith Alexander exits in the spring of 2014, while John "Chris" Inglis, the top civilian in the agency, said he would retire at the end of the year.

Alexander has served as the head of the agency for eight years, and has overseen NSA’s controversial data collection programs. He and Inglis have repeatedly stated that the vast surveillance network created in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks is necessary to protect the United States and its allies.


But the recent revelations by former NSA employee Edward Snowden have led to charges of NSA overreach. Hayden and Inglis were in charged when the biggest leak in American history took place. Snowden also embarrassed the agency by gaining employment at NSA with the sole purpose of leaking classified materials.

An NSA spokesperson told Reuters that Hayden and Inglis’ departure had nothing o do with the leaks.

This has nothing to do with media leaks, the decision for his retirement was made prior; an agreement was made with the (Secretary of Defense) and the Chairman for one more year -- to March 2014," Vanee Vines told the news agency.

There is already growing speculation, however, that these departures signal a shift in course for the agency. President Obama has said repeatedly that the Snowden leaks started an important conversation about how the United States collects data. New leadership could provide an opportunity to actually change it.

For instance, Hayden controlled both NSA and Cyber Command. NSA only has the ability to collect data, while Cyber Command actually conducts offensive and defensive cyber attacks.

Many former NSA workers said that Hayden's command of both agencies gave him too much power, and diminished the work of the NSA. Obama now has an opportunity to refocus leadership of each group by appointing two separate chiefs.

Whether Obama lessens the power of the NSA chief remains to be seen. He's talked a big game on reforming the NSA, but has done little to actually change how the agency operates. Right now, officials said that one of the top candidates to replace Hayden is Vice Admiral Michael Rogers, who currently commands the U.S. Navy's 10th Fleet and U.S. Fleet Cyber Command - hardly an outsider. 

Hayden's departure does present a unique opportunity. Obama could start to dismantle the enormous surveillance apparatus that tracks and collects information on every aspect of global activity. Or he could keep it in place, allowing the agency to pry into the corners of every life on the planet.