That the National Security Agency needs reform in the aftermath of the politically disastrous Snowden Operation seems unquestionable. As I’ve laid out in my open letter to my former employer, NSA needs to build trust with the American public, and fast, as well as prevent another Snowden-like catastrophe from ever happening again.
It’s known that NSA Director (DIRNSA) General Keith Alexander, USA – the longest-serving Director in the Agency’s history – will be out in the spring, along with his deputy, Chris Inglis. Which is good and, in my opinion, long overdue. It’s been suggested that it’s time to civilianize the DIRNSA position, perhaps making new directors subject to Senate approval. If we go that route, Congress may want to consider fixed, ten-year terms, non-renewable, as with the FBI’s directorship. However, any discussion of reforming the DIRNSA job and who holds it ought to be accompanied by a reality-based discussion of how NSA works at high levels. So here it is, you won’t be getting it anywhere else.
Since its establishment in 1952 as America’s unified signals intelligence (SIGINT) and information security (INFOSEC) organization as an independent agency under the Pentagon, NSA has been headed by a top general or admiral. This was partly tradition, and partly a realization that NSA is, after all, a combat support agency of DoD. The first DIRNSA was Major General Ralph Canine, USA, who put quite an imprint on the place, serving four years; after Canine, directors have held three stars, until GEN Alexander, who added a fourth star as he is dual-hatted as Commander, U.S. Cyber Command (whether that should continue with the next DIRNSA is also something rightly up for discussion, but I’ll save that for another day).
There have been good DIRNSAs and bad DIRNSAs: my choice for the best was Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, who headed the place during the difficult years in the aftermath of the 1970s Congressional bloodbath over intelligence reform. The director’s job has rotated among the Army, Navy, and Air Force, though Alexander is the first Army DIRNSA since the 1980s – before him, the job was held by two Navy admirals and two Air Force generals, back-to-back – since the last green-suited director, LTG William Odom (1985-88), was almost universally considered to have been a disaster in the job.
Most DIRNSAs served three to four years. General Mike Hayden, USAF, oversaw fundamental reforms of the Agency during his unprecedentedly long six-year tenure (1999-2005), moving on to take over CIA after, while his successor has held the director’s post for an astonishing eight years and counting. This is undeniably part of the problem.
What’s important to understand here is that, until relatively recently, the director was, if not a figurehead, then not entirely the real boss of NSA. By tradition, much power was invested in the Deputy Director (DDIR), who is always a civilian. Many deputies have had a military background, such as the current DDIR, who is a graduate of the Air Force Academy as well as a retired one-star general in the Air National Guard, but the basic idea was the DDIR serves as the institutional memory, who can hold the job for years, while directors come and go.
The man who basically created the DDIR position was Louis Tordella, who held the job from 1958 to 1974, an astonishing sixteen years. It was no secret that Tordella, a strong personality, had the ability to stonewall bad ideas from the director, and he could always just wait out any DIRNSA he didn’t like. It needs to be noted that DIRNSAs have not always been intelligence officers and their level of knowledge of what NSA actually does could not necessarily be assumed. As the wise old hand, the DDIR was able to offer wisdom accrued during decades in the cryptologic business, as well as serve as an advocate for NSA’s civilian workforce.
Nobody would serve as DDIR anywhere near as long as Tordella, but the basic concept of the DIRNSA-DDIR relationship remained the same until General Hayden showed up in 1999. Before long, his deputy, Barbara McNamara – known as “BAM” at the Agency, a respected career analyst who had served as the Deputy Director for Operations, i.e. the SIGINT boss – was shunted off to London as the Agency representative to GCHQ, as she was perceived as standing in the way of Hayden’s desired reforms.
Hayden, a career Air Force intelligence officer, came to Fort Meade on a mission to shake up the Agency and modernize it, which was unquestionably necessary. However, some of his bull-in-china-shop methods alienated much of NSA’s civilian old guard, not least because he installed as DDIR Bill Black, a career NSA civilian who had already retired from the Agency and gone to cash in with defense contractors; during his six-year stint as deputy, Black was considered by many to be too pliant to Hayden’s wishes. The tradition that a civilian DDIR could block bad – and possibly unethical or illegal – ideas suggested by the director had been lost, with fateful consequences.
It’s fashionable to condemn old guards but the reality is that the generation of senior NSA civilians shunted aside since 1999, of which “BAM” can serve as a stand-in here, had made their careers after the post-1970s reforms and jealously guarded the notion that NSA was a law-abiding organization above all else.
It’s clear that GEN Alexander has kept his superiors at the Pentagon and the White House happy with his expansion of the Agency’s intelligence empire into many spheres, overseeing its growth in what some have termed “the golden age of SIGINT.” Yet this has also come with unprecedented controversy, with NSA facing scandal and uproar of the likes it’s never seen. Alexander’s near-decade tenure as DIRNSA will be remembered more for the Snowden scandal than anything else.
There are many lessons to be learned from how NSA has been run for the last fifteen years, some of which can already be discerned with clarity. Civilianization of the director’s job may help, but it’s no panacea either; this, too, will create challenges. That said, it’s abundantly clear that empire-building generals can create havoc in bureaucracies to ill effect. “Old-think” bureaucrats are a figure of derision to some, but they can also serve as a needed obstacle to “daring” new ideas that are actually stupid if not flat-out illegal.
Like Cher, we cannot turn back time, no matter how much we may want to, and NSA isn’t returning to the old system that worked for decades. The Agency needs a new model of leadership for the 21st century, learning the painful lessons of the Snowden debacle. It’s impossible to say as yet what the new DIRNSA-DDIR system will look like, but I’m glad it’s being publicly discussed, as it ought to be. Who runs America’s vast SIGINT empire, and how, is a matter the public has a right to be informed about.
PS: If you want to sound like part of the Fort Meade in-crowd, note that DIRNSA is pronounced “Durn-sah” while DDIR rolls off the SIGINTer’s tongue as “Dee-Dur”: emphasis for both is on the first syllable.