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US weighs splitting cyber command, NSA jobs

Director of National Security Agency (NSA) and Commander of US Cyber Command General Keith Alexander testifies in Washington, October 29, 2013
Director of National Security Agency (NSA) and Commander of US Cyber Command General Keith Alexander testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, October 29, 2013

The White House is looking at ending a policy that gives a single military officer authority over the National Security Agency as well as the US cyber warfare command, officials said Thursday.

General Keith Alexander has held both powerful jobs but in the wake of revelations about the NSA's electronic spying at home and abroad, the Obama administration is reviewing a proposal to split the positions, two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

"The Department of Defense is aware that some have proposed splitting the NSA and Cyber Command positions," a Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Damien Pickart, said in an email.

Alexander will remain at the helm of the NSA as well as head of the military's newly created Cyber Command until he retires next spring, Pickart said.

Although there were no immediate plans to change the current arrangement, "we are always looking at our internal command structures to ensure we are appropriately postured to address current and future security needs," he said.

Alexander has held both jobs since the Pentagon launched Cyber Command in 2010.

The NSA has found itself at the center of a global furor after a former intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden, leaked to news media details of elaborate digital spying on Internet traffic and phone records.

The eavesdropping agency is coming under intense political scrutiny and some critics have long questioned combining the job of NSA director, who oversees electronic spying, with the post of cyber command chief, who leads the military's digital warfare operations.

Civil liberties groups say the approach allows too much power to be concentrated in one person, in agencies that are already shrouded in secrecy.

President Barack Obama's administration is engaged in a fierce internal debate over the issue, officials said, and Alexander has publicly called for preserving the framework. Military officers argue that combining the two roles has proved successful, saves costs and ensures a rapid response to fast-moving events in the digital realm.

"The current arrangement was designed to ensure that both organizations complement each other effectively for the benefit of national security," Pickart said.

"There are a number of benefits to the existing dual-hatting arrangement, in terms of manpower efficiencies and having the organizations complement one another to achieve their missions."

The Obama administration also was weighing the idea of a civilian running the NSA, according to a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The spy agency has always been directed by a senior military officer since it was created in 1952.

The former supreme allied commander of NATO, James Stavridis, and Dave Weinstein, a strategic planner at Cyber Command, recently called for dividing the two positions in an article in the journal Foreign Affairs.

Alexander’s planned retirement offers "as an opportunity to dissolve the marriage between the two agencies," the authors wrote.

"The past several years have proven that the arrangement is not as mutually conducive as it once seemed. Not only do the organizations have starkly different cultures, their missions are vastly different, even contradictory."

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