The Obama administration will continue the National Security Agency's surveillance programs and cyber command operations under the direction of a single military commander, the first move in advance of what published reports described Friday as limited changes proposed by a task force that deliberated for months in secrecy.
The administration had considered splitting oversight of the two sensitive national security programs amid revelations about its surveillance programs sweeping phone and Internet data inside the U.S. and around the world. But National Security Council spokesman Caitlin Hayden said Friday that the government believes maintaining the oversight responsibilities together under one command is the most effective approach to accomplishing both agencies' missions.
Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA's director, currently oversees both the agency's surveillance operations and the military's Cyber Command, which monitors and responds to computer intrusions and espionage. Alexander is expected to step down this spring. The administration's decision means he will be replaced by another senior military commander instead of a civilian director, as recommended by some national security experts.
The announcement comes days before a review group working under the Director of National Intelligence is expected to deliver, on Sunday, its findings on NSA surveillance to President Barack Obama. The DNI's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology held no public meetings and met several times with business and privacy groups out of the range of the media and public. DNI head James Clapper exempted the panel from standard federal requirements that it work transparently.
Although the task force has kept its recommendations secret, news organizations have sketched out proposals that would allow most of the NSA's surveillance programs to continue but change ownership of the government's large inventory of telephone records and restrict spying on allied nations. The Wall Street Journal reported that the panel proposed shifting control of sought-after phone records from the government to individual phone companies, while The New York Times said the panel urged the White House to hold a tighter leash on U.S. spying on foreign leaders.
The panel's recommendations come as skepticism over the NSA surveillance mounts in Congress and from technology companies and privacy groups. Worried that reports of foreign data intercepts could drive away international customers, lawyers for a consortium of companies including Google, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo recently urged legal changes in Congress. Their move coincided with a bipartisan legislative push to scale back the surveillance programs.
One lawmaker said the review panel recommendations could aid plans to end the government's direct control over telephone data.
"I'd encourage the administration to move in the direction of phone companies retaining the data," Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Ca., said Friday.
Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, has offered legislation to shift control of phone records from the NSA to the phone companies and said the move could be made without diminishing national security. He noted that the firms already hold the same data that the government sweeps up for 18 months and could quickly turn over that material quickly to the NSA and law enforcement. NSA officials have warned that investigations could bog down if the government lost direct control over the records.
Other NSA critics had long urged the White House to split up the responsibilities of the NSA's director by separating the agency's surveillance and cyber command operations. Recent media revelations stemming from leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed the blurring effect of the agency's dual roles abroad, reporting that the NSA hacked into foreign governments and companies alike, using its unique computer hacking abilities to tap into financial and corporate files and the private communications of allies as well as the calling and web patterns of suspected terrorists.
But Hayden said Friday that "without that dual-hat arrangement, elaborate procedures would have to be put in place to ensure that effective coordination continued and avoid creating duplicative capabilities in each organization."