The Complex

Exclusive: Hagel Defends ‘Phenomenal’ NSA Chief as the Rest of the Administration Backs Off

The White House and Secretary of State John Kerry may be keeping their distance from the embattled Director of the National Security Agency, Gen. Keith Alexander. But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, under whom the NSA resides, is standing by him, even as Hagel takes part in high-level talks that could undermine Alexander's legacy.

"Gen. Alexander's just done a phenomenal job," Hagel said in an interview with Foreign Policy in his E-Ring office. "He is one individual who is capable of doing that job the way he did it at a very difficult time, and he deserves great credit."

By the way he did it, Hagel was referring in part to the unique way Alexander has done the job. The general serves as both the director of the NSA -- the government's largest intelligence agency -- and the head of U.S. Cyber Command, overseeing all the armed forces' computer defense and warfare units. Alexander is the first NSA chief to serve in that "dual-hatted" manner. But administration officials are reconsidering whether one person should have both jobs, prompted by concerns that Alexander has amassed too much power over both military and intelligence operations.

Hagel said the broad debate over the NSA's power, its snooping on world leaders, and the issue of whether to split the NSA director and Cyber Command positions "is being forced" by revelations of NSA's global spying apparatus and by the former contractor Edward Snowden. "I'm not afraid of that debate," he said. "We have discussed it in a number of meetings. At the White House and other places. It needs to be discussed."

Hagel didn't share his view on how to settle the matter. He said he'd "had my opportunity" to voice an opinion within the administration, but that President Obama will make the ultimate decision. Congress will also have a say, Hagel said. But he didn't rule out maintaining the status quo, which he said has worked well under Alexander.

"There has been tremendous advantage to having the system the way it is now," he said, emphasizing the benefits of a strong NSA director who is responsive to the needs of military commanders and policymakers.

"Whatever decision we make, if we're going to make any changes, we need to be very careful, think through these changes, and always have the bottom line determine it: Is this really in the best interests of our country short term, long term -- again, within the boundaries of what's legal. I have not given any advice to anyone on an issue of how we should separate or we should keep them the same."

Hagel said that effect of Snowden's disclosures has been profound. "He has done terrible, terrible damages to our country. The irresponsibility of it. It's just crept into every component of our intelligence capability."

Hagel said the administration "should make sure our intelligence community is held accountable, is responsible," but he would not say, as Kerry did, that the NSA had overstepped its authorities in hoovering up data around the world, including on Americans, nor did he criticize the agency for monitoring the communications of foreign leaders. "Some of these actions have reached too far," Kerry said, "and we are going to try to make sure it doesn't happen in the future."

Hagel noted that he served in the Senate when Congress passed the Patriot Act. "I remember the intense debate, and it should've been," he said, acknowledging that the authorities granted to the intelligence agencies to monitor communications had significant implications for the civil rights of Americans and people around the world. Hagel voted in favor of the law, along with 97 of his colleagues.

But Hagel defended the work of NSA and other agencies work as vital to U.S. national defense, and showed no signs that he favors any dramatic changes to the spy agencies' powers. "Everything our intelligence community has been doing has been within the scope of the law. ... It's a dangerous world. Intelligence is critically important, it saves lives, it is as critical a component of our national security as anything."

The Complex

Did The Marines' Top General Stab Another Four-Star In The Back?

It has been a long year for Gen. James Amos, the top officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. In addition to facing massive budget cuts and an unpopular drawdown in forces, his service has been rocked by allegations that he and other senior members of his staff deliberately sought to wrongfully influence the disciplining of eight Marines implicated in an embarrassing war-zone video that showed scout snipers urinating on dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

The allegations just got worse. A new complaint filed with the Pentagon's inspector general Tuesday accuses the commandant of an "unlawful act of reprisal" against a fellow top officer. The complaint, filed by the lawyer for one of the implicated Marines implicated, Capt. James Clement, accuses the commandant of instructing colonels and lower-ranking generals in the Corps to "push back" against the expert testimony of one of the expert witnesses in Clement's case. The witness isn't named, but the lawyer, John Dowd, confirmed for Foreign Policy that it is Gen. John Kelly, another Marine four-star officer who runs U.S. Southern Command.

In other words: a four-star general, Amos, is accused of orchestrating a campaign to discredit another four-star general's sworn testimony. And Amos allegedly asked other generals to carry out that campaign.

Dowd declined to elaborate, citing the sensitivity of his complaint, which was first reported by Marine Corps Times on Wednesday night. But his allegations offer a beyond-rare glimpse into the military's senior ranks and the sometimes-terse disagreements that can occur there. Fights between top generals almost never break out in public. Having one erupt as part of a court case is even more atypical.

A spokeman for Amos, Lt. Col. Dave Nevers, declined to comment on the complaint, citing respect for the open investigation. However, he provided a brief statement from the commandant himself.

"I have the utmost respect for General Kelly," the statement said. "His support for the military justice system is precisely what I expect from my General Officers and all Marines."

Kelly could not be reached for comment.

The new allegations underscore the continued volatility surrounding the scout sniper cases. This summer, a three-star general, Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, alleged in a sworn statement that Amos removed him as the convening authority overseeing the snipers' discipline because Waldhauser was not willing to "crush" all of the Marines involved. Amos wanted them all thrown out of the service, it alleged. Critics allege that amounts to actual unlawful command influence, in which a commander attempts to deliberately and illegally sway the military justice system.

Marine officials acknowledge Amos removed Waldhauser from the position after they spoke, but said he did so because he didn't want his conversation with the three-star officer to be perceived as getting involved.

Clement was the last of the eight Marines to face discipline in the cases. He was not accused of urinating on anyone, but was charged with dereliction of duty and conduct unbecoming an officer after the investigation into the video because it was Marines on patrol with him from 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines that relieved themselves on dead insurgents in Musa Qala, Afghanistan, on July 27, 2011. It was posted online anonymously in January 2012, creating an international firestorm.

Prosecutors alleged that as the only officer present, Clement should have stopped some of their other alleged misbehavior that day, including "indiscriminate firing" in a firefight. That's even if he did not know the video was being recorded.

The cases for many of the Marines implicated took on a new spin in March when Maj. James Weirick, a staff judge advocate at Quantico, Va., filed an explosive whistle-blower complaint with the Defense Department inspector general alleging that the commandant, or senior members of his staff, meddled illegally in the prosecution of the urination video cases to ensure harsh punishment, and then sought to cover it up by illegally classifying information.

Weirick also alleged that Amos showed preferential treatment to make sure the number two officer in the battalion, then-Maj. James B. Conway, was cleared of wrongdoing and promoted, even as the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Dixon, remained on an administrative hold pending the results of all the cases. The whistle-blower questioned whether that was because Conway's father, retired. Gen. James T. Conway, preceded Amos as the Marine Corps commandant.

With the Pentagon investigating Weirick's allegations, the Marine Corps dropped the criminal charges against Clement in July and elected to take him instead to an administrative board of inquiry to assess whether he should be allowed to stay in the service.

Gen. Kelly, the U.S. Southern Command chief, testified on his behalf, and said he thought the battalion's top leadership -- not Clement -- was to blame for the lax standards in the sniper unit, according to Marine Corps Times. That was perceived by many as a rare act in which a general officer came out against the commandant. Kelly contended that Clement was owed an apology for the treatment he received. He could not be reached for comment.

Dowd brought all that up in his new complaint to Pentagon investigators. He alleges the "expert testimony" -- Kelly's -- played a key role in misconduct allegations being dropped against Clement, although he was forced out of the Corps with an honorable discharge. The commandant responded in kind, Dowd alleges.

"In an unlawful act of reprisal, the Commandant urged his subordinate Colonels and Generals to push back against one of the expert witness," Dowd alleges. "Fortunately, these fine Marines declined."

Dowd continues in dramatic fashion.

"They understood that our system of justice is not the underworld where witnesses are regularly intimidated, harassed, depicted as killers and punished for their lawful testimony," the complaint says. "But that is exactly what the unlawful command influence of the Commandant and his counsel has produced and this is why the Colonels on that Board did exactly what the CMC ordered: throw James Clement out of the Marine Corps despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary."

Marine officials have insisted that the military justice process for all Marines disciplined in the case has been preserved. They also denied Conway was given preferential treatment in the investigation. He was promoted and is now the commander of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, in Hawaii.

Dixon, the battalion commander, remains on administrative hold, meaning he has not been promoted or taken commander of another unit. Before the controversial video was posted online, he was selected for promotion to colonel and a highly regarded top-level school assignment at the Justice Department in Washington - a quick path to becoming a general himself, in the eyes of many. He was not allowed to attend, however, and was bypassed again this summer for any similar assignment.

A Marine spokesman, Col. Sean Gibson, told Foreign Policy that Dixon is now the operations officer at 2nd Marine Division headquarters at Camp Lejeune. He has not been forced to face any formal kind of discipline. An administrative board will determine his future.

Weirick, the whistle-blower and judge advocate, also has faced trouble. He was removed from his legal position at Quantico after sending a harshly-worded email to Peter Delorier, one of the commandant's civilian attorneys. According to Weirick's lawyer, Jane Siegel, he is now a training officer at Quantico, working in a job typically held by a junior officer.

Robert Hogue, the commandant's top civilian attorney, told Marine Corps Times that Weirick's email was considered threatening, and said the "bizarre nature of the communications" in the case needed investigation. In the email, the whistle-blower urges Delorier to come clean on what he knows, and warns that no one "can offer you protection from Weirick."

Weirick has since been cleared of any mental defect in a voluntary exam, Siegel said. Senior Marine officials questioning his sanity was a clear attempt to discredit him, she said. Weirick expects to meet with inspector general personnel later this month to discuss the actions, his lawyer said.

"They want him out of the limelight and to reduce his credibility as much as possible so they can limit their liability to the allegations of misclassifying evidence," Siegel told Foreign Policy. "This is a full-out attack on a Marine who was trying to do his job."

Marine officials have declined to comment on Weirick's initial IG complaint and the accusations of reprisal he has made since, citing the open investigation.

Inspector General complaint filed against Gen. James Amos by Dan Lamothe

D. Myles Cullen/ U.S. Army