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."