Comment The head of the NSA and his deputy are both expected to leave the signals intelligence agency over the next six months, unnamed US officials told Reuters.
The departure of General Keith Alexander, the former US Army officer who has served as the NSA's director for that last eight years, and his civilian deputy would potentially allow the Obama administration to introduce reforms of the NSA and perhaps even finally draw a line under the controversy about dragnet surveillance practices at the agency revealed by documents leaked by NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Alexander has "formalised plans" to leave by next March or April, while his civilian deputy, John (Chris) Inglis, is to retire earlier by the end of 2013, according to US officials who spoke to Reuters on condition that they remained anonymous.
The post of NSA director, who also heads the US Cyber Command computer warfare division, is filled from the ranks of senior US military officers, alongside a civilian deputy who is normally a technology specialist.
Vice Admiral Michael Rogers, commander of the US Navy's 10th Fleet (the USN's cyber-warfare division) and US Fleet Cyber Command since September 2011, has emerged as an early front runner to replace General Alexander, officials told Reuters. Other candidates may be considered.
NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines confirmed Alexander plans to leave in spring 2014 while downplaying suspicions that this is linked to the Snowden leaks and the NSA director's handling of the resulting controversy.
"This has nothing to do with media leaks, the decision for his retirement was made prior; an agreement was made with the (Secretary of Defense) and the Chairman for one more year – to March 2014," Vines told Reuters in an email.
Alexander's thrice-extended tenure as NSA director since August 2005 makes him the spy agency's longest serving chief. Inglis, who joined the NSA as a computer security scientist, has been the spy agency's number two since 2006.
Both directors are leaving voluntarily but their exit gives the Obama administration the chance to re-shape the culture and practices of the signals intelligence agency. Possibilities including splitting the leadership of the NSA and US Cyber Command, which has the authority to run both defensive and offensive operations on behalf of the military in cyberspace.
Stories that the NSA's leadership were angry at the Obama administration's failure to do more to defend the spy agency against criticism of its surveillance programs have come out through a stories in high profile media outlets such as Foreign Policy over recent days and may have precipitated briefings by senior administration officials that change at the NSA's top table was imminent.
Senior NSA officials, including Alexander and James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, have repeatedly denied accusations of mass surveillance against Americans before Congress and elsewhere over the last two years or so, often using deceptive phrases. The revelations about the bulk collection of phone record metadata of Verizon customers exposed these denials as misleading.
Under questioning by a congressional committee earlier this month, General Alexander conceded claims dating back to June that the signal's intelligence agency's phone surveillance program had frustrated 54 terrorist “plots or events” were inaccurate. He admitted that "only 13 of the 54 cases were connected to the United States".
Even more damningly, he conceded that only "one or two suspected plots" were identified directly as a result of bulk phone record collection, the Washington Times reports.
Such misstatements may have led to a lack of confidence within the Obama administration that the NSA's leadership was capable of weathering the surveillance, amid concerns it could cost the US cloud-based services industry billions as customers find alternatives to US services.
Alexander, 61, may be more likely to take up a lucrative job with a defence contractor than go into early retirement when he retires, security watchers speculate.
"We need to start taking bets on resigning NSA head Keith Alexander's starting salary in the private sector. At least $10m/yr I think," said Robert Graham of Errata Security tweeted.
"Also, which military defense contractor will it be? SAIC? Harris? Booz-Allen? (oh the irony)," he added.
Forbes has an interesting story on how previous top spooks at the NSA found all sorts of lucrative jobs after retiring from the agency here. ®