NSA Plans Controversial Restructure

Admiral Michael Rogers, commander of US Cyber Command, director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and chief of the Central Security Service, speaks during the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Cybersecurity Summit in Washington, DC, May 28, 2014. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

The United States National Security Agency is about to undergo considerable reshuffling.

The digital spy agency plans to integrate its offensive and defensive units into a single, flat organization, reports the Washington Post. The agency’s Signals Intelligence directorate, which handles offense (the hacking side), and its Information Assurance directorate, which handles defense (the protection side), will be united as one “directorate of operations.”

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“This traditional approach we have where we created these two cylinders of excellence and then built walls of granite between them really is not the way for us to do business,” said Michael Rogers, director of the NSA, at an Atlantic Council event last month. The Post’s Ellen Nakashima interpreted the spy boss’ comment as a hint about the agency’s upcoming changes, apparently called “NSA21.”

The NSA has two roles: Guarding national computer systems and infiltrating foreign ones. This schizophrenic mission creates a dilemma: Which one takes priority? Should the agency err on the side of disclosing software vulnerabilities it discovers, or should it keep them quiet and use them to break into overseas networks?

Critics of the agency’s dual duty worry that a unified NSA might prefer hoarding knowledge of coding flaws in order to further intelligence gathering efforts, thereby weakening computer systems everywhere. Then again, combining forces could boost the custodial side’s capabilities. (The agency’s offensive side presently outnumbers its 3,000-person strong defensive side eight to one.)

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Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA, told the Post’s Nakashima that he avoided integrating the offensive and defensive sides when he reorganized the agency during his tenure in 2000. “From the outside perspective I needed an organization that was, and was seen to be, committed to defense,” he told her. “That said, as the cyber mission matured, the operational and technological aspects of the SID and IAD missions merged more and more.”

Some might argue that the proposed organizational flattening is the next logical extension of those merging missions. Others will continue to fret about the dissolution of this church-state separation within the NSA, however.

“The NSA21 initiative will ensure the National Security Agency continues to be the preeminent signals intelligence and information assurance organization in the world,” said NSA director of strategic communications Jonathan Freed. “These core missions are critical as we position NSA to face complex and evolving threats to the nation. Out of respect for our workforce, we cannot comment on any details or speculation before the plan is announced.”

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President Barack Obama described cybersecurity as being “more like basketball than football” last year in an interview with Recode that followed the epic hack on Sony Pictures. “There’s no clear line between offense and defense,” he said, crediting the analogy to an unnamed advisor. “Things are going back and forth all the time.”

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