A former senior official at the National Security Agency says the planned split between the nation’s digital spying outfit and its offensive cyber military arm will happen, though likely not for a while.
Prior to the election in November, the outgoing Obama administration had moved to split the NSA, which is focused on espionage and intelligence gathering, from U.S. Cyber Command, which can conduct offensive military operations in cyberspace. Since assuming office in January, however, President Donald Trump has struggled to fill key government positions, like the national security adviser, making any immediate bureaucratic overhauls unlikely.
“I think everybody says it’s inevitable,” John Chris Inglis, the former deputy director of NSA, told The Intercept during an interview in San Francisco.
“The question is whether you do that now or you do that in a year or two,” he continued.
Inglis spoke to The Intercept following a speech he gave on combatting insider threats, entitled “How to Catch A Snowden,” at the RSA Conference, one of the largest annual cybersecurity events. Inglis was at the NSA in 2013 when Edward Snowden leaked a massive trove of documents to journalists on the surveillance programs.
Currently, the two agencies are under one roof and one dual-hatted director: Adm. Michael Rogers, who has also suggested an eventual split between his agencies. There’s been a heated debate about the benefits and downsides of separating the two entities as Cyber Command grows and develops its parallel mission. Figures like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are vehemently against separating resources between espionage and attack in the digital space — at least in the absence of clear policies from the White House.
Though Inglis tells The Intercept he believes the split is bound to occur, he says that President Trump and his White House “have other fish to fry” right now.
A separation in the coming months, especially with NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett retiring in the spring, “might induce instability,” Inglis said. And while Adm. Rogers has reportedly been no stranger to controversy and bad reviews — facing sinking morale during a major NSA reorganization — he doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.
In the meantime, Cyber Command is still maturing. It was first formed under Gen. Keith Alexander and Inglis’s leadership in 2009. Cyber Command in still early days needed the NSA, Inglis said. But the split makes sense in the long run, he argued.
“The more they stay in that relationship, the less Cyber Command will need NSA, the more they’ll be held back by NSA, and the less NSA will need Cyber Command,” Inglis said. “It’s for both of their benefit to essentially give them on scene leadership that can focus entirely on what they’re supposed to do” as agencies that are “nominally independent but complimentary.”
If that split were to happen, it might open the job of NSA director up to a civilian leader. At one point during the Obama administration, Inglis was regarded as a top candidate for the NSA job under the restructuring, though there’s no indication he’s currently under consideration.
Inglis tells The Intercept he would, if asked, accept a job in the Trump administration “in a heartbeat.”
Inglis is currently a managing director at Paladin Capital Group, a private equity firm that invests in companies around the world. He started as a computer scientist in the NSA, then worked in signals intelligence, and rose to become deputy director. He spent 41 years in the Department of Defense, nearly 30 of them at NSA.
“Inglis would be a superb selection and it is no surprise that he would be willing to serve his country regardless of who was in office,” Susan Hennessy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former attorney at NSA, wrote in an email to The Intercept. “He is trusted and respected both at NSA and within the government generally.”
Describing the current situation as a “tumultuous period,” Hennessey said that the number of people qualified to lead the NSA is small. Inglis “is one of the few people who would top anyone’s list for that role, Republican or Democrat,” she added.
“Having not been offered something, it would be inappropriate for me to say I want a job, especially if that job is now held by somebody,” Inglis said, laughing.