NSA leadership shakeup would mean squat

White House may appoint a civilian to oversee the spy agency once Keith Alexander leaves. So what?

By Natasha Lennard

Published November 11, 2013 7:20PM (EST)

General Keith Alexander             (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
General Keith Alexander (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander is due to retire next spring, clearing the way for potential shakeups in the leadership of the agency, evermore prescient in the broadening wake of Snowden's NSA surveillance leaks. According to the Guardian Monday, "the Obama administration is giving strong consideration to appointing a civilian to run the surveillance apparatus and splitting it from the military command that has been its institutional twin since 2010."

It's a Kabuki move, carrying no real promise of limitations to the dragnet surveillance of our every communication, nor does it bode better for agency transparency about covert overseas and domestic programs (like, say, secretly hacking in to Google data centers around the world to access millions of emails, or purposefully weakening encryption standards).

"The White House is reportedly compiling a list of civilians to replace the embattled director, giving a new and potentially reassuring face to a surveillance agency now infamous for bulk spying," the Guardian reported. The effort thus seems aligned with other damage control P.R. moves enacted by the White House and the intelligence community since Snowden's leaks begun to make headlines in the summer. The same spin machine that advised NSA agents  to use 9/11 as a "soundbite" to defend mass surveillance programs is now acutely aware that Big Brother would work better with a friendly, non-military figurehead. 

Along with the White House's consideration of this matter, Congress is pushing to have a greater say in NSA leadership. The Senate intelligence committee approved a bill last week that, along with other highly NSA-friendly provisions, would require a Senate confirmation for any future NSA director. Politico described such a confirmation process as "potentially grueling." The confirmation hearing for CIA director John Brennan, however, was little more than a panegyric-peppered love-in, which largely skated over Brennan's controversial record with torture policy and "targeted" killing programs. With vocal NSA supporters like Dianne Feinstein at the Senate intelligence committee helm, it's unlikely that such Congressional vetting of future NSA directors would provide a structural shift to the agency's most troubling operations (including its unbounded hoarding complex and prefigurative, preemptive approach to law enforcement and counterterrorism).

The ACLU's surveillance lobbyist Michelle Richardson commented on the possibility of a new process for picking a civilian NSA chief: “I’m skeptical about whether the process would result in a pro-privacy person in that position," she said. It’s absolutely not a substitute for substantive reform. Congress can’t just confirm a new NSA director and wash its hands. There are constitutional and privacy issues they need to deal with head on.”

As the Guardian noted, the first appointment of a civilian NSA chief in more than half a century would "represent an admission that the NSA does far more than provide support to military commanders at war, even in an age of counter-terrorism." At the very least, it would be a nod to mission creep; a time of war without border or jurisdiction in which the domestic law enforcement and the military purview are not so easily divided.

I've suggested before that while we indeed face a problem of vast executive overreach and failing Congressional oversight when it comes to the surveillance state, the problem is not just one of leadership. The surveillance state is a nexus, undergirded by an ideology that sees every person as at least a potential threat and every communication as potentially worth surveilling. This nexus relies on Silicon Valley participation, intensive and expensive spycraft and, crucially, us. We live, always-already, as surveilled subjects as we live online, unwittingly handing over immense amounts of data about our lives, connections and affiliations. Living under late capitalism, I've noted, increasingly requires us to “accept” tracking devices -- our smartphones and Gmail accounts -- without necessarily first seeing them as such. Pushing back against a state of surveillance, a condition that runs deep in our current socio-political context, will take much more than the symbolic shakeup of NSA leadership.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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