Director of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, will step down from his post in the coming months, according to a Pentagon spokesperson.
Alexander, who as head of the NSA has guided the agency's controversial dragnet spying programs in recent years, has formalized plans to leave by next April at the latest, Reuters reports Thursday.
Likewise, Alexander's deputy, John Inglis, is due to retire by the end of the year, according to U.S. officials.
"This has nothing to do with media leaks," NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines told Reuters. "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."
That may or may not be so, according to observers, but the real issue is whether or not either official—or anyone ever—will be held accountable for the controversial behavior of the spy agency in recent years.
As chief of the nation's largest and most secretive intelligence agency—sometimes referred to as the "No Such Agency"— Alexander had largely escaped media attention until this year's explosive revelations made possible by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The leaked details of numerous NSA programs put Alexander—and the testimony he offered in front of a series of public congressional hearings—at the center of the global media debate about the legally suspect surveillance operations of the U.S. government.
Mike Masnick, editor at TechDirt, concedes that the departures were likely planned, but doesn't necessarily think that's a good thing.
That Alexander and Inglis weren't forced out by the Snowden revelations, Masnick says, "is unfortunate, as it really does seem like there should be some punishment for the widespread excesses and abuses that have been revealed by Snowden."
Despite widespread anger over the revelations that the NSA has been spying on innocent people in the U.S. and around the world, Alexander has continuously defended the NSA's tactics.
Asked whether the National Security Agency should collect all communications of U.S. residents at a recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Alexander replied, "I believe it is in the nation's best interest to put all the phone records into a lock-box – yes."
Alexander's approach to to his job was recently described in a Foreign Policy exposé as an "all-out, barely-legal drive to build the ultimate spy machine." And Alexander's peers see him as a "cowboy willing to play fast and loose with legal limits in order to construct a system of ubiquitous surveillance," as former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald who broke the Snowden leaks, summarized.
Upon hearing of Alexander's departure, Greenwald tweeted:
Good bye to NSA chief Gen. Keith "Collect It All" Alexander & his deputy John "Chris" Inglis http://t.co/UIknNIGlKC
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) October 16, 2013
As for who should replace Alexander, Masnick argued there was at least an opportunity for President Obama to make a change at the agency that could make amends for some of the agency's worst proclivities under current leadership.
"It seems unlikely that this will happen," he said, "but the President has said that he wants to rebuild the trust of Americans in the NSA and the wider intelligence community, and the choices he makes for who will lead the NSA are a real opportunity to at least take a step in that direction. No one actually expects him to, say, pick a civil liberties activist, but there are people out there who have experience in the intelligence community and who also have shown a respect and appreciation for privacy and civil liberties. Furthermore, finding someone who can present the case for reform -- one which recognizes that "collect it all" is not just bad policy, but bad for actually finding useful information -- would be a big step forward."
According to Reuters, however, one of the top officials now under consideration is Vice Admiral Michael Rogers, currently serving as commander of the U.S. Navy's 10th Fleet and U.S. Fleet Cyber Command and described by one unnamed official as someone very "well thought of" by those in the military's cyber-warfare and "information dominance" circles.