Some say Obama has already chosen Cyber Czar

I’ll wade into the breach again, of analyzing (and trying to anticipate) some national-security appointments for the new Obama Administration.  Today I must admit that I’m taken with the latest reportage from the U.K. Spectator – a quite conservative publication not usually known for its closeness to the Obama inner circle.

keith-alexander-of-nsa1Late today the Speccie’s John Stokes writes (in “Obama Administration to Form New Cyber War Doctrine“) that Obama is “set to appoint General Keith Alexander (pictured left), the current Director of the National Security Agency, to be the new Cyber Czar. ” 

You can read Alexander’s official bio here at NSA’s public website.  By the way, for those of a certain age like myself, the notion of an “NSA public website” has an absurdist ring to it, but we’ll leave that for another discussion.

I had already written just this week (in “Elbowing for Obama influence“) about the incipient tussle between the not-yet-named federal CTO and the not-yet-named “cyber czar,” over technology influence and policy determination. Both roles seem to promise a lot, and inside the Beltway that typically means competition – for resources, people, power.

The Spectator story is the first to claim Alexander’s new role, and it does so with startling specificity, on budget, authorities, and future activities.  Is it correct?  I will note that the article claims erroneously that Denny Blair was appointed “last week” as DNI, when in fact that has not happened, at least as this writing – despite much speculation. So this Alexander appointment may also be a simple testing-the-waters with an Obama-authorized trial balloon. Stokes has been writing about the Obama team recently with a suprising degree of specificity, which normally means he’s getting great leaks from inside. His story last month on “Obama’s Security Team Dilemma” floated the tantalizing rumor that Mo Baginski might be named the CIA’s first female director – see her profile from her NSA days here, but a much more engaging and personal profile on the delightful site “GirlSpy,” which profiles women in intelligence past and present.

Anyway, back to the Alexander story: I’ll simply note several interesting aspects from the piece, without vouching for its logic or accuracy:

  • The Cyber Czar “will have an initial budget of around $8 billion and will control how it is spent within NSA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon.”
  • “In effect, this will mean that the new head of NSA will report to him instead of to the Secretary of Defense on a huge area of business.”
  • “The raising of the power and influence of the cyber czar along with his huge budget will have a significant global impact… the Obama administration will be seeking to develop a new Cyber Treaty along the lines of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to codify this new realm of warfare.”
  • “Although exactly who Alexander will report to has not been decided, he will likely sit in the office of the Director of National Intelligence.”
  • Regarding Alexander’s signature program at NSA, Turbulence, the article says “For now, Turbulence only operates in limited geographical areas such as parts of Asia but it is expected that Alexander will use some of his new budget to ensure the program’s expansion to other regions.” [no pun intended by “signature program” by the way 🙂 ]

For Beltway fun, I reprint without comment the following lines from the article; I was a paid Kremlinologist for an early period of my career but I need not draw every conclusion for the reader: “Alexander has a reputation as a hard-charging technology innovator who took over NSA from Mike Hayden, the current head of CIA, in 2005. The handover was a frosty one as Alexander loathes Hayden who he considers to be an incompetent blowhard and the men rarely speak.”

I know and respect both men. I most recently saw Mike Hayden at a social event in Washington where he and his wife wound up having dinner with my wife and me, and we shared our interest in the Civil War, a facet of him I hadn’t known previously. And during my time at DIA we worked very closely with Keith Alexander on a number of projects, both when he was the G2 (head of Army Intelligence) and later when he moved up to NSA. I had even taken note of Alexander much earlier when he was commanding INSCOM, for his enterprising team was thinking way ahead and took an interest in a Silicon Valley artificial-intelligence startup I was helping launch – this was even before the attacks of September 11, 2001 brought the world of data-mining into immediate focus.

The DNI position, cyber position, CTO position, individual IC agency heads – many are still in flux.  So, I’ll be following news feeds (and emails from several Obama-insider types) just like everyone else, watching for clues on who’s in, who’s out, and who’s smiling. 

I will just add one note on the nomenclature of one of these posts: after my previous piece on the cyber position, I got a note via Twitter from Prof. Samuel Liles, who teaches cyber security and other topics at Purdue University.  He brilliantly wrote, “I refuse to call anybody a cyber czar. I’m not a russian apologist and the Constitution forbids titles of nobility.”  Well put, and from your tweet to Alexander’s ear…


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10 Responses

  1. Great post, Lewis. This is a tough decision for Obama to make, but it seems like he could a lot worse than Keith Alexander, based on his bio and the innovations that he has brought to NSA.

    I think the role requires someone who has demonstrated the ability to be mentally agile as well as being a bit of a futurist. The ability to craft a viable Cyber doctrine (or a Monroe Doctrine for a Cyber World as I put it at IntelFusion) absolutely requires a new perspective on non-state actors and attack attribution, at the minimum.

    Simply gaining the signatures of major countries on a Cyber treaty does nothing to protect us from secret alliances that provide plausible deniability to various foreign governments. A Cyber Czar (like it or not, we seem to be stuck with that title) must be able to approach this problem like a Stanford undergrad looking for his first VC deal (i.e., with a quick mind unencumbered by rules or preconceived limitations) rather than a career military officer mired in tradition.

    Having said all that, Alexander seems to be an amalgam of technologist and strategist, AND carries a hefty checkbook. What’s not to like?


  2. An international treaty would be useful in providing some concrete definitions for what cyberwarfare looks like and setting expectations for a response from the United Status but since the NPT is swiss cheese, the cynic in me says a global Cyber Treaty wouldn’t be much better.


  3. Jeff – agree with your points. I’d like someone with some bureaucratic agility demonstrated as well. KA may fit that, but most outsiders wouldn’t.

    Preston – seems inarguable, unfortunately. May still be worth the effort to set up the process if only to have all nation-states engaged in the conversation (“keep your enemies close”) … Real problem is that many of the cyber adversaries are not state actors, even if they have state-actor patrons….

    Thanks for the great comments!


  4. I continue to be amazed at the insights I learn from Lewis’s blog, including the great comments from others like Jeffrey. Jeffrey the thing that impressed me the most about your comments is just today I was catching up with an old friend who now represents the US government in official interactions with other governments and she explained to me her personal views and several anecdotes showing how she helped convey our nation’s views to others and frankly what you wrote regarding treaties is in amazing consonance with what I heard from her.



  5. Bob – you’re too kind! right back at ya re: Regarding your meeting today, did your friend discuss how she (if she) is using social media at all? Just curious if she finds any new technologies helpful and if so which ones…. But I am sure I’ll be reading about the answer on your blog!


  6. Bob, thanks so much for your kind words. I’m very happy to hear that we have someone in an international position who happens to see this issue as I do! 🙂


  7. Lewis, I agree with the need for “bureaucratic agility”. In fact, I’d say the person probably needs to have some experience working in a leadership role within the Federal govt because I imagine that it’s a unique bureaucratic creature. That’s probably why many of Obama’s past picks had Clinton administration experience. That really narrows the field if you want someone who’s an agile technologist as well.


  8. what i think is hilarious is the fact that he actually thinks that one person or even a team of people no matter how inteligent and fluent they are with computers and internet security can actually stop someone that wants to infiltrate a system….. its idiocracy at its best complete ignorance… really if someone wants something bad enough and are smart enough to even try most likely there will be a person out there SMARTeR than the “czar” to reverse engineer whatever they come up with… anything that can be built can be taken apart… just time is infaulable.


  9. on another note im pretty sure obama pissed off alot of russians with the whole czar thing im pissed and im only married to a russian


  10. The whole thing is a misdirection. As soon as the ‘czar ‘word is gone, there is always ‘socialism’ comrad!!


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