WASHINGTON The White House is nearing a decision on splitting up the eavesdropping National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, which conducts cyber warfare, a proposed reform prompted in part by revelations of NSA's widespread snooping, individuals briefed on the matter said on Wednesday.
As part of the emerging plan, the NSA likely would get a civilian director for the first time in its 61-year history, the individuals said.
Both agencies are now headed by the same person, Army General Keith Alexander, who is retiring in March as NSA's longest-serving director.
While Alexander is highly regarded in the intelligence community, critics have questioned the current arrangement. They say it concentrates too much power in one individual and that the two agencies have different missions.
NSA monitors phone, email and other communications for national security threats. Cyber Command defends Pentagon and other U.S. computer networks, infiltrates adversary networks and conducts offensive cyberwarfare.
Two administration officials confirmed that the discussions about the split are nearing a critical stage. They spoke on condition of anonymity because no announcement has been made.
White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said President Barack Obama has not made a final decision.
"With General Alexander's planned departure next spring, this is a natural point to look at this question to ensure we are appropriately postured to address current and future security needs," Hayden said. "We have no new decisions to announce at this point."
But one official said that it was possible a decision could come soon and could even be made public simultaneously with the results of White House reviews of NSA activities prompted by disclosures by former contractor Edward Snowden.
An unclassified version of one of two reviews, conducted by a group of outside experts, is tentatively due to be released in mid-December.
Snowden gave media organizations highly classified documents describing electronic snooping by the agency and its British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters GCHQ, that was far more extensive than previously known. He is in Russia where he was granted temporary asylum.
Since its inception in 1952, NSA has been led by a general or admiral, with a civilian deputy director.
Under the emerging plan, the director would be a civilian and the head of Cyber Command, which is a U.S. military command, would be a military officer.
Reuters reported last month that Vice Admiral Michael Rogers, commander of the U.S. Navy's 10th Fleet and the Navy's top cyberwarfare officer, was a leading candidate to be the next NSA director.
Rogers is now more likely to take over U.S. Cyber Command, individuals familiar with the matter said.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "Given that we are still looking at the question of whether the position would be split, we are not yet considering preferred candidates."
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart. Editing by Alistair Bell and Philip Barbara)