President-elect Joe Biden should nominate Andrew Yang to serve as director of the National Security Agency. The point takes on new relevance as Biden quickly forms his inner circle.
The New York Times reports that Biden will nominate an Obama administration CIA veteran, Avril Haines, as his director of national intelligence. Selecting Haines, Antony Blinken as secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, Biden is establishing a rather predictable team. Yang’s nomination would shake things up. A Democratic 2020 presidential primary challenger and successful tech entrepreneur, Yang is unbound by convention. This would suit him well for service as director of America’s primary signals intelligence service.
I know that Yang is unlikely to be the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of this position. It’s also true that Gen. Paul Nakasone is only two years into his tenure as NSA director. Still, Nakasone could mentor Yang over a period of months before transferring the reigns. That would give the former Democratic presidential contender the time to learn the ropes and nuances which define this truly massive global intelligence service. Nakasone could then retain his simultaneously held position as the head of the military’s Cyber Command. This would balance national security readiness in the moment with Yang’s opportunity to introduce dynamic reform.
So why Yang for the NSA, in particular?
Top line: Yang is known for his creative thinking in challenge of conventional wisdom. He could offer much to an agency that remains too traditional in its military structure. Constant innovation is a cornerstone of any effective intelligence service. It’s not enough to be the best at hacking secure communications networks or using supercomputers to quickly identify patterns of interest in otherwise overwhelming data flows. Although, it should be noted that the NSA is, by far, the world’s best at doing these things. That said, to truly thrive over the long term, an intelligence service must ride the wave of the next technological evolution. More than that, it should help create the wave. Today, the top priorities in this regard are in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and big data extrapolation. Albeit in a civilian economic sense, Yang was the only 2020 candidate to prioritize these concerns during his presidential campaign. Yang could take these already significant research efforts to new levels at the NSA. He would also seem to offer a much needed pathway to broader private-public sector engagement on technology and security.
Yang would also help make the NSA a more attractive workplace for young Americans who too often instead pursue careers in the tech and gaming industries. Part of the challenge here is the NSA’s overly laborious application and security clearance system and its post-Snowden fixation on counterintelligence. It is obviously very important that the NSA prevent foreign intelligence services from stealing the NSA’s capabilities and knowledge of its operations. But that cannot come at the cost of losing unconventional talent. Considering his wonkish charm, Yang would also be popular with the existing NSA workforce. Finally, Yang’s record as an advocate for data privacy would also lend him the ability to demystify the NSA. The basic truth is that the NSA has no interest in American communications unless those communications provide an indication of hostile interest toward the nation.
Yes, Yang would have to do a deep dive on the global security challenges facing America and likely to face the nation in the years ahead. But in interviews, Yang has already shown a strong understanding of Chinese trade, technology, and human rights activities. That matters because communist China far and beyond represents America’s greatest challenge.
Playing this right, Director Yang could be a truly revolutionary leader for a most important agency.