WASHINGTON -- The head of the National Security Agency has launched an internal shake-up of the nation's largest spy agency, whose lagging modernization efforts are drawing increased scrutiny inside the administration and on Capitol Hill.
The reforms will separate the NSA's spy operations from its high-tech development efforts and ensure that the agency's technology programs function as one system, the NSA's director, Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, said in an April 4 memo to employees.
Alexander said that a number of NSA technology development programs and departments were being combined into what he called "a single empowered entity," under the leadership of a chief technology officer.
"We're very excited about this," NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis said in an interview.
Inglis said the changes will help the NSA focus on the development of its technology backbone and spy programs "with greater crispness and clarity."
Critics say the reorganization, scheduled to take effect May 14, is unlikely, by itself, to fix the NSA's most vexing problems: a continuing struggle to collect intelligence from digital communications, the agency's deteriorating technology infrastructure and its worsening shortfall in electric power. They also fear that the new technology chief won't have enough authority to make all of the changes that are needed, particularly when it comes to deciding how the agency spends on new technology.
"It's reorganization for reorganization's sake," said a former NSA official familiar with the plan who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect business relationships with the government.
Another former agency official, speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason, said that organizational structure has never been the NSA's problem. Instead, it is the lack of an operational plan and "the leadership to carry it through."
The creation of the technology office is the NSA's third major reorganization in seven years but the first since Alexander took charge in August 2005.
It comes at a time of flux for the broader U.S. intelligence community. The new director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, recently announced a reorganization of his office, and incoming Pentagon intelligence chief James R. Clapper Jr. has said he has similar plans.
Longtime NSA official Prescott Winter, 59, has been named by Alexander to the new chief technology post. Winter has a reputation for reaching across bureaucratic fences, and he recently ran the NSA's Commercial Solutions Center, which helps connect the agency with private industry.
He will oversee divisions responsible for developing spy technology, upgrading information technology systems and linking eavesdropping technology with other NSA computer systems, according to an internal "Talking Points" document.
The shake-up gives Winter responsibility for two of Alexander's top priorities: resolving the NSA's impending electricity shortfall and overseeing the troubled "Turbulence" modernization initiative, according to the "Talking Points" document.
Turbulence, which aims to constantly monitor digital communications worldwide, recently came under criticism on Capitol Hill for "management deficiencies." An earlier study by a congressional advisory group warned about the initiative's "inadequate planning," especially for delivering the new spy technology.
The NSA reorganization follows a recent "call to action" from Alexander, who urged employees to deliver spy technology faster.
It is the product of a 45-day study examining the agency's latest modernization efforts. That study concluded that the NSA risks losing focus on its technology requirements and needs to improve how it deploys new technology, Inglis said.
"That's why we determined that we needed to assign that [responsibility] formally to someone," he said.
Inglis said the study grew out of internal discussions late last year about refocusing the agency on the "transformation" of its efforts to adapt spy technology and analysis to new types of communications, including calls over the Internet and instant messaging.
The study also came in response to concerns in Congress and elsewhere in the executive branch after Alexander asked for a budget increase of nearly $1 billion. Current and former intelligence officials said that many in Washington were concerned that the NSA was failing to manage its existing programs effectively enough.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat who chairs an intelligence subcommittee that oversees the NSA, called the latest reorganization "a very positive step" that would make the agency more accountable for its use of taxpayer dollars.
He added that he believed it would also spur the NSA's efforts to improve its surveillance of digital communications worldwide.
Among the challenges facing the NSA, and its new technology office, will be the impact on the agency's existing spy operations.
"What people underestimate is the sheer administrative burden of a reorganization like that and the turmoil it causes among people," said a former senior NSA official.
Inglis said a desire to avoid major disruptions was, in part, what kept NSA leaders from giving the new technology officer greater authority, though the scope of his powers may be adjusted.
Some former officials said the shake-up effectively reverses organizational changes made by Alexander's predecessor, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who reshuffled responsibilities, in part because the NSA's computers crashed in 2000, rendering the agency "brain dead" for 3 1/2 days, as Hayden would later acknowledge.
Inglis said the new organization - which separates spy operations from technology development - will be similar, in concept, to the NSA before Hayden's reforms. But what is different, he said, is that there will be a stronger connection between the two, while both divisions focus on what they do best.
The NSA, he said, must adapt to a new technology world "where we have to literally transform every day." He predicted that "into the future, there will be needs for other capabilities, and other organizations will arise from that."
"I don't foresee constant turmoil," he added. "But I don't see permanent stability either."