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Home Alone

With Keith Alexander out fighting fires, meet the woman who's really running the NSA.


Recently, after a particularly grueling set of closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill about classified intelligence programs, four senior officials from the National Security Agency (NSA) were driving back to their headquarters when they realized they’d skipped lunch. Fran Fleisch, the NSA’s executive director and its third highest-ranking official, had figured they’d be hungry, since their jam-packed schedule left no time to grab a bite. So, she reached into her purse and pulled out bags of popcorn, which she doled out to the NSA’s deputy director, the head of legislative affairs, and the general counsel. Her ravenous colleagues gratefully scarfed down the snack.

It was a simple gesture, but one that reflects what Fleisch’s coworkers say is an almost maternal instinct to protect her NSA colleagues. She’s known for sharp attention to detail and a knack for anticipating what people need — two qualities that have been especially handy of late. That’s because on a day-to-day basis, Fleisch, who has spent her entire career at the NSA, is the person who’s actually running the place.

Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, and his deputy, Chris Inglis, along with a number of other senior-level staff are frequently out of the office as the agency grapples with the public and political fallout of the unprecedented series of leaks by former contractor Edward Snowden. They spend much of their time in meetings at the White House; answering questions for lawmakers and congressional staff; giving public speeches and press interviews; and responding to voluminous official requests for information about the agency’s programs amid ongoing investigations and reviews. Fleisch is almost never with them when they leave the agency’s headquarters at Ft. Meade, Maryland — the recent day on the Hill was a rare exception. It’s her job to stay behind and keep the United States’ biggest intelligence agency online while its leaders are putting out fires.

"She is the person who ensures that all the trains are running. Without her, there’s no continuity," says a senior intelligence official.

Since June, when the first Snowden disclosures appeared in the press, Alexander and Inglis have testified before Congress and given speeches and interviews at least 22 times, according to public records. In the six months that preceded the first leaks, Alexander testified on the Hill twice, and Inglis not at all. Other public appearances were rare.

But the requests for information from lawmakers and investigators have had senior officials scrambling for months now. Not that the NSA’s work has slowed at all. The agency is still in the business of massive data collection and processing, and has had to maintain its focus on the world’s hot spots, which have lately included Syria and Iran. "The world has not hit the pause button so [that the NSA] can deal with" the leaks fallout, says Stephanie O’Sullivan, the deputy director of national intelligence.

In the senior leaders’ absence, Fleisch leads the NSA’s morning meeting, where staff set the priorities for the day and respond to urgent requests for intelligence. "General Alexander [has the] big vision. Fran makes it real," O’Sullivan says. Fleisch acts as the agency’s frequent point of contact to her, as well as to the Pentagon’s intelligence chief. (Providing intelligence to combat forces is one of NSA’s primary tasks.) Ordinarily, these jobs would fall to Inglis, the NSA No. 2. But these aren’t ordinary times.

"2013 has been a year for the books," Fleisch said in an interview with Foreign Policy, only the second she has given in her NSA career, which began in 1980. "It’s only natural people would think of it in terms of unauthorized disclosures," Fleisch said, referring to the Snowden leaks. But, she added, the agency also had to endure a government shutdown and mandatory budget cuts this year. Fleisch helped craft the plans to keep NSA operations running when some employees were furloughed. Officials say that Inglis, who along with Alexander is planning to retire in the spring, has delegated many of his management responsibilities to Fleisch. Some sources close to the NSA’s senior leadership have speculated that Fleisch could take over as the acting director next year before President Obama nominates a permanent replacement.

Colleagues describe Fleisch as a combination of master spy and den mother. When she’s not tending to classified intelligence, she is taking the pulse of NSA workers, whose morale has plummeted in the face of heightened scrutiny. Intelligence officials say an increasing number of employees are dusting off their resumes, deleting any references to classified programs and asking for approval to post them on public websites.

"It’s tough to turn on the television or open a newspaper and see the actions that you do every day described in a way that you don’t recognize," O’Sullivan said. "They know everyone around them is trying to do the right thing."

Fleisch didn’t set out for a clandestine career. She studied business at Wharton, and after graduation planned to work on Wall Street. But during a summer course studying Russian, she was visited by an NSA recruiter. Fleisch knew nothing about the agency, but once the mission was described to her, she was intrigued.

"The things that they talked about I hadn’t even known were available" to someone with her skills, Fleisch said. She had enjoyed studying languages but hadn’t considered applying her translation abilities to espionage. She applied to the agency, and soon found herself working as an analyst and Russian linguist, at the height of the Cold War.

"I fell in love with the mission," Fleisch says. She spent the first decade of her career in operations and then moved into management and up the career ladder. When Alexander was named chief of U.S. Cyber Command in 2010, his portfolio expanded, and he handed off more authorities. He decided to revive the position of executive director, the rough equivalent of a chief operating officer, which hadn’t been active at the NSA for 10 years. Fleisch got the nod. "She’s the go-to person for Alexander and Inglis, and has been for quite a while," says one colleague.

Fleisch would not discuss in detail the stories about NSA operations that have appeared in the press, but they have clearly affected the way she interacts with employees. At swearing-in ceremonies, where Fleish is often presiding, officials are on-hand to answer questions about what the recruits have read in the press. They’ve also held a series of town hall-style meetings with employees to respond to allegations and explain how the agency is working to restore its credibility. Alexander and Inglis may the public face of the Snowden affair. But inside the NSA, it’s Fleisch. "You walk through the halls with her, and she knows everybody. And more important, they know her," says one co-worker.

To that end, Fleisch said that she had agreed to conduct an interview in order to "lead by example on transparency." She didn’t give away any secrets, of course, and was clearly more eager to talk about her employees than herself. And to defend them. She gave no hint of tensions with the administration. But other current and former officials have said that NSA leaders are frustrated by what they see as a lack of forceful, unconditional support for the agency from the White House. While the president has claimed ignorance, the NSA has taken the brunt of scrutiny for intelligence operations that are not limited to the agency.

Fleisch said that the NSA has abided by the laws and rules that govern its missio
n. "We are very precise in doing only what we’re authorized to do … they pursue their mission in accordance with what they’ve been asked to do and always legally and with protection of U.S. persons."

She added, "I’m so proud of them."

 Twitter: @shaneharris

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