Pentagon mulling split of NSA, Cyber Command

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The Pentagon is beginning to assess whether it’s time to split up the leadership of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command. 

Right now, the two organizations share a leader — Adm. Mike Rogers, who is director of the NSA and also the commander of the cyber unit. 

But lawmakers have debated ending that “dual-hat” arrangement as the United States moves into a new era of expanded cyber warfare.

{mosads}Given the NSA’s focus on intelligence collection, many on Capitol Hill and in the national security community think it no longer makes sense to have the agency joined with the leadership of military operations in cyberspace.

Separating the leadership of the NSA and Cyber Command would create a new vacancy for President Trump to fill. 

“We’re looking at the issue,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told The Hill on Wednesday, pointing to a new memo issued by Defense Secretary James Mattis asking for an initial plan to better support information management and cyber operations. 

Congress in December passed a bill that elevated Cyber Command to a unified combatant command. That change made Cyber Command its own war fighting unit, spinning it out from under Strategic Command. 

But that legislation also pumped the breaks on splitting the NSA from Cyber Command, requiring the Pentagon to conduct a full assessment first. 

Experts and former security officials regard it as inevitable that the NSA and Cyber Command will someday be separated but fear that split could be damaging if done too quickly.

That’s because Cyber Command wasn’t established at NSA headquarters until 2009 and remains dependent on the agency to function.

“If you split them off and give them separate bosses, you run the risk of potential personality conflicts between those two that might then cause a lessoning of the sharing and cooperation as it is occurring now,” said Steve Bucci, a former Army Special Forces officer and Pentagon official who is now a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “That’s probably the biggest danger that I see.” 

“Tensions already exist between NSA and Cybercom over professional overlap, and if duties and boundaries aren’t very clearly delineated in any split, these matters will worsen as they both fight for mission and resources,” said John Schindler, a former NSA analyst and counterintelligence officer.

Alexandra Sander, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, feared that the split could produce “stove piping” of intelligence information — a term used to describe information that gets bottled up in agencies rather than shared in the government.

“Elevating Cyber Command to its own unified command, and then if you had a split with the NSA on top of that, especially in a domain like cyber which should be integrated across the board with other functional and geographic commands and military operations — if you had increased stove piping, I think that would have a negative effect on our capabilities,” Sander said. 

Under the law passed by Congress last year, Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford have to conduct a joint assessment into what would happen if the NSA and Cyber Command were separated. 

They must ensure that the “termination of the dual-hat arrangement will not pose risks to the military effectiveness of the United States Cyber Command that are unacceptable to the national security interests of the United States,” the law states.

The military leaders are required to evaluate the dependence of Cyber Command on the NSA and how well the organizations could carry out their duties independently.

The legislation also prevents the split from happening until Cyber Command has achieved full operational capability, which isn’t expected to happen until the end of fiscal 2018.

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office is also studying the dual-hat leadership of the two organizations; the office expects to complete that review in June, according to a spokesman.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, has staunchly opposed a premature separation of the two organizations. Other lawmakers have been less vocal, adopting a wait-and-see approach pending assessments by the Pentagon and GAO.

“We want to make the right decision. I’m undecided,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who chairs the newly formed Armed Services Subcommittee on Cybersecurity. 

“When you separate that out, you have to make sure that you have really good lines of communication, coordination and so forth. There are positives to either way, and we know right know that we have something we think is working; the question is at what point does it become so big that it needs to be changed?” Rounds said.

President Obama spoke in favor of ending the dual-hat nature of the role late last year after he was reportedly pressed to do so by his Defense secretary and director of national intelligence.

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