Since its creation in 2009, the U.S. Cyber Command has been intimately linked to the National Security Agency, the Fort Meade-based electronic intelligence and code-breaking agency with the most advanced cyberintelligence-gathering skills of any American spy agency.
But NSA and Cybercom, as it’s called, may soon be parting ways under a Pentagon plan to elevate Cybercom from a supporting command to a front-line war fighting combatant command.
One major problem with the current close arrangement is Cybercom and the NSA have two different missions. NSA is focused solely on spying, and Cybercom, a subcommand of the U.S. Strategic Command in charge of cyberdefense and war fighting, is a military organization that wants to do more operations, such as active defense against cyberattacks and, when needed, wage offensive cyberwarfare.
The current commander, Adm. Mike Rogers, is also director of NSA and is in favor of separating the two. Adm. Rogers also has pushed the administration to take a more proactive stance against the kind of cyberattacks carried out in recent years by both China and Russia.
President Obama, however, has repeatedly objected to giving Cybercom the authority to take action. Mr. Obama boasted in China last week that the United States has more cybercapabilities “than anybody both offensively and defensively.”
Mr. Obama then warned that he feared a cyberwar could break out: “What we cannot do is have a situation in which suddenly this becomes the Wild, Wild West, where countries that have significant cybercapacity start engaging in competition — unhealthy competition or conflict through these means,” he said.
The idea of splitting Cybercom from NSA triggered a vigorous debate in government national security circles.
“The current commander does feel like both entities do different things and should be disaggregated,” said a senior military officer. “One gathers intelligence and the other conducts offensive cyberoperations.”
For the military command, many of Cybercom’s troops feel like they work for NSA, although they wear different security badges and operate in different parts of NSA headquarters.
“The feeling is it would be better to get Cyber Command out from under the thumb of NSA,” the officer said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain criticized the nature of the debate over splitting the two organizations. “Here we go again,” the Arizona Republican said at a hearing Tuesday. “Another major policy matter has apparently been decided with no consultation whatsoever between the White House or the Department of Defense with this committee.”
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Tuesday that no decision has been made, but that, ultimately, the president would make the call.
“One is an intelligence agency, one is a combat support agency,” Mr. Carter said. “Whatever happens in the future, and whatever decisions are made with respect to the management of it, they’re going to be interrelated because they both deal with the technology of cyber, especially cyberdefense, cyberprotection, which is Cybercom’s first military mission.”
NSA advocates fear the split will be used by agency critics to limit its capabilities.
Renegade NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who stole some 1.7 million highly classified documents and released them to leftist journalists, sparked a backlash against the agency, claiming the NSA was engaged in massive illegal spying on Americans — charges the agency has denied. The agency is restricted from spying on Americans and can do so only when there are indications of foreign espionage or terrorism links.
Still, critics within the administration and on Capitol Hill want to limit the NSA, and one way would