U.S. Cybersecurity: Should Government Split NSA and Cyber Command Leadership?

The Trump administration is again thinking about separating leadership of the National Security Agency (NSA) from the U.S. Cyber Command (USCyberCom), in a move that would remove U.S. Army Gen. Paul Nakasone’s second title as director of the nation’s intelligence office.

Should the so-called “dual-hat” arrangement end, the split wouldn’t be a novel one–the idea has been kicked around for at least three years. It could be viewed as fortuitously timed given the massive SolarWinds cyber espionage attack against U.S. government agencies reportedly carried out by Russian operatives. Or it could be seen as ill-planned, coming as it would in the waning days of Trump’s presidency, some Capitol Hill legislators said.

“Our government is currently responding to a cyber incident where a sophisticated adversary had access to thousands of U.S. networks,” Sens. Angus King (I-ME) and Ben Sasse (R-NE), said in a statement also endorsed by Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Jim Langevin (D-RI). Regardless of whether it’s better to keep or end the dual-hat arrangement between NSA and CyberCom, now is not the time to do it. We believe in continuing policy discussions about this arrangement, but it is unwise for any decisions to be made in the immediate future.”

Right now, both NSA and USCyberCom are elbows deep in trying to figure out how they could have missed clues to what’s simultaneously thought to be the biggest cyber spying attack in history and one of intelligence’s biggest failures. Also at center stage is determining how USCyberCom might launch a counter offensive at some point. President-elect Biden has already said the U.S. will respond in kind, a strategy that fits with Nakasone’s design for USCyberCom and the NSA’s intention to adopt a more aggressive stance in cybersecurity warfare.

In May, 2018, Nakasone was named as USCyberCom commander and NSA director in a ceremonial change-of-command. It meant he headed both the world’s foremost spy agency and the most powerful military hacking operation. Those two positions were combined in 2010 under former President Obama, with the understanding that at some point in the near term the roles ultimately would be split. At that time, USCyberCom had just been elevated to the country’s 10th combatant command, in a go-ahead to deploy its forces across the globe if needed. Nakasone asked Pentagon leaders to keep the two organizations under his command for at least the next two more years.

A year earlier, the Trump administration first considered spinning off USCyberCom as its own military command. So far, Nakasone has made any public statements about the SolarWinds attack. An unnamed senior administration official told The New York Times that Christopher Miller, acting defense secretary, was reviewing the proposal and no decisions had been made.

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