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Within the operations of the National Security Agency (NSA) exists another super-secret agency – the U.S. Cyber Command. This past week, NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers announced that the Trump administration is finalizing plans to revamp the nation’s military command for defensive and offensive cyber operations in hopes of intensifying America’s ability to wage cyber war against her enemies.
As part of the reorganization, the U.S. Cyber Command would eventually be split off from the intelligence-focused National Security Agency.
The goal is to give U.S. Cyber Command more autonomy, freeing it from any constraints that stem from working alongside the NSA, which is responsible for monitoring and collecting telephone, internet and other intelligence data from around the world — a responsibility that can sometimes clash with military operations against conventional enemy tactics.
Making cyber an independent military command will put the fight in digital space on the same footing as more traditional realms of battle. The move reflects the escalating threat of cyberattacks and intrusions from other nation states, terrorist groups and hackers.
But experts said the change will be rolled out over time.
“Right now I think it’s inevitable, but it’s on a very slow glide path,” said Jim Lewis, a cybersecurity expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But, he added, “A new entity is not going to be able to duplicate NSA’s capabilities.”
The two highly secretive organizations, based at Fort Meade, Maryland, have been under the same four-star commander since Cyber Command’s creation in 2009.
But the Defense Department has been agitating for a separation, perceiving the NSA and intelligence community as resistant to more aggressive cyberwarfare, particularly after the Islamic State’s transformation in recent years from an obscure insurgent force into an organization holding significant territory across Iraq and Syria and with a worldwide recruiting network.
While the military wanted to attack ISIS networks, intelligence objectives prioritized gathering information from them, according to U.S. officials familiar with the debate. They weren’t authorized to discuss internal deliberations publicly and requested anonymity.
“NSA is truly an intelligence-collection organization,” said Lauren Fish, a research associate with the Center for a New American Security. “It should be collecting information, writing reports on it. Cyber Command is meant to be an organization that uses tools to have military operational effect.”
After President Donald Trump’s inauguration, officials said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has endorsed much of the plan, but specifics are just now being released.
Cyber Command was created in 2009 by the Obama administration to address threats of cyber espionage and other attacks. It was set up as a sub-unit under U.S. Strategic Command to coordinate the Pentagon’s ability to conduct cyberwarfare and to defend its own networks, including those that are used by combat forces in battle.
Officials originally said the new cyber effort would likely involve hundreds, rather than thousands, of new employees.
Since then, the command has grown to more than 700 military and civilian employees. The military services also have their own cyber units, with a goal of having 133 fully operational teams with as many as 6,200 personnel.
Its proposed budget for next year is $647 million. Rogers told Congress in May that represents a 16 percent increase over this year’s budget to cover costs associated with building the cyber force, fighting ISIS and becoming an independent command.
Under the new plan being forwarded by the Pentagon to the White House, officials said Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville would be nominated to lead Cyber Command. Leadership of the NSA could be turned over to a civilian.
Mayville is currently the director of the military’s joint staff and has extensive experience as a combat-hardened commander. He deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, leading the 173rd Airborne Brigade when it made its assault into Iraq in March 2003 and later heading coalition operations in eastern Afghanistan.
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