A major defense policy bill that elevates U.S. Cyber Command to a full combatant command is on its way to President Barack Obama’s desk after the Senate voted overwhelmingly for passage Thursday.
The move will raise the profile of CYBERCOM as lawmakers urge the Pentagon to play a more active role deterring cyber aggression from adversaries such as Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Cybercom is currently a sub-unified command beneath U.S. Strategic Command, though CYBERCOM Chief Adm. Michael Rogers has said he often reports directly to the Pentagon.
The compromise National Defense Authorization Act, which the House passed last week, was opposed by some civil liberties advocates who are wary of the U.S. acting too aggressively in cyberspace, including Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R-Ky.
The final Senate vote was 92-7.
The bill also sets conditions before the executive branch can split CYBERCOM from its sister intelligence agency, the National Security Agency. Rogers currently runs both organizations, as did his predecessor Gen. Keith Alexander.
CYBERCOM has been run in a “dual hat” system by the NSA director since its inception in 2010. The Obama administration has long considered splitting the two jobs to draw cleaner lines between the government’s military and intelligence cyber functions, but that move is opposed by many lawmakers, including Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R.-Ariz., who says the military’s cyber defense will be damaged if it can’t rely on NSA expertise.
The compromise bill places a number of conditions on splitting the two, including certifying to congressional armed services committees that CYBERCOM's weapons, capabilities, command and control systems, and staffing are all up to snuff. The split could also not happen before CYBERCOM reaches full operational capability, which is scheduled for 2018.
The congressional line drawing comes amid turmoil between Rogers and Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper who reportedly urged Obama to fire Rogers, in part because of slow progress in making CYBERCOM independent from NSA.
Carter and Clapper will both leave government when President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January.
The bill also gives the defense secretary authority to assign cyber experts to help secure the personal technology of some high-risk DOD personnel and requires the defense secretary to create overall standards for how military services manage “cyber opposition forces” who play the bad guys in war games and ongoing testing of systems’ cyber vulnerabilities.