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What the Announced NSA/Cyber Command Split Means

National Security Agency director Adm. Mike Rogers

National Security Agency director Adm. Mike Rogers // Alex Brandon/AP

The move to elevate Cyber Command to a full unified combatant command and split it off from the National Security Agency shows that cyber intelligence collection and information war are rapidly diverging fields. The future leadership of both entities is now in question, but the Pentagon has set out a conditions-based approach to the breakup. That represents a partial victory for the man who directs both Cyber Command and the NSA.

The move would mean that the head of Cyber Command would answer directly to the Defense Secretary and the National Security Agency would get its own head. It’s a move that many have said is long overdue, and its exact timing remains unknown. So what does the split mean for the Pentagon, for Cyber Command, and for the future of U.S. cyber security?

The split will give the commander of Cyber Command central authority over resource allocation, training, operational planning and mission execution. The commander will answer to the Defense Secretary directly, not the head of Strategic Command. “The decision means that Cyber Command will play an even more strategic role in synchronizing cyber forces and training, conducting and coordinating military cyberforce operations and advocating for and prioritizing cyber investments within the department,” said Kenneth Rapuano, assistant defense secretary for Homeland Defense and Global Security.

The Start of a Process

The move announced on Friday fulfills a mandate in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017. Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter hinted at the split back in May 2016. But it won’t happen immediately.

Instead, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford will nominate a flag officer to take over the new Cyber Command as well as the NSA. That person could be Adm. Michael Rogers, who currently heads both, or someone else. Trump has reportedly asked Mattis to give him the name of a nominee. Speculation has focused on Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville as the nominee to head Cyber Command.

Once that new person is nominated and confirmed and once Mattis and Dunford are satisfied that splitting the two entities will not hamper the ability of either Cyber Command or the NSA to conduct their missions independently, only then will Cyber Command and the NSA actually split.

What Does it Mean for Leadership?

Read one way, the announcement means Rogers will lose power. Even were he to become the nominee to the new elevated Cyber Command, he would still wind up losing the NSA eventually. If he were to stay on as head of NSA after the confirmation of a new Cyber Command head, as expected, he would briefly serve under Mayville until the formal split.

Read another way, the lack of a concrete timetable for the split, despite such a requirement in the authorization bill,  represents a partial win for Rogers.

Rogers took over the NSA and Cyber Command in the spring of 2014. He has been resistant to the idea of a split, telling lawmakers in September that U.S. national security benefitted from the dual-hat arrangement. This view was not shared by then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper nor then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Rogers’ resistance was one of many issues that rubbed them the wrong way.

It got so bad that in November, unnamed sources told The Washington Post that Clapper and Carter were urging President Barack Obama to fire Rogers.

The truth is a bit more nuanced. Clapper’s goal was “to split the NSA from CYBERCOM. He was not a strong advocate of removal, but was willing to defer to [the Secretary of Defense] if Carter felt strongly about selecting new leadership at Cyber Command,” a source inside the intelligence community said. “There were other concerns unrelated to the potential split.”

Rogers outlasted both Clapper, who had long planned to retire at the end of the Obama administration; and Carter, a political appointee. Rogers’ attitude toward an NSA-Cyber Command split evolved. In May, he testified that he would support a split was done in a way that did not hamper either the NSA or Cyber Command.

The manner in which the split was announced is in keeping with what Rogers has said he wanted.

The move toward a conditions-based split also met with the approval of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, a longtime Rogers ally. “I appreciate the administration’s commitment today to ensuring that a future separation of the so-called ‘dual hat’ relationship between Cyber Command and the National Security Agency will be based on conditions, rather than arbitrary political timelines,” McCain said in a statement. “While Cyber Command and the National Security Agency should eventually be able to operate independent of one another, the administration must work closely with the Congress to take the necessary steps that will make this separation of responsibilities successful, and to ensure that each agency will emerge more effective and more capable as a result.”

What It Means for Cyber Command, the NSA, and Cyber Operations

The elevation of Cyber Command represents a big step forward for the military’s cyber ability, but it has yet to catch up to the NSA in terms of collecting signals intelligence or creating network accesses, according to Bill Leigher, who as a rear admiral helped stand up Navy Fleet Cyber Command. Leigher, who now directs government cyber solutions for Raytheon, applauds the split because the NSA, which collects foreign intelligence, and Cyber Command, a warfighting outfit, have fundamentally different missions.This caused tension between the two organizations under one roof. Information collected for intelligence gathering may be useful in a way that’s fundamentally different from intelligence for military purposes, he says. “If you collecting intelligence, it’s foreign espionage. You don’t want to get caught. The measure of success is: ‘collect intelligence and don’t get caught.’ If you’re going to war, I would argue that the measure of performance is’ what we do has to have the characteristics of a legal weapon in the context of war and the commander has to know what he or she uses it.”

This puts the agencies in disagreement about how to use intel and tools that they share. “From an NSA perspective, cyber really is about gaining access to networks. From a Cyber Command point of view, I would argue, it’s about every piece of software on the battlefield and having the means to prevent that software from working the way it was intended to work [for the adversary],” he said.

The split will allow the agencies to pursue the very different tools, operations, and rules each of their missions requires, he said.  Expect NSA to intensify its focus on developing access for intelligence, and Cyber Command to prepare to rapidly deploy massive cyber effects at scale during military operations and shut down the enemy. Both of this will likely leverage next-generation artificial intelligence but in very different ways said Leigher.

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