Trump Officials Deliver Plan to Split Up Cyber Command, NSA

Gen. Paul Nakasone

Gen. Paul Nakasone Jose Luis Magana/AP

An end to the “dual hat” arrangement has been debated for years — but the timing raises questions. The plan requires Milley's certification to move ahead.

Trump administration officials at the Pentagon late this week delivered to the Joint Chiefs of Staff a proposal to split up the leadership of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command. It is the latest push to dramatically reshape defense policy advanced by a handful of key political officials who were installed in acting roles in the Pentagon after Donald Trump lost his re-election bid.

A U.S. official confirmed on Saturday that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley — who along with Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller must certify that the move meets certain standards laid out by Congress in 2016 — received the proposal in the last few days.

With Miller expected to sign off on the move, the fate of the proposal ultimately falls to Milley, who told Congress in 2019 that the dual-hat leadership structure was working and should be maintained. 

Military officials have watched warily as Miller, his chief of staff Kash Patel, and Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Ezra Cohen-Watnick — all installed since Election Day — have sought significant policy changes with just over a month remaining in office. Recent outgoing administrations have declined to push through major changes during the transition period. 

The post of NSA director and CYBERCOM commander are held by one person — currently, Gen. Paul Nakasone — in a "dual-hat" arrangement. For years, cybersecurity and national security policy leaders have debated how and when to split that job into two positions. The Trump administration’s proposal, if approved, “would mark a significant shift in policy, and without the proper analysis and certification would run contrary to law,” a House Democratic aide said Saturday, calling the potential change “severe.” 

The Cyber Command proposal also comes as the United States is grappling with a massive cyberattack on at least a half-dozen federal agencies. Investigators are still working to understand what data may have been taken or compromised. Although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has publicly linked the attack to Russia, Trump on Saturday attempted to downplay the attack and attribute it to China. 

The move may be a signal that Trump might remove Nakasone as the leader of one or either agency amid frustration over the handling of the recent cyberattack, according to some officials speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. 

An administration official defended the recent spate of changes during the transition. 

“Miller is looking to set the department and force up for success in the future,” that person said. “‘Do no harm’ is his motto. He’s here for a short time and isn’t afraid to tackle the issues that would leave a typical secretary open to more baggage over the longer term.”

Col. Dave Butler, a spokesman for Milley, said Saturday that the chairman has not officially reviewed or endorsed the proposed split. Until now, Milley has managed to maintain both his job and a public image of independence from the White House. But if he does buck the effort, it could put the chairman in a fragile position with Trump, who has dismissed multiple cabinet-level national security officials since his loss at the polls, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

While the abrupt timing of the proposal to split up the NSA-CYBERCOM leadership structure is unusual, the debate over the policy decision itself is hardly new. Supporters of the split argue that Cyber Command, created in 2009, is able to stand on its own without NSA and is sucking needed resources away from the intelligence agency. Critics of the move argue that Cyber Command isn’t yet ready to stand on its own, and that the relationship between the agency and the command is symbiotic. 

“NSA and CYBERCOM are uniquely intertwined and share many of the same resources,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote in a letter to Milley and Miller protesting the proposed move that was released Saturday. “Any action to sever the dual-hat relationship could have grave impacts on our national security, especially during a time that the country is wrestling with what may be the most damaging cyber-attack in our country’s history.”

The Democratic House aide said that the House Armed Services Committee “became aware” of the plans this week. 

It has long been accepted that Cyber Command and the National Security Agency will eventually separate. They operate out of Fort Meade, in Maryland, under separate legal authorities and are responsible for distinct missions. The NSA is responsible for signals intelligence collection — seen by many as the crown jewels of U.S. intelligence gathering — while Cyber Command is responsible for conducting military operations. Initially, placing the nascent Cyber Command under the same command as the NSA made sense because of the technical similarities of the two missions. 

But as Cyber Command matured and rumors of the split began to circulate during the Obama administration, lawmakers laid out a series of recently-updated conditions in the annual 2017 defense policy bill that senior Pentagon leaders would have to certify have been met in order to carry it out. At their simplest, they require both the Joint Chiefs chairman and the defense secretary to certify that neither organization will be harmed by the split. That includes determinations that Cyber Command has the tools it needed to do its job, and that NSA and Cyber Command have “robust command and control systems and processes...for planning, deconflicting, and executing military cyber operations.”

Supporters of the split argue that keeping the two organizations under the dual-hat arrangement creates inefficiencies. 

“The missions of NSA and Cyber Command will continue to compete for priority and advocacy under the dual hat,” Andrew Schoka, an active-duty Army cyber operations officer assigned to Cyber Command, wrote in War on the Rocks in 2019. 

Should Milley and Miller make the necessary certifications to Congress, the practical implications of the move will be neither immediate nor irreversible. 

“If anything, I’d imagine a direction of a breakup but with an implementation period of six to twelve months,” the administration official said. “Leaves space to reverse it but puts a marker down for CYBERCOM to get off the NSA teat.”

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.