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US Cyber Command Is Now One Step Closer To Spinning Off From The NSA

Secretary of Defense James Mattis will review whether the military hacking command should be fully separated from the NSA.

Posted on August 18, 2017, at 12:24 p.m. ET

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

NSA commander Gen. Mike Rogers

The US's cyberwar nerve center inside the military has gotten a promotion.

President Donald Trump announced via Twitter on Friday that US Cyber Command, the Department of Defense’s centralized hub for conducting offensive cyberattacks and protecting its networks against them, will be elevated to the level of a unified combatant command.

I have directed that U.S. Cyber Command be elevated to the status of a Unified Combatant Command focused on....cont:

The move, anticipated for several years now, gives Cyber Command more independent agency, and means it will now report directly to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, DOD spokesperson Heather Babb told BuzzFeed News. But it’s perhaps most significant as a major step toward the command eventually spinning off from the National Security Agency, whose primary mission is gathering overseas intelligence, into its own independent command.

Since it was first established in 2009, Cyber Command has always been helmed by whoever is NSA director at the time — a “dual hat” responsibility that critics of the setup, including many Pentagon leaders and former president Barack Obama, have said is overwhelming for one person.

President Obama had recommended the reclassification as the end of his term neared, but it was unclear if Trump would continue down that path. As a presidential candidate, Trump often spoke of cybersecurity and war in controversial and confusing terms. On the campaign trail in October, Trump said of cybercapabilities that “America’s dominance in this arena must be unquestioned. And today it’s totally questioned.” The US, alongside allies like the UK, Australia, Israel, and France, are widely regarded as the most powerful nations in the world when it comes to cybercapabilities.

Critics of the idea of separation, however, note that, in cyberspace, intelligence-gathering sources often overlap with military targets, and fear that operations could conflict with one another. Gen. Keith Alexander, who was “dual hat” director before Gen. Mike Rogers, had also argued that if the agencies were distinct, the NSA could withhold key information that could be vital to Cyber Command.

It’s unclear when any full separation would take place. According to the White House’s announcement, Mattis is reviewing the idea of separation, and will announce recommendations “at a later date.”

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.