This story has been updated with the Trump administration’s plan to end shared leadership between the NSA and Cyber Command.
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has in recent weeks developed plans to separate the joint leadership structure between the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, prompting backlash from the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
In a letter released Dec. 19, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., wrote that he is “profoundly concerned about reports that the department is unilaterally seeking to end the dual-hat relationship” without consulting Congress. Since the election, President Donald Trump has shaken up leadership at the Pentagon, appointing several new officials in acting roles, similar to moves he’s made in other agencies to try to influence policy significantly before Inauguration Day.
A House Democratic aide told C4ISRNET that the committee has firsthand knowledge that acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller has delivered the proposal to the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff. They asked for anonymity given that the plan had not been made public.
Since Cyber Command was created a decade ago, it has been co-located with NSA and shared a leader. At the time, this made sense to help the command grow, relying on the personnel, expertise and infrastructure of the NSA.
“This week the Armed Services Committee became aware of potential plans to terminate the dual-hat relationship between NSA and CYBERCOM,” the House aide said. “Such a change would mark a significant shift in policy, and without the proper analysis and certification would run contrary to law. Given the severity of the potential change, it was imperative Chairman Smith share his concerns with the acting secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.”
News of the plan was first reported by Defense One.
A spokesperson for the Department of Defense said in a statement that chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, has not reviewed nor endorsed any recommendation to split Cyber Command and NSA. The National Security Council did not comment on the matter Saturday.
The news comes as both agencies are under pressure from the disclosure this week of a giant hack of various U.S. government agencies and potentially many large companies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday on a conservative radio show that Russia is likely responsible for the breach.
One of the hotly debated topics in the cyber and intelligence world, the dual-hat arrangement has brought out fervent feelings on each side. For proponents, the relationship provides benefits to each side: The military can benefit from the unique intelligence insights and access of NSA, leading to faster decision-making and operational outcomes.
Opponents see the power over both operations as too much for one person, and they argue that relying on intelligence infrastructure and tools, which are meant to stay undetected, for military activity, which typically isn’t, poses risks to such espionage activity.
It has always been understood that the relationship would not be permanent given the inherently different missions of each organization: NSA charged with foreign intelligence and the Department of Defense with war fighting.
Current officials have lauded the relationship as beneficial, particularly how a single person at the head of both organizations provides unity of command.
Cyber operations in the 2018 midterm elections revalidated the importance of “the unity of command that we have with one commander at the top of both of those organizations [and] allowed us to execute with speed and agility and precision,” then-Maj. Gen. Charles Moore, director of operations at Cyber Command, told reporters in 2019. Moore is now the three-star deputy commander of Cyber Command.
Gen. Paul Nakasone, who heads both organizations, issued a recommendation to the secretary of defense in August 2018, 90 days after assuming the role. The Washington Post, at the time, reported that he advised keeping the dual-hat arrangement.
Milley told Congress in 2019 that the dual-hat structure was working and should be maintained.
When rumors of a split surfaced a few years ago, some members of Congress felt the decision was premature and that Cyber Command was not yet ready to stand on its own. As a result, Congress outlined in 2016 a series of metrics Pentagon leaders had to meet. These included ensuring both organizations had the infrastructure they needed and that the missions of each organization would not be hurt by a split.
A year ago, Congress tweaked three of those provisions included in the fiscal year 2017 defense policy bill adding more restrictions to severing the dual-hat.
They included a determination that both NSA and Cyber Command robust command and control systems for planning, deconflicting and executing military cyber operations and national intelligence operations, a determination that Cyber Command can acquire the tools it needs and that those tools are sufficient to achieve desired effects, and lastly, a determination that the cyber mission force can execute cyber missions for the department.
Smith, in his letter, noted that Congress has outlined the conditions DoD must meet before terminating the dual-hat arrangement.
“[G]iven that no assessment has been completed and no certification has been issued, I remind you that any action to terminate the dual-hat relationship with NSA and Cyber Command is not only inadvisable, but is contrary to law,” he wrote.
When rumors again surfaced of a split in the Spring of 2019, top congressional officials again warned against a pre-mature decision.
“I believe it would be premature to split these organizations in the immediate future,” House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities Chairman Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., said in a March 2019 hearing. “Before any significant changes are implemented in the dual-hat arrangement, this Subcommittee expects a robust understanding of how and why it is necessary to split the leadership function of NSA director and CYBERCOM commander.”
Jamil Jaffer, a former official in the George W. Bush White House as well as a former senior counsel to the House Intelligence Committee, said that separating the two at this point in time would be a mistake.
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of value that comes from the folks who understand how we get access, what we do with the that access, and adjudicating whether the delivery of a particular capability is beneficial from an offense, defense and intelligence perspective. Combining that intel gain/loss and military gain/loss calculation is an important part of the process.” he told C4ISRNET. “This arrangement doesn’t have to exist forever, and while the issue is likely to come up in the Biden administration, now doesn’t seem like the right time to make such a change.”
Others believe the separation is necessary and will actually force certain processes to take place.
“[D]econfliction only occurs at a level of a 4-star who is extraordinarily busy. So it pretty much doesn’t occur. Separation would actually help as it would force creation of deconfliction processes vs adhoc meeting requests with the boss,” Dmitri Alperovitch, a cyber expert, chairman of Silverado Policy Accelerator and co-founder of CrowdStrike, tweeted Dec 19. Alperovitch is no longer with CrowdStrike.
Aaron Mehta, a reporter for Defense News, contributed to this story.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.