It was the fall of 2007, and I was at a briefing with the Director of National Intelligence – at the time, Adm. Mike McConnell – and Melissa Hathaway, the director of the Joint Interagency Cyber Task Force. We huddled in a secure, windowless room in the U.S. Capitol. I wasn’t surprised they were asking a member of Congress for money. I was surprised by how much they were seeking: about $17 billion.
It had been four years since I came to Congress. I was the first Democratic freshman assigned to the House intelligence committee and eventually chaired the technical and tactical subcommittee. It was a perfect match because my district – the 2nd district of Maryland – is home to Fort Meade and the National Security Agency.
Little did I know those emergency funds would be but a small down payment on a desperately-needed investment in our nation’s ability to defend itself in cyberspace. One decade later, we’re spending roughly $17 billion on cyber operations every two years and we have a unified combatant command dedicated to both our offensive and defensive threats. Cyber Command, co-located with NSA at Fort Meade, has been a game-changer.
In wars past, we used rifles and hand grenades. In the wars of today and tomorrow, keyboards and code will be the indispensable weapons in our arsenal, and the warriors at the Cyber Command will enable our troops on the battlefield.
Most of their victories will never make headlines, but we know the men and women of the Cyber Command are already making a difference. They joined the fight against the Islamic State in 2016. The Cyber Mission Force reached full operational capability in May 2019, and then supported a whole-of-government approach to combating election interference – successfully helping to curb Russian trolls from posting divisive messages on American social media during the midterms. They are also helping our private-sector partners defend their networks, with massive implications both for our national security and national economy. Last year, Cyber Command began posting unclassified malware samples that it has discovered on a public website, to help American companies protect themselves.
As we look ahead to the next decade, Congress must give the Cyber Command the resources it needs to invest in the development of better capabilities to prevent our adversaries from closing the gap. We also must protect these tools from leaks and ensure they are given proper controls and restrictions just as we give more conventional weapons of war. Make no mistake, cyber operations can inflict immeasurable, and sometimes, unintended, harm. The United States should continue to lead in areas where our adversaries’ morals fall short, like intellectual property theft and the targeting of civilian energy grid systems.
The Pentagon’s new cyber strategy makes clear that we need to work harder to stop threats before they reach U.S. networks. This notion of “defending forward” is a challenge and capability the Cyber Command must accept and conquer. Just as our Armed Forces fight extremists in the mountains and deserts overseas before an attack occurs here in the States, Cyber Command must be able to fight the fight on our adversaries’ turf – or, in this case, networks. This will empower us to not only defend ourselves better, but our allies.
These are complex challenges that require all lawmakers to engage with our intelligence community, to learn the details so that we can exercise our oversight and appropriating authorities. I regularly take freshmen members of the House of Representatives to Fort Meade – I strongly believe every member of Congress must see the mission up-close and meet the men and women behind the monitors. Only then can they fully understand the gravity of their task.
The development and maturation of Cyber Command may well be the single-most important investment we can make in the coming years and decades. To all the service members and civilians who make up the brain power of Cyber Command: congratulations on your 10-year anniversary, and keep up the good work.
To learn more about the ways Cyber Command has evolved over the last decade, download our series of essays that reflect on the origins and future of defend forward and hybrid warfare.
Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger is serving his ninth term in the United States House of Representatives for Maryland’s 2nd District.