Democrats cry alarm over proposal to split up NSA, Cyber Command amid hacking crisis

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Pentagon officials are making an 11th-hour push to potentially break up the joint leadership of U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, a move that would raise inevitable questions about Army Gen. Paul Nakasone’s future as head of the country’s largest spy agency.

Five people familiar with the matter told POLITICO that senior Defense Department leaders are reviewing a plan to separate the two agencies, a move lawmakers and DoD had contemplated for years but had largely fallen by the wayside since Nakasone assumed command of both organizations in 2018. The Wall Street Journal reported that a meeting about the proposal is scheduled for this week. Defense One first reported the effort was afoot.

If successful, the move could create major upheaval just as national security officials try to determine the full scope of a monthslong hack of several major U.S. agencies — including Homeland Security Department and the nuclear weapons branch of the Energy Department — by Russia’s elite spy agency.

Trump “talking about trying to split up the cyber command from the national security agency, in the midst of a crisis to be talking about that type of disruption makes us vulnerable again,” House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said Saturday night during an interview with CNN.

On Friday, Smith sent letters to acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, warning them against severing the leadership of NSA and Cyber Command. The two agencies have shared leadership under a so-called dual-hat arrangement since the Pentagon stood up Cyber Command in 2009.

Nakasone has led the military’s top digital warfighting unit and the federal government’s largest intelligence agency for roughly two and a half years. He has re-imagined how both organizations can deploy their own hackers and analysts against foreign adversaries via a doctrine of “persistent engagement” — putting U.S. forces in constant contact against adversaries in cyberspace, including tracking them and taking offensive action.

The four-star is beloved by both Democrats and Republicans, especially after defending the 2018 and 2020 election from foreign interference. Some lawmakers even joke they wish they could put Nakasone in charge of more parts of the federal government.

Trump, meanwhile, has churned through the leadership of several federal agencies since losing the presidential election last month, including the Pentagon and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. The president fired the agency’s widely-respected chief, Chris Krebs, last month via Twitter.

Breaking up Cyber Command and NSA is now prohibited under a previous defense policy bill. The measure says the two cannot be split unless the Defense secretary and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff jointly certify that such a move won’t hinder the effectiveness of Cyber Command, which is co-located with NSA at Fort Meade, Md.

A Democratic congressional staffer said there is concern on Capitol Hill that Miller and other DoD leaders might simply state that the assessment is complete in order to ram the split through without going through the required steps.

A defense official cautioned that even if the leadership change should go through, President-elect Joe Biden and his defense team could simply reverse the decision and rejoin the offensive digital unit and the intelligence gathering organization.

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