Trump administration is criticised over proposal to split cyber-operations leadership

The general who leads the US Cyber Command is also the director of the National Security Agency, the largest spy operation in the US. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Confronted with a vast cyberattack believed to have been carried out by Russia, the Trump administration is suddenly reviving an old idea: Strip the general who leads the US Cyber Command of his second title as the director of the National Security Agency, the country's largest spy operation.

The idea has been kicking around Washington for years, and the intelligence world has hotly debated its merits.

But a decision has always been put off because Cyber Command, the decade-old organisation that leads the military's offensive and defensive operations around the world, remains heavily dependent on intelligence provided by the NSA, the 68-year-old code-breaking agency.

But when the idea was revived in recent days with a recommendation en route to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, for action before President Donald Trump leaves office next month, it led to a firestorm of protest on Capitol Hill.

Democrats and Republicans alike say that the two institutions are too intertwined to be managed separately and that any unilateral action by the administration to change the current structure would violate legal requirements for extensive assessments before altering it.

They said it was also unclear how such a step, especially carried out hastily during a presidential transition, would help with the current crisis. The United States still has its hands full figuring out how far the Russians penetrated into government systems, what they acquired, how US defences failed and how to respond.

In national security circles, there is debate over whether this was another example of Mr Trump's diminishing staff trying to push through lasting changes in their final 30 days in office, or perhaps retribution against General Paul Nakasone, the four-star cyberchief who holds both posts.

No one doubts that the question of whether and how to separate the leadership of the organisations is worthy of consideration, if for no other reason than that Cyber Command and the NSA often have different instincts and objectives.

"The job is just too big for one person," said Mr Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of Silverado Policy Accelerator, who frequently dealt with both organisations as a founder of CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm.

But at a moment when investigators are about to begin examining how the two organisations performed in one of the greatest intelligence failures in modern times, it hardly seems to be the most urgent issue.

The next few months will be consumed with classified and public inquiries into how the SVR, the Russian intelligence agency believed to be behind the hack, got into the supply chain of US software unnoticed. And if proportionate retaliation is ordered, it will be up to Gen Nakasone to design and execute it.

Mr Ron Klain, the incoming White House chief of staff for President-elect Joe Biden, suggested for the first time Sunday (Dec 20) that a counterattack could be on the table.

"It's not just sanctions," he said on "Face the Nation" on CBS. "It's also steps and things we could do to degrade the ability of foreign actors to repeat this sort of attack."

That would fall to Gen Nakasone. He has made a strategy of "defend forward" or "persistent engagement" the hallmark of a more aggressive Cyber Command, determined to raise the cost of attacking the United States.

But the investigations are sure to focus enormous attention on how both the military command and the NSA, a spy agency of 40,000 or more employees, failed to detect the Russian action.

Gen Nakasone has made no public statements since the hack revelations. While the NSA made a public effort to explain itself after Edward Snowden revealed its deepest secrets seven years ago, in the last week it has gone to ground, much as it did when many of its cybertools were stolen in 2016 and published by a group called the Shadow Brokers.

If Gen Nakasone were limited by the proposal to one role, it would most likely be running Cyber Command, a military post. One frequently named candidate to lead the NSA is Mr Chris Inglis, a former deputy director of the agency and a visiting professor in cybersecurity at the US Naval Academy.

On Capitol Hill, word that the Pentagon was reviving the question of whether to end Gen Nakasone's dual command prompted quick rebukes.

"Our government is currently responding to a cyberincident where a sophisticated adversary had access to thousands of US networks," Senators Angus King and Ben Sasse, wrote in a statement Sunday that was joined by Representatives Mike Gallagher and Jim Langevin. "Now is not the time to do it."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.