What US Officials Say About Potential NSA-CYBERCOM Split?

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The Pentagon is seen in this aerial view in Washington, in this March 27, 2008 file photo. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

This is Part IV of a four-part series on the underlying issues surrounding the potential split of the NSA and Cyber Command. 

A number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill are vehemently opposed to severing the dual-hat position between the director of the National Security Agency and commander of US Cyber Command.

What are the prospects that the NSA and CYBERCOM will split in the final months of President Barack Obama’s final term?

“Let me be very clear, I do not believe rushing to separate the dual hat in the final months of an administration is appropriate given the very serious challenges we face in cyberspace and the failure of this administration to develop an effective deterrence policy,” Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain, R-Ariz., said during a hearing in September. “Therefore, if a decision is prematurely made to separate NSA and Cyber Command I will object to the confirmation of any individual nominated by the president to replace the director of the National Security Agency if that person is not also nominated to be the commander of Cyber Command.”

Part I: What would a CYBERCOM-NSA split mean?
Part II: What would an independent Cyber Command look like?
Part III: Does NSA support of CYBERCOM blur lines?

The Washington Post reported that Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Director of National Intelligence are pushing for the split as to reduce the tension regarding use of resources that are currently shared.

While noting that the close partnership and working relationship made sense at the beginning, Defense Secretary Ash Carter conceded during an appearance at a TechCrunch Disrupt fireside chat in September that “it’s not necessarily going to — the right approach to those missions overall in the long run. And we need to look at that and it’s not just a matter of NSA and CYBERCOM.”

Carter told the audience that there is no timeline for a decision on a split, noting that Congress is also examining this issue. However, Carter told reporters recently that “ultimately, whenever that decision is made, it will be made by the president, because both NSA and CYBERCOM ultimately report to the president. They’re part of the Department of Defense, but that’s a decision that only the president can take.”

Going forward, a full, standalone CYBERCOM separated from NSA might not rest on the Title 10 versus Title 50 legalities, Robert Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas, told C4ISRNET, noting there are significant legal complexities that are glossed over within this context. Rather, he said, the issue on whether to separate should rest upon policy equities.

For one, how things are paid for matters. It doesn’t make sense to spend a lot more money on two separate organizations if there will be a significant duplication of resources and action, he said. However, on the other hand, it might be necessary to split them to better tend these equities.

Former NSA director, retired Gen. Keith Alexander, said last year to FCW that in the near future, CYBERCOM will continue to share a leader with the NSA.

“If we separate them, two years later you’re going to put them back together. So don’t waste your time.”