Amidst the massive cyber hack of the U.S. government — apparently by Russia’s foreign intelligence service — the SVR, President Trump’s new leadership team at the Pentagon has presented the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) a proposal to split up the leadership of the National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM).
Currently, both the post of NSA director and CYBERCOM commander are held by General Paul Nakasone — in a “dual-hat” arrangement. Yet, Defense One reports that for years, “national security policy leaders have debated how and when to split that job into two positions.” The option was repeatedly weighed during the Obama administration.
The NSA is America’s top electronic intelligence collections agency, while CYBERCOM is the military’s organization tasked with carrying out offensive cyber operations against America’s enemies. These are often conflicting missions. The idea to split the leadership seems valid, but the timing is drawing scrutiny.
As Defense One notes, this move is “the latest push to dramatically reshape defense policy advanced by a handful of key political officials who were installed in acting roles in the Pentagon,” by Trump since the election.
While recently appointed acting Defense Secretary (SECDEF) Chris Miller is expected to sign off on the move, both he and the JCS Chairman General Mark Milley must still certify that the move — recently floated by then-Defense Secretary James Mattis — meets certain criteria laid out by Congress in 2016.
The future of the proposal therefore now rests with Milley. In July 2019, the General told Congress that the dual-hat leadership should be maintained. However, the WSJ also reported that a spokesman for Milley declined to comment on the General’s position. “Chairman Milley has not reviewed nor endorsed any recommendation to split Cybercom and NSA.”
While “the partnership between the two spy entities is vital to sharing intelligence and resources…” the Wall Street Journal explains the potential conflict:
… critics have said the arrangement can lead to bureaucratic headaches. Some officials also say the two agencies have dueling missions that are in conflict with one another because Cyber Command focuses on offensive operations while the NSA’s chief goal is intelligence collection. Some supporters of separation think that the two agencies are simply too critical and vast for one leader to manage.
Though other outgoing administrations have avoided implementing major changes during the transition period, notes Defense One, acting SECDEF Miller, his chief of staff Kash Patel, and Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Ezra Cohen-Watnick have sought significant policy changes with little over a month remaining in Trump’s term.
It is yet to be seen if the Trump Team will be able to push through this significant change. However, as the WSJ reported, there appears to be bipartisan opposition to making this move now.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse and Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, as well as Republican Representative Mike Gallagher, and Democrat Representative Jim Langevin Island said in a statement that the proposal lacks support in Congress.
“Regardless of whether it’s better to keep or end the dual-hat arrangement between NSA and CYBERCOM, now is not the time to do it,” they stated.