WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates plans to nominate the director of the National Security Agency to head a new Pentagon Cyber Command, which will coordinate computer-network defense and direct U.S. cyber-attack operations, according to a draft memo by Mr. Gates.
The move comes amid rising concern in the government about attacks on U.S. networks. The command will run military cybersecurity operations and provide support to civil authorities, according to the memo reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
NSA Director Keith Alexander, a three-star general, is expected to earn a fourth star when he moves to his new job at the Cyber Command. The memo doesn’t state that directly, but says that his deputy at the new command will be of a three-star rank. It isn’t clear who will succeed him at the NSA.
The Department of Homeland Security is charged with securing the government’s nonmilitary networks, and cybersecurity experts said the Obama administration will have to better define the extent of this military support to Homeland Security. “It’s a fine line” between providing needed technical expertise to support federal agencies improving their own security and deeper, more invasive programs, said Amit Yoran, a former senior cybersecurity official at the Homeland Security Department.
The new command is necessary, the memo says, because “our increasing dependency on cyberspace, alongside a growing array of cyber threats and vulnerabilities, adds a new element of risk to our national security.” At least initially, it will be part of U.S. Strategic Command, which is currently responsible for securing the military’s networks and waging attacks on the Internet.
An announcement of the new command is expected after the Obama administration finishes its recommendations for cybersecurity policy, which could come as soon as next week.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Mr. Gates is “planning to make changes to our command structure to better reflect the increasing threat posed by cyber warfare,” but “we have nothing to announce at this time.” The NSA referred calls to the Pentagon.
Mr. Morrell said cybersecurity is a major priority for Mr. Gates and his 2010 budget proposal calls for hiring hundreds more cybersecurity experts.
Gen. Alexander sought to quell concerns about NSA’s role in domestic cybersecurity in a speech Tuesday at a computer-security conference in San Francisco.
“We need to dispel the rumors,” he said, adding that NSA didn’t want to run all the government’s cybersecurity operations but would help Homeland Security secure government civilian networks. NSA has “tremendous technical capabilities,” he said. “What we need to do now is learn how to use that.”
Gen. Alexander also catalogued a few of the “things that are broken” in the government’s efforts to protect its networks. The government can’t monitor intrusions on its networks in a timely manner. It detects compromises of private-sector networks but sometimes can’t disclose the problem because its information is classified.
The new command will be located in Maryland at Fort Meade, which is home to the NSA’s headquarters just outside of Washington. It will open by October, according to the memo, and will be at full strength the following year.