Cyber Command's congressional commotion

Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander's confirmation hearing highlights the murky nature of cyber operations

Computer security is a complex topic often complicated by incomprehensible variables that are compounded by incomparable unknowns. In short, it’s a real conundrum.

That’s the basic take-away from the recent confirmation hearing of Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency and President Barack Obama’s pick to lead the new Cyber Command.

In addition to his April 14 appearance on Capitol Hill, Alexander provided the Senate Armed Services Committee with a 32-page document in response to questions submitted by committee members. In print and in person, Alexander attempted to clarify the rules of engagement for cyber operations.

With that in mind, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the committee, proposed a series of hypothetical situations and asked Alexander how his command would respond.

The basic question was this: If U.S. forces are engaged in a traditional conflict with a country, under what authority would the Cyber Command conduct its operations? The answer was straightforward: Title 10 authorities under an executive order that supports the particular regional commander.

But what if an adversary launches a cyberattack via the network of a neutral party? How does that change the rules of engagement?

“That does complicate it,” Alexander said.

His answers to the Senate’s questions “reflect the murky nature of the Internet and the escalating threat of cyber terrorism, which defies borders, operates at the speed of light and can provide deep cover for assailants who can launch disruptive attacks from continents away, using networks of innocent computers,” writes Lolita Baldor of The Associated Press.

That murkiness might explain the Senate’s rationale in dragging out the confirmation process for Alexander, who was nominated in October. The unusually long delay in scheduling a confirmation hearing “is evidence of the intense behind-the-scenes debate over the command’s role, missions, authorities and safeguards,” writes Thom Shanker in the New York Times.

But the committee’s concerns about the Cyber Command will not be solved by appointing — or delaying — a cyber commander.

Committee members seemed to agree that it was up to the president and Congress to identify and address current gaps in the laws and regulations and provide “clear parameters for the Cyber Command to abide by,” according to Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy.

The good news for the Obama administration is that Alexander is likely to be confirmed. Whatever concerns the senators had, Ricks writes, “one thing never questioned was Alexander’s competence.”

About the Author

John S. Monroe is the editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week.

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