Official: Gates still considering cyber command

A DOD cyber command would not be responsible for civilian agency networks

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has not yet made a final decision about establishing a new major command in charge of cyber defense, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn said today.

A crowd of several hundred government, industry and academic officials gathered today at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington hoping to hear an announcement about the new command, which will coordinate efforts across the services to defend the newly recognized cyber domain.

However, Lynn said that “as of today, Secretary [Robert] Gates has not made a decision on this. The secretary is evaluating proposals,” and the joint staff is still ironing out details of how the organization will work and what the chain of command will be.

The command is a recognition that cyberspace is a new theater of operations, in addition to land, sea and air. It has been proposed as part of the administration’s reworking of the government’s cybersecurity initiatives.

The organization and duties of the new cyber command have not been finalized, but Lynn was very clear today about what the command would not be.

“Such a command would not represent the militarization of cyberspace,” Lynn said.

DOD will continue to focus on its .mil domain, while primary responsibility for the civilian .gov domain will remain with the Department of Homeland Security, he said. The private sector will be responsible for the rest of the country’s Internet infrastructure. He said DOD and the National Security Agency (NSA0 would be available to lend their expertise in cyber defense “in a way that upholds and respects our civil liberties.”

Lynn’s message was the same as that of NSA Director Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander at an industry gathering earlier this year, when he assured his audience that NSA had no desire to take over the non-national security portion of the country’s information infrastructure.

Some observers have expressed skepticism that DOD and NSA, which not only have a great depth of expertise in cyber defense but are developing offensive capabilities, would take a back seat to DHS and industry in protecting the interconnected online world.

Lynn said coordinating the efforts of the different sectors and overseeing their cooperation would be the job of the White House cyber coordinator, a position President Barack Obama announced last month.

The president is in the process of selecting the person who will fill that position, and some observers expect an announcement by the end of this month.

The cyber command will be a unified subcommand of the U.S. Strategic Command. As such it would not require legislation from Congress, but its commander would require Senate approval, Lynn said.

He emphasized the importance of networking to today’s DOD. “There is no exaggerating the military’s dependence on our networks,” he said. “Our twenty-first century military simply cannot function without them.”

The threat to those networks is not emerging, he said. “It is here today. It is here now. Our defense networks are constantly under attack.”

More than 100 foreign intelligence operations are trying to breach DOD networks, which are scanned millions of times a day. A number of countries are developing offensive capabilities, and terrorist and criminal organizations are also prying at the interfaces. In one of the most serious incidents, thousands of computers were compromised last year, and DOD banned the use of many removable memory devices in response.

Lynn said no lives have been lost to cyberattacks to date, but the cost of defending networks is increasing. DOD spent $100 million in six months last year defending .mil networks. Due in part to that constant pressure, the military has some of the best defensive capabilities on its networks, and each service has its own operational organizations.

“The DOD will defend its networks,” Lynn said. “It will protect this domain. [But] we need to do better.”

DOD is not producing the trained professionals it needs to defend its networks. Only 80 information technology security specialists graduate each year from its military academies. The proposed fiscal 2010 budget includes funding that would more than triple that number to 250 per year, Lynn said.

The military also must do a better job of overall training in cybersecurity and end the competition between commands for the limited manpower and resources now available in that field, Lynn said.

The new cyber command will coordinate the military services’ activities and establish the rules of engagement for responding to cyberattacks. Creating those rules is complicated by the fact that attacks in cyberspace can happen in a matter of milliseconds rather than days or even minutes, and responses must occur as close to real time as possible.

The effort is further complicated by the difficulty in attributing the source and goal of attacks. Although scans, probes and breaches sometimes can be tracked to computers in other countries, Lynn said officials are not able to attribute those incidents to a particular government or party, or say whether the intent was military, political or criminal.

Although the cyber command will restrict its activities to the .mil domain, Lynn stressed the need for better cooperation among the military, civilian agencies, the private sector and other countries.

About the Authors

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.


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