Cybersecurity

House, Senate defense bills differ on cyber

U.S. Capitol Dome - Photo by the Architect of the Capitol

Last week, the House passed the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which would make significant changes to how the Defense Department approaches cyberspace and how it works with the private sector. The Senate is set to consider its own version of NDAA, which has key differences from the House bill, this week. The White House has threatened to veto the House bill.

Unlike the Senate version, the House bill would elevate U.S. Cyber Command to its own unified command -- a nod to the more prominent role in warfare that the Pentagon's computer operatives have taken in recent years.

The Obama administration objects to making the command's elevation a statutory requirement, arguing that defense officials should have the flexibility to make changes to the command's status. It is one of several reasons why the White House has threatened to veto the bill. A spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment on the administration's position on the Senate bill.

Peter Singer, a senior fellow at New America, told FCW that Cyber Command isn't fully ready for unified command status, but the shift will happen sooner or later. "It is important to start the transition by setting a clear timeline for it," he added.

The Senate's version of NDAA establishes an assistant secretary of Defense for information to oversee DOD network security and cyberwarfare activities. That person would also serve as DOD CIO.

"Cyber is the ultimate cross-cutting issue, but at present, responsibility for cyber is split between three different organizations" in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, a Senate summary of the bill states. The new assistant secretary position is an attempt to consolidate those overlapping roles.

Another ongoing policy debate is Cyber Command's relationship with its more powerful neighbor at Fort Meade, Md., the National Security Agency. The organizations have been led by the same official, in part to allow NSA's considerable capabilities to help Cyber Command mature.

A technology and privacy review panel appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013 advised against having the same person lead NSA and Cyber Command, but the administration rejected the recommendation.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter has defended the dual-hatted arrangement while leaving the door open to severing it once Cyber Command is fully developed.

But the Senate version of NDAA states that the Cyber Command/NSA union is in U.S. national security interests. The bill would forbid the DOD secretary from separating the organizations without certifying to Congress that doing so wouldn't hurt security.

Among the criteria to be considered when assessing Cyber Command's independence are the "sufficiency of command and control systems and processes for planning, de-conflicting, and executing military cyber operations, tools and weapons for achieving required effects," the Senate bill states.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is a former FCW staff writer.

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