The Cable

Trump Elevates Cyber Command

The long-awaited move bolsters the authority of the chief of America’s military hackers.

FT. MEADE, MD - UNDATED: (FILE PHOTO)    This undated photo provided by the National Security Agency (NSA) shows its headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. The NSA has been secretly collecting the phone call records of millions of Americans, using data provided by telecom firms AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, the newspaper USA Today reported on May 11, 2006.  (Photo by NSA via Getty Images)
FT. MEADE, MD - UNDATED: (FILE PHOTO) This undated photo provided by the National Security Agency (NSA) shows its headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. The NSA has been secretly collecting the phone call records of millions of Americans, using data provided by telecom firms AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, the newspaper USA Today reported on May 11, 2006. (Photo by NSA via Getty Images)

President Donald Trump announced a bureaucratic shift on Friday to increase the power and independence of U.S. Cyber Command, giving the military unit more power to wage digital warfare against adversaries.

The long-awaited move elevates U.S. Cyber Command as a so-called unified command, granting its commander additional decision-making and purchasing power. The decision by Trump signals a recognition of the increasing importance of cyberspace operations to the American military.

The reorganization places Cyber Command on an equal footing with other major military commands, such as Pacific Command and Central Command. The NSA and Cyber Command will continue to share the headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., outside Washington, and to be lead by the same commander, currently Adm. Michael Rogers, a veteran military intelligence officer.

“The elevation of United States Cyber Command demonstrates our increased resolve against cyberspace threats and will help reassure our allies and partners and deter our adversaries,” Trump said in a statement.

Previously, Cyber Command was subordinate to Strategic Command, which oversees, among other things, the American nuclear arsenal.

Created in 2009, Cyber Command currently shares resources, headquarters, and its commander with the National Security Agency, America’s premier signals intelligence agency. By co-locating Cyber Command with NSA, policymakers hoped that military hackers could learn from their NSA counterparts in standing up a new unit.

Eight years after the creation of Cyber Command, its relationship with the NSA has come under strain. The two organizations have sometimes competing objectives — for the NSA to collect intelligence, and for Cyber Command to achieve military objectives in cyberspace.

This tension came to the fore when President Barack Obama last year ordered Cyber Command to take more aggressive action against the Islamic State in cyberspace. While military operators could easily shut down Islamic State communication infrastructure, the NSA sometimes preferred to snoop on those systems rather than kill a server that could be easily recreated elsewhere away from the agency’s prying eyes.

Trump’s order does little to settle this tension, as the two units will continue to be co-located and share a commander.

Trump’s order directs the secretary of defense to examine separating Cyber Command and the National Security Agency. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act requires that the secretary of defense and joint chiefs of staff certify that such a split would not undermine American capabilities in cyberspace.

Photo by NSA via Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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