U.S. Cyber Warfare Unit Would Be Elevated Under McCain Plan

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Senator John McCain speaks to the media outside the Senate Chamber on March 16, 2016, in Washington.

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Getty Images
  • Senator to propose shift in Pentagon authorization bill
  • Russia has ability to seriously damage U.S. systems: official

A senior Republican senator said he wants to make the top U.S. military command fighting foreign hackers and defending computer networks a standalone organization as concerns about electronic security deepen.

The move to elevate the U.S. Cyber Command is needed to address the serious threat of hacking attacks to national security and will be proposed in the annual defense authorization bill, said Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

"We are looking seriously at it," McCain told reporters on Tuesday after a hearing in Washington on Cyber Command’s operations and proposed $500 million budget. "If you look at the dimensions of threat, it certainly deserves to have the highest level of attention and coordination in government."

McCain clarified comments made earlier indicating the unit should be formally separated from the National Security Agency. Cyber Command, which can conduct offensive operations, is a joint military office technically under the umbrella of a larger organization known as U.S. Strategic Command. Cyber Command was established in 2010 and aligned with the NSA in order to share resources and expertise. Admiral Michael Rogers leads both organizations, which are based at Fort Meade, Maryland.

While some lawmakers have suggested that Cyber Command and the NSA have separate leaders, McCain’s proposal would allow it continue to co-exist alongside the NSA and have the same commander.

$35 Billion

The Pentagon has proposed $35 billion in cyber investments over the next five years, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said during a speech in Washington Tuesday.

Carter emphasized that while technology gives the U.S. “great strengths and great opportunities” it also leads to “vulnerabilities that adversaries are eager to exploit.”

Rogers said during the hearing he believes Cyber Command should eventually be a standalone organization but is not ready to do so yet and still benefits from its relationship with the NSA.

McCain also said during the hearing that the Russian government was behind a cyber-attack on Ukraine’s power grid in December that left tens of thousands in the dark for several hours. After the hearing, McCain said he based his assessment on media reports and had no reason to doubt them. He said sanctions should be imposed on the persons responsible for the attack in retaliation. Russia has denied those allegations in the past.

Rogers said during the hearing that the Russian government also has the ability to seriously damage U.S. critical infrastructure through hacking attacks. He didn’t provide further details.

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