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National Security Agency Director Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander will lead the new cyber command.
National Security Agency Director Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander will lead the new cyber command. Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has created a new cyber command in the Pentagon as part of the Obama administration's focus on cyberdefense. The new command will be headed by the director of the secretive National Security Agency. Privacy advocates worry about the role of the NSA and the militarization of the Internet.
In a memo this week, Gates said the nation's increasing dependency on cyberspace, alongside a growing array of cyberthreats and vulnerabilities, adds a new element of risk to national security. The memo says a new command is necessary, capable of synchronizing war-fighting effects across the global security environment.
James Lewis, a cybersecurity analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says Gates' memo is a significant move for the Department of Defense.
"The significance is that it's a recognition by DOD of how important cyberspace has become for national security writ large and for how we fight wars in the future, so it's a big organizational step forward," Lewis says.
Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, now the director of the National Security Agency, will lead the new command.
The Defense Department has been low key about it. Analysts say that's to soothe concerns that it wants to take over the nation's computer networks. Privacy advocates worry about the role of the NSA, which monitors foreign communications and is not supposed to engage in domestic spying.
"People are leery about NSA having any sort of larger role and people are leery about this question of the militarization of the Internet. And even with DOD's statements, which I think are accurate, we're still going to have those concerns," Lewis says.
Many elements of cyberwarfare resemble the tactics of ordinary hackers. Viruses have been sent to disrupt civilian and military computers. Some 360 million attempts were made against Pentagon computers last year. Computers in Estonia and Georgia, which have had recent conflicts with Russia, were subject to denial-of-service attacks.
Herbert Lin of the National Research Council explains how such attacks work: "I get millions of other computers to make requests to this Pentagon Web site to get information from it, and they're all fake requests and they all happen to arrive at the same time, and in the meantime any legitimate request gets blocked out."
John Wheeler, who served as a special assistant to the secretary of the Air Force and helped formulate cyberwarfare strategy, says the U.S. has been getting mugged in cyberspace and that cyberattacks can do much to harm a potential adversary.
"There's a lot of things that could be done to break down the will of a nation by undermining and, so to speak, throwing sand in the gears of processes that the people depend on," he says. "It's a form of bombing or even fire-bombing populations to destroy their will."
Analysts draw analogies to nuclear weapons and the Cold War when discussing the role of cyberwarfare. But there has been little public guidance from the White House or Congress, Lin says.
"This is a subject that there has not been a lot of discussion about and we think that it's a subject that's way too important only to be discussed behind closed doors," he says.
Lin, who edited a National Research Council report on cyberwar, says oversight and rules of engagement for cyberweapons are inadequate. He and other analysts say it's time for a national debate over the role of cyberwarfare in U.S. defense strategy, not unlike that which occurred over nuclear strategy.