Pentagon computer-network defense command delayed by congressional concerns

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Pentagon's plan to set up a command to defend its global network of computer systems has been slowed by congressional questions about its mission and possible privacy concerns, according to officials familiar with the plan.

As a result, the Defense Department failed to meet an Oct. 1 target launch date and has not held a confirmation hearing for the command's first director.

Although officials stress that the cyber command, as it is known, is an effort to consolidate existing offensive and defensive capabilities under one roof and involves no new authorities or broadening of mission, its potential for powerful new offensive capabilities -- some as yet unimagined -- have raised questions on Capitol Hill about its role, according to national security experts familiar with the concerns.

Key questions include: When do offensive activities in cyberspace become acts of war? How far can the Pentagon go to defend its own networks? And what kind of relationship will the command have to the National Security Agency?

The NSA has the skills and authority to encrypt military secrets and break enemy codes, but its involvement in the controversy over warrantless wiretapping several years ago has raised concerns about any role it will play in a cyber command.

Resolving questions about the command's mission are central not only to the effort to defend military networks, which come under assault millions of times a day, but to establishing the Pentagon's cyber strategy as the United States enters an era in which any major conflict will almost certainly involve an element of cyberwarfare.

"I don't think there's any dispute about the need for Cyber Command," said Paul B. Kurtz, a cybersecurity expert who served in the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations. "We need to do better defending DOD networks and more clearly think through what we're going to do offensively in cyberspace. But the question is how does that all mesh with existing organizations and authorities? The devil really is in the details."

Officials said the initial operating plan for a cyber command is straightforward: to merge the Pentagon's defensive unit, Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations, with its offensive outfit, the Joint Functional Command Component-Network Warfare, at Fort Meade, home to the NSA. The new command, which would include about 500 staffers, would leverage the NSA's technical capabilities but fall under the Pentagon's Strategic Command.

The plan also calls for beefing up "intelligence sensing," or the blocking of malicious software and codes entering military networks, officials said.

What level of defense?

But the plan becomes more complicated as policymakers assess how aggressive to be in their defense of military networks.

Data move at the speed of light along channels owned by commercial carriers, entering government networks at "gateways," or at the perimeter. Technology exists to detect malware at the gateways and in the commercial networks, but the ability to use that technology has given rise to policy questions.

One senior defense official said officials are trying to figure out, for instance, to what extent it is legal and desirable to remove malware outside the gateways as it heads to military networks.

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