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Pentagon Wants 4,000 More Hackers for Cyber Command

The Pentagon is dramatically ramping up its cyberwarfare team, multiplying the number of staffers in U.S. Cyber Command fivefold.
/ Source: TechNewsDaily

The Pentagon is dramatically ramping up its cyberwarfare team, multiplying the number of staffers in U.S. Cyber Command fivefold.

Unnamed U.S. officials told the Washington Post in a story published online yesterday (Jan. 27) that the increase in personnel from 900 to 4,900 had been requested by the head of Cyber Command, Army Gen. Keith Alexander.

Alexander is also head of the National Security Agency (NSA), the secretive, largely civilian spy agency run by the Pentagon.

The overall expansion plan, which has not been officially announced, includes the creation of three kinds of digital military forces.

"National mission" forces would defend computer systems and networks at critical-infrastructure facilities such as power plants and transport hubs; "cyber protection" forces would defend the Pentagon's own networks; and "combat mission" forces would develop offensive capabilities in conjunction with physical warfare planning.

Tiptoeing around the elephant in the room

One unnamed official told the Post that, for now, the national mission forces would only work overseas.

"There's no intent to have the military crawl inside industry or private networks and provide that type of security," the official said.

That makes little sense at first. But the official may have wanted to avoid igniting a political firestorm on Capitol Hill, where Senate Republicans have repeatedly blocked legislation that would let the Department of Homeland Security set security mandates for privately held critical-infrastructure facilities.

Democrats, on the other hand, are eager to pass such laws. President Obama is expected to soon issue an executive order that would create incentives for private facilities to voluntarily submit to DHS security mandates.

Last Wednesday, leading Senate Democrats introduced a bill that would affirm the Senate's desire to move forward on cybersecurity legislation, anticipating Obama's order.

The next day, top Obama allies emphasized the threat of cyberattack in public statements.

Secretary of State nominee Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., told a Senate committee that foreign hackers were " 21st century nuclear weapons." Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano warned a foreign-policy-oriented audience that a "9/11 in the cyber world" could happen "imminently."

Wanted: Beards, tattoos and kilts in the Pentagon

The Post said there was some concern about how quickly Cyber Command could find 4,000 security experts, both uniformed and civilian, who could pass the necessary security clearances.

Last year at the DEF CON hacker convention in Las Vegas, Alexander made a very blunt appeal to the hackers across America.

"In this room is the talent our nation needs to secure cyberspace," Alexander told the audience, which was peppered with wild beards, facial piercings, Mohawks and huge men wearing kilts. "This is our future. You can help share it."

Alexander didn't specify whether he was appealing on behalf of the NSA or of Cyber Command.

A page on the NSA website at the time sought to actively recruit DEFCON attendees, hinting that "a few, shall we say, indiscretions in your past" might not be insurmountable obstacles. The page has since been taken down.

The Post also said there were misgivings about how enmeshed Cyber Command would become with the NSA, which is run as a separate agency under Pentagon aegis.

Cyber Command's headquarters are not at the Pentagon in Virginia, but next door to NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. Its current personnel are seconded from all four Pentagon military branches, but until recently, the Post said, many staffers used NSA email addresses.

An unnamed military official told the post that Cyber Command needed to "sever" its ties to the NSA before it could become fully effective.