WASHINGTON — The Pentagon and intelligence community are expected to recommend soon to President Obama that he break up the joint leadership of the National Security Agency and US Cyber Command to create two distinct forces for electronic espionage and cyberwarfare.
The potential move is driven by a sense that the two missions are fundamentally different, that the nation’s cyberspies and military hackers should not be competing to use the same networks and that the job of leading both organizations is too big for one person.
Obama was on the verge of ending the ‘‘dual-hat’’ leadership in late 2013 but was persuaded to hold off when senior officials, including then-NSA director Keith B. Alexander, argued against it on the grounds that the two organizations needed one leader to ensure that NSA did not withhold resources from CyberCom.
Three years later, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper are pressing for the split, with Carter seeking to build Cyber Command into a full-fledged fighting force that has its own network accesses to conduct attacks. Clapper, officials said, supports the idea in part to reduce tension over which force gets to use the networks.
And with the White House apparently eager to get it done before Obama’s term ends, some officials said that the decision appears all but certain.
Carter and Clapper also favor having a civilian in charge of the NSA, as at CIA. That would be a break from tradition. Since its inception in 1952, the NSA has been led by a military officer.
The proposed decision reflects a growing debate over how to organize military cyberoperations as they mature and diverge from the intelligence realm that birthed them.
Admiral Michael Rogers, currently the head of the NSA and CyberCom, last week told an audience at the Intelligence & National Security Summit that ‘‘I believe in the long run the right thing is to keep these two [organizations] aligned, but to separate them.’’
But on Tuesday, Rogers clarified his remarks to suggest now was not the time.
At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the chairman, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, noted that Rogers earlier this year supported retaining the ‘‘dual-hat’’ relationship. ‘‘Is it still your professional advice’’ that such an arrangement is in CyberCom’s best interests? McCain asked. ‘‘Yes,’’ Rogers replied.
McCain also issued a warning to the administration. If it separated the two organizations, McCain said, he would oppose any nominee put forward to head the NSA if that person is not also picked to lead Cyber Command.
Cyber Command, established in 2009 inside NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., has long depended on the spy agency’s capabilities. NSA and Cyber Command personnel sit side-by-side and use the same networks that were built by the agency.
But following revelations of NSA surveillance programs by former contractor Edward Snowden, a presidential commission recommended that NSA and Cyber Command be separated, arguing that the intelligence-gathering and combat functions have distinct targets and purposes. The spies want to steal information without getting caught. The fighters want to disrupt systems and don’t mind if the enemy knows who did it.
Carter has brought Cyber Command into the fight against the Islamic State and wants it to act openly, like other military commands, rather than as the annex of a highly secretive spy agency. He also wants Cyber Command to control the resources it needs.
‘‘Whether or not it’s true, the perception with Secretary Carter and [top aides] has become that the intelligence agency has been winning out at the expense of [cyber] war efforts,’’ said one senior military official, who like other officials interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Pentagon declined to comment.
‘‘We are constantly reviewing if we have the appropriate organizational structures in place to counter evolving threats, in cyberspace or elsewhere,’’ one senior administration official said. ‘‘While we have no changes to this structure to announce, the relationship between NSA and Cyber Command is critical to safeguarding our nation’s security.’’
Some former officials believe that Cyber Command can never be fully independent of the NSA and that it makes no sense to cleave one from the other.
‘‘When you have two organizations whose missions overlap or touch, unless you have some way to control both of them, then they will instantly go to war with each other,’’ one former senior intelligence official said.
‘‘Cyber Command’s mission, their primary focus, is to degrade or destroy,’’ the former official said. ‘‘NSA’s is exploit [to gather intelligence] only. So without having one person as the leader for both, the bureaucratic walls will go up and you’ll find NSA not cooperating with Cyber Command to give them the information they’ll need to be successful.’’
On Capitol Hill, the Senate Intelligence Committee has put language in its 2017 intelligence authorization bill that bars the NSA director from serving at the same time as the Cyber Command head.