(Cyberwar.news) In response to the 9/11 attacks and the rise of cyber threats in the 21st century the Pentagon has created two new commands: Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, and Cyber Command, or CYBERCOM. But defense planners have a problem: They can’t decide which of these commands would take charge in the event the country was stricken by a surprise, massive cyberattack.
As reported by Defense One, a key Pentagon mission is to provide assistance during natural disasters and other domestic emergencies, but the Defense Department is unclear about which command would take the lead in responding to a massive data breach or cyberattack, according to Congress’ watchdog agency.
“In other words: When there is an Ebola virus epidemic, for example, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs steps in to help the civilian government. But it’s not clear what military official should organize forces when there is, for instance, a hospital computer virus unleashed by Iran,” Defense One reported.
NORTHCOM says that it is the main Pentagon support element that would be utilized to defend against foreign hackers in the U.S., but that position is at odds with policies and top military officials who counter that CYBERCOM would play the lead role in battling stateside cyber assaults that originated abroad.
Joseph W. Kirschbaum, Government Accountability Office director for defense capabilities and management, said that unless the Pentagon “clarifies the roles and responsibilities of its components,” the military “may not be positioned to effectively employ its forces and capabilities to support civil authorities in a cyberincident.”
In recent years CYBERCOM and the National Security Agency have put resources into dealing with privacy breaches at the Office of Personnel Management by Chinese hackers, as well as a destructive hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment by North Korean hackers.
“DOD officials stated that the department had not yet determined the approach it would take to support a civil authority in a cyberincident and, as of January 2016, DOD had not begun efforts to issue or update guidance and did not have an estimate on when the guidance will be finalized,” Kirschbaum said.
The Pentagon, by law, is to submit a plan by next month for how CYBERCOM to support civil authorities should in the event of a cyberattack by a national state, Defense One reported.
However, a concept plan developed by NORTHCOM, which has already been approved by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, says its commander would coordinate a civilian mission that “may include cyber domain incidents or activities – with other DoD components supporting in conducting the mission,” Kirschbaum said in an audit released earlier this week. At the same time, there is additional guidance directing CYBERCOM to be responsible for supporting civil authorities during a cyber attack, the report stated.
CYBERCOM officials have said that they believe the defense secretary would probably call on that command, instead of NORTHCOM, to respond during a cyber emergency, though NORTHCOM officials have said differently.
As of September, NORTHCOM officials stated “their command had not delegated this responsibility to another command.” And Pacific Command (PACOM) officials told the GAO that it would assume control in responding to a cybersecurity incident within its region of responsibility, with CYBERCOM playing a supporting role.
“The reasons for the discrepancies in roles and duties are due to the recent emergence of the cyberthreat, according to the report,” Defense One noted.
Cyberwar.news is part of the USA Features Media network.