By Warren Strobel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration is preparing to elevate the stature of the Pentagon’s Cyber Command, signaling more emphasis on developing cyber weapons to deter attacks, punish intruders into U.S. networks and tackle adversaries such as Islamic State, current and former officials told Reuters.
Under the plan being considered at the White House, the officials said, U.S. Cyber Command would become what the military calls a "unified command" equal to combat branches of the military such as the Central and Pacific Commands.
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Cyber Command would be separated from the National Security Agency, a spy agency responsible for electronic eavesdropping, the officials said. That would give Cyber Command leaders a larger voice in arguing for the use of both offensive and defensive cyber tools in future conflicts.
Both organizations are based at Fort Meade, Maryland, about 30 miles north of Washington, and led by the same officer, Navy Adm. Michael S. Rogers.
A former senior intelligence official with knowledge of the plan said it reflects the growing role that cyber operations play in modern warfare, and the different missions of the Cyber Command and the NSA. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
A Cyber Command spokesman declined comment on the plan, and the NSA did not respond to requests for comment.
Established in 2010, Cyber Command is now subordinate to the U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees military space operations, nuclear weapons and missile defense.
U.S. officials cautioned that details of the plan, including some aspects of Cyber Command's new status, are still being debated.
It was unclear when the matter will be presented to President Barack Obama for final approval, but the former senior intelligence official said it was unlikely anyone would stand in the way.
A senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration was "constantly reviewing if we have the appropriate organizational structures in place to counter evolving threats, in cyber space or elsewhere."
"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," the official said.
The Pentagon acknowledged earlier this year that it has conducted cyber attacks against Islamic State, although the details are highly classified.
"We are dropping cyberbombs. We have never done that before," Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said in April.
The Washington Post reported last month that Pentagon leaders had been frustrated with the slow pace of Cyber Command's electronic offensive against Islamic State, militants who control parts of Iraq and Syria and have sympathizers and supporters worldwide.
In response, Rogers created Joint Task Force Ares to develop new digital weapons against Islamic State and coordinate with the Central Command, which is responsible for combat operations in the Middle East and South Asia.
The new task force has "the specific mission to accomplish cyberspace objectives in support of counter-ISIL operations," a Cyber Command statement said. Task Force Ares, it said, "comprises operations and intelligence professionals from each of the military services."
James Lewis, a cyber security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the plan that will be presented to Obama highlights how Cyber Command, reliant on the NSA in its early years, is developing its own work force and digital tools.
"It reflects the maturing of Cyber Command and its own capabilities," Lewis said.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter hinted at the higher status for Cyber Command in an April speech in Washington, in which he said the Pentagon is planning $35 billion in cyber spending over the next five years.
"Adapting to new functions will include changes in how we manage ourselves in cyberspace," Carter said.
NSA's primary mission is to intercept and decode adversaries' phone calls, emails and other communications. The agency was criticized for over-reach after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed some of its surveillance programs.
NSA's focus is gathering intelligence, officials said, often favoring the monitoring of an enemy's cyber activities. Cyber Command's mission is geared more to shutting down cyber attacks - and, if ordered, counter attacking.
The NSA director has been a senior military officer since the agency's founding in 1952. Under the plan, future directors would be civilians, an arrangement meant to underscore that NSA is not subordinate to Cyber Command.
(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by John Walcott and Grant McCool)