Since the Russian influence campaign in the 2016 presidential election, members of Congress have been at pains to get a singular answer from the executive branch agencies: how can the United States combat future efforts.
Senators tried to get an answer again Feb. 27 during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that focused on U.S. Cyber Command. Cyber Command primarily protects DoD networks and generates cyber effects for military commanders around the world.
Members grilled Adm. Michael Rogers, who leads Cyber Command, on what his organization can do to prevent such interference at its source.
One of Cyber Command’s primary missions is “to defend the United States against cyber threats to U.S. interests and infrastructure.” Within this role, Cyber Command has the Cyber National Mission Force, which are teams designed to protect the nation from cyber attacks of significant consequences.
National mission teams, aligned to the CNMF, are made up of 64 individuals and are typically aligned to a malicious cyber actor, meaning they are often in “red space.” This allows them to get a feel of the state actors they’re aligned to and get indications of warning before they act to allow other forces to set up their defenses. These teams are also posturing themselves to hold that threat at risk.
Several senators asked Rogers about Cyber Command’s use of these teams to combat Russia’s efforts to undermine America’s democratic process.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., entered into the record a letter he and his colleagues sent to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis asking that national mission teams be ordered to prepare to engage Russian cyber operators and disrupt their activities as they conduct clandestine influence operations against forthcoming elections.
Rogers noted that he has taken some steps within his existing authorities as a commander to direct the national mission teams to begin specific work in this space, but declined to offer more specifics in an open hearing. However, he added that he does not currently have the authorities to get at the origin of these attacks.
He said he would need authority from the president or the secretary of defense.
“With the authority or the direction of the president of the United States national mission teams can disrupt these attacks at the point of origin, is that correct?” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the panel’s ranking member asked.
“We could be tasked to do that,” Rogers said. “Again, it depends on the specifics, I don’t want to over-promise.” Rogers was also careful to note throughout his testimony that cyber incidents should not always be responded to in kind as other tools can also deter cyber attacks.