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Dual-leadership role at NSA and Cyber Command stirs debate

| Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, 9:03 p.m.

WASHINGTON — During suspected Iranian cyberattacks on the websites of commercial banks last year, Gen. Keith Alexander, who simultaneously heads the country's largest electronic spy agency and the military's Cyber Command, proposed a simple solution: Shut off the attacks at their source.

“We had the expertise and could have done something about it,” said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive discussions. “We're sitting on their networks overseas. Why don't we just turn it off?”

But the proposal to send a simple computer “reset” command to the attacking servers was ultimately rejected by National Security Council officials this year because the attacks were not causing enough harm to warrant an offensive response.

The episode shows the willingness — some say eagerness — of Alexander to use his authority to conduct offensive actions to fend off attacks against the private sector.

As he builds out Cyber Command at Fort Meade. Md., and other installations to a fighting force of 6,000 over the next three years, there are fresh questions about the wisdom of so much power residing in one “dual-hatted” official.

“The mashing together of the NSA and Cyber Command has blurred the lines between a military command and a national spy agency,” said Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution expert on evolving modes of warfare.

Alexander disagrees. “It's one network,” he said recently. “We all operate on the same network. You create more problems by trying to separate them and have two people fighting over who's in charge (of both missions) than putting it all together. I think our nation benefits from that.”

He said that other countries “do similar things.”

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