Washington's top cyber warrior said Tuesday that the time has come to elevate the status of U.S. Cyber Command, arguing the move would make efforts more effective against a variety of threats, including the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
"A combatant commander designation would allow us to be faster, which would generate better mission outcomes," Cyber Command's Admiral Michael Rogers told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
U.S. Cyber Command is a branch of the armed forces that centralizes command of cyberspace operations and defends the information security environment. Upgrading it to combatant command would put it on par with the most powerful institutions in the Defense Department.
Rogers said such upgraded capabilities would be critical as a growing number of U.S. enemies are looking at the possibility of using cyber capabilities to do more than steal data or disrupt online communications.
"What happens if the nonstate actor, ISIL being one example, starts to view cyber as a weapons system?" Rogers asked, using an acronym for the terror group. "It's certainly not beyond their ability."
Speaking separately in Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said giving Cyber Command a more prominent role is under consideration.
"The world is getting more integrated, so we've got to get more integrated, too," Carter said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, citing IS as an example.
"These guys are really using this tool, and we need to take it away from them," he said.
"It means interrupting the ability to command and control their forces, interrupting their ability to plot," Carter said, calling the anti-IS effort Cyber Command's "first wartime assignment."
"We're seeing how that works out," he added.
Established in 2009, Cyber Command became fully operational in 2010, but has been focused on providing support to nine main unified commands, most of which are organized along areas of geographic responsibility, such as Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees U.S. military operations against IS in the Middle East and South Asia.
Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCain said Tuesday that he would push for the change in the upcoming budget bill, and criticized the Obama administration for being "detached from reality" on the country's cyber policies.
"For years, our enemies have been setting the norms of behavior in cyberspace while the White House sat idly by, hoping the problem would fix itself," McCain said.
Other lawmakers cited a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, issued Monday, which criticized the Defense Department for failing to "clarify the roles and responsibilities of key DOD entities … that may be called upon to support a cyber incident."
Defense and intelligence officials have long credited IS with using the internet to recruit new members and burnish its reputation among would-be jihadists. There is also growing concern that the group is successfully using encrypted websites to get information from operatives in Europe and then send instructions for possible terror attacks.
"It certainly has been able to weaponize cyber in the sense that it fully views its media operations as completely part of the overall campaign," said Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
One favorite tactic, she said, has been for IS to use cyber to elicit "calculated provocations" to get its enemies to act in ways it wants.
Gambhir said the spate of videos showing the beheadings of Western hostages in August 2014, which pushed the United States to start launching airstrikes in Syria, is just one example.
“At the time the question was: Why would ISIS want this?” she said. “The answer was, that put ISIS in a position whereby … it could claim it was the leader of Sunni against Western aggression in Syria, which proved to be an incredibly useful recruiting tool.”