The computer wizards at the national Security Agency's tightly guarded headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., think they know better than anyone just how vulnerable America is to a massive cyberattack. It's their job to monitor rogue activity on networks around the world. In recent years, hackers in Russia and China—possibly operating with government backing—have rummaged through U.S. and other Western data banks for sensitive information. Russia, in particular,has demonstrated a willingnessto wage cyberwarfare. It has launched hack attacks against uppity former Soviet satellites, including a blitz on Georgia last summer that knocked out its electronic banking system for 10 days, according to a NATO report obtained by NEWSWEEK.
To bolster U.S. defenses against a similar strike, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is weighing the creation of a new Pentagon Cyber Command. But the prospect has already sparked a turf war over NSA's role in the unit. One main goal of the new command, said a former senior U.S. official familiar with the debate who asked for anonymity when discussing a sensitive subject, is to get more help from NSA's computer geniuses on protecting U.S. networks. But except in rare circumstances, the NSA is supposed to stay out of homeland surveillance, and efforts to expand its domestic portfolio are almost always radioactive in Washington—as amply demonstrated by the recent controversy over alleged snooping on California Rep. Jane Harman. Indeed, during a rare public speech last week, NSA chief Keith Alexander said his agency does "not want to run cybersecurity for the U.S. government."
But NSA still expects a significant role. During the Bush administration, then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave an expanded cybersecurity role to U.S. Strategic Command, the Omaha-based military unit in charge of nuclear warfare and, according to the former official, Stratcom is loath to give it up. But Nebraska is hundreds of miles from NSA's experts in Maryland; some proponents of the new command think it would be silly to leave Stratcom in charge. Nevertheless, according to a senior defense official, who also asked for anonymity, current SecDef Robert Gates will "likely" place the new commandunder Stratcom, with a four-star Air Force general in charge. (NSA declined to make a further comment; Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Eric Butterbaugh said, "No decision has been made.")
In truth, the U.S. government isn't that worried about all-out cyberwarfare from China or Russia, because it would not be in their economic interests. What does scare the nation's top electronic spies is the prospect of a nongovernment actor—Al Qaeda, for example—developing the required expertise. And without the swift help of NSA's top geeks,the formersenior official said, "We're going to have a catastrophe."