NSA chief may take charge of military cybercommand

WASHINGTON — In an effort to protect the military's computer networks, the Obama administration is planning to put the leader of the nation's largest electronic spying agency in charge of a new military organization capable of launching attacks against enemy networks and power grids.

If confirmed by the Senate, Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, would take charge of the Pentagon's newly formed cybercommand and preside over a virtual army of computer technicians and network warfare specialists.

But even as the Obama administration presses the importance of cybersecurity and hails its nominee as an aggressive and innovative military intelligence officer, Alexander's confirmation has been delayed for nearly six months. Lawmakers have questioned whether the head of the NSA should lead a military unit and what, exactly, that new unit will be empowered to do.

Alexander is set to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee today but has already provided written responses to questions from lawmakers.

Among other things, he stated that, faced with a cyberattack, the military must be able to respond in kind. It is "reasonable to assume that returning fire in cyberspace" is lawful, as long as any actions comply with the laws of war, he said in a 32-page document.

At issue is how military and intelligence authorities guide the operations of any new cybercommand. U.S. policies governing cyberattacks and counterattacks lag the military's ability to conduct them.