McCain Leaves a Rich Cyber Legacy

The late senator pushed relentlessly for the government to develop a comprehensive cyber deterrence strategy.

Joseph Marks

By Joseph Marks,
Senior Correspondent

Shortly before Gen. Keith Alexander’s April 2010 hearing to be the first chief of U.S. Cyber Command, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., approached the general with a question.

During the 2008 presidential contest, when McCain was the Republican nominee, hackersrumored to be from China had breached his campaign’s computers. McCain wanted to know why.

Alexander responded that inside information about a presidential nominee’s private discussions would be highly valuable to U.S. adversaries and that a presidential campaign was an obvious hacking target.

“I think, for him, it raised the reality that cyber is more than just talk,” Alexander told NextgovMonday. “He had been a victim and that helped him make the leap to what do we do about this as a nation.”

McCain, who died Saturday at 81, had advocated a stronger Defense Department focus on cybersecurity going back to the early 2000s, according to former Pentagon officials. With the creation of U.S. Cyber Command, however, he became one of the strongest advocates on Capitol Hill for raising the posture of military and civilian cyber defenders.

As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee since 2015, McCain used Congress’ annual defense policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, to provide billions in military cybersecurity funding.

He used the NDAA to push for the elevation of Cyber Command to a full combatant command—a Defense command with a continuing mission through peace or war. He also used it to stymie Obama administration efforts to split CYBERCOM from its “dual hat” relationship with the National Security Agency, in which the agencies share the same leader.

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