What new documents reveal about Cyber Command’s biggest operation

What new documents reveal about Cyber Command’s biggest operation

New documents provide insight into the growing pains U.S. Cyber Command faced in building a force while simultaneously conducting operations.

The documents, which were released as part of a Freedom of Information Act request from the National Security Archive at George Washington University and later shared with journalists, are a series of internal briefings and lessons from the Defense Department’s most complex cyber operation at the time, Glowing Symphony.

That operation was part of the larger counter-ISIS operations — Joint Task Force-Ares — but specifically targeted ISIS’s media and online operations, taking out infrastructure and preventing ISIS members from communicating and posting propaganda.

While Cyber Command described the operation, which took place in November of 2016, as a victory in the sense that it “successfully contested [ISIS] in the information domain,” the documents demonstrate the extent to which the command was still learning how to conduct operations and the exact steps to follow.

“Process maturation is something they pull out a lot. Obviously, as CYBERCOM was standing up, it was pulling together plans for how they were going to operate. They actually hadn’t operated that much,” Michael Martelle, cyber vault fellow at the National Security Archive, told reporters. “A lot of these frameworks were formed in theory. Now they go to try them out in practice.”

Cyber Command leaders have stressed in public remarks that the command was building its force while operating. But the extent of those operations has been limited. Officials in recent years have explained that the command didn’t undertake many offensive operations. One official said last year he could count on less than two fingers the number of operations, Cyber Command conducted in the last decade or so. One member of Congress said DoD didn’t conduct an offensive cyber operation in five years.

But when they were in action, in this case with Glowing Symphony, Martelle said the documents show cyber leaders did not anticipate the amount of data they would access.

“They actually weren’t prepared for the amount of data they were pulling off of ISIS servers… CYBERCOM was not set up for an operation of this magnitude from day one,” he said. “They had to learn on the fly, they had to acquire on the fly, they had to grow on the fly.”

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