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FILE PHOTO: An aerial view of the Pentagon building in Washington, June 15, 2005. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

(reuters_tickers)

By Idrees Ali and Warren Strobel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump is close to making a decision to elevate the status of the Pentagon's Cyber Command, signalling more emphasis on developing cyber weapons to deter attacks, punish intruders and tackle adversaries, current and former officials told Reuters on Thursday.

A current U.S. official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said Trump could make a decision as early as Friday. The official added that the timeline could be pushed back if the White House was dealing with more pressing issues.

The Pentagon and White House declined to comment.

Two former senior U.S. officials with knowledge of the plan said that the proposal awaiting Trump's approval would elevate Cyber Command and lead to a 60-day study to determine whether Cyber Command would be separated from the National Security Agency, a spy agency responsible for electronic eavesdropping.

That would lead to Cyber Command becoming what the military called a "unified command," equal to combat branches of the military such as the Central and Pacific Commands.

It would give Cyber Command leaders a larger voice in arguing for the use of both offensive and defensive cyber tools in future conflicts.

Currently, the NSA and Cyber Command organizations are based at Fort Meade, Maryland, about 30 miles north of Washington, and led by the same officer, Navy Admiral Michael Rogers.

NSA's focus is gathering intelligence, officials said, often favouring the monitoring of an enemy's cyber activities. Cyber Command's mission is geared more to shutting down cyber attacks and, if ordered, counter attacking.

The NSA director has been a senior military officer since the agency's founding in 1952. Under the plan, future directors would be civilians, an arrangement meant to underscore that NSA is not subordinate to Cyber Command.

Established in 2010, Cyber Command is now subordinate to the U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees military space operations, nuclear weapons and missile defense.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and James Dalgleish)

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