The next head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command will be taking charge in the face of what intelligence officials call the greatest strategic threat to the United States: Russia’s efforts to disrupt U.S. elections.
Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, who is widely expected to be confirmed this month, also will confront Russia’s aggressive targeting of the U.S. electrical grid and other critical infrastructure, and if directed would be responsible for providing the president and the defense secretary options to counter such provocations.
With distrust between Washington and Moscow at a new high, Nakasone will face a host of challenges leading two agencies on the front line of this new Cold War. The NSA has been shaken by several major breaches, a steady loss of technical talent and a controversial reorganization. CyberCom, now eight years old, has struggled to gel as a mature organization able to offer effective options for countering cyberthreats.
“Russia is the most significant national security threat facing Paul Nakasone at Cyber Command and NSA,” said Eric Rosenbach, a former Pentagon chief of staff and senior cyber official. “Given the escalating tensions between the United States and Russia, and the fact that they continue to hack key democratic institutions and conduct information operations, that makes Russia his top strategic concern when he assumes command.”
Nakasone, 54, cruised through two confirmation hearings, during which he said that, when it comes to Russia’s campaign against the United States, “the most important thing is we want the behavior to change.”
Nakasone, currently the commanding general of Army Cyber Command, said, “We want them to pay a price.”
In that, he is concurring with Adm. Michael S. Rogers, who is set to retire in April as the head of NSA and CyberCom, and who has testified that so far the United States’ actions to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 election have not changed its behavior.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, Nakasone was asked whether CyberCom, an organization he helped launch, had options to strike back against U.S. adversaries, including Russia. He said he knew that offensive plans “have been developed” and that, if confirmed, this would be one of “the early areas that I would look into.’’
When pressed by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Nakasone allowed that the United States’ adversaries in cyberspace “don’t fear us” because they “do not think that much will happen to them” as a consequence for their malfeasance. Asked if that was good, the general replied, “It is not good, senator.”
Beyond Russia, the NSA and CyberCom keep close watch on Iran and North Korea, from which numerous cyberattacks have originated. Colleagues, citing Nakasone’s reputation for creative thinking, say the general is well-suited for such an important task.
“He’s a smart, assertive leader,” said Kevin McLaughlin, Cybercom’s former deputy commander, who worked with Nakasone when he led its National Mission Force, whose task is to guard the nation against cyberattacks.
“He’ll need to propose innovative ways to defend the United States in collaboration with other elements of the government and with the private sector,” McLaughlin said. “I am confident Paul can do that.”
Naksone is calm, not one to berate subordinates, colleagues say. “He’s very patient and works people through things,’’ said an Air Force officer who was not authorized to speak on the record. “I’ve never seen him go head-to-head, but he wins all the important fights.”
Nakasone, commissioned in the Army more than 30 years ago, is a rare officer who comes to the job with a healthy grasp of cyber operations and signals intelligence — the sensitive work, performed by the NSA, of collecting and analyzing electronic communications overseas.
In addition to his role as the head of Army Cyber Command, Nakasone also leads Joint Task Force Ares, whose job is to combat the Islamic State in cyberspace. The task force, working with U.S. Special Operations Command, spy agencies and international partners, conducted Operation Glowing Symphony to sabotage the terrorist group’s online videos and propaganda. That set the stage for future operations, which SOCOM commander Gen. Raymond A. “Tony” Thomas III has heralded as having “provided devastating effects on the adversary.”
At CyberCom, Nakasone “was the most effective general officer in getting his organizations to develop real capabilities,” said Rosenbach, who was chief of staff to Defense Secretary Ash Carter in the Obama administration. “That was something that was a weak spot of CyberCom and still is one of the things that they need to develop.”
Rosenbach recalled how, in 2012, Iran was bombarding U.S. banks with massive denial-of-service assaults, threatening to cut Internet access to their websites. Nakasone, then in charge of the Cyber National Mission Force, took the lead on developing tools to push back, Rosenbach said.
“He came with a group of Army officers and gave a really amazing brief about capabilities that CyberCom had developed, Army Cyber in particular, and it was all under his leadership,” Rosenbach said. The details are classified.
One technique he used to great effect involved using a whiteboard to explain, for instance, how to mitigate a widespread denial-of-service attack. “If we wanted to get something done, especially in the Obama administration, you needed to have a concrete option which you could draw a picture for and explain to the lawyers how things were going to work,” Rosenbach said.
For close to a year, from 2009 to 2010, Nakasone led a quartet of colonels who were dubbed “the Four Horsemen.” Cloistered in a tiny eighth-floor office at the NSA, they hammered out the plan for the nation’s first cyberwarfare command. Nakasone helped sell to skeptical lawmakers and Pentagon officials the concept for a new fighting force whose weapons were ones and zeros, and whose battleground was cyberspace.
To explain how CyberCom would work, the group developed a storyboard that portrayed the complex concept in a way that was visual and easy to understand. It was used dozens of times to brief senior leaders in the Pentagon, at the NSA, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.
As the commander from 2002 to 2004 of a military intelligence battalion at Fort Gordon, Ga., which is part of the NSA, Nakasone oversaw the gathering of intelligence to help troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Retired Gen. Keith Alexander, then head of the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, supervised his work and gave him top marks.
“What I saw in his battalion, the way he led his people, the way they executed the mission, his personal involvement in their training — every aspect of it was great,” Alexander said.
As head of the Fort Meade Operations Center in Maryland, a post he held from 2007 to 2010, Nakasone was responsible for deploying NSA personnel into Iraq and Afghanistan in support of combat troops. Alexander, who by then had become the head of the NSA, was so impressed with his performance that he tapped him to be his executive officer when Alexander in 2010 became the first head of CyberCom.
“He’s humble,” former NSA deputy director Chris Inglis said. “He’s forthright. He supports his people. The most important thing is he’s the kind of person who will inspire you to your best efforts.”
That will be an important quality moving forward at Fort Meade, where the NSA and CyberCom are headquartered. In McLaughlin’s words, Nakasone will “be the face of two major organizations.” The NSA, where workplace morale is suffering and top talent is fleeing, has about 38,000 civilian and military hackers, analysts and other personnel, and about 17,000 contractors providing support. CyberCom has about 7,000 personnel.
A native of White Bear Lake, Minn., Nakasone is the son of a former U.S. Army interpreter who served during the occupation of Japan after World War II. His father, retired Col. Edwin Nakasone, was born in Hawaii to Japanese immigrants. If confirmed, Nakasone would become the first Japanese American to lead a major spy agency. Colleagues describe him as a family person, devoted to his wife, Susan, and four children.
Ashley Deeks, a University of Virginia law professor, noted the “ever-increasing call” for the U.S. government to be more assertive in responding to cyberattacks.
“There is a strong strain of thought” inside CyberCom that “the best defense is going to be a stronger offense,” she said.
Deeks said there are often larger policy questions that involve other agencies, such as the White House and State Department, but Nakasone, as the CyberCom head, “will surely play a very significant role in bringing that view to the table.”