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NSA and Cyber Command to coordinate actions to counter Russian election interference in 2018 amid absence of White House guidance

Paul Nakasone, director of the National Security Agency and commander of U.S. Cyber Command, has quietly directed the two organizations to coordinate actions to counter potential Russian interference in the 2018 midterm elections. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

The head of the nation’s largest electronic spy agency and the military’s cyberwarfare arm has directed the two organizations to coordinate actions to counter potential Russian interference in the 2018 midterm elections.

The move, announced to staff at the National Security Agency last week by NSA Director Paul Nakasone, is an attempt to maximize the efforts of the two groups and comes as President Trump in Helsinki on Monday said Russian President Vladi­mir Putin was “extremely strong and powerful” in denying Russian involvement in the presidential election two years ago.

It is the latest initiative by national security agencies to push back against Russian aggression in the absence of direct guidance from the White House on the issue.

“Nakasone, and the heads of the other three-letter agencies, are doing what they can in their own lanes, absent an overall approach directed by the president,” said Michael V. Hayden, who has headed the NSA and the CIA. “As good as it is, it’s not good enough. This is not a narrowly defined cyberthreat. This is one of the most significant strategic national security threats facing the United States since 9/11.”

After his Helsinki comments, President Trump said he accepts U.S intelligence findings on Russia's election interference, but it "could be other people also." (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

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Nakasone, an Army general who became the chief of both NSA and U.S. Cyber Command in April, told Congress in his confirmation hearings earlier this year: “The most important thing is we want the [Russians’] behavior to change. . . . We want them to pay a price.”

He added that one of the most disturbing facts is that the United States’ adversaries, including Russia, “don’t fear us.”

On Friday, the same day that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III announced the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers for hacking Democrats’ emails, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats issued a new alert on Russia. “The warning lights are blinking red again,” he said, also likening them to the danger signs that presaged the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack,” he said, adding that if Russia continues to assault the United States in cyberspace, the government should “throw everything we have got into it.”

On Monday, after Trump’s remarks, Coats felt compelled to issue a statement reiterating the intelligence community’s January 2017 assessment that Russia interfered in the presidential election and noted its “ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”

The NSA and Cyber Command declined to comment.

A spokesman for the National Security Council, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “The NSC has regular and continuous meetings to coordinate a whole-of-government approach to foreign malign influence and election security. There continue to be briefings with the President, engagement at all levels of government, and coordination with state and local governments.”

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Nakasone wants to better coordinate NSA intelligence-gathering on Russian cyberactivities and CyberCom’s plans to thwart Kremlin operations.

When directed by the president or defense secretary, the military unit, located at Fort Meade with the NSA, may also take offensive action such as disrupting an adversary’s computer networks.

“This is just Paul Nakasone being a good leader, and under the theory of ‘never let a good crisis go to waste,’ using that to bring the two teams closer together,” said Richard Ledgett, who retired last year as NSA deputy director.

The joint CyberCom-NSA Russia group is working with the FBI, the CIA and Department of Homeland Security, each of which has its own initiative to detect and deter Russian influence operations. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray last year set up the foreign-influence task force to counter such attempts. It works closely with DHS, which has its own task force focused on election security — with an eye to the midterms — and has worked with state and local authorities on the issue.

The agencies are working within their own authorities, but “the lack of presidential guidance to address this as a national problem impedes the ability” to carry out a more robust and effective effort — one that aligns resources and results, said a former senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

The Russian assault on the U.S. election was “an attack from an unexpected direction against a previously unappreciated weakness,” said Hayden, who explores this theme in a new book “The Assault on Intelligence.” “It hit a seam between law enforcement and intelligence, between ‘sigint’ [electronic spying] and ‘humint’ [human spying], between state and federal agencies, between politics and policy.”

The government had no agency, no plan or strategy to counter such a threat, he said.

At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last month, Victoria Nuland, former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said that, “While the Trump administration has taken some important sanction steps to punish Russia for past actions, strengthen Cyber Command, and harden our electoral infrastructure, it has not launched the kind of presidentially led, whole-of-government effort that’s needed to protect our democracy and security for malign state actors who are intent on weaponizing information and the Internet.”

She called for the establishment of a multiagency fusion center modeled after the National Counterterrorism Center to pool information and resources, to identify and expose and to respond to foreign government attempts to undermine U.S. democracy through disinformation and cyberattack.

Repeatedly pressed last year and this year by Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services committee, on whether they had been given any direction by the president to counter Russian interference, a number of senior administration officials — including then-NSA Director Michael S. Rogers — acknowledged they had not.

Current and former senior administration officials have suggested that the intelligence community is conducting covert operations to deter Russia.

Friday’s indictment reflected “an astonishing amount of information” gathered on senior officers in the Russian military, including search terms used by the hackers on servers in Moscow, which indicates an ability to get into their digital systems, according to Michael Carpenter, a former senior Pentagon and White House official who worked on Russia policy. “If I were the Russians I’d be very nervous about that.” But, he said, “it doesn’t mean we have taken action.”

Congress, meanwhile, is considering a measure allowing the president to authorize Cyber Command to disrupt any Russian election interference and social media manipulation operations outside the United States — a form of political pressure as the president does not need the authority to act. The Senate has passed the provision, contained in the National Defense Authorization Act, and is negotiating it with the House.