His ascension comes as the United States faces strategic threats from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. During his confirmation hearings, Nakasone was grilled on how he would position the agencies to confront mounting Russian aggression in cyberspace, whether through attempted interference in U.S. elections or targeting the electric grid and other critical industrial systems.
Nakasone has testified that it is not his role to set policy but to offer options to senior policymakers. He nonetheless acknowledged that when it comes to Russia’s campaign against the United States, “the most important thing is we want the behavior to change.”
He also said that a “series of offensive plans” have been developed to thwart Russian cyber aggression, but declined to detail them in public.
Nakasone currently leads Army Cyber Command, which is part of Cybercom, and over more than 30 years in the military he has acquired experience in cyberoperations and signals intelligence. The latter is intelligence derived from electronic systems used by foreign targets, such as computers, radars and weapons systems. The NSA’s mission is limited to gathering information about foreign terrorists, individuals and organizations.
Nakasone’s confirmation was briefly delayed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who wanted to know the general’s views on surveillance and privacy. He submitted replies to Paul last week, and Paul removed his hold, clearing the way for a Senate vote.
The new assignment also comes with a promotion to four-star general. A change-of-command ceremony is scheduled for May 4.
When Nakasone assumes leadership, Cybercom will be elevated to a full “unified” military command, on a par with organizations like Central Command and Strategic Command. Currently Cybercom and the NSA are led by the same individual, to ensure that the former gets the support it needs from the latter.
Nakasone testified that within 90 days of his confirmation he would determine whether Cybercom was ready to stand on its own and have its own leader separate from the NSA director.
The NSA has about 38,000 civilian and military personnel, and about 17,000 contractors providing support. Cybercom has about 7,000 personnel.
Rogers is retiring after 37 years of service. He began his career in 1981 as a surface warfare officer in the Navy and took up the NSA and Cybercom job in April 2014 after a major breach by Edward Snowden, then an NSA contractor, whose disclosures of sensitive surveillance programs rocked public trust in the agency and its relations with the private sector.
The effects of that and a series of other breaches still linger. Nakasone also faces the challenge of steering the agency through a controversial reorganization. Rogers launched the effort two years ago with the aim of better equipping the agency to confront the digital threats of the 21st century.