The Marines’ next cyber chief is stuck in a pileup of nominations in the Senate
President Joe Biden’s expected pick to helm the U.S. Marine Corps’ digital warfighting branch is caught in a monthslong hold on senior military promotions and nominations in the Senate led by a Republican lawmaker.
Maj. Gen. Joseph “Jay” Matos has been tapped to assume command of Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command, according to three people familiar with the decision. Matos, the organization’s deputy chief, was nominated for his second star in December. The full Senate approved his promotion — an indication he would take the top spot — by voice vote days later.
However, current commander Maj. Gen. Ryan Heritage — who was nominated in March for his third star and the post of the service’s deputy commandant for information at the Pentagon — is one of more than 200 promotions being blocked by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, creating a pileup.
The Alabama Republican, a member of the Armed Services Committee, has put a blanket hold on military promotions to force the Pentagon to reverse new policies that allow troops to be reimbursed for travel expenses and receive leave to obtain abortions and other reproductive care.
Tuberville has refused to relent, despite a pressure campaign, including a letter by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin released on Tuesday that warned continued opposition to general and flag officer promotions is a “perilous precedent” for the military.
“Ultimately, the breakdown of the normal flow of leadership across the Department’s carefully cultivated promotion and transition system will breed uncertainty and confusion across the US military,” Austin wrote in response to a request from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
“This protracted hold means uncertainty for our service members and their families and rising disquiet from our allies and partners, at a moment when our competitors and adversaries are watching.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) said on Wednesday that he doesn’t back Tuberville’s blockade.
“No, I don't support putting a hold on military nominations. I don't support that. As to why, you need to ask Senator Tuberville,” McConnell told reporters during a Capitol Hill press conference.
Senate Democrats tried again Wednesday night to break Tuberville’s barricade but he was on hand to object.
“In America, those with the broadest shoulders guard those with the nearest, yet the Biden administration wants to mobilize our military against the weakest and the most defenseless: the unborn. I believe that is wrong,” he said on the chamber floor.
Tuberville called on Austin to “suspend” the October 2022 memo that laid out the policies.
“That's all he has to do. Drop your memo and these nominees will proceed by unanimous consent. I'm a man of my word. I'll stand down,” he said.
Chamber rules allow a single senator to indefinitely block personnel moves. The only alternatives are to use floor time to confirm each promotion individually or alter the confirmation process.
Should Tuberville eventually back down — and Heritage and Matos are allowed to assume their new roles — it would place someone well-versed in digital operations atop the Marines’ cyber branch.
Matos joined the command as its No. 2 last year. He has also served as the deputy chief of Joint Task Force Ares, a special unit created in 2016 to develop digital weapons to fight the Islamic State online that was handed over to the Marines in 2018. Its mission has expanded to focus on nation-state actors, most notably those in the greater Indo-Pacific region.
Prior to joining the command — which is located at Fort Meade, Maryland, along with U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency — Matos was the director of Information, Command, Control, Communications and Computers for the Marines at the Pentagon.
Before that he served as a top cyber adviser at U.S. Space Command and as the head of the Information Environment Division at Marine Forces Pacific.
Matos also led the Defense Information Systems Agency Pacific, which is responsible for operating and defending DoD networks in the Pacific.
The Marine Corps referred a request for comment for this story to the Pentagon. A DoD spokesperson declined to comment, citing Austin's letter.
The Nakasone angle
Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, is one of 64 three- and four-star personnel due to rotate within the next 120 days, according to Austin’s missive.
The Record reported last month that George Barnes, the NSA’s longtime deputy director, intends to retire — a precursor to other leadership changes at the spy agency and Cyber Command, including Nakasone’s departure.
Last year Nakasone, 59, was asked by the Biden administration to stay on the job for at least one more year. But his future was recently tangled up in the process for picking the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Nakasone was the Army’s submission to be the country’s next top military officer, though multiple reports say the post will go to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.
Once that contest has formally concluded, the Pentagon can turn to examining where personnel backups have occurred at its 11 combatant commands.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Timothy Haugh is widely viewed as Nakasone’s successor.
However, a person familiar with the matter said another reason for the silence about Nakasone’s future is that Austin has raised questions about the long-held assumption that Haugh, Nakasone’s current deputy, would get the job and wants to make sure other candidates get a fair hearing.
Speaking to reporters last week after his closing keynote address at Vanderbilt University Summit on Modern Conflict and Emerging Threats, Nakasone demurred when asked about his plans.
“I won't get ahead of the president or the secretary on this,” he said. “I get up every morning really excited to lead these organizations.”
Martin Matishak is a senior cybersecurity reporter for The Record. He spent the last five years at Politico, where he covered Congress, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community and was a driving force behind the publication's cybersecurity newsletter.