Nakasone has been asked to remain at helm of NSA, Cyber Command
Image: U.S. Cyber Command
Martin Matishak and Dina Temple-Raston May 5, 2022

Nakasone has been asked to remain at helm of NSA, Cyber Command

Nakasone has been asked to remain at helm of NSA, Cyber Command

NASHVILLE — U.S. Cyber Command and National Security Agency chief Gen. Paul Nakasone has been asked to remain in his post for another year, according to two senior defense officials, extending a four-year term that has seen the organizations expand their missions to include election security and combating ransomware.

The extension does not require any formal congressional confirmation. Rather, it represents a mutual understanding reached between the White House, the Pentagon, Nakasone and, possibly, some senior lawmakers.

Appointments are never done until they are done, still, the renewal is a vote of confidence for Naksone, 58, who reimagined Cyber Command, turning it into one of the Pentagon’s preeminent combatant commands. The NSA has also burnished its “white hat” hacker reputation under his leadership and now routinely issues security alerts alongside other federal agencies to warn the general public about cybersecurity dangers.

Nakasone took the reins of both organizations exactly four years ago on Wednesday. He soon revamped how Cyber Command utilized its hackers against foreign threats via a doctrine of “persistent engagement” — where U.S. forces are engaged in non-stop contact with adversaries in cyberspace, including taking offensive actions. 

In a keynote address on Wednesday at Vanderbilt University’s Summit on Modern Conflicts and Emerging Threats, he noted how much the two agencies had evolved.

“As I look at the command today, four years into it, I see a command with much greater capabilities, a command that has been able to utilize its capacity authorities and outcomes in a series of different, very significant events for our nation,” he said.

“This is a command that’s come into its own,” Nakasone told the audience, adding NSA’s cyber activities had created a more “secure ecosystem.” When asked directly by The Record about the extension, Nakasone refused to answer. Cyber Command declined to comment on the matter.

Expanding responsibilities

Nakasone took charge of the military’s top digital warfighting unit and the federal government’s largest intelligence agency in 2018 from Navy Adm. Mike Rogers, who struggled to regain public trust following the revelations of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Rogers’ tenure also was stained by the leak of top-secret hacking tools by the mysterious group known as the Shadow Brokers.

Nakasone, by contrast, has enjoyed a largely controversy-free existence since arriving at Fort Meade, Maryland, which is home to both Cyber Command and NSA. 

The command, in particular, saw its authorities and responsibilities greatly expanded by the Trump administration and Congress.

Most notably, Cyber Command — backed by intelligence from the NSA — has taken a central role in keeping U.S. elections free of foreign interference. In 2018, the military launched a campaign called Operation Synthetic Technology to protect the midterm elections that year. 

The effort saw the command deploy “hunt forward” teams to Eastern Europe; send direct messages to Russian disinformation operators letting them know that they had been identified; and launch an offensive strike that temporarily knocked the Internet Research Agency — an entity notorious for trying to sow discord among Americans — offline in the days around the election.

The organizations also took action against Iranian hackers backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the run-up to the 2020 election. The hackers posed as a far-right group to send threatening emails to American voters and posted a video to shake confidence in the U.S. voting process.

Speaking at Vanderbilt, Nakasone said the U.S. would face “many more” such threats in the future.

And just this past year, Cyber Command began to combat ransomware following last year’s high-profile attacks on Colonial Pipeline and others. 

Nakasone conceded that until nine months ago, he viewed ransomware attacks as the responsibility of law enforcement but the attacks on Colonial and JBS beef demonstrated that the criminal organizations behind them sought to impact the country’s critical infrastructure.

Nakasone had indicated he wished to stay on in recent months, sources familiar with his thinking told The Record.

The sources said Nakasone wanted to defend the upcoming midterms, in part to better hone Cyber Command’s offensive capabilities. On the NSA side, Nakasone wanted to give some of the initiatives he has started — such as the creation of the agency’s Cyber Directorate — more time to mature, and not be wiped away immediately by a potential successor.

In addition, Nakasone wanted to give Air Force Lt. Gen. Timothy Haugh, who is widely considered to be the next head of Cyber Command and NSA and has worked extensively with the four-star, more leadership experience, the sources said. Last week the Pentagon announced that President Joe Biden had nominated Haugh to be Cyber Command’s new deputy chief.

A ‘fairly unique position’

Nakasone came into the post with a background that earned him respect from lawmakers — admiration that has only grown as the four-star general has assigned significant resources to defending elections and dispelled doubts about the “dual-hat” leadership arrangement at Cyber Command and NSA.

Troubles have brewed recently, though. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have largely lost trust in Nakasone for the part he played in slow-rolling a former GOP operative from becoming the NSA’s top lawyer. A Pentagon inspector general probe found no wrongdoing by Nakasone, though the GOP members remain upset about it.

Congressional Republicans also expressed outrage after Fox News host Tucker Carlson accused the NSA of targeting his communications in a bid to knock him off the air — a charge the agency denied, unusually, on Twitter. 

The Record first reported that an examination by the NSA showed that Carlson was mentioned in communications between third parties and subsequently “unmasked,” a process in which relevant government officials can request the identities of American citizens in intelligence reports to be divulged if there is an official reason.

The NSA watchdog office also examined the issue, yet House GOP leaders have signaled that they will launch a probe into the matter should their party retake the majority later this year.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration recently began reviews of the dual-hat arrangement and a Trump-era directive, dubbed National Security Presidential Memoranda 13, that defined DoD’s authorities to conduct time-sensitive military operations in cyberspace.

“We would take a look at any changes, obviously, and we will adjust to those changes,”  Nakasone told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. “But significant changes to that NSPM, it could affect what we need to do,”

At Vanderbilt, Nakasone, a fierce defender of maintaining the dual-hat, said the relationship puts him in a “fairly unique position.”

“I will tell you it’s important because I think this is our nation’s advantage. Being able to move with speed in a domain that requires it. Being able to be agile to threats that require it and being able to do it with a unity of effort that our agency and command can do today,” he told the audience.