Biden’s Cyber Command and NSA nominee seen as a pick for continuity
President Joe Biden’s nominee to head U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency is considered to be cast from the same mold as their current leader and has played a critical role in binding the two entities closer together, according to former officials who have worked alongside him.
At his first Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Air Force Lt. Gen. Timothy Haugh, Cyber Command’s deputy chief, will explain how he plans to fill the shoes of Paul Nakasone, the Army general who has won praise from fellow national security leaders and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle since 2018, when he took over the two premier agencies for combating foreign cyberthreats and digital espionage.
“This is somebody that will remain very calm, open-minded and clear-headed in the most difficult or trying of times. I saw that from General Nakasone, I see those same characteristics in Tim Haugh,” said retired Lt. Gen. Charles “Tuna” Moore, who served as the command’s No. 2 until he was succeeded by Haugh last October.
If confirmed, Haugh will inherit a “dual hat” leadership arrangement that has been in place since 2009, when Cyber Command was created.
Haugh’s nomination comes at a time when the Biden administration is on a charm offensive to persuade Congress to reauthorize a controversial foreign intelligence law before it expires at the end of the year. The law, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows the NSA to scoop up vast amounts of intelligence from U.S. technology providers about foreign espionage and overseas national security threats.
The law, which Nakasone has been a vocal supporter of, has attracted bipartisan concern from privacy advocates about how data belonging to Americans is incidentally collected and searched, particularly by FBI analysts.
Meanwhile, just over five years after being elevated to a combatant command, Cyber Command has come into its own, incorporating missions like election security and ransomware and instituting its own subordinate unit.
Both organizations will be integral to defending next year’s presidential election from foreign interference from adversaries like Russia, China and Iran.
Haugh appears Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Senate Armed Services Committee shares jurisdiction over Haugh’s nomination and is expected to hold its hearing before the August recess.
Air Force background
Haugh (pronounced HAWK) was commissioned as a military intelligence officer over 30 years ago, rising through the ranks to lead organizations within the Air Force related to surveillance and reconnaissance and information activities before joining Cyber Command, starting as the deputy commander for Joint Task Force Ares — a unit that was created in 2016 to fight the Islamic State online.
Once he was brought in to brief senior leaders and they were so impressed that he was asked to attend some of the command’s National Security Council deputy- and principal-level meetings, according to Moore.
That was not a “normal type of thing to have happened,” he said. But, “because of his knowledge and understanding of what was going on and a lot of the issues we were trying to work through the interagency process to get approval up to the president, he was requested to attend those meetings.”
Haugh next served as the command’s director of intelligence before being tapped in 2018 to helm the Cyber National Mission Force, whose teams are considered to be the Pentagon’s top digital operators.
“At that point in time, it was very obvious that he was going to be not just a contender, but in my mind, the contender from the Air Force perspective” to run Cyber Command and NSA one day, said Moore, now a visiting professor at Vanderbilt University.
“Who else had the intelligence background, and now was building the CYBERCOM background and experience and understanding other than Tim Haugh? I didn't see anybody like that.”
Experience with election security
In his CNMF post Haugh also became the first co-lead of a joint election security task force with the NSA, originally called the Russia Small Group, that sought to protect the midterm election from foreign hackers. It was a totally new mission for both organizations following Moscow’s multi-pronged assault on the 2016 presidential race.
He and Anne Neuberger, the NSA’s co-lead and Nakasone’s senior policy adviser at the time, “really paved a lot of new ground and helped set the direction ultimately for what we built off of that small group for subsequent election influence operations,” according to Jon Darby, NSA’s former director of operations. Neuberger is now Biden’s deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology.
The work required a “different mindset for the two organizations — together — to focus on outcomes. Who could actually do something? How would we collectively inform other parts of the government that had the authorities to take some kind of action?” Darby said.
Notably, the effort led to Cyber Command’s initial “hunt forward” missions, deploying personnel to Montenegro, North Macedonia and Ukraine to glean new malware samples and see adversary tools and techniques firsthand.
The election “offered a unique rallying point” to “force both organizations into a closer working relationship and a closer understanding and respect for one another” than otherwise might have been possible, said Gavin Wilde, who was at NSA as a Russian specialist and was a member of the small group in 2018 and 2020.
‘Caught a lot of people’s attention’
In 2019, Haugh received his third star — six weeks after receiving his second — and was named as the inaugural head of his service’s first information warfare unit, dubbed 16th Air Force (Air Forces Cyber).
It acts as the Air Force’s component within Cyber Command and NSA and is home to a host of portfolios, including cyber, information operations, electronic warfare and weather. The organization also provides defensive and offensive cyber operations to certain combatant commands, including U.S. European Command, which has taken point in coordinating U.S. military assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s unprovoked invasion last year.
The assignment, after his brief stint as a major general, “caught a lot of people’s attention,” according to Darby, who retired last year after nearly 40 years at NSA.
“In my view, it's getting the right types of skills in those senior positions, which was, frankly, problematic at Cyber Command in the past because people would rotate in and out,” he added.
Haugh is a “sharp guy who knows both [signals intelligence] and cyber, which is a requirement for anybody that's going to be in that dual-hat role,” said Darby.
Haugh had a way of making that more cohesive approach, along with actually taking action against foreign hackers, “culturally acceptable” not only at NSA but across the federal government where many were not used to working with the then burgeoning cyberwarfare unit, according to Wilde, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“He embodies that right person at the right time for the right job.”
While Haugh’s nomination is unlikely to stir up much opposition, his hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee comes as he and over 200 military members are stuck in a blanket hold by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), who is blocking senior military promotions in protest of the Pentagon’s policy on service members traveling for abortion care.
If eventually confirmed, Haugh faces challenges at both organizations that could dog him throughout his tenure, including years-long concerns about Section 702 as well as Cyber Command’s low readiness levels, which the Pentagon has scrambled to address, and has caused Congress to consider the idea of establishing a Cyber Force.
There are also perennial questions about the dual-hat leadership structure at Cyber Command and NSA, even though the Biden administration conducted a high-profile review of the arrangement and found it was beneficial to U.S. national security.
Moore said people shouldn’t expect “some gigantic change” at either entity once Haugh assumes command, though “I'm sure there's some things in his mind that he's been thinking about for a long time that he thinks can improve the mission sets.”
“I won't be surprised if you see some of those things deal with bringing CYBERCOM and the National Security Agency even closer together in terms of how they work more effectively and efficiently,” he speculated. “But time will tell.”
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.