The incoming director of the National Security Agency will be facing nearly unprecedented threats in the cyber realm from nations such as Russia and China, as well as non-state terror actors like ISIS. Those threats will include not just cyber-espionage and cyber-hacking, but increasingly attacks against election systems and critical infrastructure like electrical grids and power plants.
Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, widely expected to be confirmed as NSA Direcor this month, has listed creating and designating a list of countermeasures to cyber-attacks among his top priorities. When it comes to Russia’s activities against U.S. elections for example, Nakasone says, “the most important thing is we want the behavior to change…We want them to pay a price.”
The current head of the NSA, Admiral Mike Rogers will be retiring this month and Nakasone will be taking over for Rogers, not just as the head of the NSA but also as the head of U.S. Cyber Command, or CyberCom.
Nakasone is entering a difficult situation. The NSA has been plagued by several major hacks as well as an exodus of talent. CyberCom, an organization Nakasone helped found, has struggled to develop as an outfit and offer robust options for combating cyber-attacks. The NSA as an organization has also not been given specific directives or expanded authorities commensurate with the increasing threats.
When asked at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this year whether the Trump administration had given him any specific instructions to bolster U.S. cyber defenses ahead of this year’s elections, for example, Admiral Mike Rogers said replied that it hadn’t. “I haven’t been granted any additional authorities,” he said.
Senior military leaders seem to be confident in the choice of Nakasone to lead the organizations however. Kevin McLaughlin, former deputy commander of CyberCom, said of Nakasone, “He’s a smart, assertive leader.”
“He’s very patient and works people through things,’’ said an Air Force officer, who declined to be identified, to the Washington Post. “I’ve never seen him go head-to-head, but he wins all the important fights.”
Nakasone has served in the Army for more than thirty years, most recently leading Joint Task Force Ares, a team dedicated to combating ISIS extremist ideology online. His leadership in beating back the group’s online propaganda and recruitment efforts, dubbed Operation Glowing Symphony, has been considered extremely effective. U.S. Special Operations Commander Gen. Raymond Thomas III described the operation has having “provided devastating effects on the adversary.”
Nakasone will be called upon to oversee one of the largest and increasingly critical operations in the U.S. national security apparatus. The NSA employs about 38,000 civilian personnel with about 17,000 additional contractors working for the organization. CyberCom has about 7,000 personnel.
A native of White Bear Lake, MN, Nakasone is married to his wife, Susan, and is father to four small children.