Trump NSA pick says response to Russian election interference has fallen short

Trump NSA pick says response to Russian election interference has fallen short
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWSJ: Trump ignored advice to confront Putin over indictments Trump hotel charging Sean Spicer ,000 as book party venue Bernie Sanders: Trump 'so tough' on child separations but not on Putin MORE’s choice to lead the National Security Agency (NSA) said Thursday that the United States’ response to Russian election interference has not been sufficient enough to change Moscow’s behavior.

Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, nominated to lead both NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, was asked at his confirmation hearing whether he agreed with outgoing NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers’s statement that the response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election has not been strong enough. 

“It has not changed their behavior,” Nakasone told Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseChristine Todd Whitman: Trump should step down over Putin press conference GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki GOP senator: Senate should be 'disgusted' by Helsinki summit MORE (R-Neb.), who asked the question. 

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Nakasone appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee two days after Rogers, who faced tough questions over the Trump administration’s response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election during a hearing on the 2019 budget request for U.S. Cyber Command. Rogers heads that command in addition to the NSA. 

At that hearing, Rogers pushed back on Democrats’ assertions that the Trump administration has done nothing to combat Russian election interference, but acknowledge Moscow has not paid a high-enough price.

“They haven’t paid a price, at least, that has significantly changed their behavior,” Rogers said.

The Obama administration imposed sanctions on Moscow and expelled Russian diplomats from the U.S. at the end of 2016 for interfering in the election. Last summer, President Trump signed legislation passed by Congress that leveled new sanctions against Moscow for its behavior.

The Department of Homeland Security has also been working with state election officials to protect critical voting infrastructure from cyber threats going forward.

On Thursday, lawmakers from both parties expressed frustrations that the government — including both the Trump and Obama administrations — has not sufficiently penalized foreign adversaries for cyberattacks.

“We’re 31 years into cyber war, but we’re four years into regular attacks against the United States to which we publicly say we don’t respond,” said Sasse, citing the Office of Personnel Management breach disclosed in 2015 that was linked to China. 

Nakasone said broadly that the U.S. government has failed to sufficiently deter foreign actors in cyberspace with public penalties.

“I think that our adversaries have not seen our response in sufficient detail to change [their] behavior,” Nakasone said.

Lawmakers also criticized successive administrations for failing to develop a whole-of-government strategy to deter and respond to cyber threats.

“We are either at the war now or on the brink of war, and that war is in cyber,” said Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingBipartisan bill would bring needed funds to deteriorating National Park Service infrastructure Lawmakers say Trump tariffs are threatening local newspapers Senate adds members to pro-NATO group MORE (I-Maine). “We’re under attack and our adversaries feel no consequences.”

Currently, cyber authorities are spread across the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice.

Nakasone endorsed the need for a “whole of nation” approach to defending the country in cyberspace during his opening testimony and said the U.S. needs to “impose costs on our adversaries.”

He also named election targeting as one of the “significant challenges” facing the U.S. in cyberspace during his opening remarks.

“From adversaries conducting exploitation of our networks, to the harnessing of social media platforms for false messaging, to targeting our elections, to destructive attacks, the department and our nation face significant challenges in this ever-changing domain,” Nakasone said.

Nakasone is the current commander of Army Cyber Command, which is a component that supports U.S. Cyber Command. He was widely viewed as a favorite to replace Rogers, who will soon retire, before the White House announced his nomination in February.

Nakasone received a warm welcome from committee members on Thursday. If confirmed, he will be the first commander to lead U.S. Cyber Command as a unified combatant command, after Trump moved to elevate it last year into its own warfighting unit. 

Cyber Command, which was born out of NSA headquarters in 2009, has seen its responsibilities grow rapidly over the last several years. The Pentagon is currently reviewing whether to ultimately separate NSA and Cyber Command, which are currently led by the same official. 

On Thursday. Nakasone did not explicitly endorse separating NSA from Cyber Command, saying that the decision needs to be made based on what is “best for the nation.”

Nakasone said he would provide an assessment on a possible split within 90 days of being confirmed.

Many view the split as inevitable, but some lawmakers and former officials have expressed concerns about the potential implications of a premature split. Congress pumped the breaks on splitting the two organizations, inserting language into 2017 defense policy legislation that instructed the Pentagon to report on its potential implications before making a decision.

Nakasone was one of three nominees considered by the committee on Thursday.

This post was updated at 12:28 p.m.