Meet Trump’s popular nominee to lead NSA

Meet Trump’s popular nominee to lead NSA
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity' Schiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference MORE has selected a little-known military official to lead the National Security Agency (NSA) who boasts a breadth of experience in intelligence operations.

Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone has spent nearly two decades in Pentagon cyber and signals intelligence roles. He is now commander of U.S. Army Cyber Command and leads the military’s cyber operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as Joint Task Force Areas.

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His portfolio of responsibilities is about to expand dramatically.

The Senate is expected to confirm Nakasone as NSA director, a job that will also make him head of U.S. Cyber Command, the Pentagon’s burgeoning cyber warfare unit.

Nakasone is widely respected in military and intelligence circles, and those who know him describe him as uniquely qualified for the job.

Still, former officials say he will face a slew of challenges as he steps into the dual-hat role, including helming an agency that has faced a barrage of scrutiny since the 2013 Edward Snowden disclosures.   

“He’s as equipped as anybody to do a really difficult thing, which is to run these two portfolios simultaneously,” said David Shedd, who knows Nakasone from his time serving as deputy director and later acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He described Nakasone as “a modest kind of guy, a visionary, a strong leader.”

Nakasone was commissioned as a military intelligence officer 31 years ago, rising through the ranks to serve in several key roles at the NSA and Cyber Command.

He has a wealth of experience in what is called signals intelligence, a form of foreign intelligence collection that is at the center of NSA’s mission.

Notably, Nakasone commanded the 206th Military Intelligence Battalion at Ft. Gordon, in Georgia, which played an integral role in intelligence collection in the early years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, between 2002 and 2004.

Trump in February nominated Nakasone to replace outgoing Adm. Michael Rogers, the outgoing director of the NSA. The choice was unanimously approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. On Thursday, Nakasone will face lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee for a second confirmation hearing.

As the chief of the NSA, Nakasone would be one of the top U.S. intelligence officials, overseeing a massive foreign and counterintelligence collection enterprise that has increasingly drawn scrutiny since the Snowden disclosures.

In recent years, the NSA has been forced to contend with embarrassing leaks, including the Shadow Brokers’ publication of hacking tools widely believed to have been stolen from the agency.

The role is likely to come with more public attention. Taking over following Snowden’s leaks, Rogers was forced to engage in more public outreach to assuage concerns about the NSA’s surveillance activities.

Rogers has also increasingly been drawn into the spotlight over his role in assessing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“I very much believe he is certainly prepared for it,” Michaal Sulmeyer, a former director for plans and operations for cyber policy in the Office of Secretary of Defense, said of Nakasone. “The question that I think he and the senior leadership team will want to work through is what kind of public role do they see for the person in that job.”

“In the past, the NSA director was not the press conference type,” Sulmeyer added.

Rogers has also been the subject of criticism for overseeing a reorganization that has proven unpopular among some agency employees. The Washington Post reported in January that the NSA had lost hundreds of employees due to declining morale and other issues.

“That seems like a huge issue you would think would want to be addressed pretty early on,” said Sulmeyer, who directs the cybersecurity project at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The steepest challenge, however, could be managing the two different yet intertwined missions. As head of Cyber Command, Nakasone would also be in charge of defending Pentagon networks and directing the military’s offensive cyber operations, including providing options to civilian leadership to respond to adversarial acts in cyberspace.

Cyber Command, born at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., in 2009, began as a small unit relying on NSA infrastructure and talent and has seen its authorities and resources rapidly expand over the last decade as digital threats have evolved.

Nakasone witnessed the creation of Cyber Command while serving as executive officer to former NSA Director Keith Alexander in its early years, and eventually went on to lead the command’s operational force before stepping into his current role.

His career has given him unique insight into Cyber Command’s evolution, which was capped by Trump formally elevating Cyber Command into a full combatant command last August. The 6,200-strong cyber force is expected to achieve full operational capability later this year.

Many see a potential separation of NSA and Cyber Command leadership as inevitable, given the vast responsibilities of both leadership roles.

“I don’t think there’s any good guidebook on how to do both those jobs,” said Shedd, now a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “These are tough, tough big jobs.”

Still, some fear the negative implications of a split done too quickly; lawmakers pumped the breaks on a potential separation using annual defense policy legislation, requiring the Pentagon to certify that it will not pose a risk to national security.

During his confirmation hearing before the Armed Services Committee, Nakasone did not explicitly endorse splitting Cyber Command from the NSA, noting that he would provide an assessment to Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump learns to love acting officials Shanahan says he's 'never favored' Boeing as acting Defense chief Trump moves to install loyalists MORE within his first 90 days.

“I think we begin with the question, what’s best for the nation?” Nakasone said. “I think that that’s critical for us to consider.”

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have warmly received Nakasone since his first confirmation hearing, and he appears on a glide path to confirmation. With approval from the Senate Intelligence Committee, Nakasone’s nomination will advance to the Senate floor. Rogers is expected to retire soon after.

If confirmed, Nakasone will step into the role just as lawmakers are clamoring for more robust responses to malign foreign activity in cyberspace, including Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. elections.

The issue took center stage during Nakasone’s first confirmation hearing, during which he acknowledged that adversaries have not suffered penalties steep enough to change their behavior in cyberspace.

“They don’t fear us,” Nakasone said.