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US Cyber Command leader vows to 'defend forward' in protecting nation from cyberattacks

US Cyber Command leader vows to 'defend forward' in protecting nation from cyberattacks
© Stefani Reynolds

National Security Agency Director and U.S. Cyber Command Commander Paul Nakasone on Tuesday detailed how the U.S. is using a “defend forward” strategy against those attempting to interfere in U.S. elections or targeting the nation in other ways online. 

Nakasone described the more offensive strategy of Cyber Command in an op-ed for Foreign Affairs co-written with his senior advisor Michael Sulmeyer, pointing to efforts to counter foreign targeting of elections, COVID-19 research, and the online fight against ISIS. 

Nakasone described the new approach as “defending forward,” going toe-to-toe with adversaries seeking to do the U.S. harm in cyberspace. 

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“Cyber Command implements this defend forward strategy through the doctrine of persistent engagement,” Nakasone wrote. “The idea behind persistent engagement is that so much of the corrosive effects of cyber attacks against the United States occur below the threshold of traditional armed conflict. Yet much of Cyber Command’s combat power had been devoted toward preparations in the event of future contingencies.”

“We realized that Cyber Command needs to do more than prepare for a crisis in the future; it must compete with adversaries today,” he added. 

According to Nakasone, a mission to Montenegro by Cyber Command personnel last year to assist in fighting back against Russian hacking efforts against Montenegrin government networks was one way in which the agency was able to prepare to defend the 2020 elections from interference. 

“Montenegro has faced increased harassment from Russia since joining NATO in 2017, and the Cyber Command team was there to investigate signs that hackers had penetrated the Montenegrin government’s networks,” he wrote. “Working side by side with Montenegrin partners, the team saw an opportunity to improve American cyber defenses ahead of the 2020 election.”

Nakasone highlighted the efforts by Cyber Command and other federal agencies including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to secure U.S. elections, writing that a “concerted effort to undermine the midterm elections” was successfully disrupted in 2018 due to this partnership.

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“Together with its partners, Cyber Command is doing all of this and more for the 2020 elections,” he noted. 

Nakasone testified to a House committee earlier this year that election security was his “top priority,” noting that while “malicious actors are trying to test our defenses and our resolve, we are ready for them and any others who try to interfere in our democratic processes.”

More recently, a top official at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned that Russia, Iran, and China were actively trying to interfere in U.S. elections this year, with Russia’s interference aimed at President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE being re-elected, and China and Iran favoring former Vice President Biden. 

The new interference efforts come four years after Russian agents launched a sweeping and sophisticated effort to target the 2016 U.S. presidential elections through social media disinformation and hacking efforts. 

Beyond election interference, Nakasone highlighted Chinese efforts to steal COVID-19 research information, North Korean cyberattacks on international financial networks to raise money for its weapons program, and Iran’s online influence campaigns in underlining the threats Cyber Command is confronting in a more offensive way. 

“To compete, U.S. cyber forces should continue to be more proactive and implement the strategy to contest our adversaries’ malicious activity online,” Nakasone wrote. “As threats continue to evolve online, U.S. Cyber Command will remain ready to defend the United States in the years ahead.”