President Trump’s nominee to lead the spy agency that conducts electronic surveillance and cyberespionage around the globe warned a Senate committee Thursday that the government should take stronger action to prevent Russian interference in future U.S. elections.
Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone thus joined America’s current spy chiefs in urging the administration to boost cyberactivities to block the computer hacking and other digital tactics that U.S. intelligence agencies say Russian operatives used in an effort to help Trump win the White House in 2016.
“Unless the calculus changes, we should expect continued issues,” Army Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone told the Senate Intelligence Committee at his confirmation hearing.
If confirmed, Nakasone would replace Navy Adm. Michael S. Rogers as head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command. He thus would helm the sprawling systems tasked with intercepting foreign communications, protecting U.S. government secrets, disrupting adversaries’ online activity and conducting digital warfare.
The Senate hearing took place as the Treasury Department announced new sanctions on 19 Russians and five companies, accusing them of meddling in the 2016 election, destructive cyberattacks and targeting critical infrastructure, including efforts to infiltrate the U.S. electrical grid and water systems.
The group includes 13 Russians who were indicted on criminal charges last month by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
The new sanctions mark the strongest action the Trump administration has taken against Moscow, and they come after the president has faced widespread criticism for failing to condemn the Russian election meddling, or to order a clear response, since he took office.
Rogers, who is retiring as head of the NSA, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 27 that Trump had not directed the NSA to take more aggressive actions to counter Russia, or given them additional authorities to do so.
“I believe that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay here and therefore I can continue this activity,” Rogers said.
"Everything, both as the director of the NSA and what I see on the Cyber Command side, leads me to believe that if we don't change the dynamic here, this is going to continue and 2016 won't be viewed as something isolated," he added. "This is something that will be sustained over time."
Trump used tougher language than usual when asked about Russian meddling during a March 6 press conference with the Swedish prime minister.
"Whatever they do, we'll counteract it very strongly," he said.
The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that a Russian-backed intelligence operation hacked and leaked e-mails from senior Democrats, and used bots, stolen identities and social media tools to try to help Trump win in 2016. Mueller’s investigation is focused, in part, at determining if anyone in Trump’s campaign or transition assisted the Russians. Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion.
The shift in command at NSA comes as the U.S. government, financial institutions and crucial infrastructure face a growing daily onslaught of digital threats from Russia, North Korea and other foreign adversaries, as well as individual hackers. The attacks cost billions of dollars a year.
Nakasone drew broad support on the Senate panel, and his confirmation by the full Senate appears all but certain. Unlike most intelligence agencies, the NSA traditionally is led by a senior military officer.
“You've been nominated at a very pivotal time,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “This is a tremendous opportunity and this is a tremendous challenge. I think you're the right person at the right time.”
Nakasone grew up in St. Paul., Minn., and attended St. John’s University and the University of Southern California. He has served at military posts in South Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan. He currently leads cyberoperations for the Army.
Trump announced last year that he wanted to elevate Cyber Command to place it on equal footing with other major military commands, such as those that supervise U.S. military operations in the Pacific and in the Middle East..
In addition, national security officials are considering splitting the NSA and Cyber Command. The Obama administration established Cyber Command in 2009 to organize offensive digital operations for the military, but it shares leadership and headquarters with the NSA at Ft. Meade, Md.
Nakasone had a separate confirmation hearing on March 1 in the Senate Armed Services Committee.
He warned that panel that cyberthreats had grown “exponentially” in recent years “from adversaries conducting exploitation of our network, to the harnessing of social media platforms for false messaging, to targeting our elections, to destructive attacks.”