National Security Agency Chief Forms Task Force to Counter Russian Cyber Threats

By | July 24, 2018

Paul Nakasone, U.S. cyber commander and director of the National Security Agency, confirmed that he’s created a special task force to address Russian threats in cyberspace.

Russia has “great capabilities on which we will certainly be called upon,” Nakasone said late Saturday on the final day of the annual Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “And if called upon, I think, no doubt we will ensure that we act.”

The Washington Post reported on July 17 that the NSA and Cyber Command, the military’s cyber arm, will collaborate against Russian threats to the security of U.S. midterm elections in November with control of the House and Senate at stake.

“I stood up a Russia group, a Russia Small Group,” said Nakasone, who took up his current dual role in May, succeeding Admiral Michael Rogers. “It’s in line with what the intelligence community has really been doing since post 2016, 2017.”

Nakasone, a four-star Army general, described strategic engagement with Russia and China — “the adversaries that we must focus on early on and into the future” — in terms of the broader question of which countries get to set norms in a new arena of conflict.

Defining the Domain

“We have to have some manner upon which we’re going to look at being able to contest them in places like cyber space,” he said.

“If we decide that we’re going to stand on the sidelines, that we’re not going to bring the power of our nation against our adversaries in cyberspace — and that’s more than just cyber, it’s the whole capabilities that our nation has — I think again that we run the risk of our adversaries defining what they are going to do within this domain.”

Nakasone, who described helping design and then launch the U.S. cyber command in 2010, has seen the domain shaped by actions by adversaries that don’t quite rise to the level of warfare.

“They steal intellectual property, they steal P.I.I. or information on personnel, they cause discord within our social ranks or attempt to undermine our elections, all below the level of war,” he said. “And so this idea of how do you engage that force is something that I believe needs to be on a continual basis.”

Infrastructure Designation

A targeting of U.S. critical infrastructure, though, would constitute an attack above that level, Nakasone said.

In January 2017, Jeh Johnson, in his final days as President Barack Obama’s head of Homeland Security, added election infrastructure — including voting systems, voter registration databases and polling places — to a list of critical government facilities that includes sectors such as finance, emergency services and energy.

Nakasone’s announcement of the Russia Small Group comes amid a week of mixed messages about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. President Donald Trump first called into question the consensus by the U.S. intelligence community that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election, before later affirming that assessment.

The New York Times reported in June that the Pentagon increased Cyber Command’s responsibilities during the past few months, empowering it to consistently intrude in adversary networks to secure networks at home. Cyber Command was previously focused for the most part on network defense. The recent boost in status seems to provide more options for how the command could defend against Russia.

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