After sailing through two friendly Senate hearings—one so uncontroversial that only six senators tops bothered to even show up at any given point in the hour—Lieutenant General Paul Nakasone seems set to for confirmation as the next director of the National Security Agency. That means he’ll soon lead not just one agency, but two: the world’s most powerful spying operation, the NSA, and the world’s most powerful military hacker force, US Cyber Command. And for the first time since those two roles were combined in 2010, the man leading them may be more comfortable with the latter—leaving the NSA with the unfamiliar feeling of being the not-quite-favorite sibling.
The NSA and Cyber Command have been conjoined since the latter was created in 2009, controlled by the same leader and working out of the same Fort Meade headquarters. But over the years, Cyber Command’s mission has increasingly shifted from defense to attacking enemy networks to achieve military goals—such as penetrating or disrupting enemy command and control systems in wartime—a contrast to the NSA’s more general spying mission, so-called “signals intelligence” or Sigint.
‘If I were at NSA, I’d want someone who understood and had done NSA jobs recently.’
Jason Healey, Columbia University
Nakasone’s recent career—leading the Army’s Cyber Command and creating its Joint Task Force Ares with a mission of attacking and disrupting ISIS operations via the internet—has prepared him more for that Cyber Command role than the NSA’s Sigint mission, some in the intelligence community say. And that has raised concerns that Nakasone won’t give equal weight or resources to the NSA half of his position. “Since his first star, he’s been doing the straight cyber command stuff rather than broader intelligence assignments,” says Jason Healey, a former Bush White House staffer and current cyberconflict researcher at Columbia University. “If I were at NSA, I’d want someone who understood and had done NSA jobs recently.”
Following the demoralizing battles with a White House that pejoratively refers to the intelligence agencies as the “deep state” as well as a series of disastrous insider data leaks of classified information, the uncertainty of an outsider leading the organization is the last thing the agency needs, Healey argues. “NSA has had a series of incredible security lapses and sagging morale,” he adds. “The professionals there deserve a boss that focuses just on them.”
Nakasone is “really a great lead for Cybercom. However, he’s never really done a lot of the mission for SIGINT and is a weak pick for DIRNSA specifically,” one former intelligence staffer said to WIRED. (DIRNSA is a common abbreviation for NSA director.) “I expect there will be tension, and it’ll all depend on his ability to adapt and make sure he satisfies NSA requirements equally to Cybercom.”
Despite those concerns, Nakasone has for the most part remained a popular choice for the NSA director role, receiving glowing recommendations from previous senior NSA officials. He has a long, distinguished military record that culminated in 2016 with his appointment to lead Army Cyber Command after stints in Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where he served as the top military intelligence official in Kabul.
Earlier, from 2002 to 2004, Nakasone commanded an NSA operation at Fort Gordon, Georgia. But that intelligence role nonetheless focused specifically on support for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. ”He’s 100 percent warfighter-centric,” says Jake Williams, a former NSA staffer who served at Fort Gordon at the time and calls Nakasone one of his favorite commanders. “He understands warfighter needs because he’s been on the sharp end. Most intel folks haven’t. When you have it changes your perspective.”
But that same military focus raises worries that he may neglect the NSA’s less militaristic intelligence missions and staff, says the Atlantic Council’s Healey. He argues that Nakasone’s appointment only highlights his long-running argument that the Cyber Command and NSA director roles should be split, particularly after Cyber Command was elevated to a full-fledged military command rather than an arm of US Strategic Command.
That shift leaves the dual-hatted leader of the NSA and Cybercom with both too much power over the internet, Healey argues. “We’re talking about the most transformative technologies since Gutenberg in the hands of one general. That’s just not American,” he says. Overseeing two complex organizations also demands too many diverse responsibilities, he adds. “It’s an argument for having a split so that the NSA can have its own director to look after its own needs.”
The Obama administration had, in fact, pushed for a split of the NSA and Cyber Command lead roles, but Congressional resistance, led by senator John McCain, put a pause on that split in the fall of 2016 until it could be determined not to harm national security. The decision has been stalled since then.
Nakasone himself, in his Senate intelligence committee confirmation hearing, told senators that he sees the NSA and Cyber Command as “unique entities with their own identities, authorities, and oversight mechanisms.” But he also said he wasn’t predisposed to either keeping or splitting the dual-hat nature of his future position, and plans to include the question of the double role in a 90-day study he’d start if he’s given the job.
‘There’s a rebalancing that’s happening that’s commensurate with the evolution of the threat.’
Michael Sulmeyer, Belfer Center
As the world becomes more internet-dependent and cyberattacks grow as a disruptive tool of attack with physical consequences, it’s only natural that Cyber Command’s importance rises too, argues Michael Sulmeyer, director of the Cyber Security project at the Belfer Center and a former Pentagon official. Sulmeyer downplays arguments that Nakasone’s appointment would cause tensions between NSA and Cyber Command. But he does note with approval that Nakasone’s experience prepares him for the Cyber Command job more than that of previous NSA directors.
“You’re going to have leaders aware of the operational requirements, not just the intelligence requirements. That’s inevitable,” Sulmeyer says, using “operational” to refer to military operations and offensive hacking. “There’s a rebalancing that’s happening that’s commensurate with the evolution of the threat.”
Regardless of whether his two roles are eventually split or not, all of that means Nakasone will inherit a massively complex job at a time of upheaval—political, organizational, and technological. “There are unprecedented tensions between the White House and intelligence community, profoundly damaging leaks of sensitive tools, emboldened adversaries, insufficient funding, personnel brain drain, and questions regarding the future structure of the NSA-Cyber Command relationship,” lists Susan Hennessey, a former NSA attorney now at the Brookings Institution. “The mission has never been more important. But the next director will certainly have his work cut out for him.”