The Man Who Speaks Softly—and Commands a Big Cyber Army

photo illustration of Paul Nakasone - Illustrations: Geoff Kim; Getty Images

The Man Who Speaks Softly—and Commands a Big Cyber Army
WIRED, October 13, 2020
Security
By Garrett M. Graff

Meet General Paul Nakasone. He reined in chaos at the NSA and taught the US military how to launch pervasive cyberattacks. And he did it all without you noticing.

 

In the years before he became America’s most powerful spy, Paul Nakasone acquired an unusually personal understanding of the country’s worst intelligence failures.

 

Growing up, he was reared on his father Edwin’s recollections of December 7, 1941: how Edwin, then age 14, was eating a bowl of cornflakes with Carnation powdered milk when he saw Japanese Zeros racing past the family’s screen door on Oahu on their way to attack Pearl Harbor. They were so close that Edwin, who would grow up to become an Army intelligence officer, could see one of the pilots. “I can still remember to this day,” Edwin would recall years later, “that he had his hachimaki—his headband—around, goggles on.”

 

Decades later, Paul himself experienced another disastrous surprise attack on America at close range: He was working as an intelligence planner inside the Pentagon on the clear September Tuesday when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building. He remembers evacuating about an hour after the attack and looking over his shoulder at the giant column of black smoke rising from the building where he went to work every day.

 

Over the next 15 years, as America waged the resulting war on terror, Paul Nakasone became one of the nation’s founding cyberwarriors—an elite group that basically invented the doctrine that would guide how the US fights in a virtual world. By 2016 he had risen to command a group called the Cyber National Mission Force, and he was hard at work waging cyberattacks against the Islamic State when the US suffered another ambush by a foreign adversary: the Kremlin’s assault on the 2016 presidential election.

 

This attack, however, happened not with a bang but with a slow, insidious spread. As it unfolded, Nakasone lived through the confusing experience inside Fort Meade—the onyx-black headquarters of both the National Security Agency and a then-fledgling military entity called US Cyber Command. As sketchy intelligence on Russian meddling coalesced through the summer and fall of 2016, his colleagues were so caught off-guard that one of the most senior leaders of Cyber Command told me he remembers learning about the election interference mainly in the newspaper. “We weren’t even focused on it,” the leader says. “It was just a blind spot.”

 

Four years later, Nakasone is now the four-star general in charge of both Cyber Command and the NSA—one of the officials most directly in charge of preventing another surprise attack, whenever and wherever it may come, whether in the physical world or the virtual. He is only the third person to occupy what is perhaps the most powerful intelligence role ever created, a so-called “dual hat” in government parlance. As director of the NSA, he commands one of the greatest surveillance—or “signals intelligence”—machines in the world; as the leader of Cyber Command, he is in charge not only of defending the US against cyberattacks but also of executing cyberattacks against the nation’s enemies.

 

Nakasone inherited and then steadied an NSA in crisis, shaken by years of security breaches, chronic brain drain, and antagonism from a president obsessed with a supposed “deep state” operation to undermine him. Nakasone’s Cyber Command, meanwhile, is a once-restrained institution that has been unshackled to fight the nation’s enemies online. A quiet beneficiary of Donald Trump’s details-be-damned leadership philosophy, Nakasone has found himself with unparalleled, historic power—with more online firepower at his disposal than the US military has ever fielded before, as well as more latitude to execute individual missions and target adversaries than any military commander has ever been given. It’s as if during the Cold War the White House had delegated targeting authority to the commander in charge of maintaining the nation’s missile silos.

 

Nakasone’s offensive cyber strategy, which was developed under the eye of Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, represents a paradigm shift in how the US confronts its adversaries online. Rather than waiting to respond to an attack, Nakasone and US Cyber Command have shifted to talk of “persistent engagement,” “defending forward,” and “hunting forward,” amorphous terms that encompass everything from mounting digital assaults on ISIS and Iran’s air defense systems to laying the groundwork for taking down Russia’s electrical grid.

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About the Author:

Garrett M. Graff is a contributing editor at WIRED and a director at The Aspen Institute. He is the author of the No. 1 national bestseller The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11. He can be reached at garrett.graff@gmail.com.