Cyber Command Nominee Deflects Questions on Russia

Nominee defers to current commander who warned Russia is virtually unchecked

Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, nominee to be NSA director and commander of U.S. Cyber Command, testifies during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday, March 1, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The nominee to lead U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency told lawmakers Thursday he would offer options to the president and Defense secretary to respond to Russian hacking of U.S. elections “if directed” to do so.

Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, the current head of the Army’s Cyber Command, said the decision whether or not to retaliate for Russian disinformation efforts during the 2016 presidential election or to preempt future attempts at election interference is a policy matter for civilian leadership in the executive and legislative branches.

“An overall strategy,” Nakasone told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “would emanate from the executive branch. In terms of what the Department of Defense would do, obviously, is plan for certain responses and if directed conduct those activities.”

The Trump administration’s response — or lack thereof — to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has become a contentious issue between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, with Democrats generally faulting President Donald Trump for failing to retaliate or take steps to protect future elections.

During a Tuesday hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. Mike Rogers, the outgoing head of the National Security Agency and the commander of U.S. Cyber Command, said he had not been granted the authority by Trump to undermine Russian efforts to interfere with the upcoming U.S. election.

“As Admiral Rogers pointed out, the Russians are conducting these operations as we speak, and we have to do something,” ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., said on Thursday.

“Unfortunately, the partisan propensity to discredit our president consumed over half of that hearing,” Oklahoma Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe said of Tuesday’s hearing.

As a nominee who has not yet been given command of Cyber Command, Nakasone deferred to Rogers, but agreed with his assessment that Russia has not paid a sufficient price for its election interference.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., referred to the recent indictment of 13 Russian individuals by Special Counsel Robert Mueller that alleged a coordinated, well-funded effort to disrupt the 2016 election, and asked what an appropriate response would be.

That decision rests with the executive branch, Nakasone replied.

“The most important thing is we want the behavior to change. We want them to pay a price and we want the behavior to change,” he said.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., railed against the United States’ lack of response to Russian and Chinese cyber attacks.

“At the top at the executive and at the legislative level, we are not responding in any way that is adequate to the challenge we face,” he said. “Clearly the oversight in this body is woefully inadequate.”

Nakasone declined to describe contingency plans for Russia in an unclassified setting.

“That’s one of the areas that Admiral Rogers spoke to on Tuesday, [and] that is being worked,” Nakasone said.

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