NSA director Gen. Nakasone visits Watson to discuss cybersecurity

Watson Senior Fellow and former U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin recently hosted Gen. Paul Nakasone, the commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, for a "fireside chat" on cybersecurity. 

On April 5, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs senior fellow and former U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin hosted Gen. Paul Nakasone, the commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, for a "fireside chat" on cybersecurity. 

Nakasone is one of a series of guests Langevin has invited for his International and Public Affairs (IAPA) study group during the spring 2023 semester. Other visitors include retired rear admiral and senior director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation Mark Montgomery, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Jen Easterly, ambassador at large for the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy Nathaniel C. Fick and former national cyber director and advisor to President Joe Biden on cybersecurity Chris Inglis.

In his introduction, Langevin noted he worked closely with Gen. Nakasone in Congress and praised his commitment to keeping the country safe from cyber attacks. He also characterized cybersecurity as "the security and economic challenge of the 21st century."

In conversation with Langevin, Nakasone detailed four critical areas of responsibility for Cyber Command, which was created in 2009 in the wake of the NSA's discovery of malware in classified Department of Defense systems: securing the country's network, data and weapons systems; defending cyberspace; securing elections; and providing support to other combat commands. 

Nakasone said that during his confirmation hearings in 2018, it was apparent how critical secure elections were to Congress. After the hearings, he said he "clearly understood" that if we didn't have a safe and secure midterm election, Congress would find a new NSA director and a new commander of Cyber Command.

Nakasone said one of the first things he did after confirmation was to ask NSA and Cyber Command leaders to tell him what happened during the 2016 election. The need for better coordination between the two agencies was apparent from their responses. He said Cyber Command leaders did "what everyone in the Department of Defense does" and showed him "a bunch of PowerPoint slides" detailing their plans. Meanwhile, NSA leaders showed him what he described as "all this beautiful reporting on what was going on." 

"And so I listened," he said, "and I said okay, so you were doing planning, and you were doing reporting. Who was doing the doing?"

This was one of several "vignettes" that Nakasone used to demonstrate broader points. The lesson here? Having a single leader for NSA and Cyber Command is critical to protecting the country in cyberspace. "It's really hard when you have two different leaders," he said. "You need to move with speed in cyberspace. This is where the fast eat the slow."

Nakasone said he resolved to improve information sharing between agencies so that they could "take appropriate action so that our adversaries cannot interfere with our election system." He also promised that the U.S. would retaliate in response to any attempt to interfere with U.S. elections: "If you mess with our elections, we're going to mess with you," he said.

Nakasone also discussed the importance of "hunt forward operations," defensive cyber operations conducted by Cyber Command at the request of partner nations, especially with respect to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

For Nakasone, the hunt forward operations conducted in Ukraine demonstrated that "the power of a nation is also [in] the intelligence that we collect and that we share broadly." He maintained that President Joe Biden's decision to release classified information in late 2021 gathered through that operation allowed the U.S. to control the flow of information, build a coalition and disrupt an adversary. He called it "among the most effective information operations I've ever seen."

After the talk, Nakasone joined Langevin's Spring 2023 IAPA study group for a question and answer session. Junior IAPA concentrator Cecilia Marrinan, a Langevin study group participant, expressed her appreciation, "Learning from Ambassador Fick and Gen. Nakasone was an excellent opportunity, and I'm grateful to Rep. Langevin for facilitating their visits." She noted, "Questions from the class reflected an eagerness to understand how multilateral stakeholders and diverse perspectives can be utilized to bridge emerging technology, entrepreneurship, and policy to maintain cybersecurity and implement effective policy."

Langevin said he was pleased with the visit and the response from the Brown community. "It is awesome to bring in top talent to Brown to meet with some of the most incredibly bright students I've ever had the privilege of being around," he said. "I have tremendous respect for Gen. Nakasone, his leadership, and his incredibly important work in protecting the country against cyber attacks. The fact that we could have him here in person to meet with students and have this kind of global discussion is really special."