The commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency (NSA), Gen. Paul Nakasone, offered insights into the evolving combat domain in cyberspace, including the fight against ISIS, likely election threats in 2020, and the security implications of Chinese telecom giant, Huawei in a wide-ranging conversation earlier this week. He spoke this week at the annual RSA Conference in San Francisco, California.
Here are the top takeaways from that conversation:
1. 2020 will be a "very interesting election year"
In the aftermath of Russia's intervention in the 2016 presidential election, and in run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, Cyber Command and the NSA worked closely with other government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to share information about foreign interference efforts aimed at disrupting the electoral process or otherwise affecting political discourse in the United States.
Nakasone said he fully anticipates similar coordination will be necessary in the upcoming 2020 presidential elections, especially as adversaries refine their existing tactics or develop new ones.
"2020 begins now," Nakasone said. "The best thing that we can do is continue to understand our adversaries, continue to build our readiness, continue to build our partnerships and certainly be vigilant in what we would anticipate is going to be a very interesting election year."
He also addressed recent reports in the Washington Post and New York Times that a joint NSA and Cyber Command operation disrupted a Russian troll farm's Internet access on the day of the 2018 midterms.
"I am very proud of the work that was done at Cyber Command and the NSA. We should feel very good that we acted with speed, agility and unity of purpose," he said.
2. Foreign influence campaigns may be a "new normal"
Nakasone said mis- and disinformation efforts by foreign adversaries were unlikely to abate, even as the U.S. adopts a more coordinated strategy, something Cyber Command has termed "persistent engagement," to combat them.
"I think this a new normal in terms of the way that people communicate and certainly the way that our adversaries communicate," he said. "I think it's here, for us, to stay. I think that this is going to be something that other adversaries are going to copy."
"When we see an ability for a nation to create personas and to create followers," he continued, "any way that we can share information about that to ensure that social media companies are turning those folks off and closing those accounts – that's impactful. That's getting at the heart of the matter; that's showing success for us."
Asked why the United States has been apparently unsuccessful in deterring Russia's incursions – and whether that meant that the costs that have been imposed on Moscow are insufficient – he said more time would have to pass.
"I think it's still too early to tell," he said. "Coming back to this idea of persistent engagement: It can't be episodic, you have to be involved every day," Nakasone said.
"But I think we can't measure it in terms of months; I think it's going to be longer than that."
3. The NSA is "in deliberations" about bulk metadata collection program
Nakasone acknowledged recent reports indicating that the once-controversial NSA program that involved collecting domestic telephone metadata to identify suspected terrorists may be ended because of its waning value. Former contractor Edward Snowden first exposed the program in 2013, prompting a national outcry over privacy rights.
"I'm aware of the reporting. We're in a deliberative process right now. We'll work very, very closely, certainly with the administration and Congress, to see and to make recommendations on what authorities should be reauthorized on this act, and I would just offer that we're in deliberations right now," Nakasone said.
For the program to be continued, Congress would have to renew certain legal provisions later this year. Nakasone declined to say whether he had a message to legislators about the matter.
"I think it'll probably be better for me to answer the next question," he said.
4. Intelligence-sharing partners put alliance at risk if they accept China's Huawei
National security officials have been sounding the alarm about Chinese telecom giant Huawei for months, as countries around the world prepare to build out their next generation of wireless service networks, known as 5th generation or 5G. U.S. officials are wary of direct links between Huawei and the Chinese government.
U.S. allies like the United Kingdom and Canada – both of which belong to the so-called "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing alliance – have not yet ruled out using Huawei components in their 5G networks, despite persistent warnings from the U.S. Australia, another Five Eyes partner, banned Huawei from its networks last year.
Nakasone suggested the alliance could be imperiled by a member nation's decision to let Huawei in.
"I think that that's still a determination that hasn't been made," he said. "We're going to wait and have a very, very continued dialogue with our Five Eyes partners about the challenges, the risks."
"But I think that we would have to really consider what the implications would be if a decision like that was made," he said.
5. ISIS hasn't been "decimated" in cyber space, but it is "not the same" as it was in 2015
President Trump and members of his administration have said that ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been "decimated" and that the territory it once claimed is nearly 100 percent liberated.
Asked whether the same was true of ISIS' operations in the cyber domain, Nakasone, who was the commander of Joint Task Force Ares, a specially designated unit authorized by President Obama to conduct offensive cyber operations against ISIS in order to disrupt its recruitment efforts and the dissemination of its online propaganda, declined to offer a percentage – but said ISIS' capabilities had been significantly degraded.
"When we started out in 2015, I would tell you that the quantity and the quality of the products, the ability for ISIS to recruit online, the ability to raise money, to proselytize, was at an all-time high," Nakasone said. "It's not there today."
"That being said, this is also a domain, cyberspace, where you have to ensure that you continue to maintain vigilance on a threat like ISIS because ISIS isn't only ISIS core, it's ISIS Philippines, it's ISIS Sinai, it's ISIS Afghanistan – they move very rapidly. We have to be just as agile and just as rapid to recognize those threats and then to act when authorized," he said.
Nakasone credited Cyber Command's new posture as a "persistence force" – one that takes proactive steps to understand the capabilities of, and, if necessary, counter adversaries in cyberspace – with effectively limiting ISIS' online influence.
"This not the same ISIS that's operating virtually today that it was several years ago," he said. "But I would also offer that that's only because we have been continually ensuring that we're vigilant against them and operating against them when authorized – and we will continue to do that."
6. With the help of encrypted apps, adversaries are "increasingly capable"
FBI Director Chris Wray, who was also interviewed at the RSA conference, said in his remarks on Tuesday that encryption – now widespread among commercial apps – needs to have limits in order for law enforcement to effectively protect U.S. citizens.
"I think Director Wray's comments yesterday are very, very important for a nation to listen to," Nakasone said. "We at the National Security Agency believe very fully in encryption and we work at it very hard, but I do think that we as a nation…have to have this discussion in terms of, when there's a legal process, how do we make sure that the health and security of our citizens is balanced forthrightly with the privacy of our nation's citizens as well."
He declined to offer specifics on how commercial encryption had affected the NSA's intelligence collection efforts, but said the agency kept a watchful eye on adversaries' communication methods.
"We certainly see the migration of our adversaries, terrorists to different forms of communication," he said. "We track that very carefully. You would expect us to do that."
7. The U.S. has a "very good understanding" of North Korea's cyber capabilities
Soon after President Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam last month, private cybersecurity company McAfee reported that North Korean hackers had carried out dozens of attacks on U.S. businesses and infrastructure – even as the president was meeting with Kim overseas.
Nakasone said the attacks fit with a pattern of North Korean cyber behavior.
"They've had both the capability and intent to strike our nation destructively in cyberspace," he said. "It doesn't surprise me that they continue to try to improve their capabilities in cyberspace."
He hinted that the recent increase in diplomatic interactions with North Korea may have yielded some novel intelligence.
"Not to get too deep in the operational details," he said, "we have a very good understanding of North Korean threats in cyberspace and we continue to improve that understanding every single day."
8. Despite Trump's public rebukes of the intelligence community, morale is "high"
President Trump's relationship with the intelligence community has come under repeated scrutiny as some of his public statements – including on the nuclear threat from North Korea, on Russia's election interference, and on the circumstances of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – diverge significantly from known assessments made by the U.S. intelligence community.
In January, Trump also derided unnamed intelligence officials and suggested, in a tweet, that they "go back to school."
Nakasone said his teams at the NSA and Cyber Command were unaffected by the president's public rebukes.
"I see no change in our morale. Morale is high," Nakasone said. "I think people that come to work every single day are committed – committed public servants, committed men and women of the military. They understand the importance of what we do and they do it very well."
He also said he had never been pressured by President Trump or any other president to suppress or alter any intelligence products he was charged with delivering.
"Absolutely not. Absolutely never in my career have I ever had that experience," he said.
9. Authoritarian approaches to the Internet won't be "accepted"
Recent reports emerged that the Russian government may seek to build a "sovereign Internet" that would allow Moscow to control information flows internally and more effectively rebuff operations intended to interfere with it.
Nakasone dismissed the move as, essentially, a "press statement" that would be difficult to implement.
"We've seen this with other nations as well," he said, citing Iran in particular. "But at the end of the day what we've seen is that citizens are very, very anxious to get to apps that are very, very familiar to us. So while we watch this, while we take note of what they're trying to do, I guess I would say I'm a bit skeptical that they will be able to pull this off at this time."
He said authoritarian-style approaches to controlling information were unlikely to be successful.
"I don't think a totalitarian model that captures incredible amounts of data, rates its citizens, builds difficulties in terms of being able to communicate with others is going to be a model that's going to be rapidly accepted throughout the world," Nakasone said. "I'm betting on democracy."
10. Trump's personal cell phone use? "Next question."
Several outlets, including the New York Times and Politico, have previously reported on concerns expressed by administration and intelligence officials about President Trump's use of a personal iPhone to make calls to his associates and friends. The Times reported that spy agencies in Russia and China routinely eavesdrop on, and glean important information from, the president's unsecured calls.
Asked whether he had ever personally spoken to the president about his phone habits, Nakasone demurred.