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New NSA Anti-Russia Cyber Unit Will Further Undermine Trump's Position On Putin

New NSA Anti-Russia Cyber Unit Will Further Undermine Trump's Position On Putin

On July 22, U.S. media reported that the recently installed NSA chief Paul Nakasone had created a dedicated task force to tackle online threats from Russian hackers.

Dubbed the “Russia Small Group” the newly formed unit is tasked with identifying and combating a wide variety of threats, including attempts to breach government sites and hack critical infrastructure.

Without a doubt, the biggest threat the anti-Russian hackers will address is preventing a redo of the election meddling that targeted the 2016 election. Nakasone did not give details of the Small Group’s mission in this area. He did say, however, that it was "in line" with what intelligence agencies have been doing since it became known to them that the last presidential election was the subject of a well-organized influence campaign.

Nakasone further emphasized that this move wasn't optional. If the U.S. decided to "stand on the sidelines" and allow adversaries like Russia free reign in the cybersphere, it would essentially allow opponents to shape the virtual battlefield and make their own rules. According to the NSA chief, this would be a loss of deterrent that would signal others like China to become even more aggressive in digital campaigns against U.S. assets.   

There are two important points here worth highlighting:

First is regarding the man that put the Russia Small Group into motion. Paul Nakasone is essentially the United States’ chief cyber war officer. A four-star Army general, Nakasone is the head of both the NSA, the domestic signals intelligence agency, and Cyber Command, the conglomerate of all U.S. cyberwar assets that was recently elevated to a full unified command (on par with other regional commands like PACOM and operations commands like SOCOM).

It is General Nakasone’s job to plan the long-term strategy of combating adversary countries in the digital warfare. If anyone sees the bigger picture in this endeavor, it’s him. However, the fact that this is happening only now, over a year after these attempts to influence the 2016 elections was discovered, is a bit disconcerting - especially considering that the midterm elections are a few months away. Will the NSA team be up to the task by the time voters are arriving at the polls? That remains an open question.

The second point is how this plays into the intense controversy still raging within the government on the extent of the Russian interference itself. While evidence of operations that took place in Russia aimed at the 2016 election is undeniable, many in the administration, President Trump included, are still denying that it was a top-down operation orchestrated by the authorities. In a very rare incident, Trump even clashed with a sitting intelligence chief on the issue. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats publicly rebuked Trump for blatantly ignoring the collective assessment of the U.S. intelligence community.   

The decision at NSA to form an anti-Russian cyber unit will only bolster the position of CIA, FBI, and other agencies that the threat from Russia is real and ongoing. Now the head of the military’s cyber warriors is preparing for a fight.

Sooner or later, the administration will have to come around on this issue. For now, it seems that in any case, the U.S. defense establishment is moving forward with or without Trump.