The head of the U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency (NSA) said that the United States has conducted offensive cyber operations supporting Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion.
Army General Paul Nakasone, who heads both Cyber Command and the NSA, told Sky News in an exclusive interview that American cyber operators were being proactive, conducting “hunt forward” operations to search out foreign hackers before they could target the U.S.
Nakasone said that the design of the operations was to target and neutralize Russian propaganda, especially its disinformation programs that could influence elections. Russia has traditionally targeted its disinformation programs to divide Americans along party lines utilizing “troll farms” that spread their propaganda disguised as American bloggers.
“We had an opportunity to start talking about what particularly the Russians were trying to do in our midterm elections,” Nakasone said in the interview. “We saw it again in 2020, as we talked about what the Russians and Iranians were going to do, but this was on a smaller scale.
“The ability for us to share that information, being able to ensure it’s accurate and it’s timely and it’s actionable on a broader scale has been very, very powerful in this crisis,” he said.
Bold Admissions and Actions
Tom Kellermann, the head of cybersecurity strategy at VMware, characterized the admission by Nakasone as “historic,” explaining that while Russia has been targeting the United States for nearly a decade, until now, the U.S. hasn’t responded.
“Since 2013, the Russians have waged an insurgency in American cyberspace and our retaliation and disruption has been muted,” Kellermann said to The Register.
“The paradigm has changed as Russia must play defense now,” he continued. “The U.S. brings to bear the formidable capabilities of Cyber Command against rogue nation-states. Cyberspace is a new domain for warfare.”
Worries Russia Will Respond to Sanctions with Cyber Actions
There was concern among U.S. officials and analysts that Russia may decide to target the U.S. and other Western allies with cyber attacks after levying crippling sanctions against Russia and many of the oligarchs who support Vladimir Putin.
Why this hasn’t happened has opened up a range of theories. The most prevalent is that Moscow may not want to escalate the situation further, especially with them having their hands full with the fierce Ukrainian resistance.
Others believe that the Russian military – not knowing the full extent of the U.S. Cyber Command – may be concerned that a U.S. attack could counter its command and control of the Ukrainian invasion. That is a real concern, considering that the war has been micromanaged from Moscow since the invasion began in late February.
Cyber Command On the Frontlines
Nakasone’s interview is a very rare glimpse of what the Cyber Command can do operationally. Its operations are always unpublicized but the command, which was created in 2010, has been growing in capabilities. CNN reported that the command sent teams of personnel to Ukraine before the invasion to aid the Ukrainians in protecting their cyber defenses and to warn them about possible hacking operations.
“We’ve conducted a series of operations across the full spectrum: offensive, defensive, and information operations,” Nakasone said. While not discussing the details of the methods and tactics of the operation, he was adamant that the actions were lawful, with civilian oversight monitoring the military operations.
“My job is to provide a series of options to the secretary of defense and the president, and so that’s what I do,” he added in his interview. But just because the Russians have not yet attempted to conduct offensive cyber attacks against the U.S. doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to happen.
The Wall Street Journal reported that FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a Cyber Conference that was held at Boston College that there was evidence that Moscow was preparing for offensive cyber operations.
“We’ve seen the Russian government taking specific preparatory steps towards potential destructive attacks, both here and abroad,” Wray said.
Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He has served as a US Army Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for 19fortyfive.com and other military news organizations, he has