N.S.A. Installs New Director as U.S. Prepares for Election Influence Operations

Air Force Gen. Timothy D. Haugh took the helm of the National Security Agency and the Cyber Command on Friday, as the intelligence agencies and military brace for renewed efforts by foreign adversaries to influence the American elections this year.

General Haugh replaces Army Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, who took over in 2018 and helped focus the N.S.A. and Cyber Command on countering foreign efforts to interfere in American elections. The N.S.A. collects communications intelligence, like phone calls and computer traffic, and Cyber Command conducts operations on computer networks.

Securing the 2024 presidential election against outside interference and looking for operations that take advantage of new artificial intelligence strategies will be General Haugh’s first task.

Intelligence agencies say they do not know whether China will remain on the sidelines this year or increase its activity. But officials have said Russia is likely to expand its efforts over the 2022 midterm elections. For President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, this year’s elections have huge stakes, with Democrats supporting continued funding for Ukraine in its war against Russia and Republicans growing more skeptical of such aid.

Soon after he took over in 2018, General Nakasone created what he called the Russia Small Group, a team of experts from the N.S.A. and Cyber Command, to discover and deter attempts by Moscow to interfere in elections.

At the time, General Haugh was leading Cyber Command’s National Mission Force, which conducts offensive and defensive operations on computer networks. General Nakasone picked General Haugh to help lead the group along with the N.S.A. official Anne Neuberger, who is now the deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology.

That group identified the Russians who were conducting influence operations in the 2018 midterm elections. Cyber Command warned some of them to deter further action and later took down servers run by a Russian troll farm that supported Russian intelligence.

After his time at the Cyber National Mission Force, General Haugh held posts at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas before returning to Fort Meade, Md., in 2022 to become the deputy head of Cyber Command.

In a discussion with reporters this week, General Nakasone said that when he arrived, the N.S.A. and Cyber Command began to step up efforts to understand who was trying to influence elections — and then to stop them.

“We were going to act and impose costs on any adversary that was going to attempt to influence or interfere in our elections,” General Nakasone said.

Because the N.S.A. now works more closely with technology and cybersecurity firms, it is often possible to attribute intrusions to an adversarial country within seven days, General Nakasone said.

“There’s not a lot of discussion anymore in cyberspace about how difficult it is to do attribution,” he said. “We have gotten much more sophisticated, in terms of our ability to work with a series of partners to determine that.”

But more countries are trying to influence U.S. elections, including China and Iran.

During the 2022 midterm elections, General Nakasone said, Chinese operators stepped up efforts to influence specific races. While their interest in this year’s vote is not clear, China and technologies related to artificial intelligence present a long-term challenge to the N.S.A. and Cyber Command.

General Nakasone said China posed “the generational challenge of our time, and I think that we are just at the beginning piece of truly being able to understand how much we’re going to have to change.”

How Cyber Command conducts operations and the N.S.A. gathers intelligence differs month to month as new technologies come into widespread use and new vulnerabilities are found.

Already, China has experimented with artificial intelligence in influence operations, and intelligence agencies expect countries to try to use new technology to make their campaigns more believable.

General Nakasone said that the smartphone has been the “most disruptive technology” of his lifetime but that generative A.I. could have as deep an impact.

“Maintaining our nation’s edge in this technology is critical for us,” he said.

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