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The outgoing head of the NSA speaks about the agency's biggest challenges

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

One of the nation's top spy chiefs is retiring. NPR's Jenna McLaughlin joined a small group of reporters on a rare trip to the National Security Agency to hear from the outgoing director.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: It's not often the NSA, the nation's electronic spy agency, welcomes outsiders, especially journalists. But we arrive in Fort Meade, Md., secure our phones in metal lockers and then get fingerprinted and ushered onto a bus that will take us to the national operations center deep in the heart of the intelligence agency's campus.

(CROSSTALK)

MCLAUGHLIN: This is where analysts and operators spy on digital signals, where military leaders come up with plans to launch hacking operations, and where experts try and secure the government's networks from outside hackers. We funnel into a big conference room. Then we introduce ourselves to General Paul Nakasone, the outgoing leader of the NSA and the U.S. military's cyber wing, U.S. Cyber Command.

PAUL NAKASONE: First of all, thank you very much for coming.

MCLAUGHLIN: He started this job in May, 2018, six years serving under both President Trump and President Biden. It's an especially long tenure. After years of global crises and wars, he's hanging up his keyboard.

NAKASONE: Russia Small Group, SolarWinds, Colonial Pipeline, Afghan Retrograde, Russia-Ukraine, high-altitude balloons, Israel-Hamas.

FADEL: He lists just a few of those trials. Nakasone says his priorities on Day 1, like counterterrorism, they've shifted quite a bit towards Russia, China, cybercriminals even.

NAKASONE: It's a much different world today. We were not talking about cybersecurity as national security as we do today.

MCLAUGHLIN: Cybersecurity as national security. That's how serious it is. Nakasone says war will probably always involve explosions and violence, but cyber and technology are playing a bigger and bigger role.

NAKASONE: Being able to secure your networks, data and weapon systems, I think, become even more important in the future.

MCLAUGHLIN: One of the biggest threats today, Nakasone says, is China. It's a diplomatic, economic and military rival, but it's also got dangerous plans in cyberspace.

NAKASONE: We have found the Chinese in our critical infrastructure, and that's just wrong.

MCLAUGHLIN: He's talking about a hacking group called Volt Typhoon, Chinese state hackers who the U.S. government has found burrowed into networks in Guam, in routers, in U.S. water systems.

NAKASONE: The Chinese need to own this. They need to own the fact that - what are you doing in the water?

MCLAUGHLIN: He says they're lying in wait to strike if war breaks out, like if China invaded Taiwan. A cyberattack against U.S. infrastructure, like shutting off the water, might help Beijing cause chaos and maybe even throw a monkey wrench into any U.S. plans to respond. But there are already several wars going on. Before Russia invaded almost two years ago, U.S. Cyber Command sent a team to help shore up Ukraine's cyber defenses, and then NSA worked feverishly to publicly expose Russia's plans.

NAKASONE: Who would ever imagine that our most sensitive intelligence would be sanitized and released? If you were to ask me that on the 7th of May, 2018, you probably would have gotten a pretty curt response. But yet we figured out a way to do that.

MCLAUGHLIN: But in the middle of all this, Nakasone admits the NSA is still working to win back American trust. After former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents about NSA surveillance in 2013, he says the agency has had a reputation problem. In fact, the first thing he said to us was in response to a recent news story about NSA purchasing internet browsing records from companies in bulk.

NAKASONE: There are no NSA programs focused on monitoring Americans' use of the internet.

MCLAUGHLIN: Snowden's ghost still lurks in these halls. Nakasone's successor, General Tim Haugh, will have to wrestle with that specter and with Congress to renew a key surveillance authority known as Section 702 this spring. At the end of our visit, Nakasone brings us to the nerve center of the national operations center, where giant screens display the news, blown-up maps and satellite imagery, and a list of priorities for the day. The strikes against U.S. forces in Jordan are at the top, closely followed by the war between Israel and Hamas, the war between Russia and Ukraine, China and finally North Korea.

NAKASONE: Thanks a lot. Thanks a lot for coming.

MCLAUGHLIN: It's 5 p.m. We leave as a new team of NSA officials takes over to continue to monitor the world's networks.

Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: February 6, 2024 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous web introduction to this report misspelled Paul Nakasone's last name as Kakasone.
Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.