Trump nominee: Russia, China don’t expect ‘much’ U.S. response to cyber attacks

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Lieutenant General Paul Nakasone, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Cyber Command, said on Thursday he did not think Russia, China and other countries expected much of a response from the United States to cyber attacks.

“They don’t think much will happen,” Nakasone said when questioned by Republican Senator Dan Sullivan at his confirmation hearing to be director of the National Security Agency and commander of the military’s U.S. Cyber Command.

“We seem to be the cyber punching bag of the world,” Sullivan said during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Nakasone’s hearing came two days after his retiring predecessor, Admiral Mike Rogers, told the same panel that Trump had not granted him the authority to disrupt Russian election-hacking operations.

Nakasone, who served as chief of the U.S. Army’s Cyber Command since late 2016, said responsibility for developing a “whole of government” response to cyber attacks lay with the Trump administration, although he would present the Republican president with options.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign using hacking and propaganda, an effort that eventually included attempting to tilt the election in Trump’s favor. Russia denies interfering.

Brent K. Park testifies before a senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration; on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

U.S. intelligence leaders more recently have warned that Moscow is trying to disrupt this year’s midterm elections, with Trump’s fellow Republicans seeking to retain control of Congress.

When questioned by another Republican, Senator Ben Sasse, Nakasone said he did not think countries behind cyber attacks had seen enough of a U.S. response to deter them.

Lt. Gen. Paul M. Nakasone arrives at a senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be general and director of the National Security Agency, chief of the Central Security Service and commander of United States Cyber Command, Defense Department; on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

“Our adversaries have not seen our response in sufficient detail to change their behavior,” Nakasone said.

Nakasone also said he had not come to an opinion on whether the NSA and Cyber Command should be separated. They have been combined since the cyber operation was created in 2009, but there has been debate recently over whether they would be more effective as separate entities.

Opponents of the idea said it is essential that they work closely together against a growing threat.

Nakasone, who is expected to win confirmation in the Senate, said he would make a recommendation to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on that issue within 90 days of assuming the position.

Nakasone, 54, previously served as deputy commanding general of U.S. Cyber Command as well as a staff officer for General Keith Alexander, the first head of Cyber Command and the head of the NSA from 2005 to 2014.

Additional reporting by Warren Strobel; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Will Dunham