Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Lt. Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, whose paternal grandmother immigrated to Hawai‘i as a picture bride and whose father witnessed the start of America’s war with Japan from the kitchen window of his family’s Wahiawä home and went on to serve in the predominantly Nisei Military Intelligence Service in World War II, has been nominated to receive his fourth star. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Nakasone will become only the fourth American of Japanese ancestry to earn the prestigious military rank.
The sansei Nakasone, who hails from a family with deep roots in Wahiawä, has also been nominated to lead one of the nation’s top intelligence posts as commander of the Pentagon’s digital warfare organization, U.S. Cyber Command; and director of the National Security Agency. The NSA employs a civilian workforce of about 21,000 and is the largest producer of intelligence information among the nation’s 17 spy agencies.
Rob Joyce, the Trump administration’s senior cyber coordinator and special assistant to the president, announced Nakasone’s new assignments in a January tweet. Joyce, who previously ran the National Security Agency’s Office of Tailored Access Operations, which is the agency’s hacking division, praised Nakasone’s strong background in cyber issues. He described Nakasone as “an exceptional leader for two exceptional organizations; he brings great experience and strong cyber background.”
Gen. Nakasone declined comment on his possible new assignments, saying only that he is awaiting action by the Senate.
The Senate confirmation process began this week with a hearing on Nakasone’s nomination to a four-star general and leader of the nation’s top electronic spying agency and the Pentagon’s cyber security operations.
“Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone’s nomination to serve as the head of the National Security Agency is consistent with his cyber security and military intelligence experience,” said U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, a member of the Armed Services Committee. “I look forward to hearing more about what he hopes to accomplish in this important role as his nomination is considered by the Senate Armed Services Committee this week,” Hirono told The Hawai‘i Herald earlier this week.
Nakasone’s nomination to receive his fourth star, elevating him to full general, was announced in the Feb. 8 edition of the Congressional Record and referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee. A National Security Agency nomination would have to be vetted by the Senate Intelligence Committee before it is sent to the Senate floor for approval.
Last August, in accordance with a congressional mandate, President Donald Trump directed the Pentagon to elevate U.S. Cyber Command (Cybercom) to a full-unified stand-alone combatant command on par with longstanding military units like Central Command rather than being part of U.S. Strategic Command. That will occur after Nakasone’s Senate confirmation.
That last happened in 2007, when President George W. Bush created U.S. Africa Command. There are nine combatant commands, six of which have geographic areas of responsibility: U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Central Command, U.S. European Command, U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Southern Command. The other three have specific missions: U.S. Transportation Command, U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Strategic Command.
Established in June 2009 at Fort Meade, U.S. Cyber Command has a full-time staff of 1,060 military members, civilians and contractors, according to Adm. Mike Rogers, retiring Cyber Command head and NSA director. In written testimony presented to the Senate Armed Forces Committee this past Tuesday (Feb. 27), Rogers said Cyber Command has an operating budget of $600 million and will field fully staffed cyber teams in four military services. By this September, it will have 6,200 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Coast Guardsmen working in 133 teams.
If confirmed, Nakasone would replace Rogers, who was brought in to head the NSA in 2014 after former government contractor Edward Snowden made headlines when he released classified NSA documents. Rogers’ departure comes as the NSA continues to battle the release of many of its top-secret hacking tools by a group known as the “Shadow Brokers.”
Besides the leaks, the super-secretive spy agency has also been losing staff to the commercial sector, which offers higher salaries.
Rogers also updated senators on progress Cyber Command has made over the past year in denying ISIS sanctuaries in Iraq and Syria and protecting coalition forces in Afghanistan. Cyber Command’s biggest concerns are the actions of China and Russia, Rogers said. He added, however, that he has yet to receive specific directions from the Trump administration regarding the disruption of Russian cyber attacks targeting U.S. elections.
If confirmed by the Senate, Nakasone, a pioneer in the development of America’s premier cyber warfare force, would become the fourth Japanese American to wear four stars on his shoulders.
The Japanese American Veterans Association, which tracks the careers of Asian Americans in the military, reports that only three dozen Japanese Americans have been promoted to generals or admirals.
Only two have earned four stars in the Army — Kaua‘i native Gen. Eric Shinseki, former U.S. Army chief of staff and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; and Gen. John Campbell, who retired in May 2016 after serving as commander of the Resolute Mission and U.S. Forces—Afghanistan.
America’s only four-star Navy admiral of Japanese descent is Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., who currently heads the Pacific Command, headquartered in Honolulu. Harris is expected to become U.S. ambassador to Australia when he retires this spring. The 61-year-old Harris, who was born in Japan, has spent 39 years in the Navy. He is expected to easily win confirmation for the ambassadorship.
The 54-year-old Nakasone assumed his current position as chief of the Army’s Cyber Command on Oct. 14, 2016, responsible for directing a special Army unit that develops digital weapons to attack and disrupt the so-called Islamic State’s online operations. He was also instrumental in expanding the Army’s Cyber Command by recruiting thousands of digital warriors.
In written testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Cybersecurity in May 2017, Nakasone said: “The Army has made significant progress operationalizing cyberspace since it established the Army Cyber Command a little more than six and half years ago. The Army now has 41 Cyber Mission Force teams and is building an additional 21 Reserve Components teams. The Army also has a cyber branch to support cyber soldiers throughout their careers and will soon have a civilian cyberspace effects career program, tailored to our unique mission.”
In a July 2016 panel hosted by the Association of the United States Army, Nakasone said: “We must rethink how we defend ourselves from the increasingly sophisticated and capable enemy cyber advances.”
Nation-state adversaries “continue to use phishing campaigns to achieve initial access to far too many users clicking on links,” Nakasone warned in an Army news release on his speech. Additionally, “malicious cyber actors utilize open-source tools by sophisticated ones to break simple passwords, move laterally and sometimes ex-filtrate data,” he stated.
“Even though we’re aware of these techniques, we are uneven in applying industry’s best practices,” he continued. “Far too many networks are poorly maintained and well behind in patching.”
Cyber defenders likely spend 90 percent of their effort against the bottom 10 percent of network intrusion threats, he said. “This is not an effective means of defending our networks,” Nakasone said.
To respond to this longer-term threat, the Army and the Department of Defense will turn increasingly to the private sector for solutions, he said.
These solutions will most likely include artificial intelligence and machine-learning systems to monitor data and user patterns that will automatically detect intrusion, he added.
A major security breach in 2008 involving a thumb drive led to the establishment of U.S. Cyber Command. While stationed at Fort Meade in Maryland in 2008, Nakasone helped to design the U.S. Cyber Command.
Military service is as much a part of the Nakasone family as its roots in Wahiawä. The general’s father, Edwin “Bud” Nakasone was drafted in August 1945 and served as an interpreter in the Military Intelligence Service during the allied occupation of Japan. Bud Nakasone, now 90, graduated from Leilehua High School. He was discharged from the Army in 1948 as a technical sergeant and subsequently enrolled in the University of Hawai‘i’s Army ROTC program and was commissioned two years later.
Bud Nakasone transferred to the University of Minnesota and served three years of active duty with the 5th Army Intelligence School before transferring to the Army Reserves. He retired as an Army colonel with 41 years of service.
A retired history professor, Bud told the Herald: “I am glad to learn of his promotion to general. Paul has always been a hardworking individual. But best of all, he has never forgotten his Hawai‘i connection. He has always remembered his Hawai‘i ‘ohana, keeping close and sincere relationships with all of the Nakasones.”
In an interview with the Herald last year, Gen. Nakasone said his father’s service in the MIS and his subsequent career as an Army officer influenced his decision to join the military. “I became interested in the military when I was in high school and started learning about the 442nd (Regimental Combat Team). I did a paper on it and interviewed lot of the veterans in 1981 . . . . That got me interested in serving and that led to ROTC.”
After four years of active duty, Paul Nakasone discovered that “I liked what I did and I found out that I was pretty good in what I did. I decided to stay around, and here I am, 32 years later.”
Gen. Nakasone’s paternal grandparents immigrated to Hawai‘i from Okinawa. While raising their family, his grandmother worked as a live-in maid for several Army officers at Wheeler Army Airfield and Schofield Barracks nearly a century ago.
The general and his brother John were born in White Bear, Minn., where their parents, Bud and Mary Nakasone, settled. Paul Nakasone graduated from the Army ROTC program at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., in 1986 with a degree in economics.
He received his military education from the U.S. Army War College, the Command and General Staff College and Defense Intelligence College. He also earned graduate degrees from the U.S. Army War College, the National Defense Intelligence College and the University of Southern California.
Nakasone was twice appointed a staff officer to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and has held senior intelligence roles at the battalion, corps and division levels.
Prior to leading the Army’s Cyber Command, Nakasone headed the Cyber National Mission Force at U.S. Cyber Command. He was also appointed director of intelligence for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
At one time, the Nakasone family owned and operated a pig farm in Wahiawä until the land was taken over by the territorial Department of Public Instruction (today’s Department of Education) to build Leilehua Intermediate and High School.
The general’s late uncle, James Iha, served as a principal of Leilehua High School and retired as a colonel in the Hawai‘i Army National Guard.
Although Paul Nakasone never spent more than a few weeks vacationing in Hawai‘i as a youngster, he developed a taste for Island snacks, thanks to “care packages” sent from relatives in Hawai‘i, which he calls “my second home.”
“Of all the places I have been to around the world, either for work or vacationing, none compares to Hawai‘i and the aloha spirit,” he said.
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.