'Persistent Engagement': The Phrase Driving A More Assertive U.S. Spy Agency For the director of the National Security Agency, Gen. Paul Nakasone, it means relentlessly tracking adversaries in cyberspace and increasingly taking action against them.

'Persistent Engagement': The Phrase Driving A More Assertive U.S. Spy Agency

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The head of the National Security Agency Army General Paul Nakasone has a favorite phrase. It's persistent engagement. He uses it to cover a broad spectrum of cyberactivities, but at its core, the phrase means relentlessly tracking adversaries and sometimes taking action against them.

NPR's Greg Myre recently went inside the NSA to see how Nakasone is fostering a more aggressive cyber strategy at the country's largest spy agency.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: You can still smell the fresh paint when walking the whitewashed corridors at the Integrated Cyber Center, the newest building on the NSA's expansive compound in Fort Meade, Md.

Good morning. Hi. Greg Myre.


MYRE: Thank you.

Anne Neuberger is a senior NSA official who's part of the Russia Small Group, a task force created in response to Russia's 2016 election interference.

NEUBERGER: Technology's ever-changing, national security threats are ever-changing. And for us to be effective, we need to be as agile - ideally, one step ahead of that.

MYRE: The NSA Director General Paul Nakasone has tapped the 43-year-old Neuberger to lead the new Cybersecurity Directorate. Broadly speaking, it's intended to bring together the NSA's full range of cybercapabilities, offensive and defensive. She's intentionally vague on the details, but she does link her work to Nakasone's larger theme of persistent engagement.

NEUBERGER: Knowing that we're not waiting for the incident - we're tracking, we're understanding, we're degrading their capabilities, their ability to operate in a way that hopefully prevents that key attack. So when he says persistent engagement, that's what he means.

MYRE: We spoke near the Joint Operations Center, a cavernous hall where staffers sit in circular pods of desks. Huge wall screens feature cable news channels and flash updated information. I'm allowed to watch briefly through windows overlooking the floor. Then, with the flick of a switch, the windows frost over, obscuring everything inside.

So what goes on here?

JOSH: Kind of four main threats that we're concerned about from a cybersecurity perspective are China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. That's not necessarily the totality of everything that we deal with, but those are certainly the big ones.

MYRE: That's Josh. He's in the Cybersecurity Operations group, and we can only use his first name. He's in blue jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, untucked. Shaving hasn't been a priority. Civilians like Josh are 60% of the staff. They work alongside the roughly 40% that are military. It makes for an odd mix of cultures. Down in software development, where Josh used to work...

JOSH: Jeans, T-shirt and flip-flops was a pretty standard attire.

MYRE: However...

JOSH: If we're down on the Hill or down at the White House for a National Security Council meeting, you're in suit and tie.

MYRE: The NSA is a big place and getting bigger. It's run by an army of computer scientists, mathematicians and linguists. And ever since its founding after World War II, the NSA has been even more secretive than the CIA. James Bamford has written four books on the NSA. When he wrote the first one in the 1980s...

JAMES BAMFORD: They were enormously paranoid and threatened me twice with prosecution for writing my book.

MYRE: And now...

BAMFORD: They've moved gradually over the years to be more open, but I think each time it's been forced on them through scandals and through congressional hearings and oversight and so forth.

MYRE: Revelations by NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 unleashed a powerful backlash. Again, Anne Neuberger.

NEUBERGER: We're a surveillance agency in a democracy. The risk of losing public understanding of what we're doing, public trust in who we are as an organization is something that has to be forefront in our mind.

MYRE: Today, when the NSA detects bad actors, that information often needs to be shared with the public and those being targeted. Nakasone sent cyberwarriors to Europe last fall to protect against Russian interference in U.S. midterm elections. The U.S. reportedly unleashed a cyberattack on Iran after it shot down a U.S. drone in June.

This points to cyber's prominent role in national security, and the NSA says it's built a pipeline to attract top talent. It doesn't divulge the size of the workforce, though it's believed to be around 40,000. Cynthia Miller, the head of human resources, does volunteer that some 2,000 staffers have been hired this year, one of the larger intakes ever. The bigger challenge is keeping them.

CYNTHIA MILLER: I'm not going to be able to pay you what Google, Amazon or any of those type of companies can pay you, and I don't even attempt to have that discussion. What you get here that you can't get anywhere in the contribution that you make to the United States of America, that's huge, thank goodness.

MYRE: Josh, from Cyber Operations, left the NSA several years ago for a startup. He came back even though it meant a pay cut.

JOSH: There are those nuggets that you get to see here that nobody else gets to see, and there's an excitement factor to that.

MYRE: He says the Islamic State attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people in 2015, prompted his decision to return. He rejoined an operation that crippled ISIS online, much like the setbacks it suffered on the battlefield.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Fort Meade, Md.

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