IN THE YEARS before he became America’s most powerful spy, Paul Nakasone acquired an unusually personal understanding of the country’s worst intelligence failures.
Growing up, he was reared on his father Edwin’s recollections of December 7, 1941: how Edwin, then age 14, was eating a bowl of cornflakes with Carnation powdered milk when he saw Japanese Zeros racing past the family’s screen door on Oahu on their way to attack Pearl Harbor. They were so close that Edwin, who would grow up to become an Army intelligence officer, could see one of the pilots. “I can still remember to this day,” Edwin would recall years later, “that he had his hachimaki—his headband—around, goggles on.”
Decades later, Paul himself experienced another disastrous surprise attack on America at close range: He was working as an intelligence planner inside the Pentagon on the clear September Tuesday when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building. He remembers evacuating about an hour after the attack and looking over his shoulder at the giant column of black smoke rising from the building where he went to work every day.
Over the next 15 years, as America waged the resulting war on terror, Paul Nakasone became one of the nation’s founding cyberwarriors—an elite group that basically invented the doctrine that would guide how the US fights in a virtual world. By 2016 he had risen to command a group called the Cyber National Mission Force, and he was hard at work waging cyberattacks against the Islamic State when the US suffered another ambush by a foreign adversary: the Kremlin’s assault on the 2016 presidential election.