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Former State Cyber Coordinator Says It Was a Mistake to Close His Office

Flickr user ITU Pictures

When Chris Painter became the State Department’s first cyber coordinator in 2011, he had no international counterparts.

The U.S., alone among nations, had decided the topics his office oversaw—developing international rules of the road in cyberspace, lobbying for a free and open internet, and helping developing nations build cyber emergency response teams—deserved its own office in the State Department.

Now, there are more than 20 similarly positioned cyber executives at foreign ministries across the globe, but Painter’s office is vacant. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shared plans to shutter the office along with dozens of other offices of special envoys, coordinators and ambassadors in an effort to streamline the State Department bureaucracy.

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Painter’s office will be merged into State’s Bureau of Economic Affairs, according to a plan Tillerson sent to Congress on Monday. Painter’s role—filled by someone else—will be dropped in rank and have less power to work across State bureaus or to press issues on the international stage.

Painter criticized that move in a wide-ranging interview with Nextgov Thursday.

International cyber issues are too broad to be pigeonholed inside a single bureau, he said. Some global cybersecurity challenges, such as nation-state cyberattacks and terrorist recruiting online, also risk being given short shrift by an economic section that’s less concerned with security challenges, he said.

While Painter hopes the new arrangement will work, he said he’s concerned the U.S. may be stepping back from its historic role as a global leader in cybersecurity.

Painter, who is a former prosecutor and longtime Justice Department employee on loan to the State Department, stressed that he was speaking in his personal capacity, not on behalf of any agency.

The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Nextgov: Why do you think State decided to roll your office into the Bureau of Economics?

Painter: I don’t really know. I think part of it was really driven by ‘we should get rid of a lot of special envoys.’ I think my office was different in a lot of ways from most of the special envoys, though. One criticism of a lot of special envoys is that they’re up and outside of the bureaus they should normally deal with, whereas my office was deliberately set up to deal with all of the regional bureaus and really all of the functional bureaus. We dealt with everything from the bureaus of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor to International Narcotics and Law, to Counterterrorism, because a lot of terrorists use the internet, to Arms Control. We were really across the board.

One reason my office was created was that, in each of these areas, the office has its own perspective and they’re meant to advance that perspective. What we tried to do is meld all of those together to come up with a stronger, higher-level policy on cyber issues. I don’t know if that was fully understood.

Even if you do decide to get rid of the special envoy positions, there are other ways to do this I think than the way they chose to do it.

On a broad level, I’m tremendously proud of what we accomplished. However they go forward, my primary wish is that we don’t lose momentum, that we continue to build on this progress and really be leaders. I worry that the way they chose to set it up will have an impact.

Nextgov: What’s wrong with placing the office inside the economics bureau?

Painter: There are two things I see as a concern. One, if you move it down the organizational chain, that sort of pigeonholes it in the bureaucracy. You’re reporting to an assistant secretary who reports to an undersecretary. Whereas, the position I was in reported to the secretary and was able to deal with all the different bureaus. Wherever you put it, there’s going to be a difficulty in signaling [the office’s importance], both within the building and outside the building. If there are ways to ameliorate that or mitigate that, great, but that’s a structural concern and structure does sometimes drive strategy.

The other thing is that the issues my office was leading on were issues like [deterring nations from attacking each other in cyberspace] and international stability and cyber norms [of behavior] and applications of international law [to cyberspace] and working with other countries to have collective action around shared cyber threats. None of those things fit very well in the economic chain and indeed there might be tension between them.

I think people in the economic bureau do important work and my office worked with the economic bureau on some issues, particularly around internet governance. But, people advance the interests of areas they’re in and if you have to go through the economic chain, not all our areas of interests are on the table. It’s especially hard when international counterparts are often in the security area. Some of the countries that are challenges on cyber, like China and Russia, are very much in the security area.

When you’re not playing in this arena every day, there’s a sense that anything that involves the internet is the same, but it’s not. Just like in the real world, there’s a spectrum of activity.

I’m not saying it absolutely can’t work but it creates some initial challenges.

Nextgov: The coordinator for international communications and information policy position is also being rolled into the economics bureau. Is it your sense those positions will be merged?

Painter: I don’t want to speak for them, but that was the impression I got. And, in fairness, that job and the job I was doing, those are both full time jobs. There’s a lot of stuff going on. Obviously, I want that person to succeed and I want the mission to succeed, but it’s harder at that level.

Nextgov: What message do you think this sends to your counterparts in other foreign ministries?

Painter: I worry about that. Uncertainty with our allies is never helpful. They’ve followed our lead and upped this issue as a major foreign policy issue and we want to continue to signal that it’s important. And we don’t want to worry about the signal we’re sending to our adversaries. It’s important that the U.S. continue to lead in this area.

Nextgov: Where do you plan to go next?

Painter: I don’t know. I loved being at that job and I’m glad I got to do it as long as I did. I’m also glad I got to do it during the last six months [during the Trump administration]. I think that helped to continue the path that we were on. I’ve had a very interesting career and I’ve loved all the jobs I’ve had. I’m bad at taking any time off and I don’t take vacations very well, so I have lots of leave time built up and I’m taking some time off. Then I’ll consider what makes sense. I obviously want to stay in this substantive area but I don’t want to rush things.

Nextgov: Are we in a better or worse place regarding cyber issues than we were when you took this post in 2011?

Painter: We’re in a better place in some ways, but the challenges have also increased. We’ve made substantial progress in a number of areas. Six years ago, this was often thought about as a technical issue. You went to cabinet secretaries and ministers or even CEOs and talked about cyber and it didn’t evince much of a reaction. That’s changed dramatically. Now, there’s a recognition this is a core issue of national security and of economics and of human rights.

We’ve made progress as a country coordinating activities among various agencies. Internationally, we’ve built a whole framework of international law and made progress on deterrence. We’re much better off dealing with collective threats, including cybercrime.

We’ve reached agreements with countries that have changed their views. We reached an agreement with China [that barred both nations from hacking the others’ companies for economic gain] that was the result of years of sustained diplomatic effort and other pressure. I think that had an effect. We still need to ensure China complies comply with the agreement and there need to be consequences if they don’t.

Nexgtov: Was the 2015 no commercial hacking deal with China the most important accomplishment during your time in office?

Painter: It’s probably the most high-profile one, but I’d actually say that the bigger accomplishment is the whole framework of stability and how we work with our partners and like-minded coalitions to react to threats. I think that’s the one that will be really important long term. on a macro level, creating an entirely new area of foreign policy focus around the world is up there.

Nextgov: In what ways are we worse off than we were six years ago?

Painter: Not surprisingly, threats continue to arise from criminals and nation states. We’re getting more dependent on these technologies and there are a greater number of vulnerabilities that have first and second order impacts.

You also have some states that are frankly much more destabilizing. The director of national intelligence named four major cyber actors: China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. There are also more countries developing cyber capabilities, often for defensive purpose, but that also creates concerns.

We’re also not over the battles for the future of the internet. Some countries want to draw sovereign boundaries around cyberspace and to control content and information [such as China’s internet censorship regime] and that’s not what the U.S. is about.

Nextgov: What effect did Russia’s digital meddling in the 2016 campaign have on the way the world views cybersecurity?

Painter: I don’t think people saw this coming and it did wake people up. It was such an assault on our democratic process that it caused people who don’t normally pay attention to say, ‘This is a really important issue.’ That’s going to have an impact going forward.

Nextgov: Has the U.S.’s cyber standing been damaged because of President Trump’s hesitancy to acknowledge Russian cyber meddling in the election?

Painter: I prefer not to get into it. I’ll just say that when you have certain activity there has to be consequences. There have to be consequences for activity that undermines the democratic processes of our elections.

Nextgov: You’re known for covering your office wall with posters from movies that have cyber themes. What are some favorites?

Painter: There are a lot of favorites. There’s “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” which I saw in grade school and sat through twice. That tells you something about my personality, maybe. It was the first movie where a computer took over the world. It’s still a classic, kitschy but good. “War Games” was great. “Sneakers” is a wonderful movie. It’s hard to pick among my various children.

There are some bad ones too, to be sure, and some that clearly jumped the shark. There are very few that aren’t dystopian in nature. “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with HAL, was another one that I saw when I was a kid and was enamored with. This isn’t a cyber movie, but, at my going-away party, my staff gave me a poster for “The Avengers” that they’d taped all their faces on.

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