House Foreign Affairs Leaders Push to Save State Cyber Office

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., left, and the committee's ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.,

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., left, and the committee's ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., Jacquelyn Martin/AP

A bipartisan bill would make the cyber coordinator’s office permanent and a presidential appointment.

The State Department’s cyber office, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced plans to shutter last month, would be made permanent under legislation offered Thursday by the top Republican and Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Cyber Diplomacy Act would create a permanent Office of Cyber Issues in the State Department with an ambassador-level leader appointed by the president. That’s a step up from the current office’s coordinator for cyber issues, who is appointed by the secretary.

The office’s tasks would remain relatively unchanged, focusing on leading bilateral and multilateral cyber dialogues with other nations, promoting internet freedom and good behavior in cyberspace, combating cyber crime and advising the secretary on cyber issues.

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The bill is aimed at promoting democratic principles online and countering Russian and Chinese efforts to exert more control over the internet or to censor web content, the sponsors, Foreign Affairs Chair Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and ranking member Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said in a fact sheet.

Royce and Engel’s bill is the most significant bipartisan effort so far to roll back Tillerson’s plan.

Royce and Engel invited the recently ousted Cyber Coordinator Chris Painter to testify before their committee soon after he left office but that hearing was postponed and has not been re-scheduled.

Tillerson announced plans to close the cyber office and roll its responsibilities into State’s economics section in August. The plan, which would also shutter the offices of numerous other special envoys and ambassadors, was aimed at streamlining State Department bureaucracy.

The plan to close the cyber office in particular, however, prompted widespread condemnation from members of Congress who said it sent the wrong message to cyber adversaries including Russia and China, especially in the wake of Russia’s digital meddling in the 2016 election.

Painter made a similar argument during an interview with Nextgov this month, saying the move could suggest the U.S. is stepping back from its commitment to promoting and enforcing global rules of the road in cyberspace.