State Dept. Reverses Course, Plans to Launch Cyber and Digital Economy Bureau

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier shuttered a cyber coordinator’s office with similar duties.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to launch a new cyberspace and digital economy bureau, seemingly reversing course under congressional pressure after he shuttered the department’s cyber coordinator’s office in August.

Tillerson announced plans for the new bureau in a letter to House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., delivered in the middle of a Tuesday hearing on cyber diplomacy issues. Among the witnesses testifying at that hearing was the department’s ousted cyber coordinator Chris Painter.

The new bureau “would cohesively unify the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues and the Bureau of Economic Affairs’ Office of International Communications and Information Policy,” a State Department spokesperson said.

The department plans to brief Congress more about the bureau in coming weeks, the spokesperson said. 

Royce and the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., introduced legislation to both re-open and elevate the cyber coordinator’s office, which passed the House earlier this month.

That bill, the Cyber Diplomacy Act, would create a congressionally mandated cyber office inside the State Department headed by a presidentially appointed director.

Members of the Senate have “been receptive” to the bill, Royce said Tuesday, but there’s not yet a Senate counterpart.  

Closing the cyber coordinator’s office sets a poor example for U.S. allies during a time of heightened cyber tensions with Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, lawmakers and cyber advocates have said.

They’re also concerned it might embolden U.S. cyber adversaries.

“I think it sends a message to our adversaries that this is an opportunity for them to flex their muscles,” Painter said during the hearing.

Another concern is that the remainder of Painter’s office was moved inside State’s economics bureau, despite the fact that cyber issues affect numerous non-economic concerns, including national security and human rights.

It’s not clear from the title of the new bureau if its leader will have authority over all those domains.

Royce said in a statement that he will “continue to work with the department … to ensure this assistant secretary and bureau is empowered to engage on the full range of cyber issues, dealing with security, human rights, and the economy.” He also pledged to continue to push for Senate passage of the Cyber Diplomacy Act.

Painter’s office was the first of its kind when it launched in 2011. Since then, roughly 20 other nations have opened cyber offices inside their foreign ministries.

During its six-year lifespan, the office pushed and won broad international support for various norms of national behavior in cyberspace, including that nations shouldn’t hack each other for economic gain and that they should cooperate in combating cyber crime.

Some lawmakers criticized the office, however, for avoiding a blanket condemnation of intelligence and surveillance focused hacking by U.S. adversaries—activites the U.S. also conducts.

Painter and other panelists at Tuesday’s hearing expressed concern that the U.S. has not substantially retaliated against Russia’s digital meddling in the 2016 election campaign, saying it suggests to other nations that the U.S. won’t punish bad actions in cyberspace.

The Trump administration declined last month to implement sanctions against Russian businesses imposed by Congress, saying that the threat of those sanctions had sufficiently deterred other nations from doing business with Russia.

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