Trump administration announces new cyber office at State

The announcement, made in the middle of a House hearing examining the State Department's decision to downgrade its cyber office last year, could leave the Cyber Diplomacy Act in limbo.

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The Trump administration announced a proposal to create a new State Department bureau to handle cyberspace and the digital economy.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the announcement in a Feb. 6 letter that was offered into the record at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing convened to discuss the repercussions of the State Department's decision last year to downgrade its cyber coordinator office.

Under Tillerson's proposal, the new office will be led by a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary. 

The move appears intended to check the progress of the Cyber Diplomacy Act, a House bill sponsored by Foreign Affairs Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) to re-establish the former cybersecurity policy structure at State. That bill passed the House by voice vote Jan. 17 and remains without a sponsor in the Senate.

"I think this is a positive step, but we’re going to continue to work with the department and continue to work with our colleagues on the Senate side to make sure that this assistant secretary and bureau is empowered and engaged on the full range of cyber issues dealing with security and human rights and the economy," Royce said.

The move represents an about-face for the State Department, which earned bipartisan ire from Congress last year after announcing it would be merging its cyber office with the Bureau of Economic Affairs.

It’s not clear what will happen to the Cyber Diplomacy Act. At the hearing, several lawmakers said they still hoped for a Senate vote on the measure.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not reply to requests for comment.

The letter was the only administration input at the hearing, and several committee members complained about the administration’s refusal to send representatives to testify.

"I would say again it’s important to have actual members of the Trump administration here, it's important for our committee," said Rep. William Keating (D-Mass.). "The continued lack of having these people here is at best indifference, at worst case, arrogance."

In a statement to FCW, a State Department spokesperson provided further details and timelines for the new office.

“The State Department recognizes its leadership role of diplomatic efforts related to all aspects of cyberspace and the need to have an effective platform from which to engage relevant global stakeholders and exercise that leadership role,” the statement reads. “The proposal, which will be further briefed to our committees of jurisdiction in the weeks to come, would cohesively unify the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues and the Bureau of Economic Affairs’ Office of International Communications and Information Policy.”

Christopher Painter, who served as the cyber coordinator at the State Department before stepping down last year, testified that he believed the administration was focused on broader reorganization priorities and did not fully appreciate the implications of its decision to merge the cyber coordinator office into State's Bureau of Economic Affairs.

"They are working on some of these issues; however, the level of the person who is assigned over there is at a lower level, a deputy assistant secretary level in an economic reporting chain," said Painter. "As important as those issues are, it doesn’t give full voice to all these other issues around deterrence, around incident response. I think it’s an unfortunate [signal]."

After the hearing, Painter took to Twitter to further flesh out his thoughts on the administration's proposal.

“To be clear, though I applaud establishing a bureau, I think a neutral reporting chain ... that gives full voice to all the issues -- including vital security and human rights ones -- rather than one restricted to primarily [economic] issues makes much more sense," Painter said.