Bill to Reinstate and Elevate Top Cyber Diplomat Advances from Senate Committee

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The Trump administration first removed the position, then combined it with State’s internet governance chief.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday forwarded its version of a bill that would reverse a Trump administration move that effectively downgraded State Department cybersecurity efforts.

The Cyber Diplomacy Act would create an Office of Cyberspace and the Digital Economy inside the State Department with a Senate-confirmed director responsible for leading the cybersecurity efforts across numerous spheres.

The bill passed the House in January but in a slightly different form. There’s no schedule yet for when the bill will reach the Senate floor.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton created a similar office during her tenure, but the director, called the State Department cyber coordinator, was not Senate confirmed.

Chris Painter, a former Justice Department and White House official, was the only person to fill that role. Painter continued to serve through the first several months of the Trump administration before his office was eliminated by then-Secretary Rex Tillerson as part of a broader effort to cut bureaucracy.

Tillerson later reinstituted the cyber coordinator position under congressional pressure but made it a combined role with the State Department deputy assistant secretary responsible for internet governance issues.

A main criticism of Tillerson’s scheme is that the combined position is housed inside State’s economic bureau, which limits how much influence the official has on national security cyber issues.

The Office of Cyberspace described in the Senate’s Cyber Diplomacy Act would be housed within State’s political bureau for at least the first four years.

The Senate bill also includes a non-binding provision expressing Congress’s opinion that the office should be elevated to a State Department bureau in its own right.

Tillerson’s successor as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has not said if he wants to make any changes in how the department manages cyber.

“We need a robust agenda for cyber diplomacy with the leadership and congressional oversight necessary to carry it out successfully,” Senate Foreign Affairs Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said in a statement after the bill passed the committee. He added that “enactment of this legislation will more effectively focus and centralize cyber diplomacy efforts at the State Department.”

The Senate bill also lays out a number of cyberspace rules of the road that the U.S. government should promote internationally.

Those include that nations should not hack each other’s critical infrastructure or cyber emergency responders and that they should not hack each other’s companies to steal intellectual property or trade secrets.

Other norms state that nations should not pass restrictive laws requiring companies to store citizens’ data inside their borders and should ensure “that the human rights that people have offline should also be protected online.”