House Votes to Restore Top Cyber Diplomat’s Office

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif. J. Scott Applewhite/AP File Photo

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The vote is a rare rift on cyber policy with the Trump administration.

The House passed a bill Wednesday restoring and expanding a top cyber diplomacy office that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shuttered in August, marking a rare break on cybersecurity between the Trump administration and congressional Republicans.

The cyber coordinator’s office, which launched in 2011, inspired imitators in more than 20 foreign ministries worldwide. Under veteran White House and Justice Department cyber official Chris Painter, the office negotiated with Russia and China about international rules of the road nations should follow in cyberspace.

Painter’s office also negotiated bilateral agreements on cyber norms and “confidence-building measures” with allies including Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom and helped developing nations build up their cybersecurity infrastructures.

Tillerson closed the office as part of a broad State Department restructuring that included shuttering the offices of numerous special envoys, special ambassadors and other ad hoc positions. Tillerson’s order merged cyber functions into State’s economic section.

The bill, sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and ranking member Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., would make the cyber coordinator’s role a presidential appointment with a “sense of Congress” that the office should ultimately become a full State Department bureau.

The bill also endorses a series of global cyber norms Painter’s office pushed, including that nations should not hack each other for economic gain or cyberattack each other’s “critical infrastructure” such as airports, energy plants and nuclear facilities.

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in September that the department ultimately plans to elevate rather than diminish its cyber mission. However, the department has made no public moves to elevate the mission in the succeeding four months.

Royce noted that plan while introducing the bill in the House floor Wednesday, saying the Cyber Diplomacy Act would essentially fulfill Sullivan’s pledge.

Relegating the cyber office to State’s economic section, he said, “limits the department’s ability to confront the full range of issues in cyberspace—such as security, internet access, online human rights, and cybercrime—beyond the clear economic challenges.”

There’s no word yet on a Senate counterpart to the bill.