Tillerson’s No. 2 faces questions over State cyber closure

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s deputy faced questions from lawmakers on Tuesday who are worried about his plans to shutter an office responsible for promoting U.S. cybersecurity interests abroad. 

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan appeared before members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and was forced to defend the decision to eliminate the office of cybersecurity coordinator and roll its functions under a bureau in charge of economics and business affairs. 

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) called the move a “downgrade” to the State Department’s cyber diplomacy efforts and raised questions about why the State Department would relegate the responsibilities of the cyber coordinator’s office to an entity focused on economic issues. 

{mosads}“Given the prominent role assigned to the department by the president’s executive order on cybersecurity, I’m concerned about plans to downgrade the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues and merge it with an existing office within the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs,” Wilson said. 

“At a time when the U.S. is increasingly under attack online, shouldn’t the State Department continue to have high-level leadership focused on the whole range of cyber issues, not relegated to economics?” he asked.

Sullivan brushed off concerns that the department’s cybersecurity efforts would be downgraded, assuring lawmakers that cyber is a “priority” for Tillerson. He said the decision to shutter the cybersecurity coordinator’s office was “only the first step in our approach to cybersecurity.”

“We’re committed to raising this to a high level within the department and working with the White House on that issue,” Sullivan added.

Reports surfaced in July that Tillerson could move to shutter the cyber office and eliminate the position of its leader amid news that Chris Painter, who had served in the post for six years, was abruptly resigning. The prospect sparked fears among former officials who saw the move as a downgrade to the department’s cyber diplomacy efforts.

Tillerson confirmed his plans to close the office and move its functions to the economics bureau in an August letter to Congress, which spotlighted a number of changes to special envoy positions baked into Tillerson’s broader effort to reorganize the department. 

The issue took center stage with Wilson’s questioning during Tuesday’s hearing, which was called to examine the department’s reorganization plans.

Wilson suggested that the State Department’s decision to move the cyber coordinator’s responsibilities under the economics bureau might “call into question” Tillerson’s commitment to elevate cybersecurity as a top priority.

Democrats have signaled displeasure with the decision to close the cyber office. And earlier this month, Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), respectively the chairman and ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced legislation that would save the cyber office and establish a high-level ambassador to advance U.S. cyberspace policy. 

Sullivan insisted Tuesday that the move was just a first-step in a broader process. He said that a final decision on where and at what level to place the cybersecurity responsibility has not yet been made and that the department would huddle with members of Congress before making it. 

“The final decision about where and at what level we will place the cybersecurity responsibility hasn’t been decided,” Sullivan said. 

Later, in response to questioning from Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) about efforts to “downplay” cybersecurity at the department, Sullivan insisted that the new administration intends to elevate cybersecurity responsibilities to a “Senate-confirmed level.”

The State Department under Tillerson has made some other moves on cybersecurity, quietly establishing a new office in May to guard against and respond to cyber threats across the department and its offices abroad. 

Trump has also tasked the State Department with producing a report on international cybersecurity priorities with his cybersecurity executive order signed in May. 

Earlier in his testimony, Sullivan emphasized the department’s IT modernization plans, positioning the effort as a way to save money and boost cybersecurity. Despite vast budget cuts to the State Department proposed by the new administration, Sullivan insisted that Tillerson would push for more funding for future IT modernization efforts.

“There are areas as we go forward, particularly with respect to IT infrastructure, where we will in the future need investments,” Sullivan said when Engel suggested the department had “tied” its hands with the budget.

“The secretary has made a commitment to the department — and I will repeat it here to this committee — where we need more resources to do our jobs more effectively, we will seek them. IT is one area particularly where I predict we will need assistance in the future in reforming our IT infrastructure,” Sullivan said. 

Tags Joe Wilson Rex Tillerson

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