Cybersecurity

Portman warns against overlap in government cyber leadership

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) gives an opening statement during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing to discuss the President’s FY 2023 budget for Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.
Greg Nash
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) gives an opening statement during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing to discuss the President’s FY 2023 budget for Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) on Wednesday said he was worried there are too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to leading the federal government’s cyber security efforts. 

Portman’s remarks came during a nomination hearing for Nathaniel Fick, President Biden’s nominee to be the ambassador at large for a new cyber bureau launched within the State Department in April. 

“What I’m concerned about is that we have overlapping responsibilities and authorities with regard to our cyber defense,” Portman said.

“We seem to keep adding more and more top cybersecurity positions to our government,” he added. 

The State Department bureau was established to deal with international issues related to cyber and emerging technologies. 

Portman said the position that Fick was nominated for seems to overlap with some core functions of the national cyber director at the White House, who also oversees some international components of cybersecurity. Portman then asked Fick how he would address his concern.

Fick said his role would fill an important gap within the government, adding that other key institutions, including the White House and the Department of Defense, have “a strong presence in cyberspace” and that the same is needed within the State Department.

“I believe that diplomacy should be our tool of first resort,” Fick said, adding that if confirmed to lead the bureau he would create clear lines of responsibility.

The bureau currently has three policy units: international cyberspace security, digital freedom, and international information and communications policy.

While introducing Fick to the committee, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) praised the Biden administration for taking the initiative to create the new bureau.

“We want someone who gets up every morning thinking about the international ramifications of cyber and that’s what this office will do,” King said. 

Fick is currently the general manager of the tech firm Elastic. He was previously the CEO of Endgame, a cybersecurity software company. Fick also served in the Marine Corps, with combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Fick laid out to the committee some of his top priorities should he be confirmed. He said he would seek to establish a culture within the entire State Department in which expertise in cyber and digital technologies is a must.

“I can imagine a future where any candidate to be a chief of mission is expected to have an understanding of these issues because they’re a substrate that cuts across every aspect of our foreign policy,” Fick said. 

He added he would also focus on international challenges, including Russian cyber threats and the U.S. digital competition with China. 

“Countries such as the People’s Republic of China and Russia have a very different vision for cyberspace and the use of digital technologies, which is why American leadership matters in this arena,” Fick said. 

Fick’s nomination hearing follows the launch of a new cyber bureau in London headed by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). The agency said the bureau will serve as a focal point for international collaboration between the U.S. and U.K. governments. 

CISA Director Jen Easterly said at the time that “to help build resilience against threats domestically, we must think globally.”

The committee will hold a business meeting at a later date to vote on whether to advance Fick’s nomination to the Senate.

Tags cyber security digital diplomacy Nathaniel Fick Rob Portman state department
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