State Dept insists cyber a priority despite office closure

State Dept insists cyber a priority despite office closure
© Camille Fine

A State Department official defended the decision to close an office dedicated to cyber diplomacy, saying it reflects an effort to integrate cyber and digital economy policymaking efforts.

Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonPompeo jokes he'll be secretary of State until Trump 'tweets me out of office' Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN ambassador job Trump administration’s top European diplomat to resign in February MORE notified Congress in August of the department’s decision to shutter the cybersecurity coordinator’s office, an entity responsible for engaging with other countries on cyber policy. It is being folded into a bureau focused on economic affairs as part of a broader agency redesign. 

The move has prompted concerns and criticism among lawmakers who worry that cybersecurity efforts at the agency would take a backseat at a time when hacking threats from criminals and nation-states abound.

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Charles Faulkner, a legislative affairs official at the department, sought to allay those concerns in a recent letter to Rep. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellMichigan lawmakers ask ICE to stop deportation of Mexican journalist Dem lawmakers unveil Journalist Protection Act amid Trump attacks on media The Hill's 12:30 Report: Cohen back on the hot seat MORE (D-Mich.), laying out the reasoning behind its closure. 

Faulkner wrote that the decision to fold the cyber office into the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs — which as part of its portfolio handles international communications and information technology policy — would consolidate the agency’s efforts on cybersecurity and the digital economy.

“In recognition of the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead and the increasing convergence of cyber security and digital economy issues, it is clear that cyber statecraft requires a more deliberate and systematic treatment than the stand-alone office of a coordinator can provide,” the official wrote. 

Faulker said that the new consolidated team working on these issues will be “led, resourced, and organized to execute a comprehensive and fully integrated cyber policy and digital economy strategy.” He stressed that the State Department “is committed to leading the international community on cyber policy and digital economy issues.”

The letter was sent last month and first reported by Politico in recent days. 

The State Department was responding to a letter penned by Dingell and nearly two-dozen House Democrats back in July urging Tillerson to keep the cyber diplomacy office in tact. 

The department's response did not satisfy Dingell, who criticized Tillerson for moving forward with the planned closure despite blowback from Congress. 

“Cyberattacks from nation-states and other bad actors continue to pose a constant threat to our economy and critical infrastructure, and a strong and coordinated response from government agencies and the private sector is crucial,” Dingell said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, a bipartisan cadre of lawmakers led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceFormer GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop Lawmakers propose banning shark fin trade Bottom Line MORE (R-Calif.) has introduced legislation that would save the office and reinstate the position of State Department cybersecurity coordinator. 

The abrupt departure of cybersecurity coordinator Chris Painter in July stirred fears among some experts and former officials that the position and office could be downgraded. Painter was brought on by President Obama in 2011 and is widely credited with expanding the department's efforts to engage with international partners on cybersecurity.