Cybersecurity

House votes to restore State cyber office, bucking Tillerson

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House lawmakers have passed legislation that would restore a State Department office to engage with the international community on cybersecurity policy, in a sign of disapproval to Secretary Rex Tillerson’s reorganization efforts.

The Cyber Diplomacy Act passed the House in a voice vote Wednesday afternoon, nearly five months after Tillerson notified Congress of his plans to shutter the Office of Cybersecurity Coordinator.

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Democrats and Republicans have both expressed concerns and, in some cases, criticism of Tillerson’s decision to eliminate the office and shuffle its responsibilities under a bureau responsible for economic and business affairs.

“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?” Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) asked John Sullivan, Tillerson’s deputy, at a hearing in September.

State Department officials have insisted cyber remains a top priority at the department and that the move reflects an integration of the department’s cyber and digital economy policymaking efforts.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) introduced the legislation in September.

The bill would, by law, establish an Office of Cyber Issues to engage with other countries on cyber threats and promote U.S. interests in cyberspace abroad. The office’s leader would have the rank of ambassador and would be Senate confirmed. It attracted a slate of bipartisan co-sponsors.

The bill’s path forward is uncertain in the Senate, where no companion legislation has been offered.

Cybersecurity coordinator Chris Painter left his position at the end of July, amid rumblings that Tillerson was planning to close his office. The official’s responsibilities are now housed within the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, where State has brought on Rob Strayer to serve as deputy assistant secretary for cyber and international communications and information policy. 

Tillerson has shepherded the department through a broad redesign meant to streamline agency operations and cut back on waste that has at times faced blowback on Capitol Hill.

Many employees have exited the department, including the official responsible for overseeing the reorganization, amid signs of declining morale.

Tags cyberattacks Ed Royce Eliot Engel House Joe Wilson National security Rex Tillerson State Department

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