House passes legislation to elevate cybersecurity at the State Department

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The House on Tuesday approved bipartisan legislation aimed at elevating cybersecurity at the State Department through prioritizing and reorganizing a key department on the heels of multiple major foreign cyberattacks against the United States. 

The Cyber Diplomacy Act would require the State Department to open a Bureau of International Cyberspace Policy, and the head of the bureau would be appointed by the president and given the rank of ambassador, reporting directly to either the secretary of State or a deputy. 

The new bureau would lead the State Department’s cybersecurity efforts, including through creating an international strategy to guide efforts by the United States to engage with other nations on cybersecurity issues and to set norms on responsible behavior in cyberspace. 

The bill, reintroduced in February, was previously passed by the House during the last Congress but failed to be considered by the Senate. It was approved Tuesday as part of a larger package of bills by the House in a vote of 355-69. 

It was first introduced in 2017 as a reaction to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision to merge the previous Office of the Cybersecurity Coordinator with another office. 

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the establishment in January of the Bureau of Cybersecurity and Emerging Technology but faced bipartisan backlash on Capitol Hill due to the new bureau’s structure. 

The bill is primarily sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul (R-Texas) with co-sponsors including committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Reps. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), and Bill Keating (D-Mass.). 

Both McCaul and Meeks spoke in favor of the legislation on the House floor earlier this week. 

“This Congress, the House Foreign Affairs Committee aims to prioritize efforts to reassert American leadership on a variety of issues,” Meeks said. “I can’t think of any issue that is more timely than ensuring American leadership is prepared to confront the growing national security challenge in cyberspace.”

“This feels long overdue,” McCaul said on the House floor. “To me, it is the last piece in terms of our cyber role in the federal government, now taking it to the international stage with our allies around the world.”

Langevin said in a statement released following the Tuesday vote that he hoped the Senate would “act with the same speed” as the House did in passing the legislation. 

“As the United States confronts increasingly bold challenges from adversaries in cyberspace, designing and implementing a whole-of-government response strategy ­–  in close coordination with the international community — is an urgent matter of national security,” Langevin said. 

The legislation was passed less than a week after the Biden administration announced sanctions against Russia for its interference in U.S. elections and its involvement in the recent SolarWinds hack, a major incident that compromised at least nine federal agencies and 100 private sector groups. 

It also was passed a month after Microsoft announced that at least one state-sponsored Chinese hacking group was exploiting vulnerabilities in its Exchange Server application to compromise thousands of organizations and the same day multiple agencies were compromised by a new potential Chinese hacking incident. 

Langevin pointed to the Russian sanctions in noting that more collaboration with allied nations was needed to respond to foreign cyberattacks. 

“The firm response to Russian destabilization efforts is welcome, but unfortunately, coordination with our closest allies was lacking,” Langevin said. “Moving forward, a Bureau of International Cyberspace Policy at the State Department will empower our diplomatic corps to ensure like minded nations speak with one voice in the face of norms-busting behavior.”

Gallagher also pushed for the Senate to “quickly act” on the legislation. 

“In an increasingly connected world, we must have the proper structures in place to promote our values and interests in cyberspace,” Gallagher said in a statement Tuesday night. “The House took a significant step toward achieving this mission today.”

Tags Adam Kinzinger Bill Keating China Cyberattack Gregory Meeks Jim Langevin Michael McCaul Mike Gallagher Mike Pompeo Rex Tillerson Russia State Deparment
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