House passes bill restoring State cyber office

Seven months after the Trump administration shuttered a critical State Department office responsible for coordinating international cooperation around cybersecurity issues, Congress took a big step toward reversing the decision.

Shutterstock image: cyber defense.

Seven months after the Trump administration shuttered a critical State Department office responsible for coordinating international cooperation around cybersecurity issues, Congress took a big step toward reversing the decision.

The Cyber Diplomacy Act, which would establish a new Office of Cyber Issues at the Department of State, passed the House Jan. 17 by voice vote. It would largely restore the office as a top conduit for international cyber diplomacy with other nations, while turning the leader of the office into a presidential appointment confirmed by the Senate, with the same status and privileges as a U.S. ambassador.

The legislation also requires the secretary of state to create classified and unclassified versions of an international strategy for developing cyberspace norms and includes a non-binding “sense of Congress” that the office should be elevated to a standalone bureau with its own assistant secretary.

In a speech on the floor, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and author of the legislation, said the office plays a critical role in developing international cybersecurity policy and that the administration’s decision “limits the department’s ability to confront the full range of issues in cyberspace.”

“I believe this sends the wrong signal to Moscow, Beijing and other governments around the world,” said Royce. “The United States should make it clear that we place a high priority on the whole range of cyber issues -- including cybersecurity, internet access, online rights, deterrence and cyber crime.”

The Trump administration’s decision to shutter the Office of Cyber Coordinator received bipartisan criticism from members of Congress, some of whom were already concerned about White House’s inability to publicly articulate strategies to protect critical infrastructure, election systems and other sectors from cyber attacks.

“The Trump administration decided to gut the State Department and with it our ability to address international cyber issues,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and co-sponsor of the bill. “Today, I’m proud that the House rejected the administration’s approach by passing the Cyber Diplomacy Act.”

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus, also threw his support behind the measure, warning that cybersecurity “is not just an economic issue” and that all future international conflicts will have a cyber component that requires corresponding expertise at the nation’s top diplomatic branch.

“It is up to the hardworking -- and sadly underappreciated -- members of our foreign service to…encourage generally stabilizing ‘rules of the road’ in cyberspace, and this bill will ensure they have the leadership structure to do just that,” he said.

The bill cites of a number of international and diplomatic incidents -- such as Russian interference in the 2016 election and a 2015 agreement between the U.S. and China not to use state-sponsored hackers to pilfer intellectual property -- in order to demonstrate the need for an office dedicated to “cooperating with like-minded democratic countries that share common values and cyberspace policies with the United States.”

Christopher Painter, who served as the State Department’s cyber coordinator from 2011 to 2017, praised the bill’s passage on Twitter. Painter, who resigned shortly after Bloomberg Politics reported that a reorganization plan within the State Department would merge the office with the Bureau of Economic Affairs, has been critical of the administration’s decision and argued that the United States should continue leveraging its status as a superpower to shape international consensus around cyber issues.

“It’s a good bipartisan bill [and] too important an area not to be prioritized -- especially as numerous countries have followed our initial lead,” said Painter.

The legislation must now pass the Senate and avoid a veto from the White House to become law.

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