Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has proposed a new plan to merge two State Department offices to form a new cyber-focused bureau, following concerns over a department reorganization downgraded his department’s role in promoting cyber diplomacy efforts.

In a letter Tuesday to Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Tillerson detailed unifying the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues and the Bureau of Economic Affair’s Office of International Communications and Information policy into a new Bureau for Cyberspace and the Digital Economy.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

The new office will handle the State Department’s future cyber strategies and establish a global deterrence framework. It will be led by a Senate-appointed assistant secretary, who reports to the economic under secretary.

“This placement in the Department’s structure will ensure close coordination with the other bureaus that report to the Under Secretary and focus on functional policy issues while closely coordinating with the private sector. It will also give the Department the most effective platform from which to engage relevant global stakeholders,” Tillerson wrote in his letter. 

Tillerson’s new plan comes after bipartisan concern following a State Department reorganization that eliminated the sole office tasked with carrying out cyber diplomacy and shifting its responsibilities over to the department’s economics bureau. Chris Painter, the department’s top cyber official, resigned from his post as Coordinator for Cyber Issues in the summer of 2017.

Earlier Tuesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on cyber diplomacy where Royce expressed concern that reducing the State Department’s cyber diplomacy role left the U.S. more vulnerable to nation-state cyber threats and exposed the private sector to unfair international data laws.

The House last month unanimously passed the Cyber Diplomacy Act, authored by Royce, which called on the State Department to reopen and provide full resources for its cyber office (Defense Daily, Jan. 17).

Royce received news of Tillerson’s letter during the hearing and relayed the Secretary’s plans to the witnesses, which included Painter.

“This is welcomed. Cyberspace is vital to America’s national security, and to our economy. That’s why I have long called for the State Department to have a high-ranking diplomat who can confront the full range of challenges we face online,” Royce said in a statement following the hearing. “The Foreign Affairs Committee will continue to work with the department and our colleagues in the Senate to ensure this assistant secretary and bureau is empowered to engage on the full range of cyber issues, dealing with security, human rights, and the economy. This includes enacting my Cyber Diplomacy Act.”

During his testimony, Painter spoke to the critical role cyber diplomacy holds in building strategic partnerships to share the latest deterrence technologies and enforcing a framework for global cyber policies. The current lack of a cyber-designated office makes it increasingly harder to ensure consequences for those who interfere with U.S. infrastructure or take advantage of the private sector, according to Painter.

“For the U.S. to continue to lead, as it must, cyber issues must be re-prioritized and appropriately resourced at the State Department,” Painter said during Tuesday’s hearing. “I applaud the fact that they’ve taken action. I think it’s great they’re elevating it. That’s exactly what should be done.”

Painter sees Tillerson’s plan as a first step towards ensuring effective cyber diplomacy, but cautioned against crossing deterrence efforts with the State Department’s economic policy responsibilities.

He also argued the new assistant secretary should report to the State Department’s political affairs under secretary, not the one designated for economic affairs.

“We do a terrible job at deterrence right now. We need to be far better, and far quicker. Responding six months after an attack is not deterrence,” Painter told reporters. “It’s hard to see how you fit things in there like cyber operations, deterrence, norms and international stability and incident responses.”

The new cyber bureau would establish a global deterrence framework, develop policies for imposing costs to cyber actors, advise on cyber incidents, and promote an international regulator environment and cross-border data flow, according to Tillerson’s letter.

Witnesses at the hearing pressed the committee to ensure the State Department continues to prioritize diplomacy policies that deter interference threats from known nation-state actors including China, Iran, North Korea and Russia.

“The United States is not working closely enough with like-minded governments to deter adversaries from stealing secrets or undermining an open and interoperable Internet,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.)  said during the hearing. “We need to engage with friendly governments facing the same threats. We need to push back against countries that will exploit these tools to pilfer our intellectual property, to hack into our country’s most sensitive information and to derail international norms to keep the Internet open and accessible.