Tillerson’s State Department Reorganization Sidelines Cybersecurity Unit: Report

By and Nick Wadhams | July 19, 2017

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is shutting down an office that coordinates cyber issues with other countries, according to two people familiar with the plan, in a move that critics said will diminish the U.S. voice in confronting hackers.

The Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, established under President Barack Obama in 2011, will be folded into the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, according to the people, who asked not to be identified in advance of an announcement. The coordinator will no longer report directly to the secretary of state, going instead through the bureau’s chain of command as Tillerson pushes ahead with a department-wide reorganization, they said.

“It’s taking an issue that’s preeminent and putting it inside a backwater within the State Department,” said Robert Knake, a senior fellow for cybersecurity at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington who was director of cybersecurity policy at the National Security Council under Obama. “Position to power matters both within the U.S. government and within the international community.”

International tensions over cybersecurity have escalated since the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia meddled in last year’s presidential election with the goal of hurting Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and helping elect Donald Trump. In 2015, Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping negotiated a deal to curb corporate hacking, a move that was credited with spurring a decrease in Chinese cyber-espionage.

Cold War Mentality

The decision to shut the office fits a broader pattern under Tillerson, who is eliminating overlap and getting rid of “special envoy” offices that sometimes wrestle with regional bureaus for authority over issues they handle. He has also championed Trump’s plan to cut the department’s budget by nearly 30 percent, arguing that it needs to shed its Cold War mentality and adapt to more modern threats — chief among them U.S. national security and the defeat of terrorism.

The State Department’s current cyber coordinator, Christopher Painter, is leaving the position by the end of the month, Politico reported on Monday. The spokesman for the coordinator’s office declined to comment, although Painter posted a “Thnx” message on Twitter in response to a message that complimented him and linked to a report on his departure.

Instead of closing the cyber office, James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued in a report last year to expand it, promoting the coordinator to ambassador-at-large and creating a new bureau to handle the issues.

‘No Expertise’

The State Department’s “economic bureau has no expertise on these issues and it’s a fundamental misunderstanding,” Lewis, who specializes in cybersecurity and technological warfare, said in an interview. “If that’s what they want to do, fine: Someone will fix in a couple years, but in the meantime we’re going to lose a lot of ground.”

A State Department official, who asked not to be identified because the move hasn’t been formally announced, said the power of the coordinator’s office will be enhanced by being folded into a bigger bureau.

The official said that offices such as the cyber coordinator are separated from the policy knowledge and talent in the bigger bureaus, and such “stove-piping” deprives them of resources to get things done. The official also said Tillerson doesn’t want envoys reporting directly to him because he can’t give them the attention they deserve or he’d have little time for anything else.

‘Cyber Norms’

Another State Department official noted that the agency is in the middle of a massive reorganization — which Tillerson announced earlier this year — and there are no “predetermined outcomes.”

Painter’s office was in the thick of several major cyber-related initiatives during the Obama administration. In addition to the U.S.-China accord in 2015, the office has sought to engage with Russia via international forums on establishing “cyber norms” — a task that failed to stop Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election.

In an interview last year, Painter said one function of his office was to put other countries on notice when their behavior is unacceptable.

“At least talking with each other gives us a better sense of where we are” and a chance to find common ground, Painter said at the time.

Companies rely on the government to work with other countries on global “dos and don’ts” for the internet, according to Tony Cole, vice president and chief technology officer for the global government unit of FireEye Inc., a cybersecurity firm

“It’s sad,” Cole said of Painter’s departure in an interview. “Without a doubt, Chris Painter was the foundation and bedrock that built the structure that State had on actually trying to initiate norms in cyberspace.”

Tillerson’s State Department overhaul also includes a decision to shut the Office of Global Criminal Justice, first reported by Foreign Policy on its website on July 17. The office, which oversees the U.S. response to war crimes, will be merged into the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Other envoys in Tillerson’s sights include the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and the envoy for the Northern Ireland peace process.

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