The lack of a high-level cybersecurity diplomat in the Department of State has offered adversarial countries the opportunity to flex their hacking muscles, according to Christopher Painter, commissioner for the Global Commission for the Stability of Cyberspace and former Coordinator for Cyber Issues.

Though the office Painter ran at the State Department still exists, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decided to remove the cyber coordinator position after Painter’s retirement from the role in July 2017.

“I was ... disappointed that the State Department, even if temporarily, chose to downgrade my former office and restrict its resources. This sends the wrong message to our adversaries and allies alike. For the U.S. to lead and continue to make significant progress in cyber diplomacy, organizational structure and resources are important,” said Painter at a Feb. 6, 2018, House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

“We had a lot of momentum going, and to say for a six-month period or longer that this was not ... a high priority, has an effect both with our adversaries and with our friends, and I don’t understand why we did that.”

Painter added that a cyber office within the State Department is important to maintaining U.S. leadership in international cyber policy.

It’s not that the State Department doesn’t plan to have a place for cyber leadership, but rather there is debate about where that place should be and what level of authority it would have. Congress has sought to re-prioritize cyber diplomacy within the federal government through the Cyber Diplomacy Act, which would create a high-level Office of Cyber Issues within the State Department.

The bill would give the head of that office the rank of ambassador, and Painter applauded the bill’s prioritization of cybersecurity in diplomatic issues.

The Cyber Diplomacy Act passed the House in January 2018 and awaits hearing in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

The State Department, on the other hand, recently announced that it plans to establish a new Bureau for Cyberspace in the Digital Economy, which would report to the Undersecretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment.

“The State Department recognizes its leadership role of diplomatic efforts related to all aspects of cyberspace and the need to have an effective platform from which to engage relevant global stakeholders and exercise that leadership role,” a State Department spokesperson told Federal Times.

“The proposal, which will be further briefed to our committees of jurisdiction in the weeks to come, would cohesively unify the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues and the Bureau of Economic Affairs’ Office of International Communications and Information Policy.”

However, Painter said that the economic focus inherent in the Undersecretary for Economic Growth office could limit the efficacy of a cyber unit under its direction.

“That’s not the ideal arrangement,” said Painter, explaining that cyber issues often reach far beyond economic concerns. “I applaud the fact that they’ve taken action — I think it’s great that they’re elevating it, that’s exactly what should be done — but I would not put it under the Undersecretary for Economic Affairs.”

According to Michael Sulmeyer, director of the Cyber Security Project at Harvard University and former director for plans and operations for cyber policy at the U.S. Department of Defense, strong cyber diplomacy is needed now more than ever, as Russia expands its influence campaigns on foreign elections and countries like China seek to impose their own policies of restricted internet on other countries.

“Under Chris Painter’s leadership, the State Department pursued international efforts to promote norms of responsible state behavior. This effort gained momentum especially under the latter years of the Obama administration, as did efforts to negotiate bilateral arrangements, like the U.S.-China agreement. The current administration has thus far pursued more bilateral arrangements like the one it announced with Israel last summer,” said Sulmeyer.

“Yet, my impression is that most state behavior, not state rhetoric, reflects a perception in international capitols that the benefits of unrestrained hacking outweigh the costs.”

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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