If there’s one thing you can say for Rex Tillerson’s leadership of the State Department, it is that he doesn’t appear all that concerned with the “optics” of his policy changes. We recently reported that Tillerson is poised to shutter the office of war crimes, to the great consternation of human rights advocates and international law experts.
However, in the midst of a media and political frenzy over potential interference by Russia in the US elections, the closing of the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues seems odd to say the least. The office, also run by an envoy, a position Tillerson seems to have made special targets, will be incorporated into the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs. Again, the State Department cites redundancies and budget cuts as the reason for the reported change. The departure of the department’s coordinator, Christopher Painter, has already been announced.
The office was responsible for a 2015 cyber accord with China as well as attempts to sign Russia up to programs to create “cyber-norms.” In fact, it was in establishing these rules of international cyber behavior that was paramount to its mission. As Tony Cole, a vice president and chief technology officer for the global government unit of FireEye Inc., a cybersecurity firm, reported to Bloomberg, it’s not just governments that depend on the international guidelines set up by the office’s work — businesses engaged in international commerce do as well.
“It’s taking an issue that’s pre-eminent 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 US government and within the international community.”
International tensions over cybersecurity have escalated since the US 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.
. . . 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.
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.”