White House 'rumoured to close State Department's only cyber security office' as top diplomat quits

'It would be a step back for US leadership on the issue' 

Mythili Sampathkumar
New York
Tuesday 18 July 2017 23:38 BST
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson (L) attend at the ceremony of the signing of an agreement between state-controlled Russian oil company Rosneft and ExxonMobil in June 2012
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson (L) attend at the ceremony of the signing of an agreement between state-controlled Russian oil company Rosneft and ExxonMobil in June 2012 (MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)

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It has been reported that the cyber security office in the State Department may be closed as its top diplomat quits.

Christopher Painter, the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, is leaving his post at the end of the month after well over two decades of leadership on the issue, per Politico.

The news outlet also reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may shut down Mr Painter’s office, which is responsible for “negotiating joint agreements with other countries on issues like protecting critical infrastructure and developing cyber norms.”

Mr Tillerson may also merge the cyber security office with an office in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

Mieke Eoyang, Vice President for the National Security Program at DC-based think tank Third Way, told The Independent the closure is “problematic,” at best.

The news comes on the heels of a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.

Mr Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and translators were the only people present at the meeting.

The former ExxonMobil CEO addressed the media after the bilateral and said the Mr Trump did ask Mr Putin if Russia hacked the US election, a fact that has been corroborated by several US intelligence agencies.

Mr Putin said his denial was accepted by the US president, a narrative that did not match Mr Tillerson’s and has since not been resolved.

There was also a discussion - according to Mr Tillerson's account - that there would be a joint US-Russia effort tasked with ensuring cyber security. It was ridiculed by Mr Trump's critics and he later backtracked on his statement.

Mr Trump's campaign team is also under investigation by the FBI, Congress, and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller for alleged ties to Russian officials prior to Mr Trump taking office.

The possible closure points to “a real lack of interest in what other countries are going through,” Ms Eoyang said.

The State Department should be “the natural point of contact” for diplomats wanting to discuss cybersecurity issues, Ms Eoyang explained, adding that “no country will want to talk” the National Security Agency (NSA).

The may not want to deal with the Trump administration-proposed US Cyber Command either, to be carved from the NSA.

The nature of these US government offices is not inherently about diplomacy like the State Department’s office.

The Government Accountability Office is still reviewing the proposed split and Representative Adam Smith, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, told Politico that “we must avoid leaving either organisation with diminished capabilities or creating institutional gaps that could endanger national security”.

Sen. Lindsey Graham: Trump is empowering Putin by ignoring the cyber attacks

Jason Healey, a senior cyber researcher at Columbia University told Politico that “if the US were to surrender that leadership [on cyber security]...[it] would mean the future internet will have more Russian and Chinese characteristics.”

Michael Sulmeyer, director of the Harvard Belfer Center’s Cyber Security Project and former director of Cyber Policy Plans and Operations at the Defence Department, told The Independent that the closing this office “would be a step backwards for U.S. leadership in the world on this issue.”

Another former US cybersecurity official told The Independent that because cyber security is an increasingly important national security issue in light of Russia, “the Untied States creates risk for itself when it short-changes the diplomatic element”.

Ms Eoyang points out as well that what Russia did by “breaking into a campaign’s headquarters” as they did in hacking the Democratic National Committee is “criminal” and Mr Tillerson may shut down the office under his purview responsible for dealing with that problem.

Part of the problem is that Mr Painter was, according to Mr Sulmeyer, “‘the” voice of American diplomacy on such a wide-range of technology and cyber security issues”.

Mr Painter had investigated and prosecuted cyber crime cases in Los Angeles as a US Attorney, in the Department of Justice, FBI, and National Security Council.

He is not a political appointee, but a career civil servant, which the former US cyber security official felt limits the Mr Painter’s power in the position.

However, Mr Sulmeyer said Mr Painter’s breadth and depth of experience made it easy for him to work across the US government and understand the concerns of other countries from a more holistic view.

“The risks are that it will take the State Department a long time to select a permanent successor if they ever do, and that the learning curve on these issues is steep,” said Mr Sulmeyer.

Whoever is appointed - because “someone has to represent the US in international fora...better be a quick study and good at working towards constructive outcomes. A pit-bull mentality is not ideal for this kind of job. But that person must be on-guard for efforts to undermine US interests”.

It would not be surprising if the position does go unfilled given the many positions within the State Department that Mr Tillerson has yet to fill.

At the highest level, the Trump administration only has six Senate-confirmed Ambassadors around the world: the United Nations, Israel, Senegal/Guinea-Bissau, Congo-Brazzaville, China, and New Zealand/Samoa.

“Coalitions require maintenance, and senior leadership is a part of that. But if [Mr] Tillerson decides to fill the role...they will find a very capable staff of career officials advising them,” said one former US official.

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