New Bill Seeks to Energize American Cyberdiplomacy

Lawmakers argue the State Department needs to balance human rights and national security in cyberspace.

The U.S. State Department in Washington.
The U.S. State Department in Washington. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The heads of the House Foreign Affairs Committee will introduce a bill Thursday that would establish the Office of International Cyberspace Policy at the State Department, a measure that attempts to reinvigorate U.S. cyberdiplomacy efforts.

The bill aims to fill what lawmakers see as a critical gap in the U.S. diplomatic front, as the Trump administration ramps up the targeting of state-backed hackers in China and Russia through sanctions and indictments, while removing Obama-era rules that restricted the U.S. government’s ability to launch offensive cyberattacks. An advance copy of the bill was obtained by Foreign Policy.

The measures also come as efforts to establish guidelines governing state behavior in cyberspace have taken on new urgency. The Russian campaign in 2016 to meddle in the U.S. presidential election illustrated the power of digital tools to interfere in democratic processes, and a slew of cyberattacks in recent years have demonstrated the vulnerability of the global economy to digital weapons.

The bill also seeks to address a broader philosophical fight going on within the government on how the United States should address diplomacy in the digital age, and how to balance human rights and economic priorities with national security concerns. For example, while businesses rely on encryption technology to facilitate a huge range of transactions, the widespread availability of such technology has become a growing concern to national security officials, who fear that it may undermine intelligence collection.

Under the bill, the head of the office would report to the undersecretary of state for political affairs, a move that appears to be aimed at balancing economic, human rights, and national security concerns in U.S. cyberdiplomacy. The bill recommends that the office eventually be elevated to a full-fledged bureau reporting directly to the secretary of state or their deputy.

An earlier State Department proposal, authored by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, housed the diplomatic office under the department’s arms control wing, which some critics argued would have prioritized hard security issues, such as rules governing the use of offensive cyberattacks, at the expense of economic and human rights concerns. The State Department has pushed back on those criticisms, insisting it will balance national security priorities with human rights and economics.

The bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Eliot Engel and Michael McCaul, the ranking Democrat and Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, emphasizes that the United States should pursue a policy of promoting a free and open internet that encourages free expression and promotes human rights.

The State Department and Congress have engaged in debates over where to place the new bureau within the department. The bill directs the department to place the new cybersecurity office under the undersecretary for political affairs or an official “holding a higher position” than that for at least a four-year period, overriding a push from officials in the State Department to place it under the secretary that oversees arms control and international security.

In response to the new bill, a State Department spokesperson said that the department continues to work in consultation with Congress, but department reviews indicate the new bureau would be most effective if it was placed under the undersecretary for arms control and international security.

Critics of the Trump administration argue that it has undermined efforts to promote cybersecurity by attempting to consolidate efforts within the State Department to promote U.S. interests in cyberspace and by eliminating a position within the National Security Council devoted to coordinating American cybersecurity policy.

President Donald Trump has taken a generally hard line in cyberspace by removing Obama-era guidelines on launching offensive cyberattacks and by stepping up pressure against Chinese hackers targeting U.S. businesses.

But that hard-line policy has not been matched by a Senate-approved envoy with the clout to advance U.S. diplomacy abroad. The bill introduced Thursday requires that the head of cyberspace policy office hold a rank no lower than ambassador and that they be approved by the Senate. 

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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