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Tillerson moves to close State cyber office

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Tillerson moves to close State cyber office

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has outlined a reorganization plan that would involve closing the State Department office charged with promoting U.S. cybersecurity interests abroad, according to a letter obtained Tuesday.

In a letter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Tillerson confirmed his proposal to eliminate the position of cybersecurity coordinator and fold the functions of the cyber office into a bureau in charge of business and economic affairs.

The proposed change, reports of which surfaced in July, is part of a broader effort by Tillerson to reorganize and streamline the State Department’s functions. 

Tillerson is seeking feedback from Congress on the proposed changes, according to the letter circulated this week and obtained by The Hill. The proposal also includes eliminating or downgrading special envoy positions at the State Department. 

“I believe that the Department will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus, and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose,” Tillerson wrote.

“In some cases, the State Department would leave in place several positions and offices, while in other cases, positions and offices would be either consolidated or integrated with the most appropriate bureau,” he added. 

The cyber role, known formally as the coordinator for cyber issues, is currently vacant following the abrupt departure of Chris Painter at the end of July. Painter served in the role for than six years and was charged with engaging with foreign counterparts on cyber issues as well as serving as the State Department’s liaison to the White House and other departments and agencies on cyber, among other responsibilities. 

The cyber coordinator role is one of a handful that Tillerson has proposed cutting, including the U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy and the senior coordinator for international information technology diplomacy. The functions of both positions would be moved under the bureau overseeing economic and business affairs. Some have taken issue with the idea of closing the cyber office, saying that it could be viewed as downgrading the authority of the cyber coordinator and the mission of the office. 

“If it’s a downgrade and a move to the economic bureau, [the international community is] going to say the U.S. isn’t serious any,” James Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Hill in July.

According to Tillerson’s letter, the functions of the cybersecurity coordinator’s office as well as its 23 staff members and support costs would be folded into the Office of the Secretary to the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs. Part of the bureau’s mission is engaging with international partners on telecommunications and Internet policy.

Democrats in Congress have taken issue with the expected move. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) introduced an amendment to appropriations legislation earlier this month that would block Tillerson from using allocated funds to close the office. 

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