A pair of Democratic congressmen have introduced a bill meant to reinstate a key cybersecurity position in the White house after national security adviser John Bolton reportedly eliminated the role on Tuesday.
The bill, which Reps. Jim Langevin (D-RI) and Ted Lieu (D-CA) introduced, would create a permanent director of cybersecurity policy within the White House, a position that would coordinate cyber policy measures across the many government agencies and recommend security measures and budgets for those agencies, in collaboration with the administration.
In a statement on Wednesday, Lieu reiterated the current necessity of such an office, saying cybersecurity policy advocates were especially important, given the current geopolitical climate.
“The decision to eliminate the top White House cyber policy role is outrageous, especially given that we’re facing more hostile threats from foreign adversaries than ever before. This move impedes our country’s strategic efforts to counter cybersecurity threats against our country,” Lieu said. “Fortunately, our bill will fill in those holes in government cybersecurity oversight by creating a National Office for Cyberspace in the White House. A coordinated effort to keep our information systems safe is paramount if we want to counter the cyber threats posed by foes like Russia, Iran and China. To do anything less is a direct threat to national security.”
BREAKING: After my reporting on John Bolton eliminating the cyber coordinator post, House Democrats unveil bill to create a new White House cyber office led by a Senate-confirmed director. Bill text: https://t.co/2PqoLFmYmd pic.twitter.com/lwrDmurZ9v
— Eric Geller (@ericgeller) May 15, 2018
Langevin emphasized the need for a “designated expert to harmonize cyber policy” due to the many cybersecurity challenges the country faces, “whether during major incidents or when establishing norms of responsible state behavior in cyberspace.”
“We have had three excellent cybersecurity coordinators since the late Howard Schmidt originated the position. It is an enormous step backwards to deemphasize the importance of this growing domain within the White House,” he said.
In addition to securing a permanent office in the White House, the bill would also establish a “Senate-confirmed director of the office with responsibility for recommending security measures and budgets for federal agencies, coordinating issues relating to cyberspace across the government while promoting civil liberties, and centralizing defense of federal information infrastructure in the event of a large-scale attack,” the congressmen stated.
The Trump administration’s decision to scrap the role of White House cyber coordinator — a role previously held by current acting Homeland Security adviser Rob Joyce, who left the post in April and plans to return to the NSA later this year — was reportedly the result of repeated pressure from newly installed national security adviser Bolton, according to Politico. An internal email obtained by reporters revealed the effort was supposedly meant to “streamline authority,” as the National Security Council already had “two senior directors.”
“The role of cyber coordinator will end,” Christine Samuelian, an aide to Bolton, wrote in the email. “Cyber coordination is already a core capability.”
However, as Politico noted, the role of cyber coordinator came with a specific set of tasks, which appear to be unique to that position alone: not only did the coordinator lead directors and senior directors in developing “a unified strategy for issues like election security and digital deterrence,” that person also acted as the voice of the administration during meetings with foreign officials. Forcing those responsibilities onto remaining officials may strain them unnecessarily or weaken their ability to respond promptly to threats or policy requests.
As some lawmakers noted this week, having more staff dedicated to cybersecurity in the current climate would be prudent.
“We should be investing in our nation’s cyber defense, not rolling it back. We also need to articulate a clear cyber doctrine,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted Wednesday. “I don’t see how getting rid of the top cyber official in the White House does anything to make our country safer from cyber threats.”
Bolton’s decision to slash the cyber coordinator position is especially curious considering the timing. On May 3, the Defense Department announced it would be elevating U.S. Cyber Command to a combatant command, putting it at the same level as other unified combatant commanders and allowing Army Lt. Gen. Paul M. Nakasone to report directly to Defense Secretary James Mattis.
“Just as our military must be prepared to defend our nation against hostile acts from land, air and sea, we must also be prepared to deter, and if necessary, respond to hostile acts in cyberspace,” Pentagon spokesperson Dana W. White said in a statement.
Previously, Bolton himself has advocated for a stronger cybersecurity front, pushing the idea of a “retaliatory cyber campaign” against digital adversaries like China, Russia, and North Korea, a move some experts told Politico could easily backfire.
“[Bolton’s] rhetoric here is putting any sense of balance we have here at risk,” former Air Force cyber officer and Dragos Security co-founder Robert Lee said in April.
Added former Obama administration cyber-policy adviser Ash Carter, “If you’re covered in gasoline, be careful throwing matches.”