The Biden administration is launching a new bureau for cyberspace and digital policy at the State Department as part of an effort to strengthen diplomats’ cyber expertise, Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced in an email to the department’s workforce on Monday.
“This structure will provide us with greater leadership and accountability to drive the diplomatic agenda with the interagency and abroad, and build on the extraordinary work that is already taking place across the Department,” Blinken wrote in the email, which was obtained by CNN.
The email stated that Blinken will formally announce the formation of the bureau during a speech on Wednesday.
The plan to increase the department’s focus on cyberspace comes at a critical moment, when cyber threats to the US private and public sectors have become a persistent challenge. Washington has for years tried to build a global consensus around norms of responsible behavior but that effort has taken on more urgency as the Biden administration confronts a string of ransomware attacks on US companies that allegedly originated on Russian soil.
The bureau will focus on three key areas: international cybersecurity, international digital policy and digital freedom, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Monday. The department also plans to appoint a new special envoy for critical and emerging technology, Price added.
“The point we have made is that even with the creation of this new bureau, even with the creation of the new cyber envoy, these issues are going to be pervasive across the department, across the government. So it’s not going to be squarely defined – solely defined to one bureau, to one special envoy – but we do see tremendous value in ensuring that we have a bureau that is focused on these issues, squarely on some of the most important elements of these issues,” Price said.
The Wall Street Journal was first to report the news.
Christopher Painter, a former top State Department cybersecurity envoy, welcomed the new bureau.
“This new organization is the right approach, giving the new bureau a broad cross-cutting mandate and putting it at a level in the department – reporting to the deputy secretary – that gives it heft both inside and outside the department,” Painter told CNN. “More important, it sends a signal to both our partners and adversaries that the US is, once again, treating cyber as a real national security and diplomatic priority.”
Similar structures have existed at the department in the past. The last office similar to this one was shuttered early in the Trump administration, only to be relaunched in the final days of the administration by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The incoming Biden team conducted a review of Pompeo’s proposal and appears to be moving forward with a similar concept that weaves in some slight differences, such as where the bureau will be placed in the department organizationally.
Congressional aides have been in talks with the State Department about this effort for months. Blinken said the department would work with Congress to establish the bureau and the new emerging technology envoy post.
The department has not yet named anyone to lead the bureau or assume the envoy post.