Lawmakers cautiously optimistic about creation of national cyber director

Top figures on the House Armed Services Committee and on a congressionally-mandated cyber panel say they are cautiously optimistic that legislators and the White House can come to an agreement to form a national cyber director position this year.

The position —which has support from both Democrats and Republicans and is the brainchild of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission — would serve as the principal advisor to the president on cybersecurity strategy and policy. The role would also consult with federal departments to develop the U.S. national cyber strategy and supervise its implementation.

“The bottom line is that there’s no single person that’s waking up every single day giving this issue the high level priority that it needs,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) Tuesday during the Billington Cybersecurity Summit. “We really think it’s important to have that single point of conflict of contact for Congress, and for the president United States. We believe the country needs a cybersecurity leader with a high level of prominence within the executive office of the president to effectively coordinate national strategy and provide much needed leadership domestically, internationally, and with state and local and tribal and territorial organizations.”

The White House opposes the creation of the position because it says it creates concerns around the separation of powers. President Donald Trump dismantled the top cybersecurity positions at the State Department and at the National Security Council. It said the move was an effort to cut back bureaucracy and streamline decision making.

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“Big mistake,” current House Armed Services Emerging Threats Subcommittee Chairman Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) told Federal News Network after the roles were cut in 2018. “Cybersecurity is not just a U.S. problem or challenge; it’s an international problem and challenge that we need to work on together. Having an international focus and having someone at the State Department is going to help coordinate those cyber strategies and responses.”

Langevin said Tuesday that cyber policy is stagnant without further leadership.

“We’re going to be treading water on cyber policy for the foreseeable future,” he said. “We need someone with policy budgetary authority that would be able to reach across government. They will be the chief advisor to the President on cyber. They will be coordinating the response in the event of a cyber incident, but also doing cyber planning and coming forward to look at those high consequence events that could really cause significant harm to the country. They will also be planning in advance so that we prevent it from happening or have a quick effective response should the bad day happen.”

Langevin said he has had productive conversations on the issue with Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

The creation of the cyber director position is in the House version of the 2021 defense authorization bill, which is currently in conference. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) is also championing the issue.

“We’re trying to prevent the next Office of Personnel Management hack from happening with this role,” Langevin said in July. “That OPM hack was probably one of our worst intelligence failures and pulled off likely by China. It stole valuable security clearance data of people applying for security clearances in very, very sensitive positions. That data being stolen, and what the Chinese can now do with it, is going to damage our national security for decades to come.”