John Bolton eliminates key White House cybersecurity role

It could be part of a larger shakeup at the National Security Council.

National Security Adviser John Bolton listens as President Trump addresses the nation on the situation in Syria. CREDIT: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
National Security Adviser John Bolton listens as President Trump addresses the nation on the situation in Syria. CREDIT: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

National Security Adviser John Bolton has decided to eliminate a top cybersecurity role at the National Security Council, Politico reported Tuesday.

“The role of cyber coordinator will end,” Bolton aide Christine Samuelian told staff Tuesday, according to an email obtained by Politico. Samuelian reportedly said eliminating the position well help “streamline authority” within the NSC.

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Within hours of the news, Reps. Jim Langevin (D-RI) and Ted Lieu (D-CA) introduced a bill to create a National Office for Cyberspace, with a Senate-confirmed head, at the White House.

Former President Barack Obama created the role of cyber coordinator, sometimes called “cyber czar,” in May 2009 to oversee the government’s cybersecurity efforts in the face of growing online threats from Russia, China, and Iran.

Trump’s first cyber coordinator, Robert Joyce, left the position Friday to return to the National Security Agency. The news means Joyce won’t be replaced. It’s part of a larger shakeup of the National Security Council by Bolton, first reported by Fox News last month, that will likely eliminate and combine high-level posts.

The State Department eliminated a similar position last year.

Sens. Angus King (I-ME) and James Lankford (R-OK) lit into senior U.S. intelligence officials during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing earlier this year over the lack of a U.S. doctrine to respond to cyber attacks and who, exactly, advises the president on cyber issues.

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“Is there a point person to be able to give recommendations on an appropriate response to a cyber attack to the president?” Lankford asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

The answers he got bounced between programs housed in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and statutory authorities granted the secretary of defense.

“[W]e, at this particular point, cannot point to one sort of cyber czar,” Coates concluded.

King and Lankford’s offices did not respond to a request for comment before the publication of this article on Tuesday.

The White House cyber role was meant to coordinate some of those efforts across the government, but it’s been troubled since its inception. Obama had a hard time filling the position, which reported to both the National Security Council and the National Economic Council.

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In its final report, Obama’s Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity recommended elevating the position to report directly to the president. Now the cyber coordinator’s duties will fall on the NSC cyber team’s two senior directors.

The news comes just days after the Department of Defense elevated the role of U.S. Cyber Command, as a new NSA and Cyber Command director is settling into office.

“With no one at the helm at the White House to manage this process, I worry about which countries will step in,” Megan Stifel, former NSC director for international cyber policy, told Politico before the decision.

In a tweet storm Tuesday, Senate Intelligence Committee vice chair Mark Warner (D-VA) laid out a long list of cyber threats — from state actors like China and Russia to ransomware and cyber crime — and called on the White House to keep the cyber coordinator position.

“[W]e should be investing in our nation’s cyber defense, not rolling it back,” Warner tweeted. “We also need to articulate a clear cyber doctrine. 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.”


UPDATE (5/15/2018): “I’ve spent the last year pushing the Administration to establish a doctrine of cyber deterrence, and I’ve consistently heard that this is a ‘whole of government’ project,” Sen. Angus King (I-ME) said Tuesday night in a statement to ThinkProgress. “The reported elimination of this position, which should be coordinating the effort, is deeply concerning. I am hopeful that my concern will be misplaced, and that this new bureaucratic structure will establish the procedures we need to defend our nation from cyberattacks – but as of now, this appears to be a step backward at a moment when we should be sprinting forward to address our serious cyber vulnerabilities.”


UPDATE (5/16/2018): “It is absolutely critical that we have a clear cyber doctrine and strategy to defend ourselves against the numerous international and domestic threats – especially those that target our infrastructure and the foundations of our democracy,” Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) said in a comment to ThinkProgress on Wednesday morning. “There are a multitude of government organizations working in cyber and I encourage the Administration to clearly define who is leading the mission of coordinating the cyber landscape full-time before our adversaries are allowed the opportunity to exploit our cyber vulnerabilities.”