Politico is reporting that the National Security team, lead by John Bolton, is considering doing away with the top White House cybersecurity job. The role of special assistant to the president and cybersecurity coordinator is currently held by Rob Joyce. Joyce is departing from the White House to return to the NSA on Friday after his boss, Tom Bossert, resigned when Bolton took over as National Security Adviser.
CNBC gives some background on Rob Joyce and his departure.
Joyce was well respected by cybersecurity experts and widely credited with steering the Trump administration toward trying to impose harsher penalties on foreign adversaries in response to cyber attacks.
The announcement of his departure came just hours after he and other U.S. and U.K. officials briefed reporters on a global cyberattack targeting routers and other networking equipment. They blamed Russian government-backed hackers for the campaign against government agencies, businesses, and critical infrastructure operators.
The push to eliminate the cyber coordinator position comes at a time when Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran pose serious cybersecurity threats and when President Trump’s role in Russian meddling in the 2016 election is under investigation by the Special Counsel.
On Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a preliminary report with recommendations on election security after a 16 month investigation into the role Russia played in the 2016 presidential election. They concluded that Russian hackers conducted an unprecedented, coordinated cyber campaign against state election infrastructure and that the Department of Homeland Security’s initial response to the cybersecurity threat by the Russians was inadequate. As the U.S. attempts to identify weaknesses and shore up vulnerabilities, it is crucial that cybersecurity concerns be coordinated effectively with the various agencies involved.
While Bolton has advocated for aggressive counter measures against cyber adversaries, experts are worried that those counter measures would provoke attacks at a time when the U.S. is vulnerable. One source told Politico that Bolton does not consider cybersecurity a priority. “He’s not interested in it. He doesn’t see the point in it,” the source said. “There’s a serious concern on the [NSC] right now, particularly the [cyber team], of what the fate of their directorate is moving forward.”
There are also concerns among cybersecurity experts regarding the elimination of this position in the White House or, if left intact, who would fill the role.
Mira Ricardel, Bolton’s deputy, is reportedly in favor of eliminating the job and is considering folding the responsibilities of the job into her current role. Those critical of the possibility of eliminating the job admit Ricardel is qualified but worry that cybersecurity might not get the focus it needs.
Politico reports that moral on the cyber team is low and that there are concerns over what will happen if the job is eliminated entirely.
Some former officials expressed concern that without a cyber coordinator, day-to-day leadership of the team would fall to Josh Steinman, the senior director for the NSC cyber team’s foreign policy portfolio. Steinman, a protégé of ousted former national security adviser Michael Flynn, has set his sights on replacing Joyce and has spent months criticizing him, sources previously told POLITICO, but had scant cyber policy expertise before joining the White House after Trump’s inauguration. As senior director, he has clashed with career staffers, according to the current and two former officials.
Why It Matters
Our adversaries around the world are taking note of our weaknesses. Cybersecurity is our soft underbelly. Whether it is cyber thefts, our electrical grid, or social media and election infrastructure, we are vulnerable. It is vital that this administration take cybersecurity and cyber warfare seriously, taking measures to prevent attacks, carefully employ counter measures when needed and have a highly experienced and knowledgeable person tasked with overseeing the nation’s cybersecurity.