Eliminating White House Cybersecurity Coordinator A Good Move- Maybe By Austen Givens
On May 15th National Security Advisor John Bolton issued a memo to National Security Council (NSC) Staff announcing the elimination of the White House cybersecurity coordinator position. The justification given for the decision to nix the job was that lower-level functionaries on the NSC staff, which Bolton oversees, had already made cybersecurity a top functional priority. Therefore, the role itself had become obsolete.
While I don’t really buy the explanation, I tend to see this move as a good thing—if my assumptions about what is happening in the NSC and White House are correct. That’s a big “if” in this administration.
I say that it is a good thing because the NSC and White House staff should see cybersecurity as a top priority now. Every national security planning document that I am aware of from the past two years frames cyber threats as the top issue confronting national security policymakers.
It is inconceivable that this message has not penetrated the hallways of the White House or the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where virtually all NSC staff members maintain offices. Viewed in this light, it makes sense that the cybersecurity coordinator role has become obsolete.
But the elimination of positions like the cybersecurity coordinator role is not just about re-organizing boxes on a wire diagram. It is also about access and power.
To paraphrase Harvard University’s Harvey Mansfield, those who benefit most from re-organizing tend to be those that command the re-organizing. And the chief beneficiary of this re-organization—the one who commanded the re-organizing—is John Bolton.
As National Security Advisor, Bolton looks at a broad array of threats, with cyber issues being just one slice of his portfolio. He cannot reasonably be expected to place cyber issues front and center each day before the President. Yet having a cybersecurity coordinator in the White House helps to guarantee that relevant information about cyber threats will get the attention it deserves from whoever occupies the Oval Office.
The cybersecurity coordinator position is ultimately a vehicle for the escalation of cybersecurity issues within the executive branch. That vehicle has been embraced by every presidential administration, Democrat and Republican, since President Clinton. Remove the special cybersecurity position, and you also remove the special cybersecurity attention.
So by lopping off the White House cybersecurity coordinator position, National Security Advisor John Bolton has further consolidated his own power and influence with the President, who will now have one fewer voice to listen to. Whether cybersecurity issues will receive the attention they deserve in the White House remains an open question.
Austen D. Givens is Assistant Professor of Cybersecurity at Utica College.