President Joe Biden, center left, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, disembark Air Force One at Rzeszow Airport on March 25, 2022, in Rzeszow, Poland. The State Department's new cyber bureau began operations this week, giving Blinken an office dedicated to a range of digital security and policy issues. (Photo by Omar Marques/Getty Images)

For the first time in years, the State Department has a dedicated bureau focused on cyberspace.

The department announced the kickoff of the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy Monday, with Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Jennifer Bachus leading the unit’s senior bureau official until an ambassador-at-large can be confirmed by the Senate. Bachus will be joined by Michelle Markoff as acting deputy assistant secretary for international cyberspace security, and Stephen Anderson as acting deputy assistant secretary for international information and communications policy.

The bureau will “address the national security challenges, economic opportunities, and implications for U.S. values associated with cyberspace, digital technologies, and digital policy,” according to a State Department release. Last year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the bureau will focus on three key mission areas: international cybersecurity policy, deterrence and cyber operations; international digital policy around promoting “trusted” telecommunications systems and engaging in multilateral discussions and negotiations around human rights online; and engaging with private industry and civil society on technology and cybersecurity issues.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman has said that the bureau is necessary for the U.S. to influence a wide range of international issues involving cyberspace, from the formation of global cyber norms between state actors and coordinating cyber operations to shaping regulations on the international spyware market and marshaling global support for attribution of cyberattacks. It’s also about building in a permanent hub of cyber knowledge and policymaking at the department.

“All of these things are very complicated and I’m not smart enough to understand all the technologies and how to manage them, but we’re going to grow the expertise here at the State Department and the capacity to be at the table around all of these international negotiations, which are going to grow and grow over the years, to confront the use of technology for surveillance and for control over people by putting together the capability to do so and be the first among equals to do so,” Sherman said in October.

The need for a dedicated bureau for cyber diplomacy is something lawmakers in Congress have been pressing for years, ever since then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson eliminated the department’s cybersecurity coordinator position and transferred most of the position’s responsibilities to the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

Originally, the Trump administration balked at calls for such a bureau, but when legislation to restore the office passed the House in 2018, the administration moved to propose and create its own Bureau of Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technology. That plan was panned by former State officials like Chris Painter, who argued that the administration was rushing the bureau’s creation after years of inaction while not giving it the authority and reporting structure necessary to break through international policy silos.  

At the time, State Department spokesman Ned Price described the differences between the two offices in terms of scope and focus.

“So what the previous administration [proposed] was to create a bureau that would be responsible for the national security aspects of cyberspace security and security-related aspects of emerging technology,” Price said. “The Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technology Bureau would have been placed under the under secretary for arms control and international security. So this is a very different structure. This is a bureau that is focused on the issues that are most critical to cyber, to emerging technologies, but also with the cyber envoy attached separately.”