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Secretary of State Blinken announces a new bureau for cyber policy


The State Department has fallen prey to cybercrimes in the past. It has also gotten poor marks in Congress for its cybersecurity. Now Secretary of State Antony Blinken is trying to bring the department up to date, and he's not just calling for a bigger IT budget. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, he also wants more diplomats to focus on new technologies.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Blinken says he's trying to modernize the State Department, and one key focus will be on cyberspace and emerging technologies.


ANTONY BLINKEN: We want to prevent cyberattacks that put our people, our networks, companies and critical infrastructure at risk. We want the internet to remain a transformative force for learning, for connection, for economic growth, not a tool of repression.

KELEMEN: In a speech at the Foreign Service Institute, which trains U.S. diplomats, Blinken announced that he's working with Congress to set up a new bureau for cyberspace and digital policy. It will be run by an ambassador at large, still to be named, and Blinken will appoint a special envoy for critical and emerging technology.


BLINKEN: We will also bring more specialized talent, including STEM expertise, to the department and ensure that we're developing expertise as well in these areas across the foreign and civil service. By taking these steps, we'll be better able to make sure that the United States remains the world's innovation leader and standard setter.

KELEMEN: This should send a strong signal to both partners and foes alike, says Lauren Kahn of the Council on Foreign Relations.

LAUREN KAHN: I think it's a great step in the right direction. The State Department especially, I think, has started to try and adapt itself and make itself ready for these new challenges posed by emerging technologies like cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum, 5G.

KELEMEN: She says it's important for this new bureau to take the lead on discussions about all of this, especially artificial intelligence.

KAHN: Artificial intelligence might have the ability when used in military contexts to really raise the risk of unintended escalation or inadvertent conflict. And so ensuring that there are conversations started between nations on these, I think, would be really critical in order to reduce the likelihood of future miscommunication when these technologies are eventually fielded.

KELEMEN: These issues fit into a couple of priorities of the Biden administration. One is to work more closely with allies. Another is to compete with China. Alexi Drew is an analyst with RAND Europe and says it's important for countries with similar values to be on the same page when it comes to new technologies.

ALEXI DREW: If you don't have a joined-up approach and a joined-up understanding across different departments within a single government, or even more so across a region or a set of alliances, that's where you open up cracks in your defenses that can be utilized and exploited.

KELEMEN: That's particularly true, Drew says, when it comes to cybersecurity.

DREW: In our shared networks, insecurity somewhere - be it in the U.S., the U.K. or Europe - can often lead to insecurity somewhere else that might otherwise be more secure. A great example would be the SolarWinds hack that happened a couple of months back now.

KELEMEN: Hackers believed to be directed by Russia breached a U.S. software vendor and managed to get a foothold in U.S. government agencies, including the State Department. Secretary Blinken says he's asking for a 50% increase in the State Department's IT budget. That's in addition to this new Bureau for Cyberspace and Digital Policy. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, The State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.