At Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, Portman Presses Nominee on Role in U.S. Cyber Defense

August 3, 2022 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) questioned Nathaniel Fink, nominee for Ambassador at Large for Cyberspace and Digital Policy, about what his role would be in U.S. cyber defense organizational structure. In addition, Senator Portman highlighted the need for accountability for cybersecurity in the federal government to ensure a more effective national defense against cyberattacks. He has continuously called on the federal government to provide a single point of accountability for federal cybersecurity.

Earlier this year the Senate passed a landmark legislative package, the Strengthening American Cybersecurity Act, authored by Senators Portman and Gary Peters (D-MI), as Ranking Member and Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, to significantly enhance our nation’s ability to combat ongoing cybersecurity threats against our critical infrastructure and the federal government. The legislation combines language from three bills Portman and Peters authored and advanced out of their Committee – the Cyber Incident Reporting Act, the Federal Information Security Modernization Act of 2021, and the Federal Secure Cloud Improvement and Jobs Act. The combined bill will update current federal government cybersecurity laws to improve coordination between federal agencies, require the government to take a risk-based approach to cybersecurity, as well as require all civilian agencies to report all cyberattacks to CISA, and update the threshold for agencies to report cyber incidents to Congress.

A transcript of Senator Portman’s questioning can be found below and the video can be found here.

Senator Portman: “First of all, I want to thank Chairman Booker and Ranking Member Rounds for holding this hearing. I know that these nominees have all served their country already, but I want to thank you for stepping up to serve again. With regard to Africa, enormous potential often overlooked, and so for our nominees heading to African countries, we need your U.S. presence there. I’m heading to Africa, to East Africa mostly, with Senator Coons in a couple of weeks, and we look forward to that visit. There are so many questions I could ask about that, but I am going to focus on something else which is Mr. Fick.

“Again, I appreciate your service, including in the Marine Corps. What I’m concerned about is that we have overlapping responsibilities and authorities with regard to our cyber defense. This has been something that I’ve worked on for a while with very little result, actually. We seem to keep adding more and more top cybersecurity positions to our government, and the org chart troubles me. More importantly, what troubles me is that without accountability, I’m worried that things will happen, and it’s too easy to point fingers. As we saw after the Colonial Pipeline incident, as you probably recall, everyone was pointing fingers.

“So, we have this top position of the Deputy of National Security Advisor for Cyber, already, which is obviously international in orientation. We have the federal CISO, of course, at OMB. We have the National Cyber Director which was established by the congress after a commission report that indicated we needed a National Director. We have the CISA Director at the Department of Homeland Security. One could argue that we also have, at every agency and department, others, but in effect, they are reporting up to at least to somebody. But, your position that you are being nominated for is a new one, and I think it overlaps with the Office of the National Cyber Director. The legislation says that that director, ‘shall serve as a principle advisor to the president relating to coordination of diplomatic and other efforts to develop norms and international consensus around responsible state behavior in cyberspace.’

“So, I just want to know from you, one, are you sensitive to this issue and aware of it. Again, as someone with a military background, I imagine that you share some of my concerns. I would like to hear those if you do and how you intend to conduct yourself in this role so that you can fit into this construct. Congress is not very good at org charts, so it really will be the responsibility of the individuals who have these jobs to work together and to not allow the gaps in accountability.

“In particular, with regard to the National Cyber Director’s role, which seems to overlap directly with the State Department’s Cyber and Digital Policy Bureau functions and responsibilities, how would you work collaboratively across all departments to ensure that we’re not duplicative and to ensure we have accountability?” 

Mr. Nathaniel Fick: “Thank you, Senator. I appreciate the question and the sentiment behind it. I think in addition to my military experience, my experience building and leading a business instilled in me an appreciation for a clear chain of command, an appreciation for clear and well-defined swim lanes, an appreciation for accountability, and kind of a wry sense that it is always easy to add but it’s hard to subtract. So, I come to this role with a heightened sense of concern about the issue that you raise. And that said, I have a strong conviction that this role actually fills a gap that has existed in our government. When I was leading a business and working with the government in this space, CISA has a strong presence here, the While House has a strong presence here, the Defense Department has a strong presence here, and the State Department has not. I believe that diplomacy should be our tool of first resort. I believe in the intrinsic value of diplomacy. So, I think this role actually does fill an important gap in the cyber and tech responsibilities across the government. I have known Director Inglis, Anne Neuberger, and Jen Easterly in different capacities for more than a decade. I have full confidence that we can carve out the right swim lanes. I hope that, if confirmed, as the inaugural ambassador leading this office, we could create clear lines of responsibility that outlive any individual.”

Senator Portman: “Well, thank you. I appreciate the fact that you recognize the overlap, the potential conflicts, and most importantly, again, the notion that accountability is necessary for us to be sure we are covering our bases with regard to this growing threat that we face as a country. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”