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With Bolton gone, White House cybersecurity strategy may change

John Bolton arrives in Downing Street in London, Aug. 13.
John Bolton arrives at Downing Street in London, Aug. 13. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

With the ouster of national security adviser John Bolton this week, the White House loses a key cog in its cybersecurity and cyber warfare machine.

The big picture: Bolton was a hawkish national security adviser at a time when the Department of Defense was taking a more hawkish approach to cybersecurity. He also eliminated the position of White House cybersecurity coordinator, giving himself more control.

The big question: Will a new adviser bring back the cybersecurity coordinator position?

  • Beyond a role in cyber warfare and cyber defense, the so-called cybersecurity czar coordinated often competing cybersecurity-related interests across the federal government.
  • "A more visibly coordinated, unified approach to cybersecurity would better protect U.S. interests moving forward," said Michael Daniel, the president and CEO of the Cyber Threat Alliance, who served as cybersecurity coordinator in the Obama White House.

Yes, but: Don't hold your breath about the position coming back, said Jamil N. Jaffer, vice president for strategy, partnerships and corporate development at IronNet Cybersecurity and a former associate White House counsel to President George W. Bush.

  • "The president obviously prefers a smaller, more focused, and trusted set of advisers — in part because he likes to make key decisions rapidly based in large part on his own counsel — so it wouldn't be surprising if he rejected the idea of re-creating a cyber czar position, even if that’s what the new national security adviser wanted,” Jaffer said via email.

What they're saying: "It's hard to imagine someone more hawkish," said Dave Weinstein, chief security officer of Claroty, a cybersecurity firm protecting critical infrastructure. "But I could imagine someone more intelligence-focused pulling back a little."

The bottom line: The Bolton tenure was volatile in part because he was an ideologue working for a president with no consistent ideology, said David Kris, a former head of the national security division at the Department of Justice and founder of the Culper Partners consulting firm.

  • That could lead to an era of less consistent strategy if President Trump appoints a more philosophically malleable adviser with less desire to keep the Oval Office on the rails.
  • "Without a doubt, the most significant challenge will be managing the commander in chief," said Kris.

Go deeper: Where current cybersecurity guidelines fall short