Federal CISO: Recommendations In to Acquisition Council for Software Procurement


Federal CISO Chris DeRusha says he doesn’t want to tie agencies’ hands regarding self attestation versus third-party verification of vendor practices.

The Office of Management and Budget has fulfilled more of its obligations under a cybersecurity executive order, including the submission of a proposal to the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council to reform language agencies use to acquire software.

Executive Order 14028, issued last May in response to the “SolarWinds” hack that compromised at least nine federal agencies, instructed OMB to issue policy guidance to agencies and to—within a year—recommend relevant changes to federal acquisition regulations. 

“Our policy memo is in clearance now, we moved it into the formal clearance process, that is something that I can share, that just happened so that's an exciting development,” Chris DeRusha, the federal chief information security officer told Nextgov. “I'm hopeful that that works its way through the OMB process so we can get it out before too long. We feel pretty good about where we're at with it and getting it right.”

DeRusha spoke with Nextgov Tuesday at an annual summit hosted by Amazon Web Services where he described the need to reform contracting clauses addressing security as a “root cause” of incidents like the SolarWinds event.  

The policy memo is likely to track with guidance the National Institute of Standards and Technology recently released, incorporating comments from industry. And, DeRusha said, “there's also new contract clause recommendations that just went to the FAR Council.” 

“Those went in on time,” he said. “They will eventually go into contracts, but they've got to go through the whole process now, and eventually, [the FAR Council] will put that out for public comment.”

During a conversation with AWS Chief Information Security Officer CJ Moses, DeRusha said, having worked in the White House on cybersecurity during the Obama administration, it was gratifying to be able to pick up where some of those policies left off. 

“It's been exciting as someone who worked in this office before during a former administration to kind of come back and have the opportunity to continue to build off all the initiatives that we were working on then, and just to turn things around and kind of use it as a starting point,” he said.

As in the Obama administration, DeRusha said the plan is to rely on a flexible framework of secure software development processes that is implemented based on entities’ risk calculations. 

It is “a collection of best practices, and some of those are like [presenting a software bill of materials], so that framework's together and that's a really helpful resource,” he said, adding, “now what we're saying is, if you're going to sell software to government, we want you to attest to following this framework, and that's a tricky thing. We're being very cautious in how we develop our policy guidance on that.”

DeRusha said, having been in their shoes, he’s sensitive to very real and good concerns he’s heard from industry and that a certain amount of centralization—in addition to flexibility—would be helpful for agencies as well.

“We want a rational approach,” he said. “Just as much as vendors don't want to be attesting and, or, responding in 100 different ways, to all the different agencies, we don't want agencies asking,” he said. “So what I can say is we take it very seriously … But I will say, we're going in this direction, I mean, government needs to be purchasing software that is built securely, that's a lesson from SolarWinds. There were practices there that should have been followed. And we're going to learn those lessons and we're going to use our pulpit to really drive the market through changes, but we wanna do it in a way that works.” 

DeRusha said important lessons are also coming out of agency proposals for the use of money from the Technology Modernization Fund to mature their security systems in line with the executive order.

“I sit on the technology modernization fund board, and we're learning what [agencies are] doing now, and that's really helpful because you don't always get that granular when you've got 100-plus agencies,” he said, describing how those lessons might be applied going forward. “If we can have some higher level policy prescriptions to do things maybe centrally, or we can have work orders that can be centralized ... [and ]determine what all the common requirements are … we don't have to have every agency learn on its own.”

Speaking with Nextgov after his appearance at the summit, DeRusha acknowledged one aspect of Obama-era cybersecurity policy that the Defense Department identified as a weakness in launching its Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification program during the administration of President Donald Trump. CMMC attempted to replace the practice of self attestation—vendors simply pledging their adherence to appropriate security practices—with a system of independent third-party certifiers. The program, which suffered a controversy-filled roll out, is now being reconstituted under the Biden administration, but it has focussed attention on what DOD officials described as a failure of self-attestation, given the continued infiltration of the defense industrial base despite claims of adherence to security controls detailed by NIST.

“What I'll say about it is we have been learning those lessons from CMMC, we've looked at it, we've talked to folks there [in DOD], right? We don't want to relearn any lessons here around attestation,” De Rusha said. He added, “Third party attestations, you know, have to be done right. And we're going to be cautious around what we direct agencies to do for now, versus, giving them the flexibility if they feel like there's a high risk instance where they need to do that. We're not going to do anything that prevents an agency from doing that. But we're going to roll this out and learn. It's a brand new framework and we're going to learn how to do this as we go. So we are going to be cautious around what we require out of the gate.”