NDAA Conference: Congress Spares DISA, Bans Chinese Firms and Orders JEDI Review


Congress packed a lot of tech and cyber changes in the NDAA.

The Defense Information Systems Agency came out a winner in the conference version of the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual must-pass defense policy bill released Monday.

First, Senate conferees watered down a House provision that would have transferred DISA’s responsibility for day-to-day defense of Defense Department information networks to U.S. Cyber Command.

Instead, the conference NDAA orders up a report from the Pentagon by March 2019, focused on how well DISA is managing those duties and whether Cyber Command might do them better.

The conference bill also transfers responsibility for the National Security Agency’s Sharkseer program to DISA.

Sharkseer defends against cyber exploits that target previously unknown computer vulnerabilities, known as zero days, and attacks launched by nation-states, according to a government slide deck.

The conference NDAA also directs the Pentagon to use Sharkseer’s “sandbox as a service” tool across the department and to shut down any competing programs. In computer security, a sandbox refers to a walled-off digital space where organizations can safely test and study untrusted elements, such as potentially malicious computer code.

The $639 billion NDAA conference bill is primarily focused on upgrading military hardware and developing strategies to counter adversaries, including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. It also orders up new versions of the nation’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy and a Nuclear Posture Review.

Here’s a rundown of other key tech and cyber provisions.

Farewell Huawei and ZTE

The bill institutes governmentwide bans against technology provided by the Chinese telecommunications firms Huawei and ZTE, which U.S. intelligence officials say could be used as Chinese spying tools.

Last year’s NDAA included a similar ban on software from the Russian anti-virus company Kaspersky Lab, which Kaspersky is currently challenging in federal court.

A provision that would have reinstated penalties against ZTE for violating U.S. sanctions and effectively put the company out of business was stripped from the conference bill. The Trump administration earlier reversed those penalties.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a chief proponent of the ZTE penalties, said he was “shocked that some of my colleagues decided to let ZTE continue to do business” and that “once again, China has figured out how to play the United States.”  

Cutting Foreign Ties

Another provision in the bill would require defense contractors to go through a lengthy disclosure process about any foreign ties that might pose national security threats, including whether the company has allowed any foreign government to review its source code.

Russia and China have both instituted laws recently that could require source code disclosures for certain contracts.

That provision authorizes the department to take any actions it considers necessary to mitigate risks produced by foreign source code reviews. The Pentagon could also share the information it uncovers during those reviews with civilian agencies.

The section exempts open source software, which, by definition, can be reviewed by anyone.

JEDI Review

The bill orders the Defense Department chief information officer to create a broad strategy for what will and won’t be transferred to the forthcoming Pentagon-wide computer cloud known as the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI.

That provision also requires a report to Congress on all aspects of the JEDI program, including its acquisition and planning.

Some companies have complained that the procurement language unfairly limited which companies could compete for JEDI.

The provision would also bar the Pentagon from approving new computer systems or applications without determining whether the systems could be cloud-hosted, either immediately or in the future.

JEDI, which was scheduled to be bid out in May, is still on hold.

Giving DHS a Helping Hand

The bill authorizes a pilot program for the Defense Department to temporarily assign troops to the Homeland Security Department to help secure critical infrastructure such as hospitals and airports.

That program would be limited to no more than 50 troops per year, according to the bill.

Solarium Soars

The bill also authorizes a “Cyberspace Solarium Commission,” urged by Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and modeled on the Eisenhower-era “Project Solarium,” which developed long-range U.S. strategy for the Cold War,

The commission’s main tasks will include weighing the costs and benefits of the U.S.’s current cyber efforts, analyzing national adversaries’ cyber efforts, evaluating where the U.S. is and should be focusing its cybersecurity resources and suggesting policy changes.

The 13-member commission’s primary directive will be to “develop a consensus on a strategic approach to defending the United States in cyberspace against cyberattacks of significant consequences,” according to the bill text.

Members will include federal officials and members of Congress as well as non-government officials from industry or academia.

The conference bill also:

  • Mandates that the Defense Department institute a Homeland Security directive to install DMARC anti-spoofing security tools on all email domains.
  • Requires the Pentagon to institute any future binding cybersecurity directives that Homeland Security imposes on civilian agencies—unless the Pentagon alerts Congress within six months that it won’t do so.
  • Mandates a report to Congress on any significant Pentagon breach of personally identifiable information.
  • Affirms the Pentagon’s authority to conduct offensive and defensive cyber operations, including clandestine operations.
  • Requires an update within six months on the administration’s cybersecurity policy.
  • Requires a wargame exercise focused on how the Defense Department would support civil authorities during a major cyber incident.
  • Requires an expanded budget display for the evaluation and mitigation of cyber vulnerabilities in major weapons systems.
  • Gives the Secretary of Defense authority to create cyber institutes in cooperation with colleges and universities.