Information Technology: DHS Directives Have Strengthened Federal Cybersecurity, but Improvements Are Needed

What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has established a five-step process for developing and overseeing the implementation of binding operational directives, as authorized by the Federal Information Security Modernization Act of 2014 (FISMA). The process includes DHS coordinating with stakeholders early in the directives’ development process and validating agencies’ actions on the directives. However, in implementing the process, DHS did not coordinate with stakeholders early in the process and did not consistently validate agencies’ self-reported actions. In addition to being a required step in the directives process, FISMA requires DHS to coordinate with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to ensure that the directives do not conflict with existing NIST guidance for federal agencies. However, NIST officials told GAO that DHS often did not reach out to NIST on directives until 1 to 2 weeks before the directives were to be issued, and then did not always incorporate the NIST technical comments. More recently, DHS and NIST have started regular coordination meetings to discuss directive-related issues earlier in the process. Regarding validation of agency actions, DHS has done so for selected directives, but not for others. DHS is not well-positioned to validate all directives because it lacks a risk-based approach as well as a strategy to check selected agency-reported actions to validate their completion.

Directives’ implementation often has been effective in strengthening federal cybersecurity. For example, a 2015 directive on critical vulnerability mitigation required agencies to address critical vulnerabilities discovered by DHS cyber scans of agencies’ internet-accessible systems within 30 days. This was a new requirement for federal agencies. While agencies did not always meet the 30-day requirement, their mitigations were validated by DHS and reached 87 percent compliance by 2017 (see fig. 1). DHS officials attributed the recent decline in percentage completion to a 35-day partial government shutdown in late 2018/early 2019. Nevertheless, for the 4-year period shown in the figure below, agencies mitigated within 30 days about 2,500 of the 3,600 vulnerabilities identified.

Figure 1: Critical Vulnerabilities Mitigated within 30 days, May 21, 2015 through May 20, 2019

Agencies also made reported improvements in securing or replacing vulnerable network infrastructure devices. Specifically, a 2016 directive on the Threat to Network Infrastructure Devices addressed, among other things, several urgent vulnerabilities in the targeting of firewalls across federal networks and provided technical mitigation solutions. As shown in figure 2, in response to the directive, agencies reported progress in mitigating risks to more than 11,000 devices as of October 2018.

Figure 2: Federal Civilian Agency Vulnerable Network Infrastructure Devices That Had Not Been Mitigated, September 2016 through January 2019

Figure 1: Critical Vulnerabilities Mitigated within 30 days, May 21, 2015 through May 20, 2019

Another key DHS directive is Securing High Value Assets, an initiative to protect the government’s most critical information and system assets. According to this directive, DHS is to lead in-depth assessments of federal agencies’ most essential identified high value assets. However, an important performance metric for addressing vulnerabilities identified by these assessments does not account for agencies submitting remediation plans in cases where weaknesses cannot be fully addressed within 30 days. Further, DHS only completed about half of the required assessments for the most recent 2 years (61 of 142 for fiscal year 2018, and 73 of 142 required assessments for fiscal year 2019 (see fig. 3)). In addition, DHS does not plan to finalize guidance to agencies and third parties, such as contractors or agency independent assessors, for conducting reviews of additional high value assets that are considered significant, but are not included in DHS’s current review, until the end of fiscal year 2020. Given these shortcomings, DHS is now reassessing key aspects of the program. However, it does not have a schedule or plan for completing this reassessment, or to address outstanding issues on completing required assessments, identifying needed resources, and finalizing guidance to agencies and third parties.

Figure 3: Department of Homeland Security Assessments of Agency High Value Assets, Fiscal Years (FY) 2018 through 2019

Why GAO Did This Study

DHS plays a key role in federal cybersecurity. FISMA authorized DHS, in consultation with the Office of Management and Budget, to develop and oversee the implementation of compulsory directives—referred to as binding operational directives—covering executive branch civilian agencies. These directives require agencies to safeguard federal information and information systems from a known or reasonably suspected information security threat, vulnerability, or risk. Since 2015, DHS has issued eight directives that instructed agencies to, among other things, (1) mitigate critical vulnerabilities discovered by DHS through its scanning of agencies’ internet-accessible systems; (2) address urgent vulnerabilities in network infrastructure devices identified by DHS; and (3) better secure the government’s highest value and most critical information and system assets.

GAO was requested to evaluate DHS’s binding operational directives. This report addresses (1) DHS’s process for developing and overseeing the implementation of binding operational directives and (2) the effectiveness of the directives, including agencies’ implementation of the directive requirements. GAO selected for review the five directives that were in effect as of December 2018, and randomly selected for further in-depth review a sample of 12 agencies from the executive branch civilian agencies to which the directives apply.

In addition, GAO reviewed DHS policies and processes related to the directives and assessed them against FISMA and Office of Management and Budget requirements; administered a data collection instrument to selected federal agencies; compared the agencies’ responses and supporting documentation to the requirements outlined in the five directives; and collected and analyzed DHS’s government-wide scanning data on government-wide implementation of the directives. GAO also interviewed DHS and selected agency officials.

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As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. 25 of the 50 reporting states Poplin Project Was to provide free, open-source application program interfaces for states to use in developing their modular Medicaid systems. Initiative never fully implemented. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. Three of the 50 reporting states Open Source Provider Screening Module Open-source module for states to use at no charge. Made available in August 2018. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. One of the 50 states reported attempting to use the module. Medicaid Enterprise Cohort Meetings A forum where states can discuss sharing, leveraging, and/or reuse of Medicaid technologies. As of January 2020, Cohort meetings were being held on a monthly basis. 47 of the 50 states reported participating in the meetings. Source: GAO analysis of agency data. | GAO-20-179 However, as of January 2020, the agency was no longer supporting most of these initiatives because they failed to produce the desired results. CMS regulations and GAO's prior work have highlighted the importance of reducing duplication by sharing and reusing Medicaid IT. To illustrate the potential for reducing duplication, 53 percent of state Medicaid officials responding to our survey reported using the same contractor to develop their MMIS. Nevertheless, selected states are taking the initiative to share systems or modules. Further support by CMS could result in additional sharing initiatives and potential cost savings. The Medicaid program is the largest source of health care funding for America's most at-risk populations and is funded jointly by states and the federal government. GAO was asked to assess CMS's oversight of federal expenditures for MMIS and E&E systems used for Medicaid. 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Among these recommendations are that CMS should develop formal, documented procedures that include specific steps to be taken in the advanced planning document review process and instructions on how CMS will document the reviews; develop, in consultation with the HHS and CMS CIOs, a documented, comprehensive, and risk-based process for how CMS will select IT projects for technical assistance and provide recommendations to assist states that is aimed at improving the performance of the systems; encourage state Medicaid program officials to consider involving state CIOs in overseeing Medicaid IT projects; establish a timeline for implementing the outcome-based certification process for MMIS and E&E systems; and identify, prior to approving funding for systems, similar projects that other states are pursuing so that opportunities to share, leverage, or reuse systems or system modules are considered. In written comments on a draft of this report, the department concurred with eight of the nine recommendations, and described steps it had taken and/or planned to take to address them. The department did not state whether it concurred with GAO's recommendation to encourage state officials to consider involving state CIOs in Medicaid IT projects. HHS stated that it was unable to discern evidence as to whether a certain structure contributed to a specific outcome. GAO believes, consistent with federal law, that CIOs are critically important to the success of IT projects. For more information, contact Vijay D’Souza at (202) 512-6240 or dsouzav@gao.gov.
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    In fiscal year 2019, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had detention contracts or agreements with 233 facilities, 185 of which it used to hold detainees, as shown below. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Detention Space Acquisition Methods, Fiscal Year 2019 Acquisition method Total facilities Facilities that held detainees Percentage of average daily population held in facility Intergovernmental service agreement 133 108 59 U.S. Marshals Service rider 85 62 17 Federal Acquisition Regulation-based contract 15 15 24 Total 233 185 100 Source: GAO analysis of ICE data. | GAO-21-149 ICE primarily uses intergovernmental service agreements (IGSA) to acquire detention space. Officials said IGSAs offer several benefits over contracts, including fewer requirements for documentation or competition. ICE has a process for obtaining new detention space, but it did not follow this process for most of its recent acquisitions and does not have a strategic approach to using guaranteed minimum payments in its detention contracts and agreements. From fiscal year 2017 through May 11, 2020, ICE entered into 40 contracts and agreements for new detention space. GAO's review of ICE's documentation found that 28 of 40 of these contracts and agreements did not have documentation from ICE field offices showing a need for the space, outreach to local officials, or the basis for ICE's decisions to enter into them, as required by ICE's process. Until ICE consistently uses its process, it will not have reasonable assurance that it is making cost-effective decisions that best meet its operational needs. ICE has increasingly incorporated guaranteed minimum payments into its contracts and agreements, whereby ICE agrees to pay detention facility operators for a fixed number of detention beds regardless of whether it uses them. However, ICE has not taken a strategic approach to these decisions and has spent millions of dollars a month on unused detention space. Planning for detention space needs can be challenging, according to ICE officials, because the agency must respond to factors that are dynamic and difficult to predict. A strategic approach to using guaranteed minimums could help position ICE to balance these factors and make more effective use of federal funds. ICE relies on Contracting Officer's Representatives (COR) to oversee detention contracts and agreements, but the COR's supervisory structure—where field office management, rather than headquarters, oversee COR work and assess COR performance—does not provide sufficient independence for effective oversight. CORs in eight of 12 field offices identified concerns including lacking resources or support, as well as supervisors limiting their ability to use contract enforcement tools and bypassing CORs' oversight responsibilities in contracting matters. Revising its supervisory structure could help ICE ensure that detention contract and agreement terms are enforced. The Department of Homeland Security's ICE detained approximately 48,500 foreign nationals a day, on average, for 72 hours or more in fiscal year 2019. ICE was appropriated about $3.14 billion in fiscal year 2020 to operate the immigration detention system. ICE has three ways of acquiring detention space—IGSAs with state or local government entities; agreements with Department of Justice U.S. Marshals Service to join an existing contract or agreement (known as a “rider”); or contracts. This report examines (1) what data show about the characteristics of contracts and agreements; (2) the extent to which ICE developed and implemented processes and a strategic approach to acquire space; and (3) the extent to which ICE has overseen and enforced contracts and agreements. GAO reviewed documentation of acquisition and oversight efforts at facilities used to hold detainees for 72 hours or more; analyzed ICE data for the last 3 fiscal years—2017 through 2019; conducted site visits to new and long-standing detention facilities; and interviewed ICE officials. GAO is making five recommendations, including that ICE include stakeholder input and document decision-making for new detention space acquisitions; implement a strategic approach to using guaranteed minimums; and revise its supervisory structure for contract oversight. DHS concurred with four recommendations and disagreed with revising its supervisory structure. GAO believes the recommendation remains valid, as discussed in the report. For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or gamblerr@gao.gov.
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