2020 Wiretap Report: Intercepts and Convictions Decrease

Federal and state courts reported a combined 26 percent decrease in authorized wiretaps in 2020, compared with 2019, according to the Judiciary’s 2020 Wiretap Report. Convictions in cases involving electronic surveillance also decreased.

The report covers wire, oral, or electronic intercepts that were concluded between Jan. 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2020, exclusive of interceptions regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The report is submitted annually to Congress by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

A total of 2,377 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2020, compared with 3,225 the previous year. Of those, 1,297 were authorized by federal judges, an 8 percent decline from 2019. State judges authorized 1,080 wiretaps, a 40 percent decrease from the previous year.

There was a decrease in the number of state wiretaps in which encryption was encountered, with 184 such reports in 2020, compared with 343 in 2019 and 146 in 2018. In 183 of the encrypted state wiretaps reported in 2020, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of messages. A total of 214 federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2020, of which 200 could not be deciphered.

Portable electronic devices, which includes cell phones, accounted for 95 percent of applications for intercepts. Drug offenses were the most prevalent type of crime investigated using intercepts. Seventy-seven percent of all wiretap applications in 2020 cited narcotics as one of the offenses under investigation. Conspiracy was the second-most frequently cited crime (13 percent of total applications), and racketeering was the third largest category, cited in 5 percent of applications.

A total of 6,574 people were arrested as a result of wiretap investigations in 2020, down 38 percent from 2019, and 311 people were convicted in cases involving wiretaps, down 88 percent from the 2,699 people convicted in those types of cases the year before.

The Southern District of New York authorized the most federal wiretaps, accounting for about 5 percent of applications approved by federal judges. Applications in six states accounted for 74 percent of all wiretaps approved by state judges. Those states were New York, New Jersey, Nevada, North Carolina, Colorado, and Florida.

Federal and state laws limit the period of surveillance under an original order to 30 days. However, the period can be extended if a judge determines that additional time is justified. A total of 1,503 extensions were authorized in 2020, a decrease of 41 percent from the prior year.

The District of Arizona conducted the longest federal intercept that was terminated in 2020. An order was extended eight times to complete a 257-day wiretap in an immigration investigation. The longest state-authorized wiretap occurred in Onondaga, New York, where an original order was extended 19 times to complete a 552-day wiretap used in a narcotics investigation.

The average cost of a wiretap in 2020 was $119,418, up 59 percent from $75,160 the year before. The numbers include the cost of installing intercept devices and monitoring communications.

The Administrative Office is required by statute to report annually to Congress by June 30 on the number and nature of wiretaps concluded in the prior year.

No report to the Administrative Office is needed when an order is issued with the consent of one of the principal parties to the communication. No report is required for the use of a pen register unless the pen register is used in conjunction with any other wiretap devices whose use must be recorded. 

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    The Navy's schedule for constructing the first submarine of the new Columbia class is threatened by continuing challenges with the computer-aided software tool that Electric Boat, the lead shipbuilder, is using to design the submarine. These challenges will likely impede construction because the shipbuilder is late in completing design products used for building the submarine. To ensure construction begins on schedule, the Navy modified its design contract with Electric Boat to include an option for constructing the first two submarines and requested sufficient authority from Congress for fiscal year 2021 to exercise it. Navy officials stated, however, that the Navy's budget request is lower than its current cost estimate, and it is not informed by an independent cost assessment. As a result, the program will likely need more funding to reflect the increased estimate. Quality problems with supplier materials caused delays during early construction. These quality problems included missile tubes (depicted below) with defective welds. As the shipbuilders expand outsourcing to suppliers, quality assurance oversight at supplier facilities will be critical for avoiding further delays. Quad Pack of Four Submarine Missile Tubes However, the Navy has not comprehensively reassessed when to seek additional inspections at supplier facilities that could better position it to identify quality problems early enough to limit delays. The Navy plans to invest about $128 billion in 12 Columbia class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. The shipbuilders will construct the Columbia class at the same time as the Virginia class attack submarines. They plan to rely on materials produced by a supplier base that is roughly 70 percent smaller than in previous shipbuilding booms. Congress included a provision in statute for GAO to examine the program's status. This report assesses the Navy's efforts to complete the design for the lead Columbia class submarine and actions the shipbuilders and the Navy have taken to prepare for construction and ensure the lead submarine is delivered according to schedule and quality expectations. GAO assessed Navy and shipbuilder design progress against cost and schedule estimates, reviewed documents, and interviewed officials about supplier readiness and quality assurance. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in November 2020. Information that the Department of Defense (DOD) deemed sensitive has been omitted. GAO recommends that the Navy (1) provide Congress with updated cost information, (2) include information on supplier readiness in its annual report to Congress, and (3) reassess when to seek additional inspections at supplier facilities. DOD concurred with the recommendations but disagreed with some of the report's details. GAO incorporated DOD's comments as appropriate and maintains the validity of the findings, as discussed in the report. For more information, contact Shelby S. Oakley at (202) 512-4841 or oakleys@gao.gov.
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  • Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Announces Investigation of the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Minneapolis Police Department
    In Crime News
    Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced today the Justice Department has opened a pattern or practice investigation into the City of Minneapolis (the City) and the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). The investigation will assess all types of force used by MPD officers, including uses of force involving individuals with behavioral health disabilities and uses of force against individuals engaged in activities protected by the First Amendment. The investigation will also assess whether MPD engages in discriminatory policing. As part of the investigation the Justice Department will conduct a comprehensive review of MPD policies, training and supervision. The department will also examine MPD’s systems of accountability, including complaint intake, investigation, review, disposition and discipline. The Department of Justice will also reach out to community groups and members of the public to learn about their experiences with MPD. “The investigation I am announcing today will assess whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force, including during protests,” said Attorney General Garland. “Building trust between community and law enforcement will take time and effort by all of us, but we undertake this task with determination and urgency, knowing that change cannot wait.” This morning, Department of Justice officials informed Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, MPD Chief Medaria Arradondo, City Attorney Jim Rowader, City Coordinator Mark Ruff, and City Council President Lisa Bender of the investigation. The department will continue to work closely with both the City and MPD as the investigation progresses. “One of the Civil Rights Division’s highest priorities is to ensure that every person in this country benefits from public safety systems that are lawful, responsive, transparent and nondiscriminatory,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Pamela S. Karlan for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. “It is essential that police departments across the country use their law enforcement authority, including the authority to use force, in a manner that respects civil rights and the sanctity of human life.” “People throughout the city of Minneapolis want a public safety system that protects and serves all members of our community,” said Acting U.S. Attorney W. Anders Folk for the District of Minnesota. “This investigation by the Department of Justice provides a vital step to restore and build trust in the Minneapolis Police Department and its officers.” The investigation is being conducted pursuant to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which prohibits state and local governments from engaging in a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers that deprives individuals of rights protected by the Constitution or federal law. The Act allows the Department of Justice to remedy such misconduct through civil litigation. The department will be assessing law enforcement practices under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as under the Safe Streets Act of 1968, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Special Litigation Section of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, are jointly conducting this investigation. Individuals with relevant information are encouraged to contact the Department of Justice via email at Community.Minneapolis@usdoj.gov or by phone at 866-432-0268. Individuals can also report civil rights violations regarding this or other matters using the Civil Rights Division’s new reporting portal, available at civilrights.justice.gov. Additional information about the Civil Rights Division is available on its website at www.justice.gov/crt. Additional information about the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota is available on its website at https://www.justice.gov/usao-mn.
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  • Aircraft Carriers: Homeport Changes Are Primarily Determined by Maintenance Requirements
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Navy has a process for proposing and implementing homeport changes that considers a range of factors. The first key step in this process involves the Navy developing and updating an annual plan, known as the Strategic Laydown and Dispersal Plan, that guides the Navy's positioning of operating forces worldwide. Based on the plan, fleet commanders then identify requirements for any changes to homeports and submit requests to schedule a homeport change. Throughout the process, Navy leadership and a working group of stakeholders from across the Navy provide input and analysis. Among other things , the working group develops and assesses proposed changes among the possible aircraft carrier homeports based on their expertise and evaluates various homeport installation factors, such as maintenance dry docks (see figure) or ship power and maintenance facilities. The Navy also considers local factors including crew support and quality of life, such as schools and morale, and possible impacts to the natural and physical environment. The Navy has strengthened its process by implementing prior GAO recommendations, and has other planned actions underway to further improve and update its guidance. Recent Navy Aircraft Carrier Homeport Locations and Dry Dock at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard The Navy made 15 aircraft carrier homeport changes in fiscal years 2011 through 2020 among the five available homeports. The driving factor for all 15 changes was maintenance. For example, 10 of the 15 changes involved ships moving to or returning from shipyards in Bremerton or Norfolk for planned dry-dock maintenance or midlife refueling. In 2015 and 2019, the Navy decided to homeport aircraft carriers in Bremerton and San Diego because Everett lacked nuclear maintenance facilities, which were available at the Navy's other aircraft carrier homeport locations. Previously, carriers homeported in Everett received regularly scheduled maintenance at the shipyard in Bremerton but did not conduct an official homeport change. The Navy reported that during these maintenance periods that lasted 6 months or more, the crew commuted 3 to 4 hours daily, which negatively affected maintenance and crew morale. As a result, the Navy decided not to return an aircraft carrier to Everett. According to Navy officials, factors in addition to maintenance needs also informed the changes, including a long-held plan to homeport three aircraft carriers in San Diego. Why GAO Did This Study The Navy relies on 11 aircraft carriers homeported on the East and West Coasts and in Japan to support U.S. defense strategic objectives and operations. These nuclear-powered ships require complex infrastructure, technology, and maintenance, some of which may not be available near their homeport. Changing an aircraft carrier's homeport means moving the ship's approximately 3,200 sailors, a fluctuation of 5,000 or more people depending on the number of family members involved. In House Report 116-120, accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, the House Armed Services Committee noted that the Navy reversed previous plans to homeport an aircraft carrier at Naval Station Everett, Washington. The House Report also included a provision for GAO to review the Navy's process to assign aircraft carriers' homeports. This report examines, for Navy aircraft carriers, (1) the extent to which the Navy has a process for making homeport changes, and considers local installation and other factors in the homeporting process, and (2) homeport changes from fiscal years 2011 through 2020 and the reasons for them. GAO analyzed Navy instructions and related policies, laws, and regulations; homeport plans and maintenance schedules; and fiscal years 2011–2020 documentation of homeport changes. GAO also interviewed Navy officials, including from relevant commands and homeports. For more information, contact Diana Maurer at (202) 512-9627 or MaurerD@gao.gov.
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  • Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson Issues Statement on the Shootings of FBI Special Agents in Florida
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    This morning FBI Special Agent Daniel Alfin and Special Agent Laura Schwartzenberger were killed in the line of duty and three other agents were wounded while executing a federal court-ordered search warrant in a crimes against children investigation in Sunrise, Florida.  Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson issued the following statement:
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  • Science & Tech Spotlight: Vaccine Safety
    In U.S GAO News
    Why this Matters Safe vaccines are critical to fighting diseases, from polio to COVID-19. Research shows that the protection provided by U.S. licensed vaccines outweighs their potential risks. However, misinformation and unjustified safety concerns can cause people to delay or refuse vaccination, which may increase preventable deaths and prolong negative social and economic impacts. The Science What is it? A vaccine is generally considered safe when the benefits of protecting an individual from disease outweigh the risks from potential side effects (fig. 1). The most common side effects stem from the body's immune reaction and include swelling at the injection site, fever, and aches. Figure 1. Symptoms of polio and side effects of the polio vaccine. A vaccine is generally considered safe if its benefits (preventing disease) outweigh its risks (side effects). In rare cases, some vaccines may cause more severe side effects. For example, the vaccine for rotavirus—a childhood illness that can cause severe diarrhea, dehydration, and even death—can cause intestinal blockage in one in 100,000 recipients. However, the vaccine is still administered because this very rare side effect is outweighed by the vaccine's benefits: it saves lives and prevents an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 childhood hospitalizations in the U.S. each year. The two messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines authorized for COVID-19—a disease that contributed to more than 415,000 American deaths between January 2020 and January 2021—can cause severe allergic reactions. However, early safety reporting found that these reactions have been extremely rare, with only about five cases per 1 million recipients, according to data from January 2021 reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In general, side effects from vaccines are less acceptable to the public than side effects from treatments given to people who already have a disease. What is known? Vaccine developers assess safety from early research, through laboratory and animal testing, and even after the vaccine is in use (fig. 2). Researchers may rely on previous studies to inform future vaccine trials. For example, safety information from preclinical trials of mRNA flu vaccine candidates in 2017 allowed for the acceleration of mRNA COVID-19 vaccine development. Vaccine candidates shown to be safe in these preclinical trials can proceed to clinical trials in humans. In the U.S., clinical trials generally proceed through three phases of testing involving increasing numbers of volunteers: dozens in phase 1 to thousands in phase 3. Although data may be collected over years, most common side effects are identified in the first 2 months after vaccination in clinical trials. After reviewing safety and other data from vaccine studies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may license a vaccine to be marketed in the U.S. There are also programs to expedite—but not bypass—development and review processes, such as a priority review designation, which shortens FDA’s goal review time from 10 to 6 months. Safety monitoring continues after licensing. For example, health officials are required to report certain adverse events—such as heart problems—following vaccination, in order to help identify potential long-term or rare side effects that were not seen in clinical trials and may or may not be associated with the vaccine. Figure 2. Vaccine safety is assessed at every stage: development through post-licensure. Following a declared emergency, FDA can also issue emergency use authorizations (EUA) to allow temporary use of unlicensed vaccines if there is evidence that known and potential benefits of the vaccine outweigh known and potential risks, among other criteria. As of January 2021, two COVID-19 vaccines had received EUAs, after their efficacy and short-term safety were assessed through large clinical trials. However, developers must continue safety monitoring and meet other requirements if they intend to apply for FDA licensure to continue distribution of these vaccines after the emergency period has ended. What are the knowledge gaps? One knowledge gap that can remain after clinical trials is whether side effects or other adverse events may occur in certain groups. For example, because clinical trials usually exclude certain populations, such as people who are pregnant or have existing medical conditions, data on potential adverse events related to specific populations may not be understood until vaccines are widely administered. In addition, it can be difficult to determine the safety of new vaccines if outbreaks end suddenly. For example, vaccine safety studies were hindered during the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic when a large increase in the number of cases was followed by a sharp decrease. This disrupted the clinical trials of Ebola vaccine candidates, because the trials require many infected and non-infected people. Furthermore, a lack of understanding and/or misinformation about the steps taken to ensure the safety of vaccines hinders accurate public knowledge about safety concerns, which may cause people to delay or refuse vaccination. This resulting hesitancy may, in turn, increase deaths, social harm, and economic damage. Opportunities Continuing and, where necessary, improving existing vaccine safety practices offers the following opportunities to society: Herd immunity. Widespread immunity in a population, acquired in large part through safe and effective vaccines, can slow the spread of infection and protect those most vulnerable. Health care improvements. Vaccinations can reduce the burden on the health care system by reducing severe symptoms that require individuals to seek treatment. Eradication. Safe vaccination programs, such as those combatting smallpox, may eliminate diseases to the point where transmission no longer occurs. Challenges There are a number of challenges to ensuring safe vaccines: Public confidence. Vaccine hesitancy, in part due to misinformation or historic unethical human experimentation, decreases participation in clinical trials, impeding identification of side effects across individuals with different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Mutating viruses. Some viruses, such as those that cause the flu or COVID-19, may mutate rapidly and thus may require new or updated vaccines, for which ongoing safety monitoring is important. Long-term and rare effects. Exceedingly rare or long-term effects may not be identified until after vaccines have been widely administered. Further study is needed to detect any such effects and confirm they are truly associated with the vaccine. Policy Context & Questions What steps can policymakers take to improve public trust and understanding of the process of assessing vaccine safety? How can policymakers convey the social importance of vaccines to protect the general public and those who are most vulnerable? How can policymakers leverage available resources to support ongoing vaccine development and post-licensure safety monitoring? For more information, contact Karen Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.
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    The Justice Department announced today that it has reached a settlement with the owners and managers of housing in Honolulu, Hawaii, to resolve a lawsuit filed last year alleging that the defendants refused to rent to families with children at properties they owned and managed, in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
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    Tomorrow, the Nation and the world will witness an orderly and peaceful transfer of power in the United States, as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court swears in President-Elect Biden.  Throughout our Nation’s proud history, this ceremony has served as a beacon of democracy and a testament to the enduring strength of our Constitution.
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  • California Man Charged with Federal Hate Crime for Attempting to Stab Black Man
    In Crime News
    Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division, and U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson for the Northern District of California, and Special Agent in Charge Jack Bennett for the FBI San Francisco Division announced today that a California man has been charged with a federal hate crime for attacking a black man with a knife on a street in Santa Cruz, California.
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  • Bankruptcy Filings Fall 11.8 Percent for Year Ending June 30
    In U.S Courts
    Despite a sharp rise in unemployment related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, personal and business bankruptcy filings fell 11.8 percent for the 12-month period ending June 30, 2020, according to statistics released by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
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    Today, the Department of Justice filed a petition in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts to enforce Bain & Company’s compliance with the department’s Civil Investigative Demand (CID).  
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  • 5G Wireless: Capabilities and Challenges for an Evolving Network
    In U.S GAO News
    Fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks promise to provide significantly greater speeds and higher capacity to accommodate more devices. In addition, 5G networks are expected to be more flexible, reliable, and secure than existing cellular networks. The figure compares 4G and 5G performance goals along three of several performance measures. Note: Megabits per second (Mbps) is a measure of the rate at which data is transmitted, milliseconds (ms) is a measure of time equal to one thousandth of a second, and square kilometer (km²) is a measure of area. As with previous generations of mobile wireless technology, the full performance of 5G will be achieved gradually as networks evolve over the next decade. Deployment of 5G network technologies in the U.S. began in late 2018, and these initial 5G networks focus on enhancing mobile broadband. These deployments are dependent on the existing 4G core network and, in many areas, produced only modest performance improvements. To reach the full potential of 5G, new technologies will need to be developed. International bodies that have been involved in defining 5G network specifications will need to develop additional 5G specifications and companies will need to develop, test, and deploy these technologies. GAO identified the following challenges that can hinder the performance or usage of 5G technologies in the U.S. GAO developed six policy options in response to these challenges, including the status quo. They are presented with associated opportunities and considerations in the following table. The policy options are directed toward the challenges detailed in this report: spectrum sharing, cybersecurity, privacy, and concern over possible health effects of 5G technology. Policy options to address challenges to the performance or usage of U.S. 5G wireless networks Policy Option Opportunities Considerations Spectrum-sharing technologies (report p. 47) Policymakers could support research and development of spectrum sharing technologies. Could allow for more efficient use of the limited spectrum available for 5G and future generations of wireless networks. It may be possible to leverage existing 5G testbeds for testing the spectrum sharing technologies developed through applied research. Research and development is costly, must be coordinated and administered, and its potential benefits are uncertain. Identifying a funding source, setting up the funding mechanism, or determining which existing funding streams to reallocate will require detailed analysis. Coordinated cybersecurity monitoring (report p. 48) Policymakers could support nationwide, coordinated cybersecurity monitoring of 5G networks. A coordinated monitoring program would help ensure the entire wireless ecosystem stays knowledgeable about evolving threats, in close to real time; identify cybersecurity risks; and allow stakeholders to act rapidly in response to emerging threats or actual network attacks. Carriers may not be comfortable reporting incidents or vulnerabilities, and determinations would need to be made about what information is disclosed and how the information will be used and reported. Cybersecurity requirements (report p. 49) Policymakers could adopt cybersecurity requirements for 5G networks. Taking these steps could produce a more secure network. Without a baseline set of security requirements the implementation of network security practices is likely to be piecemeal and inconsistent. Using existing protocols or best practices may decrease the time and cost of developing and implementing requirements. Adopting network security requirements would be challenging, in part because defining and implementing the requirements would have to be done on an application-specific basis rather than as a one-size-fits-all approach. Designing a system to certify network components would be costly and would require a centralized entity, be it industry-led or government-led. Privacy practices (report p. 50) Policymakers could adopt uniform practices for 5G user data. Development and adoption of uniform privacy practices would benefit from existing privacy practices that have been implemented by states, other countries, or that have been developed by federal agencies or other organizations. Privacy practices come with costs, and policymakers would need to balance the need for privacy with the direct and indirect costs of implementing privacy requirements. Imposing requirements can be burdensome, especially for smaller entities. High-band research (report p. 51) Policymakers could promote R&D for high-band technology. Could result in improved statistical modeling of antenna characteristics and more accurately representing propagation characteristics. Could result in improved understanding of any possible health effects from long-term radio frequency exposure to high-band emissions. Research and development is costly and must be coordinated and administered, and its potential benefits are uncertain. Policymakers will need to identify a funding source or determine which existing funding streams to reallocate. Status quo (report p. 52) Some challenges described in this report may be addressed through current efforts. Some challenges described in this report may remain unresolved, be exacerbated, or take longer to resolve than with intervention. GAO was asked to assess the technologies associated with 5G and their implications. This report discusses (1) how the performance goals and expected uses are to be realized in U.S. 5G wireless networks, (2) the challenges that could affect the performance or usage of 5G wireless networks in the U.S., and (3) policy options to address these challenges. To address these objectives, GAO interviewed government officials, industry representatives, and researchers about the performance and usage of 5G wireless networks. This included officials from seven federal agencies; the four largest U.S. wireless carriers; an industry trade organization; two standards bodies; two policy organizations; nine other companies; four university research programs; the World Health Organization; the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements; and the chairman of the Defense Science Board's 5G task force. GAO reviewed technical studies, industry white papers, and policy papers identified through a literature review. GAO discussed the challenges to the performance or usage of 5G in the U.S. during its interviews and convened a one-and-a-half day meeting of 17 experts from academia, industry, and consumer groups with assistance from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. GAO received technical comments on a draft of this report from six federal agencies and nine participants at its expert meeting, which it incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Hai Tran at (202) 512-6888, tranh@gao.gov or Vijay A. D’Souza at (202) 512-6240, dsouzav@gao.gov.
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