DOD Critical Technologies: Plans for Communicating, Assessing, and Overseeing Protection Efforts Should Be Completed

What GAO Found

Critical technologies—such as elements of artificial intelligence and biotechnology—are those necessary to maintain U.S. technological superiority. As such, they are frequently the target of theft, espionage, and illegal export by adversaries. The Department of Defense (DOD) has outlined a revised process (see figure) to better identify and protect its critical technologies including those associated with acquisition programs throughout their lifecycle or those early in development. Prior DOD efforts to identify these technologies were considered by some military officials to be too broad to adequately guide protection. The revised process is expected to address this by offering more specificity about what elements of an acquisition program or technology need to be protected and the protection measures DOD is expected to implement. It is also expected to support DOD’s annual input to the National Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technologies, which was first published in October 2020.

Overview of DOD’s Revised Process to Identify and Protect Critical Acquisition Programs and Technologies

DOD began implementing this process in February 2020, and officials expect to complete all steps for the first time by September 2021. DOD has focused on identifying critical acquisition programs and technologies that need to be protected and how they should be protected. It has not yet determined

  • how it will communicate the list internally and to other agencies,
  • which metrics it will use to assess protection measures, and
  • which organization will oversee future protection efforts.

By determining the approach for completing these tasks, DOD can better ensure its revised process will support the protection of critical acquisition programs and technologies consistently across the department.

Once completed, the revised process should also inform DOD and other federal agencies’ protection efforts. Military officials stated they could use the list of critical acquisition programs and technologies to better direct resources. Officials from the Departments of State, Commerce, and the Treasury stated that they could use the list, if it is effectively communicated, to better understand what is important to DOD to help ensure protection through their respective programs.

Why GAO Did This Study

The federal government spends billions annually to develop and acquire advanced technologies. It permits the sale and transfer of some of these technologies to allies to promote U.S. national security, foreign policy, and economic interests. However, the technologies can be targets for adversaries. The John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 requires the Secretary of Defense to develop and maintain a list of acquisition programs, technologies, manufacturing capabilities, and research areas that are critical for preserving U.S. national security advantages. Ensuring effective protection of critical technologies has been included on GAO’s high-risk list since 2007.

This report examines (1) DOD’s efforts to identify and protect its critical technologies, and (2) opportunities for these efforts to inform government protection activities. GAO analyzed DOD critical acquisition program and technologies documentation, and held interviews with senior officials at DOD and other federal agencies responsible for protecting critical technologies.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is recommending that DOD specify how it will communicate its critical programs and technologies list, develop metrics to assess protection measures, and select the DOD organization that will oversee protection efforts beyond 2020. DOD concurred with the first recommendation and partially concurred with the second and third. GAO maintains the importance of all recommendations in this report.

For more information, contact William Russell at (202) 512-4841 or russellw@gao.gov.

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    As of September 2020, 19 of the 24 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) programs GAO assessed that had DHS approved acquisition program baselines were meeting their currently established goals. However, of the 24 programs, ten had been in breach of their cost or schedule goals, or both, at some point during fiscal year 2020. A few programs experienced breaches related to external factors, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, while others breached their baseline goals because of acquisition management issues. Five of these programs rebaselined to increase costs or delay schedules, but the remaining five were still in breach status as of September 2020 (see table). Further, GAO found that some of the 19 programs that were meeting their currently established goals—including the U.S. Coast Guard's Offshore Patrol Cutter program—are at risk of future cost growth or schedule slips. DHS Major Acquisition Programs In Breach of Approved Cost or Schedule Goals (or Both) As of September 2020. Program (estimated life-cycle cost) Breach Type National Cybersecurity Protection System ($5,908 million) Schedule Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology ($3,923 million) Cost and Schedule Grants Management Modernization ($289 million) Cost and Schedule National Bio Agro-Defense Facility ($1,298 million) Schedule Medium Range Surveillance Aircraft ($15,187 million) Schedule Source: GAO analysis of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data. | GAO-21-175 Note: The life-cycle cost information is the current acquisition program baseline cost goal as of September 2020. Programs may revise cost goals, if necessary, when the new baseline is approved. GAO found that supplemental guidance for the development of acquisition documents generally aligned with requirements in DHS's acquisition management policy. However, guidance for developing acquisition documentation in DHS's Systems Engineering Life Cycle Instruction and accompanying Guidebook does not reflect current requirements in DHS's acquisition management policy. DHS officials stated that the information related to development of acquisition documents—including the systems engineering life cycle tailoring plan—should be consistent across all of DHS's policies, instructions, and guidebooks. Inconsistent agency-wide guidance can lead to a lack of clarity on when programs should submit their program documentation. The Joint Explanatory Statement accompanying a bill to the DHS Appropriations Act, 2019, directed DHS to provide quarterly briefings on summary ratings for all major acquisition programs. While DHS is meeting this direction with summary ratings, the ratings do not include contextual information, such as programs' cost, schedule, or performance risks. This type of information would help Congress understand how the ratings relate to potential program outcomes. Determining what additional risk information is needed for DHS's major acquisition programs along with the reporting timeframes and the appropriate mechanism to provide the information, would help ensure that decision makers have needed context. DHS plans to spend more than $7 billion on its portfolio of major acquisition programs—with life-cycle costs over $300 million— in fiscal year 2021 to help execute its many critical missions. The Explanatory Statement accompanying the DHS Appropriations Act, 2015, included a provision for GAO to review DHS's major acquisitions on an ongoing basis. This report, GAO's sixth review, assesses the extent to which (1) DHS's major acquisition programs are meeting baseline goals, (2) DHS's guidance for developing acquisition documentation is consistent with DHS acquisition policy, and (3) DHS is reporting relevant information to Congress on its portfolio of major acquisition programs. GAO assessed 24 acquisition programs, including DHS's largest programs that were in the process of obtaining new capabilities as of April 2018, and programs GAO or DHS identified as at risk of poor outcomes. GAO assessed cost and schedule progress against baselines; assessed DHS's congressional reporting requirements; and interviewed DHS officials and congressional appropriations committee staff. GAO is making one recommendation for DHS to align acquisition guidance with policy, and one matter for Congress to consider determining what additional information it needs to perform oversight. DHS concurred with our recommendation. For more information, contact Marie A. Mak at (202) 512-4841 or makm@gao.gov.
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  • Medical Device Maker Merit Medical To Pay $18 Million To Settle Allegations Of Improper Payments To Physicians
    In Crime News
    Medical device maker Merit Medical Systems Inc. (MMSI), of South Jordan, Utah, has agreed to pay $18 million to resolve allegations that the company caused the submission of false claims to the Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE programs by paying kickbacks to physicians and hospitals to induce the use of MMSI products, the Department of Justice announced today. 
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  • Kenyan National Indicted for Conspiring to Hijack Aircraft on Behalf of the Al Qaeda-Affiliated Terrorist Organization Al Shabaab
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice announced the unsealing of an indictment charging Cholo Abdi Abdullah with six counts of terrorism-related offenses arising from his activities as an operative of the foreign terrorist organization al Shabaab, including conspiring to hijack aircraft in order to conduct a 9/11-style attack in the United States.  Abdullah was arrested in July 2019 in the Philippines on local charges, and was subsequently transferred on Dec. 15, 2020 in connection with his deportation from the Philippines to the custody of U.S. law enforcement for prosecution on the charges in the indictment.  Abdullah was transported from the Phillippines to the United States yesterday, and is expected to be presented today before Magistrate Judge Robert W. Lehrburger in Manhattan federal court.  The case is assigned to United States District Judge Analisa Torres.
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  • On U.S. Dedication to Human Rights
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Michael R. Pompeo, [Read More…]
  • United States Files Complaint Against Nutter Home Loans for Forging Certifications and Using Unqualified Underwriters to Approve Government-Insured Reverse Mortgages
    In Crime News
    The United States has filed a complaint under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989 and the False Claims Act against Nutter Home Loans, f/k/a James B. Nutter & Co. (Nutter), for forging certifications and using unqualified underwriters to approve Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insured Home Equity Conversion Mortgages (HECM), the Department of Justice announced today. 
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