World Press Freedom Day

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Tomorrow, the United States joins the international community in celebrating World Press Freedom Day.  Information and knowledge are powerful tools, and a free and independent press is the core institution connecting publics to the information they need to advocate for themselves, make informed decisions, and hold governmental officials accountable.  The United States advocates for press freedom online and offline, and for the safety of journalists and media workers worldwide.

Freedom of expression and access to factual and accurate information provided by independent media are foundational to prosperous and secure democratic societies.  Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of expression includes the right of all individuals “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” But the outlook for the rights of journalists today is harrowing.

That’s one reason we announced, in response to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the “Khashoggi Ban” — to help deter threatening behavior against the media.  The Department’s 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices released in March cites dozens of cases of media workers who have been harassed, attacked, and even killed for their work.  The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that in 2020, the number of journalists killed in retaliation for their reporting more than doubled, with Mexico and Afghanistan seeing the largest number of killings.  According to CPJ, the number of journalists jailed for their reporting in 2020 reached the highest level since the organization began keeping track, with the People’s Republic of China, Turkey, and Egypt imprisoning the most reporters last year. In Russia, authorities continue to restrict independent reporting, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has provided a pretext for repressive governments to intensify pressure on independent media.  It is exactly in that kind of hostile environment that the exercise of freedom of expression, especially by members of the press, becomes even more crucial in alerting the public to abuses and corruption and in countering dangerous misinformation and disinformation.  We call on all governments to ensure media safety and protect journalists’ ability to do their jobs without fear of violence, threats, or unjust detention.

In our increasingly digital world, press freedom and the free flow of information require Internet freedom.  We are concerned by governments’ increased efforts to deprive the public of information and knowledge by controlling Internet access and censoring content, including through the widespread use of network restrictions – some as long as 18 months – that make it impossible for journalists to conduct independent reporting.  Governments must not shut down, block, throttle, censor, or filter services, as these actions undermine and unduly restrict the rights of peaceful assembly and freedoms of association and expression, disrupt access to essential services, and negatively impact the economy.

The United States condemns the use of partial or complete government-imposed Internet shutdowns, among other tactics, to prevent the exercise of freedom of expression online and restrict the ability of independent journalists to serve the public.  We urge governments to investigate and seek accountability for all crimes against journalists and media workers.  The United States is committed to working in partnership with members of the media, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and other concerned governments to support access to information and defend freedom of expression and the brave journalists who face intimidation, harassment, arrest, and violence in exercising their rights.

 

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    The Department of Defense (DOD) has a general expectation that its health care beneficiaries, upon receiving an urgent referral to see a specialist, will access that specialty care in 3 days or less. GAO's analysis of 16,754 urgent referrals at military treatment facilities (MTF) shows that DOD beneficiaries accessed specialty care services in 3 days or less for more than half of the urgent referrals. About 9 percent of the urgent referrals involved beneficiaries waiting 3 weeks or longer to be seen. According to DOD officials, some beneficiaries may have waited longer than 3 days due to factors such as patient preference, appointment availability, or waiting for lab results. Time to access care varied by specialty, with beneficiaries urgently referred to ophthalmology generally seeing a specialist the fastest, and those urgently referred to mental health and oncology generally waiting the longest. According to DOD officials, MTFs are responsible for monitoring beneficiaries' access to specialty care through urgent referrals. GAO found that the monitoring processes used varied by MTF and specialty care clinic at the five selected MTFs that GAO reviewed. For example, officials from one MTF told GAO they centrally manage all urgent referrals using a daily report to address any delays, while officials from another MTF told GAO that individual specialty care clinics are responsible for managing their own urgent referrals. DOD officials acknowledged such variation and MTFs have been directed to centralize their referral management and monitoring processes—an effort that is currently underway. GAO found that DOD monitors the rates at which beneficiaries receive timely and effective care, in part, through 10 outpatient health care quality measures. These measures allow DOD to make comparisons to civilian health care systems, and they are reviewed by various DOD groups at least quarterly. However, DOD officials told GAO that since October 2017, they have been unable to monitor nine of the 10 measures for MTFs using Military Health System (MHS) Genesis, DOD's new electronic health record system. According to the officials, DOD's current data warehouse—a system that stores some MHS Genesis data and can be used by MTFs to create reports on quality measures—is not capable of producing accurate reports for those measures. DOD officials told GAO they expect to implement a new data warehouse by the end of 2020. DOD officials also said they are importing data related to quality measures into another system used for quality monitoring; however, DOD does not have a targeted date for completing these data imports. Until these actions are fully implemented, groups responsible for monitoring quality care will continue to lack the data needed to offer assurance that the growing number of MTFs using MHS Genesis are providing beneficiaries with timely and effective care that will lead to better health outcomes. A draft of this report recommended that DOD establish a timeline to complete importing the quality measure-related data from MHS Genesis into DOD's system used for quality monitoring. In its review of the draft, DOD concurred with the recommendation and established a timeline for importing the data, to be available in DOD's system no later than May 2021. After reviewing the information DOD provided, GAO removed the recommendation from the final report. DOD is responsible for ensuring that beneficiaries have access to specialty care for conditions that, while not life-threatening, require immediate attention, as well as for ensuring that beneficiaries receive timely and effective care for certain routine or other services. A report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to review the quality of health care in the MHS. This report examines (1) the timeliness with which beneficiaries access specialty care at MTFs through urgent referrals and DOD's efforts to monitor access, and (2) DOD's use of quality measures to monitor and improve the rates of timely and effective care received by beneficiaries at MTFs. GAO examined relevant policies, national DOD referral data (a total of 16,754 urgent referrals) for a 1-year period ending August 2019, and the most recent available quality measure data (April 2020). GAO interviewed officials from five MTFs, selected for variation in military services, geography, provision of select specialty services, and use of the electronic health record system. For more information, contact Debra A. Draper at (202) 512-7114 or draperd@gao.gov.
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  • Financial Services Industry: Using Data to Promote Greater Diversity and Inclusion
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found GAO's prior work has shown that the financial services industry has made little or no progress in increasing diversity at the senior management level. The figure below shows the latest available data on diversity at senior levels. Race/Ethnicity and Gender Representation of Executive/Senior-Level Management in the Financial Services Industry, 2018 One common theme of GAO's recent reports on diversity in the financial services industry is the importance of using data to assess diversity and inclusion efforts. In 2017, GAO reported that financial services firms said it is important for firms to collect and analyze data to assess workforce diversity. Notably, all the financial services firms with which GAO spoke agreed on the importance of analyzing employee data. Some firm representatives noted that with such data, they can analyze the gender and racial/ethnic diversity of new hires, employees leaving the organization, and newly promoted staff and managers. In 2019 and 2020, GAO reported that the Federal Home Loan Banks (FHLBanks) and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the enterprises) track diversity composition data on their workforce, recruitment, and hiring. The FHLBanks and the enterprises use these data to compare their performance against benchmarks, such as prior-year metrics and peer institutions, and set goals for future performance. They also incorporate diversity targets into their incentive compensation goals or performance competencies for management. The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) uses data to oversee the workforce diversity and inclusion efforts of the FHLBanks and the enterprises. As GAO reported in 2019 and 2020, FHFA collects and reviews quarterly and annual workforce diversity data from the FHLBanks and enterprises. For example, FHFA assesses each FHLBank's performance in workforce diversity using the quarterly data. In 2017, FHFA also began reviewing diversity and inclusion efforts as part of its annual examinations of the FHLBanks and the enterprises. Why GAO Did This Study The financial services industry provides services that help families build wealth and is essential to the economic growth of the country. For instance, the FHLBanks, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac play important roles in supporting the U.S. housing market. The FHLBanks include 11 federally chartered banks that provide liquidity for member institutions, such as commercial and community banks, to use in support of housing finance and community lending. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac purchase single-family and multifamily mortgage loans that lenders already made to borrowers. Congressional members and others have highlighted the need for the financial services industry to create opportunities for all Americans, including supporting a diverse workforce. This statement discusses (1) how financial service firms use data to assess workforce diversity efforts; (2) how the FHLBanks and the enterprises use data to assess their diversity efforts; and (3) how FHFA oversees diversity efforts at the FHLBanks and the enterprises. This statement is primarily based on three GAO reports (GAO-18-64, GAO-19-589, and GAO-20-637) on diversity efforts in the financial services industry and at FHLBanks and the enterprises. For the reports, GAO reviewed relevant literature and data, and interviewed representatives of financial services firms and industry and diversity advocacy organizations. GAO also reviewed documents and interviewed officials from the FHLBanks, enterprises, and FHFA. For more information, contact Daniel Garcia-Diaz at (202) 512-8678 or GarciaDiazD@gao.gov.
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  • Forced Labor Imports: DHS Increased Resources and Enforcement Efforts, but Needs to Improve Workforce Planning and Monitoring
    In U.S GAO News
    Since 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has increased its resources to enforce a prohibition on importing goods made with forced labor, but has not determined its workforce needs. CBP formed the Forced Labor Division in 2018 to lead its efforts, and increased expenditures for the division from roughly $1 million in fiscal year 2018 to $1.4 million in fiscal year 2019. However, CBP has not assessed and documented the staffing levels or skills needed for the Forced Labor Division. For example, the division suspended some ongoing investigations due to a staff shortage and has plans to expand and train its workforce; however, the division has not assessed the number, type, locations, or specialized skills of positions it needs to achieve programmatic results. Without assessing its workforce needs, the division lacks reasonable assurance that it has the right number of people, with the right skills, in the right places. CBP has increased forced labor investigations and civil enforcement actions, but managers lack complete and consistent data summarizing cases. CBP detained shipments under 13 Withhold Release Orders (WRO) from 2016 through 2019, as shown in the figure below. However, the Forced Labor Division uses incomplete and inconsistent summary data to monitor its investigations. For example, data were missing on the sources of evidence collected for almost all active cases. Incomplete and inconsistent summary data on the characteristics and status of cases may hinder managers' effective monitoring of case progress and enforcement efforts. Figure: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Forced Labor Withhold Release Orders, 2016 through 2019 With regard to criminal violations, DHS's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has increased its resources to investigate allegations of forced labor, including those related to U.S. imports. ICE coordinates criminal investigations of forced labor, conducted in the U.S. and abroad. ICE reported spending about $40 million on forced labor investigations in fiscal year 2019, an increase of over 50 percent since 2016. Forced labor investigations often involve a range of criminal violations, including violations that are not related to the importation of goods. As such, reported expenditures include costs for cases on related issues, such as human trafficking. Forced labor is a global problem in which individuals are exploited to perform labor or services. The International Labour Organization estimates that forced labor generates profits of $150 billion a year globally. CBP is responsible for enforcing Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930, which prohibits the importation of goods made with forced labor. CBP has authority to detain shipments when information indicates that forced labor produced the goods. ICE is responsible for investigating potential crimes related to forced labor, and importers may be subject to prosecution. GAO was asked to review the status of DHS resources for implementing the Section 307 prohibition on forced labor imports, following an amendment of the law in 2016. This report examines (1) the extent to which CBP assessed agency needs for the enforcement of the prohibition on forced labor imports, (2) the outcome of CBP enforcement activities and monitoring of such efforts, and (3) ICE resources for investigations on forced labor. GAO reviewed CBP and ICE documents and data, and interviewed agency officials. This is a public version of a sensitive report GAO issued in July 2020. Information that CBP deemed sensitive has been omitted. GAO is making three recommendations, including that CBP assess the workforce needs of the Forced Labor Division, and improve its forced labor summary case data. CBP concurred with all three recommendations. For more information, contact Kimberly Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or gianopoulosk@gao.gov.
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  • Science & Tech Spotlight: Agile Software Development
    In U.S GAO News
    Why This Matters Agile software development has the potential to save the federal government billions of dollars and significant time, allowing agencies to deliver software more efficiently and effectively for American taxpayers. However, the transition to Agile requires an investment in new tools and processes, which can be costly and time consuming. The Methodology What is it? Agile is an approach to software development that encourages collaboration across an organization and allows requirements to evolve as a program progresses. Agile software development emphasizes iterative delivery; that is, the development of software in short, incremental stages. Customers continuously provide feedback on the software's functionality and quality. By engaging customers early and iterating often, agencies that adopt Agile can also reduce the risks of funding failing programs or outdated technology. Figure 1. Cycle of Agile software development How does it work? Agile software development is well suited for programs where the end goal is known, but specific details about their implementation may be refined along the way. Agile is implemented in different ways. For example, Scrum is a framework focused on teams, Scaled Agile Framework focuses on scaling Agile to larger groups, and DevOps extends the Agile principle of collaboration and unites the development and operation teams. Scrum, one of the most common Agile frameworks, organizes teams using defined roles, such as the product owner, who represents the customer, prioritizes work, and accepts completed software. In Scrum, development is broken down into timed iterations called sprints, where teams commit to complete specific requirements within a defined time frame. During a sprint, teams meet for daily stand-up meetings. At the end of a sprint, teams present the completed work to the product owner for acceptance. At a retrospective meeting following each sprint, team members discuss lessons learned and any changes needed to improve the process. Sprints allow for distinct, consistent, and measurable progress of prioritized software features. How mature is it? Organizations have used versions of incremental software development since the 1950s, with various groups creating Agile frameworks in the 1990s, including Scrum in 1995. In 2001, a group of software developers created the Agile Manifesto, which documents the guiding principles of Agile. Following this, Agile practitioners introduced new frameworks, such as Kanban, which optimizes work output by visualizing its flow. The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), enacted in 2014, includes a provision for the Office of Management and Budget to require the Chief Information Officers of covered agencies to certify that IT investments are adequately implementing incremental development. This development approach delivers capabilities more rapidly by dividing an investment into smaller parts. As a result, more agencies are now adopting an incremental, Agile, approach to software development. For example, in 2016, the Department of Homeland Security announced five Agile pilot programs. In 2020, at least 22 Department of Defense major defense acquisition programs reported using Agile development methods.  As the federal government continues to adopt Agile, effective oversight of these programs will be increasingly crucial. Our GAO Agile Assessment Guide, released in 2020, takes a closer look at the following categories of best practices: Agile adoption. This area focuses on team dynamics, program operations, and organization environments. One best practice for teams is to have repeatable processes in place such as continuous integration, which automates parts of development and testing. At the program operations level, staff should be appropriately trained in Agile methods. And at an organizational level, a best practice is to create a culture that supports Agile methods. Requirements development and management. Requirements—sometimes called user stories—are important in making sure the final product will function as intended. Best practices in this area include eliciting and prioritizing requirements and ensuring work meets those requirements. Acquisition strategy. Contractors may have a role in an Agile program in government. However, long timelines to award contracts and costly changes are major hurdles to executing Agile programs. One way to clear these hurdles is for organizations to create an integrated team with personnel from contracting, the program office, and software development. Clearly identifying team roles will alleviate bottlenecks in the development process. Figure 2. Different roles come together to make an Agile software development team. Program monitoring and control. Many Agile documents may be used to generate reliable cost and schedule estimates throughout a program’s life-cycle. Metrics. It is critical that metrics align with and prioritize organization-wide goals and objectives while simultaneously meeting customer needs. Such metrics in Agile include the number of features delivered to customers, the number of defects, and overall customer satisfaction.  Opportunities Flexibility. An Agile approach provides flexibility when customers’ needs change and as technology rapidly evolves. Risk reduction. Measuring progress during frequent iterations can reduce technical and programmatic risk. For example, routine retrospectives allow the team to reflect upon and improve the development process for the next iteration. Quicker deliveries. Through incremental releases, agencies can rapidly determine if newly produced software is meeting their needs. With Agile, these deliveries are typically within months, instead of alternative development methods, which can take years. Challenges GAO has previously reported on challenges the federal government faces in applying Agile methods; for the full report see GAO-12-681. Lack of organizational commitment. For example, organizations need to create a dedicated Agile team, which is a challenge when there is an insufficient number of staff, or when staff have several simultaneous duties. Resources needed to transition to Agile. An organization transitioning to Agile may need to invest in new tools, practices, and processes, which can be expensive and time consuming. Mistrust in iterative solutions. Customers who typically see a solution as a whole may be disappointed by the delivery of a small piece of functionality. Misaligned agency practices. Some agency practices, such as procurement, compliance reviews, federal reporting, and status tracking are not designed to support Agile software development. Policy and Context Questions In what ways can Agile help the federal government improve the management of IT acquisitions and operations, an area GAO has identified as high risk for the federal government? How can policymakers implement clear guidance about the use of Agile software development, such as reporting metrics, to better support Agile methods? How might resources need to shift to accommodate the adoption of Agile in federal agencies? What risks could those shifts pose? What updates to agency practices are worth pursuing to support Agile software development? For more information, contact Tim Persons at (202) 512-6888 or personst@gao.gov.
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  • Aircraft Noise: Information on a Potential Mandated Transition to Quieter Airplanes
    In U.S GAO News
    Based on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data and GAO estimates, most U.S. large commercial jet airplanes are certificated at the minimum required stage 3 noise standards, but nearly all of them are able to meet more stringent noise standards. Sixty-three percent of large commercial airplanes in the United States are certificated as meeting the stage 3 standards; however, 87 percent of them were manufactured with technologies that are able to meet more recent and stringent stage 4 or 5 standards as currently configured, according to FAA's 2017 analysis. By analyzing updated data from airlines and aviation manufacturers, GAO estimated that this proportion is even higher: 96 percent of large commercial airplanes are able to meet stage 4 or 5 standards (see figure). According to FAA officials and aviation stakeholders, the primary reason many large commercial airplanes certificated as stage 3 produce lower than stage 3 noise levels is because engine and airframe technology has outpaced the implementation of noise standards. More recently, some airlines have accelerated retirement of certain airplanes, some of which are certificated as stage 3, due to the decrease in travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For the generally smaller regional commercial jets (i.e., generally with less than 90 seats), 86 percent are able to meet stage 4 or stage 5 standards, according to manufacturers' data. With regard to general aviation (which are used for personal or corporate flights), 73 percent of the jet airplanes in that fleet are able to meet the more stringent stage 4 or 5 standards, according to manufacturers' data. GAO Estimate of The Number of Large Airplanes in the U.S. Commercial Fleet That Are Able to Meet Stage 3 or Stage 4 and 5 Noise Standards, January 2020 According to stakeholders GAO interviewed, a phase-out of jet airplanes that are certificated as meeting stage 3 standards would provide limited noise reduction and limited other benefits, and could be costly and present other challenges. A phase-out could require recertificating the vast majority of stage 3 airplanes to comply with stage 4 or 5 standards. This process could be costly for operators and manufacturers but would provide little reduction in noise. Further, airplanes currently unable to meet more stringent standards would require modifications or face retirement. For older airplanes that could not be recertificated to meet stage 4 or 5 standards, some operators could incur costs for replacement airplanes sooner than originally planned. Although stakeholders indicated that a phase-out would not substantially reduce noise, they identified other limited benefits newer airplanes generate, such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption. Although advances in technology have led to quieter aircraft capable of meeting increasingly stringent noise standards, airport noise remains a concern. FAA regulates aircraft noise by ensuring compliance with relevant noise standards. In 1990, federal law required large jet airplanes to comply with stage 3 noise standards by 1999, leading to a phase-out of the noisiest airplanes (stage 1 and 2 airplanes). Later, federal law required smaller airplanes to comply with stage 3 standards by 2016. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 included a provision for GAO to review a potential phase-out of stage 3 airplanes—the loudest aircraft currently operating in the United States. This report describes (1) the proportion of stage 3 airplanes in the U.S. fleet, and what proportion of these stage 3 airplanes are able to meet more stringent noise standards and (2) selected stakeholders' views on the potential benefits, costs, and challenges of phasing out stage 3 airplanes. GAO reviewed FAA's analysis of December 2017 fleet data, analyzed January 2020 fleet data from select airlines and airframe and engine manufacturers, and interviewed FAA officials. GAO also interviewed a non-generalizable sample of 35 stakeholders, including airlines; airframe and engine manufacturers; airports; and industry associations, selected based on fleet and noise data, stakeholder recommendations, or prior GAO knowledge. For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or krauseh@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has faced challenges in its efforts to accomplish three critical information technology (IT) modernization initiatives: the department's health information system, known as the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA); a system for the Family Caregiver Program, which is to support family caregivers of seriously injured post-9/11 veterans; and the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) that collects and stores information and is used for processing disability benefit claims. Specifically, GAO has reported on the challenges in the department's three previous unsuccessful attempts to modernize VistA over the past 20 years. However, VA has recently deployed a new scheduling system as part of its fourth effort to modernize VistA and the next deployment of the system, including additional capabilities, is planned in October 2020. VA had taken steps to address GAO's recommendations from its 2014 report to implement a replacement system for the Family Caregiver Program. However, in September 2019, GAO reported that VA had yet to implement a new IT system that fully supports the Family Caregiver Program and that it had not yet fully committed to a date by which it will certify that the new IT system fully supports the program. In September 2015, GAO reported that VA had made progress in developing and implementing VBMS, but also noted that additional actions could improve efforts to develop and use the system. For example, VBMS was not able to fully support disability and pension claims, as well as appeals processing. GAO made five recommendations aimed at improving VA's efforts to effectively complete the development and implementation of VBMS; however, as of September 2020, VA implemented only one recommendation. VA's progress in implementing key provisions of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (commonly referred to as FITARA) has been uneven. Specifically, VA has made progress toward improving its licensing of software and achieving its goals for closing unneeded data centers. However, the department has made limited progress toward addressing requirements related to IT investment risk management and Chief Information Officer authority enhancement. Until the department implements the act's provisions, Congress' ability to effectively monitor VA's progress and hold it fully accountable for reducing duplication and achieving cost savings will be hindered. In addition, since fiscal year 2016, GAO has reported that VA faces challenges related to effectively implementing the federal approach to, and strategy for, securing information systems; effectively implementing information security controls and mitigating known security deficiencies; and establishing elements of its cybersecurity risk management program. GAO's work stressed the need for VA to address these challenges as well as manage IT supply chain risks. As VA continues to pursue modernization efforts, it is critical that the department take steps to adequately secure its systems. The use of IT is crucial to helping VA effectively serve the nation's veterans. The department annually spends billions of dollars on its information systems and assets—VA's budget for IT now exceeds $4 billion annually. However, over many years, VA has experienced challenges in managing its IT projects and programs, which could jeopardize its ability to effectively support key programs such as the Forever GI Bill. GAO has previously reported on these IT management challenges at VA. GAO was asked to testify on its prior IT work at VA. Specifically, this testimony summarizes results and recommendations from GAO's issued reports that examined VA's efforts in (1) modernizing VistA, a system for the Family Caregiver Program, and VBMS; (2) implementing FITARA; and (3) addressing cybersecurity issues. In developing this testimony, GAO reviewed its recently issued reports that addressed IT management issues at VA and GAO's biannual high-risk series. GAO also incorporated information on the department's actions in response to recommendations. GAO has made numerous recommendations in recent years aimed at improving VA's IT system modernization efforts, implementation of key FITARA provisions, and cybersecurity program. VA has generally agreed with the recommendations and has begun to address them. For more information, contact Carol C. Harris at (202) 512-4456 or harriscc@gao.gov.
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