Ambassador Pamela Spratlen Designated as Senior Advisor to Department Health Incident Response Task Force

Office of the Spokesperson

The Department has designated Ambassador Pamela Spratlen to serve as the Senior Advisor to the Health Incident Response Task Force (HIRTF), reporting directly to the Department’s senior leadership. Since its creation in 2018, the HIRTF has served as the coordinating body for the Department and interagency’s response to unexplained health incidents for personnel and dependents under Chief of Mission security responsibility, including identification and treatment of affected personnel and family members; investigation and risk mitigation; messaging; and diplomatic outreach.

A career member of the Foreign Service for nearly 30 years, Ambassador Spratlen was formerly Senior Advisor of the Office of Inspector General in the U.S. State Department, Inspections Division.  She was the U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2015-2018 and Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic (Kyrgyzstan) from 2011-2014.  She has also served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan (2009-2011).

In addition to numerous Washington assignments and a tour as Diplomat in Residence at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Ambassador Spratlen also served in Russia (Moscow and Vladivostok), France (U.S. Mission to the OECD) and Latin America (Guatemala and the U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States).

As Secretary Blinken said, “The selection of Ambassador Spratlen will help us make strides to address this issue wherever it affects Department personnel and their families.  She will streamline our coordination efforts with the interagency community, and reaffirm our commitment to make certain that those affected receive the care and treatment they need.”

Members of the media who are interested in interviews with Ambassador Pamela Spratlen should contact Public Affairs Specialist Brenda Greenberg at GreenbergBL2@state.gov or 202-647-1679.

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    What GAO Found In their role administering private sector employer-sponsored defined contribution (DC) retirement plans, such as 401(k) plans, plan sponsors and their service providers—record keepers, third party administrators, custodians, and payroll providers—share a variety of personally identifiable information (PII) and plan asset data among them to assist with carrying out their respective functions (see figure). The PII exchanged for DC plans typically include participant name, Social Security number, date of birth, address, username/password; plan asset data typically includes numbers for both retirement and bank accounts. The sharing and storing of this information can lead to significant cybersecurity risks for plan sponsors and their service providers, as well as plan participants. Data Sharing Among Plan Sponsors and Service Providers in Defined Contribution Plans Federal requirements and industry guidance exist that could mitigate cybersecurity risks in DC plans, such as requirements that pertain to entities that directly engage in financial activities involving DC plans. However, not all entities involved in DC plans are considered to have such direct engagement, and other cybersecurity mitigation guidance is voluntary. Federal law nevertheless requires plan fiduciaries to act prudently when administering plans. However, the Department of Labor (DOL) has not clarified fiduciary responsibility for mitigating cybersecurity risks, even though 21 of 22 stakeholders GAO interviewed expressed the view that cybersecurity is a fiduciary duty. Further, DOL has not established minimum expectations for protecting PII and plan assets. DOL officials told GAO that the agency intends to issue guidance addressing cybersecurity-related issues, but they were unsure when it would be issued. Until DOL clarifies responsibilities for fiduciaries and provides minimum cybersecurity expectations, participants' data and assets will remain at risk. Why GAO Did This Study Cyber attacks against information systems (IT) are perpetuated by individuals or groups with malicious intentions, from stealing identities to appropriating money from accounts. DC plans, which allow individuals to accumulate tax-advantaged retirement savings, increasingly rely on the internet and IT systems for their administration. Accordingly, the need to secure these systems has become paramount. Ineffective data security controls can result in significant risks to plan data and assets. In 2018, DC plans enrolled 106 million participants and held nearly $6.3 trillion in assets, according to DOL. This report examines (1) the data that sponsors and providers exchange during the administration of DC plans and their associated cybersecurity risks, and (2) efforts to assist sponsors and providers to mitigate cybersecurity risks during the administration of DC plans. GAO interviewed key entities involved with DC plans, such as sponsors and record keepers, DOL officials and industry stakeholders; and reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and guidance.
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  • Disaster Response: Agencies Should Assess Contracting Workforce Needs and Purchase Card Fraud Risk
    In U.S GAO News
    The efforts of selected agencies to plan for disaster contracting activities and assess contracting workforce needs varied. The U.S. Forest Service initiated efforts to address its disaster response contracting workforce needs while three agencies—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the U.S. Coast Guard, and Department of the Interior (DOI)—partially addressed these needs. The Environmental Protection Agency indicated it did not have concerns fulfilling its disaster contracting responsibilities. Specifically, GAO found the following: USACE assigned clear roles and responsibilities for disaster response contracting activities, but has not formally assessed its contracting workforce to determine if it can fulfill these roles. The Coast Guard has a process to assess its workforce needs, but it does not account for contracting for disaster response activities. DOI is developing a strategic acquisition plan and additional guidance for its bureaus on how to structure their contracting functions, but currently does not account for disaster contracting responsibilities. Contracting officials at all three of these agencies identified challenges executing their regular responsibilities along with their disaster-related responsibilities during the 2017 and 2018 hurricane and wildfire seasons. For example, Coast Guard contracting officials stated they have fallen increasingly behind since 2017 and that future disaster response missions would not be sustainable with their current workforce. GAO's strategic workforce planning principles call for agencies to determine the critical skills and competencies needed to achieve future programmatic results. Without accounting for disaster response contracting activities in workforce planning, these agencies are missing opportunities to ensure their contracting workforces are equipped to respond to future disasters. The five agencies GAO reviewed from above, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), collectively spent more than $20 million for 2017 and 2018 disaster response activities using purchase cards. GAO found that two of these six agencies—Forest Service and EPA—have not completed fraud risk profiles for their purchase card programs that align with leading practices in GAO's Fraud Risk Framework. Additionally, five of the six agencies have not assessed or documented how their fraud risk for purchase card use might differ in a disaster response environment. DOI completed such an assessment during the course of our review. An Office of Management and Budget memorandum requires agencies to complete risk profiles for their purchase card programs that include fraud risk. GAO's Fraud Risk Framework states managers should assess fraud risk regularly and document those assessments in risk profiles. The framework also states that risk profiles may differ in the context of disaster response when managers may have a higher fraud risk tolerance since individuals in these environments have an urgent need for products and services. Without assessing fraud risk for purchase card programs or how risk may change in a disaster response environment, agencies may not design or implement effective internal controls, such as search criteria to identify fraudulent transactions. The 2017 and 2018 hurricanes and California wildfires affected millions of people and caused billions of dollars in damages. Extreme weather events are expected to become more frequent and intense due to climate change. Federal contracts for goods and services play a key role in disaster response and recovery, and government purchase cards can be used by agency staff to buy needed items. GAO was asked to review federal response and recovery efforts related to recent disasters. This report examines the extent to which selected agencies planned for their disaster response contracting activities, assessed their contracting workforce needs, and assessed the fraud risk related to their use of purchase cards for disaster response. GAO selected six agencies based on contract obligations for 2017 and 2018 disasters; analyzed federal procurement and agency data; reviewed agencies' policies on workforce planning, purchase card use, and fraud risk; and analyzed purchase card data. FEMA was not included in the examination of workforce planning due to prior GAO work. GAO is making 12 recommendations, including to three agencies to assess disaster response contracting needs in workforce planning, and to five agencies to assess fraud risk for purchase card use in support of disaster response. For more information, contact Marie A. Mak at (202) 512-4841 or makm@gao.gov.
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  • Puerto Rico Electricity: FEMA and HUD Have Not Approved Long-Term Projects and Need to Implement Recommendations to Address Uncertainties and Enhance Resilience
    In U.S GAO News
    As of October 2020, 3 years since the hurricanes destroyed much of Puerto Rico's electricity grid, neither the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) nor the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had approved long-term grid recovery projects in Puerto Rico. In 2019, GAO made four recommendations to FEMA and HUD to address identified challenges in rebuilding the electricity grid in Puerto Rico. As of October 2020, FEMA had fully implemented one recommendation and partially implemented two others, while HUD had not implemented its recommendation. Specifically, FEMA established an interagency agreement with the Department of Energy (DOE) to clarify how the agencies would consult on recovery efforts. FEMA had taken actions to partially implement recommendations on improving coordination among federal and local agencies and providing information on industry standards. However, further steps are needed, including finalizing guidance on FEMA's process for approving funding for projects. Regarding HUD, it has not addressed GAO's recommendation to establish time frames and requirements for available funding. Damaged Power Lines in Puerto Rico in November 2017 after Hurricane Maria Until HUD and FEMA implement GAO's recommendations, uncertainty will linger about how and when federal funding for long-term grid recovery will proceed. In particular, it is uncertain how available funding sources will support measures to enhance grid resilience to hurricanes, such as smart grid technology. FEMA officials told GAO that additional funding sources could be used for resilience measures but that this would not be determined until specific projects are submitted to FEMA for approval. Moreover, although FEMA finalized a $10 billion cost estimate for grid repairs in September 2020, several steps remain before FEMA approves funding for projects—a process officials said they were drafting. HUD funding could supplement FEMA funding but, as discussed above, HUD has yet to establish conditions for using these funds and has not established time frames and a plan for issuing this information. According to HUD officials, they plan to publish requirements in the first quarter of fiscal year 2021, but this depends on other factors, such as input from other federal agencies. Further delays in publishing the conditions could contribute to delays in Puerto Rico's ability to initiate grid recovery projects. In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria damaged Puerto Rico's electricity grid, causing the longest blackout in U.S. history. It took roughly 11 months after the hurricanes for power to be restored to all of the customers with structures deemed safe for power restoration. Since electricity service has been restored, local entities have undertaken the longer-term task of more fully repairing and rebuilding the grid. GAO reported in 2019 on challenges hindering progress in rebuilding the grid and recommended that FEMA and HUD take actions to address these challenges. This report examines the status of efforts to support long-term grid recovery in Puerto Rico, including actions taken by FEMA and HUD to implement GAO's 2019 recommendations. For this report, GAO assessed agency actions; reviewed relevant reports, regulations, policies, and documents; and interviewed federal and local officials. GAO previously made three recommendations to FEMA and one to HUD to provide needed information and improve coordination to support grid recovery. Both agencies disagreed with GAO's characterization of their progress made addressing these prior recommendations. GAO continues to believe additional actions are needed to fully implement these recommendations. For more information, contact Frank Rusco at (202) 512-3841 or ruscof@gao.gov.
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  • Aviation Cybersecurity: FAA Should Fully Implement Key Practices to Strengthen Its Oversight of Avionics Risks
    In U.S GAO News
    Modern airplanes are equipped with networks and systems that share data with the pilots, passengers, maintenance crews, other aircraft, and air-traffic controllers in ways that were not previously feasible (see fig. 1). As a result, if avionics systems are not properly protected, they could be at risk of a variety of potential cyberattacks. Vulnerabilities could occur due to (1) not applying modifications (patches) to commercial software, (2) insecure supply chains, (3) malicious software uploads, (4) outdated systems on legacy airplanes, and (5) flight data spoofing. To date, extensive cybersecurity controls have been implemented and there have not been any reports of successful cyberattacks on an airplane's avionics systems. However, the increasing connections between airplanes and other systems, combined with the evolving cyber threat landscape, could lead to increasing risks for future flight safety. Figure 1: Key Systems Connections to Commercial Airplanes The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has established a process for the certification and oversight of all US commercial airplanes, including the operation of commercial air carriers (see fig. 2). While FAA recognizes avionics cybersecurity as a potential safety issue for modern commercial airplanes, it has not fully implemented key practices that are necessary to carry out a risk-based cybersecurity oversight program. Specifically, FAA has not (1) assessed its oversight program to determine the priority of avionics cybersecurity risks, (2) developed an avionics cybersecurity training program, (3) issued guidance for independent cybersecurity testing, or (4) included periodic testing as part of its monitoring process. Until FAA strengthens its oversight program, based on assessed risks, it may not be able to ensure it is providing sufficient oversight to guard against evolving cybersecurity risks facing avionics systems in commercial airplanes. Figure 2: Federal Aviation Administration's Certification Process for Commercial Transport Airplanes GAO has previously identified key practices for interagency collaboration that can be used to assess interagency coordination. FAA coordinates with other federal agencies, such as the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Homeland Security (DHS), and with industry to address aviation cybersecurity issues. For example, FAA co-chairs the Aviation Cyber Initiative, a tri-agency forum with DOD and DHS to address cyber risks across the aviation ecosystem. However, FAA's internal coordination activities do not fully reflect GAO's key collaboration practices. FAA has not established a tracking mechanism for monitoring progress on cybersecurity issues that are raised in coordination meetings, and its oversight coordination activities are not supported by dedicated resources within the agency's budget. Until FAA establishes a tracking mechanism for cybersecurity issues, it may be unable to ensure that all issues are appropriately addressed and resolved. Further, until it conducts an avionics cybersecurity risk assessment, it will not be able to effectively prioritize and dedicate resources to ensure that avionics cybersecurity risks are addressed in its oversight program. Avionics systems, which provide weather information, positioning data, and communications, are critical to the safe operation of an airplane. FAA is responsible for overseeing the safety of commercial aviation, including avionics systems. The growing connectivity between airplanes and these systems may present increasing opportunities for cyberattacks on commercial airplanes. GAO was asked to review the FAA's oversight of avionics cybersecurity issues. The objectives of this review were to (1) describe key cybersecurity risks to avionics systems and their potential effects, (2) determine the extent to which FAA oversees the implementation of cybersecurity controls that address identified risks in avionics systems, and (3) assess the extent to which FAA coordinates internally and with other government and industry entities to identify and address cybersecurity risks to avionics systems. To do so, GAO reviewed information on key cybersecurity risks to avionics systems, as reported by major industry representatives as well as key elements of an effective oversight program, and compared FAA's process for overseeing the implementation of cybersecurity controls in avionics systems with these program elements. GAO also reviewed agency documentation and interviewed agency and industry representatives to assess FAA's coordination efforts to address the identified risks. GAO is making six recommendations to FAA to strengthen its avionics cybersecurity oversight program: GAO recommends that FAA conduct a cybersecurity risk assessment of avionics systems cybersecurity within its oversight program to identify the relative priority of avionics cybersecurity risks compared to other safety concerns and develop a plan to address those risks. Based on the assessment of avionics cybersecurity risks, GAO recommends that FAA identify staffing and training needs for agency inspectors specific to avionics cybersecurity, and develop and implement appropriate training to address identified needs. develop and implement guidance for avionics cybersecurity testing of new airplane designs that includes independent testing. review and consider revising its policies and procedures for monitoring the effectiveness of avionics cybersecurity controls in the deployed fleet to include developing procedures for safely conducting independent testing. ensure that avionics cybersecurity issues are appropriately tracked and resolved when coordinating among internal stakeholders. review and consider the extent to which oversight resources should be committed to avionics cybersecurity. FAA concurred with five out of six GAO recommendations. FAA did not concur with the recommendation to consider revising its policies and procedures for periodic independent testing. GAO clarified this recommendation to emphasize that FAA safely conduct such testing as part of its ongoing monitoring of airplane safety. For more information, contact Nick Marinos at (202) 512-9342 or MarinosN@gao.gov, or Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or KrauseH@gao.gov.
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