Briefing with Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Sung Kim and Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David F. Helvey on the Secretaries’ Upcoming Trip to Japan and Republic of Korea

Sung Kim, Acting Assistant SecretaryBureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs

David F. Helvey, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs

Via Teleconference

MR PRICE: Great, thank you very much. And good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining. Thanks for joining this call to discuss the upcoming trip by Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin to Tokyo, Japan and Seoul, Republic of Korea.

With us today, we’re really fortunate to have two speakers. We have Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Sung Kim. We also have with us Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey.

As a reminder, this call is on the record. We are embargoing the contents of this call until the completion of the call, but you are welcome to report the contents thereafter. You may enter the question queue at any time by dialing 1 and then 0. And with that, I will turn it over to Acting Assistant Secretary Kim.

Ambassador Kim, please, go ahead.

AMBASSADOR KIM: Thank you very much, Ned. Good afternoon, everyone. Great to be with you. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy, and we are working to strengthen America’s relationships with our allies as well as the relationships among them. And none are more important than Japan and the Republic of Korea. To highlight the vital importance of our three countries – the United States, Japan, and Korea – in promoting peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Defense Austin will make their first overseas visit to Tokyo and Seoul from March 15th through 18th.

In Tokyo and Seoul, Secretary Blinken will work with leaders to expand cooperation on tackling COVID-19, strengthening deterrence against regional threats, and addressing climate change, as well as enhancing trilateral cooperation on a broad range of global issues, including denuclearization of the DPRK.

He will also discuss our efforts to promote high standards for human rights and fundamental freedoms, establish effective international rules, and promote accountability for countries like China when they fail to adhere to their international commitments and obligations.

On March 16th and 17th in Tokyo, Secretary Blinken will meet with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and other senior officials. Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin will attend the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee 2+2 meeting hosted by Foreign Minister Motegi and Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi. Secretary Blinken will also meet virtually with business leaders and women entrepreneurs to highlight the importance of U.S.-Japan economic ties.

On March 17th and 18th in Seoul, Secretary Blinken will meet with Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and other senior officials. Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin will attend a U.S.-ROK Foreign and Defense Ministerial, or 2+2, hosted by Foreign Minister Chung and Minister of Defense Suh Wook. Secretary Blinken will also meet virtually with Korean youth leaders to discuss the importance of the U.S.-ROK alliance in promoting peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and across the globe.

In both capitals, Secretary Blinken will meet virtually with journalists to discuss the Biden-Harris administration’s vision for America’s place in the world as well as the role of a free press in promoting human rights and defending democracy.

The American, Japanese, and Korean people share deeply rooted values of defending freedom, championing economic and social opportunity and inclusion, upholding human rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity. Our cooperation with both Tokyo and Seoul to promote these universal values is vital to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

This trip is an important opportunity to engage on critical national security issues and to strengthen our engagement with our key allies. Secretary Blinken looks forward to his trip as we work to build a future of peace, prosperity, and security together with our allies and partners.

So with that, I am pleased to turn the telephone over to my good friend, Assistant Secretary Helvey. Thank you.

MR HELVEY: Well, thank you. And good afternoon, everyone. As my colleague Ambassador Kim has described, the Biden administration has made clear the criticality that attaches to promoting peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond through engaging with and investing in alliances and partnerships; and strengthening our foundation at home to maintain our innovation edge and to rebuild our industrial base.

The upcoming trips by the Secretaries of State and Defense signal the importance of our alliance and partner relationships, which are a real force multiplier in advancing our shared interests in the United States commitment to a rules-based international order, an order that places all nations on a level playing field and holds them responsible for preserving the principles that underpin it.

As our department’s priority theater, we’re committed to upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific region where all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty and pursue economic opportunity, resolve disputes without coercion, and have the freedom to navigate and fly consistent with international rules and norms.

At a time when the region is facing mounting pressure from People’s Republic of China and the continued threat from North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, this trip sends an important signal of resolve to work with allies, partners, and like-mindeds to promote a peaceful, stable, and resilient order that benefits us all.

Secretary Austin will be joining Secretary Blinken for the Security Consultative Committee meeting, or 2+2, in Japan, the highest platform for alliance management that we have with Japan. Our alliance is the cornerstone for peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. In addition to the 2+2, Secretary Austin will meet with Minister Kishi and other officials to discuss the continued transformation of this critical alliance and deepen our interoperability.

Secretary Austin, likewise, will join Secretary Blinken for a 2+2 meeting in the Republic of Korea. Our alliance with South Korea is the linchpin of peace and stability not only on the Korean Peninsula but across the region.

In addition, he’ll meet with Minister Suh Wook and other officials to review alliance priorities and the readiness of forces there to ensure that we maintain an effective combined deterrence and response capability.

From there, Secretary Austin will travel onward to India, an important strategic partnership that involves cooperation with likeminded nations committed to protecting the rules-based international order. In India, he’ll meet with Minister Rajnath Singh and others to discuss operationalizing the major defense partnership that we have with India, including through enhanced information sharing, regional security cooperation, defense trade, and cooperation in new domains.

And so to second Ambassador Kim’s point, this is a critically important trip and an opportunity to advance our alliance and partner relationships in our priority region at a very early time in this new administration. Thank you.

MR PRICE: Okay, thank you both. Just a reminder, you may ask a question by dialing 1 and then 0. We will start our questions with the line of Humeyra Pamuk from Reuters.

QUESTION: Hello. Can you hear me?

MR PRICE: We can. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, Ned. Thank you for doing this. My question is for Acting Assistant Secretary Sung Kim. I was wondering, in your talks with Japan specifically, is Myanmar going to come up? Because, I mean, Japan has put out a couple of statements, but in terms of action so far, they haven’t done a whole lot. And Japanese investments are quite big in Myanmar, so I was just wondering how forcefully are you going to push them to be more vocal about what’s happening in Myanmar? And also, in your talks with – secondly, in your talks with Japan and South Korea, how forcefully you will encourage them to be more vocal about what’s happening in Xinjiang and human rights? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KIM: Thank you very much. I expect that Burma will be an important topic in Secretary Blinken’s discussions with his Japanese counterparts. In fact, we have stayed in very close touch with our Japanese colleagues from the very beginning of the coup and the difficulties that the Burmese people are facing in Burma.

I think Japanese colleagues share our concerns, and they have tried very hard to engage the military leaders in Burma to try to persuade them to restore democracy, refrain from violence against peaceful demonstrators, and to release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners that they’re holding. And we expect that the Japanese will stay closely aligned with us and will continue to work with us to change the course in Burma.

Regarding Xinjiang, I think you have heard on many occasions the Secretary express his deep concerns about the egregious human rights violations that are happening in Xinjiang. I believe our partner – our allies share our concerns, and so I expect that the topic of Xinjiang will come up in both Seoul and Tokyo.

MR PRICE: Thank you, Ambassador Kim. We will go to the line of Lara Seligman from Politico.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you so much for doing this. This question is for both of you, kind of a broad question. Many administrations have tried to pivot to Asia. What is your – the Biden administration’s strategy to do this? How is it different from your predecessors, and how does this upcoming trip fit into that effort?

AMBASSADOR KIM: Well, thank you. I’ll start first, and then I’m sure David will have additions. I think just the fact that the first cabinet-level overseas trip by the Biden administration is to our two close allies in the Indo-Pacific region reflect the depth of this administration’s commitment to promoting our relations and interests in the Indo-Pacific region. As you might have noticed, both the President and Secretary Blinken reached out very early to our close allies and partners in the region in their series of phone calls in the early weeks of the administration.

I think the commitment is quite clear. I expect that through rebuilding our alliances and partnerships with key countries in the region, and being engaged in regional efforts of great concern to both the United States and our partners in the region, that we will clearly demonstrate our strong commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.

MR HELVEY: I would have little to add to what Ambassador Kim has said. I think for Secretary Austin’s part, he likewise also has engaged with our key allies and partners across the region very early on in his tenure, having phone calls with him, and has now committed to do this first trip, his first cabinet-level trip of the administration to the Indo-Pacific.

The Secretary, as you know, has also signaled a very early interest in focusing the department on China. He has identified China as the pacing threat and the pacing challenge for the department. He’s done things like establish the task force that Dr. Ely Ratner is running to look at that. And I think his initial steps kind of demonstrate that this is going to be an area of continued focus, and the participation in this trip, follow-on travel to India, will provide an opportunity for exchange of views early on with key allies and partners about how we can work together and expand cooperation to support a regional – pardon me, a rules-based international order, and continue developments of these critical relationships which enable us to do that.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Christina Ruffini from CBS.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Ned, we asked you about this earlier in the week, but I was wondering, for anybody who’d like to answer it. If – we asked if China was going to dominate the conversations on this trip, and Ned, you’ve said, well, no, there’s so many other topics to talk about – economics, trade, the environment. But in that region, doesn’t China kind of underly all of those issues, and isn’t it fair to say that even when you’re addressing other issues, China, for better or worse, will dominate a lot of these bilats and a lot of these meetings? And what is the objective in that vein that you want to come out of it?

And then I don’t know if you guys can answer this, but when it comes to the meeting in Alaska with China, were there any preconditions to that meeting? And can anybody say anything about how exactly that came about and why that location was chosen? Thank you so much.

AMBASSADOR KIM: I’ll start. You are absolutely right that China will come up prominently, but I wouldn’t say it would dominate the conversations in Tokyo also. There is a whole host of issues of importance to our partnerships with both Korea and Japan – cooperation on COVID-19, climate change, coordination on our North Korea policy, our efforts to promote human rights and rule of law, as well as our efforts to hold countries that violate obligations and challenge our interests and values accountable. And in many these issues, obviously China will come up. But I think it would be – I don’t think it would be accurate to say that China would dominate the dialogue in Tokyo or Seoul. There are just so many other issues of importance to our countries, our countries’ partnerships, and to the region.

I think in terms of objectives, I mean, obviously how we cooperate with these close partnerships have direct impact on our national security and interests. And so through this very first overseas trip to our allies, I expect that our coordination on all of these important issues will strengthen.

And with regards to Anchorage, I mean, I think the purpose of today’s call is to focus on the upcoming trips to Japan and Korea, and I believe that there will be opportunities in the coming days to talk about the various aspects related to the Anchorage meetings.

MR PRICE: Great. We will go to the line of Dan Lamothe.

QUESTION: Sort of a two-part related question, but the first is: Do you anticipate anything that needs to be buttoned up or that might be expanded upon when it comes to the cost-sharing agreement on the military side in South Korea out of this trip?

And then relatedly, there obviously are long-term tensions at times between South Korea and Japan. What’s the message for those two nations coming out of this trip given the shared concerns about China? Thanks.

AMBASSADOR KIM: Thanks very much. So we’re very pleased that U.S. and Korean negotiators have reached agreement on a proposed text for a new special measures agreement. We believe that this new agreement will be fair, reasonable, and equitable. I think it’s also a positive that it would be a multi-year agreement, which gives the alliance more predictability and stability. So we’re very pleased with the effort so far. I think what remains is to some procedure or requirements that need to be met by both sides in order to fully finalize the agreement. But I commend the work of the negotiators from both sides to come up with this fair agreement.

On Japan and Korea, I think Secretary Blinken has been very committed in not only improving our relations with our allies, but also relations among them, and obviously relations within Japan and Korea are critically important for our security and stability. And so we would like to see an improvement in the relations. I think in terms of what our message to them is that we will try to create opportunities for us to enhance trilateral cooperation, and that we know that there are some very difficult issues between them, but we also know that there is a great deal of mutual respect and affection between Koreans and America and Japanese, and very strong interest in both Tokyo and Seoul and working with us and also strengthening our trilateral cooperation.

So I remain hopeful that our two close allies will maintain very strong relations going forward. Thanks.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Lara Jakes.

QUESTION: You’re both talking about the importance of these partnerships with Japan and South Korea, and I’m wondering if you could each characterize the state of those alliances after the last four years; i.e. both from the diplomatic and the military perspective.

AMBASSADOR KIM: Thank you. I mean, I think the President and the Secretary have made it very clear that one of our goals in our foreign policy is to restore confidence, trust with our allies and partners not just in the Indo-Pacific region, but globally. That is obviously an important responsibility for us to carry out. And because diplomacy’s back at the center of our foreign policy and because we are reaching out early to our allies and partners on a whole host of issues, I am quite confident that we will be able to restore confidence and trust with our allies and partners in the region and beyond.

Dave.

MR HELVEY: Well, thank you. I think obviously we’re – Secretary Austin is very much looking forward to getting out early to meet and interact with our two most critical allies in Northeast Asia and supporting Secretary Blinken and the efforts of this administration to truly invest in and engage actively with our – with all of our alliances and partnerships. And these two are – there are no more important than these two.

We do have strong alliance relationships with both, and this trip and future interactions will be opportunities to continue developing, improving, and transforming these alliances to ensure they’re oriented on the types of challenges that we and all others face in the 21st century.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Jack Decsch, Foreign Policy.

QUESTION: Can you hear me?

MR PRICE: Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Great. I’m just curious to get both of you on how you specifically hope the allies will improve on regional defense when it comes to deterring China. Specifically, are you hoping for more defense activity in the Quad, exercises, or more access agreements for the U.S.? Thanks.

AMBASSADOR KIM: Dave, I think I’ll defer to you.

MR HELVEY: Sure. What I’d like to do is obviously let the Secretary kind of have the space to talk to his counterparts and engage in the upcoming meetings. And I’m sure we’ll have more to be able to talk about after the meetings are done, but certainly talking about the range of alliance cooperation and where we can look to deepen and enhance not only our dialogue but how we can operationalize this cooperation to our mutual benefit and to the benefit of the region is an important part of the discussion.

MR PRICE: Let’s go to the line of Jennifer White, NHK.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Secretaries discuss the Host Nation Support Agreement with their counterparts in Tokyo? The U.S. and South Korea reached a multi-year deal with the 13.9 percent increase in contributions. So does the U.S. anticipate negotiating a similar deal with Japan?

And second, I was wondering if you could discuss the details about the Secretaries’ itineraries in Tokyo. You discussed the 2+2 meetings, but will Secretary Austin visit U.S. troops stationed near Tokyo, and will Secretary Blinken have any other items on his itinerary while in Japan?

AMBASSADOR KIM: So we’re pleased that we made progress towards a one year SMA agreement, Special Measures Agreement, with Japan. The two sides are starting discussions for a multi-year agreement following the current agreement. And I think that would be a very good thing for the alliance because as I mentioned in the Korea context, having a multi agreement gives more predictability, more consistency, and more stability to the alliance management. So we hope that we will be able to accomplish a multi-year agreement in the near future.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Hyn Young Park with Joongang.

QUESTION: Am I online?

MR PRICE: Yes, we can hear you.

QUESTION: Yes. Yes. Sorry. Yes. To what extent will the topic of Quad plus be discussed between Secretary Blinken and Minister Chung? And in relation to that, to what extent was it discussed this morning during the Quad summit. And my second question is you’ve mentioned that you will be discussing the denuclearization of North Korea. Where are you in the process of this full review of North Korea policy? Have you come up with some kind of interim assessment that you would be able to have a concrete discussion with the Korean counterpart? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KIM: Thank you. As you mentioned, the Quad summit took place just this morning. And I believe Secretary Blinken will be pleased to offer Foreign Minister Chung a readout of those discussions when they meet in Seoul.

With the North Korea policy review, as you know we’re conducting a thorough review – a thorough and comprehensive review. We’re not finished yet. But throughout the review, we have stayed in very close touch with our colleagues and friends in both Tokyo and Seoul because we wanted to make sure to incorporate their input as I – as we review all of the important aspects of our North Korea policy.

And in fact, when the Secretary is in the region, I think this will be another great opportunity for our allies to provide senior-level input into our process. I don’t have an exact timeline for the completion of the review, but we’re working expeditiously, and I think maybe in the coming weeks we’ll be able to complete the review.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line Sangmin Lee with VOA.

QUESTION: Yeah. So you mentioned that the nuclearization of the DPLK will be discussed during this visit. So can you tell me specifically which issue or topic will be going to be focused on when it comes to the denuclearization of the DPRK?

AMBASSADOR KIM: Well, and I don’t – I don’t want to get into too much detail of what the Secretary – what the two Secretaries will be discussing with their counterparts. But obviously, in the context of dealing – of cooperation on regional challenges, the topic of the North Korea nuclear program will come up, and I think the Secretary will give them an update on where we stand with our North Korea review – North Korea policy review, and have a good exchange about how we can cooperate together.

I should mention that even as we conduct this comprehensive review of our North Korea policy, our commitment – and this is a commitment shared by both Japan and Korea – our commitment to seeking a compete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula or the DPRK has not changed. So I think that will obviously be a central feature of our North Korea policy going forward.

MR PRICE: We have time for a final question or two. We’ll go to Mitch Tanaka with Kyodo News. Do we have Mitch Tanaka?

OPERATOR: Mitch Tanaka’s line is open.

QUESTION: Hello? Can you hear me?

MR PRICE: Yes, go – go ahead.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, I was muted. So I have a question with Mr. Helvey. Can you elaborate a little bit more about Mr. Austin’s other trips, other events that he’s scheduled to conduct during his visit to Tokyo and Seoul other than on 2+2?

MR HELVEY: Thank you. As I indicated, he will – in Tokyo, he will be having a meeting with Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi in addition to the – in addition to the Security Consultative Committee meeting. He’ll also have an opportunity to meet with the Commander of U.S. Forces Japan Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider and be meeting with other officials there in Japan.

In Korea, in addition to the 2+2 meeting, he’ll be meeting – engaging in with Secretary Blinken, he will also meet separately with the Minister of Defense Suh Wook, as well as he’ll have an opportunity to meet with General Robert Abrams, who is the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, and he also is dual-hatted as commander of the Combined Forces Command and the United Nations Command.

MR PRICE: Great, and we’ll conclude with the line of Sylvie Lanteaume with AFP.

QUESTION: Hello. Do you hear me?

MR PRICE: Yes. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay, good, good. This week, Admiral Davidson said that China could invade Taiwan within six years, and I was wondering what makes the administration think that China has accelerated its ambitions about Taiwan that much. Do you have any – can you elaborate on that date of six years?

AMBASSADOR KIM: I defer to Dave.

MR HELVEY: Yeah, I think the focus of our conversation today is about the upcoming trips to Japan and Korea for the 2+2 meetings and other meetings. If you do have questions about Admiral Davidson’s statement, I would respectfully refer you to our OSD Public Affairs Office or the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Public Affairs Office and they’ll be able to help you out.

MR PRICE: Great. Well, thank you to everyone for joining, especially thank you to our two speakers. As a reminder, they were Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Sung Kim and Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey. This call was on the record and the embargo is now lifted.

Thanks very much and we’ll talk to you all soon.

More from: Sung Kim, Acting Assistant SecretaryBureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, David F. Helvey, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs

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    Between January 1980 and July 2020, the United States experienced 273 climate and weather disasters causing more than $1 billion in damages each, according to NOAA. The total cost of damages from these disasters exceeded $1.79 trillion, with hurricanes and tropical storms accounting for over 50 percent of these damages, according to NOAA. Across the regions affected by these hurricanes over the period from 2005 to 2015, CBO estimated that federal disaster assistance covered, on average, 62 percent of the damage costs. GAO has reported that the rising number of natural disasters and reliance on federal disaster assistance is a key source of federal fiscal exposure. GAO was asked to review the costs of natural disasters and their effects on communities. This report examines (1) estimates of the costs of damages caused by hurricanes and hurricanes' effects on overall economic activity and employment in the areas they affected, and (2) actions subsequently taken in those areas to improve resilience to future natural disasters. GAO conducted case studies of Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Irma, selected for two reasons. First, they were declared a major disaster by the President under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which establishes key programs through which the federal government provides disaster assistance, primarily through FEMA. Second, they had sizable effects on the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia during the period from 2004 through 2018. GAO analyzed federal agency and other data on costs, economic activity, employment, and recovery and mitigation projects in selected areas affected by these hurricanes. GAO also visited selected recovery and mitigation project sites; interviewed experts and federal, state, and local government officials; and reviewed federal, state, and local government reports and academic studies. Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Irma (selected hurricanes) caused costly damages and challenges for some populations in affected communities. In these communities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated the cost of damages to be approximately $170 billion for Katrina, $74 billion for Sandy, $131 billion for Harvey, and $52 billion for Irma. These estimates include the value of damages to residential, commercial, and government or municipal buildings; material assets within the buildings; business interruption; vehicles and boats; offshore energy platforms; public infrastructure; and agricultural assets. These hurricanes were also costly to the federal government. For example, in 2016, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that federal spending exceeded $110 billion in response to Katrina and $53 billion in response to Sandy. GAO analysis suggests that the selected hurricanes were associated with widely varying effects on overall economic activity and total employment in affected metropolitan areas and counties. Economic activity was lower than expected in the month of the hurricane or some of the three subsequent months in three of the affected metropolitan areas GAO analyzed. Within one year, average economic activity in these three metropolitan areas was similar to or greater than what it had been the year before the hurricane. Total employment was lower than expected in the month of the hurricane or some of the three subsequent months in 80 of the affected counties GAO analyzed. Total employment was higher than pre-hurricane employment on average in 47 of those counties within one year but remained below pre-hurricane employment on average in the other 33 counties for at least one year. Finally, state and local government officials said that the selected hurricanes had significant impacts on communities, local governments, households, and businesses with fewer resources and less expertise, and that challenges faced by households may have impacted local businesses. Communities affected by selected hurricanes have been taking actions to improve resilience, but multiple factors can affect their decisions. Actions taken after selected hurricanes include elevating, acquiring, and rehabilitating homes; flood-proofing public buildings; repairing and upgrading critical infrastructure; constructing flood barriers; and updating building codes. A community’s decision to take resilience actions can depend on the costs and benefits of those actions to the community. Multiple factors affect these costs and benefits, including the likelihood, severity, and location of future disasters, as well as the amount of federal assistance available after a disaster. Finally, vulnerabilities remain in areas affected by selected hurricanes. For example, state and local government officials indicated that many older homes in these areas do not meet current building codes. In reports to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), states indicate they anticipate that the scope of damages via exposure to weather hazards, such as hurricanes, will likely remain high and could expand across regions affected by the selected hurricanes. In addition, some local governments have projected that population will grow in the regions affected by selected hurricanes. For more information, contact Oliver Richard at 202-512-8424 or richardo@gao.gov.
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    The Department of Energy (DOE) has retrieved nuclear waste from all the tanks at C-farm—the first of 18 tank farms (i.e., groupings of tanks) at DOE's Hanford site in southeastern Washington State. The waste is a byproduct of decades of nuclear weapons production and research. DOE is obligated under agreements with the state's Department of Ecology (Ecology) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to move waste from older, single-shell tanks to newer, more durable, double-shell tanks and ultimately to dispose of it. Example of a Tank and of Waste in a Tank at Hanford DOE intends to “close” the C-farm by leaving the nearly empty tanks in place and filling them with grout. However, DOE faces challenges, in part because this approach depends on: (1) DOE's determination under its directives that residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than high-level waste (HLW) and (2) Ecology's approval. DOE has started the determination process, but as GAO has previously found, DOE is likely to face a lawsuit because of questions about its legal authority. Ecology has raised concerns that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not independently reviewed DOE's analysis for this determination. By Congress clarifying DOE's authority at Hanford to determine, with NRC involvement, that residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than HLW, DOE would be in a better position to move forward. Another challenge DOE faces in closing C-farm is how to address contaminated soil caused by leaks or discharges of waste from the tanks. DOE and Ecology officials do not agree on a process for evaluating contaminated soil at C-farm or on what role NRC should play in this process. They interpret their agreement differently, particularly regarding whether NRC must review DOE's analysis of contaminated soil. If the two parties cannot resolve this issue, Ecology may deny DOE a permit for C-farm closure. By using an independent mediator to help reach agreement with Ecology on how to assess soil contamination, including NRC's role, DOE would be better positioned to avoid future cleanup delays. DOE has not developed a long-term plan for tank-farm closure, in part, because a plan is not required. However, leading practices in program management call for long-term planning. In addition, DOE faces technical challenges that may take years to address as noted by representatives from various entities or tribal governments. For example, an internal DOE document states there is a 95 percent probability DOE will run out of space in its double shell tanks—space needed to continue retrieval operations. Planning for and building new tanks requires years of work. By developing a long-term plan, DOE could better prepare to address technical challenges. The Hanford site in Washington State contains about 54 million gallons of nuclear waste, which is stored in 177 underground storage tanks. In fiscal years 1997 through 2019, DOE spent over $10 billion to maintain Hanford's tanks and retrieve waste from them. DOE expects to spend at least $69 billion more on activities to retrieve tank waste and close tanks, according to a January 2019 DOE report. Senate Report 116-48, accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, included a provision for GAO to review the status of tank closures at Hanford. GAO's report examines the status of DOE's efforts to retrieve tank waste, challenges DOE faces in its effort to close the C-farm, as well as DOE's approach for closing the remaining tank farms. GAO toured the site; reviewed DOE documents, laws, and regulations; and interviewed officials and representatives from local, regional, and national entities and tribal governments. Congress should consider clarifying DOE's authority at Hanford to determine, with NRC involvement, whether residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than HLW. GAO is also making three recommendations, including that DOE (1) use an independent mediator to help reach agreement with Ecology on a process for assessing soil contamination, including NRC's role and (2) develop a long-term plan for its tank waste cleanup mission at Hanford. DOE concurred with all three recommendations. For more information, contact David C. Trimble at (202) 512-3841 or trimbled@gao.gov.
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    What GAO Found Deficiencies in internal control over financial reporting and other limitations on the scope of GAO's work resulted in conditions that prevented GAO from expressing an opinion on the Schedules of the General Fund as of and for the fiscal year ended September 30, 2020. Such scope limitations also prevented GAO from obtaining sufficient appropriate audit evidence to provide a basis for an opinion on the effectiveness of the Bureau of the Fiscal Service's (Fiscal Service) internal control over financial reporting relevant to the Schedules of the General Fund as of September 30, 2020. In addition, such scope limitations limited tests of compliance with selected provisions of applicable laws, regulations, contracts, and grant agreements for fiscal year 2020. Fiscal Service was unable to readily provide sufficient appropriate evidence to support certain information reported in the accompanying Schedules of the General Fund. Specifically, Fiscal Service was unable to readily (1) identify and trace General Fund transactions to determine whether they were complete and properly recorded in the correct general ledger accounts and line items within the Schedules of the General Fund and (2) provide documentation to support the account attributes assigned to Treasury Account Symbols that determine how transactions are reported in the Schedules of the General Fund. The resulting scope limitations, the first of which GAO reported in its fiscal year 2018 audit, are the basis for GAO's disclaimer of opinion on the Schedules of the General Fund. As a result of these limitations, GAO cautions that amounts Fiscal Service reported in the Schedules of the General Fund and related notes may not be reliable. Three significant deficiencies in Fiscal Service's internal control over financial reporting relevant to the Schedules of the General Fund, which GAO reported in its fiscal year 2018 audit, continue to exist. One of the continuing significant deficiencies contributed to the first scope limitation discussed above. In addition, GAO identified four other control deficiencies, three newly identified and one reported in its fiscal year 2018 audit, which GAO does not consider to be material weaknesses or significant deficiencies. Fiscal Service worked extensively, both internally and with other federal agencies, to address two scope limitations from GAO's fiscal year 2018 audit, such that GAO no longer considers these to be scope limitations for fiscal year 2020. Fiscal Service also (1) took action to close six of the 12 recommendations that GAO issued as a result of its fiscal year 2018 audit, (2) is implementing plans for remediating the remaining six recommendations over the next few years, and (3) plans to develop corrective actions for the three new recommendations issued in this report. Fiscal Service expressed its commitment to remediating the scope limitations and significant deficiencies reported for fiscal year 2020, acknowledging that it expects to take several years to resolve them, given the nature and complexity of certain identified issues. In addition, GAO is issuing a separate LIMITED OFFICIAL USE ONLY report on information systems controls. Why GAO Did This Study Because GAO audits the consolidated financial statements of the U.S. government and the significance of the General Fund of the United States (General Fund) to the government-wide financial statements, GAO audited the fiscal year 2020 Schedules of the General Fund to determine whether, in all material respects, (1) the schedules are fairly presented and (2) Fiscal Service management maintained effective internal control over financial reporting relevant to the Schedules of the General Fund. Further, GAO tested compliance with selected provisions of laws, regulations, contracts, and grant agreements related to the Schedules of the General Fund. As the reporting entity responsible for accounting for the cash activity of the U.S. government, in fiscal year 2020, the General Fund reported over $23 trillion of cash inflows and nearly $22 trillion of cash outflows. It also reported a budget deficit of $3.1 trillion, the largest recorded federal deficit in history. The CARES Act, enacted in March 2020, and other COVID-19 pandemic relief laws, contained a number of funding provisions that resulted in a significant increase in the cash activity and budget deficit reported by the General Fund during fiscal year 2020.
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Education data show that, as of November 2020, schools had drawn down about 90 percent—or $5.6 billion—of their HEERF student aid funds. About 70 percent of schools had drawn down all of their student aid funds, and an additional 24 percent of schools had drawn down at least half. Department of Education’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) Awards to Schools for Emergency Student Aid under the CARES Act, by School Sector Notes: Schools of less than 2 years are included in the 2-year school categories above. The Department of Education also awarded about $24 million to 2-year private, nonprofit schools and about $1.7 million to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Department of Education. Sector-level figures do not add up to $6.19 billion because of rounding. Schools used a variety of approaches to determine student eligibility and distribute funds to students. According to GAO’s analysis of a sample of school websites and data from Education, schools had distributed approximately 85 percent of all emergency student aid funds by fall 2020, with an average amount per student of about $830. Determining student eligibility. Approximately half of schools reported that they required a completed Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)—the form used to apply for federal financial aid—to determine student eligibility for HEERF student aid. For example, one school reported requiring students who did not have a FAFSA on file to complete one by June 2020 to be eligible for student aid. Other schools did not require a FAFSA to establish eligibility, according to their websites, but reported using alternative methods. For example, a 4-year public school reported that graduate students applying for emergency aid had the option of submitting a school-provided affidavit certifying they were eligible to receive federal financial aid, an option described in Education’s interim final rule on student eligibility. Awarding funds to students. Schools reported using two main methods for awarding HEERF emergency student aid to students: requiring students to complete a school-developed application or using existing school records. Approximately 18 percent of schools used a combination of both methods. For example, a 4-year nonprofit school reported on its website that it awarded $300 to $500 to eligible students in its first round of funding based on existing student financial aid records, and then allowed students who had more expenses related to COVID-19 to apply for additional funding. Determining award amounts. Schools reported using various factors to determine award amounts for HEERF-eligible students. Over half of schools reported on their websites that amounts were based on individual circumstances, such as students’ general financial need, access to essential items such as food or housing, or a combination of these factors. About 20 percent of schools also reported using full-time or part-time status to determine aid amounts. For example, a 4-year public school reported that it distributed grants, ranging from $150 to $1,000, to all eligible students based on their enrollment status and financial need based on students’ FAFSA information. Why GAO Did This Study In June 2020, GAO issued the first of a series of reports on federal efforts to address the pandemic, which included a discussion of HEERF student aid grants to schools. At that time, limited information on how schools distributed HEERF funds to students was available. This report provides additional information and examines (1) how HEERF emergency student aid funds were provided to schools under the CARES Act, and (2) how schools distributed emergency student aid to eligible students. GAO analyzed Education’s obligation data as of November 2020, after Education had obligated most of the HEERF emergency student aid funds. GAO also analyzed information about HEERF student aid that Education requires schools to report on their websites by selecting a generalizable random sample of 203 schools for website reviews. These schools were representative of the more than 4,500 schools that received HEERF student aid funds as of August 2020. GAO also collected non-generalizable narrative details about how schools distributed funds to eligible students.
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  • Department of Justice Awards Over $35 Million to Provide Housing to Victims of Human Trafficking
    In Crime News
    Today, Attorney General William P. Barr and Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump announced that the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), a component of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP), has awarded $35,104,338 in grant funding to provide safe, stable housing and appropriate services to victims of human trafficking.
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  • Private Health Insurance: Markets Remained Concentrated through 2018, with Increases in the Individual and Small Group Markets
    In U.S GAO News
    Enrollment in private health insurance plans in the individual (coverage sold directly to individuals), small group (coverage offered by small employers), and large group (coverage offered by large employers) markets has historically been highly concentrated among a small number of issuers. GAO found that this pattern continued in 2017 and 2018. For example: For each market in 2018, at least 43 states (including the District of Columbia) were highly concentrated. Overall individual and small group markets have become more concentrated in recent years. The national median market share of the top three issuers increased by approximately 8 and 5 percentage points, respectively, from 2015 through 2018. With these increases, the median concentration was at least 94 percent in both markets in 2018. Number of States and District of Columbia Where the Three Largest Issuers Had at Least 80 Percent of Enrollment, by Market, 2011-2018 GAO found similar patterns of high concentration across the 39 states in 2018 that used federal infrastructure to operate individual market exchanges— marketplaces where consumers can compare and select among insurance plans sold by participating issuers—established in 2014 by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) and known as federally facilitated exchanges. From 2015 through 2018, states that were already highly concentrated became even more concentrated, often because the number of issuers decreased or the existing issuers accrued the entirety of the market share within a state. In 2017 and 2018 all 39 states were highly concentrated. GAO received technical comments on a draft of this report from the Department of Health and Human Services and incorporated them as appropriate. GAO previously reported that, from 2011 through 2016, enrollment in the individual, small group, and large group health insurance markets was concentrated among a few issuers in most states (GAO-19-306). GAO considered states' markets or exchanges to be highly concentrated if three or fewer issuers held at least 80 percent of the market share. GAO also found similar concentration on the health insurance exchanges established in 2014 by PPACA. A highly concentrated health insurance market may indicate less issuer competition and could affect consumers' choice of issuers and the premiums they pay for coverage. PPACA included a provision for GAO to periodically study market concentration. This report describes changes in the concentration of enrollment among issuers in the overall individual, small group, and large group markets; and individual market federally facilitated exchanges. GAO determined market share in the overall markets using enrollment data from 2017 and 2018 that issuers are required to report annually to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). GAO determined market share in the individual market federally facilitated exchanges in 2018 using enrollment data from CMS. For all analyses, GAO used the latest data available. For more information, contact John Dicken at (202) 512-7114 or dickenj@gao.gov.
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  • U.S Department of Agriculture-Office of Inspector General and Justice Department Conduct Animal Welfare Criminal Investigations Training
    In Crime News
    On Sept. 14 to 18, criminal investigators and attorneys from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General (USDA-OIG) and the U.S. Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) collaborated to put on a week-long training for USDA-OIG criminal investigators, as well as other federal law enforcement agencies on animal welfare criminal investigations and prosecutions.
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  • Nepal Travel Advisory
    In Travel
    Reconsider travel [Read More…]