Briefing with European and Eurasian Affairs Acting Assistant Secretary Philip T. Reeker on the Secretary’s Upcoming Travel to Belgium

Philip T. Reeker, Acting Assistant SecretaryBureau of European and Eurasian Affairs

Via Teleconference

MR ICE:  Thank you.  Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining us.  I’d like to welcome you to this call previewing Secretary Blinken’s trip to Belgium coming up next week.  We, of course, announced this trip officially just this morning.  Just a quick reminder, this call is on the record, but the contents are embargoed until the call is completed.  I’ll also just quickly note that we’re going to stay on topic today and only answer questions related to the trip.  A transcript of this call will be posted on state.gov later today.

At this point, I’d like to let you know that Acting Assistant Secretary Philip Reeker for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs here at the State Department will be your briefer today.  Ambassador Reeker will give an overview the trip and then take a few questions.  Okay.  With that, it is now my pleasure to hand it over to Acting Assistant Secretary Reeker to begin.  Ambassador Reeker.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Hey, thank you, J.T.  Hello, everybody.  Nice to be back with you.  And obviously, as you know, Secretary Blinken is going to travel to Belgium, specifically to Brussels, March 22nd through 25th to attend the NATO Ministerial.  This will be his first trip to Europe as Secretary and the first in-person meeting for the Secretary with our allies and partners.  First and foremost, an opportunity to underscore our commitment to revitalizing ties with NATO, which of course, as you know, is the premier forum for transatlantic security.  Following the ministerial itself, the 23rd and 24th, the Secretary will meet with leaders from the European Union, and also a meeting with Belgium’s Foreign Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister Wilmes.

I think you all know and have heard from the President and the Secretary how important NATO and the Europeans are as crucial partners on important U.S. goals, from upholding the rules-based international order that governs our international system to recovery from the COVID pandemic and the economic progress.  We need to work together coming out of this pandemic.  Secretary Blinken is very eager to meet with his counterparts, all 29 other foreign ministers from the NATO Allies, as well as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.  And as I said, this is his first trip to Europe as Secretary.

So the 23rd and 24th are the official days of the NATO Foreign Ministerial.  He’ll have a chance to meet all of the counterparts there, and as I said, the secretary general, clearly underscoring the Biden administration’s determination to strengthen and reinvigorate our transatlantic ties with these NATO Allies.  The Secretary is looking forward to this ministerial to address some of these common challenges, ones that we can only solve together.  So it’ll be an opportunity for the Secretary and the foreign ministers to discuss the NATO 2030 initiative, proposals under that for alliance adaptation, concerns over China and Russia, as well as climate change, cybersecurity, hybrid threats, combating terrorism, energy security – clearly the global pandemic enters into this, and other common challenges that we face together.

Separately, Secretary Blinken will then meet with European leaders, including the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and his counterpart, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell.  As we face a critical challenge in rebuilding the global economy from the effects of COVID-19, advancing and strengthening these European partnerships are going to be essential for the economic recovery.  The Secretary is going to also consult with the European Union on how we can work together on the basis of our shared values to address global challenges that come from Iran, Russia, and China.  In his meeting with the Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Sophie Wilmes, the Secretary is going to underscore the strength of the bilateral relationship and discuss similar issues of global importance.  He will also thank the Belgians for their important partnership on vaccine production, and, of course, thank Belgium for hosting the NATO headquarters.

The Secretary will have an opportunity to participate in a virtual what we call “meet and greet” with his State Department team serving at the missions to the European Union and to NATO, as well as our U.S. Embassy Brussels, the embassy to Belgium.  This is one of our largest platforms in Europe, this tri-mission platform, and it will be an opportunity for the Secretary to express his thanks to the team for all the preparation they’ve been doing in advance of this visit and, frankly, for the work they do every day to advance U.S. foreign policy priorities in Europe, underscoring our shared values, our security priorities, and our shared prosperity.

I will note that while in Belgium, the Secretary will deliver an important foreign policy speech focused on his commitment to rebuilding and revitalizing alliances broadly.  He’ll highlight the importance of NATO, the ministerial he will have just completed, and the transatlantic relationship more broadly.

As I’ve said already, that transatlantic relationship is built on a foundation of shared values and the commitment to democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights, economic opportunity, and the pursuit of prosperity and security.  And it just goes to underscore that this relationship is really the cornerstone of an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity for Europe, and the broad transatlantic region over the last 75 years.

So with that, why don’t I turn it back to JT?  And happy to take your questions for a little while.  Thanks.

MR ICE:  Thank you, Ambassador Reeker.  With that, we’ll go ahead and take a few questions.  Why don’t we start with Matt Lee of the Associated Press?  Matt.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) you hear me?

MR ICE:  Yeah, we got you.

QUESTION:  Okay, cool.  So Phil, I hate to put you on the spot – although I’m going to enjoy putting you on the spot, but I’m going – (laughter) – and so I’m going to do it anyway – you were the – you’ve been in the position for some time now.  And I’m just wondering what you think is the difference between the Trump administration and the Biden administration in terms of dealing with Europe and its allies.  As you’ll well remember, then Secretary Pompeo went to Brussels and delivered a speech at the Marshall Foundation which basically trashed kind of all of the things that you’ve just been talking about.

So how do you expect this trip and these interactions to be different than what they were over the last couple years?  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Thanks, Matt.  Just the kind of question I would have expected from you.  And of course, I’ll let you write your own analysis of the differences you’ll see.  I think you’ve already seen in the speeches that Secretary Blinken has made, in his engagements, the comments that we’ve made after his engagements with European counterparts, the speeches by the President.  And just looking at the interim guidance on the national security that was released, that there’s a real focus, first of all, on alliances, repairing relationships, revitalizing alliances, and in the transatlantic space, re-exploring what we can do, reimagining things we can do together to meet the challenges of this era, including the COVID pandemic, obviously, and the economic recovery we’ll need after that.

NATO is the strongest military alliance in history, and it’s now 72 years and going strong, adapting itself to new threats.  It is an alliance focused on defense of a space.  The importance of the Article 5 commitment of mutual defense is unshakeable.  The President has made that clear, the Secretary has made that clear, and I’m sure you will hear that again in the engagements in Brussels.

We consult very closely on common security challenges with all of our NATO Allies.  During the past year, we saw NATO reach 30 allies with the accession of North Macedonia as the most recent ally, and – making clear that the open door has been a successful policy for those countries that choose a NATO path and do the hard work required to meet the alliance’s requirements in that sense.

I think we’re going to be focused on strengthening the alliance’s capacity to counter Russia, the continuing threats of terrorism, and, of course, emerging and disruptive technologies, cyber and hybrid threats.  That also includes, I would mention, misinformation and disinformation campaigns, weaponized corruption – these are all things that the Secretary and the President have already identified as priorities for the administration.

I think the Biden administration has been very clear that its commitment to ensuring that NATO’s door remains open is part of our firm policy.  And just a reminder that NATO itself was founded on the principles of democracy and individual liberty and the rule of law, and it’s the shared values that make our society stronger.  And NATO itself is stronger and has lasted and thrived for 72 years because it’s an alliance grounded in democratic values, not transactions or threats.

And I’d just finish by saying very clearly under the Biden administration, the United States will be a steady and unflinching ally.  We know we’re stronger and better able to overcome challenges when we face them together, and we’re going to modernize our alliances, mend them as needed, and deal with the world as we face it.  So I’ll leave it at that.

MR ICE:  Okay.  Let’s go to the line of Jennifer Hansler at CNN.  Jennifer.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks so much for doing this.  So you mentioned Iran.  I was wondering if you could get into any more detail about what those conversations will look like.  And then separately how much do you expect Turkey to factor into the conversations in Brussels?  Does Secretary Blinken intend to have any sort of pull-aside with the foreign minister?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  I have to say I’m sorry, the second question you were really garbled.  I didn’t hear it.

QUESTION:  Oh.  Can you hear me?

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Yeah.  Can you just speak maybe a little more clearly?

QUESTION:  Sure, sorry.  I’m on the street.  Does the Secretary intend to have any sort of pull‑aside with his Turkish counterpart and how much do you expect issues with Turkey to come up in the conversations in Brussels?

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Great.  So on your first question, this is not specifically about Iran, but obviously, we continue to believe that meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to the JCPOA is the right way forward.  I’d just note, as I think you’ve heard from others, that unfortunately Iran has so far continued to take steps in excess of JCPOA limits instead of actually engaging in the diplomatic process that’s been offered.  And so I think the Secretary will clearly have an opportunity to discuss that certainly with EU colleagues and with others who will be there.

On the Turks, obviously Turkey is a very valued, longstanding NATO ally.  We have a lot of shared interests in counting terrorism – countering terrorism – ending the conflict in Syria, for instance, and deterring other malign influences in the region.  I don’t have any specific pull‑asides or other meetings to announce at this point, but clearly, I’d let the Turkish Government announce the – their attendance and plans for the ministerial.  But clearly all the ministers will be there or their representatives and we’ll have an opportunity for the first time in a long time to meet in person.  And as we started the briefing, this is the Secretary’s first opportunity to meet with all of his NATO counterparts there in Brussels in person.

MR ICE:  Okay, let’s go to the line of Nick Wadhams at Bloomberg.  Nick.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks, Phil.  I just have a two-part question.  You guys keep talking a lot about revitalizing alliances, but I’m wondering what your message is going to be to those countries that were perfectly happy with the alliance relationship under President Trump, including Poland and Hungary and to some extent Turkey.  And then second, what are you saying to allies like Germany that don’t necessarily want to play ball on some of your priorities like Nord Stream 2 and NATO spending?  Do you have any new initiatives or plans to get countries to spend more of their budgets on defense?  Thanks.

MR ICE:  Ambassador Reeker, perhaps you’re on mute.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Yep, thank you.  I was indeed.  Let me start over.  Certainly the idea of the ministerial and why we have these things is an opportunity for all of the ministers to gather to focus on the alliance, and each of the ministerial sessions will have a different focus in terms of priority issues.  I mentioned the NATO 2030 proposals and ideas for adaptation and how the alliance remains up to date and addressing the most current and pressing challenges, and there’s an opportunity there to share different points of view and different perspectives.

I think the mere fact that the alliance has thrived and done so much to provide this remarkable and historic geographic space but also a space of values and prosperity for so long speaks for itself through many challenges, ups and downs of the history of the last three-quarters of a century.  And we are dedicated to continuing to underscore the U.S. role and leadership at NATO be that underscoring Article 5 but also Article 3.  And this is a good chance to discuss those things with all of our allies both collectively and in the opportunities we’ll have individually.  So I think I’ll just leave it at that.

It’s something the Secretary very much looks forward to.  He’s been able to speak remotely, of course, and virtually with a number of counterparts, including the German foreign minister.  But this will be a chance to actually see each other in person even as we practice good protocols for COVID-19, but are able to review and, as the Secretary has made very clear, revitalize our contacts, our broad alliance, and look at all of the challenges we share together.

MR ICE:  Okay.  Let’s go to the line, please, of Cyril Julien at AFP.

QUESTION:  Hello.

MR ICE:  Yes, Cyril.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Yes.  Thank – yes, thank you for doing this.  I have a question about Afghanistan.  Will Secretary Blinken inform his NATO Allies of the U.S. decision in regard to the troops withdrawal or will it be the – this issue will be subject to discussion with his allies?

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  As you know, I think even today the United States is continuing to work very closely with the region and with international partners to support Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace negotiations.  And the goal here is to bring to an end this 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan.  I can’t preview any of the discussions the Secretary will have.  Obviously, Afghanistan and NATO’s role there will be a topic at the ministerial.  The U.S. remains very committed to continued close consultation with NATO Allies and other partners in the Resolute Support mission.

As our review of Afghanistan policy continues, I know we’ve had briefings and updates with the North Atlantic Council this week already.  And it’ll clearly be a topic in the discussions at the ministerial.  I’d just underscore that the commitment we have – that we reaffirmed at the NATO Defense Ministerial which was held, of course, virtually just a few weeks ago – that commitment remains true.  We went in together.  We will adjust together as we have over the years.  And when the time is right, we will leave together.

MR ICE:  Okay.  Well, let’s please go to the line of Michele Kelemen of NPR.  Michele?

QUESTION:  Wondering if you’re looking for any kind of specific action with the Europeans on Russia.  And also you didn’t mention Belarus.  I wonder if you’re expecting any sort of diplomacy on that, and what’s the status of Ambassador Fisher?  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Thanks, Michele.  Look, we expect – even as you’ve seen in recent days – our relationship with Russia to remain a challenge.  Clearly, NATO is very aware of that.  And it is one that I think we’re prepared for.  Our goal, as the President has made clear, the Secretary has said it, is to have a relationship with Russia that is predictable and stable.  And where there are opportunities for it to be constructive and it’s in our interest, we will pursue them.

But certainly given Russia’s conduct in recent months and years, there will also be adversarial elements, as the Secretary has underscored, and we’re not going to shy away from those.  So I think they’ll be clearly discussion about Russia at the NATO Ministerial and in the margins.  The – we’ll engage with our allies to discuss different views of Russia and how we can engage with Russia in ways that obviously advance our collective interests but remain very clear-eyed about the challenges that Russia poses.

On Belarus, this is a subject that I expect will be discussed with our EU – in our EU meetings.  We have clearly shared a condemnation of the Lukashenko regime there in Belarus for its use of violent and very repressive tactics against the peaceful protesters.  We have joined together in sanctions and also calling for an end to this crackdown, the release of an enormous number of political prisoners, and of course, the conduct of free and fair elections.

I think we’ve all been inspired by the Belarusian people, especially the Belarusian women who have peacefully demonstrated for the right to have a role in Belarus’s future, to have a government that actually delivers for them.  And our European partners have very much joined us in that.

Ambassador Julie Fisher, who is our ambassador to Belarus and brings a real wealth of knowledge and experience, has been in close contact with many of these allies.  She traveled in Europe some weeks ago to Vilnius, to Warsaw, to Stockholm, to meet with the representatives of the protest movement, as well as with our partners and allies, and consult on these issues.  We’re working through a multi-step process to determine how best to deploy Ambassador Fisher and how she can undertake responsibilities in Belarus, and we’ll keep you posted on that process.

But certainly, we continue to stand with so many around Europe who support the brave Belarusian people who are simply asking to have a government that actually delivers for them and that represents their views, and we will continue to stand up for the people of Belarus and all those around the world who face this kind of brutality as they seek to exercise democratic freedoms.

MR ICE:  Okay.  Let’s go to the line of Rosiland Jordan at Al Jazeera.  Rosiland.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) call.  This may dovetail with conversations involving Russia.  But I’m wondering about NATO’s current perspective on the changing Arctic.  How is the alliance looking at engaging with other Arctic nations – Canada, Russia in particular – on protecting it, on using it for military purposes, on using it for commercial purposes?  Is that going to be any part of the conversation next week?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Thanks for the question.  The Arctic is certainly, as you note, an important region.  It comes to the fore when talking about climate, which has been a major priority for the Biden administration, as you know.  I can underscore that the United States envisions the Arctic region as one that’s free of conflict and where nations act responsibly, where the economic and energy resources are developed in a sustainable and transparent manner, and of course, with respect to the environment and also keeping in mind the interests and cultures of indigenous people there.  So it’s really a comprehensive approach that we’re seeking to the Arctic region, and we give it – give attention to a full range of interests.  There’s security and climate, sustainable development.  There are scientific cooperation and programs that go on.

So I don’t think there’s a specific focus on the Arctic at these meetings.  The premier forum, really, for discussing matters of Arctic governance is the Arctic Council.  That’s made up of the eight Arctic states – the United States, of course, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, and Sweden, in alphabetical order.  And they will – we expect to have a meeting later in the spring without any details pinned down yet of the Arctic Council, a ministerial-level meeting.  And that’s a forum that we have used, I think very successfully, over many years to deal with these Arctic issues.

So that remains a priority for us, and those conversations go on frequently.  We’ve got experts here within the bureau but also across the State Department – from our Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Science; obviously, the Western Hemisphere Bureau is involved – that focus very much on the Arctic.

MR ICE:  Okay.  Let’s go to the line of Jessica Donati at The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION:  Hi.  I just wanted to go back to Afghanistan.  When you said the NATO defense minister meeting, they were actually hoping for the U.S. to make a decision because, as we all know, it’s the U.S. that’s going to make the final call on troops.  So I was wondering whether EU country – NATO countries will get a response on whether to keep troops beyond May 1st after the NATO Ministerial next week.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  I don’t have anything more to add to what I said already.  I think it answered the question.  We’ll continue to focus on this, and what we said at the time of the NATO Defense Ministerial remains very true.

MR ICE:  Okay.  And I think we have time for one more question.  Let’s go to the line of Christiane Jacke at the German Press Agency.

QUESTION:  Yeah, hello.  Can you hear me?

MR ICE:  Yes, we can hear you.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Yes, indeed.

QUESTION:  Great, thank you.  Thanks a lot for taking my question.  One very quick thing on the timeline:  Is the meeting with Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell on the 24th or shortly before the departure on the 25th?

And also, the speech that you mentioned, is that just his speech at the ministerial or a separate speech he’s going to deliver?

And a very quick follow-up on Nord Stream 2:  When meeting his German counterpart Heiko Mass, will the Secretary bring up the issue of possible sanctions for German companies as there is more and more pressure from Republicans in Congress on this matter?  Thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Well, thanks for the questions.  I think I’ll leave it to the traveling party to announce scheduling specifically, but we previewed the meetings that are expected to happen; just can’t give you the exact times at this point.  The Secretary will deliver a speech outside of the context of the NATO Ministerial, where obviously he will have interventions in each of the sessions there.  But his foreign policy speech will focus on the broader concept of rebuilding and revitalizing alliances more general.  NATO is, of course, our primary alliance and, as I said, the most successful alliance in history.

I don’t want to prejudge what will happen in any particular meeting.  I think you saw the statement that the Secretary put out yesterday that related to Nord Stream 2.  I’ll just let that speak for itself, and obviously, as we indicated, this is an opportunity to see all 30 NATO foreign ministers, including the Secretary of State, together, in person, for the first time.  And they’ll have a chance to engage with each other on a full range of issues.

MR ICE:  Great.  Ladies and gentlemen, that’s all the time that we have for today.  I do want to take this opportunity to thank Acting Assistant Secretary Reeker for joining with us.  We very much appreciate it and we also appreciate everyone who dialed in today.

With that, the briefing is ended and the embargo is lifted.  Have a great weekend.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Thanks, J.T.  Thanks, everyone.  Bye.

More from: Philip T. Reeker, Acting Assistant SecretaryBureau of European and Eurasian Affairs

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    The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is not effectively protecting sensitive information exchanged with external entities. Of four leading practices for such oversight, HUD did not address one practice and only minimally addressed the other three in its security and privacy policies and procedures (see table). For example, HUD minimally addressed the first leading practice because its policy required federal agencies and contractors with which it exchanges information to implement risk-based security controls; however, the department did not, among other things, establish a process or mechanism to ensure all external entities complied with security and privacy requirements when processing, storing, or sharing information outside of HUD systems. HUD's weaknesses in the four practices were due largely to a lack of priority given to updating its policies. Until HUD implements the leading practices, it is unlikely that the department will be able to mitigate risks to its programs and program participants. Extent to Which the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Policies and Procedures Address Leading Practices for Overseeing the Protection of Sensitive Information Practice Rating Require risk-based security and privacy controls ◔ Independently assess implementation of controls ◌ Identify and track corrective actions needed ◔ Monitor progress implementing controls ◔ Legend: ◔=Minimally addressed—leading practice was addressed to a limited extent; ◌=Not addressed—leading practice was not addressed. Source: GAO analysis of HUD data. | GAO-20-431 HUD was not fully able to identify external entities that process, store, or share sensitive information with its systems used to support housing, community investment, or mortgage loan programs. HUD's data were incomplete and did not provide reliable information about external entities with access to sensitive information from these systems. For example, GAO identified additional external entities in system documentation beyond what HUD reported for 23 of 32 systems. HUD was further limited in its ability to protect sensitive information because it did not track the types of personally identifiable information or other sensitive information shared with external entities that required protection. This occurred, in part, because the department did not have a comprehensive inventory of systems, to include information on external entities. Its policies and procedures also focused primarily on security and privacy for internal systems and lacked specificity about how to ensure that all types of external entities protected information collected, processed, or shared with the department. Until HUD develops sufficient, reliable information about external entities with which program information is shared and the extent to which each entity has access to personally identifiable information and other sensitive information, the department will be limited in its ability to safeguard information about its housing, community investment, and mortgage loan programs. To administer housing, community investment, and mortgage loan programs, HUD collects a vast amount of sensitive personal information and shares it with external entities, including federal agencies, contractors, and state, local, and tribal organizations. In 2016, HUD reported two incidents that compromised sensitive information. House Report 115-237, referenced by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, included a provision for GAO to evaluate HUD's information security framework for protecting information within these programs. The objectives were to (1) assess the effectiveness of HUD's policies and procedures for overseeing the security and privacy of sensitive information exchanged with external entities; and (2) determine the extent to which HUD was able to identify external entities that process, store, and share sensitive information with applicable systems. GAO compared HUD's policies and practices for systems' security and privacy to four leading practices identified in federal legislation and guidance. GAO also assessed HUD's practices for identifying external entities with access to sensitive information. GAO is making five recommendations to HUD to fully implement the four leading practices and fully identify the extent to which sensitive information is shared with external entities. HUD did not agree or disagree with the recommendations, but described actions intended to address them. For more information, contact Carol C. Harris at (202) 512-4456 or harriscc@gao.gov.
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  • Covid-19: Data Quality and Considerations for Modeling and Analysis
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    The rapid spread and magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic have underscored the importance of having quality data, analyses, and models describing the potential trajectory of COVID-19 to help understand the effects of the disease in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is using multiple surveillance systems to collect data on COVID-19 in the U.S. in collaboration with state, local, and academic and other partners. The data from these surveillance systems can be useful for understanding the disease, but decision makers and analysts must understand their limitations in order to interpret them properly. For example, surveillance data on the number of reported COVID-19 cases are incomplete for a number of reasons, and they are an undercount the true number of cases, according to CDC and others. There are multiple approaches to analyzing COVID-19 data that yield different insights. For example, some approaches can help compare the effects of the disease across population groups. Additional analytical approaches can help to address incomplete and inconsistent reporting of COVID-19 deaths as well. For example, analysts can examine the number of deaths beyond what would normally be expected in the absence of the pandemic. Examining higher-than-expected deaths from all causes helps to address limitations in the reporting of COVID-19 deaths because the number of total deaths is likely more accurate than the numbers of deaths from specific causes. The figure below shows actual deaths from the weeks ending January 1 through June 27, 2020, based on data from CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, compared with the expected deaths based on prior years’ data. Deaths that exceeded this threshold starting in late March are considered excess deaths that may be related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Higher-Than-Expected Weekly Mortality for 2020, as of July 14, 2020 Analysts have used several forecasting models to predict the spread of COVID-19, and understanding these models requires understanding their purpose and limitations. For example, some models attempt to predict the effects of various interventions, whereas other models attempt to forecast the number of cases based on current data. At the beginning of an outbreak, such predictions are less likely to be accurate, but accuracy can improve as the disease becomes better understood. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant loss of life and profoundly disrupted the U.S. economy and society, and the Congress has taken action to support a multifaceted federal response on an unprecedented scale. It is important for decision makers to understand the limitations of COVID-19 data, and the uses and limitations of various methods of analyzing and interpreting those data. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) includes a provision for GAO to, in general, conduct monitoring and oversight of the authorities and funding provided to address the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect of the pandemic on the health, economy, and public and private institutions of the U.S. This technology assessment examines (1) collection methods and limitations of COVID-19 surveillance data reported by CDC, (2) approaches for analyzing COVID-19 data, and (3) uses and limitations of forecast modeling for understanding of COVID-19. In conducting this assessment, GAO obtained publicly available information from CDC and state health departments, among other sources, and reviewed relevant peer reviewed and preprint (non-peer-reviewed) literature, as well as published technical data on specific models. For more information, contact Timothy M. Persons, PhD at (202) 512-6888 or PersonsT@gao.gov, SaraAnn Moessbauer at (202) 512-4943, or MoessbauerS@gao.gov, or Mary Denigan-Macauley, PhD at (202) 512-7114 or DeniganMacauleyM@gao.gov.
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  • High-Risk Series: Dedicated Leadership Needed to Address Limited Progress in Most High-Risk Areas
    In U.S GAO News
    Overall ratings in 2021 for 20 of GAO's 2019 high-risk areas remain unchanged, and five regressed. Seven areas improved, one to the point of removal from the High-Risk List. Two new areas are being added, bringing our 2021 High-Risk List to 36 areas. Where there has been improvement in high-risk areas, congressional actions, in addition to those by executive agencies, have been critical in spurring progress. GAO is removing Department of Defense (DOD) Support Infrastructure Management from the High-Risk List. Among other things, DOD has more efficiently utilized military installation space; reduced its infrastructure footprint and use of leases, reportedly saving millions of dollars; and improved its use of installation agreements, reducing base support costs GAO is narrowing the scope of three high-risk areas by removing segments of the areas due to progress that has been made. The affected areas are: (1) Federal Real Property (Costly Leasing) because the General Services Administration has reduced its reliance on costly leases and improved monitoring efforts; (2) DOD Contract Management (Acquisition Workforce) because DOD has significantly rebuilt its acquisition workforce; and (3) Management of Federal Oil and Gas Resources (Offshore Oil and Gas Oversight) because the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has implemented reforms improving offshore oil and gas oversight. National Efforts to Prevent, Respond to, and Recover from Drug Misuse is being added to the High-Risk List. National rates of drug misuse have been increasing, and drug misuse has resulted in significant loss of life and harmful effects to society and the economy. GAO identified several challenges in the federal government's response, such as a need for greater leadership and coordination of the national effort, strategic guidance that fulfills all statutory requirements, and more effective implementation and monitoring. Emergency Loans for Small Businesses also is being added. The Small Business Administration has provided hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of loans and advances to help small businesses recover from adverse economic impacts created by COVID-19. While loans have greatly aided many small businesses, evidence of fraud and significant program integrity risks need much greater oversight and management attention. Nine existing high-risk areas also need more focused attention (see table). 2021 High-Risk List Areas Requiring Significant Attention High-risk areas that regressed since 2019 High-risk areas that need additional attention USPS Financial Viability IT Acquisitions and Operations Decennial Census Limiting the Federal Government's Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks Ensuring the Cybersecurity of the Nation U.S. Government's Environmental Liability Strategic Human Capital Management Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safety EPA's Process for Assessing and Controlling Toxic Chemicals   Source: GAO. | GAO-21-119SP   GAO's 2021 High-Risk List High-risk area Change since 2019 Strengthening the Foundation for Efficiency and Effectiveness Strategic Human Capital Management ↓ Managing Federal Real Propertya ↑ Funding the Nation's Surface Transportation Systemb c n/a Modernizing the U.S. Financial Regulatory Systemb ● Resolving the Federal Role in Housing Financeb ● USPS Financial Viabilityb ↓ Management of Federal Oil and Gas Resourcesa ● Limiting the Federal Government's Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risksb ● Improving the Management of IT Acquisitions and Operations ● Improving Federal Management of Programs That Serve Tribes and Their Members ● Decennial Census ↓ U.S. Government's Environmental Liabilityb ● Emergency Loans for Small Businesses (new)c n/a Transforming DOD Program Management DOD Weapon Systems Acquisition ● DOD Financial Management ↑ DOD Business Systems Modernization ● DOD Approach to Business Transformation ● Ensuring Public Safety and Security Government-wide Personnel Security Clearance Processb ↑ Ensuring the Cybersecurity of the Nationb ↓ Strengthening Department of Homeland Security Management Functions ● Ensuring the Effective Protection of Technologies Critical to U.S. National Security Interests ● Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safetyb ● Protecting Public Health through Enhanced Oversight of Medical Products ● Transforming EPA's Process for Assessing and Controlling Toxic Chemicals ↓ National Efforts to Prevent, Respond to, and Recover from Drug Misuse (new)c n/a Managing Federal Contracting More Effectively VA Acquisition Managementd n/a DOE's Contract and Project Management for the National Nuclear Security Administration and Office of Environmental Management ↑ NASA Acquisition Management ↑ DOD Contract Managementa ● Assessing the Efficiency and Effectiveness of Tax Law Administration Enforcement of Tax Lawsb ● Modernizing and Safeguarding Insurance and Benefit Programs Medicare Program & Improper Paymentse ● Strengthening Medicaid Program Integrityb ● Improving and Modernizing Federal Disability Programs ● Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation Insurance Programsb c n/a National Flood Insurance Programb ● Managing Risks and Improving VA Health Careb ↑ (↑ indicates area progressed on one or more criteria since 2019; ↓ indicates area declined on one or more criteria ; ● indicates no change; n/a = not applicable) Source: GAO. | GAO-21-119SP aRatings for a segment within this high-risk area improved sufficiently that the segment was removed. bLegislation is likely to be necessary in order to effectively address this high-risk area. cNot rated, because this high-risk area is newly added or primarily involves congressional action. dRated for the first time, because this high-risk area was newly added in 2019. eOnly rated on one segment; we did not rate other elements of the Medicare program. The federal government is one of the world's largest and most complex entities; about $6.6 trillion in outlays in fiscal year 2020 funded a broad array of programs and operations. GAO's High-Risk Series identifies government operations with vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or in need of transformation to address economy, efficiency, or effectiveness challenges. This biennial update describes the status of high-risk areas, outlines actions that are still needed to assure further progress, and identifies any new high-risk areas needing attention by the executive branch and Congress. Solutions to high-risk problems save billions of dollars, improve service to the public, and strengthen government performance and accountability. GAO uses five criteria to assess progress in addressing high-risk areas: (1) leadership commitment, (2) agency capacity, (3) an action plan, (4) monitoring efforts, and (5) demonstrated progress. This report describes GAO's views on progress made and what remains to be done to bring about lasting solutions for each high-risk area. Addressing GAO's hundreds of open recommendations across the high-risk areas and continued congressional oversight and action are essential to achieving greater progress. For more information, contact Michelle Sager at (202) 512-6806 or sagerm@gao.gov.
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  • Information Technology: Agencies Need to Develop and Implement Modernization Plans for Critical Legacy Systems
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    What GAO Found In June 2019, GAO identified 10 critical federal information technology (IT) legacy systems that were most in need of modernization. These legacy systems provided vital support to agencies' missions. According to the agencies, these legacy systems ranged from about 8 to 51 years old and, collectively, cost about $337 million annually to operate and maintain. Several of the systems used older languages, such as Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL). GAO has previously reported that reliance on such languages has risks, such as a rise in procurement and operating costs, and a decrease in the availability of individuals with the proper skill sets. Further, several of the legacy systems were operating with known security vulnerabilities and unsupported hardware and software. Of the 10 agencies responsible for these legacy systems, GAO reported in June 2019 that seven agencies (the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, the Interior, the Treasury; as well as the Office of Personnel Management; Small Business Administration; and Social Security Administration) had documented plans for modernizing the systems (see table). Of the seven agencies with plans, only the Departments of the Interior's and Defense's modernization plans included all of the key elements identified in best practices (milestones, a description of the work necessary to complete the modernization, and a plan for the disposition of the legacy system). The other five agencies lacked complete modernization plans. The Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Transportation did not have documented modernization plans. Table: Extent to Which Agencies' Had Documented Modernization Plans for Legacy Systems That Included Key Elements, as of June 2019 Agency Included milestones to complete the modernization Described work necessary to modernize system Summarized planned disposition of legacy system Department of Defense Yes Yes Yes Department of Education n/a – did not have a documented modernization plan Department of Health and Human Services n/a – did not have a documented modernization plan Department of Homeland Security No Yes No Department of the Interior Yes Yes Yes Department of the Treasury Partial Yes No Department of Transportation n/a – did not have a documented modernization plan Office of Personnel Management Partial Partial No Small Business Administration Yes No Yes Social Security Administration Partial Partial No Source: GAO analysis of agency modernization plans. | GAO-21-524T Agencies received a “partial” if the element was completed for a portion of the modernization. GAO stressed that, until the eight agencies established complete plans, their modernizations would face an increased risk of cost overruns, schedule delays, and project failure. Accordingly, GAO recommended that each of the eight develop such plans. However, to date, seven of the agencies had not done so. It is essential that agencies implement GAO's recommendations and these plans in order to meet mission needs, address security risks, and reduce operating costs. Why GAO Did This Study Each year, the federal government spends more than $100 billion on IT and cyber-related investments. Of this amount, agencies have typically spent about 80 percent on the operations and maintenance of existing IT investments, including legacy systems. However, federal legacy systems are becoming increasingly obsolete. In May 2016, GAO reported instances where agencies were using systems that had components that were at least 50 years old or the vendors were no longer providing support for hardware or software. Similarly, in June 2019 GAO reported that several of the federal government's most critical legacy systems used outdated languages, had unsupported hardware and software, and were operating with known security vulnerabilities. GAO was asked to testify on its June 2019 report on federal agencies' legacy systems. Specifically, GAO summarized (1) the critical federal legacy systems that we identified as most in need of modernization and (2) its evaluation of agencies' plans for modernizing them. GAO also provided updated information regarding agencies' implementation of its related recommendations.
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  • Information Technology: DOD Software Development Approaches and Cybersecurity Practices May Impact Cost and Schedule
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    GAO reported in June 2020 that, of the 15 major Department of Defense (DOD) information technology (IT) programs selected for review, 11 had decreased their cost estimates as of December 2019. The decreases in cost estimates ranged from a .03 percent decrease to a 33.8 percent decrease. In contrast, the remaining four programs experienced increases in their life-cycle cost estimates—--two with increases exceeding 20 percent. Program officials reported several reasons for the increases, including testing delays and development challenges. Ten of the 15 programs had schedule delays when compared to their original acquisition program baselines. Schedule delays ranged from a delay of 1 month to a delay of 5 years. Program officials reported a variety of reasons for significant delays (delays of over 1 year) in their planned schedules, including cyber and performance issues. Regarding software development, officials from the 15 selected major IT programs that GAO reviewed reported using software development approaches that may help to limit risks to cost and schedule outcomes. For example, 10 of the 15 programs reported using commercial off-the-shelf software, which is consistent with DOD guidance to use this software to the extent practicable. Such software can help reduce software development time, allow for faster delivery, and lower life-cycle costs. In addition, 14 of the 15 programs reported using an iterative software development approach which, according to leading practices, may help reduce cost growth and deliver better results to the customer. However, programs also reported using an older approach to software development, known as waterfall, which could introduce risk for program cost growth because of its linear and sequential phases of development that may be implemented over a longer period of time. Specifically, two programs reported using a waterfall approach in conjunction with an iterative approach, while one was solely using a waterfall approach. With respect to cybersecurity, programs reported mixed implementation of specific practices, contributing to program risks that might impact cost and schedule outcomes. For example, all 15 programs reported developing cybersecurity strategies, which are intended to help ensure that programs are planning for and documenting cybersecurity risk management efforts. In contrast, only eight of the 15 programs reported conducting cybersecurity vulnerability assessments—systematic examinations of an information system or product intended to, among other things, determine the adequacy of security measures and identify security deficiencies. These eight programs experienced fewer increases in planned program costs and fewer schedule delays relative to the programs that did not report using cybersecurity vulnerability assessments. For fiscal year 2020, DOD requested approximately $36.1 billion for IT investments. Those investments included major IT programs, which are intended to help the department sustain key operations. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 included a provision for GAO to assess selected IT programs annually through March 2023. GAO's objectives for this review were to, among other things, (1) describe the extent to which selected major IT programs have changed their planned costs and schedules since the programs' initial baselines; and (2) describe what selected software development and cybersecurity risks or challenges, if any, may impact major IT programs' acquisition outcomes. GAO selected programs based on DOD's list of major IT programs, as of April 10, 2019. From this list, GAO identified 15 major IT programs that had established an initial acquisition program baseline and that were not fully deployed by December 31, 2019. GAO compared the 15 programs' initial cost and schedule baselines to current acquisition program estimates. In addition, GAO aggregated DOD program office responses to a GAO questionnaire about software development approaches and cybersecurity practices used by the 15 programs. GAO compared this information to leading practices to identify risks and challenges affecting cost, schedule, and performance outcomes. This report is a public version of a “for official use only” report issued in June 2020. For more information, contact Kevin Walsh at (202) 512-6151 or walshk@gao.gov.
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