Briefing with Senior Official Daniel Nadel, Office of International Religious Freedom on Release of the 2020 International Religious Freedom Report

Daniel Nadel, Senior OfficialOffice of International Religious Freedom

Washington, D.C.

Press Briefing Room

MR NADEL:  Good morning, and Eid Mubarak to all of our Muslim friends celebrating the end of Ramadan.  Thank you, Secretary Blinken, for those clear and forceful remarks underscoring our unyielding commitment to promote and defend – excuse me – let me take this off so you can hear me – to promote and defend freedom of religion or belief for all.  I am also very pleased to recognize our reports coordinator Bob Boehme and his extraordinary editing team for their efforts to make this year’s report – all 2,397 pages – a reality.

Today, we release the State Department’s 23rd Report on International Religious Freedom.  Over the course of more than two decades, we are proud to say these reports have become an indispensable resource to governments, legislatures, activists, academics, civil society organizations and religious communities the world over who value and seek to ensure this fundamental freedom.

Our guiding principle in preparing the report is to present all relevant information as objectively, thoroughly and fairly as possible.  And though couched in dry and at times bureaucratic‑sounding language, what you see as you delve into the country chapters is a rich fabric of individual stories; stories that help us understand the experiences of individuals, of communities, sometimes entire societies.  These reports include the personal costs, horrifying stories of discrimination, abuse, torture, disappearance, even death of someone’s parent, someone’s sibling, someone’s son or daughter for simply trying to organize their lives in accordance with their most basic values and beliefs.

You will also see stories of those fighting back, challenging repressive regimes, countering extremist violence and building coalitions across religious and ethnic divides to combat discrimination, demand rights, and promote shared values of human dignity, mutual respect and peace.

So what do we do with this trove of information?  For the United States Government, and for the Office of International Religious Freedom, we use it as a starting point for advocacy efforts that span the entire year and beyond.  We use it as a baseline to understand whether and how things are getting better or worse in a place, whether past engagement has proven effective or should be recalibrated and whether the case of a particular individual or community has been resolved or requires further attention.

But some might ask, “Doesn’t this take a lot of resources?  What does the United States actually get out of this investment?”  First, the moral imperative is clear:  We as a nation benefit immeasurably from the protections granted by our First Amendment, and it is only natural to want others to share in the wealth of that experience.  Our efforts to advance international religious freedom are also firmly rooted in this knowledge:  Countries that effectively safeguard this and other human rights are more peaceful, stable, prosperous and more reliable partners of the United States than those that do not.  Nations can never achieve their fullest potential when some are excluded from education, healthcare, jobs and other essentials on account of their innermost beliefs or how they choose to manifest those beliefs.  So it has long been recognized that promoting religious freedom is vital to America’s national security interests.

Let me touch briefly on a few key themes that emerge in this year’s report.  First, efforts to criminalize forms of speech and expression are an ineffective – and in fact counterproductive – tool to promote religious harmony or combat intolerance.  While blasphemy laws are particularly pernicious, we are also concerned about laws that aim to regulate a person’s ability to wear or not wear religious attire or symbols, or laws that criminalize proselytization or limit parent’s ability to provide religious education for their children.

Second, excessive and onerous government regulation of religion and religious life alienates citizens from their governments and increases the likelihood of individuals resorting to violence to defend their beliefs.  Authorities in many countries continue to constrain religious expression through registration laws or restrictions on religious materials.  We now increasingly see governments using the same tactic on the internet, where officials closely monitor and heavily censor religious expression online and arrest or harass those involved in online discourse on religion or belief.  We strongly encourage governments to engage religious communities and faith leaders as partners and consult with these communities when contemplating changes to laws or policies that may impact religion or belief.

Third, no society – including our own – is immune from the scourge of religious discrimination whether manifesting as anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, xenophobia, or marginalization of Christians, atheists, or any others.  Education and youth-focused programs are vital to promote an understanding of the value and importance of pluralism and mutual respect for all.  We remain committed to working with government and civil society partners to tackle problems like hate crimes, discrimination and religiously motivated violence in ways that do not interfere with freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

And finally, we all must remain vigilant for early warnings of possible mass atrocities around the globe.  In a few short years, we have seen genocide perpetrated by ISIS against Yezidis, Christians, and other ethnic and religious minorities in northern Iraq and Syria.  We have seen mass atrocities, including ethnic cleansing, committed by the Burmese military against Rohingya.  It is certainly no coincidence that those behind the recent military coup are among the same people who have led the repression of Burma’s ethnic and religious minorities for decades.  As one activist recently noted, “They have turned those tools on all of us now.”

And today we also cannot look away from the ongoing crimes against humanity and genocide the Chinese Government is perpetrating against Muslim Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.  This can be seen as the culmination of decades of repression of religious adherents, from Tibetan Buddhists to Christians to Falun Gong practitioners.

We persist in this work because of the unfortunate truth that many of the challenges to religious freedom we see in the world today are structural, systemic, and deeply entrenched.  They cannot be solved by quick fixes or breezy slogans.  But we must not give up.  These challenges demand sustained commitment from all of us who are unwilling to accept hatred, intolerance, and persecution as the status quo.  The United States is committed to using all available tools, both positive and punitive, to advance this universal right.  For the many people and communities around the world whose stories fill this report, our message today is clear:  We see you, we hear you, and we will not rest until you are free to live your lives in dignity and in peace.

Thank you very much, and I’ll be pleased to take your questions.

MR PRICE:  Said.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you, sir.  Sir, I mean, you talk about religious freedom of all.  I mean, a stark example is what is happening in al-Aqsa Mosque.  I think your response, at best tepid thus far, has in a way encouraged the Israeli security forces and so on to keep storming the mosque time and time and time again.  Will you call on them not to do that anymore, and to allow Palestinian worshippers to go ahead and worship on this, this last day of Ramadan, and tomorrow being the Eid?

MR NADEL:  Well, thank you very much for your question.  And the United States has long supported the status quo agreements around the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount area.  The Secretary spoke at length about this issue, and so from a religious freedom perspective, I think there’s only one thing that is worth me adding.  The only way over the long term to ensure respect for religious freedom for all Jews, Muslims, Christians, Baha’is, all people in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, is to achieve a just and lasting peace.  And you can’t have respect for human rights when there continues to be conflict.  That is always going to be a challenge and always going to be a tension.  And so we remain committed to working with all of the parties in the region to get there together.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Oh, yes.  At the United Nations today there was a bit of a side event – I don’t know exactly what the terminology is – about the situation in Xinjiang, China, which Secretary Blinken just mentioned.  Were you disappointed that there weren’t more majority-Muslim nations participating in that call?  And do you think – how do you think the Chinese Government would – do you think they’ll get the message, and if so, how, about whether to change their actions or behavior in that region?

MR NADEL:  Well, thank you.  Thank you very much for the question.  And obviously, the situation in Xinjiang just shocks the conscience.  And we do these events, we arrange these activities, to ensure that people understand the full scope and scale of the atrocities being committed there.  But it’s not a popularity contest, at the end of the day.  It’s not about how many countries line up on one side of an issue or the other.  That’s an effort on the part of the Chinese Government to try and demonstrate that there are people who agree with their world view.

But the facts speak for themselves.  The facts of situation, not the views of the United States Government, are what will ultimately carry the day.  And what I’m talking about is open-source satellite information that’s been published in many of your publications.  What I’m talking about is the testimony of survivors who have escaped from the camps, that again have been published by many of you.  All of that information is out there.  It’s available.  We’re also talking about documents of the Chinese Government, the PRC authorities’ own documents, sharing information about how they intend to build these camps, how they intend to manage these populations.  All of this is out there for everyone to see.

So at the end of the day, it is absolutely clear what horrors are taking place in Xinjiang, being perpetrated by the PRC Government.  And we will continue to speak out because we must.  We will continue to work with partners where we can on issues of sanctions, issues of ensuring accountability and justice for the victims, but at the end of the day, it’s not how many people show up in a – at an event.  It’s us getting at that long-term effort to stop these terrible actions and put people in a better place.

MR PRICE:  Humeyra.

QUESTION:  Can I follow up on China?

MR PRICE:  Do you have a China question or should we —

QUESTION:  I do, yeah.

MR PRICE:  Okay.  We’ll come to you right after.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Last month, the incoming U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom basically urged the administration to not send officials to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing over the persecution of Uyghur Muslims.  Now State Department has its own report, and I know that it doesn’t talk about Olympics, but still, will you agree to the call for a diplomatic boycott?

And I just want to squeeze in something about Burma, because you mentioned it in your remarks.  We know that State Department has taken up several processes for an atrocity determination and they fell apart.  Given what’s happening now, is there a fresh effort to take this up and look into the events to declare a genocide, to make a genocide determination or crimes against humanity?

MR NADEL:  Sure.  Well, I’ll take your second question on Burma first.  The Secretary has committed to a comprehensive review of the atrocities committed against Rohingya in Rakhine State.  That process is – has begun and it is, in fact, ongoing.  The department will continue to work in the meantime to promote peace, security, and respect for the human rights of Rohingya as equal citizens of Burma.

On your first question about the Beijing Olympics, look, we can’t turn a blind eye to Beijing’s aberrant human rights record.  And it’s not just about Xinjiang, which we’ve spoken about.  It’s Tibet, it’s Hong Kong, it’s the whole host of things that happen on the mainland.  But – and we recognize that when it comes to the Olympics, our efforts will be most effective if we act alongside likeminded partners.  So at the moment, we’re reviewing options on policy and messaging related to the games that will advance U.S. priorities, which includes countering Beijing’s intent to use the games as a platform to somehow validate their governing model and paper over their gross human rights violations.  So we’re consulting with Congress, allies and partners, and other key stakeholders as we proceed.

MR PRICE:  Please.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Sorry, just to follow up on China, the U.S. has taken a number of actions against China, including the Commerce Department adding several entities to their entity list, business advisories going out cautioning businesses against forced labor in Xinjiang, numerous officials getting visa restrictions – the Secretary just announced another designation today.  Is the State Department seeing any effect to these actions?  What more can the State Department do?  Is the answer just more officials getting sanctioned?

MR NADEL:  Well, we’re certainly looking at all available options and continuing to look at individual culpability of particular actors in China so we can apply sanctions to them where those sanctions are relevant.  In terms of overall changes or shifts in posture, I think what we’ve seen over the last year and a half or so is a dramatic shift in the Government of China’s posture towards this issue of human rights abuses generally.  You’ll recall that early on it was blanket denial when it came to Xinjiang; there’s nothing happening here, nothing to see, thanks for asking, sorry.  And what that ultimately shifted to was a realization that what was happening could not be denied, it could not be papered over, it was clear.  And so now it’s about justification.  It’s about oh, this is a terrorism issue; oh, this is a security issue.

And, of course, the world isn’t buying it.  We see quite clearly what it is.  What it is is an attempt to erase a people, a history, a culture from the Earth, and that’s unacceptable.  And so we continue to work and look at all the tools at our disposal, and those punitive tools have come in quite handy here, but we’re not going to sit back at a certain point and say okay, that’s enough of those.  And when we find perpetrators, when we find those responsible for activities – whether they’ve already been committed or if future activities are committed – we’re going to continue to hold them accountable under the structure that we’ve been given in U.S. law.

QUESTION:  But just to clarify, there’s been no change as far as people in China’s religious freedoms?  Those —

MR NADEL:  Well, the situation remains dire.  And one of the interesting things that has shifted a bit is at least early on, you saw a dramatic reliance on camps, people being warehoused, essentially, in camps for re-education, for forced labor, for other purposes.  What the government is now doing, it’s – they’ve basically turned Xinjiang into an open-air camp.  So people’s movements are closely tracked.  You have minders who have been assigned to live with Uyghurs to keep tabs on them.  You have people going to the market who have to check in every time they go to a different market stall.  So what the government has created – it’s quite an ambitious effort to essentially turn the entire region into an open-air prison.

MR PRICE:  (Inaudible.)

QUESTION:  So the Secretary said religious freedom is coequal with other human rights.  Religious freedom is not more or less important than other rights.  This seems to be a departure from the prior administration.  Do you view this as a departure from the prior administration?  If so, can you tell us what the thinking was?  And also, how much of this report is consistent with what the Trump administration was going to put out, and where are the biggest departures, do you feel, with Biden and the Trump administration on this report?

MR NADEL:  Yeah.  So as somebody who has worked on this report now over three administrations, I can tell you the structure of the report and the content has changed virtually not at all since amendments to the Religious Freedom Act were passed back in 2016.

So the report itself documents the state of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories.  It talks about government practices.  It talks about laws and policies that are relevant to the state of religious freedom.  It talks about societal actions impacting religious freedom.  And in the last section, it talks about U.S. Government actions to address the challenges that the rest of the report lays out.  So nothing has really changed in the religious freedom report from over the last three administrations; essentially, since the Wolf Act was passed in 2016.

When it comes to the conceptual framework for religious freedom, the Secretary has made clear that religious freedom is a nested human right.  It’s a human right that can – that exists in codependence with other human rights.  You can’t have religious freedom without freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of assembly.  You can’t have religious freedom without a system that guarantees the rule of law, because if people have problems, there’s no recourse without a rule of law system.

So what you have there is it’s not a departure, certainly, from any prior concept, but it’s a clarification, because Secretary Pompeo did express his view that there was perhaps a hierarchy of rights concept.  And that’s a view that this administration does depart from.  But that in no way is to indicate that religious freedom is any less important.  Religious freedom is in our First Amendment.  It’s been a part of our country, our culture, our history from the very, very beginning.  And it was, in fact, the reason many people came to this country because they were fleeing forms of religious persecution or discrimination overseas.  That was true in the 18th century.  It continues to be true in the 21st century.

So as a general matter, religious freedom is a fundamental freedom, it is a co-equal right, and it’s one that we will continue to stand up for.

MR PRICE:  Yes, please.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  I have two on India and one on South Asia.  What is the general assessment of the situation of religious freedom in India?  Your report on India does mention that U.S. officials last year discussed with the Indians two issues, CAA and FCRA.  What were you asking India to do on those two issues?  And finally, your report also mentioned about the religious persecution against Hindus.  Was – and Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.  What is your message to these three countries?  Thank you.

MR NADEL:  Sure.  Sure thing.  Well, with respect to India first, we do regularly engage with Indian Government officials at all levels, encouraging them to uphold human rights obligations and commitments, including the protection of minorities, in keeping with India’s long tradition of democratic values and its history of tolerance.  We also meet continuously with civil society organizations, local religious communities to hear their views and understand challenges and opportunities that they see.

When it comes to our overall encouragement to the Government of India, it is to engage these communities, these outside actors in direct discourse.  Because when laws are passed, when initiatives are undertaken that are done without effective consultation with these communities, it creates a sense of disempowerment; at times, of alienation.  And the best way to address that is to engage in that direct dialogue between government and civil society, including religious communities.

So with respect to India, I think there’s genuine opportunities there for the government to address some of the concerns they hear from Indian civil society through greater dialogue and engagement.

When it comes to the other countries you mentioned – I apologize.  You mentioned Bangladesh and?

QUESTION:  Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan.

MR NADEL:  Sure.  So the issues of respect for the rights of Hindu minorities and – in each of those three instances – Christian, sometimes Baha’i, other – Sikh – other religious minorities in all three of those countries are of significant interest to us.  They’re topics that we raise frequently with governments.  Sometimes we’re encouraging governments to do the same thing that I mentioned for India: engage in direct discourse with these communities, make sure you understand their needs, what opportunities exist to bring them into conversations, and empower them as co-equal citizens.

One of the broad principles that we encourage governments to think about is when you have minority populations that don’t have access to the same opportunities, jobs, education that members of the majority community do, you’re actually losing the potential for economic growth.  You’re actually losing out on empowering people to be contributing members of your society.  And so discrimination has an economic cost as well, and so that’s another feature that we always seek to incorporate into those conversations.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MR NADEL:  Thank you.

MR PRICE:  Any other questions?

QUESTION:  (No response.)

MR PRICE:  Okay.  We’ll have an opportunity to hear more from Dan later today, so we appreciate your time, everyone.

MR NADEL:  Thank you very much.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

More from: Daniel Nadel, Senior OfficialOffice of International Religious Freedom

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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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  • Combating Wildlife Trafficking: Agencies Work to Address Human Rights Abuse Allegations in Overseas Conservation Programs
    In U.S GAO News
    U.S. agencies primarily use Leahy vetting as the enforcement mechanism to prevent U.S. funding for combating wildlife trafficking from supporting human rights abuses. Statutory provisions commonly referred to as "Leahy Laws" prohibit the U.S. government from using certain funds to assist units of foreign security forces where there is credible information they have committed a gross violation of human rights. The Department of State (State) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) generally consider park rangers to be foreign security forces that are authorized to search, detain, arrest, or use force against people, and thus subject to Leahy vetting, according to agency officials. State or USAID may provide funding to the Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that it then uses to support park ranger activities. In those instances, FWS submits the candidates' applications to State for Leahy vetting. According to a State official, Leahy approval of a security force unit is good for 1 year, and State must vet individuals again if their unit continues to receive support from State or USAID funding sources. Both U.S. agencies and implementing partners took a variety of steps in response to recent allegations of human rights abuses by overseas park rangers. For example, a State official in the Central Africa region told GAO that while the Democratic Republic of the Congo embassy's vetting program has very strict control mechanisms, the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Bureau requested quarterly reports to facilitate a review of all assistance to park rangers to ensure that any reported activities were vetted according to Leahy Laws. USAID officials told GAO that in addition to continuing Leahy vetting, the agency's response included strengthening human rights training and conducting a site visit to a park in the DRC where human rights abuses had allegedly occurred. According to officials, the visit involved speaking with beneficiaries to further understand the allegations and efforts to assess root causes, mitigate impacts, and stop future occurrences, including making referrals to appropriate law enforcement authorities if warranted. FWS officials also stated that they take seriously allegations that U.S implementing partners have supported park rangers who have committed human rights abuses. Since June 2019, the Department of the Interior has approved no new awards to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)—one of the implementing partners which has supported park rangers alleged to have committed human rights abuses. Moreover, the International Affairs program within FWS has put all new funding on hold since September 2019, pending a departmental review. Agencies are also implementing various changes in response to congressional directives on safeguarding human rights. For example, State officials told GAO that they have added language to all notices for countering wildlife trafficking awards that requires implementing partners to include social safeguards plans in their projects. The plans will articulate an understanding of how their work could negatively affect local communities. USAID officials stated that USAID has included provisions in new agreements with FWS that require adherence to the congressional directives. FWS officials also confirmed that they are cooperating with USAID in these efforts. Implementing partners—WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and African Parks (AP)—have all conducted investigations to address allegations of human rights abuses by park rangers, according to officials from these organizations. They have also developed grievance mechanisms to report human rights abuses. For example, WWF has received 50 complaints in roughly the past year related to its project work, according to WWF representatives. WWF has responded to complaints of human rights abuses through this mechanism by reporting the allegations to relevant authorities and meeting with community representatives. U.S. agencies provide training and equipment for park rangers overseas to combat wildlife trafficking. From fiscal years 2014 through 2020, the U.S. government provided approximately $554 million to undertake a range of activities through federal agencies and in cooperation with implementing partner organizations in the field. Multiple non-governmental organization and media reports, however, have alleged that organizations that have received U.S. funds have supported park rangers engaged in combating wildfire trafficking who have committed human rights violations since the mid-2000s. GAO was asked to review human rights protection mechanisms related to U.S. efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. This report examines 1) what enforcement mechanisms agencies have to prevent U.S. funded efforts to combat wildlife trafficking from supporting human rights abuses and how they implement them, and 2) how agencies and implementing partners address allegations of human rights abuses. GAO spoke with agency officials and implementing partner representatives locally in person and overseas by phone, and collected and analyzed information related to program implementation. For more information, contact Kimberly Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or gianopoulosk@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    Under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, participating agencies can make awards to small businesses majority-owned by multiple venture capital operating companies, hedge funds, or private equity firms (investment companies and funds). In fiscal years 2019 and 2020, four of the 11 agencies participating in the program received proposals from small businesses majority-owned by investment companies and funds (i.e., qualified small businesses), and three of the four made awards to such small businesses. Specifically, the Department of Health and Human Services' National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of the Navy within the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Education made a combined 45 awards worth $31.6 million to qualified small businesses during this period. As in previous years, NIH made the most awards and awarded the most funds to qualified small businesses in fiscal years 2019 and 2020. The Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy opened its SBIR awards to qualified small businesses, but did not issue any awards to them during fiscal years 2019 and 2020. Since 2011, when qualified small businesses became eligible for SBIR awards, participating SBIR agencies have considered whether to allow qualified small businesses to participate in the program. Consistent with what GAO found in December 2018, in fiscal years 2019 and 2020, agencies cited several reasons for not allowing qualified small businesses to participate in their SBIR program. For example, officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Homeland Security said that they did not pursue the option because qualified small businesses have not expressed much interest in their SBIR programs. In contrast, two component agencies within DOD—the Departments of the Navy and the Air Force—decided to allow qualified small businesses to receive awards and the Department of the Army within DOD was considering doing so. For example, Air Force program officials told us they found that providing SBIR funding to qualified small businesses would expand the Air Force's investment in cutting-edge technologies with both commercial and military uses. NIH—the agency that has made the majority of awards to qualified small businesses—has continued to make awards to qualified small businesses in its SBIR program, as these businesses are subject to the same standard reporting requirements as all other SBIR award recipients. NIH officials also noted that SBIR recipients provide information on specific project impacts, such as technology transfer and commercialization activities, and NIH cited development of a long-release capsule for medication as an example of a successful outcome from an award to a qualified small business. The SBIR program enables federal agencies to support research and development (R&D) projects carried out by small businesses. Participating agencies are required to spend a certain percentage of their extramural R&D obligations on their SBIR program each year. Eleven federal agencies participate in the SBIR program. To qualify for SBIR awards, a small business must meet certain ownership and other eligibility criteria. The Small Business Act, as amended, authorizes agencies to allow participation in their SBIR programs by qualified small businesses. Upon providing a written determination to the Administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA)—the agency that oversees the SBIR program—and specified congressional committees, agencies may make SBIR awards to qualified small businesses. The Small Business Act, as amended, includes a provision for GAO to conduct a study of the impact of requirements relating to the involvement of investment companies and funds in the SBIR program and submit a report to Congress regarding the study every 3 years. GAO's first review covered fiscal years 2013 and 2014, and in December 2018, GAO issued its second report on this issue, for fiscal years 2015 through 2018. This third report addresses (1) SBIR participating agencies' awards to small businesses that are majority-owned by multiple investment companies and funds in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 and (2) reasons participating agencies cited for allowing or not allowing the participation of qualified small businesses in the SBIR program. GAO reviewed agencies' data on the participation of qualified small businesses and conducted interviews with or obtained written answers from program managers from the 11 participating agencies and SBA. For more information, contact Candice N. Wright at (202) 512-6888 or wrightc@gao.gov.
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    What GAO Found The National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) analysis of alternatives (AOA) process for its $600 million El Capitan HPC acquisition did not fully follow agency policy that states that AOA processes should be consistent with GAO best practices, where possible, and any deviations must be justified and documented. According to GAO best practices, a reliable AOA process should meet four characteristics: it should be comprehensive, well documented, unbiased, and credible. As seen in the table, the AOA process for El Capitan partially met one of these characteristics and minimally met the other three. NNSA did not justify or document the deviations from these best practices, as required by NNSA policy. GAO also found that the AOA process was conducted by the contractor that manages the El Capitan acquisition program, contrary to agency policy and guidance stating that AOAs should be conducted by an independent entity. Without following AOA best practices where possible; justifying and documenting any deviations; and ensuring AOA processes are conducted by an independent entity, as required, NNSA cannot be assured of a reliable assessment of options for meeting critical mission needs. Extent to Which the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Met the Characteristics of a Reliable Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) Process AOA characteristic GAO assessment Example of deviation Comprehensive Partially met Cost estimates are incomplete and did not follow best practices. Well documented Minimally met The alternatives' descriptions are not detailed enough for a robust analysis. Unbiased Minimally met NNSA had a predetermined solution, acquiring an HPC system, before performing the AOA process. Credible Minimally met The selection criteria appear to have been written for the preferred alternative. Source: GAO analysis of NNSA information. | GAO-21-194 GAO found that, in the second year of the El Capitan acquisition program's 5-year acquisition life cycle, NNSA has fully implemented selected key practices related to program monitoring and control. However, NNSA has only partially implemented key practices related to requirements management. Specifically, El Capitan program officials did not update and maintain acquisition program documents to include current requirements. NNSA officials stated that once the program developed its program plan early in the program's life cycle, they did not require the program to update and maintain that program plan. However, NNSA's own program management policy requires programs to update program documents throughout the duration of the program. Without updating and maintaining El Capitan program documents to include current requirements, NNSA officials may be limited in their ability to ensure that all mission requirements are met. Why GAO Did This Study NNSA is responsible for maintaining the nation's nuclear stockpile. To analyze the performance, safety, and reliability of nuclear weapons, it acquires high-performance computing (HPC) systems to conduct simulations. The latest system, El Capitan, is expected to be fully deployed by March 2024. The committee report accompanying the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2019, includes a provision for GAO to review NNSA's management of its Advanced Simulation and Computing program. This report examines, among other things, (1) the extent to which NNSA's AOA process for the El Capitan acquisition met best practices and followed agency policy and guidance and (2) the extent to which NNSA is implementing selected acquisition best practices in carrying out the El Capitan acquisition program. GAO reviewed documents and interviewed NNSA officials and laboratory representatives involved in carrying out the AOA and acquisition processes.
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  • Telecommunications: FCC Should Enhance Performance Goals and Measures for Its Program to Support Broadband Service in High-Cost Areas
    In U.S GAO News
    The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a program, known as the high-cost program, to promote broadband deployment in unserved areas. Although the performance goals for the high-cost program reflect principles in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, not all of the goals are expressed in a measurable or quantifiable manner and therefore do not align with leading practices. Furthermore, FCC's measures for its performance goals do not always align with leading practices, which call for measures to have linkage with the goal they measure and clarity, objectivity, and measurable targets, among other key attributes. For example, as shown below for two of FCC's five goals, GAO found that FCC's measures met most, but not all, of the key attributes. By establishing goals and measures that align with leading practices, FCC can improve the performance information it uses in its decision-making processes about how to allocate the program's finite resources. Leading practices also suggest that agencies publicly report on progress made toward performance goals. FCC does so, however, only in a limited fashion which may lead to stakeholder uncertainty about the program's effectiveness. Examples of FCC’s Performance Measures Compared with a Selection of Key Attributes of Successful Performance Measures According to stakeholders GAO interviewed, FCC faces three key challenges to accomplish its high-cost program performance goals: (1) accuracy of FCC's broadband deployment data, (2) broadband availability on tribal lands, and (3) maintaining existing fixed-voice infrastructure and attaining universal mobile service. For example, although FCC adopted a more precise method of collecting and verifying broadband availability data, stakeholders expressed concern the revised data would remain inaccurate if carriers continue to overstate broadband coverage for marketing and competitive reasons. Overstating coverage impairs FCC's efforts to promote universal voice and broadband since an area can become ineligible for high-cost support if a carrier reports that service already exists in that area. FCC has also taken actions to address the lack of broadband availability on tribal lands, such as making some spectrum available to tribes for wireless broadband in rural areas. However, tribal stakeholders told GAO that some tribes are unable to secure funding to deploy the infrastructure necessary to make use of spectrum for wireless broadband purposes. Millions of Americans do not have access to broadband. Within the Universal Service Fund, FCC's high-cost program provided about $5 billion in 2019 to telecommunications carriers to support broadband deployment in unserved areas where the cost to provide broadband service is high. In 2011, FCC established five performance goals and related measures for the high-cost program. GAO was asked to review the high-cost program's performance goals and measures. This report examines: (1) the extent to which the program's performance goals and measures align with leading practices to enable the effective use of performance information and (2) the key challenges selected stakeholders believe FCC faces in meeting the program's goals. GAO reviewed FCC's program goals and measures and assessed them against applicable criteria, including GAO's leading practices for successful performance measures. GAO interviewed FCC officials and representatives from industry, tribal carriers, consumer advocates, and other stakeholders, to obtain a variety of non-generalizable viewpoints. GAO is making four recommendations, including that FCC should ensure its high-cost program's performance goals and measures align with leading practices and publicly report on progress measured toward the goals. FCC concurred with all four recommendations. For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah at (202) 512-2834 or vonaha@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    This is the French language highlights associated with GAO-21-359. Constats du GAO Au 31 mars 2020, l’Agence des États-Unis pour le développement international (USAID) et les Centres des États-Unis pour le contrôle et la prévention des maladies (CDC) ensemble avaient alloué un total de plus de 1,2 milliard de dollars et avaient décaissé environ 1 milliard pour financer des activités de sécurité sanitaire mondiale (global health security - GHS), sur des fonds affectés durant les années fiscales 2015 à 2019. L’USAID et les CDC ont soutenu des activités de renforcement des capacités des pays dans 11 domaines techniques en rapport avec la lutte contre les maladies infectieuses. Les fonds engagés ont soutenu des activités de GHS dans pas moins de 34 pays, dont 25 étaient partenaires du Programme d’action pour la sécurité sanitaire mondiale (Global Health Security Agenda - GHSA). Activités soutenues par les États-Unis en Éthiopie pour renforcer la sécurité sanitaire mondiale Les évaluations de responsables officiels des États-Unis portant sur les capacités de 17 pays partenaires du GHSA à faire face aux menaces des maladies infectieuses révèlent qu’à la fin de l’année fiscale 2019, la plupart de ces pays avaient des capacités dans chacun des 11 domaines techniques retenus mais connaissaient diverses difficultés. Les équipes-pays interinstitutionnelles américaines réalisent des évaluations de capacités bisannuelles dont le personnel du siège de l’USAID et des CDC se sert pour assurer un suivi des progrès des pays. Selon les évaluations de l’année fiscale 2019, 14 pays avaient développé ou démontré des capacités dans la plupart des domaines techniques. Les rapports ont démontré par ailleurs que la plupart des capacités de ces pays étaient restées stables ou avaient augmenté par rapport à 2016 et 2017. C’est dans le domaine technique de la résistance aux antimicrobiens qu’ont été enregistrées les plus fortes augmentations de capacités, par exemple dans la mise en place de systèmes de surveillance. Dans son analyse des rapports, le GAO a constaté que les difficultés les plus fréquentes en matière de renforcement des capacités de GHS étaient les faiblesses des institutions de l’État et le manque de ressources et de capital humain. Selon des responsables officiels, certaines de ces difficultés peuvent être résolues par plus de financement, d’assistance technique ou d’efforts diplomatiques des États-Unis, mais beaucoup d’autres restent en dehors du control du gouvernement des États-Unis. Ceci est une version publique d’un rapport confidentiel émis par le GAO en février 2021; les informations jugées sensibles par l’USAID et les CDC en ont été omises. Pourquoi cette étude du GAO La survenue de la maladie à coronavirus (COVID-19) en décembre 2019 a démontré que les maladies infectieuses peuvent causer des pertes de vie catastrophiques et infliger des dommages durables à l’économie mondiale. L’USAID et les CDC dirigent les efforts déployés par les États-Unis pour renforcer la sécurité sanitaire mondiale, à savoir la capacité mondiale à se préparer à lutter contre les maladies infectieuses, à les détecter et à y riposter, ainsi qu’à réduire ou à prévenir leur propagation sur le plan international. Ces efforts comprennent des activités liées au GHSA, qui vise à accélérer l’obtention de progrès en matière de respect des règlements et autres accords mondiaux relatifs à la santé. Le rapport 114-693 de la Chambre des représentants prévoyait un examen, par le Government Accountability Office (GAO), de l’emploi des fonds de GHS. Dans ce rapport, le GAO examine, pour les 5 années fiscales précédant le début de la pandémie de COVID-19 : 1) l’état des financements et des activités de l’USAID et des CDC relatifs à la GHS et 2) des évaluations d’organismes des États -Unis, réalisées à la fin de l’année fiscale 2019, portant sur les capacités des pays partenaires du GHSA à faire face aux menaces des maladies infectieuses et sur les difficultés que ces pays ont dû relever pour renforcer leurs capacités. Le GAO a analysé des documents d’organismes des États-Unis et d’organismes internationaux. Le GAO a aussi interviewé des responsables officiels à Washington et à Atlanta (Géorgie) ainsi qu’en Ethiopie, en Indonésie, au Sénégal et au Viet Nam. Le GAO a choisi ces pays sur la base de critères tels que la présence de personnel de multiples organismes des États-Unis. Le GAO a également analysé des évaluations interinstitutionnelles des capacités des pays à faire face aux menaces des maladies infectieuses durant l’année fiscale 2019 et les a comparées aux données de référence de 2016 et 2017. Pour plus d’informations, s’adresser à David Gootnick au (202) 512-3149 ou à gootnickd@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Individuals who receive assistance from the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program may also become eligible for Medicaid. SSI provides cash assistance to eligible individuals who are over age 65, blind, or disabled; and who have limited resources (i.e., assets) and income. Medicaid programs in 42 states and the District of Columbia use the SSI asset limit of $2,000 for an individual or $3,000 for a married couple. Medicaid programs in the remaining eight states may set an asset limit that differs from the current SSI asset limit. The Social Security Administration (SSA), which administers the SSI program, and state Medicaid programs electronically verify the assets of these individuals when determining financial eligibility: In the 42 states and the District of Columbia that use the SSI asset limit, SSA is the entity that verifies applicants' assets. SSA has two data sources to detect assets among SSI beneficiaries. The first data source is the Access to Financial Institutions initiative. This initiative verifies reported bank accounts and can detect potential undisclosed accounts from financial institutions within geographic proximity of an SSI recipient's residence. The second data source is Non-home Real Property, which uses a commercial data source to help investigate potential ownership of real property other than a primary residence. In the eight states that may set their own asset limits, the state's Medicaid program must verify Medicaid eligibility for SSI recipients using an electronic asset verification system (AVS). An AVS provides a portal between state eligibility systems and banks or other third-party systems with electronic access to financial information. Once a state has an AVS in place, state eligibility workers can submit a request through the portal to perform an asset check for a Medicaid applicant. The request is sent to different financial institutions. A vendor gathers the information from the financial institutions and returns it to the state, and eligibility workers use the information to make an eligibility determination. Some states also use their AVS to check on applicants' property information, which may come from commercial data sources. Why GAO Did This Study GAO was asked to review the use of electronic asset verification to determine eligibility for selected Medicaid beneficiaries. This report provides an overview of what is known about how state Medicaid programs verify assets of applicants who are eligible because they receive SSI, and how SSA verifies assets of SSI applicants, among other issues. To describe what is known about how state Medicaid programs and SSA verify applicants' assets, GAO reviewed its prior work, as well as related research by other organizations. GAO also obtained input from officials from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and SSA; and reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and guidance. The Department of Health and Human Services and SSA reviewed a draft of this report and provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Carolyn L. Yocom at (202) 512-7114 or yocomc@gao.gov.
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  • Medicare Part B: Payments and Use for Selected New, High-Cost Drugs
    In U.S GAO News
    Hospital outpatient departments perform a wide range of procedures, including diagnostic and surgical procedures, which may use drugs that Medicare considers to function as supplies. If the drug is new, and its cost is high relative to Medicare's payment for the procedure, then hospitals can receive a separate “pass-through” payment for the drug in addition to Medicare's payment for the procedure. These pass-through payments are in effect for 2 to 3 years. When the pass-through payments expire, Medicare no longer pays separately for the drug, and payment for the drug is “packaged” with the payment for the related procedure. The payment rate for the procedure does not vary by whether or not the drug is used. Medicare intends this payment rate to be an incentive for hospitals to furnish services efficiently, such as using the most cost-efficient items that meet the patient's needs. Examples of Types of Drugs that Medicare Considers to Function as Supplies GAO's analysis of Medicare data showed that higher payments were associated with six of seven selected drugs when they were eligible for pass-through payments versus when their payments were packaged. For example, one drug used in cataract removal procedures was eligible for pass-through payments in 2017. That year, Medicare paid $1,824 for the procedure and $463 for the drug pass-through payment—a total payment of $2,287. If a hospital performed the same cataract removal procedure when the drug was packaged the following year, there was no longer a separate payment for the drug. Instead, Medicare paid $1,921 for the procedure whether or not the hospital used the drug. Of the seven selected drugs, GAO also reviewed differences in use for four of them that did not have limitations on Medicare coverage during the time frame of GAO's analysis, such as coverage that was limited to certain clinical trials. GAO found that hospitals' use of three of the four drugs was lower when payments for the drugs were packaged. This was consistent with the financial incentives created by the payment system. In particular, given the lower total payment for the drug and procedure when the drug is packaged, hospitals may have a greater incentive to use a lower-cost alternative for the procedure. Hospitals' use of a fourth drug increased regardless of payment status. The financial incentives for that drug appeared minimal because the total payment for it and its related procedure was about the same when it was eligible for pass-through payments and when packaged. Other factors that can affect use of the drugs include the use of the drugs for certain populations and whether hospitals put the drugs on their formularies, which guide, in part, whether the drug is used at that hospital. The Department of Health and Human Services reviewed a draft of this report and provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. Medicare makes “pass-through” payments under Medicare Part B when hospital outpatient departments use certain new, high-cost drugs. These temporary payments are in addition to Medicare's payments for the procedures using the drugs. They may help make the new drugs accessible for beneficiaries and also allow Medicare to collect information on the drugs' use and costs. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018 included a provision for GAO to review the effect of Medicare's policy for packaging high-cost drugs after their pass-through payments have expired. This report describes (1) the payments associated with selected high-cost drugs when eligible for pass-through payments versus when packaged, and (2) hospitals' use of those drugs when eligible for pass-through payments versus when packaged. GAO reviewed federal regulations on pass-through payments and Medicare payment files for all seven drugs whose pass-through payments expired in 2017 or 2018 and that were subsequently packaged. All of these drugs met Medicare's definition for having a high cost relative to Medicare's payment rate for the procedure using the drug. GAO also reviewed Medicare claims data on the use of the drugs for 2017 through 2019 (the most recent available). To supplement this information, GAO also interviewed Medicare officials, as well officials from 11 organizations representing hospitals, physicians, and drug manufacturers, about payment rates, use, reporting, and clinical context for the drugs. For more information, contact James Cosgrove at (202) 512-7114 or cosgrovej@gao.gov.
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