Department Press Briefing – April 30, 2021

Jalina Porter, Principal Deputy Spokesperson

2:00 p.m. EDT

(ON THE RECORD/OFF-CAMERA UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED)

MS PORTER:  Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for joining this afternoon’s briefing.  I have one update at the top, and then we’ll start taking your questions.

Today, Secretary Blinken announced his travel to London, UK and Kyiv, Ukraine.  In London, May 3rd to 5th, the Secretary will attend the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ Meeting.  As the Secretary has said, wherever the rules for international security and the global economy are being written, America will be there to represent the interests of the American people.  The G7 is a crucial forum for that effort.

The Secretary is looking forward to discussing the democratic values that we share with our G7 partners and addressing key geopolitical issues we face as we build back better from this pandemic.  Tackling the COVID-19 and climate crisis will feature prominently on the agenda as well as advancing economic growth, human rights, food security, gender equality, and women’s and girls’ empowerment.

While in London, the Secretary will meet with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Raab to discuss shared U.S.-UK priorities on various global issues and affirm the strong alliance between our countries.

The Secretary will then travel to Kyiv, May 5th through 6th.  There he’ll meet with President Zelenskyy and Foreign Minister Kuleba as well as other officials and representatives of Ukrainian civil society.  He will reaffirm unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression.  He will also encourage continued progress on Ukraine’s institutional reform and anti-corruption agenda, which is key to securing Ukraine’s democratic institutions, economic prosperity, and Euro-Atlantic future.

Now with that, I’ll give it a few minutes for those who are still calling in, and then we’ll begin to take your questions.

Let’s go to the line of Casey O’Neill.

QUESTION:  Thanks, Jalina.  Happy Friday, and thanks so much for doing this.  Two questions for you.  First on personnel, I know last night Ambassador Nuland was confirmed by the Senate to serve as Under Secretary for Political Affairs.  Just curious as to when she’s starting.  Was today her first day?  I know that on the public schedule it still indicated that Under Secretary Hale was on the job.

And then secondly on COVID restrictions and the travel of State Department personnel, I know that of course you have announced Secretary Blinken’s travel to Ukraine and the UK.  I’m just wondering – of course, he recently virtually traveled to the African continent.  I’m just wondering what kind of message the Department is sending when the Secretary is virtually traveling some places and others he’s actually physically traveling.  Is there a matrix or guidelines that you all are using to determine when the Secretary is virtually traveling?  I’m just kind of looking for some insight into how those decisions are made.  Thanks.

MS PORTER:  Thank you for your question.  I will start with your second question first.  So, yes, as you noted, the Secretary has not only done virtual travel to Africa, but he’s done several virtual visits as well as some in-person visits.  And we’ll continue to underscore that the health and safety of State Department personnel – obviously with Secretary Blinken included in that – is our highest priority.  And when he’s traveling on these trips and when staff are accommodating him as well as members of the press corps, we are following stringent COVID protocols.

But when it comes to all of our visits, we consider that an accomplishment to everything we’re doing to advance diplomacy.  And everything that we’ve done in the first 100 days, including our climate summit that we participated in as well.  So I wouldn’t say that any one is more important than the other, but are continuing to make sure that when we do our visits, whether they’re in-person, that we are abiding by COVID restrictions, but we’re also making sure that we are engaging diplomatically virtually as well to make sure that we are upholding safety and security.

And when it comes to your question on Ambassador Nuland, we don’t have any other personnel announcements.  Other than that, we are very excited for her to join us here at the State Department, but we don’t have anything to announce as far as her first day on the job.

Let’s go to the line of Jiha Ham.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Can you hear me?

MS PORTER:  Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION:  Hi, Jalina.  My question is about the policy review on North Korea.  It looks like you have completed the review.  Could you tell us whether you are going to formally announce and share the details of this new policy?  Also, about a month ago, we learned that the U.S. reached out to the North Korean Government through several channels in February.  I’m wondering if you have tried to reach out again and share this new policy.  Thank you.

MS PORTER:  Thanks for your question.  When it comes to specifics of the policy, I won’t be previewing any of that from here, but what I will say is that – to confirm that we have completed our DPRK policy review which was thorough, rigorous, and inclusive as well.  And we have consulted closely with not only outside experts, but our predecessors from several previous administrations.  And our way forward simply draws from their lessons learned and shared.  I’ll just continue to underscore that our ultimate goal remains clear, and that is complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Go to the line of Simon Ateba.

QUESTION:  Simon Ateba for Today’s News Africa in Washington, D.C.  Thank you for taking my question.  And it’s almost a follow-up to the previous question, if Africa is really a priority for the Biden administration.  We know that the Secretary of State just had a virtual trip to Africa, and Africa has the lowest infection and dead – COVID-19 dead.  So I was wondering why he chose to travel virtually in Africa, and then travel in person to Europe.  Thank you.

MS PORTER:  Thank you for your question.  I’d love to reiterate that Africa is absolutely a priority the Biden administration and certainly a priority for Secretary Blinken.  And as you noted well, he met with President Kenyatta as well as President Buhari, and he also wanted to make sure that he met with Africa’s youth from the Young African Leaders Initiative across the continent.  And obviously, this demographic certainly represents a cohort of Africa’s population, a large cohort that is, and it’s a very dynamic population as well.  And again, as we’ve engaged early on in this administration with our African partners, you also probably remember that President Biden has addressed on occasion the African Union Summit as well.

So we’re continuing to make sure that we engage – not only engage regularly and openly, but consistently with our partners, because we do have shared interests and shared values.  And of course, again, I’ll continue to underscore that Africa is certainly a priority for the Biden administration.

Let’s go to the line of Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION:  Hi Jalina, thanks for doing this.  On India, I was wondering if you had any additional details on the authorized departure for family members of the mission there, and whether the State Department will be providing charters or if they’re expected to rely on commercial options.  Is the State Department considering chartering any flights for American citizens who are looking to leave that country?  Thank you.

MS PORTER:  Thanks, Jen.  I don’t have anything to announce or update at this time when it comes to authorized departures in India.

Let’s go to the line of Rosiland Jordan, please.

QUESTION:  Hi, Jalina.  Happy Friday.  First, a housekeeping question:  Will there be any briefings here in Washington next week, either in person or on the phone?  Then a policy question:  Is there a department reaction to the decision to postpone the elections in the Palestinian territories?  Thanks.

MS PORTER:  Well, I’ll just reach your second question.  Thank you, Rosiland.  As we’ve said before, obviously, the exercise of democratic elections matter for the Palestinian people, and it’s a matter for them to determine as well as their leadership to determine as well.  But we also encourage all parties to remain calm in the process.

As far as just housekeeping, we definitely regularly host our Friday briefings telephonically, so we’ll have that.  And we will brief next week telephonically where I’ll be happy to let you know offline what days those will be as well.

Let’s go to the line of Said Arikat.

QUESTION:  Jalina, thank you for taking my question.  Can you hear me?  Hello?

MS PORTER:  Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Just to follow up on Rosiland – on Ros’ question on the election.  Now, look, Palestinian Jerusalemites to vote is something that the United States basically ironed out and helped work out – the Clinton administration, then the Bush administration.  So why can’t you call on the Israelis to allow Palestinian Jerusalemites to vote, as the Bush administration had and so on, as the European Union?  Because that definitely will be (inaudible).  Thank you.

MS PORTER:  Thank you, Said.  Well, I certainly don’t want to comment on the posture of previous administrations and their decisions, but I’d be happy to repeat again that the democratic process and the composition of the democratic elections – excuse me – is a matter for the Palestinian people, and it’s a matter of their leadership to determine.

Let’s go to the line of Mouhamed Elahmed.

OPERATOR:  Mouhamed, your line is open.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Yes, hi.  Thanks, Jalina.  I have a question about Afghanistan.  The Taliban spokesperson posted a Tweet a couple of minutes ago in which he said that a delegation of Taliban participated in expanded Troika meeting in Doha, and that the meeting was attended by the Special Representative for Afghanistan, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, as well as officials from Russia, China, and Pakistan.  My question is:  Do you have any readout that you could share about this meeting?  And how would this meeting add to the efforts for the preparation of the Istanbul Conference?

And also on Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, how long does he plan to stay in the region, whether he’s going to – is he going to stay in the region till the upcoming Istanbul conference?  Thank you so much.

MS PORTER:  Thank you for your questions.  As far as the meeting, we don’t have a readout for that at this time.  But when it comes to the Istanbul conference, of course, we’ve seen the announcement that the conference is being postponed, and of course, we’re looking forward to a later date.  But as far as the specific details, I would just have to refer you to the organizers of the conference – obviously, the governments of Turkey and Qatar and the UN – for any additional details.

Let’s go to the line of Henry Kohn.

QUESTION:  Hi, this is Henry Kohn of Today News Africa.  Thank you for taking my question.  So subsequent to the Secretary’s calls with the foreign ministers of Morocco and Algeria, I’d like to ask how – what is the U.S.’s approach to promoting security and economic prosperity in North Africa, and is this, in the Biden administration’s view, different than the previous administration?

And then secondly, in the readout of the Secretary’s call with the Moroccan foreign minister, it says that the Secretary encouraged Morocco to reaffirm its commitment to protecting and promoting human rights.  And my question is: What specifically in terms of human rights in Morocco is the U.S. concerned about, and was Western Sahara brought up in this conversation?  Thank you.

MS PORTER:  So when it comes to Western Sahara, we are consulting privately with parties on how to best halt the violence there.  There is nothing specific to read out and what you just mentioned, but we would also talk about having the goal to achieve a lasting settlement.  Anything beyond that, I don’t have anything further to announce at this time.

Let’s go to the line of Luis Rojas.

QUESTION:  Hi, Jalina.  Can you hear me?

MS PORTER:  Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION:  Thank you, thank you, and Happy Friday.  Next Monday is World Press Freedom Day.  Secretary Blinken has spoken of the United States working to expand access to information for the people of Venezuela, so community journalist projects.  Can you explain what is this project on, what is the point of priority of the United States in these points?

Second, (inaudible) in hunger strike ask for Cuba Government to respect his rights and return his (inaudible).  Any comment from the United States Government on this situation?  Thank you.

Hello?

MS PORTER:  Hi.  Yes, some of your question cut out, but I think you started the question by touching on World Press Freedom Day.  Of course, the United States supports a free and open press and democratic society, that we know that when journalists and the media are able to do their job, they are able to not only inform the public, but they’re able to expose corruption and human rights abuses.  And of course, the United States stands firm in holding human rights abusers accountable so that whether that’s in Venezuela or whether that’s anywhere else in the world.

But I think specifically when it comes to Venezuela, we’ll just reiterate that we stand with the people of Venezuela as they continue to struggle for democracy and rule of law.  And we also are committed to working with our Venezuelan as well as international partners to foster an environment where all Venezuelans can have a peaceful course during their current crisis.

Let’s go to the line of Tejinder Singh..

OPERATOR:  Tejinder Singh, your line is open.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  I have just two short questions.  One is:  We are sending these planeloads of material to India.  But our journalist in Delhi is reporting that even after trying for two days he’s been unable to find out who is taking away the oxygen concentration, medicines, or how much is arriving.  There’s no website or transparent system where people can apply to get this.  So this accountability for the U.S. taxpayers’ money being sent, is there anything being done to check on how it is being distributed, the aid that we are sending?

MS PORTER:  Well, we certainly want to assure our partners in India that not only are we committed to supporting them in this time of crisis, but help is there right now and additional help is on the way, and obviously that would include an array of supplies, including our oxygen – oxygen cylinders, regulators, and pulse oximeters, as well as N95 masks to make sure that we’re protecting India’s frontline health care workers.

As far as a specific website when it comes to tracking, we have nothing to read out or announce at this time.  But rest assured that the United States is committed to making sure that our partners in India are taken care of in this crisis.

We’ll take one last question from Rich Edson.

QUESTION:  Real quick.  Just wondering if you can confirm or comment this report that just came out from CNN that on the advice of the Centers for Disease Control, the Biden administration is going to restrict travel from India starting May 4th, which would be next week.  Thank you.

MS PORTER:  Thanks for the question, Rich.  We have nothing to announce on that.  And I’d have to refer you to the White House for any other questions.

Thank you all for joining this afternoon.  That concludes this afternoon’s briefing.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:23 p.m.)

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Over half of schools reported on their websites that amounts were based on individual circumstances, such as students’ general financial need, access to essential items such as food or housing, or a combination of these factors. About 20 percent of schools also reported using full-time or part-time status to determine aid amounts. For example, a 4-year public school reported that it distributed grants, ranging from $150 to $1,000, to all eligible students based on their enrollment status and financial need based on students’ FAFSA information. Why GAO Did This Study In June 2020, GAO issued the first of a series of reports on federal efforts to address the pandemic, which included a discussion of HEERF student aid grants to schools. At that time, limited information on how schools distributed HEERF funds to students was available. This report provides additional information and examines (1) how HEERF emergency student aid funds were provided to schools under the CARES Act, and (2) how schools distributed emergency student aid to eligible students. GAO analyzed Education’s obligation data as of November 2020, after Education had obligated most of the HEERF emergency student aid funds. GAO also analyzed information about HEERF student aid that Education requires schools to report on their websites by selecting a generalizable random sample of 203 schools for website reviews. These schools were representative of the more than 4,500 schools that received HEERF student aid funds as of August 2020. GAO also collected non-generalizable narrative details about how schools distributed funds to eligible students.
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    From fiscal years 2014 through 2018, veterans left federal government jobs at a higher rate than non-veterans, according to GAO analysis of Office of Personnel Management (OPM) data. After controlling for key demographic and employment factors, GAO estimated that on average, 6.7 percent of veterans left the federal government compared to 5 percent of similar non-veterans. While veterans primarily left to retire, veterans resigned from federal service at 1.6 times the rate of similar non-veterans. GAO also estimated that 18.7 percent of veterans resigned within their first 5 years of federal service compared to 11.1 percent of similar non-veterans. Each of the 24 Chief Financial Officer Act agencies experienced higher rates of attrition among veteran employees than similar non-veteran employees. GAO identified six workplace factors associated with veterans' intentions to leave federal service. These factors—or drivers of retention—are based on an analysis of data from the OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (OPM FEVS), a tool for collecting employees' perceptions of their federal work experiences. Key Workplace Factors Associated with Veterans Considering Leaving Federal Service More than half of both veterans and non-veterans reported being satisfied with five of the six factors. More than half of both veterans and non-veterans reported not being satisfied with opportunities for advancement at their agencies. Overall we found that veterans were slightly less satisfied with these factors than non-veterans, which could in part explain the higher attrition rates for veterans. Improvements in employee satisfaction in these areas may lead to higher retention rates. Performing analyses similar to those in this report could help agencies identify and strengthen strategies for improving veteran retention. However, challenges exist for agencies using OPM FEVS data on their own to identify drivers of retention among their workforces. OPM could help agencies with these analyses so they could use data to address veteran retention issues and other workforce challenges. Approximately 200,000 servicemembers transition from military service to civilian life each year, according to the Department of Defense. A 2009 executive order created a government-wide initiative to increase veteran federal employment. While veteran hiring has increased since 2009, OPM has raised concerns about retention and job satisfaction of newly hired veterans. GAO was asked to analyze veteran federal employment data. This report analyzes (1) recent trends in attrition for veterans and non-veterans, and (2) key factors that may affect a veteran employee's decision to leave federal employment. GAO conducted a statistical analysis comparing attrition for veterans and similar non-veterans for fiscal years 2014 through 2018 (the most current data available). GAO conducted a literature review to identify potential drivers of retention and used regression methods to analyze OPM FEVS data to identify key drivers for veterans and non-veterans. GAO also interviewed OPM officials and veteran service organizations. GAO recommends that OPM assist the 24 CFO Act agencies by using OPM FEVS data to analyze the key drivers of veterans' retention. OPM partially concurred with the recommendation because of concerns about its scope and, in response, we modified it. For more information, contact Yvonne D. Jones at (202) 512-2717 or jonesy@gao.gov.
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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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  • Hanford Cleanup: DOE’s Efforts to Close Tank Farms Would Benefit from Clearer Legal Authorities and Communication
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Energy (DOE) has retrieved nuclear waste from all the tanks at C-farm—the first of 18 tank farms (i.e., groupings of tanks) at DOE's Hanford site in southeastern Washington State. The waste is a byproduct of decades of nuclear weapons production and research. DOE is obligated under agreements with the state's Department of Ecology (Ecology) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to move waste from older, single-shell tanks to newer, more durable, double-shell tanks and ultimately to dispose of it. Example of a Tank and of Waste in a Tank at Hanford DOE intends to “close” the C-farm by leaving the nearly empty tanks in place and filling them with grout. However, DOE faces challenges, in part because this approach depends on: (1) DOE's determination under its directives that residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than high-level waste (HLW) and (2) Ecology's approval. DOE has started the determination process, but as GAO has previously found, DOE is likely to face a lawsuit because of questions about its legal authority. Ecology has raised concerns that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not independently reviewed DOE's analysis for this determination. By Congress clarifying DOE's authority at Hanford to determine, with NRC involvement, that residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than HLW, DOE would be in a better position to move forward. Another challenge DOE faces in closing C-farm is how to address contaminated soil caused by leaks or discharges of waste from the tanks. DOE and Ecology officials do not agree on a process for evaluating contaminated soil at C-farm or on what role NRC should play in this process. They interpret their agreement differently, particularly regarding whether NRC must review DOE's analysis of contaminated soil. If the two parties cannot resolve this issue, Ecology may deny DOE a permit for C-farm closure. By using an independent mediator to help reach agreement with Ecology on how to assess soil contamination, including NRC's role, DOE would be better positioned to avoid future cleanup delays. DOE has not developed a long-term plan for tank-farm closure, in part, because a plan is not required. However, leading practices in program management call for long-term planning. In addition, DOE faces technical challenges that may take years to address as noted by representatives from various entities or tribal governments. For example, an internal DOE document states there is a 95 percent probability DOE will run out of space in its double shell tanks—space needed to continue retrieval operations. Planning for and building new tanks requires years of work. By developing a long-term plan, DOE could better prepare to address technical challenges. The Hanford site in Washington State contains about 54 million gallons of nuclear waste, which is stored in 177 underground storage tanks. In fiscal years 1997 through 2019, DOE spent over $10 billion to maintain Hanford's tanks and retrieve waste from them. DOE expects to spend at least $69 billion more on activities to retrieve tank waste and close tanks, according to a January 2019 DOE report. Senate Report 116-48, accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, included a provision for GAO to review the status of tank closures at Hanford. GAO's report examines the status of DOE's efforts to retrieve tank waste, challenges DOE faces in its effort to close the C-farm, as well as DOE's approach for closing the remaining tank farms. GAO toured the site; reviewed DOE documents, laws, and regulations; and interviewed officials and representatives from local, regional, and national entities and tribal governments. Congress should consider clarifying DOE's authority at Hanford to determine, with NRC involvement, whether residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than HLW. GAO is also making three recommendations, including that DOE (1) use an independent mediator to help reach agreement with Ecology on a process for assessing soil contamination, including NRC's role and (2) develop a long-term plan for its tank waste cleanup mission at Hanford. DOE concurred with all three recommendations. For more information, contact David C. Trimble at (202) 512-3841 or trimbled@gao.gov.
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