Department Press Briefing – February 19, 2021

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

Washington, D.C.

2:38 p.m. EST

MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone. We have a couple items at the top. I wanted to start with recent events in Burma.

We are saddened to see media reports that a protester shot by police in Nay Pyi Taw on February 9th has died, marking the first reported death as a result of security forces’ response to the protests. We offer our condolences to her family and all those injured during the peaceful protests in Burma.

We condemn any violence against the people of Burma and reiterate our calls on the Burmese military to refrain from violence against peaceful protesters. We applaud yesterday’s announcement of sanctions by the United Kingdom and Canada against the Burmese military leaders responsible for the coup. As President Biden and Secretary Blinken have both said, the United States will continue to lead the diplomatic effort to galvanize the international community into collective action against those responsible for this coup.

Yesterday, Secretary Blinken discussed the situation in Burma with his counterparts from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. They condemned the coup and called on the military leaders to immediately end the state of emergency, restore power to the democratically elected government, release all those unjustly detained, and respect human rights and the rule of law.

Separately, Secretary Blinken and leaders from Australia, India, and Japan – also yesterday – discussed the urgent need to restore the democratically elected government in Burma. The United States will continue to stand with the people of Burma. We will work with partners and allies to press the Burmese military to reverse its actions and to help the people of Burma realize their aspirations for peace, democracy, and the rule of law.

Now moving on to China, the United States joins the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, and other countries in expressing concern with China’s recently enacted Coast Guard law, which may escalate ongoing territorial and maritime disputes.

We are specifically concerned by language in the law that expressly ties the potential use of force, including armed force by the China Coast Guard, to the enforcement of China’s claims in ongoing territorial and maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas.

Language in that law, including text allowing the coast guard to destroy other countries’ economic structures and to use force in defending China’s maritime claims in disputed areas, strongly implies this law could be used to intimidate the PRC’s maritime neighbors.

We remind the PRC and all whose force operates – whose forces operate in the South China Sea that responsible maritime forces act with professionalism and restraint in the exercise of their authorities.

We are further concerned that China may invoke this new law to assert its unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea, which were thoroughly repudiated by the 2016 Arbitral Tribal ruling. In this regard, the United States reaffirms its statement of July 13th, 2020 regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea.

The United States reminds China of its obligations under the United Nations Charter to refrain from the threat or use of force, and to conform its maritime claims to the International Law of the Sea, as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. We stand firm in our respective alliance commitments to Japan and the Philippines.

So with that, Operator, if you want to offer instructions for questions, we’ll turn to questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question please select one then zero on your telephone keypad. You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating the one-zero command. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please select one then zero at this time.

MR PRICE: Great. We will go to the line of Matt Lee, please.

QUESTION: Thanks a lot. I’m just wondering, before I get to my questions, is it possible – could you ask the press office or someone to send us the lines that you just gave on Burma and China, just like to send out as a – it doesn’t have to be a written statement or anything but just send the lines.

MR PRICE: Okay.

QUESTION: That’s at the very top – if you could, that would be great. If not, I guess it’s all right.

But anyway, I wanted to ask about Iran and yesterday. So in the letter that was sent to the UN and also in the call, you guys didn’t explain – although I don’t think you were asked, but I would like you to ask now – to explain why it is that you guys withdrew the September decisions by the previous administration. Was it because that you agreed with the opponents, which is most of the world, that the previous – the United States under the previous administration did not have standing to invoke snapback, or was it that you did not think – or you don’t think that Iran is in significant non-performance with its obligations under the JCPOA? Or is it a combination of both?

And then related to that, because of the withdrawal, does that mean that you guys are okay with countries – say, Russia, China, others – buying and selling weapons from Iran? Because in withdrawing snapback, that means that the arms embargo was supposed to expire – which, remember, was the proximate cause for the previous administration’s decision to invoke it in the first place – withdrawing it means that that embargo is lifted. Thank you.

MR PRICE: Great. Well, thanks for that question, Matt. Let me start with one of the final elements first, and I will say to that: Regardless of the UN’s Iran sanctions architecture, we will continue to use our authorities to dissuade countries from providing arms to Iran. So there is certainly no change in our posture there at all.

When it comes to our – the UN actions that were undertaken yesterday, let me just say a couple broad words. The steps we took were intended to remove unnecessary obstacles to diplomacy. We removed recent restrictions on domestic travel for Iranian representatives at the UN, and we’re providing written notification to the Security Council that the United States no longer assesses the snapback of Iran-related UNSCRs has occurred. By reversing the previous administration’s imposition of additional movement restrictions on Iranian representatives, we are bringing domestic travel controls on Iranian representatives back in line with those on several other missions to the UN. This is indeed a return to our longstanding posture with regards to domestic travel of Iranian representatives to the UN.

Now, when it comes to snapback, snapback, as you know, Matt, was designed to help ensure Iran performed its JCPOA commitments. At present, no other members of the Security Council agree that previously terminated provisions of prior resolutions, in fact, snapped back in December, despite the position of the previous administration. When we were out of step with the other members of the Security Council, that deadlock weakened our ability to address Iran’s destabilizing activities. And reversing our snapback position, we calculated, would strengthen our ability to engage with the Security Council and with our closest allies and partners around the world on Iran. Indeed, reversing our snapback position, it strengthens our ability to engage with the Security Council on Iran, given that no other Security Council member agreed that snapback had occurred. So once again, we are on the same page with our close allies and our close partners with the steps that we took yesterday.

Great. With that, we will go to the line of Simon Lewis of Reuters.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask about the Australian Facebook issues. Australia has said they’re going to bring in laws for Facebook to pay news outlets for content. And he said – the Australian prime minister said that they’ve received support from world leaders on this issue. I’m wondering if that includes the United States, and does the State Department have a position on that particular issue?

MR PRICE: Well, what I would say, Simon, is that this is a business negotiation between multiple private companies and the Australian Government. Any questions on the status and implications of private business decisions should be directed towards those companies. As I think you know, the United States Government, we do regularly engage in support of U.S. companies, but we don’t generally share the specifics of that engagement. So I think we will leave it there.

We will go to the line of – let’s see – we’ll go to the line of Cindy Saine.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) please talk about the U.S. decision to de-link its suspension of millions of dollars of aid to Ethiopia over its dispute with Egypt over the dam project? And does this mean some aid will start to flow? And if so, how much? Thank you.

MR PRICE: So Cindy, the United States has decided to de-link its temporary pause on certain assistance to Ethiopia from the United States policy on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD. We have informed the Ethiopian Government of this decision. The resumption of temporarily paused assistance programs will be assessed based on a number of factors. We are committed to providing lifesaving assistance to those in need, and humanitarian assistance does remain exempt from the pause.

When it comes to specific amounts, the amount of State and AID security and development assistance currently impacted by the temporary pause on certain foreign assistance is approximately $272 million, and that includes funding from FY 2020 and prior fiscal years.

We’ll go the line of Will Mauldin.

QUESTION: I just wanted to ask a couple things, one real quickly: You mentioned the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Is that something that the Biden administration backs re-entering? Because, of course, the U.S., I don’t believe is in that but follows some of the traditional rules.

And then second, President Biden today talks a lot about working very closely with Europe in regards to China and Russia, but on the other hand, there are real divides with Germany wanting to complete the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and Europe wanting to finish up this investment deal with China. Were those two issues discussed in terms of – with President Biden or Secretary Blinken and their counterparts about whether there is any wiggle room on those plans?

MR PRICE: So first, when it comes to maritime claims, especially in this context, I would repeat what we said at the outset, and that is that we reaffirm the statement of July 13th, 2020 regarding China’s unlawful and excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea. Our position on the PRC’s maritime claims remains aligned with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal’s finding that China has no lawful claim in areas it found to be in the Philippines exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.

We also reject any PRC claim to waters beyond the 12 nautical mile territorial sea from islands it claims in the Spratlys. China’s harassment in these areas of other claimants, state hydrocarbon exploration or fishing activity, or unilateral exploitation of those maritime resources is unlawful.

When it comes to Nord Stream, and this is something that we’ve talked about quite a bit in recent days, I wouldn’t want to characterize private discussions, but I am happy to reiterate again where we are on this. Our allies know this, our partners know this, and that is very important to us that we be clear on this. We’ve been clear for some time that Nord Stream 2 is a bad deal and that companies risk sanctions if they are involved. But as we said, we don’t preview any potential sanctions. We’ll continue to work with our allies and partners to ensure that Europe has a reliable, diversified energy supply network that doesn’t undermine our collective security. Our goal in all of this is to reinforce European energy security and safeguard against predatory behavior.

When it comes to the report you referenced, we’ve been in touch with Congress regarding it. The Secretary has been clear on the need for productive and constructive relationship with members of Congress. We certainly understand Congress’s legitimate interest in this issue, and we’re committed to engaging with Congress to ensure they have the information requested in as timely a manner as possible.

So with that, we’ll go to Jiha Ham – or Jiha Lam.

QUESTION: Hello?

MR PRICE: Yes, yes. I think we have you.

QUESTION: Okay. This is Jiha Ham with VOA Korean. I would like to ask you, on South Korea and Japan. As Assistant Secretary Sung Kim had a meeting with these two, I was wondering if there was any concern raised by assistant secretary about the ongoing bilateral issues and tensions between South Korea and Japan. Was there any sort of effort from the United States to ease tensions of these two countries? Or do you have any plans to mediate these remaining difficulties?

And also, I would like to ask you if South Korea, Japan, and the United States are all on the same page in regard to their ideas approaching North Korea, like, any disagreements. Thanks.

MR PRICE: Yeah. Thank you for the question. I think what I would say is that we value our robust and productive trilateral relationship with Japan and the Republic of Korea as we work together to promote our shared commitment to freedom, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific region and across the globe.

As you noted – and I believe we issued a media note on this – Acting Assistant Secretary Sung Kim did take part in a trilateral meeting with our Korean and Japanese partners on this. As we’ve spoken about our approach to North Korea and the review we’re undertaking now, one of the central tenets even as we review that approach is that close coordination with our allies and partners.

And, of course, we have – two of our closest partners and in fact treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific are the South Koreans and the Japanese. We know that any approach to North Korea – one that puts denuclearization at the center, as we plan to do – won’t be effective if we are not working in tandem with our Japanese and Korean counterparts.

With that, why don’t we go to Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) if I may. Algeria just in the past couple of hours has announced the release of a number of pro-democracy activists. Wonder if you have any reaction on that.

And in Spain, there is a rapper, Pablo Hasel, who is being prosecuted over tweets about the monarchy. The incident has caused quite a few protests in Spain. Wondering if you have any comment on that and whether tweets and criticism of the monarchy should be the basis for prosecution. Thanks.

MR PRICE: Well, we’re aware of the arrest of Pablo Hasel and we are monitoring the situation. I don’t think we’re prepared to go beyond that at this point, and if we have any reaction to events in Algeria, we’d be happy to let you know on that front.

Demetri Sevastopulo.

OPERATOR: Demetri, your line is open. Demetri, please check your mute button.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MR PRICE: Yes, we have you now.

QUESTION: Sorry about that. Thanks, Ned. I have two quick questions about the Chinese coast guard law. Have you raised concern directly with Beijing? And secondly, has the U.S. seen any examples of concerning behavior since the law was passed in either the South China Sea or the East China Sea?

MR PRICE: For that, I think, Demetri, we would want to – we might want to refer you to DOD for instances of concerning behavior – for concerning behavior there. When it comes to the coast guard law, of course, we have been in close contact with our allies and partners, and we mentioned a few of them in this context: the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, and other countries that face the type of unacceptable PRC pressure in the South China Sea. I wouldn’t want to characterize any conversations with Beijing on this. Of course, we have emphasized that, especially at the outset of this administration, our – the first and foremost on our agenda is that coordination among our partners and allies, and we have certainly been engaged deeply in that.

We’ll go to Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) going back to Iran, if the Secretary or Special Envoy Malley or anyone at State has had any conversations with Mideast allies since last night’s announcement about coming back to the diplomatic table?

And then also on Iran, National Security Advisor Sullivan just a bit ago mentioned their move away to curb short-term inspections as a major concern of the U.S., and I’m wondering what the State Department feels (inaudible). And given that this is mandated by parliamentary law, do you feel that they can stop this action next week? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Well, thanks. I don’t think we have any additional calls to read out since last night. But I will make the point that this is – these have been consultations in coordination that have dated back really to the early hours of this administration. The President has made a number of calls to his foreign counterparts, most recently to the prime minister of Israel. Secretary Blinken has made calls to many of his foreign counterparts, numbering around 50 at this point. He has had numerous calls with counterparts in the region, including in Israel and the Gulf as well. So there have been close consultations with those partners throughout.

But I would also make the case and the point that our consultations have been ongoing with our European allies and partners as well. And I know there was quite a focus yesterday on the very brief statement we issued about our willingness to engage diplomatically with Iran in the context of the P5+1 if that invitation from the EU were forthcoming, but in many ways the antecedent to that was the really extraordinary joint statement from the United States and the E3, the statement by the foreign ministers of France, Germany, the U.K., and the United States of America.

And I called it extraordinary for a couple reasons. One, the fact that our – that we are once again on the same page as our closest allies is itself noteworthy given where we’ve been. We are very clearly no longer working at cross-purposes, and we are, in fact, working together in lockstep. But the Iran language in that joint statement really underscored and underlined that sense of unanimity when it comes to how we plan to confront this challenge.

Just to give you a couple of the highlights, the signatories expressed their shared and fundamental security interest in upholding the nuclear nonproliferation regime and ensuring that Iran can never develop a nuclear weapon. The E3 and the United States affirmed their shared objective of Iran’s return to full compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA.

To your question, the E3 and the U.S. called on Iran not to take any additional steps, in particular with respect to the suspension of the Additional Protocol and to any limitations on IAEA verification activities in Iran. And the E3, the statement said, welcomed the prospect of a U.S. and Iranian return to compliance with the JCPOA. The E3 and the United States affirmed their determination to then strengthen the JCPOA and, together with regional parties and the wider international community, address broader security concerns related to Iran’s missile programs and regional activities. We are committed to working together toward these goals, so said that joint statement.

So this is language that you had been hearing from our podiums, from National Security Advisor Sullivan, from the Secretary, from the President of the United States himself. But in this joint statement yesterday, it became – it was espoused by those four parties, the United States together with our closest European allies, which itself was pretty extraordinary.

Now, the – when it comes to Iran’s latest provocations, look, I think that what we would say is that we are focused on the next step, and clearly, public posturing is not going to resolve this challenge. That’s why as a natural outgrowth of the position the President has put forward, we have expressed our willingness to take part in a meeting with the Iranians in the context of the P5+1.

This is only a first step. And as Secretary Blinken has stressed, there is a long way to go. We know that Iran is now significantly out of compliance, and indeed, its recent steps have taken it further away from the commitments under this deal. That is why, having taken this next step, talking becomes even more important. This is a challenge we know we have to address urgently, the challenge of containing Iran’s nuclear program, ensuring that Iran is never able to acquire a nuclear weapon.

And as you heard from this joint statement, it’s something that we are now quite clearly in lockstep with our allies and – with our allies from Europe, and we’ll see what the coming days and weeks hold on that front.

We’ll take a final question or two. Nick Wadhams.

QUESTION: Hi, can you guys hear me?

MR PRICE: We can.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you. Ned, the Trump administration played a mediating role in the Nile Dam dispute, though there was the impression among many observers in Africa that its stance was seen to favor Egypt. Is the Biden administration willing to resume that mediating role to resolve the Nile Dam dispute? Thanks.

MR PRICE: So, Nick, we continue to support collaborative and constructive efforts by Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan to reach an agreement on the GERD. We understand the GERD is a major issue for the three parties. We’re reviewing our GERD policy and assessing the role that we can play in facilitating a solution between those parties.

Why don’t we go to Ben Samuels of Haaretz.

QUESTION: Can you hear me?

MR PRICE: Yes, we can.

QUESTION: All right, great. Thanks for this. So there are reports emerging that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have reached a deal to vaccinate 100,000 Palestinian workers. Is this an adequate step in the eyes of the administration, or does it feel that Israel needs to further facilitate vaccine distributions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza?

MR PRICE: So, Ben, on this we certainly welcome reports of vaccinations in the West Bank and Israel’s provision of vaccine for Palestinian healthcare workers in the West Bank, and we welcome it because we believe it’s important for Palestinians to achieve increased access to COVID vaccines in the weeks ahead.

The Secretary made this point today in a separate setting that, of course, here in the United States we are focused on ensuring the distribution of a safe and effective vaccine to the American people, but we know we can’t put this scourge of COVID-19 behind us until the world has access to these same safe and effective vaccines. And we know that because we need look no further than the variants to this disease that have emerged, and we know that the longer this disease circulates around the world that the more risk we have here at home.

So whether it is in the context of the Palestinian territories, whether it is in the context of countries that may have access to the vaccine through the COVAX facility, which, of course, the United States pledged an ambitious amount to today: $2 billion immediately, $4 billion over time. This is something that we are working to see happen, and so we certainly welcome when additional populations have access to a safe and effective vaccine.

Let’s go to Haik Gugarats. Do we have Haik? Okay —

OPERATOR: Your line is now open.

QUESTION: Can you hear me?

MR PRICE: Yes, we have you.

QUESTION: Hi. Has the Saudi leadership of OPEC plus come up in Secretary Blinken’s conversations with his Saudi counterpart? And more broadly, how do you view the business of managing oil markets by OPEC producers’ alliance?

MR PRICE: Well, thanks for the question. I think it’s not something I would want to get into from here today. If we do have anything to share on that, we will be happy to get back to you. I also wouldn’t want to speak to private conversations.

So with that, I think we’ll go ahead and call it a day. Thank you, everyone, for tuning in, and we will see you back in the briefing room on Monday. Thanks very much.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:08 p.m.)

# # #

  1. Tribunal

 

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    The Department of Energy (DOE) and its national labs have taken several steps to address potential barriers to technology transfer—the process of providing DOE technologies, knowledge, or expertise to other entities. GAO characterized these barriers as (1) gaps in funding, (2) legal and administrative barriers, and (3) lack of alignment between DOE research and industry needs. For example, the “valley of death” is a gap between the end of public funding and start of private-sector funding. DOE partly addresses this gap with its Technology Commercialization Fund, which provides grants of $100,000 to $1.5 million to DOE researchers to advance promising technologies with private-sector partners. Further, DOE's Energy I-Corps program trains researchers to commercialize new technologies and to identify industry needs and potential customers. However, DOE has not assessed how many and which types of researchers would benefit from such training. Without doing so, DOE will not have the information needed to ensure its training resources target the researchers who would benefit most. Illustration of Funding Gap for Commercializing New Technologies DOE plans and tracks the performance of its technology transfer activities by setting strategic goals and objectives and annually collecting department-wide technology transfer measures, such as the number of patented inventions and licenses. However, the department does not have objective and measurable performance goals to assess progress toward the broader strategic goals and objectives it developed. For example, without a performance goal for the number of DOE researchers involved in technology transfer activities and a measure of such involvement, DOE cannot assess the extent to which it has met its objective to encourage national laboratory personnel to pursue technology transfer activities. Internal control standards for government agencies call for management to define objectives in measurable terms, either qualitative or quantitative, so that performance toward those objectives can be assessed. Moreover, DOE has not aligned the 79 existing measures that it collects with its goals and objectives, nor has it prioritized them. Some lab stakeholders said that collecting and reporting these measures is burdensome. Prior GAO work has found that having a large number of performance measures may risk creating a confusing excess of data that will obscure rather than clarify performance issues. Researchers at DOE and its 17 national labs regularly make contributions to new energy technologies, such as more efficient batteries for electric vehicles. Technology transfer officials at the labs help these researchers license intellectual property and partner with private-sector companies to bring these technologies to market. However, several recent reports have highlighted barriers and inconsistencies in technology transfer at DOE, including a 2015 commission report that found barriers related to the costs of collaboration and low maturity level of many DOE technologies. This report examines (1) steps DOE has taken to address barriers to technology transfer and (2) the extent to which DOE plans and tracks the performance of its technology transfer and commercialization activities. GAO analyzed DOE documents on technology transfer and spoke with officials at DOE and seven national labs, as well as with representatives of universities and private-sector companies. GAO selected labs across a range of DOE activities and based on their technology transfer activities. GAO recommends that DOE assess researchers' needs for commercialization training and develop objective, quantifiable, and measurable performance goals and a limited number of related performance measures for its technology transfer efforts. DOE concurred with the recommendations. For more information, contact Candice Wright at (202) 512-6888 or WrightC@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The electromagnetic spectrum (the spectrum) consists of frequencies worldwide that support many civilian and military uses, from mobile phone networks and radios to navigation and weapons. This invisible battlespace is essential to Department of Defense (DOD) operations in all domains—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace. The interruption of U.S. forces' access to the spectrum can result in a military disadvantage, preventing U.S. forces from operating as planned and desired. According to the studies by DOD and others that GAO reviewed for its December 2020 report on military operations in the spectrum, adversaries, such as China and Russia, are also aware of the importance of the spectrum and have taken significant steps to improve their own capabilities that challenge DOD and its operations. For example, studies described how China has formed new military units and fielded new unmanned aerial vehicles with spectrum warfare capabilities, and Russian electromagnetic warfare forces have demonstrated their effectiveness through successful real-world applications against U.S. and foreign militaries. These developments are particularly concerning in the context of challenges to DOD's spectrum superiority. GAO's analysis of the studies highlighted DOD management challenges such as dispersed governance, limited full-time senior-level leadership, outdated capabilities, a lengthy acquisition process, increased spectrum competition and congestion, and a gap in experienced staff and realistic training. GAO found that DOD had issued strategies in 2013 and 2017 to address spectrum-related challenges, but did not fully implement either strategy because DOD did not assign senior leaders with appropriate authorities and resources or establish oversight processes for implementation. DOD published a new strategy in October 2020, but GAO found in December 2020 the department risks not achieving the new strategy's goals because it had not taken key actions—such as identifying processes and procedures to integrate spectrum operations across the department, reforming governance structures, and clearly assigning leadership for strategy implementation. Also, it had not developed oversight processes, such as an implementation plan, that would help ensure accountability and implementation of the 2020 strategy goals (see figure). Actions to Ensure DOD Superiority in the Electromagnetic Spectrum Why GAO Did This Study The spectrum is essential for facilitating control in operational environments and affects operations in the air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace domains. Spectrum use is pervasive across warfighting domains and thus maintaining or achieving spectrum superiority against an adversary is critical to battlefield success. This statement summarizes: (1) the importance of the spectrum; (2) challenges to DOD's superiority in the spectrum; and (3) the extent to which DOD has implemented spectrum-related strategies and is positioned to achieve future goals. This statement is based on GAO's December 2020 report (GAO-21-64) and updates conducted in March 2021. For the report, GAO analyzed 43 studies identified through a literature review, reviewed DOD documentation, and interviewed DOD officials and subject matter experts. For the updates, GAO reviewed materials that DOD provided in March 2021.
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    In U.S GAO News
    As of October 2020, 3 years since the hurricanes destroyed much of Puerto Rico's electricity grid, neither the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) nor the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had approved long-term grid recovery projects in Puerto Rico. In 2019, GAO made four recommendations to FEMA and HUD to address identified challenges in rebuilding the electricity grid in Puerto Rico. As of October 2020, FEMA had fully implemented one recommendation and partially implemented two others, while HUD had not implemented its recommendation. Specifically, FEMA established an interagency agreement with the Department of Energy (DOE) to clarify how the agencies would consult on recovery efforts. FEMA had taken actions to partially implement recommendations on improving coordination among federal and local agencies and providing information on industry standards. However, further steps are needed, including finalizing guidance on FEMA's process for approving funding for projects. Regarding HUD, it has not addressed GAO's recommendation to establish time frames and requirements for available funding. Damaged Power Lines in Puerto Rico in November 2017 after Hurricane Maria Until HUD and FEMA implement GAO's recommendations, uncertainty will linger about how and when federal funding for long-term grid recovery will proceed. In particular, it is uncertain how available funding sources will support measures to enhance grid resilience to hurricanes, such as smart grid technology. FEMA officials told GAO that additional funding sources could be used for resilience measures but that this would not be determined until specific projects are submitted to FEMA for approval. Moreover, although FEMA finalized a $10 billion cost estimate for grid repairs in September 2020, several steps remain before FEMA approves funding for projects—a process officials said they were drafting. HUD funding could supplement FEMA funding but, as discussed above, HUD has yet to establish conditions for using these funds and has not established time frames and a plan for issuing this information. According to HUD officials, they plan to publish requirements in the first quarter of fiscal year 2021, but this depends on other factors, such as input from other federal agencies. Further delays in publishing the conditions could contribute to delays in Puerto Rico's ability to initiate grid recovery projects. In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria damaged Puerto Rico's electricity grid, causing the longest blackout in U.S. history. It took roughly 11 months after the hurricanes for power to be restored to all of the customers with structures deemed safe for power restoration. Since electricity service has been restored, local entities have undertaken the longer-term task of more fully repairing and rebuilding the grid. GAO reported in 2019 on challenges hindering progress in rebuilding the grid and recommended that FEMA and HUD take actions to address these challenges. This report examines the status of efforts to support long-term grid recovery in Puerto Rico, including actions taken by FEMA and HUD to implement GAO's 2019 recommendations. For this report, GAO assessed agency actions; reviewed relevant reports, regulations, policies, and documents; and interviewed federal and local officials. GAO previously made three recommendations to FEMA and one to HUD to provide needed information and improve coordination to support grid recovery. Both agencies disagreed with GAO's characterization of their progress made addressing these prior recommendations. GAO continues to believe additional actions are needed to fully implement these recommendations. For more information, contact Frank Rusco at (202) 512-3841 or ruscof@gao.gov.
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  • Grants Management: Agencies Provided Many Types of Technical Assistance and Applied Recipients’ Feedback
    In U.S GAO News
    Technical assistance refers to programs, activities, and services provided by federal agencies to strengthen the capacity of grant recipients and to improve their performance of grant functions. Technical assistance can improve the performance or management of grant program recipients. Technical assistance includes the improvement of grant outcomes, grant management, grantee compliance, project monitoring and evaluation, and interactions with stakeholders. The technical assistance provided by the selected agencies—the Department of Education (Education), the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families (ACF), and the Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration (ETA)—is designed to align with the requirements of each agency's grant programs and the individual grantee's needs. The types of technical assistance provided by agencies varied and included a range of delivery methods shown below. Types of Technical Assistance Provided by Selected Agencies Education tailors its approach to provide technical assistance to grantees based on recipients' needs and their efforts to obtain technical assistance. According to ACF, some grant programs have extensive, dedicated technical assistance that is grant specific, while other grant programs share technical assistance resources provided by multiple technical assistance centers. ACF's technical assistance can be based on program office oversight of the grantees that includes financial and internal control reviews and site visits. For ETA, state and local grantees administer ETA-funded programs throughout the country and technical assistance plays a role in ensuring these programs' successful implementation. According to ETA officials, technical assistance activities are based on grant program objectives. The 10 grant programs GAO reviewed evaluated technical assistance, collected feedback from recipients of the technical assistance, and incorporated feedback into technical assistance. For example, a School Safety National Activities evaluation of one of its national centers included targets for multiple performance measures and the actual performance for each measure. These measures included the percentage of milestones achieved and the percentage of technical assistance and dissemination products and services deemed to be high quality by an independent review panel. The overall goal of technical assistance is to enhance the delivery of agency programs and help ensure grantee compliance. GAO was asked to review issues related to technical assistance for grants at Education, ACF, and ETA. This report (1) describes how Education, ACF, and ETA provide technical assistance to grantees; and (2) examines to what extent these agencies evaluate the technical assistance. For this review, GAO selected 10 grant programs from the three agencies based on fiscal year 2018 funding information and the purpose of the grant. GAO reviewed documents and interviewed agency officials about the technical assistance provided, the provider and recipient of technical assistance, and the amount obligated in fiscal year 2018 for the 10 grant programs reviewed. GAO also reviewed documents and interviewed agencies about the extent to which they evaluated technical assistance, whether they gathered feedback from the recipients of technical assistance, and whether feedback was included in the evaluations for the 10 grant programs reviewed. For more information, contact Michelle Sager at (202) 512-6806 or SagerM@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    The 340B Drug Pricing Program (340B Program) requires drug manufacturers to sell outpatient drugs at a discount to covered entities—eligible hospitals and other entities participating in the program—in order for their drugs to be covered by Medicaid. Participation in the 340B Program has grown from nearly 9,700 covered entities in 2010 to 12,700 in 2020. The Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) administers the program and oversees covered entities' compliance with 340B Program requirements through annual audits, among other efforts. If audits identify noncompliance with program requirements, HRSA issues findings to covered entities and requires them to take corrective action to continue participating in the 340B Program (see table). Audit Findings Issued to Covered Entities by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) for Fiscal Years 2012-2019, as of September 2020 340B Program findings of noncompliance Number Eligibility of covered entities. Failure to maintain eligibility-related requirements (e.g., covered entities' oversight of their contract pharmacies). 561 Diversion of 340B drugs to ineligible patients. 340B drugs distributed to individuals who are not eligible patients of a covered entity (e.g., patients' health records are not maintained by the covered entity). 546 Duplicate discounts. Prescribed drugs that may have been subject to both the 340B price and a Medicaid rebate. 429 Total 1,536 Source: GAO analysis of information received from HRSA. | GAO-21-107 HRSA officials told GAO that, beginning in fall 2019, the agency started issuing findings only when audit information presents a clear and direct violation of the requirements outlined in the 340B Program statute. HRSA officials explained that guidance, which is used to interpret provisions of the 340B statute for the purposes of promoting program compliance among covered entities, does not provide the agency with appropriate enforcement capability. For example, HRSA officials reported that there were instances among fiscal year 2019 audits in which the agency did not issue findings for a failure to comply with guidance related to contract pharmacies in part because the 340B statute does not address contract pharmacy use and, therefore, there may not have been a clear statutory violation. In addition to audits, HRSA provides education to covered entities about 340B Program requirements and has implemented other efforts to identify noncompliance. For example, HRSA requires all covered entities to recertify their eligibility to participate in the 340B Program annually (e.g., self-attesting to compliance); and uses a self-disclosure process through which covered entities can disclose and correct self-identified instances of noncompliance. Covered entities can realize substantial savings through 340B Program price discounts, enabling them to stretch federal resources to reach more eligible patients and provide more comprehensive services. GAO was asked to provide information on HRSA's efforts to oversee covered entities' compliance with 340B Program requirements. This report describes (1) the audit findings that HRSA issued to address covered entity noncompliance with 340B Program requirements; and (2) other efforts HRSA uses to help ensure that covered entities comply with 340B Program requirements. GAO reviewed documentation, including relevant federal laws and regulations and HRSA's policies, procedures, and guidance, related to 340B Program oversight. GAO also reviewed HRSA data on the number and type of audit findings made from audits finalized during fiscal years 2012 through 2019 as of September 2020—the latest data available at the time of the audit. GAO also interviewed officials from HRSA, agency contractors, and 340B Program stakeholders. GAO provided a draft of this report to HHS for review. The agency provided written and technical comments on the draft, both of which were incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Debra A. Draper at (202) 512-7114 or draperd@gao.gov.
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  • Data Security: Recent K-12 Data Breaches Show That Students Are Vulnerable to Harm
    In U.S GAO News
    A cybersecurity incident is an event that actually or potentially jeopardizes a system or the information it holds. According to GAO's analysis of K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center (CRC) data from July 2016 to May 2020, thousands of K-12 students were affected by 99 reported data breaches, one type of cybersecurity incident in which data are compromised. Students' academic records, including assessment scores and special education records, were the most commonly compromised type of information (58 breaches). Records containing students' personally identifiable information (PII), such as Social Security numbers, were the second most commonly compromised type of information (36 breaches). Financial and cybersecurity experts say some PII can be sold on the black market and can cause students significant financial harm. Breaches were either accidental or intentional, although sometimes the intent was unknown, with school staff, students, and cybercriminals among those responsible (see figure). Staff were responsible for most of the accidental breaches (21 of 25), and students were responsible for most of the intentional breaches (27 of 52), most frequently to change grades. Reports of breaches by cybercriminals were rare but included attempts to steal PII. Although the number of students affected by a breach was not always available, examples show that thousands of students have had their data compromised in a single breach. Responsible Actor and Intent of Reported K-12 Student Data Breaches, July 1, 2016-May 5, 2020 Notes: The actor or the intent may not be discernible in public reports. For this analysis, a cybercriminal is defined as an actor external to the school district who breaches a data system for malicious reasons. Of the 287 school districts affected by reported student data breaches, larger, wealthier, and suburban school districts were disproportionately represented, according to GAO's analysis. Cybersecurity experts GAO spoke with said one explanation for this is that some of these districts may use more technology in schools, which could create more opportunities for breaches to occur. When a student's personal information is disclosed, it can lead to physical, emotional, and financial harm. Organizations are vulnerable to data security risks, including over 17,000 public school districts and approximately 98,000 public schools. As schools and districts increasingly rely on complex information technology systems for teaching, learning, and operating, they are collecting more student data electronically that can put a student's information, including PII, at risk of disclosure. The closure of schools and the sudden transition to distance learning across the country due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic also heightened attention on K-12 cybersecurity. GAO was asked to review the security of K-12 students' data. This report examines (1) what is known about recently reported K-12 cybersecurity incidents that compromised student data, and (2) the characteristics of school districts that experienced these incidents. GAO analyzed data from July 1, 2016 to May 5, 2020 from CRC (the most complete source of information on K-12 data breaches). CRC is a non-federal resource sponsored by an educational technology organization that has tracked reported K-12 cybersecurity incidents since 2016. GAO also analyzed 2016-2019 Department of Education data on school district characteristics (the most recent available), and interviewed experts knowledgeable about cybersecurity. We incorporated technical comments from the agencies as appropriate. For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@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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  • Close Air Support: Actions Needed to Enhance Friendly Force Tracking Capabilities and Fully Evaluate Training
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Defense (DOD) has made progress implementing initiatives to enhance capabilities that are used to identify friendly force locations during close air support (CAS) missions, but GAO identified additional actions that are needed to strengthen these efforts. Specifically, DOD has made limited progress in implementing 10 changes the department approved to address gaps in the interoperability of digital communications systems used to conduct CAS, hindering efforts to improve the speed and accuracy of information exchanges. DOD's efforts to assess the interoperability of digital systems used to perform CAS have been limited in scope. GAO found that DOD had formally assessed two out of 10 approved changes during joint service and multinational events, and these assessments were not conducted in a training environment that replicated capabilities of near-peer adversaries. DOD implemented a new capability in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to help identify the positions of friendly forces during CAS missions. However, GAO found that DOD did not provide adequate training for personnel who operate it or conduct an evaluation to resolve implementation challenges that have hampered its performance. DOD conducts evaluations of training programs for forces that participate in CAS missions, but GAO identified two areas where DOD can improve its efforts. First, the Army and Marine Corps have not systematically evaluated the effectiveness of periodic training for ground observers providing targeting information due to a lack of centralized systems for tracking training data and the absence of designated entities to monitor service-wide training. Second, the use of contract aircraft for training increased substantially between 2017 and 2019, but DOD has not fully evaluated the use of non-military contract aircraft to train air controllers for CAS (see fig.). GAO found that differences between U.S. military aircraft and contract aircraft (e.g., airspeed) can result in a misalignment of aircraft capabilities for certain types of training events. Without evaluating CAS training fully, DOD cannot have assurance that its forces are prepared to conduct CAS missions safely and effectively. Number of Hours Non-Military Aircraft Were Used to Train for Close Air Support for Fiscal Years 2017 through 2019 The use of ordnance delivered by aircraft to support U.S. military forces that are in close proximity to enemy forces on the ground requires detailed planning, seamless communications, and effective training. Mistakes in communications or procedures used to identify and maintain an awareness of the positions of friendly forces on the battlefield during CAS can result in the loss of U.S. military personnel. Senate Report 116-48 and House Report 116-120, accompanying bills for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, included provisions for GAO to evaluate issues related to friendly-force identification capabilities in CAS missions. Among other things, this report evaluates the extent to which DOD has (1) implemented initiatives to enhance friendly-force identification capabilities during CAS, and (2) evaluated training for forces that participate in CAS. GAO analyzed documentation and interviewed officials regarding DOD efforts to develop and implement friendly force tracking capabilities for CAS; reviewed CAS training programs; and analyzed training data, including the number of hours that DOD used non-military contract aircraft for CAS training from 2017 through 2019. GAO is making 11 recommendations to DOD, including that DOD implement and assess initiatives to improve the interoperability of digital systems used in CAS and take additional steps to evaluate the training for certain forces that participate in CAS missions. DOD concurred with the recommendations. For more information, contact Cary Russell at (202) 512-5431 or RussellC@gao.gov.
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  • Aviation Cybersecurity: FAA Should Fully Implement Key Practices to Strengthen Its Oversight of Avionics Risks
    In U.S GAO News
    Modern airplanes are equipped with networks and systems that share data with the pilots, passengers, maintenance crews, other aircraft, and air-traffic controllers in ways that were not previously feasible (see fig. 1). As a result, if avionics systems are not properly protected, they could be at risk of a variety of potential cyberattacks. Vulnerabilities could occur due to (1) not applying modifications (patches) to commercial software, (2) insecure supply chains, (3) malicious software uploads, (4) outdated systems on legacy airplanes, and (5) flight data spoofing. To date, extensive cybersecurity controls have been implemented and there have not been any reports of successful cyberattacks on an airplane's avionics systems. However, the increasing connections between airplanes and other systems, combined with the evolving cyber threat landscape, could lead to increasing risks for future flight safety. Figure 1: Key Systems Connections to Commercial Airplanes The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has established a process for the certification and oversight of all US commercial airplanes, including the operation of commercial air carriers (see fig. 2). While FAA recognizes avionics cybersecurity as a potential safety issue for modern commercial airplanes, it has not fully implemented key practices that are necessary to carry out a risk-based cybersecurity oversight program. Specifically, FAA has not (1) assessed its oversight program to determine the priority of avionics cybersecurity risks, (2) developed an avionics cybersecurity training program, (3) issued guidance for independent cybersecurity testing, or (4) included periodic testing as part of its monitoring process. Until FAA strengthens its oversight program, based on assessed risks, it may not be able to ensure it is providing sufficient oversight to guard against evolving cybersecurity risks facing avionics systems in commercial airplanes. Figure 2: Federal Aviation Administration's Certification Process for Commercial Transport Airplanes GAO has previously identified key practices for interagency collaboration that can be used to assess interagency coordination. FAA coordinates with other federal agencies, such as the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Homeland Security (DHS), and with industry to address aviation cybersecurity issues. For example, FAA co-chairs the Aviation Cyber Initiative, a tri-agency forum with DOD and DHS to address cyber risks across the aviation ecosystem. However, FAA's internal coordination activities do not fully reflect GAO's key collaboration practices. FAA has not established a tracking mechanism for monitoring progress on cybersecurity issues that are raised in coordination meetings, and its oversight coordination activities are not supported by dedicated resources within the agency's budget. Until FAA establishes a tracking mechanism for cybersecurity issues, it may be unable to ensure that all issues are appropriately addressed and resolved. Further, until it conducts an avionics cybersecurity risk assessment, it will not be able to effectively prioritize and dedicate resources to ensure that avionics cybersecurity risks are addressed in its oversight program. Avionics systems, which provide weather information, positioning data, and communications, are critical to the safe operation of an airplane. FAA is responsible for overseeing the safety of commercial aviation, including avionics systems. The growing connectivity between airplanes and these systems may present increasing opportunities for cyberattacks on commercial airplanes. GAO was asked to review the FAA's oversight of avionics cybersecurity issues. The objectives of this review were to (1) describe key cybersecurity risks to avionics systems and their potential effects, (2) determine the extent to which FAA oversees the implementation of cybersecurity controls that address identified risks in avionics systems, and (3) assess the extent to which FAA coordinates internally and with other government and industry entities to identify and address cybersecurity risks to avionics systems. To do so, GAO reviewed information on key cybersecurity risks to avionics systems, as reported by major industry representatives as well as key elements of an effective oversight program, and compared FAA's process for overseeing the implementation of cybersecurity controls in avionics systems with these program elements. GAO also reviewed agency documentation and interviewed agency and industry representatives to assess FAA's coordination efforts to address the identified risks. GAO is making six recommendations to FAA to strengthen its avionics cybersecurity oversight program: GAO recommends that FAA conduct a cybersecurity risk assessment of avionics systems cybersecurity within its oversight program to identify the relative priority of avionics cybersecurity risks compared to other safety concerns and develop a plan to address those risks. Based on the assessment of avionics cybersecurity risks, GAO recommends that FAA identify staffing and training needs for agency inspectors specific to avionics cybersecurity, and develop and implement appropriate training to address identified needs. develop and implement guidance for avionics cybersecurity testing of new airplane designs that includes independent testing. review and consider revising its policies and procedures for monitoring the effectiveness of avionics cybersecurity controls in the deployed fleet to include developing procedures for safely conducting independent testing. ensure that avionics cybersecurity issues are appropriately tracked and resolved when coordinating among internal stakeholders. review and consider the extent to which oversight resources should be committed to avionics cybersecurity. FAA concurred with five out of six GAO recommendations. FAA did not concur with the recommendation to consider revising its policies and procedures for periodic independent testing. GAO clarified this recommendation to emphasize that FAA safely conduct such testing as part of its ongoing monitoring of airplane safety. For more information, contact Nick Marinos at (202) 512-9342 or MarinosN@gao.gov, or Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or KrauseH@gao.gov.
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