Department Press Briefing – February 2, 2021

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

2:39 p.m. EST

MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Let me start with an apology. We were, of course, deferring to our White House colleagues to finish their briefing. Very sorry for the delay in getting started, but let’s do just that, let’s get started.

Good afternoon. Allow me to, once again, welcome you back to the briefing room – your briefing room. Before we get into the heart of it, I hope you’ll indulge me for just a moment about what you can expect going forward, and just a word on why.

The “what” is fairly simple: We’re putting the “daily” back in the daily press briefing. But that’s just a start. We’re seeking to empower our workforce, including our press officers, so that the Department can operate on our toes, not on our heels, as the Secretary likes to say.

And speaking of the Secretary, you’ll continue to see him, just as you will continue to hear from our other officials. To the extent possible, I want to use this venue to showcase the immense talent we have in these halls, including the career women and men who are the driving force behind our work. I’ll be here just about every day, but I’ll be speaking to the work that goes on in this building by the Department’s career professionals. And I’m grateful for them and humbled to be able call them colleagues.

That brings me to the “why.” And, here again, it’s actually pretty simple. We’re public servants. Our job, quite literally, is to serve the public. And we do that in a number of ways.

Above all, we’re seeking to implement the President’s vision of a foreign policy that delivers for all Americans. Every policy we enact is about one thing: making life safer, easier, and more prosperous for our fellow citizens.

But we aren’t serving the American people especially well if they or audiences around the world aren’t in a position to understand what it is we’re trying to do or why. And this goes well beyond the idea of popularity and public opinion. If we fail in our communications effort, our policies will lack the legitimacy and the credibility we need for them to be effective.

Put simply, if we fail here, we fail everywhere.

Perhaps even more importantly, it also gets to the heart of our democracy, a system that relies on the consent of an informed citizenry. And beyond our own borders, if the values of transparency and accountability are going to be more than just buzzwords in our global engagement, we have to practice what we preach here at home. And we need an engaged, active press corps to hold our feet to the fire.

Not only do we need it, we welcome it.

So in short, that’s why you can plan to see and hear quite a bit from us. We will seek to be transparent, accurate, and respectful. We won’t always get it right, especially when we’re operating on our toes. But I can assure you we will always operate in good faith.

We know what’s at stake. We’ll always remember who we are, public servants, and that this – and that our charge, like yours, is to serve the public.

Now, shifting gears:

As President Biden and Secretary Blinken have said, the United States is deeply concerned by the Burmese military’s detention of civilian government leaders, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and civil society leaders.

After a review of all the facts, we have assessed that the Burmese military’s actions on February 1st, having deposed the duly elected head of government, constituted a military coup d’etat.

The United States will continue to work closely with our partners throughout the region and the world to support respect for democracy and the rule of law in Burma, as well as to promote accountability for those responsible for overturning Burma’s democratic transition.

And finally, the United States congratulates Israel and Kosovo on formally establishing diplomatic relations. Yesterday was a historic day.

Deeper international ties help promote stability, peace, and prosperity in both regions. When our partners are united, the United States is stronger.

The United States will stand by Kosovo as it continues to move forward on its Euro-Atlantic path.

And with that, I look forward to taking your questions.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Welcome to your first briefing.

MR PRICE: Thank you.

QUESTION: You say you welcome the – we’ll see how long that lasts.

MR PRICE: Hopefully I have a little bit of a honeymoon.

QUESTION: (Laughter.) Maybe a little bit of a honeymoon. Let’s just start with – there’s a lot going on. Let me just start very briefly with Burma, and the – I’m wondering if you guys have been able to determine yet how much of the 108 million that is supposed to go to Burma in assistance this year writ large, the whole – not – how much of that could be affected by whatever suspension the coup designation means?

And then secondly – and I’m not going to ask you to try to speak for a previous administration, even a previous administration that you were a part of – but back in 2013 when there was a quote-unquote “coup” in Egypt, it took the administration, the Obama administration, three weeks to decide that it wasn’t going to decide whether it was a coup. In this case, which is what I’m asking you to speak to, it’s been less than a day basically. Why were you able – how was this administration able to come to a decision so quickly on whether it met the criteria to be a coup? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Well, Matt, to your second question first, the facts in this case were stark. The facts in this case were clear. We assessed based on the facts and the circumstances that the Burmese military deposed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, as I’ve said, the leader of Burma’s ruling party and Burmese President Win Myint, the duly elected head of government in a military coup d’etat on February 1st.

Let me explain – because I know there’s a lot of interest in this – just what that means. And so according to the annual Department of State Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriation Act, it contains a recurring provision that restricting certain assistance to the government of a military – and these are the three criteria we looked at – whose (1) duly elected head of government is (2) deposed by a military coup d’etat or decree, or a coup d’etat or decree in which (3) the military plays a decisive role. So those are the three criteria that individuals here in this building in our EAP Bureau and the Legal Adviser’s Office have been taking a very close look at ever since Sunday night. You were right that we moved expeditiously with this. I can tell you it was an absolute priority for us to determine exactly what happened and to be decisive in calling it what it was.

When it comes to the United States foreign assistance, I think you used a figure of 108 million. The United States are providing nearly 135 million in bilateral assistance to Burma in FY2020. I should mention that only a portion of that, a very small portion, is assistance to the government. So as you heard from my colleagues earlier this morning, we’re undertaking that review. Again, we’re going to work expeditiously to determine the implications for Burma’s military leaders for their actions here. But there is a small sliver of that foreign assistance that would actually be implicated.

QUESTION: Can’t you give an estimate as to how much that – how small that —

MR PRICE: It’s the vast, vast majority that actually goes to Rohingya, to civil society, and not to the Burmese military.

Yes.

QUESTION: Barbara Plett Usher from the BBC. You were saying that it took you a short time to determine it was a coup. China has not determined that yet. It’s still calling it an internal matter. So my question is: How can it be possible to resolve the crisis working with the international community if the most powerful country in the region isn’t involved?

And I have a second question on Alexei Navalny, who of course has been sentenced now. And you put out a statement saying that you were working with partners to hold Russia accountable. Can you give us more details on this accountability element? Is it becoming part of an urgent element in your review? Do you have anything to say about that?

MR PRICE: Sure. So on your first question, we, and officials in this building, officials in our posts around the world, have been burning up the phone lines since Sunday night. We have been in close touch with our likeminded allies, with our likeminded partners around the world. That includes our allies in Europe, it includes our treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific, as well as our partners in the region as well.

This really gets to our approach to foreign policy broadly. We understand that across every challenge the United States is going to be the most powerful country in the world, but bringing along those allies, those partners, they’re force multipliers. Whether it is restoring democracy in Burma, whether it is holding Russia to account, whether it is competing and ultimately outcompeting with the Chinese, everything we do will be more effective if we are to bring our allies and partners along with us. And that’s precisely what we’re doing. You’re right that we have focused on likeminded allies and partners in responding to recent events in Burma, the coup in Burma. We’ll continue to do that.

Now, when it comes to Mr. Navalny, the Secretary of State, if I’m not mistaken, just a little while ago put out a statement condemning these latest actions. You’ve also heard the President, in one of his early statements as Commander-in-Chief, issue a tasking to the Intelligence Community for its full assessment of Russia’s malign activities. And as we have said, that includes the SolarWinds breach, Russian interference in the 2020 election, Russia’s use, applicable in this case, of chemical weapons against Mr. Navalny, and the alleged bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. That review is ongoing. The director of national intelligence is overseeing that review. Those are our – those are the concerns that of course undergird that review and that we’ll weigh in determining next steps.

But of course we are going to look very carefully at the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia, what has happened with Mr. Navalny specifically, what has happened with the mass detentions of those who have bravely taken to the streets in the aftermath of Mr. Navalny’s arrest. And of course all of that we will account for in determining an appropriate policy course.

Yes.

QUESTION: Have you spoken at all to the Chinese, just briefly?

MR PRICE: On Russia?

QUESTION: No, on Burma. Have you spoken at all to the Chinese —

MR PRICE: I don’t have any specific conversations to read out. Again, we focused on our likeminded allies and partners.

Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you. And it’s great to see you behind the podium.

MR PRICE: Good to see you.

QUESTION: I’m Said Arikat with Al-Quds daily newspaper. Sir, I wanted to ask you very quickly, last Tuesday, U.S. envoy to the United Nations told the Security Council – am I clear?

MR PRICE: I’m just having a hard time. I think I got it.

QUESTION: Okay. I think it’s – I’m wearing a double mask; that’s why. (Laughter.) Sorry. Okay. And he told the Security Council that the United States is going to restore aid to UNRWA, the work and relief agency, and will probably open the consulate in East Jerusalem as well as reopening the office here in Washington for the Palestinians. My question to you: Is there a timetable, one? And on UNRWA aid, considering that the United States was the largest contributor – so will that be retroactive? I mean, that’s close to like $900 million since 2018.

MR PRICE: Well, you are right that last week our acting U.S. ambassador to the UN did make that announcement. The United States does intend to restore humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people. We’re not doing that as a favor, but because it’s in the interest of the United States to do so. Globally, our humanitarian assistance provides critical relief, such as emergency food assistance, health care, education. And the suspension of aid to the Palestinian people has neither produced political progress nor secured concessions from the Palestinian leadership. Of course, it has only harmed innocent Palestinians.

The United States will reinvigorate our humanitarian leadership and work to galvanize the international community to meet its humanitarian obligations, including to the Palestinian people. I don’t have any more details, but this is something we are working on very quickly to restore and to announce, and so when we do have more details, we’ll be sure to share those.

QUESTION: Can I quickly —

MR PRICE: Yes.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up. There is a Palestinian American family stuck in Gaza – they’re from northern Virginia – Hani Almadhoun and his wife. And they tried to seek assistance from the embassy, the embassy told them to talk to the Israelis, the Israelis said no, you’re not – so I was just wondering if the U.S. Department of State will take any action to ensure their departure from Gaza.

MR PRICE: I am very aware of the case. Unfortunately, we don’t have a Privacy Act waiver in this case, so I can’t say anything more. Andrea.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Ned. On Navalny, to follow up on Barbara: The review, of course, of these other issues, these other allegations, especially the Afghan bounties, et cetera, is going to take a while. Is there anything that the U.S. can be doing now about Navalny and his imprisonment given the fact that there are likely to be protests in the coming days, more arrests, and that some signal needs to be sent to Vladimir Putin?

MR PRICE: Well, Andrea, just as we concluded that what took place in Burma on February 1st was, in fact, a coup, and we did so expeditiously, we are working on this review, and I should say the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is working on this review very expeditiously as well. I wouldn’t want to wade too much into that. I refer you to them to speak to a timeframe. But the President of the United States, the Secretary of State has made very clear that this is an absolute priority for us. So I wouldn’t expect this review to take any longer than necessary.

When it comes to measures that we can take in the meantime, look, I think you’ve already seen some very important actions that we’ve taken. We’ve spoken clearly and swiftly in the voice of the President of the United States, the Secretary of State. I have done so as well, and importantly I would flag the G7 statement that came out just a couple days into this administration. It was a very strong signal that the United States, we’re not working alone. We are working with our closest allies and partners around the world to stand up for human rights, to stand up for the democratic aspirations of Russian citizens.

QUESTION: And do you anticipate that he will be making any calls to some of his counterparts in that – in terms of allies?

MR PRICE: Making any calls? Well, as you know, the Secretary, again, has been burning up his phone since he stepped foot in this building. As of last count, I think this was as of earlier this week, he’s made almost a few dozen foreign leader calls. We’ve read out – we’ve read them out, and I think you’ll see in many of them a reference to our concern for human rights, for democracy, including in the Russian context.

Humeyra.

QUESTION: Hi, Ned. Just to follow up on Barbara’s question about China, I’m just wondering, you guys are considering some sanctions, some sort of action on Myanmar – how worried are you that any such action could push them further towards Beijing? What do you think about that?

And then if I can move to Iran, yesterday Javad Zarif basically said one way to break the impasse over who goes first, U.S. or Iran, to return to compliance with the JCPOA would be maybe EU foreign policy chief Borrell to help synchronize that. Are you open to this suggestion?

And finally, has Rob Malley or any State Department official had any contact with Iranian officials since January 20th?

MR PRICE: On your last question, the answer is no. When it comes to our strategy for the JCPOA, and I should say to contain Iran’s nuclear program, as we’ve said, in the first instance we’re going to have – consult closely with our allies and partners. And I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself, but it’s going to be a constant refrain of our foreign policy. That’s what we’re doing. We’re also consulting with members of Congress, so we haven’t of course – haven’t have had any discussions with the Iranians, and I wouldn’t expect we would until those initial steps go forward.

When it comes to Burma, look, I don’t think the military takeover, the military coup, is in the interest – it’s certainly not in our interest. It’s certainly not in the interest of our likeminded partners. I think you will also find that it’s not in the interest of the Chinese. So our first concern, of course, is the restoration of civilian leadership in Burma. Our concern, consistent with that, is ensuring that as we undertake this review, now that we have determined that a coup has taken place on February 1st, the civilian-led government has been deposed by the military – our first concern as we do that review will be to ensure that of the $135 million we contribute annually to the people of Burma, that we don’t do anything that would affect the long-suffering people of Burma, including the Rohingya in this case. So we will be very careful of that.

And then, I’m sorry, remind me of your other question on Iran.

QUESTION: Yeah, the synchronization – Javad Zarif’s suggestion that that could be one way of breaking the impasse with Borrell.

MR PRICE: Well, look, I think we have made our position very clear. President Biden has been very clear since he’s held that title; he has been very clear even before he held that title as a candidate. If Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same, and then we would then use that as a platform to build a longer and a stronger agreement that also addresses other areas of concern. Of course, though, we are a long way from that. Iran has distanced itself from compliance on a number of fronts, and there are many steps in that process. I mentioned a couple of them: consulting with our allies, consulting with our partners, consulting with Congress before we’re reaching the point where we’re going to engage directly with the Iranians and willing to entertain any sort of proposal, especially since we’ve been very clear about what – the proposition we have put on the table.

Yes.

QUESTION: Yeah, I have two questions. I am Michel Ghandour with Alhurra Television. First, on the Palestinian issue, Palestinian officials have said that Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israel-Palestine Hady Amr spoke by phone with them on Monday. Do you have any readout, first, for these calls?

MR PRICE: So Deputy Assistant Secretary Amr is making a range of introductory calls with the Government of Israel and Palestinian authorities – Authority counterparts – excuse me – as he assumes his new duties. We don’t have anything to read out, but those discussions have started.

QUESTION: And on Syria, news reports said that Secretary Blinken is considering former State Department and UN official Jeffrey Feltman as his special envoy to Syria. Is that accurate, and how do you view the way forward in Syria?

MR PRICE: Well, I don’t have any appointments or nominations to mention at this time. When it comes to Syria, look, we will renew U.S. efforts to promote a political settlement to end Syria’s civil war in close consultations with our allies, our partners, and the UN. A political settlement must address the underlying causes that led to nearly a decade of civil war. We will use the tools at our disposal, including economic pressure, to push for meaningful reform and accountability, and we’ll continue to support the UN’s role in negotiating a political settlement in line with UNSCR 2254.

We will also restore U.S. leadership in providing humanitarian aid, and you’ve heard me say that a couple times in this briefing already. Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe, and we must do more to aid vulnerable Syrians displaced within Syria, as well as refugees who have fled abroad.

Yes, Will.

QUESTION: Yes. Will Mauldin at The Wall Street Journal. Thank you so much for having these. I wanted to follow up with what you said earlier about the focus on likeminded allies and partners as a priority in cases like Burma, and was wondering about China. Does that mean serious diplomatic efforts with China will take a back seat? Is this an area where having strategic patience – and as you know – as you may have seen, the – China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, said last night in a U.S. forum that their redlines, which is anything they consider to be a domestic issue, ranging from Taiwan to Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet. So wondering if you agree with that and if there are efforts to communicate or engage in diplomacy with Yang Jiechi or with other senior Chinese diplomats.

MR PRICE: Well, I did take note of Yang Jiechi’s comments last night. I think we would respond by saying we urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected leadership.

Now, when it comes to China more broadly, you have heard us talk about our strategic approach to Beijing. We are in serious competition with China. Strategic competition is the frame through which we see that relationship. We know that China is engaged in a range of conduct that hurts American workers, it blunts our technological edge, it threatens our alliances and influence in international organizations, and China is engaged in gross human rights violations that shock the conscience. So we will counter China’s aggressive and coercive actions, sustain our key military advantages, defend democratic values, invest in advanced technologies, and restore our vital security partnerships.

Now, at the same time, even as this relationship – we see it through the lens of competition and positioning ourselves to compete and ultimately to outcompete with the Chinese through our own sources of strength, being our alliances, our partnerships, but also our domestic sources of strength – our workforce, our technology, our supply chain security. We understand too that there are going to be issues that – for which we share a national interest, in which it is in our national interest to cooperate on a limited basis with China. Climate is going to be one of them. So I think it goes without saying that we can walk and chew gum at the same time, not to be too colloquial. You will see us doing that with China. You will see us doing that with a number of challenges going forward.

QUESTION: But that’s a delay before that process starts, the interactions with China on these global issues? Or is that something that’s starting immediately?

MR PRICE: Well, I think, again, this goes back to how we are thinking about the sequencing of our foreign policy broadly. It has been no mistake that, as President-elect, President Biden – President-elect Biden started reaching out to our closest allies both in Europe, in the Indo-Pacific. It is no coincidence that as President, President Biden started by reaching out to our closest allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. It is no coincidence that as Secretary of State, Secretary Blinken started by reaching out to our closest allies, and of course, I should add, our Mexican and Canadian allies as well, but our closest allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

So we see our alliances, our partnerships globally as, again, this force multiplier across any range of challenges, and that includes in our relationship with Beijing. So as a first step, we want to make sure that we are in lockstep with those allies, in lockstep with those partners, and then I can expect – you can expect that there will be engagement in several areas with China.

Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you. Francesco Fontemaggi for AFP. I wanted to follow up on Iran and Humeyra’s question. Does the special envoy Malley or the Secretary plan to talk to any Iranian counterpart anytime soon? And also, do you say that you’re ruling out any kind of synchronization between steps by the U.S. and steps by the Iranian to come back in full compliance, or do you not rule out some kind of synchronization?

MR PRICE: Well, when it comes to Special Envoy Rob Malley, he was just – he just started in the role late last week on Friday, so he is now, what, three days into the job. I can say, however, that he has hit the ground running. He has begun engaging on important work and is in the early stages of calls with allies, partners, as well as members of Congress.

When it comes to the propositions that have been put on the table, I would just go back to the proposition that we have put on the table, that President Biden on the campaign trail and more recently President Biden as President of the United States, Secretary Blinken as Secretary of State, have said: When it comes to the JCPOA, we are prepared to walk the path of diplomacy if Iran resumes that full compliance. But —

QUESTION: Any contact with Iranian – Iranians sometime soon?

MR PRICE: Again, our first focus is on engagement, partnership, discussions with our allies, partners, members of Congress.

Kylie.

QUESTION: I just want to go back to Navalny for a second. Just to clarify, are you saying that the entire policy review, the entire intelligence review of all of the concerning actions by Russia – the bounties on U.S. soldiers, their SolarWinds hack, the election interference – all of that entire review has to be done before the Biden administration does anything on Navalny’s sentencing today? Or —

MR PRICE: No, I’m not going to rule anything out. And obviously, we have already spoken out very forcefully about the sentencing of Mr. Navalny, including from the Secretary of State. What my point was that there is a holistic review of our relationship with Russia that takes into account the full range of Russia’s malign activity. President Biden has been very clear, Secretary of State Blinken have been very clear: We are not going to countenance the sorts of things that we’ve seen from the Russians in recent years, and that’s exactly what this review is intended to do: to review those and to help inform an appropriate policy response.

QUESTION: Okay, and then just one more follow-up on Iran. Has news in the recent days, over the last few weeks of Iran beginning to enrich uranium at a larger number of advanced centrifuges or planning to curb short-term notice to IAEA inspections, has any of that impacted how quickly the Biden administration sees the need to get the U.S. and Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA?

MR PRICE: Well, it has undergirded our belief that this is a challenge we have to tackle immediately. And I’m not referring to the JCPOA; I’m referring to the broader challenge of ensuring that Iran is not in a position to develop a nuclear weapon. It, again, is just another indication that this is a challenge that cannot wait. We have spoken to the diplomatic path that President Biden first detailed on the campaign trail, but we know that we have to act with some urgency here given some of the circumstances that you just outlined.

Yes, Nick.

QUESTION: Can I go back to Myanmar and Russia and combine them and just look at, I think, to how you see leverage and how you see sanctions? So in Myanmar, are you considering sanctioning – further sanctions on the Myanmar military, and do you believe that you can impose a cost that would change the military’s behavior? And on Navalny, Navalny’s aides are calling for a specific set of sanctions that they released this weekend. I think it was 35 on senior aides around Putin. Do you believe that – or are you considering that, and do you believe that kind of action might actually affect Russian Government behavior?

MR PRICE: Well, I think the connective tissue there is that sanctions can, in the right circumstances, be an effective policy tool. We have used them with good effect in both cases, Burma and Russia. When it comes to Burma, the members of Burma’s military junta are already under significant sanctions. There are many Russian actors who are sanctioned quite heavily for their various misdeeds in recent years.

When it comes to additional sanctions against the Burmese military, as President Biden has said, the United States will take action against those responsible, including through a careful review of our current sanctions posture.

So it’s something we’re closely reviewing when it comes to Russia. We are undertaking – the President has directed his DNI to undertake this review precisely so that we can have a holistic picture of what the Russians have been up to in recent years so that we can ensure that our policy options – which would include sanctions but not necessarily be the extent of it – are calibrated appropriately.

QUESTION: Very good.

QUESTION: And sir, can you – sorry, just on the specific sanctions and Navalny’s aides called for, can you —

MR PRICE: So —

QUESTION: Can you admit that you’re at least considering them or saw them?

MR PRICE: As a general rule, and I would say as a rule – I can’t imagine an exception to this – we’re not going to speak to any sanctions before we enact them. If we were to do so, of course, it would allow individuals who might otherwise be subject to the sanctions to try and evade them and give them an escape route.

QUESTION: Ned, on Navalny, just a quick follow-up: Today, Foreign Minister Lavrov said it was a trumped-up theater, that the Germans should share with the Russians whatever data on poison and so on. Do you have any reaction to that?

MR PRICE: I’m sorry, it was a trumped —

QUESTION: Lavrov suggested that the whole thing is a trumped-up theater and the Germans are refusing to share whatever analysis, data on the poison.

MR PRICE: Right. So again, this was one of those elements that is under review by the director of national intelligence. I think obviously, we do not agree with that assessment. I think if you ask our German allies, they would not agree with that assessment. But I assume we’ll have more to say when that review is conducted.

Maybe one final question?

QUESTION: Well, hold on, Ned. Can I just make a logistical suggestion? And feel free to tell me to go to hell or whatever you want to say, but it is —

MR PRICE: Stick on one topic at a time? Is that where you’re going?

QUESTION: Yes, exactly.

MR PRICE: Okay.

QUESTION: I mean, it has been – when we used to have these more frequently, I think you’ll find it easier, it’s certainly easier for people to follow, if we exhaust one subject other than bouncing back and forth between all of them all the time.

In that spirit, I’ve got – just since I had questions about Navalny. The statement, and why, if a conscious decision has been made to separate the case of Navalny, who is actually a Russian, and American citizens who are detained in Russia – Trevor Reed, Paul Whelan, are you guys going to be speaking to those? I believe Mr. Reed has a court hearing coming up very soon. And is there – why have you decided to keep them separate or not?

MR PRICE: Well, the question came to me in the form of Mr. Navalny, so I was speaking to Mr. Navalny. When it comes to Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan, we continue to be seriously concerned over the treatments of American citizens Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. Both men traveled to Russia as tourists, were arrested, and were then convicted without credible evidence. We hope Russia will do the right thing and return them to their families in the United States. They have been deprived of their freedom for far too long. We’ll continue to speak out on behalf of those cases.

QUESTION: Well, so I guess the point is that when you’re calling for the immediate release of a Russian opposition figure that – why do you choose not to make the same call for American citizens who have been – that you believe to be unlawfully detained?

MR PRICE: I think I just did. The question —

QUESTION: I think – no, I meant at the same time.

MR PRICE: Yeah, got it.

QUESTION: And then secondly, you mentioned the Kosovo-Israel agreement. The Secretary has said that he welcomes and thinks that the Abraham Accords were a good thing, that – and that you would try to build on them.

MR PRICE: That’s right.

QUESTION: And I’m just wondering why – are you prepared to give the previous administration credit for the Kosovo-Israel deal, for the other Abraham Accords? And do you think that that credit should extend to being considered for a Nobel Peace Prize?

MR PRICE: Well, I am enjoying my new role here at the State Department, and that new role does not give me control over who gets awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

QUESTION: No, no, no, but do you think it’s worthy to be considered for —

MR PRICE: I’m not going to weigh in on that question. I’m going to leave that to the – I believe it is the Swedish parliamentarians who are charged with —

QUESTION: Norwegian.

MR PRICE: Norwegian, I’m sorry. Norwegian parliamentarians who are charged with that.

QUESTION: Look, there’s your first international incident right there. (Laughter.)

MR PRICE: Look, when it —

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Scandinavians.

MR PRICE: When it comes to the Abraham Accords and to your question, I believe this was something that Secretary-Designate Blinken has spoken to, and he has spoken to the Abraham Accords as something that was welcome during the previous administration, something that indeed we hope to build on. The United States will continue to urge other countries to normalize relations with Israel, and we’ll look for other opportunities to expand cooperation among countries in the region.

While we support normalization between Israel and countries in the Arab world, it’s also not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and that’s very important. We hope that as Israel and other countries in the region join together in a common effort to build bridges and create new avenues for dialogue and exchange, these efforts contribute to tangible progress towards the goal of advancing a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

QUESTION: Ned —

QUESTION: Ned, can you just clarify – sorry to interrupt. The economic embargo that used to exist on Myanmar, is restoring that, is that part of the review of sanctions that’s undergoing now?

MR PRICE: We’re – we have just as of – we have only recently come to the conclusion that this was, in fact, a coup, and that is why the assessment of our policy response, including potential sanctions, is just now underway. I wouldn’t want to get ahead of that process.

Rich.

QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. A couple for you, the first on Iran. With the Secretary talking about the fissile material, I know he was citing public reports and not intelligence there. When the administration considers the JCPOA, does it view the JCPOA as the Obama administration did, that it’s to be negotiated almost in a box, that nuclear issues are to be taken care of separately, and then with the potential of building on? Or is this administration looking to bring other issues?

And then separately, does the State Department leadership take issue with comments from the deputy spokesperson about police being seen as a threat?

MR PRICE: Rich, on that second question, we provided you with a statement. I don’t have anything more to say on that. On the first, the – sorry, remind me what the precise question was.

QUESTION: So does the administration view the JCPOA negotiations as a separate issue?

MR PRICE: Ah, yes. Yes, right. So as we have said, the proposition on the table – as President Biden has said – is that if Iran resumes full compliance with the JCPOA, we will be prepared to do so. We seek to use, if Iran takes those steps – and is a far cry – is quite a ways away from those steps right now. But if Iran does take those steps and we re-enter the JCPOA, we would seek to use the JCPOA – we would seek to lengthen and strengthen the – including the nuclear terms of the agreement and then to use that as a platform for follow-on agreements that would take on other areas of concern. And we all know them: ballistic missiles, support for proxies; a number of other issues are included in that. But the proposition that’s on the table, the JCPOA is a start. Our hope, if Iran is willing to make those commitments, is to lengthen and strengthen that agreement and then pursue follow-on agreements regarding other areas of concern.

I know we’ve gone on for quite some time. We’re going to do this every day. I promise we’ll take – well, I – we’ll do this just about every day, so we’ll take question – one last question.

QUESTION: Tracy Wilkinson from the LA Times. In your opening comments, you said that the career women and men, you see them as the driving force of American diplomacy and in this building. But as you probably know, there’s already some grumbling among the rank and file that a lot of the top positions so far have gone to political appointees, particularly people who participated in Biden’s campaign and so forth. Do – can you comment on that? And what would be the appropriate ratio of political to career?

MR PRICE: So Tracy, when it comes to nominations that have been put forward by the President, I believe there have been five to date, so we’re talking about a very small sample size. When Secretary Blinken addressed the workforce on his first day in the building last Wednesday, he spoke to the women and men in the Department, said they were in fact our greatest asset; said his intention was to recruit, retain, and promote a senior State Department workforce that looks like the country we all represent.

So I can assure you that as we make additional announcements, as the President issues additional nominations, as the Secretary of State puts forward additional appointments, that you will see a number of respected career officials assume some of the most senior positions in this building. There’s no doubt about that.

Thank you very much, everyone. We’ll —

QUESTION: I think we’re all tired of Open Skies. Foreign Minister Lavrov – (laughter) – Lavrov suggested this morning that Russia would return to Open Skies if the U.S. would. Does the Biden administration – would the Biden administration consider returning to Open Skies?

MR PRICE: So, Nick, we’re studying the issue. We’ll take a decision in due course. To the best of our knowledge, Russia is still not in full compliance with the treaty. Thank you very much.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:17 p.m.)

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    According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data for 2017 through 2019, over 50 helicopter operators conducted approximately 88,000 helicopter flights within 30 miles of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (D.C. area), though limited data on noise from these flights exist. According to operators, these flights supported various missions (see table below). While the number of flights has decreased slightly over the 3 years reviewed, it is unknown whether there has been a change in helicopter noise in the area. For example, most stakeholders do not collect noise data, and existing studies of helicopter noise in the area are limited. D.C. area airspace constraints—such as lower maximum altitudes near urban areas—combined with proximity to frequently traveled helicopter routes and operational factors may affect the noise heard by residents. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-Reported Helicopter Flights Conducted in the Washington, D.C. Area by Operator Mission, 2017–2019 Operator mission Number of flights Military 32,890 (37.4 percent) Air medical 18,322 (20.9 percent) Other aviation activity 13,977 (15.9 percent)a State and local law enforcement 12,861 (14.6 percent) Federal law enforcement and emergency support 5,497 (6.3 percent) News 4,298 (4.9 percent) Source: GAO analysis of FAA data. | GAO-21-200 Note: In this table, we refer to the Washington, D.C. area as including the area within 30 miles of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. aIncludes 666 flights for which FAA could not identify an operator or mission based on available historical records. FAA and operators reported taking steps to address public concerns about helicopter noise in the D.C. area. FAA receives and responds to complaints on helicopter noise from the public through its Noise Ombudsman and has recently developed online forms that improve FAA's ability to identify and respond to helicopter noise issues. Operators reported using FAA-recommended practices, such as flying at maximum altitudes and limiting night flights, to address helicopter noise in the D.C. area, but such practices are likely not feasible for operators with military, law enforcement, or air medical evacuation missions. FAA's and operators' approach to addressing these issues in the D.C. area is impeded because they do not consistently or fully share the information needed to do so. According to nearly all the operators we interviewed, FAA has not communicated with operators about helicopter noise or forwarded complaints to them. Similarly, operators often receive noise complaints from the public—some complaints are not directed to the correct operator—but do not typically share these complaints with FAA. As a result, operators have not consistently responded to residents' inquiries about helicopter noise and activity. By developing a mechanism for FAA and operators to share information, FAA could help improve responses to individual helicopter noise concerns and determine what additional strategies, if any, are needed to further address helicopter noise. Helicopter noise can potentially expose members of the public to a variety of negative effects, ranging from annoyance to more serious medical issues. FAA is responsible for managing navigable U.S. airspace and regulating noise from civil helicopter operations. Residents of the D.C. area have raised concerns about the number of helicopter flights and the resulting noise. GAO was asked to review issues related to helicopter flights and noise within the D.C. area. Among its objectives, this report examines: (1) what is known about helicopter flights and noise from flights in the D.C. area, and (2) the extent to which FAA and helicopter operators have taken action to address helicopter noise in the D.C. area. GAO reviewed statutes, regulations, policies, and documents on helicopter noise. GAO analyzed (1) available data on helicopter operations and noise in the D.C. area for 2017 through 2019, and (2) FAA's approach to responding to helicopter complaints. GAO also interviewed FAA officials; representatives from 18 D.C. area helicopter operators, selected based on operator type and number of flights; and 10 local communities, selected based on factors including geography and stakeholder recommendations. GAO recommends that FAA develop a mechanism to exchange helicopter noise information with operators in the D.C. area. FAA agreed with GAO's recommendation. For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or KrauseH@gao.gov.
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  • Justice Department Announces Additional Distribution of more than $488 Million to Victims of Madoff Ponzi Scheme
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice announced today that the Madoff Victim Fund (MVF) began its sixth distribution of approximately $488 million in funds forfeited to the U.S. Government in connection with the Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC (BLMIS) fraud scheme, bringing the total distributed to almost $3.2 billion to nearly 37,000 victims worldwide.
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  • U.S. Entertainer/Businessman and Malaysian National Charged with Back-Channel Lobbying Campaign to Drop 1MDB Investigation and Remove Chinese Dissident from U.S.
    In Crime News
    A federal grand jury in the District of Columbia returned a superseding indictment Thursday charging a U.S. entertainer and businessman and a Malaysian national with orchestrating an unregistered, back-channel campaign beginning in or about 2017 to influence the then-administration of the President of the United States and the Department of Justice both to drop the investigation of Jho Low and others in connection with the international strategic and development company known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), and to send a Chinese dissident back to China.
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    The Department of Justice announced today that it reached a settlement with Quantum Integrators Group (Quantum), an IT consulting and staffing company based in New Jersey. The settlement resolves claims that Quantum (1) discriminated against a lawful permanent resident by requiring her, based on her citizenship status, to provide unnecessary documentation before it would refer her for an employment opportunity, and (2) routinely required other work-authorized non-U.S. citizens to present unnecessary documents to prove their eligibility to work.
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  • Medicaid: HHS’s Preliminary Analyses Offer Incomplete Picture of Behavioral Health Demonstration’s Effectiveness
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014 (PAMA) established the Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHC) demonstration and tasked the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with its implementation. CCBHCs aim to improve the behavioral health services they provide, particularly for Medicaid beneficiaries. Initially established for a 2-year period, the demonstration has been extended by law a number of times; most recently, it was extended to September 2023. States participating in the demonstration can receive Medicaid payments, consistent with federal requirements, for CCBHC services provided to beneficiaries. PAMA also required HHS to assess the effect of the demonstration on service access, costs, and quality. HHS's preliminary assessments of the demonstration in eight states, with 66 participating CCBHCs, found the following: Access. CCBHCs commonly added services related to mental and behavioral health, such as medication-assisted treatment, and took actions to provide services outside the clinic setting, such as through telehealth. Costs. States' average payments to CCBHCs typically exceeded CCBHC costs for the first 2 years of the demonstration. CCBHC payments and costs were more closely aligned in the second year for most states, better reflecting the payment methods prescribed under the demonstration. Quality. States and CCBHCs took steps, such as implementing electronic health records systems, to report performance on 21 quality measures. GAO found data limitations complicated—and will continue to affect—HHS's efforts to assess the effectiveness of the demonstration. For example: Lack of baseline data. PAMA requires HHS to assess the quality of services provided by CCBHCs compared with non-participating areas or states. The demonstration marked the first time these clinics reported performance on quality measures, so no historical baseline data exist. HHS officials noted that with time, additional data may provide insight on the quality of services. Lack of comparison groups. PAMA requires HHS to compare CCBHCs' efforts to increase access and improve quality with non-participating clinics and states. HHS was unable to identify comparable clinics or states due to significant differences among the communities. Lack of detail on Medicaid encounters. PAMA requires HHS to assess the effect of the demonstration on federal and state costs and on Medicaid beneficiaries' access to services. HHS plans to use Medicaid claims and encounter data to assess such changes. However, GAO has previously identified concerns with the accuracy and completeness of Medicaid data and has made numerous recommendations aimed at improving their quality. HHS's decisions in implementing the demonstration also complicated its assessment efforts. HHS allowed states to identify different program goals and target populations, and to cover different services. HHS also did not require states to use standard billing codes and billing code modifiers it developed. The lack of standardization across states limited HHS's ability to assess changes in a uniform way. Why GAO Did This Study Behavioral health conditions—mental health issues and substance use disorders—affect millions of people. HHS estimates that 61 million adults had at least one behavioral health condition in 2019—41 million of whom did not receive any related treatment in the prior year. Many individuals with behavioral health conditions rely on community mental health centers for treatment, but the scope and quality of these services vary. To improve community-based behavioral health services, PAMA created the CCBHC demonstration and provided HHS with $25 million to support its implementation. PAMA directed HHS to assess the demonstration and to provide recommendations for its continuation, modification, or termination. To date, HHS has issued three annual reports assessing the initial demonstration period, which ran from 2017 to 2019. HHS plans to issue a fourth annual report and a final report by December 2021. This report describes HHS's assessment of the demonstration regarding access, costs, and quality. Under the CARES Act, GAO is to issue another report on states' experiences by September 2021. GAO reviewed federal laws and regulations; HHS guidance; and HHS's assessments of the demonstration, including three issued reports, interim reports, and the analysis plan for future reports. GAO also interviewed HHS officials and officials from organizations familiar with community health clinics. HHS provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Carolyn L. Yocom (202) 512-7114 or yocomc@gao.gov.
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  • Priority Open Recommendations: Department of Veterans Affairs
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In April 2020, GAO identified 33 priority recommendations for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Since then, VA has implemented 13 of those recommendations by, among other things, taking actions to ensure that veterans receive evidence-based mental health treatment. In May 2021, GAO identified 8 additional priority recommendations for VA, bringing the total number to 28. These recommendations involve the following areas: response to the COVID-19 pandemic; veterans’ access to timely health care; the veterans community care program; human capital management; information technology; appeals reform for disability benefits; quality of care and patient safety; veteran suicide prevention; efficiency within the VA health care system; national policy documents; procurement policies and practices; and capital planning. Addressing the high priority recommendations identified above has the potential to significantly improve VA's operations, including those related to COVID-19. Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional and/or executive branch decision-making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015 GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202) 512-7114 or clowersa@gao.gov.
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  • DOD Health Care: DOD Should Monitor Implementation of Its Clinical Practice Guidelines
    In U.S GAO News
    As of October 2020, the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) had jointly developed 22 clinical practice guidelines (VA/DOD CPG) that address specific health conditions, including those related to chronic diseases, mental health issues, pain management, and rehabilitation. Such guidelines are important as military and veteran populations may have different health care needs than civilians due to involvement in combat or occupational exposures (e.g., fumes from burn pits) that may amplify physical and psychological stresses. GAO found that DOD and VA considered the health care needs of these populations throughout the guideline development process and that the guidelines include information about these health care needs in different sections. In some cases, the guidelines include treatment recommendations that specifically address the health care needs of the military and veteran populations. In other instances, they may include information about the prevalence of a specific condition for these populations, among other information. Each of the military services (Army, Air Force, and Navy) has its own process for distributing VA/DOD CPGs to providers at their military treatment facilities (MTF). However, DOD's Defense Health Agency (DHA) is in the process of assuming administrative operations—to include distributing guidelines—for all of the military services' MTFs through an incremental transition process that is to be completed by the end of September 2021. While DHA officials acknowledged that they need to develop a uniform distribution process for the guidelines once they complete the transition, MTF providers can currently access the guidelines through VA's designated website and DOD's electronic health record systems. Congress directed DOD to implement VA/DOD CPGs, using means such as providing education and training, and to monitor MTFs' implementation of them. However, GAO found that DHA and the military services are not systematically monitoring MTFs' implementation of these guidelines. While the Army tracks VA/DOD CPG education and training at its MTFs, officials with DHA, the Navy, and the Air Force explained that they have not been monitoring MTF implementation of these guidelines. DHA officials acknowledged that they need to develop a monitoring process as they assume administrative and oversight responsibilities for the military services' MTFs, but have not yet developed a plan to do so. Without a systematic process to monitor MTF implementation of these guidelines, DHA does not know the extent to which MTF providers may be using VA/DOD CPGs to reduce the variability and improve the quality of health care services provided—factors that may contribute to better health outcomes across the military health system. Through DOD's TRICARE program, eligible beneficiaries may receive care from providers at MTFs or from civilian providers. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 required DOD to establish a program to develop, implement, update, and monitor clinical practice guidelines, which are evidence-based treatment recommendations to improve the consistency and quality of care delivered by MTF providers. The Act also included a provision for GAO to assess issues related to the military health system, including the process of ensuring that providers adhere to clinical practice guidelines, and to report annually for 4 years. This is GAO's fourth report based on the Act. This report describes (1) how the process for developing the guidelines considers the health care needs of the military and veteran populations, (2) how they are distributed by the military services to their providers and how providers access them, and (3) the extent to which DHA and the military services monitor MTF implementation of them, among other things. GAO reviewed relevant policies and guidance; analyzed each of the 22 CPGs; and interviewed officials with DOD, the military services, and VA. GAO recommends that DHA work with the military services to develop and implement a systematic process to monitor MTFs' implementation of VA/DOD CPGs. DOD concurred with this recommendation. For more information, contact Debra A. Draper at (202) 512-7114 or draperd@gao.gov.
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