Department Press Briefing – July 16, 2021

Jalina Porter, Principal Deputy Spokesperson

2:03 p.m. EST

MS PORTER: Good afternoon and Happy Friday. Thank you for joining today’s department press briefing. I have two updates at the top before I start taking your questions.

We are deeply saddened to hear that Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui was killed while covering fighting in Afghanistan. Mr. Siddiqui was celebrated for his work on some of the world’s most urgent and challenging news stories and for creating striking images that conveyed a wealth of emotion and the face – and the human face behind the headlines. His brilliant reporting on the Rohingya refugee crisis earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 2018. Siddiqui’s death is a tremendous loss, not only for Reuters and for his media colleagues, but also for the rest of the world. Far too many journalists have been killed in Afghanistan. We continue to call for an end to the violence. A just and durable peace settlement is the only way forward in Afghanistan.

Next, a quick note here on the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic: The Biden administration continues to send vaccines to countries all around the world. By Monday, we expect to deliver millions of vaccines to Bhutan, Nepal, Moldova, Costa Rica, Haiti, Laos, Sri Lanka, Fiji, the Philippines, Argentina, and Jordan. Additionally, in the partnership with the African Union and COVAX, the United States is proud to announce the donation of 25 million COVID-19 vaccines to 49 African countries. The first shipments, planned for the coming days, will head to Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Burkina Faso. We are making progress on this global vaccination effort each day and we will continue to update you as additional doses are shipped.

Let’s go to Jenny Hansler to start us off, please.

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Can you hear me?

MS PORTER: Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for doing this. I was wondering if you could provide us an update on the SIV operation to relocate these Afghans, and whether or not you’re considering expanding that pool out to women and minorities who may be at risk as well. Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thanks, Jenny. So our immediate focus are on eligible and interested Afghan nationals and their families – and of course, that would include women and minorities who are vulnerable and at risk – who have supported the United States and our partners in Afghanistan and are in the SIV application pipeline. As it stands, there are approximately 20,000 Afghan principal applicants at some stage of the SIV process, and as of July of 2021, approximately 50 percent of these applicants are at the initial stage of the process and are pending applicant application. And out of that 20,000, approximately 10,000 of these applicants, they would need to take some action before the U.S. Government can begin processing their case.

Let’s go to Said Arikat.

QUESTION: Thank you, Jalina. First, I want to add my voice to mourning Danish Siddiqui. A tremendous loss, tremendous loss.

And second, two quick questions on the Palestinian issue. It is reported that Mr. Hady Amr has informed the Israelis that there is a tremendous crisis within the Palestinian Authority, especially an economic one, and asked them to help. Can you give us – can you update us on this, and what kind of help is he seeking?

And second, Jalina, very quickly, I mean, 2021 has been a really terrible year for the Palestinians. I mean, so far, according to B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, 474 Palestinian-owned homes and structures have been destroyed, including 150 donor-funded ones, displacing about 656 people, including 259 children. My question is: When will the U.S. say – will say enough is enough on this, time to end it? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thank you, Said. To your first question, well, we don’t have – we don’t discuss private diplomatic conversations, so I don’t have anything further to add to you on that.

And to your second question, I’ll just continue to underscore from here that we know for a fact that President Biden, now obviously Secretary Blinken as well, have always said that the U.S. will center our foreign policy on human rights, and that has not changed. And we believe it is critical to refrain from any unilateral steps that increase tensions and make it more difficult to advance a negotiated two-state solution, and of course, this includes demolition.

Let’s go to Simon Lewis.

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Thanks for your comments about our colleague. I wanted to follow up on that, actually, since that’s something that’s happened in Afghanistan and kind of reflects the worsening security situation in the country. I was wondering, given that the U.S. is in the middle of a pullout of troops from the country, I wondered if you could comment on the worsening security situation. And do you – is this what was expected when the pullout happened, that the country would sort of descend into more violence and more chaos? And is that what you expect to continue to happen as this pullout continues? Thanks.

MS PORTER: Well, Simon, I will tell you that we will always call for peace and, of course, an ongoing end to the violence that plagues Afghanistan. We have urged both sides to, of course, engage in serious negotiations when it comes to a just and durable peace settlement, and outside of that I don’t have anything else to preview for you today.

Let’s go to the line of Eunjung Cho, and I apologize if I mispronounced your name.

QUESTION: Thank you, Jalina. That was perfect. My name is Eunjung Cho with the Voice of America. Can you give us an update on Deputy Secretary Sherman’s trip to Asia? There are reports today quoting senior State Department official that her – she may visit China and that she may discuss North Korea with China. Is it in deputy secretary’s plans to discuss North Korea with China during her trip to Asia?

And my second question: The trilateral meeting among the vice foreign ministers of the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are being resumed after being suspended during the Trump administration. What does the State Department hope to achieve with the revival of this trilateral meeting?

MS PORTER: Thanks for your question. So what I’ll say is that the – Deputy Secretary Sherman will travel to the region. I don’t have anything else to go on beyond what we have in our readouts. I certainly don’t have any travel to announce at this time. If we do, we’ll certainly make those. And I certainly don’t want to get ahead of her meetings for her trip, but that’s all we’ll preview today.

Let’s go to Rosiland Jordan.

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Happy Friday. I wanted to get some more information about the advisory to U.S. businesses about doing any business in Hong Kong with any entities based there and the possible risks to their running afoul of U.S. law. Can you give more context on why the U.S. decided to issue this advisory now, and perhaps just as important, to issue sanctions, secondary sanctions against seven people who work in the office that essentially oversees Hong Kong?

MS PORTER: Thanks, Rosiland. I’ll start off by saying that the United States resolutely stands with the people in Hong Kong. And we’re promoting accountability with additional sanctions on officials connected with the undermining of Hong Kong’s autonomy as well as their democratic institutions and freedoms. And we’re also promoting transparency with a business advisory outlining some of the increased risks of doing business in Hong Kong.

And just to your specific question on sanctions, of course, yes, seven officials were sanctioned today for their actions threatening the peace, security, and stability and autonomy of Hong Kong. Anything beyond that will be issued in our statement online.

Let’s go to the line of Endale Getahun.

QUESTION: Yes, Jalina, can you hear me?

MS PORTER: Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you so much for taking my call from KETO.

I just wanted to follow up on your statement earlier regarding the COVID assistance to Africa. I just wanted to just get to the hotspot in Ethiopia. I know Ethiopian Government is using a – whatever in Tigray region. So how are you going to be verifying this assistance will be a benefit to Tigray region, for the COVID assistance?

And also, I have another follow-up, maybe if you can just touch up – do you have any statements from your embassy in Addis Ababa or the others for the Tigrayans (inaudible) in Addis Ababa and some of them have been detained and incarcerated in an undisclosed area with the Ethiopian Government, and at the same time there – another region, also there is a conflict (inaudible). So what’s your statements on the current situation in Ethiopia? Thank you for taking my call.

MS PORTER: Thank you for your questions. So the United States, of course, is gravely concerned by reports of ongoing hostilities in Tigray, and evidence of escalating military confluence – conflict in Tigray’s western and southern zones. There is, of course, significant risk that such conflict may expand outside of that region. All parties need to end the hostilities and pursue a negotiated ceasefire immediately. Escalating fire will only undermine critical ongoing efforts to deliver much-needed humanitarian relief to the famine-affected populations in Tigray.

Let’s go to Rich Edson.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks, Jalina. I’m just wondering if I can get a response from you on the WHO’s director general saying that there needs to be more access within China to discover the origins of COVID and whether the U.S. views this as sort of the international community – an additional sense of it – pushing more pressure on the Chinese Government.

MS PORTER: Thanks for your question, Rich. I don’t have anything for you on that today, but happy to get back to you with any updates forthcoming.

Let’s go to Guita Aryan.

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. My question is about Iran. Demonstrations have snowballed, and starting from demonstrations against past-due salaries and wages to shortage of electricity and now shortage of water. Do you have any comment on that?

And then my second question is about the Vienna talks. At the end of the sixth round it was reported that the Iranians want guarantee from the U.S. that future administrations will not leave the JCPOA should they come to an agreement now. And now I’m seeing reports that they specifically want the agreement – should any future administration want to leave the agreement, that it should be taken up at the UN Security Council. Can you comment on that as well, please? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thank you. I won’t – I certainly won’t project or comment on any future administrations, but I’ll talk about the one for the time being. Of course, we haven’t gotten to the seventh round of talks yet, but as Secretary Blinken has noted, we are certainly committed to seeking a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA by both the United States and Iran. And if we succeed in doing so, we intend to build on that as a part of a comprehensive approach using a variety of policy tools to address nuclear and other issues of concern.

Now, your question on – to your first question, we’ve certainly seen the reports of Iran shortages and resulting protests, and we continue to urge the Iranian Government to support the Iranian people as they exercise their universal rights to freedom of expression as well as freedom of peaceful assembly.

Let’s go to Doug Byun.

QUESTION: Hi. Can you hear?

MS PORTER: Hi, yes. I can hear you.

QUESTION: Okay. Hi. Thanks for taking my question. I was just wondering if you have any updates on U.S. overtures to North Korea? I mean, has there been any direct or meaningful response from North Korea since Special Envoy Sung Kim reached out to them saying the United States is ready to meet with them anytime, anywhere? And I also have a short follow-up about the deputy secretary’s trip.

MS PORTER: So I don’t have any updates to your first question, so while I still have you on the line, let’s take your second one, please.

QUESTION: Sure. I was just wondering if Special Envoy Sung Kim would be joining the deputy secretary in Tokyo or Seoul since her trip is going to be somewhat focused on North Korea as well.

MS PORTER: I don’t have any updates to make about her trip. For anything further or for any other specific details, I would have to guide you to her announcement with those details.

Let’s take our final question from Owen Churchill.

QUESTION: Hi, yeah. Thanks so much for taking my question, Jalina. Going back to Hong Kong, a couple of questions on that. First of all, what would be your – what would be the State Department’s measure of success with these new sanctions and the business advisory? Are you anticipating any kind of change in Beijing’s behavior as a result of the actions?

And then secondly, we also understand that there were some calls on the administration from advocacy groups to roll out immigration measures to support those fleeing Hong Kong, like either offering asylum or relaxing immigration processes for those people. Can you give us an update on any – on the deliberations on that front, whether there will be any kind of executive action in that department? Thanks a lot.

MS PORTER: So to answer both of your questions, I’ll just say that we stand with Hong Kongers against the PRC’s egregious policies and their actions as well. PRC and Hong Kong authorities wield the national security law and other legislation to make politically motivated arrests as well as prosecution of journalists, opposition politicians, activists, and peaceful protesters. These authorities have created an atmosphere of fear and censorship among the general populace.

So our measures today are in response to these and other actions by the PRC and Hong Kong authorities to undermine protected rights and freedoms as well as democratic institutions and the high degree of autonomy promised to Hong Kong. We will deliver all options to respond to the PRC’s further undermining of protected freedoms and Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. The United States supports the aspirations of people in Hong Kong to sustain the protected freedoms and rights that were promised to them in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a binding international agreement.

That concludes today’s department briefing. Thank you so much for joining us today and have a great weekend ahead.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:25 p.m.)

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    The Department of Defense (DOD) has made progress in establishing valid and reliable cost baselines for its enterprise business operations and has additional efforts ongoing. DOD's January 2020 report responding to section 921 of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 addressed most of the key requirements from that section but also had some limitations, which DOD acknowledged. For example, the baselines included only labor and information technology costs because DOD's financial data do not attribute costs to other specific activities required under section 921. However, DOD officials told GAO they have developed and are continuing to refine baselines for all of the department's enterprise business operations, such as financial and human resource management, to enable DOD to better track the resources devoted to these operations and the progress of reform. While still in progress, this effort shows promise in addressing the weaknesses in DOD's section 921 report and in meeting the need for consistent baselines for DOD's reform efforts that GAO has previously identified. GAO found that DOD's reported savings of $37 billion from its reform efforts and a Defense-Wide Review to better align resources are largely reflected in its budget materials; however, the savings were not always well documented or consistent with the department's definitions of reform. Specifically: DOD had limited information on the analysis underlying its savings estimates, including (1) economic assumptions, (2) alternative options, and (3) any costs of taking the actions to realize savings, such as opportunity costs. Therefore, GAO was unable to determine the quality of the analysis that led to DOD's savings decisions. Further, some of the cost savings initiatives were not clearly aligned with DOD's definitions of reform, and thus DOD may have overstated savings that came from its reform efforts rather than other sources of savings, like cost avoidance. For example, one initiative was based on the delay of military construction projects. According to DOD officials, this was done to fund higher priorities. But if a delayed project is still planned, the costs will likely be realized in a future year. Without processes to standardize development and documentation of savings and to consistently identify reform savings based on reform definitions, decision makers may lack reliable information on DOD's estimated reform savings. In coordinating its reform efforts, DOD has generally followed leading practices for collaboration, but there is a risk that this collaboration may not be sustained in light of any organizational changes that Congress or DOD may make. This risk is increased because the Office of the Chief Management Officer (OCMO) and other offices have not formalized and institutionalized these efforts through written policies or agreements. Without written policies or formal agreements that define how organizations should collaborate with regard to DOD's reform and efficiency efforts, current progress may be lost, and future coordination efforts may be hindered. DOD spends billions of dollars each year to maintain key business operations. Section 921 of the NDAA for FY 2019 established requirements for DOD to reform these operations and report on their efforts. DOD has also undertaken additional efforts to reform its operations in recent years. Section 921 called for GAO to assess the accuracy of DOD's reported cost baselines and savings, and section 1753 of the NDAA for FY 2020 called for GAO to report on the OCMO's efficiency initiatives. This report assesses the extent to which DOD has (1) established valid and reliable baseline cost estimates for its business operations; (2) established well-documented cost savings estimates reflecting its reforms; and (3) coordinated its reform efforts. GAO assessed documents supporting costs, savings estimates, and coordination efforts; interviewed DOD officials; observed demonstrations of DOD's reform tracking tools; and assessed DOD's efforts using selected criteria. GAO is making three recommendations—specifically, that DOD establish formal processes to standardize development and documentation of cost savings; ensure that reported savings are consistent with the department's definition of reform; and formalize policies or agreements on its reform efforts. DOD concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Elizabeth Field at (202) 512-2775 or fielde1@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
    The United States filed a forfeiture complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia alleging that all oil aboard a Liberian-flagged vessel, the M/T Achilleas (Achilleas), is subject to forfeiture based on U.S. terrorism forfeiture laws. The complaint alleges a scheme involving multiple entities affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the IRGC-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to covertly ship Iranian oil to a customer abroad.  Participants in the scheme attempted to disguise the origin of the oil using ship-to-ship transfers, falsified documents, and other means, and provided a fraudulent bill of lading to deceive the owners of the Achilleas into loading the oil in question. 
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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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  • Justice Department Settles Sexual Harassment and Retaliation Lawsuit Securing $342,500 for Two Female Firefighters and Changes to the Houston Fire Department’s Training Practices
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department announced today that it has reached a settlement with the City of Houston resolving allegations that personnel at Houston Fire Department (HFD) Station 54 discriminated and retaliated against former firefighter Jane Draycott in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII is a federal statute that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex and religion.   
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  • Department of Justice Files Statement of Interest Challenging New Mexico’s More Stringent COVID-19 Capacity Limits on Private Schools than Public Schools
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice today filed a statement of interest in a New Mexico federal court asserting that the States’ COVID-19 rules limiting private schools to operating at 25% of capacity but allowing public schools to operate at 50% of capacity violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
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  • Heavy Lift Helicopter Program: Navy Should Address Cost and Schedule Risks
    In U.S GAO News
    Fifteen years into development, the CH-53K program has made progress in testing the aircraft. Program documentation indicates that there is a moderate risk of not demonstrating the required levels of reliability or payload carrying weight by the end of operational testing. The technical issues identified during testing caused program milestones to slip. For example, the full-rate production decision was delayed by nearly 7 years—from December 2015 to November 2022. CH-53K total program costs also increased by nearly $15.3 billion since the program began due to technical issues and a quantity increase fielded helicopters from 156 to 200. The program faces several challenges going forward. First, the schedule for completing the development of the CH-53K does not meet all of the leading practices, which makes the schedule unreliable. Specifically, GAO found that the master schedule is not fully credible or well-constructed. For example, the schedule indicates there is more flexibility in the schedule than it truly has, which can affect the ability to change allocated resources appropriately to meet schedule milestones. Second, the program faces potential further cost increases due to concurrency—or overlap between testing and procurement—which has increased due to delays in the completion of testing. In previous reviews of weapon systems, GAO found that while some concurrency is understandable, it can also result in cost increases and schedule delays, and deny timely, critical information to policy makers. Concurrency, coupled with plans for increased numbers of helicopters to be produced, beyond the six per year currently being built, could result in costly retrofits to helicopters built before the completion of operational testing. This testing will provide decision makers needed information on the resolution of the technical issues facing the program (see figure). CH-53K Helicopter Testing and Procurement, Fiscal Years 2017-2030 The Marine Corps is replacing its aging CH-53E helicopters with the CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter. Designed as an evolution of the CH-53E, the CH-53K is intended to transport armored vehicles, equipment, and personnel from ships to deep inland locations. The CH-53K program office is overseen by the Department of the Navy. As we have previously reported, the program has experienced delayed milestones and cost increases from almost its inception in 2005, in part, due to technical issues. GAO was asked to review the CH-53K program. This report examines the program's (1) progress toward completing testing and demonstrating system experience, (2) schedule and cost performance to date, and (3) potential future challenges. GAO analyzed cost, schedule, performance, test, manufacturing, and planning documents; and interviewed officials from the CH-53K program office, other defense offices—such as the Defense Contract Management Agency—the testing community, and the prime contractor, Sikorsky. GAO recommends that the Navy take steps to ensure the CH-53K schedule is credible and well-constructed, and that the Navy should not exceed the current annual procurement of six helicopters per year until the completion of initial operational test and evaluation. The Department of Defense did not concur with these recommendations. GAO continues to believe that the recommendations are valid, as discussed in this report. For more information, contact Jon Ludwigson at (202) 512-4841 or ludwigsonj@gao.gov.
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    Today a Tennessee resident with German citizenship was removed to Germany for participating in Nazi-sponsored acts of persecution while serving as an armed guard at a Nazi concentration camp in 1945.
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    The Judiciary implores Congress to pass the Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act of 2020 during the current lame duck session. The bipartisan bill if passed, would improve security at judges’ homes and at federal courthouses across the country.
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    In Crime News
    The United States has seized 92 domain names that were unlawfully used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to engage in a global disinformation campaign, announced the Department of Justice. 
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