Department Press Briefing – March 1, 2021

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

Washington, D.C.

2:47 p.m. EST

MR PRICE: I’m sorry on two fronts: one, that we’re starting a couple minutes late, and two, it is obviously very warm in here. I’m – been told we’ll have this fixed tomorrow. But let’s get started.

On Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published an unclassified report on the gruesome killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

Today, as President Biden mentioned, I’d like to place this step in the context of a larger effort to recalibrate the terms of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.

From the start, this administration sent a frank message to Saudi leaders. We seek a partnership that reflects our important work together and our shared interests and priorities, but also one conducted with greater transparency, responsibility, and accord with America’s values. In re-establishing U.S. expectations for our relationship with Saudi Arabia, our intent is to make this partnership – which already spans some 80 years – even more sustainable going forward.

That starts with Yemen. President Biden used his first major foreign policy address right here at the State Department to reorient U.S. policy around ending the war in Yemen and addressing the humanitarian crisis in that country. He announced the end of U.S. support for offensive operations, including relevant arms sales, and the administration immediately halted two arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

President Biden not simply change our policy to cut off U.S. support for offensive military operations, he doubled and redoubled American diplomacy to end the war itself. The administration named a special envoy for Yemen, a well-respected senior diplomat, a Foreign Service officer, Tim Lenderking, who is traveling in the Gulf right now, his second in the region since assuming that position. And he’s working closely with the UN to bring the parties together to bring this conflict to an end. We have been encouraged by the cooperation we’ve received to date from Saudi Arabia and believe we initiated a process that is gaining momentum to achieve a negotiated settlement to the conflict and to bring peace to the Yemeni people.

On the humanitarian front, earlier today Secretary Blinken participated in a high-level pledging conference for Yemen where he announced nearly $191 million in additional U.S. humanitarian assistance, bringing total U.S. aid to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people as well as refugees and other forcibly displaced persons in Yemen to more than 3.4 billion since this crisis began some six years ago. Our assistance reaches all corners of Yemen. We also have been working to ensure generous contributions to the humanitarian relief effort by other donors, including, importantly, governments in the region. But the political track must support these humanitarian efforts.

We also continue our efforts to help Saudi Arabia defend itself from external attacks against the kingdom. On Saturday night, with our support, Saudi Arabia successfully intercepted several UAVs and a ballistic missile with which the Houthis tried to attack innocent civilians in Riyadh and other locations in the kingdom. Based on these complex Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia, we are considering taking additional steps to promote accountability for the Houthi leadership. We call on the Houthis to cease not only their cross-border raids into Saudi Arabia, but also their military offensive in Marib, agree to a ceasefire, and to come to the negotiating table. To make progress towards peace, Houthi conduct will have to change, too.

Now, on human rights, we have made clear to Saudi leaders that we see value in sustaining our partnership, but actions like jailing women’s rights activists and Americans and holding them for months or even years without charges – those undermine our ties. It undermines our cooperation. We have been encouraged in recent weeks to see Saudi Arabia release several U.S. citizens and human rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul from custody. But we are urging Saudi Arabia to take additional steps to lift travel bans on those released, to commute sentences, and resolve cases such as those women rights activists and others.

We also want to make clear that our leadership would not ignore or minimize egregious misconduct. That takes us back to the beginning. On Friday, our Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an unclassified assessment of the responsibility for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Going forward, our aim is to take steps to ensure a crime like this can never happen again.

To that end, the State Department will further enhance documentation in its annual Human Rights Report of incidents where countries extraterritorially harass or target dissidents, activists, or journalists.

We added another former senior Saudi intelligence official, Ahmad al-Asiri, to the list of those designated under Global Magnitsky sanctions for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

The department announced a new visa policy that empowers the Secretary of State to suspend entry into this country by any individual believed to be actively engaged in extraterritorial abuse of dissidents or journalists on behalf of a foreign government. We call this visa restrictions policy under Section 212(a)(3)(C) of the INA, the Khashoggi Ban. As an initial step under this new global authority, we’ve taken action to impose visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals involved in the Khashoggi killing or in other acts of territorial repression. It is our intention to prevent them and their immediate family members from ever setting foot on American soil again.

We are aware of a network known as the Rapid Intervention Force, a unit of the Saudi royal guard,that has engaged in counter-dissident operations, including the operation that resulted in the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Others, like Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmad al-Asiri, led the planning of the operation against Khashoggi. We have sanctioned the group and these individuals under the Global Magnitsky sanctions that are working – and we are working to share information about this group’s practices with other governments as well.

We are committed to applying the Khashoggi Ban and other tools as deemed appropriate. We have urged Saudi Arabia to disband this group and then adopt institutional, systemic reforms and controls to ensure that anti-dissident activities and operations cease and cease completely. We have made crystal clear and will continue to do so that the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi 28 months ago remains unacceptable conduct.

At the same time, our relationship with Saudi Arabia is important. It’s important to U.S. interests and it requires continued progress and reforms to ensure that this important partnership rests on strong fundamentals and continues to advance our shared objectives in the Middle East. We seek to accomplish a great deal with the Saudis: to end the war in Yemen and ease Yemen’s humanitarian crisis; to use our leadership to forge ties across the region’s most bitter divide, whether that’s finding the way back from the brink of war with Iran into a meaningful regional dialogue or forging a historic peace with Israel; to help young Saudis open their society to connect to the world, to seize their full potential, and to build ties with Americans. But we can only address these many important challenges in a partnership with Saudi Arabia that respects America’s values.

Looking ahead, Saudi actions will determine how much of this ambitious shared positive agenda we can achieve. We are working to put the Saudi relationship on the right footing, to move the region toward greater peace and prosperity while also addressing those very grave concerns that the President and our team share with Congress and many Americans. In all that we do, U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia will be guided by and founded on America’s foundational values. That is what you saw last week and that is what you will see going forward.

So with that, Matt.

QUESTION: Okay. Wow. Well, there was a lot there, and I’ve got a lot to ask, but I’ll start with just on Saudi. You do acknowledge, though, that the fact that you did not impose any specific sanctions on the crown prince on Friday or today has raised some concerns among people. You accept that, yes?

MR PRICE: I’ve heard reactions since Friday.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) not asking – okay. So, over the weekend – I guess yesterday, specifically – your White House colleague said that the reason or one of the reasons is that you traditionally – historically – don’t impose sanctions on the leadership of countries with which you have diplomatic relations. Is that also your take on this?

MR PRICE: I stand by what my colleague said.

QUESTION: Okay. Because – and the reason I ask is that’s just simply not true. I can give you a number of examples. I’ve written down – Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Myanmar. Even yesterday the National Security Advisor threatened new sanctions on Myanmar’s leadership. We can go to Sudan. All of these are countries with which the United States has had – has diplomatic relations. We can look at Syria and Venezuela, places where the U.S. has suspended operations at its embassy but has not severed diplomatic ties. All of those countries, the leaders have had sanctions imposed on them. So I don’t understand how this is an argument.

MR PRICE: Matt, what is also true is that there are countries around the world – and I need not name them; I’m sure they are familiar to you – with whom we have profound disagreements. These countries in many cases are competitors; in some cases, some of our staunchest competitors. In some cases, they are adversaries. And in most of those cases, we do not have sanctions on their leadership.

I think what I would say to your question – and this gets back to what I was referring to at the top – we have talked about this, in terms of our partnership with Saudi Arabia, as a recalibration. It’s not a rupture. And I would contextualize that by making the point that it is undeniable that Saudi Arabia is a hugely influential country in the Arab world and beyond. What happens in Saudi Arabia will and has had profound implications well beyond Saudi Arabia’s borders. To be sure, the choices that Riyadh makes will have outsized implications for the region and outsized implications for countries in the region and countries beyond the region, including for the United States.

Our goal in all of this, Matt, is to be able to shape those choices going forward. That’s why we have talked about this not as a rupture, but a recalibration, to ensure that we retain that influence in what we need for our own interests to be a partnership.

QUESTION: Okay, I get that. But it’s not correct that the United States has historically not imposed sanctions on countries or the leaders of countries, the leadership of countries —

MR PRICE: Matt, there are – there are limited exceptions to that, but they are exceptional because – precisely because they are exceptions.

QUESTION: No, no, no. One, two, three, four – I just named five, six countries plus two that you’ve closed down the embassies on and —

MR PRICE: Matt, there are other countries – and I need not name them; you know them – with whom we have adversarial relationships or competitive relationships —

QUESTION: North Korea, but you don’t have diplomatic relations with them. So I just – that argument – I’m trying to get you to say that you acknowledge that that argument is not correct.

MR PRICE: Matt, I would rather not argue about a rather picayune point. I would rather talk about —

QUESTION: Well, you might think that it’s picayune, but I don’t. And if you’re going to go out and say that this is historically an American foreign policy tradition, then it should be historically an American foreign policy tradition. It isn’t.

Anyway, moving on, just – and I’ll stop after this. In terms of the weapons, you’ve talked about the President’s announcement that you’re going to stop selling offensive weapons to Saudi for the Yemen campaign, but what about offensive weapons for Saudi to defend itself in the event that it is attacked? I guess you could – I guess there’s a fine-line distinction between offensive and defensive, but —

MR PRICE: Right.

QUESTION: Well, how are you going to deal with that?

MR PRICE: So we have made clear repeatedly – I just did in the topper; I did over the weekend on Sunday, I believe it was, in the aftermath of the latest attempted Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia – that we stand with Saudi Arabia in its efforts to defend itself. Our technology was important to the defense in the particular attack – attempted attack, I should say, this week. The broader point is that for any weapons sales or transfers, there is now a process in place, thanks to President Biden and his efforts to recalibrate this relationship from the start, that will evaluate, on a case-by-case basis, proposed weapons sales and transfers based on two criteria: our interests and our values. And that second point, that latter point, is incredibly important in this case.

The point we have been making from the start, and it’s a point I have made before from this podium, is that America, the United States, we will never check our values at the door even when it comes to our closest security relationships. It was actually President Biden himself who made precisely that point in October of last year on the second anniversary of the brutal murder – excuse me – of Jamal Khashoggi. You have seen that take place and come to fruition, including in the context of this very relationship we’re talking about. The NSC leads a process to evaluate proposed weapons transfers. That’s the way it should be. They’ll be evaluated based on those criteria on a case-by-case basis going forward.

Yes, Humeyra.

QUESTION: Following up on Khashoggi, so your White House colleague today said the United States reserves the right to sanction Saudi crown prince if necessary. I mean, what more needs to happen for the U.S. to consider sanctioning the crown prince, since the intel community has concluded that this is a person that approved the operation of a hit squad, taking along with themselves the bone saw that resulted in the horrific murder of Khashoggi. Are you guys giving them some time to fix behavior or something? What is the “if necessary?”

MR PRICE: Well, as I have said, we are very focused on future conduct, and that is part of why we have cast this not as a rupture but a recalibration. We are trying to get to the system – systemic issues underlying the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It’s precisely why the Department of the Treasury sanctioned Ahmad al-Asiri for his direct role in the Istanbul operation. It’s also why we designated this underlying group, the Rapid Intervention Force, as an entity under the Global Magnitsky Act. It’s precisely why we’ve added 76 individuals to the Khashoggi Ban, and it’s precisely why we announced that Khashoggi Ban in the first place. And that is a policy, that is a ban that applies not only to Saudi Arabia – of course, it was rolled out and its namesake is, of course, what we’re talking about now – but it is a policy that will apply across the board to all of those countries, including to Saudi Arabia, that would dare undertake extraterritorial harassment, persecution, even violence against dissidents.

Now, it is true that we talked about the 76 who were – that we made reference of in the context of the Khashoggi Ban on Friday. As we said at that time, we’re not in a position to detail the identity of those included in that list of 76, nor will we be able to preview those who may be added in the future.

But there will certainly be consequences. There has been consequences for the conduct we’ve saw. I enumerated those measures before. And there will – there was remedial action taken to get to those systemic challenges that we saw come to the fore in the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi more than two years ago now.

Yes.

QUESTION: Could you please respond specifically to the criticism of the UN human rights investigator Agnes Callamard? She said it was “extremely dangerous” for the U.S. to have named Mohammed bin Salman as having approved the operation and not to take action against it. She called it like going to court, being found guilty, and then escaping punishment.

And a second question on the same topic: What message does it send if the Biden administration does not sanction Mohammed bin Salman because it’s not in the national interest, but it keeps its maximum pressure campaign on the sanctions side of it with Iran without even easing any sanctions as a confidence-building measure before getting to talks? What message does that send? It seems uneven.

MR PRICE: Let me take your first question first. In her confirmation hearing, then-designate Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines made clear that the United States would follow the law. When it comes to this report – this is not a new report. This is a report that was completed by our Intelligence Community more than a year ago. That law has been on the books for quite some time. DNI Designate Haines made clear that this administration, which at the time was the incoming administration and now the present administration, would follow the law. And I believe she said in all instances we will follow the law, which, of course, is true.

But she also spoke of our commitment to transparency. So yes, we are fulfilling the legislative prerogative that has been on the books for some time now. We are complying with the law. But we are also complying with our respect for the principle of transparency. We think that transparency is important in this case not only because it is enshrined in law, but also because it is a foundational principle of the principle of informed citizenry. This was a brutal murder, and we are committed – committed to seeing to it that this report saw the light of day.

Now, I take it there was some criticism of this. I don’t think we’re going to apologize for being predisposed to transparency or to ceaselessly fulfilling our commitment to follow the law. That is precisely what we will do going forward: ensuring we remain committed to the principle of transparency consistent with national security, and, of course, to following the law.

Now, on the issue of Iran, look, these are apples and oranges. I would hesitate to even address these two issues in the same breath. But since you raised Iran, look, we have been very clear that the best place for the United States and the Iranians to discuss the diplomatic path forward, the path forward that President Biden spoke to even before he assumed high office, was in the context of talks with the P5+1 that the Europeans have brokered – have offered to broker.

Now, understand there have been developments in that regard. I’m happy to speak to that. We are not dogmatic about the form and the format of those talks. We believe that – we continue to believe that diplomacy is the most effective means to ensure that Iran is permanently and verifiably prevented from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon. But again, I think these things are apples and oranges. We have addressed our approach to Iran, we have addressed our approach to Saudi Arabia, and we stand by that.

Yes.

QUESTION: So Friday’s report included a list of the individuals the U.S. says is complicit with Khashoggi’s murder. But shortly after the publication, three names were removed, leading some to ask if the Biden administration was protecting some Saudi officials. What’s your response to that?

MR PRICE: No, this was a report that was put out by the director of – the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It was a report that was authored by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. This President has said – and I believe Avril Haines, the current DNI, said on Friday – that under this administration, politics and political influence and intelligence are completely separate. So I would have to refer you to the DNI to speak to the details of that report. I just don’t have anything for you from here.

Andrea.

QUESTION: When you are ready to switch to Navalny.

MR PRICE: Anything else on Saudi?

QUESTION: One more on Saudi.

QUESTION: Take two?

MR PRICE: Sure. Couple more, sure.

QUESTION: So one thing that you said just now is that the Biden administration has taken steps to ensure that a crime like this – obviously the murder of Khashoggi – will never happen again. But I just – I think what we’re all trying to get at still is why do you think that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will never back an action like this to murder a dissident if he himself isn’t facing any direct consequence?

MR PRICE: Again, we feel that we can have the most influence over this partnership when it is cast as a recalibration and not a rupture. Were there to be something more dramatic and something more drastic than what we have talked about, I think the influence that we would have over any foreign leader, be it Mohammed bin Salman or any other world leader in question, would be greatly diminished. That is why we have cast this the way we have.

But look, you can look at this in terms of what we have done since January of this year, and you can also look at it in terms of the steps, albeit incomplete, in the right direction that we’ve seen. So let me start with the former. When you talk about how our approach has set to – has set out to recalibrate this relationship, first, we released the report. That’s what we’ve been talking about since Friday. It is what has sparked the dialogue that we have had since then. Again, we complied with the law, but we also complied with our own commitment to transparency.

We have – second, we have ended America’s support for this brutal war in Yemen. We have not only ended our support for that – for those offensive weapons, but we have prioritized diplomacy and humanitarian assistance. On diplomacy, you saw the President himself appoint Tim Lenderking, a career Foreign Service officer. Tim Lenderking, who is now – is now on his second trip to the region in just a few weeks since taking that post.

And today, you heard Secretary Blinken pledge nearly $191 million in humanitarian assistance for the people of Yemen. We have worked with the region, and well beyond the region, in fact, to encourage the international community to raise its ambition knowing that Yemen is now home to the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, and the international community has a special responsibility to the long-suffering people of Yemen, and that’s what we’re committed to.

Third, I’ve talked about our new approach to arms sales and to arms transfers putting this back into regular order, putting this back into a framework that preserves not only our interests but also our values through this NSC-led process.

Fourth, we haven’t been afraid to speak up on behalf of human rights, on behalf of the values we share with countries around the world. Whether that’s in the context of Saudi Arabia, whether that is in any other context, that constitutes this recalibration of the relationship that we’ve talked about.

Now, as I said, there have been some steps in recent months in the right direction. The release of Loujain al-Hathloul I mentioned before. Two American citizens – two other American citizens have been released in Saudi Arabia. These have obviously been goals of ours. And we certainly welcomed the release, and we will continue pressing for similar release of other – of others who are held.

Of course, Saudi Arabia has also ended the blockade against Qatar. All of these constitutes – constitute steps in the right direction – very incomplete. We will remain committed to seeing additional progress on these and other areas, but they are signs of progress nevertheless, yes.

QUESTION: Okay, one question just on travel.

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Secretary Blinken said in his statement on Friday, “As a matter of safety for all within our borders, perpetrators targeting perceived dissidents on behalf of any foreign government should not be permitted to reach American soil.” Clearly MBS falls into that category based on the report that was declassified last week. So will MBS be given a waiver to visit the United States? Will he be able to come to the United States at all?

MR PRICE: So let me just repeat: As we have said, we are not in a position to detail the names of those who are subject to the Khashoggi Ban or other potential remedial measures, nor will we be able to preview those who may be added in the future. Having said that, I am certainly not aware of any plans for the crown prince to travel to the United States in the near term.

Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you. Can I move on?

QUESTION: Do you regard MBS as – do you regard the crown prince as a head of government? Because that’s not his title. And while everyone assumes that he’s the de facto not only head of government but head of state, his title is deputy prime minister and defense minister. So do you —

MR PRICE: I – I don’t think you’re going to hear any arguing from me on that point. As my colleague at the White House has repeatedly said, we are moving this back into a framework of counterpart to counterpart. The counterpart of the President of the United States is King Salman.

QUESTION: No, no, I got – I get that. But that’s head of state to head of state, and so you have – you know the difference between the head of state and the head of government, right? So in a country like Saudi Arabia or in Great Britain, for example, the head of state is different than the head of government. So you don’t regard – well, in Saudi Arabia it is the same person, so —

MR PRICE: The counterpart of the President of the United States is King Salman. The counterpart —

QUESTION: You do not regard MBS as the head of government of Saudi Arabia?

MR PRICE: I am – what I am saying is that the counterpart of President Biden is King Salman. The counterpart of Secretary Blinken is Foreign Minister Farhan. The counterpart of Secretary Austin is Mohammed bin Salman.

Yes.

QUESTION: Can I move on?

MR PRICE: Anything else on Saudi before we move on? I see a lot of hands, so I think the answer is no. I’m also cognizant it is very hot in here.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Navalny.

QUESTION: Just one quick —

MR PRICE: I hear Navalny. Anything else on Saudi?

QUESTION: Yes.

MR PRICE: Okay. All right. Yes, please.

QUESTION: Thank you. Abderrahim from Al Jazeera. For the Biden administration, the political future of Mohammed bin Salman, is it something for the Saudis to decide themselves or does the U.S. think it has and must have a dog in the race?

MR PRICE: That we must have a – I didn’t hear you.

QUESTION: A dog in the race.

MR PRICE: Well, we have a dog in the race to ensure that the partnership we have with Saudi Arabia is consistent with our interests but also is reflective of and respects our values. That is the dog we have in this race. That is why we have announced the measures that we did on Friday.

Anything else on Saudi? You’ve asked – yes, Conor.

QUESTION: Just quickly, you mentioned the Yemen donor conference. It fell short by half of what the United Nations was asking for. Are you disappointed, as the secretary-general said that he is? And if so, why didn’t you provide more funding?

MR PRICE: Well, what I would say is that this fiscal year is not yet over. I certainly wouldn’t commit to the idea of the 191 million, which is not an insignificant sum, being the totality of what the United States will be able to put forward going forward. What I would also say is that combined with the nearly 160 million the United States provided at the end of last year, the United States has provided more than 350 million since the beginning of FY 2021. In total – and I mentioned this before – we are one of the largest single donors to the humanitarian response. We have provided more than $3.4 billion to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people since this humanitarian crisis began several years ago.

We are – our message to the region, to the international community more broadly, is that collectively we have to raise our ambition. Collectively we have to do all we can to ensure the alleviation of the people of Yemen. The United States put up today; other countries made generous donations. We need to keep that momentum going. We need to build on that.

Yes.

QUESTION: Were you disappointed as well?

MR PRICE: We need to build on that momentum.

QUESTION: So are you saying – are you just saying that —

QUESTION: Can I ask – just follow up on this?

MR PRICE: Matt, we need to – it’s —

QUESTION: I get it, but are we going to stay on Yemen or are we going to go on to —

MR PRICE: No, I am staying on Saudi and – yes.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Can you say how far up, how senior the list of 76 are? And can you exclude the presence of MBS on that list?

MR PRICE: I’m not including or excluding anyone specifically on that list. What we have said is that we’re not in a position to detail who may be on that list. It is a policy when it comes to visa bans generally.

Yes, Said.

QUESTION: Thank you. I want to move on.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PRICE: Okay, we’re – Matt, I’ll handle —

QUESTION: Perhaps to things that are a bit more mundane, but —

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Yemen?

MR PRICE: I think we are still on Yemen/Saudi.

QUESTION: Oh, Jesus Christ.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Anas Elsabbar from Sky News Arabia. I was wondering – you have mentioned that you have contributed or helped the Saudis to counter one of the attacks, Houthi attacks. And I was wondering if you are considering any other measures besides the mission of the special envoy to put more pressure on the Houthis.

MR PRICE: Oh, we are. And I mentioned in the topper – I know it was very long, but – that we are looking at additional ways to apply additional pressure on the Houthi leadership. The reprehensible conduct of the Houthi leadership, its threats and its attacks against the Saudis, its – the way it has inflicted humanitarian suffering on the people of Yemen, those are things we will not countenance. So we are looking at ways we can counter that conduct in a productive and constructive way.

Others on Yemen/Saudi?

QUESTION: Well, yeah, on exactly that point. You’re looking at additional ways to put – you just took, less than a month ago, took pressure off the Houthi leadership by removing the three Houthi leaders from the SDG – specially designated – SDGT list. So are you now – have you now come to the conclusion that that may have been a mistake? Because since that happened and since the Houthis were removed from the FTO list, I count at least four times that you guys have come out with condemnations of Houthi offensive operations, both in Yemen itself and attacks on Saudi Arabia. So was that a mistake in retrospect, to remove the leaders, the three leaders?

MR PRICE: As you and I have discussed previously, the Houthi leadership, they remain subject to U.S. and UN sanctions. It was not a mistake to do everything we could within our power to alleviate the humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people. Again, more than 80 percent of Yemen’s population lives under Houthi control. The broad designation of Ansarallah we determined – the Biden administration determined, and Secretary Blinken signed off on the fact that the – this broad designation was not alleviating, but it was in fact adding to the humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people. We can hold the Houthi leadership to account without leaving Yemen’s civilian population in the rhetorical crossfire.

QUESTION: Yeah, and if I —

MR PRICE: We can do both of those things.

QUESTION: And if I pull out my lighter, I can burn the strawman down that you just created. I am talking about the specific designations of the leaders, not the FTO. They were removed at the same time as the FTO designation. And now you’re saying today that we’re looking at additional ways to put pressure on the Houthi leadership. So are you saying now that you’re considering putting them back on the SDGT list, or not?

MR PRICE: Matt, I am saying —

QUESTION: Don’t – let’s not talk about the broad – the FTO designation. I’m talking specifically about the leaders, because that’s who you’re talking about.

MR PRICE: I am saying that we are looking at ways – policy measures – that will advance our interests consistent with our values. That is what we do across the board. It is in our interest to ensure that – or to see to it, to do everything we can, that this reprehensible conduct on the part of the Houthi leadership comes to an end. It is also in our interests – and consistent with our values – to ensure we do not add to the humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people. We can do both.

QUESTION: So what additional measures can you take, then?

MR PRICE: Obviously, we’re not going to preview any measures before we’re in a position to announce them, so —

QUESTION: Can we move on? Thank you.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PRICE: We’ve covered a lot on this front. I hear Navalny, and I see my colleague pointing to the clock, so we’ll go to Navalny briefly. Said, I’ll come to you before the end.

QUESTION: I really need to ask you, on the record, a couple questions on the Palestinian issue. Okay.

MR PRICE: But let’s —

QUESTION: Can I just get one question on Russia?

QUESTION: Go ahead. (Inaudible.)

MR PRICE: I will come right back to you.

QUESTION: As long as I’m in line after —

MR PRICE: I will come right back to you.

QUESTION: Okay. Navalny has been sent to a particular labor camp which, according to our colleagues there and others in the movement, is particularly difficult – out of touch, no mail, no contact for at least two years if not longer. Is there – first, what are we doing with the EU? Because the EU mentioned that there was perhaps this week going to be steps taken. Are we working with the EU, and is that coming imminently? And what else might we be doing unilaterally, if anything?

MR PRICE: We have been working extraordinarily closely with the European Union, with our broader like-minded partners, on the issue of human rights and Russia, including the issue of Mr. Navalny, and those who have been unjustly detained in the aftermath of his arrest.

I wouldn’t want to speak to measures that the EU may have coming. I wouldn’t want to speak to any measures that we may have coming. But suffice it to say that we have coordinated very closely. Nothing we do would take the EU by surprise, and vice versa. Because we know, across every challenge, whether it is human rights in Russia, whether it’s ending this horrific war in Yemen, whether it is taking on our competitors, we know that across every challenge, when we bring our allies and partners with us, we have maximum impact. That’s what we have been doing on human rights in Russia, and I suspect you will see more of that going forward.

QUESTION: Well, what – can you give us a time frame? How imminent is action going to be?

MR PRICE: I wouldn’t want to characterize it. I will say that we’ve been working on it as an urgent challenge. We recognize that this is a challenge we have to speak out on, continue to speak out on with one voice, and we need to work on both in rhetoric. And indeed, in terms of rhetoric, you saw the G7 statement from our closest partners and allies condemning the arrest of Mr. Navalny several weeks ago now. That will not be the extent of our coordination on this, but I wouldn’t want to put a specific time frame on it beyond noting that we see this as an urgent priority and have treated it as such.

QUESTION: But what’s the message to the dissident movement, which may indeed be crushed by Russia?

MR PRICE: Our message to the dissident community has been consistent. Our message is that Russia must release those detained for exercising their human rights. That includes Aleksey Navalny. We’ve condemned the Russian Government’s sustained efforts to silence the Russian people, including those of the opposition. As we have said, we consider Mr. Navalny’s detention to be politically motivated. We’re concerned at the latest actions, including what you referenced as well. We have reiterated – excuse me – our call for the Russian Government to immediately and to unconditionally release Mr. Navalny, all those wrongfully detained during the peaceful demonstrations now – in January, and all those since detained for exercising their rights to free expression, free assembly, and to free association.

Said.

QUESTION: Thank you. Very quickly. Today the Israelis announced expanding (inaudible), which is a settlement just north of Bethlehem on privately owned Palestinian land. Now, in the past, not the past administration but before that, there was always a very strong position taken by U.S. administration whenever settlements were built on privately owned land. Do you have a position on this? Are you aware of this?

MR PRICE: We do have a position on this, and it is a position that I have voiced in this room before.

QUESTION: Yes, but – that’s today. Thank you, Ned.

MR PRICE: Well, our position hasn’t changed today. Our position is consistent. We encouraged Israel to avoid unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and make it more difficult to preserve the viability of a two-state solution. You have heard in many different forms this administration endorse its vision and the longstanding bipartisan vision of a two-state solution. Any steps that put that two-state solution further out of reach, we have opposed and we continue to do so.

QUESTION: Now, Ned, last week you issued a statement on the meeting of the AHLC, the Ad Hoc Committee. Now, there was no mention normally – on Palestine – there was no mention of UNRWA or restoring aid, or let’s say aiding the hospitals in East Jerusalem and so on. So tell us about what’s going on with UNRWA. Are you resuming aid to UNRWA? Is it going to be retroactive aid? Is it happening now? Is it not happening?

MR PRICE: Said, I think as you’ve heard me say before, we intend to provide assistance that will benefit all Palestinians, including refugees. We are in the process of determining how to move forward on resuming all forms of that assistance consistent with U.S. law.

QUESTION: But we’re not talking about refugees, we’re talking about UNRWA. Are you going to resume aid to UNRWA?

MR PRICE: Said, we have said before —

QUESTION: Very simple, UNRWA is – you’ve aided UNRWA all throughout its existence. Now, are you going to resume that aid, or are you not going to resume that?

MR PRICE: I don’t have anything new for you today beyond saying and reiterating that we intend to provide assistance that will benefit all Palestinians, including refugees.

QUESTION: Just briefly on Israel and Palestine. Has the State Department reversed the – Mr. Pompeo’s determination that the settlements in the occupied territories are not necessarily illegal?

MR PRICE: So we wouldn’t comment on any internal deliberative processes here, and that’s a rule across the board. What we would stress is that our focus is on encouraging Israel and the Palestinians to avoid, as I said before, unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and that make it more difficult to preserve the viability of a two-state solution.

QUESTION: So is it under review, then? Is it under review?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PRICE: Again, we’re not going to comment on any internal deliberative process.

QUESTION: Well, wait, wait, does that – that suggests that there is a deliberative process going on.

MR PRICE: We —

QUESTION: So the previous administration, when it came to a conclusion that it did not think that the Hansell Memorandum was appropriate or accurate, came out and announced it. Will this administration, if it determines that either you’re going to keep it – the previous administration’s position – or change it, will you announce it? Or is that now a deliberative process that you won’t talk about?

MR PRICE: What I would stress is that what will not change is our longstanding position – our position and the longstanding position of successive administrations, is that —

QUESTION: Well, except for the last – well, except for the last one.

MR PRICE: — is – is encouraging – is discouraging, excuse me – unilateral steps that would put a two-state solution further out of reach. If we have —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PRICE: If we have something more to say on this, we will say it.

QUESTION: So there is no change right now?

MR PRICE: We have nothing – we have nothing more to announce. If we do, we will announce it.

QUESTION: All right.

QUESTION: On Iran?

QUESTION: Ned, please – please, Ned.

MR PRICE: Let’s just go to Iran quickly, because we’ve covered —

QUESTION: Wait – on this, please. On this point —

QUESTION: And then can you go to Myanmar? And I want to ask a question on —

QUESTION: On Matt’s point, I —

MR PRICE: We’ll go to Iran quickly. We’ve been up here for quite some time.

QUESTION: What’s the response to the Iranians saying they won’t attend these European informal talks?

MR PRICE: I’m sorry. Say that one more time.

QUESTION: What’s the response to the Iranians saying they will not attend these European-brokered informal talks?

MR PRICE: Well, I think you heard us say over the weekend or at least saw us say over the weekend that we are disappointed at Iran’s response, but we remain ready to re-engage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance under the JCPOA commitments. We’ll be consulting our P5+1 partners as – on the best way forward. As we have made clear, the United States is prepared to meet with Iran to address the way forward on a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. Resumption of a compliance can’t happen with all – without all sides discussing the details. As I believe I said previously in this briefing, we’re not dogmatic about what form that takes. What we are dogmatic about is the underlying commitment to the fact that President Biden has, that Secretary Blinken has, that this administration broadly has that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon.

QUESTION: On that —

MR PRICE: Anything else on —

QUESTION: On Iran, yes.

MR PRICE: On – on —

QUESTION: On Iran.

MR PRICE: On Iran.

QUESTION: Yeah. On that, given the state of play with the – the current state of play with Iran, and given Iran’s influence in both Syria and Iraq, could you talk a little bit about your vision of the U.S. military role in Iraq and Syria?

MR PRICE: Well, look, I am going to leave that to my Department of Defense colleagues to speak to. I know they have spoken to this in the past. I am here to speak to the position of the Department of State, to speak to our diplomacy and our diplomatic approaches. And since we have gone on for some time, I wouldn’t want to go into that today.

Yes.

QUESTION: What is that meaningful diplomacy, though, if you guys cannot talk to each other? And how are you thinking about breaking that impasse?

MR PRICE: Well, look, we have made very clear that we are willing to meet with the Iranians in the context of the P5+1 with the invitation from the EU. That offer of ours is on the table. If there are other ideas for ways in which we can engage in this principled, clear-eyed diplomacy together with our closest allies and partners, in coordination with our closest allies and partners, we’re, again, not dogmatic about the form. What we are dogmatic about is the fact that Iran can never be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. That is the point of this diplomacy. That is our strategic objective in all of this. What we’re talking about now is tactics.

QUESTION: Are you dogmatic about not lifting any sanctions? Because that’s what they want.

MR PRICE: What we are dogmatic about is that the best way to discuss the path forward is in dialogue. Yes.

QUESTION: Any update on the U.S. involvement in the negotiations of the Ethiopian Grand Dam between Egypt, Sudan? Any update on that?

MR PRICE: Sorry, in the – say that one more time.

QUESTION: The U.S. involvement —

MR PRICE: Oh.

QUESTION: Yeah. Because —

MR PRICE: Not since we last spoke about this. We’ve talked about our decision to de-link certain assistance on Ethiopia from our policy on the GERD. We continue to support collaborative and constructive efforts by Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan to reach an agreement on the GERD. Let me take one final question here.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. I’d like to ask you about Hong Kong.

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Yesterday, the Secretary put out a statement regarding the arrest of pro-democracy activists. And last month during an interview he was asked whether the U.S. should open its doors for refugees fleeing Hong Kong, and he said that we should do something to give them haven. Has the administration come to a decision whether they’ll welcome Hong Kong asylum seekers?

MR PRICE: Well, let me say generally that we condemn the re-detention of these individuals under Hong Kong’s national security law. We call on the Hong Kong authorities to immediately release those still held, and to drop the charges against them. Political participation should never be a crime. These individuals simply sought to exercise their rights by participating or helping others to participate in elections. This is yet another example of how the national security law is being used to stifle dissent, not to improve security. We continue to call on Beijing to stop undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and to – and its democratic process, and to uphold China’s obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

When it comes to the people of Hong Kong, we continue to stand with them. We continue to stand with their aspirations for nothing more than the system that they have been promised. The Secretary did speak to additional ways we might be able to support them. I don’t have an update for you, but we’ll continue to look into that. We’ve gone on for quite —

QUESTION: No – yeah, but Ned, we haven’t talked about Burma yet. And I think that you might want to talk about Burma, no? If you don’t, then that’s fine, and we can all write that Ned Price refused to take a question about Burma.

MR PRICE: Matt, I hope you write that Ned Price has been up here at this podium in a very hot room for over an hour and that Ned Price has been here every day briefing you —

QUESTION: Yes, yes, he is.

MR PRICE: — because of our commitment to transparency, so I hope you write that.

QUESTION: I will do that. Can I ask one brief one on Burma, please?

MR PRICE: Yes.

QUESTION: So yesterday – and in order, there were a series of statements. I’ll put them in order of importance. There was your statement, then there was some guy named Blinken, and then some guy named Sullivan all put out statements about —

MR PRICE: No offense taken at that.

QUESTION: No, no, no, in order of importance, as I —

MR PRICE: Oh, sorry, I —

QUESTION: You were first.

MR PRICE: For my own job security, I would take offense at that. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: You were at the top. Anyway, in the last one that came out, the National Security Advisor said you’re looking at new sanctions, the new —

MR PRICE: That’s right. That’s right.

QUESTION: So should the Burmese authorities expect something soon if they don’t reverse course? Is this something that can be stopped if they do reverse course, or are you guys going to go ahead and do it?

MR PRICE: So let me just say generally – because you’re right, we haven’t had an opportunity to speak to this important issue set during this briefing – that we condemn Burmese security forces’ brutal killing of unarmed people, its attacks on journalists and activists, and ongoing unjust detentions. The United States, in close coordination with our partners and allies, we have made clear to the Burmese military that violence against the people of Burma is abhorrent, the recent escalation and tactics by security forces is reprehensible.

The United States stands in solidarity with the tens of thousands of people in Burma who once again came out peacefully across the country with courage and determination to reject this military coup and to voice their aspirations for a return to democratic governance, peace, and the rule of law.

It is true that we have announced now multiple tranches of sanctions against the Burmese military, both individuals and entities. Some of our closest partners – the Brits and the Canadians, among others – have announced their own sanctions. It is also true that if the Burmese military continues down this path, if the Burmese military refuses to restore the democratically elected government and to cease this abhorrent violence against peaceful demonstrators, there will be additional measures forthcoming from the United States.

QUESTION: And then just the last thing, to put a fine point on this. You do have diplomatic relations with Burma, right?

MR PRICE: I am not —

QUESTION: Yes. Yes, you do.

MR PRICE: I am not familiar with any change in our diplomatic status.

QUESTION: Exactly. And yet the leadership of the country now is going to be subject to sanctions, right?

MR PRICE: Matt, as far as I know, the NLD is still the internationally recognized Government of Burma.

Yes.

QUESTION: I apologize, but there is an email from one of our colleagues, from Lara Jakes at the Times, and I just want to nail something down on Khashoggi. Is the U.S. going to grant a waiver to MBS should he want to come to the United States? Because he’s not on the list of those banned; and under a law passed last year, he would need a waiver as someone who has been deemed committing gross human rights violations. He would need a waiver to come to the United States.

MR PRICE: Andrea, you are right that anyone on the so-called Khashoggi Ban list or anyone otherwise subject to a visa ban would need a waiver.

QUESTION: No. Under a separate law passed by Congress last year, anyone in general, prior to the Khashoggi list, would need a waiver —

MR PRICE: I am —

QUESTION: — unless there were extenuating circumstances (inaudible) national interest.

MR PRICE: I am familiar with the law you’re referring to. As we have said, we are not in a position to detail the identities of those presently subject to these measures – the Khashoggi Ban, the law you’ve referenced – nor would we be able to preview those who may be added in the future. Nevertheless, I am not aware of any plans for the crown prince to travel to the United States in the near term.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thank you very much, everyone. I appreciate it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:41 p.m.)

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    What GAO Found The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Transportation (DOT), and Department of the Treasury (Treasury), among others, continue to provide financial assistance to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. FEMA reported obligating over $79 billion from its Disaster Relief Fund to respond to COVID-19. Through several programs, FEMA is providing help to individuals with funeral costs; reimbursing communities for vaccine distribution; and funding federal agencies' efforts to support communities, including National Guard deployments. DOT and Treasury continue to make available the over $200 billion appropriated by COVID-19 relief laws for financial assistance to the transportation sector, including to air carriers, airports and airport tenants, Amtrak, and transit agencies. Through several financial assistance programs, GAO's work has found DOT and Treasury have provided critical support to the transportation sector during a period of sharp declines in travel demand and uncertainty about the pace and nature of the recovery. Depending on the program, financial assistance has reportedly enabled recipients to avoid layoffs, maintain service, and ramp up operations as demand for their services improves. Based on GAO's prior work examining responses to public health and fiscal emergencies, including the COVID-19 pandemic, GAO has (1) identified key lessons learned that could improve the federal response to emergencies, and (2) made several related recommendations, including ones that highlight the importance of applying these lessons learned. For example, DOT has not developed a national aviation preparedness plan to coordinate, establish, and define roles and responsibilities for communicable diseases across the federal government. GAO recommended in 2015 that DOT work with federal partners to develop such a plan, but it has not taken any action. Without such a plan, the U.S. is less prepared to respond to future communicable disease events. In addition, FEMA has faced challenges collecting and analyzing data on requests for supplies, such as personal protective equipment, made through the federal government. In 2020, GAO recommended that FEMA work with relevant stakeholders to develop an interim solution to help states track the status of their supply requests and plan for supply needs. FEMA has not taken action on this recommendation, and until the agency develops a solution, states, tribes, and territories will likely continue to face challenges that hamper the effectiveness of their COVID-19 response. Why GAO Did This Study In response to the public health and economic crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress provided billions of dollars across a range of agencies to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. This included billions to: FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund to provide assistance to individuals as well as state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, and DOT and Treasury to provide financial assistance to the transportation sector. This statement describes: (1) the federal response and selected relief programs administered by FEMA, DOT, and Treasury and (2) lessons learned based on GAO's reviews of selected COVID-19 relief programs, including related recommendations and their implementation status. This statement is based on GAO's body of work on the CARES Act issued from June 2020 through July 2021.To update this information, GAO reviewed agency documentation; and interviewed agency officials, industry associations, and selected businesses that applied to these programs on the latest implementation efforts.
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  • Private Security Contractors: DOD Needs to Better Identify and Monitor Personnel and Contracts
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Department of Defense (DOD) has been unable to comprehensively identify private security contractor (PSC) contracts and personnel supporting contingency, humanitarian, peace-keeping, or other similar operations, limiting DOD's ability to readily and accurately identify the use of PSCs. DOD uses PSCs, which include companies and their personnel, hired to provide security services for the U.S. government. However, neither DOD nor GAO was able to use DOD's three PSC data sources to readily determine the universe of PSCs, the type of operation or exercise they support, or their functions, activities, and armed or unarmed status. For example, queries of DOD databases using the term “security guard” to identify PSC personnel excluded eight other job titles that may also perform private security functions. DOD has not comprehensively determined and communicated the contracted activities that fall within its definition of private security functions. Further, DOD does not have a means of readily identifying the contracts and personnel performing those activities in data sources. Without better identifying and tracking its PSC contracts and personnel, DOD will not be able to accurately determine its use of PSCs. Since 2009, DOD has established an oversight framework for its use of PSC contracts, but has not fully monitored the implementation of this framework. DOD's framework distributes oversight functions across the department as well as to organizations outside the department (see fig.). Roles and Functions of Entities to Oversee DOD's Use of Private Security Contractor (PSC) Contracts and Personnel However, DOD has not fully monitored whether and how it and the other entities have carried out their PSC oversight roles and functions. For example, GAO reviewed data for deployed contractor personnel with the job title of “security guard” and found that about 12 percent of those individuals were employed by companies not on a DOD list of certified PSC companies. Independent, third-party certification is a key oversight mechanism DOD relies on to ensure it contracts with companies that use approved personnel hiring, screening, training, and reporting practices. DOD lacks a single, senior-level position assigned to fully monitor whether DOD and various entities are carrying out their respective PSC oversight roles and functions. Without assigning this position, DOD increases the risk of incidents that its framework aims to prevent.  Why GAO Did This Study During Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001–2014 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003–2011, DOD significantly increased its use of PSCs. In 2008, the Swiss Government and the Red Cross issued the Montreux Document, which generally reaffirmed the obligation nations have to ensure that their PSCs respect international humanitarian law. PSCs supporting DOD have faced international attention resulting from incidents allegedly involving their personnel. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to review DOD's use of PSCs. GAO assessed the extent to which DOD has (1) identified PSC contracts and personnel used to support contingency operations and (2) established a framework to oversee the department's use of PSC contracts. GAO analyzed DOD contract and personnel data for PSCs from 2009 through 2019, reviewed DOD guidance on PSC use, and conducted interviews with DOD officials and representatives from standards organizations.
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  • Cybersecurity and Informtion Technology: Federal Agencies Need to Strengthen Efforts to Address High-Risk Areas
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In March 2021, GAO issued its high-risk series update and emphasized that federal agencies' needed to implement numerous critical actions to strengthen the nation's cybersecurity and information technology (IT) management efforts. In the update, GAO reiterated the importance of agencies addressing four major cybersecurity challenges facing the nation: (1) establishing a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy and performing effective oversight, (2) securing federal systems and information, (3) protecting cyber critical infrastructure, and (4) protecting privacy and sensitive data. Overall, the federal government has to move with a greater sense of urgency to fully address key cybersecurity challenges. In particular: Develop and execute a more comprehensive federal strategy for national cybersecurity and global cyberspace . In September 2020, GAO reported that the White House's national cyber strategy and associated implementation plan addressed some, but not all, of the desirable characteristics of national strategies, such as goals and resources needed. Mitigate global supply chain risks . GAO reported in December 2020 that few of the 23 civilian federal agencies it reviewed implemented foundational practices for managing information and communication technology supply chain risks. Address weaknesses in federal agencies information security programs. GAO reported in July 2019 that 23 agencies almost always designated a risk executive, but had not fully incorporated other key risk management practices, such as establishing a process for assessing agency-wide cybersecurity risks. In its March update, GAO also stressed the importance of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and federal agencies fully implementing critical actions recommended to improve the management of IT to better manage tens of billions of dollars in IT investments. GAO emphasized, for example, that OMB had demonstrated its leadership commitment to improving IT management, but sustaining this commitment was critically important; twenty-one of 24 federal agencies had not yet implemented recommendations to fully address the role of Chief Information Officers, including enhancing their authorities; OMB and agencies needed to address modernization challenges and workforce planning weaknesses; and agencies could take further action to reduce duplicative IT contracts and reduce the risk of wasteful spending. Until OMB and federal agencies take critical actions to strengthen efforts to address these important high-risk areas, longstanding and pervasive weaknesses will likely continue to jeopardize the nation's cybersecurity and management of IT. Why GAO Did This Study The nation's critical infrastructures and federal agencies are dependent on IT systems and electronic data to carry out operations and to process, maintain, and report essential information. Each year, the federal government spends more than $100 billion on cybersecurity and IT investments. GAO has long stressed the continuing and urgent need for effective cybersecurity, as underscored by recent events that have illustrated persistent and evermore sophisticated cyber threats and incidents. Moreover, many IT investments have failed, performed poorly, or suffered from ineffective management. Accordingly, GAO has included information security on its high-risk list since 1997 and added improving the management of IT acquisitions and operations in 2015. In its March 2021 high-risk series update, GAO reported that significant attention was needed in both of these important areas. GAO was asked to testify on federal agencies' efforts to address cybersecurity and the management of IT. For this testimony, GAO relied on selected products it previously issued.
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  • Medicare Advantage: Beneficiary Disenrollments to Fee-for-Service in Last Year of Life Increase Medicare Spending
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Under Medicare Advantage (MA), the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) contracts with private MA plans to provide health care coverage to Medicare beneficiaries. MA beneficiaries in the last year of life disenrolled to join Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) at more than twice the rate of all other MA beneficiaries, GAO's analysis found. MA plans are prohibited from limiting coverage based on beneficiary health status, and disproportionate disenrollment by MA beneficiaries in the last of year life may indicate potential issues with their care. Stakeholders told GAO that, among other reasons, beneficiaries in the last of year life may disenroll because of potential limitations accessing specialized care under MA. While CMS monitors MA disenrollments, the agency does not specifically review disenrollments by beneficiaries in the last year of life. Doing so could help CMS better ensure the care provided to these beneficiaries. Medicare Advantage Beneficiary Disenrollments to Join Fee-for-Service, 2016-2017 Beneficiaries in the last year of life who disenrolled from MA to join FFS increased Medicare costs as they moved from MA's fixed payment arrangement to FFS, where payments are based on the amount and cost of services provided. GAO's analysis shows that FFS payments for such beneficiaries who disenrolled in 2016 were $422 million higher than their estimated MA payments had they remained in MA, and were $490 million higher for those that disenrolled in 2017. Estimated Medicare Advantage Payments for Beneficiaries in Last Year of Life that Disenrolled Compared to Fee-for-Service Payments, 2016-2017 Why GAO Did This Study In contrast to Medicare FFS, which pays providers for claims for services, CMS pays MA plans a fixed monthly amount per beneficiary to provide health care coverage. For beneficiaries with higher expected health care costs, MA payments are increased. In 2019, CMS paid MA plans about $274 billion to cover about 22 million beneficiaries. Prior GAO and other studies have shown that beneficiaries in poorer health are more likely to disenroll from MA to join FFS, which may indicate that they encountered issues with their care under MA. Beneficiaries in the last year of life are generally in poorer health and often require high-cost care. GAO was asked to review disenrollment by MA beneficiaries in the last year of life. In this report, GAO examined (1) disenrollments from MA to join FFS by beneficiaries in the last year of life, and CMS's associated monitoring; and (2) the costs of such disenrollments to Medicare. GAO analyzed CMS disenrollment and mortality data for 2015 through 2018—the most current data at the time of the analysis—to examine the extent of MA beneficiary disenrollment in the last year of life. To estimate the costs of disenrollment, GAO used CMS data to estimate payments for disenrolled beneficiaries had they remained in MA, and compared those estimates against those beneficiaries' actual FFS costs.
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  • Veterans with Disabilities: VA Could Better Inform Veterans with Disabilities about Their Education Benefit Options
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Most school and veteran service organization (VSO) officials GAO interviewed stated that when given the choice between the Post 9/11 GI Bill (GI Bill) and the Veteran Readiness and Employment (VR&E) program, veterans with disabilities will base their choice on which program best suits their unique goals, preferences, and circumstances. For example, certain veterans may prefer the GI Bill's flexibility to independently select courses of study, whereas others may prefer to have the assistance of a counselor to select a course of study as part of an employment plan, as provided under VR&E. However, most officials GAO interviewed said veterans with disabilities often use the GI Bill for education benefits without knowing that the VR&E program exists, or that it can pay for education, provide assistive equipment for their disability, or offer unique benefits of working with a counselor. Selected Comments Regarding the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Veteran Readiness & Employment Programs “Had I known about VR&E I would have [used it.]” -Veteran with disabilities “I often think of VR&E as sort of a hidden program when it comes to education benefits.” -VSO official ”Veterans with disabilities are often not aware of the differences between the two programs.” -School official Source: GAO survey of veterans and GAO interviews with school and VSO officials | GAO-21-450 VA provides information about education benefits to veterans with disabilities through various methods, including in-person communication, online materials, and written communications. However, on the agency website, VA.gov, few webpages devoted to VR&E explicitly mention that it can help pay for a college degree. In addition, the letters that VA sends to veterans when they receive their disability rating do not specifically mention that VR&E can cover education costs for a college degree. VA's online GI Bill Comparison Tool allows veterans to learn more about the tuition amounts each program will cover for certain schools, but it does not inform veterans on the key differences in program features across the programs. Most school and VSO officials GAO interviewed said VA's efforts do not adequately inform veterans with disabilities about their potential education benefit options, as evidenced by the number of veterans with disabilities they encounter who are unaware that VR&E exists or who do not fully understand the benefits VR&E can provide. Including more information about how VR&E can help veterans pay for higher education, and facilitating direct comparison between the features of the GI Bill and VR&E, would help better position veterans with disabilities to choose the program that best meets their needs. Why GAO Did This Study VA offers education benefits to veterans with disabilities through the GI Bill, VA's largest education program, and VR&E, which helps veterans with service-connected disabilities re-enter the workforce. Each offers distinct features that may better serve veterans depending on their individual circumstances. However, veterans with disabilities may not know that VR&E can help pay for education as part of its employment services. GAO was asked to what extent eligible veterans are aware of the comparative features of the programs. This report examines (1) the reported factors that influence whether veterans with disabilities select the Post-9/11 GI Bill or VR&E, and (2) how VA informs veterans with disabilities about the education benefits available to them from each program, and the effectiveness of those efforts. For both programs, GAO reviewed relevant federal laws; analyzed participant data; conducted semi-structured interviews with officials from schools and VSOs selected for their depth of knowledge about veteran affairs, and reviewed relevant VA informational materials.
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  • COVID-19 Contracting: Contractor Paid Leave Reimbursements Could Provide Lessons Learned for Future Emergency Responses
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found To help government contractors keep their workforce in a ready state during the COVID-19 pandemic, section 3610 of the CARES Act generally authorized government agencies to reimburse contractors for paid leave provided to contractor personnel and subcontractors during the national emergency. Section 3610 did not appropriate specific funding for this purpose. The four agencies GAO reviewed—the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Homeland Security, and NASA—reported use of section 3610 authority totaling at least $882.8 million over 14 months. The extent to which the agencies used the authority varied, from $1.4 million at Homeland Security to $760.7 million at Energy. Further, Defense officials estimated that defense contractors have more than $4 billion in paid leave costs that are potentially eligible for reimbursement under section 3610. Defense officials also noted, however, that the department does not plan to reimburse this full amount using existing funding. Agencies also based their reimbursement decisions on the nature of the work performed by contractors, such as whether telework was an option. Twelve out of the 15 contractors GAO interviewed reported that paid leave reimbursement had a great or moderate effect on their ability to retain employees (see figure), in particular those with specialized skills or clearances. Selected Contractors' Views on the Effect of Paid Leave Reimbursement on Workforce Retention Given the urgency of the pandemic, agencies prioritized quick implementation of section 3610 over a more deliberative process, resulting in variations such as how agencies tracked use of the authority. Officials from all four agencies said that they either have captured or intend to capture lessons learned from implementing section 3610 and are willing to share these with other federal agencies. However, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)—which coordinates government-wide contracting policy—has not collected and shared lessons learned. With coordination from OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy, the government could seize an opportunity to enhance implementation of paid leave reimbursement provisions that may be enacted as part of rapid federal responses to future emergencies. Why GAO Did This Study In March 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which provides over $2 trillion in emergency assistance for those affected by COVID-19. Section 3610 of the CARES Act enables agencies, at their discretion, to reimburse contractors for paid leave provided to their employees and subcontractors who are unable to access work sites due to facility closures or other restrictions, and whose duties cannot be performed remotely during the pandemic. The CARES Act also includes a provision for GAO to review federal contracting pursuant to authorities provided in the Act. In September 2020, GAO found that agencies had not made much use of section 3610 authority as of July 2020, and expectations of future use varied. This report (1) examines how selected federal agencies have used section 3610 authority and (2) presents selected contractors' perspectives on COVID-19 paid leave reimbursement. GAO reviewed guidance and data and interviewed cognizant officials from four agencies with contract obligations greater than $10 billion in fiscal year 2019. GAO also selected a non-generalizable sample of 15 contractors that received or requested section 3610 reimbursements from one or more of the selected agencies and conducted semi-structured interviews of contractor representatives.
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  • COVID-19: VA Should Assess Its Oversight of Infection Prevention and Control in Community Living Centers
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) took steps—such as issuing guidance and trainings—to support the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Community Living Centers (CLC), which are VA-owned and -operated nursing homes. This guidance focused on, for example, limiting CLC entry and testing residents and staff for COVID-19, while the trainings were intended to prepare staff for, among other things, a surge in cases. However, the agency conducted limited oversight of infection prevention and control in these facilities during the first year of the pandemic, from March 2020 through February 2021. In particular, the agency suspended annual in-person inspections of CLCs before resuming them virtually in February 2021. The agency also required that CLCs conduct a one-time self-assessment of their infection prevention and control practices but did not review the results in a timely manner to make more immediate improvements. VA officials acknowledged these shortcomings as the agency responded in real time to the rapidly evolving pandemic. As VA has described this time as a “learning period,” it could benefit from assessing its decisions and actions related to oversight of infection prevention and control during the pandemic to identify any lessons learned. Such an assessment would align with VA's plans to assess and report on the agency's overall response to the pandemic as well as its strategic goal to promote continuous quality improvement in CLCs. Results from such an assessment—which could look at both successes and missed opportunities—could help VA better prepare for future infectious disease outbreaks in CLCs. Why GAO Did This Study Close to 8,000 veterans per day received nursing home care provided by VA in CLCs in fiscal year 2020. COVID-19 has posed significant risks to nursing home residents and staff, as residents are often in frail health, and residents and staff have close daily contact with each other. The CARES Act includes a provision that GAO monitor the federal response to the pandemic. This report describes, among other objectives, guidance and training VA has issued to help CLCs respond to the pandemic and examines VA's oversight of infection prevention and control in CLCs during the pandemic. GAO analyzed documents, including guidance, training-related materials, and CLC self-assessments of their infection prevention and control practices. GAO also interviewed VA officials and CLC staff, the latter from five facilities selected based on factors such as having been cited for infection prevention and control deficiencies prior to the pandemic.
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  • U.S.-China Trade: USTR Should Fully Document Internal Procedures for Making Tariff Exclusion and Extension Decisions
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) developed a process in July 2018 to review tariff exclusion requests for some imported products from China and later developed a process to extend these exclusions. From 2018 to 2020, U.S. stakeholders submitted about 53,000 exclusion requests to USTR for specific products covered by the tariffs. USTR's process consisted of a public comment period to submit requests, an internal review, an interagency assessment, and the decision publication. USTR documented some procedures for reviewing exclusion requests. However, it did not fully document all of its internal procedures, including roles and responsibilities for each step in its review process. GAO reviewed selected exclusion case files and found inconsistencies in the agency's reviews. For example, USTR did not document how reviewers should consider multiple requests from the same company, and GAO's case file review found USTR performed these steps inconsistently. Another case file lacked documentation to explain USTR's final decision because the agency's procedures did not specify whether such documentation was required. Federal internal control standards state that agencies should document their procedures to ensure they conduct them consistently and effectively, and to retain knowledge. Without fully documented internal procedures, USTR lacks reasonable assurance it conducted its reviews consistently. Moreover, documenting them will help USTR to administer any future exclusions and extensions. USTR evaluated each exclusion request on a case-by-case basis using several factors, including product availability outside of China and the potential economic harm of the tariffs. According to USTR officials, no one factor was essential to grant or deny a request. For example, USTR might grant a request that demonstrated the tariffs would cause severe economic harm even when the requested product was available outside of China. USTR denied about 46,000 requests (87 percent), primarily for the failure to show that the tariffs would cause severe economic harm to the requesters or other U.S. interests (see figure). Further, USTR did not extend 75 percent of the tariff exclusions it had granted. USTR's Primary Reasons for Denying Exclusion Requests for Section 301 Tariffs on Products from China, 2018-2020 Note: Totals may not sum due to rounding. Why GAO Did This Study In July 2018, USTR placed tariffs on certain products from China in response to an investigation that found certain trade acts, policies, and practices of China were unreasonable or discriminatory, and burden or restrict U.S. commerce. As of December 2020, the U.S. imposed tariffs on roughly $460 billion worth of Chinese imports under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended. Because these tariffs could harm U.S. workers and manufacturers that rely on these imports, USTR developed a process to exclude some products from these additional tariffs. U.S. businesses and members of Congress have raised questions about the transparency and fairness of USTR's administration of this process. GAO was asked to review USTR's tariff exclusion program. This report (1) examines the processes USTR used to review Section 301 tariff exclusion requests and extensions and (2) describes how USTR evaluated those tariff exclusion requests and extensions, and the outcomes of its decisions. GAO analyzed USTR's public and internal documents relating to the exclusion and extension processes, including 16 randomly selected nongeneralizable case files, and data from USTR and the U.S. Census Bureau. GAO also interviewed agency officials.
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