Department Press Briefing – March 9, 2021

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

Washington, D.C.

2:17 p.m. EST

MR PRICE: Good afternoon. A few things at the top.

First, today marks 14 years since beloved husband, father, grandfather, and former FBI agent Robert “Bob” Levinson was abducted in Iran. Since that time, Bob has missed graduations, marriages, and the birth of all but one of his grandchildren.

Yesterday, Secretary Blinken spoke with the Levinson family and promised to press the Iranian Government to provide credible answers to what happened to Bob Levinson.

We call on Iran to immediately and safely release all U.S. citizens who are unjustly held captive in Iran. The abhorrent act of unjust detentions for political gain must cease immediately – whether it’s in Iran or anywhere else around the world.

Next, yesterday, the Department of the Treasury, in consultation with the Department of State, revoked a license issued to Specially Designated National Dan Gertler, which was issued on January 15 of 2021.

The license previously granted to Mr. Gertler is inconsistent with America’s strong foreign policy interest in combatting corruption around the world, and it undermined the integrity and effectiveness of the Global Magnitsky sanctions program.

Mr. Gertler engaged in extensive public corruption in connection with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yesterday’s action further demonstrates our strong support for efforts to counter corruption and to promote stability in the DRC. Under our Privileged Partnership for Peace and Prosperity, the United States stands firmly with the people of the DRC in their efforts to advance democracy, bolster public institutions, and promote accountability for corrupt actors who seek to undermine them.

The United States will continue to confront corruption around the world, to uphold international norms, and impose in – tangible costs on those who seek to upend them.

And finally, looking ahead —

QUESTION: Wait. Impose —

MR PRICE: Tangible. Tangible costs.

QUESTION: Tangible. Not intangible costs.

MR PRICE: Tangible costs.

Later today, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas will announce Venezuela’s designation for Temporary Protected Status, also known as TPS. This designation demonstrates the continuing support of the United States for the people of Venezuela.

To date, nearly 5.5 million Venezuelans have fled their homeland, while another seven million remain in chronic need of humanitarian aid. Nicolas Maduro’s repression, his corruption, and economic mismanagement have victimized these Venezuelans and produced this political and humanitarian crisis. Maduro’s willful neglect of his people, in a bid to remain in power, has created one of the hemisphere’s worst refugee and migration crises.

With this designation, we proudly join Colombia in their recent announcement to provide a similar status for vulnerable Venezuelans. The United States continues our leadership in the international effort to alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan people. We provided nearly $529 million in regional humanitarian assistance in Fiscal Year 2020 in crisis response, and we welcome Spain’s recent financial commitment for the same. We encourage others to contribute.

We are proud to stand with these partners in both our commitment to democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela, as well as concrete action to help Venezuelans in need.

With that, Matt.

QUESTION: Great. Okay. All right. No travel to announce or anything?

MR PRICE: No travel to announce.

QUESTION: Okay. All right. Well, then barring that, and that was what I was going to start with, but since we don’t have that, just on the Levinson thing, on the anniversary – he was taken during the Bush administration. And every Secretary of State since Condoleezza Rice has been demanding that the Iranians release him or provide information about what – what exactly is new or different about your approach with the Iranians? Because the Obama administration, right – we had the nuclear deal. We had people released; he was not one of them. The Trump administration tried a harder approach, lots of sanctions. Why exactly do you think that your approach – well, first of all, what is your approach? And then secondly, why do you think that that approach is going to work any better than the previous three administrations have on this case?

MR PRICE: Well, let me start by reiterating what I said a moment ago, and yesterday the Secretary did have an opportunity to speak to the Levinson family. Last year, of course, the family shared with the world their belief that Bob is deceased. In December of 2020, late last year, the United States designated two Iranian ministry of internal security officials for their role in Bob’s abduction, disappearance, and probable death. We also, Matt, I would remind you, have a Rewards for Justice out for $20 million for information leading to the location, recovery, and return of Robert Levinson.

As we said in the topper, the Secretary committed to the Levinson family that finding answers – long overdue answers, as you alluded to – will be an absolute priority for us. We will press the Iranian Government for those answers, as we have said, in the context of Americans who are being unjustly detained in Iran today. We have made no bones about the fact that we have no higher priority than the safe return of Americans who are being unjustly detained in Iran. We have made that clear to the Iranians. National Security Adviser Sullivan made note of that a couple weeks ago now.

When it comes to Mr. Levinson’s case and the fact that he has now been missing for 14 years, separated from his family for all of that time, we will absolutely continue to press the Iranian Government for these answers that I said before are long, long overdue.

QUESTION: Yeah, but they haven’t given you any answers, and they haven’t given any answers for 14 years. And I just wrote down a list of the – just off the top of my head, starting a long time – anyway, I’m just curious as to what – what is this administration going to do differently, if anything, than the previous three administrations have done to try and find out what happened to him or get him back?

MR PRICE: Well, I think it goes without saying that our approach to Iran differs in pretty profound ways, and we’ve talked about that broadly when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program. We’ve always made the point that unless you have a strategy that is accompanied by diplomacy, that is accompanied by an ability to exchange ideas, to exchange proposals, to exchange initiatives, any – just about any effort to contain Iran in the nuclear arena will be fruitless and feckless.

Now, the fact that we intend or at least seek to have lines of communication with Tehran allows us, of course, to press the Iranians for information about cases of missing or detained Americans. We absolutely plan to leverage those channels. I would – I don’t need to remind you, Matt; you were there – but I believe it was January 20th of 2016 when several Americans were released and were reunited with their families, and that was the result of concerted engagement with the Iranian Government. So we are going to absolutely make it a priority. We are going to make it a priority to secure the release of Americans. We are going to make it a priority to find answers, long overdue answers about Bob Levinson.

QUESTION: You’re right, there were Americans released back then, but it – but not Levinson. And the Iranians have consistently said that they don’t have any information about it. Now, whether they’re telling the truth or not, I don’t know.

MR PRICE: Well, that’s exactly the point. That’s exactly the point. We are going to press the Iranians for answers. We are going to press them for what they have to say. We will continue to use every tool in our disposal, every tool in our toolkit to find out all we can about what happened to Mr. Levinson and to try and provide those answers to the family.

QUESTION: Okay. But the critics of all this – and I have to do – the Obama administration had opened up a big line of communication with Iran and got nothing in terms of Levinson. Nothing. The Trump administration took a hard line; they got nothing in terms of Levinson. The Bush administration prior to the Obama administration got nothing in terms of Levinson. And when you talk about the release in 2016, critics will say that they were released because you paid the Iranians.

MR PRICE: That’s what critics might say, Matt.

QUESTION: That’s what they say, but —

MR PRICE: I assume you’re not saying that because you know that is absolutely not true. I don’t need to go into that. You presumably know just how false that is.

QUESTION: I know – well, but I’m just saying that that’s what they’re going to say. So what – I just don’t understand what it is that you think that you can do differently that the previous three administrations haven’t in this case. That’s all.

MR PRICE: Matt, you are not wrong that the last two administrations have not been able to provide satisfactory answers either to the family, to the broader American public, about what happened to Bob Levinson. I can speak to the Obama administration; it wasn’t for a lack of trying. This case was absolutely a priority back then. Obviously, wouldn’t want to characterize the Trump administration’s approach beyond what we’ve all seen and what you, in fact, alluded to.

And so, again, our approach to Iran is one that recognizes the necessity of diplomacy. And diplomacy in this case requires that we have channels for communication. We will use every single one of those channels as appropriate to press the case for those Americans who are unjustly detained in Iran today and for answers when it comes to Bob Levinson.

Now, those channels of communication are one important tool. We also have other tools and means at our disposal to try and find those answers. We will use every single one of them.

QUESTION: Thanks.

QUESTION: Staying on Iran?

MR PRICE: Sure, staying on Iran.

QUESTION: One hundred forty members of Congress have sent a letter to the Secretary saying that as it tries to re-engage with Tehran on the nuclear deal, that they should go bigger, deal with other security issues, deal with foreign policy issues, deal with Tehran’s regional influence. What has been the Secretary’s reaction to this bipartisan letter, and does this building read the letter as a kind of a leeway to go big and to be willing to negotiate everything, and perhaps offer things that otherwise might not get political support on the Hill?

MR PRICE: I’m sorry, do we read it as a – what was the word?

QUESTION: As a way – a sort of leeway.

MR PRICE: Oh, leeway, leeway.

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.

MR PRICE: Look, so this letter and the ideas put forward in the letter are in important ways very consistent with the approach that we have laid out. And let me just remind you of that approach. At its core, the first step is what we have short-termed – or what we have shorthanded “compliance for compliance,” the idea that if Iran resumes its full compliance with the JCPOA, resumes its commitments with the JCPOA, the United States would do the same. We would seek to lengthen and strengthen the deal.

And the important point we have made that is consistent with the point that is made in that letter is that the JCPOA and compliance for compliance – it is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. And we say it’s not sufficient because we have also spoken to the need to: number one, lengthen and strengthen the terms of that deal; but two, importantly, to use the JCPOA as a platform to negotiate follow-on agreements, agreements that would cover other areas of concern – concern for the United States, concern for our allies, concern for our partners in the region. Two of those concerns certainly are ballistic missiles and Iran’s support for terrorism, two issues that I believe were mentioned in that very letter.

So it sure sounds like we are on the same page in broad terms. That is precisely the work that we have set out for ourselves. It’s precisely the work that we are engaging in. And these are still early days. We have started the process of engaging with allies, with partners, with members of Congress as well. And we will continue to engage with members of Congress. Of course, Secretary Blinken will be up on the Hill tomorrow before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

And so we will continue that in an effort in the first instance to arrive at that arrangement for compliance for compliance, but then also recognize and operationalize the fact that it is necessary but not sufficient, and not sufficient for the reasons I set out.

QUESTION: Should the JCPOA be converted from an agreement to an actual treaty? That was a criticism that some in Congress lobbed at the measure back in 2015.

MR PRICE: Well, as you know, the deal was enshrined in the 2015 INARA legislation. Of course, we intend to follow the law. INARA remains the law of the land.

Yes.

QUESTION: First of all, this is a different topic.

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Honduras. Federal prosecutors today implicated President Hernandez in alleged drug trafficking. Does the United States have any read of this, any implications in terms of policy? Can the United States still deal with the president in the same way?

MR PRICE: Well, as in other countries, Shaun, we strongly support the rule of law and the fight against impunity. That is true in Honduras. It is true at all levels in Honduras. We are working with Honduran Government officials, civil society, and private sector to build a better future for the Honduran people. That’s our goal; that’s what we seek to do. It’s also what we spoke to yesterday when a similar question was raised.

QUESTION: Sure, but can we – can you actually deal with the president the same way as, considering there might be some sort of a – some criminal liability allegedly in this?

MR PRICE: Well, when it comes to criminal liability, I would say that we are working across all branches of the Honduran Government, we’re working with civil society, we are working with the private sector – again, to build a better future for the people of Honduras.

In many ways, we have a shared future, and what happens in Honduras is not consequence-free for the United States. It’s one of the many reasons why we have spoken about the need to partner with the Honduran people, with civil society, with elements of the Honduran Government. We are committed to that partnership, we are committed to fighting corruption in Honduras, and we will support and work with leaders who are committed to fighting corruption. Any leader, I think it is fair to say, not prepared to combat the corruption won’t be in a position to enjoy a close partnership with the United States.

QUESTION: So you’re saying what happens in Honduras doesn’t stay in Honduras? Was that what you were trying to —

MR PRICE: What I am saying is that, of course, corruption, poverty, impunity, lack of rule of law – all of those have profound implications for the people of Honduras, of course, but they are also important drivers of irregular migration and migratory patterns in the Western Hemisphere that ultimately do redound on the United States. And so if we are to address the challenge of irregular migration within our own hemisphere, we have to take these on, these challenges on. We have to partner with and invest in the region. It’s one of the many reasons why President Biden’s plan includes significant funding for partnership with the Northern Triangle. And it is one of the many reasons why President Biden has made clear that we will partner with the region to address these underlying causes. Until and unless we address these underlying causes, the challenge of irregular migration for us will remain acute.

QUESTION: Maybe I missed – maybe I missed some of the administration-wide nomenclature change. When did it become irregular migration? Was that something that happened on the 20th of January?

MR PRICE: I don’t know when that came into being. It’s a term that I’ve long been familiar with. I couldn’t say.

QUESTION: All right, okay. Fine.

QUESTION: Could I ask you something else in Latin America? I wondered if you want to weigh in on Brazil, the overturning of the sentence against Lula. Do you have anything to say about this? Do you agree with his contention that this is politically motivated to begin with?

MR PRICE: Well, we’re, of course, aware of recent news regarding the Brazilian court decision annulling former President Lula’s conviction. For details, for reaction, we’d refer you to the Government of Brazil as well as for information about the court’s decision. What is fair to say – and this is consistent with what I was saying about a – in a very different context in our own hemisphere – we note our support for Brazil’s, in this case, its democratic institutions. And we continue to underline and underscore that support.

Yes.

QUESTION: On China. The South China Morning Post has a report saying there’s a discussion about a meeting possibly in Anchorage involving Secretary Blinken. Is that something you’re able to confirm? And the reporting says this is a bid to reset the relationship with China, so I wonder if you – are you seeking a reset in your talks with China?

MR PRICE: Well, to your first question, we don’t have any future travel or meetings to announce at this time. When we think about our relationship with China, I would go back to what Secretary Blinken said just under a week ago now. As you recall, he outlined eight priorities in his address to the American people outlining a foreign policy for the American people, and China, of course, was one of those priorities. And he said at the time that our relationship with China, it will have aspects are – that are competitive. It will be competitive when it should be, it will be collaborative when it can be, and it will be adversarial when it must be.

The common denominator in all of this and what we have consistently talked about when we note our approach vis-a-vis China is that we will engage China from a position of strength. And we have spoken to any number of those strengths. And to do so, it requires us to work with allies and partners. Again, our system of alliances and partnerships around the world are a core source of strength. That’s precisely why they are the envy of competitors and adversaries the world over.

It requires that we engage in diplomacy and in international organizations, leveraging them and recognizing them as a core source of strength, knowing that when the United States has pulled back over the course of history, including recent history, China has filled in that vacuum. And it requires standing up for our values. And we have talked about our values as a core source of strength, whether that is when it comes to human rights abuses in Xinjiang or the way in which Beijing is trampling democracy in Hong Kong, because if we don’t do this – and if we don’t do it in concert and in tandem with our allies and partners around the world – China will act with even greater impunity.

And then we’ve also talked about our domestic strength and the strengths that we bring to the table as a country and the prudent investments we need to make in American workers, companies, technologies, insisting on that level playing field. Because when we are competing on a level playing field, the United States can out-compete anyone, including the Chinese. So that is a long-winded way of saying we don’t have any meetings to announce at this time, but we know what we have to do to engage China. We know what we will do to engage China. And we’ve started some of that important work.

QUESTION: Is this kind of meeting something that the administration would like to set up?

MR PRICE: Look, we would like and we will engage China from a position of strength. We have already laid some of that important groundwork, and you can go through those priorities I listed and you can look at concrete actions on many, if not all of those. But I’m not going to characterize any forthcoming efforts, meetings, travel. We know what we will do, and that is precisely what we have set about preparing for since day one.

Yes.

QUESTION: Can we stay in the region?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Yes. So how much adversary relationship between U.S. and China are going to be discussed in Friday’s virtual – President Biden’s virtual meeting with the Quad?

And separately, if I may, would you like to comment on reports like South Korea may be considering rejoining the Quad in an effort to weigh in North Korea policy? Is there such discussion? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Well, as the White House I believe – I hope – announced today, on Friday President Biden will meet virtually with his fellow heads of state in the Quad. Of course, that’s Prime Minister Suga of Japan, Prime Minister Modi of India, and Prime Minister Morrison of Australia. The Quad grouping was essentially established – I believe it was in 2007 in the first iteration – to showcase what democracies can deliver together for both our own populations and also the broader international public. Quad members are uniquely positioned to help lead the world out of the deep crises that we’ve spoken about recently – and, of course, that includes COVID-19 – and towards the more positive vision that we all seek. And it’s a vision that we in large part share with our fellow Quad counterparts.

And so the summit meeting – the leader-level summit meeting – will be the first of its kind, the first leader-level summit of the Quad. It will showcase the Quad’s ability to pool our capabilities and build habits of cooperation to address some of those urgent challenges we face.

Now, at the same time, I would just note that the Quad is not about any single challenge. It’s not about any single competitor. This is an entity forged and formed because we share common interests. They’re – maritime security is, of course, an important one, but our shared interests go well beyond that. And I think you will see reflected in the agenda the breadth of those shared interests in the aftermath of the Quad meeting.

QUESTION: Could you please give us update on the North Korea policy review? Do you envision a summit between President Biden and North Korea leader Kim, or should we expect a return to the Six-Party Talk, or a whole new format? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Well, when it comes to North Korea broadly, what I would say is that – and we have spoken about this before – is that we will adopt a new approach, an approach that fundamentally seeks to keep the American people and our allies safe. And that begins, as you mentioned, with a thorough review of the state of play with North Korea – the state of play of affairs in North Korea, I should say – in close coordination with our treaty allies – the ROK and Japan and other allies and partners – on ongoing pressure options and the future for potential diplomacy. We will focus in the first instance on reducing the threat to the United States and our allies, as well, of course, on improving the lives of citizens both in North Korea and in South Korea on the peninsula. All the while, we’ll remain committed to the objective of denuclearization.

When it comes to the issue of a summit – and President Biden and his team made this clear, I believe, even before President Biden was inaugurated into this current high office – that our approach will probably look very different. Our approach will be principled. Our approach will be clear-eyed. Our approach will be conducted in close coordination with our treaty allies, including the Japanese and the South Koreans. And I would expect that it will be led by individuals who are deeply steeped in the subject, people who are experienced with the challenges – the unique challenges – we face when it comes to North Korea.

So I’m not going to announce or, on the other hand, rule out any sort of meetings or any specific diplomatic efforts, but I think those will be the principles that guide our approach to North Korea going forward.

QUESTION: Can I – Ned, I’m sorry, just – this goes back to my questions about Levinson and Iran. What do you mean, a fundamentally new approach to North Korea? Just for me personally, right – so I started covering North Korea diplomacy in the Clinton administration. That would be Bill Clinton administration, right? Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden – every single one of them has said exactly the same thing as you just did: We’re going – we want to help the North Korean people; we want to – we want them to – to have a better life; we want to preserve our U.S. security and the security of our allies, North Korea, Japan. What exactly does – what exactly is different?

MR PRICE: Matt, I would say I think what I just outlined, it is at least self-evident to me and I imagine it’s self-evident to you that there are key differences from what we witnessed in the last administration. Now —

QUESTION: Ned, this goes back well before just the last administration, okay?

MR PRICE: The other point —

QUESTION: Are you saying that, like – are you taking about, oh, we’re going to have new people in there?

MR PRICE: The other point is that 2021 is not 2016. It’s not 2009. It’s not 1994. There are changed circumstances and conditions and changed leadership, of course, not only in this country but in North Korea, with our treaty allies. This is a challenge that has evolved over time. The circumstances that we face today are very different from what the last Democratic administration faced.

QUESTION: Are you suggesting that somehow previous administrations, the people that they had as point people on this, were not —

MR PRICE: Of course not.

QUESTION: — were not competent?

MR PRICE: Matt, no such words came out of my mouth.

QUESTION: I mean, one of them is still – one of them is your acting assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific right now.

MR PRICE: Of – Matt, I – that’s why I didn’t say that, so okay.

Yes, please.

QUESTION: Yes. I have a follow-up question on South Korea’s participation in Quad. And so South Korea – so, according to some South Korean officials, South Korea has never been officially invited to join the Quad, and it is sort of weird because South Korea is a treaty ally of the U.S. in the region and it also has deep ties with the United States, not only diplomatically but also militarily. And so do you think the United States will eventually invite South Korea to Quad, whether it will be a Quad plus or quintet? And more broadly, do you think South Korea should invest more for peace and security and for the entire Indo-Pacific region, rather than focusing only on the Korean Peninsula?

MR PRICE: Well, let me leave aside the question of the Quad for a moment. I don’t have any projections or any announcements, certainly. But of course, the South Koreans – the ROK – they are an important treaty ally, an indispensable treaty ally. We share any number of interests, including the challenge of North Korea that we have talked about, including a free and open Indo-Pacific. And we have underlined and underscored our commitment to the region.

We spoke yesterday, I believe it was, to an agreement in principle on the Special Measures Agreement when it comes to the ROK, something that had been negotiated and negotiated carefully and – at least in principle – successfully at this point. So I think you will see, just as you did in the first trilateral meeting between the acting assistant secretary and our South Korean and Japanese allies, that we will engage with the South Koreans bilaterally, we will engage with them multilaterally, we will engage with them as the treaty ally that they are and the important friend to the United States that they are.

QUESTION: Actually, I have one more question about the Special Measures Agreement, because, of course, the two countries announced the agreement in principle, and I think it is unprecedented because for the last two previous negotiations completed in 2019 and 2014 – so basically at that time two countries announced the conclusion of a negotiation and provided details about the proposed text. And so this is the first time I’ve ever seen that two countries just announced agreement in principle without giving any details. And I – but probably it is related to the like flexibility concept of the DOD, because current – recently, I’ve seen the commander of INDOPACOM Phil Davidson, he – last week he said something about the shift of historic focus from the Northeast Asia and Guam to the broader region. And also Dr. Colin Kahl, the nominee for under secretary for defense —

MR PRICE: Under secretary of defense for policy.

QUESTION: He just said that the United – the alliance between the United States and South Korea is not committed to the matching number of forces. So it just indicates the possible change or reduction of troops in South Korea and logical issue just related to the Special Measures Agreement, which will cover until 2025. So is that the reason why you just cannot provide the details?

MR PRICE: No. And in fact, I would urge you just to be patient. You don’t have to be patient for too much longer. As you mentioned, this is an agreement in principle. I certainly expect we’ll be in a position to speak to additional details of the Special Measures Agreement before too long.

When it comes to global force posture review, the administration did announce that Secretary Austin at the Pentagon would be undertaking a global force posture review. I’d refer you there for questions about specific deployments around the world. But when it comes to our alliance with South Korea, it’s rock solid. You’ll be hearing additional details on the special measure agreement consistent with what you have heard when it comes to previous negotiations in the past.

Joel.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks. I have questions on China and Iran, so maybe I’ll stay in the region and decide if you – how you want to follow up.

MR PRICE: Sure. Sure.

QUESTION: Just on China and the Uyghurs, this was discussed a little bit yesterday, but Secretary Pompeo, before leaving office, in his genocide declaration said that, quote, “this genocide is ongoing.” And Secretary Blinken, then Secretary-designate at the Foreign Relations Committee replied – affirmed – “that would be my judgment as well” was his language in the hearing.

You’ve seen since used this language that genocide was committed. So I want to just – sort of a process question. What’s at stake in terms of U.S. policy in the difference between the statement “this genocide is ongoing” and “genocide was committed”? Are there —

MR PRICE: No, there’s —

QUESTION: Are there different authorities or obligations related to that?

MR PRICE: No, and I’m glad you – no, thank you for asking, because I think it’s an important point. There’s no difference. The question that was asked yesterday was about Secretary Blinken’s statement in his confirmation hearings. I was referring to that.

What I can say is that we have seen – we are unaware of – we are unaware that these atrocities have ceased. So of course, Secretary Blinken noted his judgment on January 19th of this year, I believe it was. He has since repeated that. And from the vantage point of the State Department, we’re unaware that the atrocities that we have spoken to have ceased. And we have spoken to crimes against humanity, the department has, has reached that judgment. And as you noted, both Secretary Pompeo and his successor Secretary Blinken have arrived at the judgment that genocide has taken place in Xinjiang. We absolutely stand by that. In fact, there have been additional reports even today detailing allegations that – of what has transpired in Xinjiang.

QUESTION: If – my – admittedly, not an expert on this. But if – my understanding is that the genocide piece of this question in particular depends on – legally on the reports about suppressed birth rates and forced sterilization. If you were to learn that maybe that specific component of the abuse underway in Xinjiang were no longer ongoing, would that change the U.S. – would that alter the set of tools available to the U.S. response?

MR PRICE: Well, it wouldn’t change Secretary Blinken’s determination that genocide has occurred in Xinjiang. That is what is important in this case. It is – it underscores what’s at stake. It underscores what’s at stake as we seek to galvanize the international community, our likeminded partners and allies around the world, to make clear to Beijing that there will be consequences for these atrocities, for this genocide, for these intolerable actions. And that is precisely the activity we’ve been engaged in as we consult closely with these partners and allies, and making clear to Beijing that its actions, including in Xinjiang, will have consequences.

QUESTION: Ned, I’m sorry. Can you – it seems to me there’s a very simple way to answer this question. If you think —

MR PRICE: Do you want to come up here?

QUESTION: Well, no. I want to ask – it seem – I mean, you seem to be kind of convoluting the whole thing. When you say that we are unaware that atrocities have ceased and then you keep – but then you keep saying that genocide has taken place in Xinjiang – so the question that I asked you yesterday about the tense I think is still relevant, because I don’t think you really answered your own question. Is – does the administration believe that a genocide is ongoing, is continuing in Xinjiang right now? You’re just – yes or no.

MR PRICE: Matt, Secretary Blinken has made clear that in his judgment, genocide occurred in Xinjiang. The department —

QUESTION: Yeah, “occurred.” I’m looking for something in the present tense, okay? Or not if you don’t think that it’s still ongoing. I mean, I don’t really have an —

MR PRICE: Matt, it – but I don’t think I’m the one complicating this. As I said just a moment ago, we are not aware that these atrocities have ceased.

QUESTION: Yeah, okay. So is genocide ongoing right now in Xinjiang?

MR PRICE: Matt, we have seen nothing that would change our assessment. I am not – look, it is – it is —

QUESTION: Can I just ask if – then on a different – on a different subject?

MR PRICE: But let’s – but let’s – before we come back to you, let’s make sure we have equity.

QUESTION: I just want to get a —

MR PRICE: Let’s make sure we have equity in the room. So —

QUESTION: All right. I just want to make sure we get a Myanmar question in before —

MR PRICE: Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: It doesn’t have to be me, could be anyone.

QUESTION: Me?

MR PRICE: Please.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have a follow-up question on Quad. As was mentioned earlier, it has been in the making for about a decade now. And what was the hurry for having this Quad first summit in the first – 50th day of the administration?

MR PRICE: Well, I think the fact that we are – that the White House will be taking part in this summit, the fact that Secretary Blinken met at the ministerial level with his Quad counterparts, it was important for us to underline in the early days of this administration our commitment to the Indo-Pacific. As we have said from this podium, it’s a region that holds tremendous promise for the United States, also tremendous challenge. We see ourselves as a Pacific nation. We see ourselves as engaged in this region. We want to deepen that engagement, and this is an important forum with important partners with whom we share a good deal of interest, so it was important for us to demonstrate that early on.

QUESTION: And secondly, what is Secretary’s vision of a Quad? Is it heading towards military kind of a dimension or economic or political? What kind of vision?

MR PRICE: No. As I mentioned before, the Quad is a grouping with important friends and allies of the United States, and it’s a grouping that is predicated on shared interests. There are any number of shared interests. Some of them involve maritime security, global health, climate. So I would hesitate to point to one animating challenge that the Quad is set to address today. We are engaging with the Quad to take on those collective shared interests that will be relevant in that setting.

QUESTION: Staying in the region, China had recently announced increase in its defense budget. How do you say, given the context that China has been bullying its neighborhood, approaching their territories?

MR PRICE: Well, when it comes to China’s defense budget, I understand Admiral Davidson was on the Hill today, in fact, testifying. So I’d refer you to his testimony and to DOD for details of that.

QUESTION: One quick one on China. What is this administration’s position on the issue of Dalai Lama’s reincarnation? The previous administration had taken a stand on it.

MR PRICE: Well, we believe that the Chinese Government should have no role in the succession process of the Dalai Lama. Beijing’s interference in the succession of the Panchen Lama more than 25 years ago, including by, quote/un-quote, “disappearing” the Panchen Lama as a child and attempting to replace him with a PRC Government-chosen successor, it remains an outrageous abuse of religious freedom.

QUESTION: I have one more on Afghanistan, if I can. Do you have any update on Ambassador Khalilzad’s travel or meetings in the region? Where is he now? Is he coming back?

MR PRICE: So today, he is in Doha meeting with negotiating parties to encourage progress in the Afghan peace negotiations. As we spoke about at some length yesterday, we’re working closely with Afghan parties to encourage progress on a political settlement and a comprehensive ceasefire. We’re also working diplomatically to mobilize regional and international support for peace.

And the broader point I would make, and to underscore what I said yesterday, is that Ambassador Khalilzad’s trip, it’s really a continuation of American diplomacy in the region. There is a broad and longstanding consensus that there is no military solution to this conflict, and that the political solution and the political solution that Ambassador Khalilzad is there to support, it must, of course, be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. We know this will be a difficult road, but that’s precisely why we’re there, to support this Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process.

QUESTION: As Ambassador Khalilzad continues with his peace talks, is Secretary Blinken okay with Mullah – Taliban leaders like Mullah Baradar or other senior leaders being in the government as part of the peace deal?

MR PRICE: Well, I would point you precisely to what I just said. Any agreement, any outcome that is to be durable has to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. It’s not for us to dictate the deals. It’s not for us to preordain outcomes. It has to be an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process.

Abbie.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: I just wanted to follow up on that and some questions asked yesterday. You keep saying “negotiating parties,” but has Ambassador Khalilzad met with any representatives of the Taliban in the course of his trip to the region?

MR PRICE: That’s why he’s in Doha, in part to meet with Taliban negotiators. I would expect we’ll have additional details of those engagements in the coming days.

QUESTION: Can I please follow up? Did Secretary Blinken recently have a phone call with – 54 minutes talk with Pakistan army chief, General Bajwa? And did the U.S. play any role in the recent Kashmir ceasefire that was jointly announced by Pakistan and India? The reason I ask is because it was aired in the major TV network in that region that such phone call took place, very specifically 54 minutes.

MR PRICE: Well, as we have said, we continue to support direct dialogue between India and Kashmir – between India and Pakistan, excuse me, on Kashmir and other issues of concern. We’ve read out the Secretary’s key calls with his counterparts in the region, so I don’t have any details to share beyond that.

Yes.

QUESTION: Quick question. I wanted to ask about the two IRGC officials blacklisted today for human rights violations. I believe this is a first for the administration, so what message are you trying to send with these designations, and should we expect further actions like this targeting Iran over violations unrelated to its nuclear program?

MR PRICE: Well, I think the message we’re trying to send is clear. The United States is committed to promoting accountability for those responsible for human rights violations and abuses. That includes in Iran, as well as any other country around the world. It’s precisely why today Secretary Blinken announced the public designation of these two Iranians under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriation Act. And it’s an act that allows us to take these actions in response to gross violations of human rights.

The broader point we have made is showcased by today’s example. We can pursue what is in our interests, and an Iran that is permanently and verifiably barred from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon is in our interests, just as we uphold and act in accordance with our values. And it is consistent with our values to make clear that there will be consequences for the sort of gross violations of human rights that these individuals engaged in. We can absolutely do both, and that’s what we did today.

QUESTION: Back on Iran?

MR PRICE: Did you have a – sorry, quick —

QUESTION: Sorry, just a quick follow-up.

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Can you clarify Jake Sullivan’s comments last month that the U.S. has begun to communicate with the Iranians on the hostage issue which you mentioned today? Is that communication being conducted via the Swiss embassy or a third party, and are you seeing any progress on that front?

MR PRICE: Well, I wouldn’t want to extrapolate. I think the underlying point is important, though. Number one, the cases of Americans who are unjustly detained, unjustly held in Iran are an absolute priority to us. As I mentioned previously in this briefing, we have – there is no higher priority than the safe return of Americans unjustly detained overseas, including in Iran.

Number two, we have made this known to the Iranians. There should be no doubt in their minds about the priority we attach to these cases. But of course, we’re not going to detail any specific channels.

QUESTION: Thanks. Just a look back at the – some of the news out of the IAEA last week. The – Director General Grossi told the Board of Governors on March 1st, I think it was, in his appearance there, he said that they had come across clear indications of nuclear material at a particular undeclared site. And he also mentioned that there were three other undeclared sites that they – that Iran was not providing information about. So bearing in mind that the implementation of the JCPOA, the implementation phase included this final assessment from the IAEA, do the Iranians need to provide full – declare those sites and answer all of the IAEA’s questions in order for the Iranians to be considered back in compliance as part of your compliance-for-compliance rubric to – or for us rehabilitating this deal?

MR PRICE: Well, fortunately, we have full faith and full confidence in the IAEA, in this director general, Director Grossi, in his efforts to ensure full implementation of IAEA verification in Iran. We can’t comment on a report, the details of which haven’t been released. But as we have said before, we know that Iran continues to take steps in excess of the JCPOA. Iran also recently has taken steps towards reducing cooperation with the IAEA, including under the Additional Protocol. This all undergirds our concern that Iran is moving in the wrong direction.

It’s important to us that we, once again, have those permanent and verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program, and verifiable in the sense that the IAEA is able to ensure that verification and monitoring regime is working and fully operational. So it’s precisely why we put this offer on the table, to meet with the Iranians in the context of the P5+1, to try and get back to that point of joint full compliance with the JCPOA.

QUESTION: I should be more clear. The statement from the director general that I’m referring to, that’s on his website. That’s not a report that hasn’t been released. And so that – that’s the predicate then for a process question. In order to be – not about the – what their competencies – and I’m sure there were – but in order to be considered in compliance on their side of the table, do they have to provide transparency about these four undeclared sites and answer those questions?

MR PRICE: We are fortunate to have a global nuclear watchdog in the form of the IAEA. Compliance is up to the IAEA to decide. Of course, we’ll be working closely with the IAEA, closely with our partners and allies, but the – what the JCPOA afforded us was this robust – the most robust verification and monitoring regime ever peacefully implemented. And so the IAEA will be the judge as to whether Iran is or is not in full compliance. And – yep.

QUESTION: Very briefly, just on Burma. Do you have anything – is there anything new to say about your position as – in terms of what the situation there is today as opposed to yesterday? And if there isn’t, I mean, if it’s just the same, then that’s fine.

And then secondly, you mentioned that the Secretary is going to be on the Hill tomorrow. He’s going to be asked by Republicans in particular about Nord Stream 2. Is he – and sanctions and why the administration has not imposed additional sanctions. Is he going to be prepared to answer those questions, and if so, what’s he going to say?

MR PRICE: Well, let me just say a word on Burma, Matt, because I think it’s obviously important. And we are repulsed by the military regime’s continued use of lethal force against the people of Burma. We strongly condemn the use of violence by Burmese security forces against the Burmese people, including peaceful protesters, journalists, and other elements of civil society. We urge – and we continue to urge – the Burmese military to exercise maximum restraint. The latest escalations that we’ve seen in recent days of violence, it’s just another indication of the military’s complete disregard for the people of Burma. It’s unacceptable. The United States will continue to hold to account those responsible. Many of our partners and allies around the world have enacted measures of their own.

We continue to work with partners and allies to speak with one voice and to act consistently with one another. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to show the strength of their will and the power of their collective voice. And again, we call on security forces to respond peacefully with respect for human rights, including the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

QUESTION: And on Nord Stream 2 tomorrow? I mean, he’s going to get hammered on this, as you are probably aware, so is he going to able to give a further explanation beyond the report that was sent last month?

MR PRICE: Well, Matt, as you know, the report that we submitted last month is a regular status report to the Hill. The next status report is due to the Hill in May.

QUESTION: They want it – they want something – you’ve seen the letters, right, and public statements.

MR PRICE: So I would say —

QUESTION: They want it before May.

MR PRICE: I would say as a general matter, we don’t comment on communications with the Hill. What we can say is that the administration’s focus and our efforts remain the same, and that is preventing the completion of Nord Stream 2 pipeline. President Biden has, of course, called it a bad deal, a bad deal that divides Europe. The Secretary has had and I’m sure will have an opportunity to continue discussions with members on the Hill tomorrow. He appreciates the insight and communication from them on this and every other issue we confront.

Thank you very much, everyone.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:12 p.m.)

 

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    Based on GAO analysis of stakeholder views, five cross-cutting challenges affect the U.S. recycling system: (1) contamination of recyclables; (2) low collection of recyclables; (3) limited market demand for recyclables; (4) low profitability for operating recycling programs; and (5) limited information to support decision-making about recycling. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) most recent data show that less than a quarter of the waste generated in the United States is collected for recycling (69 million of 292 million tons) and is potentially available, along with new materials, to make new products (see fig.). Estimated Generation and Disposition of Waste in the United States, as of 2018 EPA, the Departments of Commerce (Commerce) and Energy, and the Federal Trade Commission have taken actions that advance recycling, such as collecting data and awarding grants for research on recycling technologies. However, EPA has not conducted studies or developed recommendations for administrative or legislative action on the effect of existing public policies on recycling, as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) requires. Conducting these studies would provide Congress with information to better evaluate the effect of different policies on U.S. recycling efforts. In addition, Commerce is not fully meeting its RCRA requirement to stimulate the development of markets for recycled materials because it has not taken actions to stimulate domestic markets, as GAO recommended in 2006. Commerce officials stated that their work to stimulate international markets fulfills Commerce's obligations under RCRA. Congress may need to act to clarify Commerce's responsibilities under RCRA or assign responsibility for stimulating domestic markets to another agency. By taking action, Congress can ensure a federal response to the reduction in international demand for U.S. recyclables. EPA has taken several actions to plan and coordinate national efforts to advance recycling, such as releasing a draft national recycling strategy in October 2020. However, EPA has not incorporated some desirable characteristics for effective national strategies, identified in prior GAO work. By better incorporating such characteristics as it finalizes and implements its draft strategy, EPA will have greater assurance of the strategy's usefulness in making resource and policy decisions and will better ensure accountability for its implementation. In 1976, Congress sought to reduce solid waste and encourage recycling as part of RCRA, which gave primary responsibility for recycling to states and municipalities but requires EPA and Commerce to take specific actions. The United States generated almost 1,800 pounds of waste per capita in 2018. Recycling rates for common recyclables, such as paper, plastics, glass, and some metals, remain low. Furthermore, recent international import restrictions have reduced demand for U.S. exports of recyclables. GAO was asked to review federal efforts that advance recycling in the United States. This report examines (1) cross-cutting challenges affecting recycling in the United States, (2) actions that selected federal agencies have taken that advance recycling, and (3) actions EPA has taken to plan and coordinate national efforts to advance recycling. GAO reviewed laws and agency documents; and interviewed federal officials and nonfederal stakeholders, such as states, municipalities, and industry representatives, selected for their expertise and efforts to advance recycling. GAO is making one matter for congressional consideration to clarify a RCRA requirement for Commerce or to assign responsibility for stimulating domestic markets to another agency; and three recommendations to EPA, including that it take actions to fulfill certain RCRA requirements. EPA concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.
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  • Priority Open Recommendations: Office of Personnel Management
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In April 2020, GAO identified 18 priority recommendations for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Since then, OPM has implemented four of those recommendations by, among other things, taking actions to collect and share agencies’ information on mission critical occupations as well as hiring data; sharing key practices and lessons learned, including how to address employee misconduct; and implementing a quality assurance review process to re-evaluate security control assessments. We are not adding any new priority recommendations this year. The total number of priority recommendations remaining is 14. These recommendations involve the following areas: improving the federal classification system; making hiring and special pay authorities more effective; improving Enterprise Human Resource Integration payroll data; addressing employee misconduct and improving performance management; and strengthening IT security and management. OPM’s continued attention to these issues could lead to significant improvements in government operations. Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional and/or executive branch decision making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015 GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact Alissa Czyz, Acting Director, Strategic Issues at 202-512-6806 or CzyzA@gao.gov.
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  • Warfighter Support: DOD Needs a Complete Picture of the Military Services’ Prepositioning Programs
    In U.S GAO News
    The services preposition combat and support assets ashore and afloat worldwide, including in the Indo-Pacific region. Prepositioned assets include combat vehicles, equipment sets for engineering and construction, and protective gear for chemical or biological attacks. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Defense (DOD) used prepositioned medical assets for personnel in Guam, South Korea, and Germany. All of the services have reported some shortfalls in their prepositioned assets from 2015 through 2019—including mortars, combat vehicles, and medical equipment. In the Indo-Pacific region, for example, the Army reported shortfalls in equipment to construct bridges over difficult terrain. All services also cited challenges, such as insufficient storage space, storage facilities located far away from intended points of use, and the perishability of some assets. In some cases, the services are taking actions to address these shortfalls and challenges. In others, the services are accepting risk because, according to officials, not all shortfalls and challenges can be fully addressed. Sailors and Marines Offload Assets from a Prepositioning Ship during the COVID-19 Response in Guam DOD has taken steps to implement a joint oversight framework but does not have a complete view of the services' prepositioning programs. DOD revised two guidance documents—an instruction in 2019 and a strategic implementation plan in 2020—to establish a joint oversight framework. However, DOD has focused much of its joint efforts to date on preparing a required annual report to Congress on the status of the services' prepositioning programs. While the report provides some useful information, GAO found inaccurate and inconsistent information in multiple annual reports, which hinder their utility. DOD does not have a reporting mechanism or information-collection tool to develop a complete picture of the services' prepositioning programs. The current annual reporting requirement expires in 2021, which provides DOD with an opportunity to create a new reporting mechanism, or modify existing mechanisms or tools, to enable a complete picture of the services' prepositioning programs. By doing so, DOD could better identify gaps or redundancies in the services' programs, make more informed decisions to mitigate asset shortfalls and challenges, reduce potential duplication and fragmentation, and improve its joint oversight. The U.S. military services preposition critical assets at strategic locations around the world for access during the initial phases of an operation. DOD uses these prepositioned assets for combat, support to allies, and disaster and humanitarian assistance. For many years, GAO has identified weaknesses in DOD's efforts to establish a joint oversight framework to guide its ability to assess the services' prepositioning programs. This has led to fragmentation and the potential for duplication. Senate Report 116-48 included a provision for GAO to evaluate the services' prepositioning programs and associated challenges. This report (1) describes the types of assets the services preposition worldwide, as well as asset shortfalls and challenges the services have identified, and (2) assesses the extent to which DOD has made progress in implementing a joint oversight framework for the services' programs. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed DOD prepositioning documents and interviewed DOD and State Department officials from over 20 offices. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in December 2020. Information that DOD deemed sensitive has been omitted. GAO recommends that DOD develop a reporting mechanism or tool to gather complete information about the military services' prepositioning programs for joint oversight and to reduce duplication and fragmentation. DOD concurred with the recommendation. For more information, contact Cary B. Russell at (202) 512-5431 or russellc@gao.gov.
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  • Priority Open Recommendations: Department of the Interior
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In April 2020, GAO identified 10 priority recommendations for the Department of the Interior. Since then, Interior has implemented 5 of those recommendations by, among other things, taking steps to identify and evaluate offshore oil and gas drilling risks and improving regional coordination among federal partners to address energy and mineral issues. In June 2021, GAO identified 8 additional priority recommendations for Interior, bringing the total number to 13. These recommendations involve the following areas: improving oversight of offshore oil and gas activities; taking action to ensure safety, health, and services at Bureau of Indian Education schools; improving Bureau of Indian Affairs' management of energy development on Indian lands; reducing factors that hinder tribal administration of federal programs; and addressing Micronesia and the Marshall Islands' transition to trust fund income. Interior's continued attention to these issues could lead to significant improvements in government operations. Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional and/or executive branch decision-making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015, GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact Mark Gaffigan at (202) 512-3841 or gaffiganm@gao.gov.
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  • Veterans Affairs: Systems Modernization, Cybersecurity, and IT Management Issues Need to Be Addressed
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has faced long-standing challenges in its efforts to deploy information technology (IT) initiatives in two critical areas needing modernization: the department's aging health information system, known as the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA); and VA's outdated, non-integrated financial and acquisition management systems requiring complex manual work processes that have contributed to the department reporting financial management system functionality as a material weakness. Specifically, GAO has reported on the challenges that the department has faced with its three previous unsuccessful attempts to modernize VistA over the past 20 years. In February 2021, GAO reported that VA had made progress toward implementing its fourth effort—a modernized electronic health record system. However, GAO stressed that the department needed to address all critical severity test findings (that could result in system failure) and high severity test findings (that could result in system failure, but have acceptable workarounds) before deploying the system at future locations. In March 2021, GAO reported on the department's Financial Management Business Transformation, a program intended to modernize financial and acquisition systems. GAO found that VA had generally adhered to best practices in the areas of program governance, project management, and testing. However, the department had not fully met best practices for developing and managing cost and schedule estimates. GAO recommended that VA follow such practices to help minimize the risks of cost overruns and schedule delays. GAO has also reported that VA has struggled to secure information systems and associated data; implement information security controls and mitigate known security deficiencies; establish key elements of a cybersecurity risk management program; and identify, assess, and mitigate the risks of information and communications technology supply chains. GAO has made numerous recommendations to VA to address these areas. Many of those recommendations have been addressed, but others have not been fully implemented. VA has demonstrated mixed results in implementing key provisions of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (commonly referred to as FITARA). Specifically, VA has made substantial progress in improving its licensing of software, which led it to identify $65 million in cost savings. Further, it has made some progress in consolidating its data centers and achieving cost savings and avoidances. However, it has made limited progress in addressing requirements related to managing IT investment risk and enhancing the authority of its Chief Information Officer. Fully implementing the act's provisions would position the department to deliver better service to our veterans through modern, secure technology. Why GAO Did This Study The use of IT is crucial to helping VA effectively serve the nation's veterans. The department annually spends billions of dollars on its information systems and assets. Its fiscal year 2022 budget request is about $4.8 billion for its Office of Information and Technology and $2.7 billion for electronic health record modernization. GAO was asked to testify on its prior IT work at VA. Specifically, this testimony summarizes results and recommendations from GAO's issued reports that examined VA's efforts in (1) modernizing VistA and its financial and acquisition management systems; (2) addressing cybersecurity issues; and (3) implementing FITARA. GAO reviewed its recently issued reports that addressed IT and cybersecurity issues at VA and followed up on the department's actions in response to recommendations.
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