Political Prisoners in Belarus Should Be Released

Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State

The United States condemns the continued detention of political prisoners in Belarus.  More than 100 political prisoners are currently being detained for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms by peacefully participating in protests, calling for free and fair elections, and advocating for a national dialogue to end the ongoing crisis.  These political prisoners have been subject to harsh and life-threatening detention conditions, including credible reports of torture.  They are among the thousands of individuals who have been subjected to unjust detentions since the start of the violent crackdown.  The United States stands with those who remain detained and unaccounted for, those who have been killed, and those who continue to peacefully assert their right to choose their leaders in free and fair elections.  We once again call on the Belarusian authorities to immediately cease the escalating use of violence against peaceful demonstrators, release all political prisoners and other peaceful protestors who have been detained, and engage in meaningful dialogue with the Coordination Council and Belarusian civil society.

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    The Department of Justice announced today that it is requiring Liberty Latin America Ltd. (Liberty), its subsidiary, Liberty Communications of Puerto Rico LLC (LCPR), and AT&T Inc. (AT&T) to divest certain fiber-based telecommunications assets and customer accounts in Puerto Rico, in order for Liberty to proceed with its proposed acquisition of AT&T’s wireline and wireless telecommunications operations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  The department has approved WorldNet Telecommunications, Inc. (WorldNet) as the acquirer. 
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  • U.S. Government Accountability Office (U.S. GAO)
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Navy has identified several challenges with using its regular maintenance capability (which restores ships to fully operational status) to provide battle damage repairs during a great power conflict. Challenges include—the lack of established doctrine for battle damage repair, unclear command and control roles, and a shortage of repair capacity. The Navy Process for Repairing Ships Damaged in Battle The Navy is in the early stages of determining how it will provide battle damage repair during a great power conflict. Eight organizations are responsible for the Navy's 15 battle damage repair planning efforts, however the Navy has not designated an organization to lead and oversee these efforts. Without designated leadership, the Navy may be hindered in its efforts to address the many challenges it faces in sustaining its ships during a great power conflict. The Navy develops ship vulnerability models during a ship's acquisition to estimate damage during a conflict. These models are also used to inform war games that refine operational approaches and train leaders on decision-making. However, the Navy does not update these models over a ship's decades-long service life to reflect changes to key systems that could affect model accuracy. As a result, it lacks quality data on ship mission-critical failure points to inform its analysis of battle damage repair needs. Without periodically assessing and updating its models to accurately reflect the ship's mission-critical systems, the Navy has limited its ability to assess and develop battle damage repair capabilities necessary to sustain ships in a conflict with a great power competitor. Why GAO Did This Study The ability to repair and maintain ships plays a critical role in sustaining Navy readiness. After the Cold War, the Navy divested many wartime ship repair capabilities. With the rise of great power competitors capable of producing high-end threats in warfare, the Navy must now be prepared to quickly salvage and repair damage to a modern fleet. House Report 116-120, accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, included a provision for GAO to assess the Navy's efforts to identify and mitigate challenges in repairing battle-damaged ships during a great power conflict. GAO's report (1) discusses the challenges the Navy has identified in using its regular maintenance capability for battle damage repair, and (2) evaluates the extent to which the Navy has begun developing the battle damage repair capability it requires to prevail in a great power conflict. GAO reviewed relevant guidance and assessed reports on naval war games and other documentation to identify challenges that may impede the planning and repair of battle-damaged ships and efforts to improve the repair capability for a great power conflict.
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  • Space Acquisitions: DOD Faces Challenges and Opportunities with Acquiring Space Systems in a Changing Environment
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Department of Defense (DOD) is making changes to its space-related processes and organization that will present both opportunities and challenges to the way it acquires its space systems. GAO has reported over the past decades on challenges DOD faces in its space acquisitions—including schedule delays, multibillion-dollar cost increases, significant reductions in capabilities, and in some cases cancelation—and made recommendations that have improved program outcomes. For example, DOD took actions to implement a GAO recommendation to use an incremental approach to acquiring space launch services. DOD's modified approach reduced risk by allowing it to incorporate knowledge gained from early launch competitions to inform subsequent competitions. Many of the most troubled programs are nearing completion, and DOD is starting new programs to develop the next generation of capabilities, some of which are being acquired under a streamlined acquisition process known as the middle-tier of acquisition pathway (see table below). Starting new programs is an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and take measures to put programs on successful paths. GAO's work has shown that in many cases, DOD is attempting to do so. Selected New DOD Space Programs and Near-Term Estimated Costs Dollars in billions New program Current estimated costs for 5-year middle-tier effort Evolved Strategic SATCOM (ESS) Protected satellite communications $1.4 Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution (FORGE) Ground control for Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared satellites $3.0 Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) Block 0 Missile warning, infrared intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance $8.4 Protected Tactical SATCOM (PTS) Protected satellite communications $1.0 Source: Department of Defense (DOD) data. | GAO-21-520T However, DOD faces challenges because it will be starting these new programs amid significant changes to the acquisition environment. Some of these changes are external to DOD, such as increased threats to on-orbit space systems. But over the past several years, DOD also initiated substantial organizational and acquisition process changes. While the Space Force offers an important opportunity to streamline lines of authority, accountability, and decision-making and avoid duplication of effort, many details will require careful consideration. In addition, adopting leading practices for acquisition, as previously recommended, could help DOD achieve faster delivery of new capabilities, especially if DOD balances new, streamlined acquisition processes with sufficient oversight to help ensure program success. Why GAO Did This Study DOD space systems provide critical capabilities that support military and other government operations. Space systems can be expensive to acquire and field, costing billions of dollars each year. The U.S. Space Force was recently established as the sixth branch of the U.S. military. As planned, the Space Force will consolidate leadership, planning, and management for some DOD space programs, as appropriate and authorized. This statement discusses the challenges and opportunities DOD faces as it acquires space systems amid changes to the acquisition environment. This statement is based on GAO reports issued over the past 10 years on DOD space programs. It also draws on recent work supporting GAO's 2021 annual report on the progress of major defense acquisition programs.
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  • Justice Department Settles Discrimination Claim Against Aerojet Rocketdyne, Inc.
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice today announced that it reached a settlement with Aerojet Rocketdyne Inc. (Aerojet Rocketdyne), a rocket and missile propulsion manufacturer. The settlement resolves a charge brought by a lawful permanent resident whom Aerojet Rocketdyne did not consider for a mechanic position because of his immigration status. The department’s investigation concluded that Aerojet Rocketdyne violated the anti-discrimination provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) when it only considered U.S. citizens for 12 mechanic positions in Jupiter, Florida, without legal justification.
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  • Science & Tech Spotlight: Contact Tracing Apps
    In U.S GAO News
    Why This Matters Contact tracing can help reduce transmission rates for infectious diseases like COVID-19 by identifying and notifying people who may have been exposed. Contact tracing apps, notably those using proximity tracing, could expedite such efforts. However, there are challenges, including accuracy, adoption rates, and privacy concerns. The Technology What is it? Contact tracing is a process in which public health officials attempt to limit disease transmission by identifying infected individuals, notifying their "contacts"—all the people they may have transmitted the disease to—and asking infected individuals and their contacts to quarantine, if appropriate (see fig. 1). For a highly contagious respiratory disease such as COVID-19, a contact could be anyone who has been nearby. Proximity tracing applications (apps) can expedite contact tracing, using smartphones to rapidly identify and notify contacts. Figure 1. A simplified depiction of disease transmission. Through contact tracing, an infected individual’s contacts are notified and may be asked to quarantine. (In reality, some contacts may not become infected, and some of those infected may not show symptoms.) How does it work? In traditional contact tracing, public health officials begin by identifying an infected individual. They then interview the individual to identify recent contacts, ask the individual and their contacts to take containment measures, if appropriate (e.g., a 14-day quarantine for COVID-19), and coordinate any needed care and testing. Proximity tracing apps may accelerate the process by replacing the time-consuming interviews needed to identify contacts. Apps may also identify more contacts than interviews, which rely on interviewees' recall and on their being acquainted with their contacts. Public health authorities provide the apps, often using systems developed by companies or research groups. Users voluntarily download the app for their country or region and opt in to contact tracing. In the U.S., state or local public health authorities would likely implement proximity tracing apps. Proximity tracing apps detect contacts using Bluetooth, GPS, or a combination of both. Bluetooth-based apps rely on anonymous codes shared between smartphones during close encounters. These codes contain no information about location or user identity, helping safeguard privacy. The apps allow public health authorities to set a minimum time and distance threshold for someone to count as a contact. Contact tracing can be centralized or decentralized. With a centralized approach, contacts identified by the app are often saved to a government server, and an official notifies contacts of possible exposure. For a decentralized approach, contact data are typically stored on the user's device at first. When a user voluntarily reports infection, the user's codes are uploaded to a database that other app users' phones search. Users who have encountered the infected person then receive notifications through the app (see fig. 2). Figure 2. Bluetooth-based proximity tracing apps exchange information, notify contacts exposed to an infected person, and provide follow-up information. How mature is it? Traditional contact tracing is well established and has been an effective infectious disease response strategy for decades. Proximity tracing apps are relatively new and not as well established. Their contact identifications could become more accurate as developers improve app technology, for example by improving Bluetooth signal interpretation or using information from other phone sensors. Opportunities Reach more people. For accurate COVID-19 contact tracing using traditional methods, public health experts have estimated that the U.S. would require hundreds of thousands of trained contact tracers because of the large number of infections. Proximity tracing apps can expedite and automate identification and notification of the contacts, reducing this need. Faster response. Proximity tracing apps could slow the spread of disease more effectively because they can identify and notify contacts as soon as a user reports they are infected. More complete identification of contacts. Proximity tracing apps, unlike traditional contact tracing, do not require users to recall or be acquainted with people they have recently encountered. Challenges Technology. Technological limitations may lead to missed contacts or false identification of contacts. For example, GPS-based apps may not identify precise locations, and Bluetooth apps may ignore barriers preventing exposure, such as walls or protective equipment. In addition, apps may overlook exposure if two people were not in close enough proximity long enough for it to count as a contact. Adoption. Lower adoption rates make the apps less effective. In the U.S., some states may choose not to use proximity tracing apps. In addition, the public may hesitate to opt in because of concerns about privacy and uncertainty as to how the data may be used. Recent scams using fake contact tracing to steal information may also erode trust in the apps. Interoperability. Divergent app designs may lead to the inability to exchange data between apps, states, and countries, which could be a problem as travel restrictions are relaxed. Access. Proximity tracing apps require regular access to smartphones and knowledge about how to install and use apps. Some vulnerable populations, including seniors, are less likely to own smartphones and use apps, possibly affecting adoption. Policy Context and Questions Although proximity tracing apps are relatively new, they have the potential to help slow disease transmission. But policymakers will need to consider how great the benefits are likely to be, given the challenges. If policymakers decide to use proximity tracing apps, they will need to integrate them into the larger public health response and consider the following questions, among others: What steps can policymakers take to build public trust and encourage communities to support and use proximity tracing apps, and mitigate lack of adoption by some populations? What legal, procedural, privacy, security, and technical safeguards could protect data collected through proximity tracing apps? What can policymakers do to improve coordination of contact tracing efforts across local, state, and international jurisdictions? What can policymakers do to expedite testing and communication of test results to maximize the benefits of proximity tracing apps? What can policymakers do to ensure that contact identification is accurate and that its criteria are based on scientific evidence? For more information, contact Karen Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.
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  • Former West Virginia Law Enforcement Officer Charged with Federal Civil Rights Offense
    In Crime News
    A federal grand jury in West Virginia returned an indictment Tuesday charging a former West Virginia police officer with a civil rights offense against an arrestee.
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  • Behavioral Health: Patient Access, Provider Claims Payment, and the Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found GAO found that there have been longstanding concerns about the availability of behavioral health treatment, particularly for low-income individuals. According to a review of federal data, one potential barrier to accessing treatment has been shortages of qualified behavioral health professionals, particularly in rural areas. Stakeholders that GAO interviewed—officials from the National Council for Behavioral Health (NCBH) and from hospital associations and insurance regulators in four states—cited additional contributing factors such as provider reimbursement rates and health system capacity. Additionally, recent reports from Pennsylvania and Oregon further documented longstanding problems with meeting the need for behavioral health services in their states. Evidence collected during the pandemic suggests the prevalence of behavioral health conditions has increased, while access to in-person behavioral health services has decreased: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey data collected from April 2020 through February 2021 found that the percentage of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression averaged 38 percent. In comparison, using similar questions, CDC found that about 11 percent of U.S. adults reported experiencing these symptoms from January to June 2019. An analysis of CDC data found that the share of emergency department visits for drug overdoses and suicide attempts were 36 and 26 percent higher, respectively, for the period of mid-March through mid-October 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019. In a February 2021 survey of its members, NCBH found that in the 3 months preceding the survey, about two-thirds of the member organizations surveyed reported demand for their services increasing and having to cancel or reschedule patient appointments or turn patients away. The survey also found that during the pandemic, 27 percent of member organizations reported laying off employees, 45 percent reported closing some programs, and 35 percent decreased the hours for staff. Officials GAO interviewed from provider organizations offered anecdotal examples of problems with payments for behavioral health services, including examples suggesting that denials and delays were more common for these services than they were for medical/surgical services. However, most officials were not aware of published data that could confirm their concerns, and data from reports from two states on claims denials either did not support their concerns or were inconclusive. In addition, a report in one state that examined mental health parity—requirements that behavioral health benefits are not more restrictive than medical/surgical benefits—found that the rate of complaints associated with behavioral health services was notably lower than those for medical/surgical services. The lack of available data confirming stakeholder concerns could be related to potential challenges consumers and providers face in identifying and reporting mental health parity violations, as previously reported by GAO. Specifically, in 2019, GAO found that complaints were not a reliable indicator of such violations, because consumers may not know about parity requirements or may have privacy concerns related to submitting a complaint. GAO recommended that the federal agencies involved in the oversight of mental health parity requirements evaluate the effectiveness of their oversight efforts. As of March 2021, the agencies had not yet implemented this recommendation. Why GAO Did This Study Behavioral health conditions, which include mental health and substance use disorders, affect a substantial number of adults in the United States. For example, in 2019, an estimated 52 million adults in the United States were reported to have a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder, and 20 million people aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder. Experts have expressed concerns that the incidence of behavioral health conditions would increase as a result of stressors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic, longstanding questions have been raised about whether coverage or claims for behavioral health services are denied or delayed at higher rates than those for other health services. GAO was asked to examine several issues about the demand for behavioral health services, as well as coverage and payment for these services. GAO examined (1) what is known about the need for and availability of behavioral health services, and how these have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic; and (2) what issues selected stakeholders identified regarding the payment of claims for behavioral health services. GAO reviewed survey data and other relevant analyses focused on the need for and availability of behavioral health services prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO also reviewed reports from two states that compared claims for behavioral health services with those of other health services; interviewed officials from NCBH; and interviewed officials from hospital associations and insurance regulators in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia. For more information, contact John E. Dicken at 202-512-7114 or dickenj@gao.gov.
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