October 19, 2021

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Secretary Antony J. Blinken and Israeli Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan at a Joint Press Availability

31 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.

Benjamin Franklin Room

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, good morning or, almost, good afternoon, everyone.  Just over a year ago, the leaders of Israel and the United Arab Emirates signed the Abraham Accords.  Today, I am honored to host Foreign Minister Lapid, Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah, to review the progress that’s been made in the past year in the normalization of relations, and what more we can do together to shape a more peaceful and prosperous region.  The UAE-Israel relationship has, I think it’s fair to say, flourished this past year.  This May, Israel opened an embassy in the UAE, the first it has ever had to a Gulf nation.  And a few days ago, Israel’s new ambassador to the UAE presented his credentials.  In July, the UAE opened an embassy in Israel, the first Gulf state to take that action.

In addition to these diplomatic strides, the people-to-people ties between the two countries are also thriving, even with COVID.  Direct flights are now connecting Israel and the UAE.  Tourists are seizing the opportunity.  Around 200,000 Israelis have visited the Emirates this past year alone.  We strongly support these historic steps, and we’re committed to continue building on the efforts of the last administration to expand the circle of countries with normalized relations with Israel in the years ahead.

We believe that normalization can and should be a force for progress, not only between Israel and Arab countries and other countries in the region and beyond, but also between Israelis and Palestinians.  As President Biden has said, Israelis and Palestinians equally deserve to live safely and securely and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, democracy.  The President has also been clear that a two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living in peace alongside a viable, sovereign, and democratic Palestinian state.

Today, our three countries discussed two new working groups that we are launching together.  The first is on religious coexistence.  This is a moment of rising anti-Semitism, rising Islamophobia, and we want Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States to work together to build tolerance and ensure that all religious groups can worship in their traditional ways without violence, without intimidation, without discrimination.

The second working group is on water and energy, critical issues for our countries in the face of the climate crisis, and places where the United States, Israel, and the UAE can be in a sense greater than the sum of our parts to the benefit of our people, the region, and even the world.  We’re very pleased that Israel has joined the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, a joint U.S. and UAE initiative to catalyze new investment in climate-smart agriculture.  Israeli and Emirati firms are already planning to collaborate on a number of renewable projects.

And I want to commend the UAE for its plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, the first country in the GCC to do so, and Israel for its new plan to reduce emissions by 85 percent by 2050. 

Finally, the trilateral partnership also makes it possible for our countries to discuss other urgent regional issues more effectively, to do it together.  For example, today we talked about a range of regional security issues, including Iran, Syria, Ethiopia.  That’s what normalization has made possible; transformative partnerships on the urgent challenges facing our countries and facing the world.  And that’s why it’s so important, and it’s why I am deeply grateful to both of you for being here today and for the work that we’re doing together.  So thank you very much, and with that, Yair.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAPID:   Thank you, Secretary of State Blinken, Your Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, friends.  Two weeks ago in Bahrain, I met a king in his palace, an American admiral on his ship, and a Jew who cared for the only synagogue almost single-handedly.  And they all said the same thing.  They said no one believed the things happening here are possible. 

And they were wrong.  The things that are happening are happening exactly because people believed, because today there are leaders in the Middle East who believe we can change history together.  In the past four month, Israel opened embassies and offices in the UAE, in Morocco, in Bahrain.  We have turned the cold peace with Egypt and Jordan into a warm peace – we signed economic and civil agreements – and we greatly strengthened our relations with the European Union and with our neighbors in the Mediterranean.

His Highness Sheikh Abdullah and I have become friends and partners.  Our friendship is based on shared values, on moderation, on religious tolerance, on the importance of fighting terror and radicalization.  The partnership is based on economics, progress, and technological excellence.  This partnership isn’t just between Jews and Arabs, but between citizens of the world who want to be partners in the fight against climate change, against poverty, against the pandemic that has taken the life of millions.

President Kennedy said, all people are entitled to a decent way of life.  This includes, of course, the Palestinians.  Our goal is to work with the Palestinian Authority to ensure that every child has that opportunity. 

At the center of my visit here is the concern about Iran’s race to nuclear capability.  Iran is becoming a nuclear threshold country.  Every day that passes, every delay in negotiations brings Iran closer to a nuclear bomb.  The Iranians are clearly dragging their heels, trying to cheat the world to continue to enrich uranium, to develop their ballistic missile program.

Secretary of State Blinken and I are sons of Holocaust survivors.  We know there are moments when nations must use force to protect the world from evil.  If a terror regime is going to acquire a nuclear weapon, we must act.  We must make clear that the civilized world won’t allow it.  If the Iranians don’t believe the world is serious about stopping them, they’ll race to the bomb.

Israel reserves the right to act at any given moment, in any way.  That is not only our right; it is also our responsibility.  Iran has publicly stated it wants to wipe us out.  We have no intention of letting this happen.

I don’t want to conclude with fears, but with hopes.  We are writing a new chapter in our history.  There is an alliance of moderates focused on life, focused on hope, focused on optimism, focused on looking forward. 

I thank you both for this alliance, for the friendship we have.  It is a source of hope for the whole world.  Thank you. 

FOREIGN MINISTER ABDULLAH BIN ZAYED:  Secretary Blinken, for us, having us both – my dear friend Yair Lapid, the foreign minister of Israel, myself – in D.C. is a strong commitment of the United States in building bridges, yes, but building bridges between two successful nations, but also two successful nations which are committed and devoted for further development, changing the narrative in the region, especially among our youth, towards a more positive one. 

Our entire effort towards the future should be based on how can we make our people respect and admire good successes in the region.  Unfortunately, in the last few decades, we haven’t seen many of those.  And what I believe the United States is telling the rest of the world in embracing the Emirates and Israel is that the United States is serious about changing this narrative in the region, and thank you for that, Secretary Blinken. 

We in the UAE are very proud that in less than 50 years of our federation, we’ve managed to come where we are today.  And how can we create a nation which respects values but also respects and celebrates tolerance? 

I’m sure that this would have a further effect in the region, and I’m sure that the more of a successful UAE-Israeli relationship there’ll be, that would not only encourage the region, but also encourage the Israeli people and the Palestinian people that this path works, that this path is worth not only investing in but also taking the risk. 

We are extremely impressed, obviously, with our growing relationship with Israel, but we will always depend that we have a friend, a partner in the U.S., which will excite us and will show us how to do things even better.  So thank you, Secretary.

MR PRICE:  We’ll now turn to questions.  We will start with Will Mauldin of The Wall Street Journal

QUESTION:  Thank you so much.  Sheikh Abdullah, I wanted to ask if the conflict with Yemen came up, and if so, what was discussed in terms of humanitarian or – humanitarian efforts or possible durable ceasefire involving you or your neighbors? 

For Foreign Minister Lapid, I did want to ask:  I saw that you spoke yesterday with Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor, about an alternative plan to the nuclear agreement if Iran doesn’t come back to the table.  I’m wondering if you discussed that with Secretary Blinken or if you will discuss that with him, and what that would involve – what you would want it to involve.

And then finally, for Secretary Blinken, I wanted to ask also about Iran.  Do you expect Iran to return to the negotiating table imminently in Vienna?  And if not, how much time do you think they should have?  A couple of months?  Should it be sometime next year? 

And I also wanted to ask you, if I may, about the consulate in Jerusalem.  Would that be something that you made progress on with Foreign Minister Lapid?  Is there any chance that that will be opened, which is something you had envisioned after traveling to Israel?  Thank you.

FOREIGN MINISTER ABDULLAH BIN ZAYED:  Well, Yemen is always on the agenda with friends, and we have to just keep in mind that what’s dragging us in the situation is the lack of will and commitment on the Houthi side in ending this conflict.  We are all working very hard among friends to ensure that the Yemenis can have a better life.  But at the same time, we have to keep in mind that we don’t end up with a situation where we have another Hizballah threatening the borders of Saudi Arabia.  And the Houthis have managed to develop their capabilities in the last few years in a way which is much faster than the trajectory of Hizballah developing its capabilities. 

So absolutely, we would like to end this today.  We would like to help with the rest of the international community in developing and rebuilding Yemen.  But we have to make sure that we have enough partners and international understanding that we don’t have another Southern Lebanon situation in Yemen.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAPID:  Well, as President Biden has said in the visit when Prime Minister Bennett was visiting Washington, I think the exact goal, if diplomacy fails, other options will be on the table.  And yes, we are discussing in length the option and I discussed this with Mr. Sullivan, we’re going to discuss this in the bilateral meeting with Secretary Blinken, and we have mentioned this even in this session.  

As I was saying in my opening remarks, sometimes the world has to show its hand in order to make sure Iran understands the consequences of running to become a threshold country.  We’re not going to allow this to happen, and I think everybody in this room share this sentiment, and we are discussing how to make sure this will never happen. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We’re united in the proposition that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon, and President Biden is committed to that proposition.  We believe that the diplomatic path is the most effective way to ensure that that doesn’t happen. 

But as we’ve had occasion to discuss in recent weeks, despite the fact that we’ve made abundantly clear over the last nine months that we are prepared to return to full compliance with the JCPOA if Iran does the same, what we are seeing – or maybe more accurately not seeing from Tehran now – suggests that they’re not.  And time is running short because, as we’ve also had an opportunity to discuss together, we are getting closer to a point at which returning to compliance with the JCPOA will not in and of itself recapture the benefits of the JCPOA, and that’s because Iran has been using this time to advance its nuclear program in a variety of ways, including enriching uranium to 20 percent and even 60 percent, using more advanced centrifuges, acquiring more knowledge. 

And so that runway is getting shorter.  I’m not going to put a specific date on it, but with every passing day and Iran’s refusal to engage in good faith, the runway gets short.  And so as the foreign minister said, we are discussing this among ourselves, and we will look at every option to deal with the challenge posed by Iran.  We continue to believe that diplomacy is the most effective way to do that, but it takes two to engage in diplomacy, and we have not – we have not seen from Iran a willingness to do that at this point.

With regard to the second part of your question, Will, I mentioned this in my opening remarks:  We believe strongly that Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely, securely, with equal measures of freedom, prosperity, democracy.  And we will continue our own efforts toward that end.  And in a sense, I can’t stress this enough, advancing equal measures of freedom and dignity is important in its own right and as a means to advance toward a negotiated two-state solution.  So our approach will be to work toward a more peaceful, secure, prosperous future for the people of the Middle East as a whole, and for Israelis and Palestinians as well in particular.  We are unwavering in our commitment to Israel’s security, and we will work to strengthen all aspects of the U.S.-Israel partnership.

To advance the goal that I mentioned, we will work closely with Israel, deepen our diplomatic ties with the Palestinians, and consult with partners in the region and beyond who have a common interest in supporting efforts to advance a lasting peace.  And as I said in May, we’ll be moving forward with the process of opening a consulate as part of deepening those ties with the Palestinians.

MR PRICE:  We’ll turn to Yuna Leibzon from Channel 12.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  First question, Secretary Blinken.  You just mentioned that all paths are on the table and the diplomatic path is your preferred path.  But is a military path also something – is that something that you’re considering that is also on the table?

And the second question is:  Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Bennett, have said that Israel is operating all the time against the Iran nuclear deal, including that it has the right to defend itself.  Is that something that is being done in coordination with you?

And a question to Minister Lapid about Abraham Accords.  Have other countries been discussed?  Has — 

FOREIGN MINISTER LAPID:  You have to raise your voice a little bit.

QUESTION:  Sorry.  A question to you about the Abraham Accords.  Are other countries being discussed?  Has there been any kind of process or something new that you can share with us about the efforts joining other countries?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  I’m happy to start. 

First, to be very clear, Israel has the right to defend itself and we strongly support that proposition.  We’ve also been clear, as I said a moment ago, that we believe a diplomatic solution to our concerns with Iran – concerns that are shared among the three of us and among many countries around the world, including our European partners, including Russia and China – that a diplomatic path is the best and most effective way to do that.  And so we’ve been clear that, as I said, we would like to see a mutual return to compliance of the JCPOA.  But Iran’s responses, or rather lack thereof, have not been encouraging. 

So even as we remain ready to return to talks and think that we should do so soon, if Iran has a realistic position, we continue to believe that we could reach an agreement on a return to mutual compliance.  But for the reasons I cited a few minutes ago, the runway that we have left to do that is getting shorter and shorter, and so we are watching Iran’s comments, posture very, very carefully.  And as the minister said, we are prepared to turn to other options if Iran doesn’t change course, and these consultations with our allies and partners are a part of that.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAPID:  I would like to start by repeating what the Secretary of State just said.  Yes, other options are going to be on the table if diplomacy fails.  And by saying other options, I think everybody understands here, in Israel, in the Emirates, and in Tehran what is it that we mean.

About the Abraham Accords, yes, we want to expand the Abraham Accords.  We’re working on expanding the Abraham Accords.  But first and foremost, and we’ve discussed this today at length, we want to make sure the current agreements we have will be a success story.  And it is so far a success story on the people-to-people level, on the ability to make this into business, energy, water, the working groups we have decided to open today.  These are all great achievements, and we are going to push forward as hard as we can on this while working on expanding the Abraham Accords to other countries, including the ones you don’t think of.

If I may I will say a few words in Hebrew, but it’s going to be the same.  (Laughter.)

(In Hebrew.)

You listened to me like you understand every word in Hebrew.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:   Every third word.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAPID:  Every third word.  I know you know some. 

MR PRICE:  Our final question will come from Joyce Karam of The National.

QUESTION:  Yes, hi.  Thank you.  Joyce Karam with The National newspaper.  My question to Sheikh Abdullah:  A year on, how is the UAE planning to leverage the Abraham Accords to advance a two-state solution?  And given that your counterpart, Mr. Lapid, has already visited Abu Dhabi in June, are you planning a visit to Israel in the near future?

And to Secretary Blinken, two quick questions.  You mentioned that the administration is working to expand the pool of the Abraham Accords.  What incentives are you providing to other countries to join?  And allow me a question on Syria to Secretary Blinken.  A number of Arab countries are resuming normal ties with the Assad regime.  Does the Biden administration endorse this rapprochement and what is the U.S. policy in that regard?  Thank you.

FOREIGN MINISTER ABDULLAH BIN ZAYED:  Well, Foreign Minister Yair was kind enough to invite me to visit Israel, and I’m going to visit soon to meet a friend, but also a partner.  We need to not only celebrate this relationship, but look at new venues of cooperation.  Today, one of the initiatives that we’ve signed off on when it comes to climate change – we are extremely interested in seeing how we can work with Israeli technology, Emirati technology in building not only bridges between us, but with third parties as well. 

The Palestinians are going to be the most important element of the success of peace in the region.  We cannot just talk about peace in the region without the neighbors – the Palestinians and the Israelis are not in talking terms to start with.  So I’m quite excited to see that in the last few weeks, Israeli ministers are starting to meet with the PA.  This is a good start.  We have to keep encouraging them, but also in broadening the opportunities for them.  Today, I think the relationship between Israel and the UAE helps us, both of us, to be more candid with each other, but also to encourage the others whenever there is more to be done.  So I think the UAE-Israeli relationship will be not only a way of encouraging our two people, but beyond, in the region.  So I look forward to seeing you, Yair, in Israel soon.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAPID:  My house is open to you.  You know that.

FOREIGN MINISTER ABDULLAH BIN ZAYED:  Thank you, sir. 

FOREIGN MINISTER LAPID:  And my wife is expecting for you to come over for dinner.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I’m tempted to leave it there, but – (laughter) – let me talk about Syria first and then come to the second part of the – the first part of the question second.

First, to put this in focus, these initial nine months of the administration we have been focused on a few things when it comes to Syria: Expanding humanitarian access for people who desperately need that assistance, and we had some success, as you know, with renewing the critical corridor in northwestern Syria to do that; sustaining the campaign that we have with the coalition against ISIS and al-Qaida in Syria; making clear our commitment, our ongoing commitment to demand accountability from the Assad regime and the preservation of basic international norms like promoting human rights and nonproliferation through the imposition of targeted sanctions; and sustaining local ceasefires, which are in place in different parts of the country.  So this has been the focus of our action for these last nine months. 

As we’re moving forward, in the time ahead, keeping violence down; increasing humanitarian assistance and focusing our military efforts on any terrorist groups that pose a threat to us or to our partners, with the intent and capacity to do that.  These are going to be the critical areas of focus for us, and they’re also, I think, important to advancing a broader political settlement to the Syrian conflict consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. 

What we have not done and what we do not intend to do is to express any support for efforts to normalize relations or rehabilitate Mr. Assad, or lifted a single sanction on Syria or changed our position to oppose the reconstruction of Syria until there is irreversible progress toward a political solution, which we believe is necessary and vital.

The question of incentives.  I think – for others who might join in the normalization effort, I think the incentives are being demonstrated every single day by the UAE and Israel.  And the incentives are simply this:  These efforts and the normalization is profoundly in the interests of the people in the countries in question, and is providing all sorts of new opportunities, as evidenced by the extraordinary jump in tourism, the business relationships that are being built every single day, the work that our countries are doing together increasingly in a wide variety of areas.  Those are very powerful incentives, because it simply means that people will have a better life, more opportunity, more security, more prosperity.

So I think, going forward, it’s exactly what Sheikh Abdullah said.  The proof is in what has already been created, and I think as more and more people see that, understand it, become aware of it, they will want to do the same thing.

And I’d just conclude by saying – I think I mentioned this before – one of the most powerful things is this.  Abraham in the Bible was known for having the temerity to argue with God, to ask why, or maybe even more appropriately, why not.  Israel, the United Arab Emirates, they asked, “Why not?”  And now they are demonstrating every single day why it is so important that countries come together and work together and join together and create more opportunity for their peoples.

So this is a very powerful answer, and I suspect that more and more countries in the region and beyond will see that in the months and years ahead.  Thank you.

MR PRICE:  That concludes the press conference.  We invite our delegations to remain seated as the press leaves the room.  Thank you.

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  • Cybersecurity: Clarity of Leadership Urgently Needed to Fully Implement the National Strategy
    In U.S GAO News
    Federal entities have a variety of roles and responsibilities for supporting efforts to enhance the cybersecurity of the nation. Among other things, 23 federal entities have roles and responsibilities for developing policies, monitoring critical infrastructure protection efforts, sharing information to enhance cybersecurity across the nation, responding to cyber incidents, investigating cyberattacks, and conducting cybersecurity-related research. To fulfill their roles and responsibilities, federal entities identified activities undertaken in support of the nation's cybersecurity. For example, National Security Council (NSC) staff, on behalf of the President, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, have developed policies, strategies, standards, and plans to guide cybersecurity efforts. The Department of Homeland Security has helped secure the nation's critical infrastructure through developing security policy and coordinating security initiatives, among other efforts. Other agencies have established initiatives to gather intelligence and share actual or possible cyberattack information. Multiple agencies have mechanisms in place to assist in responding to cyberattacks, and law enforcement components, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are responsible for investigating them. The White House's September 2018 National Cyber Strategy and the NSC's accompanying June 2019 Implementation Plan detail the executive branch's approach to managing the nation's cybersecurity. When evaluated together, these documents addressed several of the desirable characteristics of national strategies, but lacked certain key elements for addressing others. National Cyber Strategy and Implementation Plan are Missing Desirable Characteristics of a National Strategy Characteristic Cyber Strategy and Plan Coverage of Issue Purpose, scope, and methodology Addressed Organizational roles, responsibilities, and coordination Addressed Integration and implementation Addressed Problem definition and risk assessment Did not fully address Goals, subordinate objectives, activities, and performance measures Did not fully address Resources, investments, and risk management Did not fully address Source: GAO analysis of 2018 National Cyber Strategy and 2019 Implementation Plan . | GAO-20-629 For example, the Implementation Plan details 191 activities that federal entities are to undertake to execute the priority actions outlined in the National Cyber Strategy. These activities are assigned a level, or tier, based on the coordination efforts required to execute the activity and the extent to which NSC staff is expected to be involved. Thirty-five of these activities are designated as the highest level (tier 1), and are coordinated by a functional entity within the NSC . Ten entities are assigned to lead or co-lead these critical activities while also tasked to lead or co-lead lower tier activities. Leadership Roles for Federal Entities Assigned as Leads or Co-Leads for National Cyber Strategy Implementation Plan Activities Entity Tier 1 Activities Tier 2 Activities Tier 3 Activities National Security Council 15 7 3 Department of Homeland Security 14 19 15 Office of Management and Budget 7 6 5 Department of Commerce 5 9 35 Department of State 2 5 11 Department of Defense 1 6 17 Department of Justice 1 10 5 Department of Transportation 1 0 5 Executive Office of the President 1 0 0 General Services Administration 1 2 1 Source: GAO analysis of 2018 National Cyber Strategy and 2019 Implementation Plan . | GAO-20-629 Although the Implementation Plan defined the entities responsible for leading each of the activities; it did not include goals and timelines for 46 of the activities or identify the resources needed to execute 160 activities. Additionally, discussion of risk in the National Cyber Strategy and Implementation Plan was not based on an analysis of threats and vulnerabilities. Further, the documents did not specify a process for monitoring agency progress in executing Implementation Plan activities. Instead, NSC staff stated that they performed periodic check-ins with responsible entities, but did not provide an explanation or definition of specific level of NSC staff involvement for each of the three tier designations. Without a consistent approach to engaging with responsible entities and a comprehensive understanding of what is needed to implement all 191 activities, the NSC will face challenges in ensuring that the National Cyber Strategy is efficiently executed. GAO and others have reported on the urgency and necessity of clearly defining a central leadership role in order to coordinate the government's efforts to overcome the nation's cyber-related threats and challenges. The White House identified the NSC staff as responsible for coordinating the implementation of the National Cyber Strategy . However, in light of the elimination of the White House Cybersecurity Coordinator position in May 2018, it remains unclear which official ultimately maintains responsibility for not only coordinating execution of the Implementation Plan , but also holding federal agencies accountable once activities are implemented. NSC staff stated responsibility for duties previously attributed to the White House Cyber Coordinator were passed to the senior director of NSC's Cyber directorate; however, the staff did not provide a description of what those responsibilities include. NSC staff also stated that federal entities are ultimately responsible for determining the status of the activities that they lead or support and for communicating implementation status to relevant NSC staff. However, without a clear central leader to coordinate activities, as well as a process for monitoring performance of the Implementation Plan activities, the White House cannot ensure that entities are effectively executing their assigned activities intended to support the nation's cybersecurity strategy and ultimately overcome this urgent challenge. Increasingly sophisticated cyber threats have underscored the need to manage and bolster the cybersecurity of key government systems and the nation's cybersecurity. The risks to these systems are increasing as security threats evolve and become more sophisticated. GAO first designated information security as a government-wide high-risk area in 1997. This was expanded to include protecting cyber critical infrastructure in 2003 and protecting the privacy of personally identifiable information in 2015. In 2018, GAO noted that the need to establish a national cybersecurity strategy with effective oversight was a major challenge facing the federal government. GAO was requested to review efforts to protect the nation's cyber critical infrastructure. The objectives of this report were to (1) describe roles and responsibilities of federal entities tasked with supporting national cybersecurity, and (2) determine the extent to which the executive branch has developed a national strategy and a plan to manage its implementation. To do so, GAO identified 23 federal entities responsible for enhancing the nation's cybersecurity. Specifically, GAO selected 13 federal agencies based on their specialized or support functions regarding critical infrastructure security and resilience, and 10 additional entities based on analysis of its prior reviews of national cybersecurity, relevant executive policy, and national strategy documents. GAO also analyzed the National Cyber Strategy and Implementation Plan to determine if they aligned with the desirable characteristics of a national strategy. GAO is making one matter for congressional consideration, that Congress should consider legislation to designate a leadership position in the White House with the commensurate authority to implement and encourage action in support of the nation's cybersecurity. GAO is also making one recommendation to the National Security Council to work with relevant federal entities to update cybersecurity strategy documents to include goals, performance measures, and resource information, among other things. The National Security Council neither agreed nor disagreed with GAO's recommendation. For more information, contact Nick Marinos at (202) 512-9342 or marinosn@gao.gov.
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  • Tennessee Man Pleads Guilty to Federal Hate Crime
    In Crime News
    Christopher Beckham, 35, of Nashville, Tennessee, pleaded guilty Friday in U.S. District Court to violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Beckham was indicted in April 2018 after an investigation into an incident that occurred on Oct. 24, 2017.
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  • Oil and Gas: Interior Should Strengthen Management of Key Data Systems Used to Oversee Development on Federal Lands
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Department of the Interior (Interior) uses three key data systems to oversee oil and gas development on leased federal lands: the Automated Fluid Minerals Support System (AFMSS), Legacy Rehost 2000 (LR2000), and the Minerals Revenue Management Support System. Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR) staff rely on data across these systems to carry out responsibilities such as processing permits for drilling wells and ensuring appropriate payments are made based on production. According to agency documents and officials, limited automated sharing of data among these systems is one of four challenges. Although the systems use some of the same information, such as lease and well numbers, they do not fully connect or communicate with each other, complicating oversight. For example, GAO calculated, based on agency estimates, that ONRR spends the equivalent of approximately 10 full-time employees in staff hours every year on conversion and error correction due to fragmented systems. Best practices call for coordinating and sharing data assets across federal agencies. Though Interior is developing replacement data systems, it does not have a finalized plan to facilitate comprehensive data sharing among them. Without such a plan, Interior risks continuing to spend staff time that could be better spent on other priorities. Example of Oil and Gas Data Shared between BLM and ONRR Data Systems Interior has not fully implemented leading practices in developing requirements to ensure the replacement systems meet user needs. Such practices have been found to improve development of federal data systems. BLM officials said they are developing replacement systems using an agile software development approach, which builds software incrementally based on users' requirements and continuously evaluates functionality, quality, and customer satisfaction. For example, BLM program offices responsible for developing systems to replace AFMSS and LR2000 stated that they meet quarterly with system stakeholders to prioritize and agree on features and functionality. However, the program offices do not have a defined process to implement the agile approach because it is not addressed in Interior's guidance on data system development. By updating the guidance to reflect how program offices can implement an agile development approach, Interior would have better assurance that its new data systems will function as intended to meet user needs and reduce budget and schedule risks. Why GAO Did This Study Development of oil and gas resources on federal lands helps supply the U.S. with energy and generates billions of dollars annually in revenues. To oversee this development, Interior relies on aging data systems, which it is planning to replace. GAO was asked to review the data systems Interior uses to oversee oil and gas development on federal lands and waters. This report (1) describes how Interior uses key data systems to oversee oil and gas development on federal lands, (2) examines challenges Interior faces in using these systems, and (3) evaluates Interior's implementation of leading practices in developing requirements for replacement systems. GAO reviewed documents, interviewed officials from federal and state agencies, visited BLM and ONRR offices in Colorado and New Mexico, and assessed Interior's implementation of relevant leading practices.
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  • Missile Defense: Fiscal Year 2020 Delivery and Testing Progressed, but Annual Goals Unmet
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In fiscal year 2020, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) made progress toward achieving its delivery and testing goals for some of the individual systems—known as elements—that combine and integrate to create the Missile Defense System (also known as the Ballistic Missile Defense System). However, MDA did not complete its overall planned deliveries or annual testing. The figure below shows MDA's progress delivering assets and conducting flight tests against its fiscal year 2020 plans. Percentage of Missile Defense Agency Planned Deliveries and Flight Tests Completed for Fiscal Year 2020 Deliveries— In fiscal year 2020, MDA delivered many assets it had planned. Specifically, MDA was able to deliver 82 missile interceptors for 3 elements. However, MDA was not able to deliver all planned interceptors, including one originally planned for 2018 for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense program, as the program experienced delays related to qualifying parts from a new supplier. Flight testing— MDA conducted two planned flight tests, but neither was successful. The issues were due to problems with non-MDA assets, but the agency was able to collect important data. In addition, COVID-19 restrictions also affected the planned schedule. However, the delays continue a trend of MDA's inability to conduct planned annual flight testing, resulting in assets and capabilities that are subsequently delayed or delivered with less data than planned. Ground testing— In fiscal year 2020, MDA continued to implement a new ground testing approach that the agency began in fiscal year 2019. In addition, MDA successfully completed three planned ground tests demonstrating defense capabilities for the U.S., U.S. forces and regional allies. However, MDA delayed two other ground tests to future fiscal years and expects disruptions in fiscal year 2021, in part due to ongoing COVID-19 disruptions. Cyber— Despite failing to meet annual operational cybersecurity assessments since 2017, MDA canceled its planned fiscal year 2020 operational assessments, instead taking steps to implement a new approach designed to improve cyber system requirements while streamlining cyber test planning. It is premature to assess whether this new approach will achieve its intended goals. Why GAO Did This Study For over half a century, the Department of Defense has funded efforts to defend the U.S. from ballistic missile attacks. This effort consists of diverse and highly complex land-, sea-, and space-based systems and assets located across the globe. From 2002 through 2019, MDA—the agency charged with developing, testing, integrating, and fielding this system of systems—received about $162.5 billion. The agency also requested about $45 billion from fiscal year 2020 through fiscal year 2024. In fiscal year 2020, MDA's mission broadened to include evolving threats beyond ballistic missiles such as defending against hypersonic missile attacks. With the inclusion of non-ballistic missile threats, the Ballistic Missile Defense System is in the process of transitioning to the Missile Defense System. Congress included a provision in statute that GAO annually assess and report on MDA's progress. This, our 18th annual review, addresses the progress MDA made in achieving fiscal year 2020 delivery and testing goals. GAO reviewed planned fiscal year 2020 baselines, along with program changes due to COVID-19 restrictions, and other program documentation and assessed them against responses to GAO detailed question sets and program and baseline reviews. GAO also interviewed officials from MDA and various Department of Defense Combatant Commands. We do not make any new recommendations in this report but continue to track the status of prior recommendations. For more information, contact John D. Sawyer at (202) 512-4841 or SawyerJ@gao.gov.
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  • Medicare: Provider Performance and Experiences Under the Merit-Based Incentive Payment System
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) administers the Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) under the Medicare program. Under this system, MIPS-eligible providers receive a “final score” based on their performance on certain measures in four categories, such as quality and cost of care. This final score is compared to a performance threshold and is used to determine if providers receive a negative, neutral, or positive payment adjustment applied to future Medicare payments. Providers may receive a larger positive adjustment if their final score surpasses a higher threshold, known as the exceptional performance threshold. In addition, eligible providers who do not submit required performance data may receive a negative adjustment. Analysis of CMS data shows that final scores were generally high and at least 93 percent of providers earned a small positive adjustment in 2017 through 2019, with the largest payment adjustment in any year being 1.88 percent. Median final scores were well above the performance threshold across each of the 3 years (see figure). About 72 to 84 percent of providers earned an exceptional performance bonus, depending on the year. Median Final Scores Relative to Performance and Exceptional Performance Thresholds, Performance Years 2017 through 2019 Stakeholders GAO interviewed identified some strengths and challenges related to the MIPS program. For example, two of the 11 stakeholders stated that bonus points, such as those that may be added to the final scores for small practices, helped increase scores for certain providers who might otherwise be disadvantaged. Eight stakeholders questioned whether the program helps to meaningfully improve quality of care or patient health outcomes. For example, they said that the design of the program may incentivize reporting over quality improvement, with providers choosing to report on quality measures on which they are performing well, rather than on measures in areas where they may need improvement. According to CMS, the MIPS Value Pathways (MVP)—a new way of meeting reporting requirements in 2023—will help to address some of these challenges by standardizing performance measurement across specific specialties, medical conditions, or episodes of care. The development of clinically cohesive sets of measures and activities should minimize providers' selection burden in choosing measures and activities to report for each MVP, officials said. Why GAO Did This Study The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA) changed how Medicare pays for physician services, moving from a payment system that largely rewarded volume and complexity of health care services to the Quality Payment Program, which is a payment incentive program intended to reward high-quality, efficient care. Providers participate in the Quality Payment Program through one of two tracks: MIPS or advanced alternative payment models. MIPS was designed to incentivize high-quality care through performance-based payment adjustments. About 950,000 providers (about half of all Medicare Part B providers) were eligible to participate in MIPS in 2019. Congress included a provision in MACRA for GAO to examine the MIPS program. This report describes (1) the distribution of MIPS performance scores and related payment adjustments, and (2) stakeholders' perspectives on the strengths and challenges of the MIPS program. GAO analyzed MIPS data for performance years 2017 through 2019—the most recent year available at the time of GAO's analysis. GAO also interviewed officials from CMS and 11 selected professional organizations that represent MIPS-eligible providers of various specialties. GAO identified stakeholders through research and its analysis of the MIPS data. The Department of Health and Human Services provided technical comments on a draft of this report, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Jessica Farb at (202) 512-7114 or FarbJ@gao.gov.
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  • Former Owner of Michigan Home Health Care Business Sentenced to Prison for Tax Fraud
    In Crime News
    A Michigan man was sentenced to 12 months and one day in prison today for filing a false tax return.
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