Secretary Antony J. Blinken At a Press Availability

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Press Briefing Room

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good afternoon. Very good to see everyone, and very nice to be back in your room.

Let me start out, if I can, by just speaking a little bit about my visits to Canada and Mexico today. I had the opportunity to conduct my first foreign visits with our important allies in Mexico and Canada. And as you will have noticed, we didn’t actually leave the State Department. The good news is no jet lag; the bad news is no frequent flyer miles. But we did, I think, innovate something interesting, driven by the times of COVID, but also using technology to be able to actually connect us to our partners and to do what we would do on an actual visit.

So we had broad ranging discussions that were substantive on the agendas that we share with both countries. I want to particularly thank my counterparts and their teams for very constructive engagement today.

We’ve got a great team here in Washington, and our missions in Mexico, in Canada – they did a lot of work to try to bring this together for what was really a first-of-its-kind virtual visit. And I have to say that based on the conversations that I had following on conversations that the President’s had, particularly this week with Prime Minister Trudeau, that we have very, very strong partnerships to work with and to advance our interests and values in the hemisphere and around the world.

I had, first, some very productive meetings with the Mexican Foreign Secretary Ebrard, and then the Secretary of the Economy Clouthier this morning. We discussed a number of issues, including the importance of bilateral trade, the need for continued collaboration to address security issues that impact both of our countries, and, of course, climate change.

In Canada, we just had a great conversation with Prime Minister Trudeau, following up on an earlier meeting that he had this week with President Biden where they announced the Roadmap for a Renewed U.S.-Canada Partnership. Spent some time with my counterpart, Foreign Minister Garneau, and other cabinet members, and we got to go in more depth and detail on climate change, promoting democratic values in the Western Hemisphere and around the world, and bolstering our shared defense and security.

In all of these meetings, I spoke with my counterparts in Mexico and Canada about the pandemic, slowing the spread of the virus through coordinated action at our shared borders, and reinvigorating our economies so that we can build back better together.

In addition to these bilateral meetings, I also toured the port of entry between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and had a remarkable tour given to me by the head of the Customs and Border Patrol. I saw the very diligent work that our Department of Homeland Security colleagues are doing to ensure the safe, the orderly, and the humane processing at that crossing, and to facilitate the flow of individuals and commerce between our two countries.

Finally, I had a wonderful discussion in Canada just now with youth and Inuit leaders about climate change and about our shared priorities in the Arctic. In the conversation with this group and at the border crossing in Mexico, it was evident how interconnected we are today and for the future.

Today’s conversations represent the start of the next chapter of our bilateral partnerships. The United States has long-standing relationships with both Mexico and Canada. Today’s meetings were an opportunity to dive deeper into our shared priorities. We look forward to continuing conversations with our neighbors and friends in both countries to address shared challenges, to promote the prosperity of all of our people, and to promote a safe, secure, and prosperous hemisphere.

So with that, happy to take questions.

MR PRICE: We have a couple of our North American partners in the room, so we’ll start with Bricio Segovia Reche.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. MVS Radio from Mexico. I have two questions, if I may. The first one is regarding immigration. The administration has been saying that now it is not the time to come to the southern border. Is the United States currently accepting new asylum applications? And I’m not talking about the Remain in Mexico program. I’m talking about new applications.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks very much. I think as you’ve heard President Biden say and other colleagues in the administration say, we’re working comprehensively to make sure that we have a safe, an orderly, a secure, and humane border, particularly when it comes to migration issues. And we’re working at this on a number of fronts, and we’re working on the question of migration on a number of fronts.

First, as I think you’ve heard the President discuss in the past, we have a real focus on trying to address some of the root causes of migration, particularly from the countries in the Northern Triangle – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. And that means working with those countries, working with Mexico, to over time deal with some of the drivers of migration, including insecurity, lack of opportunity, corruption, and other things that cause people to make that incredibly difficult decision to leave everything they know behind, to leave their families, to leave their friends, to leave their cultures, to leave their language, to leave their communities to try to make a very hazardous journey and come to a place where they may or may not be welcomed or accepted.

The way to really get at that challenge is to give people hope and opportunity to be able to have a secure and prosperous future in their own countries and to build the future of those countries. So the President is focused on that, and that will be reflected in a lot of the policies as well as some of the budget work that we’ll be doing.

Second, we are looking at ways to make the asylum process once again more rational and to make it once again something that is safe, secure, and humane. And so we have over time an effort to put in place the ability to once again process asylum applications in the United States, but it is going to take time to put that in place. And of course, we’re now – we now have health – COVID-related concerns that are of deep concern to everyone with regard to the border, and those are front and center. But over time, there will be a more rational asylum process that will allow us to deal with that. Now, there are people who are in the so-called protection protocols, which have been ended, and who were in that process who are now actually being processed, but that’s moving forward.

In addition, there are some other things that are very important. We are also looking at ways to make sure that we can look at applications for asylum in the countries that people are coming from. That’s important and we have some ability to do that. But the main thing is that all of these things take time to put in place, and now is not the time to try to come to the United States. If you’re in the Migrant Protection Protocol program and you are in that process, there is now a clear process for being reviewed and being considered; but if not, there – this is not the time to come, not the time to make a hazardous journey, because you will not be able to come into the United States.

QUESTION: But is it accepting – but you didn’t answer my question, I’m sorry. Is the U.S. accepting new applications at the moment at the border?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: So all of this process is being put into place. No, the asylum requests that are being considered are from people who are in the MPP program.

QUESTION: That’s it, right?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s it.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to Adrian Morrow.

QUESTION: Thank you, Secretary. A couple of quick questions. On the case of the two Michaels in China, what specifically is the administration going to do to secure their release, whether it’s trying to tie some – their release to a DPA with Ms. Meng or some other action? What are the specific actions that you’re going to take there to help Canada get those guys released?

And then secondarily on Buy American, that’s one thing that a waiver or some guarantee that Canada won’t be subject to those tighter Buy American rules that the President is going to roll out. That’s one thing that Canada wants that would be sort of a quick win in terms of showing Canada that the new administration wants to sort of rekindle this bilateral alliance. Why not just make that commitment publicly that you’ll basically give Canada sort of the same thing that they received under the Obama administration?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. So let me take the second question first. With regard to Buy America, Buy American, these, of course, are longstanding things that have been on the books for many, many years, and we’re now looking at the executive order that the President issued. We’re – we’ll want to make sure as well that we’re consistent with our obligations, including under the WTO.

But beyond that I think is in our conversations with Canadian counterparts. I think we see tremendous opportunity working together both to build back better as we emerge from COVID-19 and to seize opportunities that we have together to do that, and as well, and particularly in something the President addressed both with Prime Minister Trudeau and also yesterday himself, and that is building more resilient supply chains. There is a lot of opportunity there between the United States and Canada that we intend to pursue.

So these questions specifically go to the question of government procurement and how we use the American taxpayers’ money, which, obviously, we’re very – we’re focused on. But my sense from the conversations between the two governments is that there is ample opportunity for us to work together and find ways to benefit each other in trade, in investment, and in the work that we’re doing, especially on things like supply chains.

With regard to the two Michaels, let me just say – and again, I think you heard President Biden address this – we stand in absolute solidarity with Canada in insisting on their immediate and unconditional release. Canada has taken, I think, a very important initiative that was inspired by the two Michaels but goes even beyond them, and that is to bring countries together to stand against the arbitrary detention of individuals for political purposes – a practice that we see in a number of countries, including China.

And there again, we are in strong support of this Canadian initiative. It has already brought dozens of countries together. I think and I hope that this can grow into something that establishes a new international norm against arbitrary detentions. This would be a very important contribution to international relations going forward, and this is something that the United States and Canada will work on together.

But we want to see the two Michaels return home. There are legal questions that are appropriately the province of our Department of Justice. They follow the law, they follow the facts, and I’d refer you to them for anything on the legal aspects of this case.

MR PRICE: Andrea Mitchell.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Given the fact that the CIA has concluded that Mohammed bin Salman personally approved the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, can you explain why he is not being punished in these decisions, and – especially since the President, when he was a candidate, told me during the debate that he would make Saudi Arabia a pariah state for what it had done?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well —

QUESTION: And could I just also ask about —

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Sure.

QUESTION: — Saudi Arabia’s reaction now? The foreign ministry is saying that they “reject the negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report.”

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, Andrea, I think the report speaks for itself, and I think you’ve seen today a number of very important steps to recalibrate the relationship: first of all, the release of the report itself and the transparency that that provides. This is a report that, in a sense, is not fresh off the printing press. It’s been there. We released it. We were determined to bring transparency to this issue and to share with the American people what we know. And again, I think that report speaks for itself.

But beyond that you’ve seen a number, today, of very concrete steps that are both looking at past conduct but, as importantly, looking to the future to prevent future conduct. The Department of the Treasury is sanctioning former Saudi deputy head of general intelligence Ahmad al-Asiri for his direct role in the Istanbul operation that murdered Mr. Khashoggi. We’re also designating the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force as an entity under the Global Magnitsky Act for its participation in this murder.

We have taken action pursuant to what we’re calling the Khashoggi Ban to impose visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.

And importantly, we have introduced and announced a new policy that will apply the State Department’s ability to restrict and revoke visas to any individuals believed to be involved in extraterritorial activities targeting perceived dissidents or journalists – trying to harass them, surveil them, harm them or their families. Because this practice, this conduct, whether it’s by Saudi Arabia or anyone else, is totally unacceptable, and we now have a new tool to push back against that. More broadly, I would say the relationship with Saudi Arabia is an important one. We have significant ongoing interests. We remain committed to the defense of the kingdom. But we also want to make sure – and this is what the President has said from the outset – that the relationship better reflects our interests and our values. And so what we’ve done by the actions that we’ve taken is really not to rupture the relationship, but to recalibrate it to be more in line with our interests and our values. And I think that we have to understand as well that this is bigger than any one person. This recalibration goes to the policies that Saudi Arabia is pursuing and the actions that it’s taken.

And I would just add and conclude with this: We are already seeing some results from this recalibration. We’re seeing results in our own efforts joined, I hope, by Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen. We’re seeing the new policy approach we’ve taken to arms transfers and getting back to regular order with Congress. And I think that overall we are doing what the President said we should do, which was to review the relationship in its totality and to make sure that it goes forward in a way that better reflects our interests and values.

MR PRICE: Humeyra, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello, Mr. Secretary. I want to follow up on Andrea’s question. You talked about future – preventing future actions, and you have unveiled a new ban, Khashoggi Ban. But you have fallen short of punishing the very person that DNI has said is responsible for this. So how are you – because of this lack of accountability, how is that not counter to your actions to ensure accountability elsewhere in the future? Isn’t this counterproductive?

And also, on the arm sales, what is the U.S. thinking in light of this report to arms sales to Saudi Arabia? I know that there’s a review, but how can you justify going ahead with those arms sales after this report?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. First, with regard to arms sales, you’re exactly right. There’s an ongoing review. And there is a very important distinction between our commitment to not engage or not support offensive activities and operations in Yemen, including through the provision of offensive weapons, and the legitimate needs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in terms of its own defense, something, as I said, we remain committed to. So we’re reviewing these arms sales and we’re making sure that going forward, what we do provide goes to the defense of the kingdom, not its ability to prosecute offensive operations.

And the other thing that’s very important about this is that as we go forward, we’re going to do so in full consultation with Congress, something that had been – we’ve gotten away from in the past. And so we’re going to get back to regular order, not just with Saudi Arabia but with any country with whom we – we’re engaged and are selling arms to and providing security assistance to. So that I think is very important.

As to accountability, again, I think this report speaks for itself. And the fact that we have provided the transparency necessary to shine a bright light on what happened through the assessment, not just of the media, as important as you are, but the United States Government is, in and of itself, I think significant action. And beyond that, for Mr. Khashoggi not to have been murdered totally in vain, we now have in place a new policy that applies not just to Saudi Arabia, but across the board, and that gives us, I think, a greater ability to deter the kinds of egregious actions that were taken against him and against other dissidents, opponents, and others speaking out or their families going forward. And that I hope will be in some small measure an important legacy.

MR PRICE: Time for one final question. Michele, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. One quick thing on Mohammed bin Salman: Can the U.S. still do business with him? And then on Syria, what message do you hope Iran gets out of the U.S. strike on Syria yesterday?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: As I said earlier, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual. The President engaged, as you know, with King Salman. I’ve spoken to my counterpart, the foreign minister, and Secretary Austin has spoken to his counterpart, who happens to be Mohammed bin Salman.

With regard to the strike in Syria, we had on multiple occasions in the last 10 days or so attacks on our people, our position, our interests that took lives and injured others, and so we had both to respond to those attacks but also to an ongoing threat that was very clear. And so we took this action that I think was focused, proportionate, but also effective in degrading some of the capacity that the militia in question had to perpetrate new attacks – and also to be very clear, notably to Iran, that they cannot act with impunity against our people, our partners, our interests. And I think and expect that that message was clearly received. Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thank you very much, everyone.

More from: Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

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    Although more than one-third of adults aged 50 or older have experienced divorce, few people seek and obtain a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO), according to large plan sponsors GAO surveyed. A QDRO establishes the right of an alternate payee, such as a former spouse, to receive all or a portion of the benefits payable to a participant under a retirement plan upon separation or divorce. There are no nationally representative data on the number of QDROs, but plans and record keepers GAO interviewed and surveyed reported that few seek and obtain QDROs. For example, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation administered retirement benefits to about 1.6 million participants, and approved about 16,000 QDROs in the last 10 years. GAO's analysis of other survey data found about one-third of those who experienced a divorce from 2008 to 2016 and reported their former spouse had a retirement plan also reported losing a claim to that spouse's benefits. Many experts stated that some people—especially those with lower incomes—face challenges to successfully navigating the process for obtaining a QDRO, including complexity and cost. Individuals seeking a QDRO may be charged fees for preparation and review of draft orders before they are qualified as QDROs and, according to experts GAO interviewed, these fees vary widely. These experts cited concerns about QDRO review fees that they said in some cases were more than twice the amount of typical fees, and said they may discourage some from pursuing QDROs. Department of Labor (DOL) officials said the agency generally does not collect information on QDRO fees. Exploring ways to collect and analyze information from plans on fees could help DOL ensure costs are reasonable. Divorcing parties who pursue QDROs often had orders not qualified due to lacking basic information, according to plans and record keepers we surveyed (see figure). Plan Administrators and Record Keepers Reported Reasons for Not Qualifying a Domestic Relations Order (DRO) DOL provides some information to help divorcing parties pursue QDROs. However, many experts cited a lack of awareness about QDROs by the public and said DOL could do more to make resources available to divorcing parties. Without additional outreach by DOL, divorcing parties may spend unnecessary time and resources drafting orders that are not likely to be qualified, resulting in unnecessary expenditures of time and money. A domestic relations order (DRO) is a court-issued judgment, decree, or order that, when qualified by a retirement plan administrator, can divide certain retirement benefits in connection with separation or divorce and as such provide crucial financial security to a former spouse. DOL has authority to interpret QDRO requirements. GAO was asked to review the process for obtaining QDROs. This report examines what is known about (1) the number of QDRO recipients, (2) the fees and other expenses for processing QDROs, and (3) the reasons plans do not initially qualify DROs and the challenges experts identify regarding the QDRO process. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed available data, and a total of 14 responses from two surveys of large private sector plans and account record keepers, and interviewed 18 experts including practitioners who provide services to divorcing couples. GAO is recommending that DOL (1) explore ways to collect information on QDRO-related fees charged to participants or alternate payees, and (2) take steps to ensure information about the process for obtaining a QDRO is accessible. DOL generally agreed with our recommendations. For more information, contact Kris Nguyen at (202) 512-7215 or NguyenTT@gao.gov.
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  • Science & Tech Spotlight: Agile Software Development
    In U.S GAO News
    Why This Matters Agile software development has the potential to save the federal government billions of dollars and significant time, allowing agencies to deliver software more efficiently and effectively for American taxpayers. However, the transition to Agile requires an investment in new tools and processes, which can be costly and time consuming. The Methodology What is it? Agile is an approach to software development that encourages collaboration across an organization and allows requirements to evolve as a program progresses. Agile software development emphasizes iterative delivery; that is, the development of software in short, incremental stages. Customers continuously provide feedback on the software's functionality and quality. By engaging customers early and iterating often, agencies that adopt Agile can also reduce the risks of funding failing programs or outdated technology. Figure 1. Cycle of Agile software development How does it work? Agile software development is well suited for programs where the end goal is known, but specific details about their implementation may be refined along the way. Agile is implemented in different ways. For example, Scrum is a framework focused on teams, Scaled Agile Framework focuses on scaling Agile to larger groups, and DevOps extends the Agile principle of collaboration and unites the development and operation teams. Scrum, one of the most common Agile frameworks, organizes teams using defined roles, such as the product owner, who represents the customer, prioritizes work, and accepts completed software. In Scrum, development is broken down into timed iterations called sprints, where teams commit to complete specific requirements within a defined time frame. During a sprint, teams meet for daily stand-up meetings. At the end of a sprint, teams present the completed work to the product owner for acceptance. At a retrospective meeting following each sprint, team members discuss lessons learned and any changes needed to improve the process. Sprints allow for distinct, consistent, and measurable progress of prioritized software features. How mature is it? Organizations have used versions of incremental software development since the 1950s, with various groups creating Agile frameworks in the 1990s, including Scrum in 1995. In 2001, a group of software developers created the Agile Manifesto, which documents the guiding principles of Agile. Following this, Agile practitioners introduced new frameworks, such as Kanban, which optimizes work output by visualizing its flow. The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), enacted in 2014, includes a provision for the Office of Management and Budget to require the Chief Information Officers of covered agencies to certify that IT investments are adequately implementing incremental development. This development approach delivers capabilities more rapidly by dividing an investment into smaller parts. As a result, more agencies are now adopting an incremental, Agile, approach to software development. For example, in 2016, the Department of Homeland Security announced five Agile pilot programs. In 2020, at least 22 Department of Defense major defense acquisition programs reported using Agile development methods.  As the federal government continues to adopt Agile, effective oversight of these programs will be increasingly crucial. Our GAO Agile Assessment Guide, released in 2020, takes a closer look at the following categories of best practices: Agile adoption. This area focuses on team dynamics, program operations, and organization environments. One best practice for teams is to have repeatable processes in place such as continuous integration, which automates parts of development and testing. At the program operations level, staff should be appropriately trained in Agile methods. And at an organizational level, a best practice is to create a culture that supports Agile methods. Requirements development and management. Requirements—sometimes called user stories—are important in making sure the final product will function as intended. Best practices in this area include eliciting and prioritizing requirements and ensuring work meets those requirements. Acquisition strategy. Contractors may have a role in an Agile program in government. However, long timelines to award contracts and costly changes are major hurdles to executing Agile programs. One way to clear these hurdles is for organizations to create an integrated team with personnel from contracting, the program office, and software development. Clearly identifying team roles will alleviate bottlenecks in the development process. Figure 2. Different roles come together to make an Agile software development team. Program monitoring and control. Many Agile documents may be used to generate reliable cost and schedule estimates throughout a program’s life-cycle. Metrics. It is critical that metrics align with and prioritize organization-wide goals and objectives while simultaneously meeting customer needs. Such metrics in Agile include the number of features delivered to customers, the number of defects, and overall customer satisfaction.  Opportunities Flexibility. An Agile approach provides flexibility when customers’ needs change and as technology rapidly evolves. Risk reduction. Measuring progress during frequent iterations can reduce technical and programmatic risk. For example, routine retrospectives allow the team to reflect upon and improve the development process for the next iteration. Quicker deliveries. Through incremental releases, agencies can rapidly determine if newly produced software is meeting their needs. With Agile, these deliveries are typically within months, instead of alternative development methods, which can take years. Challenges GAO has previously reported on challenges the federal government faces in applying Agile methods; for the full report see GAO-12-681. Lack of organizational commitment. For example, organizations need to create a dedicated Agile team, which is a challenge when there is an insufficient number of staff, or when staff have several simultaneous duties. Resources needed to transition to Agile. An organization transitioning to Agile may need to invest in new tools, practices, and processes, which can be expensive and time consuming. Mistrust in iterative solutions. Customers who typically see a solution as a whole may be disappointed by the delivery of a small piece of functionality. Misaligned agency practices. Some agency practices, such as procurement, compliance reviews, federal reporting, and status tracking are not designed to support Agile software development. Policy and Context Questions In what ways can Agile help the federal government improve the management of IT acquisitions and operations, an area GAO has identified as high risk for the federal government? How can policymakers implement clear guidance about the use of Agile software development, such as reporting metrics, to better support Agile methods? How might resources need to shift to accommodate the adoption of Agile in federal agencies? What risks could those shifts pose? What updates to agency practices are worth pursuing to support Agile software development? For more information, contact Tim Persons at (202) 512-6888 or personst@gao.gov.
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