Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Press Availability

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.

Press Briefing Room

MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Welcome back to the briefing room, to your briefing room. We’ll be spending quite a bit of time together starting very shortly, and I very much look forward to that. But today, first, I have the privilege of introducing for the first time to this room the 71st Secretary of State, Mr. Tony Blinken. So with no further ado, I turn it over to him.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. Good afternoon. Let me start by saying that my first ambition is to be known as the man who brought Ned Price to the State Department briefing room. And that, at least, is mission accomplished.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, in all seriousness, thanks to everyone for joining me here today. This is my first full day on the job as Secretary of State, and to restate what I said before, it is a deep honor to be in this job, and I am gratified that the President’s seen fit to entrust me with this responsibility. And I am incredibly excited about the work ahead, especially working with the men and women of the State Department to try to serve the American people and represent our country to the world.

I want to spend a few minutes with all of you today to make it clear right from the start how important I see the work that each and every one of you does. Some of you may know that I started my career as a journalist. Obviously, I didn’t succeed, but it was something that I took tremendous pride and pleasure in, and something I have deep respect for as a result of my own experience being on both sides of the enterprise. You keep the American people and the world informed about what we do here. That’s key to our mission as well. And you hold us accountable, ask tough questions, and that really does make us better.

More broadly – and it is never more important to restate it – a free press is a cornerstone of our democracy. And this is a critical moment for protecting and defending democracy, including right here at home.

So here is what you can count on, coming from me and coming from us. We’re resuming the daily press briefing, starting next week.

MR PRICE: Tuesday.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: On Tuesday. That’s an essential part of the day, and we’re bringing it back. President Biden has said that he wants truth and transparency back in the White House briefing room. That fully applies in this room as well. And you’ll be seeing me with a little bit of frequency, too, including on our travels together when hopefully we can get back to those travels, just as you’ll have an opportunity to hear from many policy experts in this building.

I know we’re not always going to see eye-to-eye. That’s not the point of the enterprise. Sometimes we’ll be frustrating to you. I imagine there are a few times when you’ll be frustrating to us. But that’s to be expected. That’s exactly, in some ways, the point. But you can count on me, you can count on us, to treat all of you with the immense respect you deserve and to give you what you need to do the jobs that you’re doing that are so important to our country and to our democracy. And I will be forthright, whether it’s behind this podium, on the plane, or hopefully eventually some distant part of the world.

So it’s an adventure I am really, really glad that we’re in together. So welcome back to the press room. As Ned said, this is your press room. And with that, let me take a few questions.

MR PRICE: Start with the AP, Matt Lee.

QUESTION: Thank you. Welcome back, Mr. Secretary, to the building.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you for your kind words about our profession earlier. Trying to be as brief as possible: In the last couple months of the previous administration, several policies were rolled out and enacted that attracted a bunch of – they were contentious, to say the least, or attracted a bunch of criticism. I realize that a lot of – almost everything is under review right now as you’re less than 24 hours in, but among those things that were enacted in the last several months, which are your priorities to complete the review to possibly reverse, rescind, or roll back?

And similarly, within the building – apart from policy, but in terms of personnel – what exactly do you intend to change, if anything, about the approach the previous administration took to the Foreign Service and the people that work in this building?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks. Yes, you’re right; we are reviewing a number of steps that were taken late in the last administration. We want to make sure we understand in each case the basis for the decisions that were made.

I will tell you that I’m particularly focused on the question of sanctions on the Houthis. I think you all know very well that the Houthis committed an act of significant aggression in taking over Sana’a some years ago, moving through the country, committing acts of aggression against our partner, Saudi Arabia, committing human rights abuses and other atrocities, creating an environment in which we’ve seen extremist groups fill some of the vacuums that were created. But at the same time, we’ve seen a campaign led by Saudi Arabia that has also contributed to what is by many estimates the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, and that’s saying something.

And so it’s vitally important, even in the midst of this crisis, that we do everything we can to get humanitarian assistance to the people of Yemen who are in desperate need. And what we want to make sure is that any steps we are taking do not get in the way of providing that assistance.

The Houthis control territory that I believe contains about 80 percent of Yemen’s population, and so we want to make sure that any of these steps, including the designation, don’t make what is already an incredibly difficult task even more difficult – that is, the provision of humanitarian aid to the people of Yemen. So we’re taking a very urgent and very close look at that. We want to make sure that not only our American aid groups are able to do what they can to provide assistance, but so are aid groups around the world that are providing the bulk of that assistance and to make sure that nothing we are doing interferes with that, particularly if it doesn’t in any other way advance our policy and objective. So that’s the priority in my book.

MR PRICE: Andrea Mitchell.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Congratulations, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good to see you, Andrea.

QUESTION: President Biden in his first phone call with President Putin yesterday outlined some areas of agreement such as the arms control agreement, the extension of New START, but at the same time areas of concern, many of which involve Russia. We’re talking about SolarWinds hack and Ukraine, of course, the investigation and the assessment of interference in the 2020 campaign, but also the safety of Alexey Navalny.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah.

QUESTION: And so I want to ask you, what are the redlines under which the United States will consider sanctioning Russia if there is any harm that comes to Mr. Navalny or to the protesters as they’re being arrested? How front and center is this issue to you of Russian crackdown on the opposition and on human rights?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, thanks, Andrea. We’ve, as you know, already expressed our deep concern for the treatment of Mr. Navalny specifically and more generally with the human rights situation in Russia, and it remains striking to me how concerned and maybe even scared the Russian Government seems to be of one man, Mr. Navalny.

Across the board, as the President has said, we’re reviewing all of these actions that are of deep concern to us, whether it is the treatment of Mr. Navalny, and particularly the apparent use of a chemical weapon in an attempt to assassinate him. We’re looking very urgently as well at SolarWinds and its various implications. We’re looking at the reports of bounties placed by Russia on American forces in Afghanistan. And of course, we’re looking at these questions of election interference. So all of that, as the President and the White House have indicated, are under review. I don’t want to get ahead of where we are on those reviews.

But as I say, we have a deep concern for Mr. Navalny’s safety and security. And the larger point is that his voice is the voice of many, many, many Russians, and it should be heard, not muzzled.

QUESTION: And you’re not ruling out anything if there’s harm that comes to him?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Not ruling out anything. But we want to get this full review done and then we’ll take it from there.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to Shaun Tandon, AFP.

QUESTION: Thanks, Mr. Secretary. As head of the Correspondents Association here, thank you for coming out on your first day. It’s a powerful signal and it does go noticed by us.

Could I ask you, in your confirmation hearing you spoke in support of the so-called Abraham Accords under the previous administration. A couple of decisions that your administration could take I wanted to ask you about. I understand there’s a review going on right now about military sales, the F-35 sales to the United Arab Emirates and sales to Saudi Arabia. How do you see those going forward? Do you plan on the F-35s eventually going forward to the UAE? And with Morocco, does the United States still recognize, and as the previous administration said, Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara? Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. Thanks very much. A couple things on that. First, as we’ve said, we very much support the Abraham Accords. We think that Israel normalizing relations with its neighbors and other countries in the region is a very positive development, and so we applauded them, and we hope that there may be an opportunity to build on them in the months and years ahead.

We’re also trying to make sure that we have a full understanding of any commitments that may have been made in securing those agreements, and that’s something we’re – we’re looking at right now. Generally speaking when it comes to arms sales, it is typical at the start of an administration to review any – any pending sales, to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy. So that’s – that’s what we’re doing at this moment.

MODERATOR: We’ll go to John Hudson.

QUESTION: Morocco?

QUESTION: Thanks. In the review on Afghanistan, Mr. Secretary, what are you looking at and do you plan on retaining Ambassador Khalilzad as U.S. envoy?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: With regard to Afghanistan, one of the things that we need to understand is exactly what is in the agreements that were reached between the United States and the Taliban to make sure that we fully understand the commitments that the Taliban has made as well as any commitments that we’ve made. And so we are taking that up. And with regard to Ambassador Khalilzad, yes, we have – we have asked him to continue the vital work that he is performing.

MODERATOR: Nike Ching with VOA.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. How are you?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, thank you.

QUESTION: If I may – good. If I may, on China, how – how do you cooperate with China in climate change when you say you agree that it’s engaged in genocide? And separately, Kurt Campbell has mentioned some confidence-building measures such as loosening up of journalistic visa restrictions and reversing the consular closing – closure. Is that happening? Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much. We’ve had some opportunity to talk about this in recent – recent weeks and recent months. And I think it’s – it’s not a secret that the relationship between the United States and China is arguably the most important relationship that we have in the world going forward. It’s going to shape a lot of the future that – that we all live, and increasingly that relationship has some adversarial aspects to it. It has competitive ones. And it also still has cooperative ones. And the cooperative ones are in areas where it’s in our mutual interest to try to work together, including, manifestly, on climate, where it’s in the interest of China and the interest of the United States and the interest of countries around the world to make concrete progress in combating global warming. And so I think and hope that we’ll be able to pursue that.

But that fits within the larger context of our foreign policy and of many issues of concern that we have with China, issues that we need to – need to work through. And so I think you’ll see us doing just that even as we pursue the climate agenda that is so important to our country and to the future of our planet.

MODERATOR: Time for a final question. Humeyra, Reuters.

QUESTION: Hello, Mr. Secretary. Humeyra Pamuk from Reuters. I want to ask you about Iran. They said they would like United States to lift all the sanctions first, while you said they need to come back in full compliance. So how do you plan to reconcile that and when should we expect to open the negotiations, and who would led them for the United States?

And if I may, on China, you talked about reviews. And with respect to Uyghurs in Xinjiang, in your confirmation hearing you endorsed the genocide determination, but today Linda Thomas‑Greenfield said the department is reviewing that determination. Is that only about the process or are there different views on this determination? And should we expect some more punitive action throughout this. Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: So I haven’t actually seen what Ambassador Thomas‑Greenfield said, so I can’t – I can’t comment on it. But I – my judgment remains that genocide was committed against – against the Uyghurs and that – that hasn’t changed.

With regard to Iran, President Biden has been very clear in saying that if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same thing and then we would use that as a platform to build, with our allies and partners, what we called a longer and stronger agreement and to deal with a number of other issues that are deeply problematic in the relationship with Iran.

But we are a long ways from that point. Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts. And it would take some time, should it make the decision to do so, for it to come back into compliance in time for us then to assess whether it was meeting its obligations. So we’re not – we’re not there yet to say the least.

And then with regards to how we would engage this issue if Iran decides to come back into compliance, I can tell you that we will – we will build a strong team of experts and we will bring to bear different perspectives on the issue.

We – this is something – I would say this across the board, by the way: One of the things that I feel very strongly about is that in any of the issues we’re engaged on, in any of the issues that we’re tackling and that our foreign policy has to confront, that we are constantly questioning our own assumptions and premises, that we do not engage in groupthink, that there is as much self-criticism and self-reflection as we get from, appropriately, the outside, whether it’s from you or whether it’s from people who disagree with the policies we’re pursuing.

So I think you can expect to see that as we move forward both with regard potentially to Iran and, for that matter, to just about any other issue we tackle. Thank you.

MR PRICE: (Inaudible) with Lara Jakes of The New York Times.

QUESTION: Thank you. Congratulations, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Lara, good to see you.

QUESTION: You too. You’ve talked a lot about restoring U.S. leadership in the world, but allies note that everything that you do could again be overturned in four years, and that this is a cycle that doesn’t instill confidence in the long term in the United States credibility. So how can any one administration, if it can be done, assure the world that the United States can be trusted to keep its commitments?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: So one of the things I’ve done over the last 24 hours is I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone already with our – some of our closest allies and partners in various parts of the world, and that’s continuing. And I can – what I’ve picked up from those conversations already is a very, very strong desire for the United States to be back in the room, back at the table, working with them on the many, many common challenges we face, and that was almost palpable in the conversations I’ve had to date. And I expect to hear more of that in the days ahead.

One of the things, though, to your point, is that when it comes to virtually everything we’re doing – and the President has said this many times – when it comes to foreign policy, it is hard to have a sustainable foreign policy absent the informed consent of the American people. And that informed consent, I think, comes in a couple of ways. One is in a sense it comes from you, because many Americans are reading about, hearing about, listening to what we’re doing thanks to you. And that’s vitally important to make sure that they are fully informed and thinking about and ultimately providing their consent to what we’re doing.

But the place that, in our system, that informed consent is vitally important is with Congress. The members of Congress are the representatives of the American people. They provide advice and consent to our policies. And I think one of the things you’re going to see from our administration is working as closely as we possibly can with Congress on these issues from the takeoff, not just on the landing. Because ultimately, for these policies to be sustainable, we, I think, need to try to work them as much as we can up front, not at the back end.

There are going to be disagreements. There are going to be places where we’re just in a different place. But I think we stand a better chance in producing the kind of policies that will stand the test of time if we’re working closely up front with Congress. And we’ll see where we get, but I’m determined that we do that.

Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you all.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look forward to seeing you soon and often.

QUESTION: Will you see you on the plane anytime soon?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah, well, really look forward to that, but not tomorrow.

QUESTION: We’ll keep you at your word on that.

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    A resident of Topeka, Kansas, has been indicted by a federal grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas on federal child pornography charges, Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian Rabbitt of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division announced today.
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  • Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Michael Murray Delivers Remarks to the Honorable Lee Yeakel IP Inn of Court
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  • Deutsche Bank Agrees to Pay over $130 Million to Resolve Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and Fraud Case
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    Deutsche Bank Aktiengesellschaft (Deutsche Bank or the Company) has agreed to pay more than $130 million to resolve the government’s investigation into violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and a separate investigation into a commodities fraud scheme.
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    Learn about the countless Judiciary employees across the court system who have volunteered to help people in need in their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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  • CEO of Multibillion-dollar Software Company Indicted for Decades-long Tax Evasion and Wire Fraud Schemes
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    A federal grand jury in San Francisco, California, returned a 39 count indictment charging Robert T. Brockman, the Chief Executive Officer of an Ohio-based software company, with tax evasion, wire fraud, money laundering, and other offenses, announced Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard E. Zuckerman of the Tax Division, U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson for the Northern District of California, and Chief of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Criminal Investigation Jim Lee. The charges stem from an alleged decades-long scheme to conceal approximately $2 billion in income from the IRS as well as a scheme to defraud investors in the software company’s debt securities.
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  • Statement of Acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen Regarding Nationwide Safety and Security for Inauguration Day
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    Tomorrow, the Nation and the world will witness an orderly and peaceful transfer of power in the United States, as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court swears in President-Elect Biden.  Throughout our Nation’s proud history, this ceremony has served as a beacon of democracy and a testament to the enduring strength of our Constitution.
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  • Interagency Council on Homelessness: Governance Responsibilities Need Further Clarification
    In U.S GAO News
    The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) consists of representatives from 19 federal agencies—including a Chair and Vice-Chair—on its governing Council and a full-time staff led by an Executive Director. The Executive Director has led most day-to-day operations, including hiring and managing staff, preparing budget requests, working with private-sector groups, drafting strategic plans, developing performance goals, and drafting agendas for the Council's quarterly meetings. Council members have quarterly meetings to discuss and consider homelessness issues and review the efforts of the Executive Director and USICH staff. Actions taken at Council meetings held from December 2017 through March 2020 included electing the Chair and Vice-Chair, appointing the Executive Director, and approving the USICH strategic plan and activities of interagency working groups. USICH staff also informed the Council of their performance results during the quarterly meetings. Some roles and responsibilities for the governance of USICH, such as the types of matters that require Council approval, are not fully defined or documented. Recent Council Chairs told GAO they generally did not have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities and generally based them on their predecessors' activities. For example, the 2019 Chair stated he saw his responsibilities as preparing and chairing quarterly Council meetings and acting as the Council's external spokesperson, but there were no written procedures detailing these responsibilities. The 2019 Chair also stated that he had no involvement in overseeing the USICH budget or operations, staff, and interagency working groups. Standards of Internal Control for the Federal Government state that for an entity's objectives to be achieved the responsibilities and delegations of authority should be clearly established. At its quarterly meeting held in March 2020, the Council approved a charter that addresses voting mechanics, performance evaluations for the Executive Director, and the authority of the Executive Director to oversee personnel. But the charter does not fully clarify the Council's responsibilities in other areas, such as the responsibilities of the Council Chair, types of matters that would require approval by Council vote, and actions that are within the Executive Director's delegated authority. Additional clarity and documentation in these areas may assist the Council in securing a fuller understanding of its oversight role and responsibilities. The mission of USICH is to coordinate the federal response to homelessness and create partnerships with the private sector and state and local governments to reduce and end homelessness. The joint explanatory statement related to the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2019 includes a provision for GAO to review the management and governance structure of USICH, including the Council's ability to oversee the Executive Director and USICH operations. This report (1) describes the structure and practices for USICH operations and (2) evaluates the extent to which roles and responsibilities for the governance of USICH have been defined and documented. GAO focused primarily on the 2017–2020 time frame and analyzed agency documentation (such as Council meeting transcripts, and USICH's strategic plan and performance reports) and interviewed Council members, current and former Executive Directors, and staff from member agencies. GAO is recommending that the Council further clarify and document its roles and responsibilities for matters requiring the Council's approval, the role of the Council Chair, and actions within the Executive Director's delegated authority. The Council concurred with the recommendation. For more information, contact Alicia Puente Cackley, (202) 512-8678, cackleya@gao.gov.
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  • Assistant Attorney General Beth A. Williams Commends the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for New Website Enhancing Access to Justice
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    Assistant Attorney General Beth A. Williams issued the following statement today on the efforts by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to enhance public and litigant access to electronic court records. This year, as part of its access to justice efforts, the Office of Legal Policy at the Department of Justice partnered with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to improve transparency regarding fee exemptions for access to court records in the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system. As part of that partnership, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts announced an enhanced PACER website that makes it easier for indigent individuals, as well as pro bono attorneys, academic researchers, and non-profit organizations, to understand how they may access court records for free.
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  • NASA Human Space Exploration: Significant Investments in Future Capabilities Require Strengthened Management Oversight
    In U.S GAO News
    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) again delayed the planned launch date for Artemis I, the first uncrewed test flight involving three closely related human spaceflight programs—the Orion crew vehicle, Space Launch System (SLS), and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS). Together, these programs aim to continue human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. The most recent delay, to November 2021, resulted in part from manufacturing challenges and represents a 36-month slip since NASA established a schedule to measure performance in 2014. This new launch date does not account for the effects of COVID-19. According to NASA officials, COVID-19 delays and schedule risks will place pressure on NASA's ability to achieve this launch date. Development cost estimates for key programs also increased. The cost of the SLS program increased by 42.5 percent and the EGS program by 32.3 percent since 2014, for a combined increase of over $3 billion, bringing the total to $11.5 billion. NASA does not plan to complete revised estimates for Orion, which are tied to the second, crewed test flight (Artemis II) before spring 2021. Key Parts of Space Launch System Ready for Testing at Stennis Space Center NASA awarded billions of dollars in development and production contracts to support flights beyond Artemis I, but the flight schedule has changed frequently due to a lack of clear requirements and time frames for planned capability upgrades. Limited NASA oversight also places efforts to plan and execute future flights at risk of adverse outcomes, such as increased costs or delays. For example, NASA is committed to establishing cost and schedule performance baselines for these efforts, but it plans to do so too late in the acquisition process to be useful as an oversight tool. In addition, senior leaders do not receive consistent and comprehensive information at quarterly briefings on future efforts, such as a program to begin developing a more powerful upper stage for SLS. This is because current updates provided to NASA management focus primarily on the more short-term Artemis I and II flights. This approach places billions of dollars at risk of insufficient NASA oversight. NASA is pursuing an aggressive goal to return American astronauts to the surface of the Moon by the end of 2024. The success of NASA's plans hinges, in part, on two upcoming test flights. An uncrewed test flight and subsequent crewed test flight are intended to demonstrate the capability of a new launch vehicle, crew capsule, and ground systems. The House Committee on Appropriations included a provision in its 2017 report for GAO to continue to review NASA's human space exploration programs. This is the latest in a series of GAO reports addressing this topic. This report assesses (1) the progress the programs are making towards the first test flight, known as Artemis I, with respect to schedule and cost, and (2) the extent to which NASA's human space exploration programs are positioned to support the planned Artemis flight schedule beyond Artemis I. To do this work, GAO examined program cost and schedule reports, test plans, and contracts, and interviewed officials. GAO also assessed the extent to which the COVID-19 state of emergency has affected schedules for these programs. GAO is making two recommendations to NASA to establish baselines ahead of a key design review and improve internal reporting about capability upgrades for human space exploration programs beyond Artemis I. NASA concurred with the recommendations made in this report. For more information, contact William Russell at (202) 512-4841 or russellw@gao.gov.
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  • Former Deputy Jailer Sentenced to 48 Months for Violating the Civil Rights of an Inmate
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    ​​​​​​​A former Shelby County Deputy Jailer, William Anthony Carey, 31, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Gregory F. VanTatenhove to serve 48 months in federal prison for violating the civil rights of an inmate in his custody.
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  • Justice Department Brings Enforcement Action Against Centurylink
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice announced today that CenturyLink, Inc. has agreed to settle allegations that CenturyLink violated the court-ordered Final Judgment designed to prevent anticompetitive effects arising from its acquisition of Level 3 Communications, Inc. 
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  • Federal Telework: Key Practices That Can Help Ensure the Success of Telework Programs
    In U.S GAO News
    The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 (the act) defines telework as a work flexibility arrangement under which an employee performs the duties and responsibilities of their position and other authorized activities from an approved worksite other than the location from which the employee would otherwise work. GAO previously identified key practices in telework-related literature and guidelines that federal agencies should implement in ensuring successful telework programs. These key practices may be grouped under seven categories. Program planning. Consistent with a key practice GAO identified, agencies are required to have a telework managing officer. Other key practices related to planning for a telework program include establishing measurable telework program goals, and providing funding to meet the needs of the telework program. Telework policies. Agencies can help ensure their workforces are telework ready by establishing telework policies and guidance. To ensure that teleworkers are approved on an equitable basis, agencies should establish eligibility criteria, such as suitability of tasks and employee performance. Agencies should also have telework agreements for use between teleworkers and their managers. Performance management. Agencies should ensure that the same performance standards are used to evaluate both teleworkers and nonteleworkers. Agencies should also establish guidelines to minimize adverse impacts that telework can have on nonteleworkers. Managerial support. For telework programs to be successful agencies need support from top management. They also need to address managerial resistance to telework. Training and publicizing. Telework training helps agencies ensure a common understanding of the program. The act requires agencies to provide telework training to employees eligible to telework and to managers of teleworkers. Keeping the workforce informed about the program also helps. Technology. Agencies need to make sure teleworkers have the right technology to successfully perform their duties. To that end, agencies should assess teleworker and organization technology needs, provide technical support to teleworkers, and address access and security issues. Program evaluation. Agencies should develop program evaluation tools and use such tools from the very inception of the program to identify problems or issues. Agencies can then use this information to make any needed adjustments to their programs. GAO has previously reported instances where selected agencies faced challenges implementing telework programs that aligned with key practices. For example, three of four selected agencies did not require review or document their review of ongoing telework agreements. These reviews are important to provide assurance that the agreements reflect and support their current business needs. GAO also previously reported that managers at three of four selected agencies were not required to complete telework training before approving staff's telework agreements. The training is important to ensure managers fully understood agency telework policy and goals before approving or denying requests to telework. Telework offers benefits to federal agencies as well as to the federal workforce. These include improving recruitment and retention of employees, reducing the need for costly office space, and an opportunity to better balance work and family demands. In addition, telework is a tool that agencies can use to help accomplish their missions during periods of disruption, including during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Congress has encouraged federal agencies to expand staff participation in telework, most recently by passing the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 (the act). The act established requirements for executive agencies' telework policies and programs, among other things. This statement provides key practices to help ensure the success of telework programs. The statement is based on GAO's body of work on federal telework issued from July 2003 through February 2017. GAO has recently initiated two reviews related to federal telework. One is examining the extent to which agencies have used telework during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the successes and challenges agencies experienced. The second is reviewing agencies' telework information technology infrastructure. For more information, contact Michelle B. Rosenberg at (202) 512-6806 or rosenbergm@gao.gov.
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  • Aircraft Noise: Information on a Potential Mandated Transition to Quieter Airplanes
    In U.S GAO News
    Based on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data and GAO estimates, most U.S. large commercial jet airplanes are certificated at the minimum required stage 3 noise standards, but nearly all of them are able to meet more stringent noise standards. Sixty-three percent of large commercial airplanes in the United States are certificated as meeting the stage 3 standards; however, 87 percent of them were manufactured with technologies that are able to meet more recent and stringent stage 4 or 5 standards as currently configured, according to FAA's 2017 analysis. By analyzing updated data from airlines and aviation manufacturers, GAO estimated that this proportion is even higher: 96 percent of large commercial airplanes are able to meet stage 4 or 5 standards (see figure). According to FAA officials and aviation stakeholders, the primary reason many large commercial airplanes certificated as stage 3 produce lower than stage 3 noise levels is because engine and airframe technology has outpaced the implementation of noise standards. More recently, some airlines have accelerated retirement of certain airplanes, some of which are certificated as stage 3, due to the decrease in travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For the generally smaller regional commercial jets (i.e., generally with less than 90 seats), 86 percent are able to meet stage 4 or stage 5 standards, according to manufacturers' data. With regard to general aviation (which are used for personal or corporate flights), 73 percent of the jet airplanes in that fleet are able to meet the more stringent stage 4 or 5 standards, according to manufacturers' data. GAO Estimate of The Number of Large Airplanes in the U.S. Commercial Fleet That Are Able to Meet Stage 3 or Stage 4 and 5 Noise Standards, January 2020 According to stakeholders GAO interviewed, a phase-out of jet airplanes that are certificated as meeting stage 3 standards would provide limited noise reduction and limited other benefits, and could be costly and present other challenges. A phase-out could require recertificating the vast majority of stage 3 airplanes to comply with stage 4 or 5 standards. This process could be costly for operators and manufacturers but would provide little reduction in noise. Further, airplanes currently unable to meet more stringent standards would require modifications or face retirement. For older airplanes that could not be recertificated to meet stage 4 or 5 standards, some operators could incur costs for replacement airplanes sooner than originally planned. Although stakeholders indicated that a phase-out would not substantially reduce noise, they identified other limited benefits newer airplanes generate, such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption. Although advances in technology have led to quieter aircraft capable of meeting increasingly stringent noise standards, airport noise remains a concern. FAA regulates aircraft noise by ensuring compliance with relevant noise standards. In 1990, federal law required large jet airplanes to comply with stage 3 noise standards by 1999, leading to a phase-out of the noisiest airplanes (stage 1 and 2 airplanes). Later, federal law required smaller airplanes to comply with stage 3 standards by 2016. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 included a provision for GAO to review a potential phase-out of stage 3 airplanes—the loudest aircraft currently operating in the United States. This report describes (1) the proportion of stage 3 airplanes in the U.S. fleet, and what proportion of these stage 3 airplanes are able to meet more stringent noise standards and (2) selected stakeholders' views on the potential benefits, costs, and challenges of phasing out stage 3 airplanes. GAO reviewed FAA's analysis of December 2017 fleet data, analyzed January 2020 fleet data from select airlines and airframe and engine manufacturers, and interviewed FAA officials. GAO also interviewed a non-generalizable sample of 35 stakeholders, including airlines; airframe and engine manufacturers; airports; and industry associations, selected based on fleet and noise data, stakeholder recommendations, or prior GAO knowledge. For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or krauseh@gao.gov.
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    A Texas engineer pleaded guilty today for filing fraudulent bank loan applications seeking more than $10 million dollars in forgivable loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
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    Two Durham, North Carolina, return preparers pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the United States, announced Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard E. Zuckerman of the Department of Justice’s Tax Division and U.S. Attorney Matthew G.T. Martin of the Middle District of North Carolina.
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  • Small Business Administration: COVID-19 Loans Lack Controls and Are Susceptible to Fraud
    In U.S GAO News
    In April 2020, the Small Business Administration (SBA) moved quickly to implement the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides loans that are forgivable under certain circumstances to small businesses affected by COVID-19. Given the immediate need for these loans, SBA worked to streamline the program so that lenders could begin distributing these funds as soon as possible. For example, lenders were permitted to rely on borrowers' self-certifications for eligibility and use of loan proceeds. As a result, there may be significant risk that some fraudulent or inflated applications were approved. Since May 2020, the Department of Justice has publicly announced charges in more than 50 fraud-related cases associated with PPP funds. In April 2020, SBA announced it would review all loans of more than $2 million to confirm borrower eligibility, and SBA officials subsequently stated that they would review selected loans of less than $2 million to determine, for example, whether the borrower is entitled to loan forgiveness. However, SBA did not provide details on how it would conduct either of these reviews. As of September 2020, SBA reported it was working with the Department of the Treasury and contractors to finalize the plans for the reviews. Because SBA had limited time to implement safeguards up front for loan approval, GAO believes that planning and oversight by SBA to address risks in the PPP program is crucial moving forward. SBA's efforts to expedite processing of Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL)—such as the reliance on self-certification—may have contributed to increased fraud risk in that program as well. In July 2020, SBA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) reported indicators of widespread potential fraud—including thousands of fraud complaints—and found deficiencies with SBA's internal controls. In response, SBA maintained that its internal controls for EIDL were robust, including checks to identify duplicate applications and verify account information, and that it had provided banks with additional antifraud guidance. The Department of Justice, in conjunction with other federal agencies, also has taken actions to address potential fraud. Since May 2020, the department has announced fraud investigations related to the EIDL program and charges against recipients related to EIDL fraud. SBA has made or guaranteed more than 14.5 million loans and grants through PPP and EIDL, providing about $729 billion to help small businesses adversely affected by COVID-19. However, the speed with which SBA implemented the programs may have increased their susceptibility to fraud. This testimony discusses fraud risks associated with SBA's PPP and EIDL programs. It is based largely on GAO's reports in June 2020 (GAO-20-625) and September 2020 (GAO-20-701) that addressed the federal response, including by SBA, to the economic downturn caused by COVID-19. For those reports, GAO reviewed SBA documentation and interviewed officials from SBA, the Department of the Treasury, and associations that represent lenders and small businesses. GAO also met with officials from the SBA OIG and reviewed OIG reports. In its June 2020 report, GAO recommended that SBA develop and implement plans to identify and respond to risks in PPP to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud. SBA neither agreed nor disagreed, but GAO believes implementation of this recommendation is essential. For more information, contact William B. Shear at (202) 512-4325 or shearw@gao.gov.
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    A doctor of osteopathic medicine who formerly worked at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Beckley, West Virginia, pleaded guilty today to three counts of depriving veterans of their civil rights under color of law by sexually abusing them.
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    The Justice Department today reached an agreement with ASAP Towing & Storage Company (“ASAP”) in Jacksonville, Florida, to resolve allegations that ASAP violated a federal law, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (“SCRA”), by auctioning off or otherwise disposing of cars owned by protected servicemembers without first obtaining court orders. 
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