Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Youth Moderated Discussion on Democracy and Human Rights

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Paris, France

Chief of Mission Residence

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) Hello, everyone. We are live on – with Antony Blinken, the new Secretary of State of the Biden administration. Hello, Mr. Secretary of State. You are the voice of America in the world. You are actually on an official visit in Europe. You met German Chancellor Angela Merkel and you are going to meet French President Macron in a moment.

We are going to talk about several topics – the threats against democracy, police violence, climate, and racism. And to talk about this, we have 34 young people we invited to have a discussion with you. So you will answer their questions. But I’m talking to you, watching live. You can ask your questions in the comments section and we will try to relay a few of those. My phone is here and I’m reading the comments.

But first of all, Mr. Secretary of State, we will be able to have this discussion in French because you lived in France for a few years, correct?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) Indeed, I moved to France when I was nine. I used to live in New York. I lived here for nine years. I graduated high school here in Paris. I came back to Paris a couple years later to work. And I have friendships that started in school that are lasting, that have lasted over 50 years.

I’m delighted to be here to talk with all of you here today and those who are on the network. There’s an important reason why I wanted to have a dialogue such as this one. I believe that we’re faced with a challenge and also an opportunity. We’ll have to strengthen the links between our countries, and this will be done through you, whether it is through direct contact or on social media. You will be the ones who will build this partnership for the new generation. In my opinion, this is more important than ever. Our history is long-lasting, but it is particularly important today.

I think back to the challenges that we’re facing today, issues that affect all of our lives: the pandemic, COVID, the climate challenge, the impact of technology, new technology just as we’re seeing today. This impact can be good but not always – just like any topic that has an impact on your lives. And what we can see is that whether it is in France or in the U.S., a country that acts alone does not have the ability to face challenges on its own. And that goes for opportunities as well. We cannot build a wall high enough, we cannot build a solid wall to stop this from happening.

More than ever, I think that today there is a need for us to find a way to cooperate between countries so that we can work and act together. This ability is made possible by the ties that link our countries through our mutual values. And those relationships are living. The relationships are made by artistic pursuits, and by trade, and by working individuals. So for me, this is also an opportunity to listen to you, and to see what is important to you, and how you’re seeing the future of our relationships and of our ability to work together.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) We are getting many questions in the comments. It’s true that you are lucky enough to be with us today, but us French still cannot go to the U.S. So one question: When will the borders reopen?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) I cannot give a date but I hope it will be soon. As we do in democracies, we have set up a working group with the EU in order to come back again to this freedom of travel. But we must be guided by science, by the experts in the medical field. We shouldn’t take political decisions, but decisions based on facts and data. I hope this will be very soon. We really want this. I hope it will be in the coming weeks, not months.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) Yes, what would be the timeline? Can we imagine going to the U.S. during this summer for holidays?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) I hope so. I cannot provide a date. But we must be careful. We are seeing that we think we’re – we have security, but then there is a new variant of the virus spreading. We see this in certain European countries. We have that same variant, the Delta variant in the U.S. So we really have that desire to reopen quickly, but this needs to be based on facts and science.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) Maybe there will be criteria for vaccinated people?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) The experts are looking into it. I think there are different possibilities. I don’t want to talk too much about this. This is not my area of expertise. But I want to tell you that we are very actively working on this because we want to find a way to reopen further.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) People are very impatient around this. And let us now turn to the audience and give the floor to the youth. First question from Fatima, from the south. She’s 18 years old. A question around the importation of the racial issue into France.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Hello. Thank you for listening to me. Xenophobia and racism are on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic. What are the reasons, and how does the U.S. face such violence?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) Yes, this is the main topic these days, one of the main topics, unfortunately. We have this experience and we witness this here, too. And there are some very substantial issues that are hard to face. For instance – we could speak about it for an hour or two. For instance, we talk about the role of media and social media. A little time ago in France and the U.S., there was almost a monopoly of the media; there were big groups controlling the media, three main channels, a few national newspapers like The New York Times, and everybody got their information through those channels. And now, in the past 10 to 15 years, we have seen more democracy or information media being larger, but this also creates issues because there is no middle man anymore to check or limit access. Because we deeply believe in freedom of expression, but in the past when there was some excess or exaggeration, we could do something. But now with social media and the large platforms, they are not based on the same law than newspapers, for example. So that’s a question.

So how can we manage this without restricting freedom of expression? That’s an issue. But there are some deeper issues as well, and we are also witnessing in our societies issues with people that are left behind. These people don’t feel like they are being heard, that they are seen, and that people are taking care of them. And sometimes they express this issue, unfortunately, through hatred and even through violence. And we need to look into this as well.

But ultimately, most importantly, we must be able to respond to this and not accept such actions, such expressions, and this starts with national leaders but it’s not enough; this must also come from the society as a whole, and I hope from your generation. Because what we’re seeing – and that’s what makes it difficult these days – if you look at progress over the past 15 or 20 years, there is clearly progress in terms of security, opportunities, and even tolerance. And those of your generation are much more tolerant than my generation. So you need to speak out, to say what is acceptable and what is not. And in a democracy, we need to listen to you. And this speech, this way to speak on social networks, is also very important, and we must listen to those voices as well.

MR BUISINE: An opportunity to speak about social media, let me remind you, we are with Antony Blinken, Secretary of State.

In a year, there will be elections in France. Regardless of the result, will you keep the same relationship with France?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) I don’t want to speak about French politics. But I can tell you that for a long time now, regardless of the government – in the U.S. or in France – we have acted together, we continue to do so, and as long as we work based on the same values, which is the link between us. The question is: Should Marine Le Pen be elected in 2022? I don’t want to speak on assumptions. I am very much focused on the present time, on now, and we are working remarkably with France.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) Lea from Bordeaux has a question, has to do with the defiance towards politicians.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Conspiracy theories are prospering in the U.S. Does – do you think that you can regain the confidence of citizens in the face of this growing defiance?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) This is a key question, indeed. The answer is fairly simple, in a way, even though it’s difficult to implement. There is a democratic depression that has lasted for 10 years, or even 15. We’re seeing a democratic withdrawal, so to speak, in most countries, including the most democratic ones. And it is very clear there is a lack of confidence, sometimes in democracy itself. And the answer is to show that democracies can deliver for their citizens and for the citizens around the world outside of those countries. So that is the challenge of our time, to show that democracies can act, and act in such a way as to improve the living conditions of our citizens. If we do this, and we yield results, and if the large majority of our citizens can see progress, and if their governments can take into account their wants and needs, I believe that we will see a new wave of support for the system.

However, if this does not happen, the crisis that is ongoing at the moment runs the risk of getting worse. And I’ll get – go back to what I said earlier: We will be more efficient in terms of yielding results if we work jointly, if countries work together, and if we cooperate within countries also. A government is not enough. Most of the problems that we’re facing require a response from the government, of course, but also from the – from civil society, from the private sector, from NGOs and so forth, more than ever. Those of us who work within government have an obligation to broaden the way we work. It is not enough to work amongst ourselves or with other governments. We need to focus on other ways and means, and to make sure that others are heard, and take part in the creation of our approaches. If we succeed, I think we will see a new impetus for democracy.

But the question that we are seeing now in autocracies is, well, we have a better capacity to act in an efficient manner to fulfill the needs of our people, and democracies are collapsing. Well, our job is to show that it is quite the contrary.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) You were talking about social media and freedom of speech; there’s a question here. Trump was banned from Facebook; do you believe that this is against freedom of speech?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) I don’t want to speak on this, to this particular matter involving the president, President Trump. We talked about this briefly earlier; there is a challenge in the – indeed, that is very difficult to tackle, that has to do with balancing freedom of speech on social media. Where does the responsibility lie? Is it with the government? Is it with the platforms themselves? How do we manage this while maintaining this principle of freedom of speech?

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) So what is your position on this?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) Personally, I’m leaning in favor of freedom of – the freedom of speech, and I think we should fight against bad ideas with good ideas. But I’d be the first to admit that this is not so simple.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) So in the case of Donald Trump, the fact that it is a private company that says, well, this person can no longer speak out, isn’t this sort of a democratic issue?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) Well, yes, indeed, it is a democratic issue at stake here, but in our constitutional system the government overall does not have the right to restrain people’s freedom of speech. It’s different for a private company. They have more of a margin, constitutionally speaking. But this being said, the principle remains fundamental.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) So does this mean that we need a reform?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) Well, once again, this is above my pay grade. I’m in charge of working on managing foreign policy, but as a citizen, as an American citizen and as a citizen of the world, since social media is a world in and of itself, I believe that we need to find a way to manage this issue with the utmost respect for freedom of speech.

At the same time, when it comes to social media, it’s a little bit simplistic to say, “Well, social media is just here to assure technical support; we’re not in charge of the editorial content, and we’re not responsible.” In my opinion, this is going a bit too far. The way the conversation is managed, with the algorithms that are used, all of this has a profound impact on content and on what people see and listen on social media, and what they don’t see or don’t hear on social media. I believe that social media companies need to assume part of the responsibility. When the government enters this realm, then there are regulations involved, and sometimes it can go a bit too far. It’s best to get your results that will come out of the social media themselves.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) We have a question from Laura.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Recently on American bases, certain flags have been banned, including the Confederate flag, seen as racist. This new ban also includes the LGBT flag. Does this ban send an alarming message?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) I’m responsible for the Secretary of State, and we have now the possibility for each embassy or each head of mission to show the flag, including the LGBTQ flag. This decision was made a few months ago. With regards to our diplomatic foreign missions, this is part of the scope of responsibility of our ambassadors. I cannot speak in the name of our colleagues from the Department of Defense or Pentagon. They have had a rule for a long time now that says that the only flag outside of the American flag that can be shown is the one that is a symbol of the American soldiers that are combat.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) We have now a question from Jean around the Uyghurs. He’s 17, coming from Maubeuge in the north.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) The U.S. have been mobilized against the violations of the Uyghurs’ rights in China. You, for instance, banned cotton importations from Xinjiang. Are these restrictions enough?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) That’s an excellent question. And one could answer no, because if the result is not here – that is, stopping the abuse against the Uyghurs – one could say that this is not enough, because what matters is the result. That being said, there are two important aspects when we witness human rights violations, including such serious violations as seen in Xinjiang. We need to at least speak out; not only speak out but taking action with the available means. And in that regard, we shouldn’t be complicit with this situation, hence, the idea of trying to make sure that products that are made with the workers in Xinjiang cannot be imported. And we must also make sure that our countries do not export technologies to China, technologies that could be used to control those communities.

But it’s more complicated than this. I am – I admit that sanctions are an important tool, but it can also have perverted consequences. For instance, if because of those sanctions the life of those we’re are trying to help gets worse because they are not able to make a living or they do not have access to certain products, including humanitarian products, we must raise that question and we must look into the issue specifically and always ask ourselves the question: Does our action overall have a positive or a negative impact?

But with the current situation, which is ongoing right now in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs, we should at least as an international community to shed a light on what is happening, to clearly speak out and say this is not acceptable, and through sanctions, to try at least to pressure those who are leading such policy, change their policy.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) Well, actually, we’ve heard that those sanctions might not be efficient, so how far are the U.S. ready to go on this issue?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) I don’t want to get into hypotheticals. The situation is ongoing and what we’ve seen over the last few months is that more and more countries are speaking out and acting together, including by way of coordinated sanctions.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) Some people are saying maybe it’s not going as far as it should because you’re in the face of China; it’s a large economic power, while the reality is that we cannot avoid China, it’s the reality.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) At various levels we need to engage with China and I hope that this engagement can lead to a policy change, but at the same time, we are using the tools at our disposal to try and show that the policy carried out by the Chinese Government has a cost for China itself as well in terms of their political and diplomatic isolation, and also a cost that could potentially be economic as well.

On various challenges and issues, the reality is that there is rarely – sometimes there is, but there’s rarely an easy and quick answer as if you were just flipping on a switch. It just doesn’t work that way.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) So we answered the questions by those who asked about this – many people asked. Don’t hesitate to ask your questions, we will ask them. We will now be giving the floor to Safwan (ph), who is 17 years old and who is from (inaudible) in the Paris region.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) In May, you went to Israel and to the West Bank. How can the U.S. – or how do the U.S. intend to work towards peace in the region?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) This is a question that is timely today that we could have also asked last year, five years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago – the question doesn’t go away, because the solution is still not there. At first, we had a major issue, the conflict in Gaza. We wanted to put an end to violence as soon as possible, which is what we did. Lots of damage, lots of human loss, but the violence did end and at the moment there are immediate challenges with humanitarian assistance for those who live in Gaza, but there’s also a need to reconstruct Gaza. All of this is ongoing at the moment.

Avoiding in the days, weeks, and months to come any type of provocation or sticking points that could give way to new bouts of violence is another focus of ours, and we also want to work on establishing more confidence and trust between Palestinian and Israelis in order to put in place conditions that are not currently in place to lead to a potential peace process and the establishment of a two-state solution. At this moment in time, these conditions are not in place and we need to work on them, and that is what we’ll do. But in the immediate future, what we need to do is to help the people of Gaza who were caught in the crossfires.

Over the last few weeks, the U.S. has reestablished its diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people through humanitarian and economic support, as well as defense and security support. And we are in the process of reopening our consulate, which was closed a few years ago. This is an ongoing process; it takes some time, but it starts with a recommitment on the part of the U.S.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) We can now move on to a question by Illian (ph) who is 18 years old and is from Toulouse.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) The question is around democracies in South America and Central America that are threatened, pushing many people to leave their country. Joe Biden had promised for a more humane immigration policy. By which concrete ways can this be achieved?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) Yes, this is an issue that we face almost on a daily basis, but let’s take a step back. Men, women, children who try to come to the U.S. don’t do it because they just wake up one day and think, “Wouldn’t it be nice today to leave everything I’ve known behind –my family, my country, my language, my friends, my town – take an incredibly dangerous trip, be at the hands of traffickers, and end up at the American border which is actually closed? That would be a good way to spend my day.” No. To get to that, there must be certain conditions where there is no alternative, that only the – almost the only way to survive is to leave. And in order to address this issue I think we must resolve those conditions, what pushes people to leave everything they’ve ever known to go to the U.S. or to go to Mexico, et cetera.

And this is President Biden’s policy. We are implementing a program to address what pushes these people to take that trip. Deep issues around security, around governance, corruption, and most importantly, a lack of opportunities. If you don’t have the minimum ability to make a living, to feed your children, then you go to something else.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Well, actually a question around what Vice President Kamala Harris said, which shocked a few people in Guatemala saying to the people, “Do not come.” Do you think this is a mistake?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) No. People must understand that the border is currently closed. So having these people risking their life at the hands of traffickers and putting themselves in danger only to realize that there is no access, then we must be very clear because some very dishonest people who are trafficking people are trying to say even through social media, they’re trying to say, “Come, the U.S. are open. You can come and we’ll help you for $5,000.” So she wanted to be very clear on this, and it’s important people hear that. But at the same time we have a tradition, which is also a French tradition despite the difficulties that we are both facing. The tradition is to say, “If people want to seek asylum, then they can do it, and we will study their case. And should they meet the criteria, we can let them in the U.S.”

Same for refugees. We have this amazing tradition, which is to welcome refugees. We have lost that a little recently, but we are trying to rebuild our capacities on this topic. And we need also a functioning system, because the existing system as you seek asylum in the U.S. is absolutely overwhelmed by demand and we are unable to manage that. So we not only need to act on what pushes people to take the trip, but also acting on the resources available to study those cases and see if somebody can come to our country.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) Let’s move on to the Brut questions. I would like to thank you all for your comments. We are going to take those 10 to 15 minutes to ask a few questions from the comments. We have quite a few. We launched some contribution from yesterday, many questions around Julian Assange. He is facing extradition in the U.S. There have been many calls in France and Europe to drop the charges against him. What do you want to answer to this?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) It’s not easy for me speak around this issue. There is ongoing legal process, so I will let that legal process continue. I understand the questions, the emotions around this case, but I cannot really speak on this issue.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) Yes, this is quite recurrent, and the question was around how come a whistleblower does not get much protection because this has been a recurrent issue for several years, this issue around extradition.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) I understand the question. I understand the emotions. But I must let the legal system work.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) Is that something raised by your administration?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) Probably because this is ongoing case.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) Ongoing, okay. Another question from Danny (ph) in the comments. “Do you intend on closing Guantanamo? We know you wanted to, but what’s the timeline? We – even during other mandates, we heard about closing Guantanamo, but when will that be done?”

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) The simple answer is yes. This is part of our policy and we are working on this. There are still around 40 inmates at Guantanamo, and when you have that type of number – 40, not hundreds – then by definition these are the most complex cases. However, we are actively working on this at the moment. We are trying to find a way to act on each individual case.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) Could you make a commitment now that Guantanamo will be closed by the end?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) That’s our objective, but I cannot guarantee that or provide a date. But that’s definitely the objective.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) So to sum up, your objective is to have Guantanamo closed by the end of the mandate?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) Yes. I wish it could faster than this, but unfortunately it’s complicated. For example, in certain cases you need to find a country that is ready to welcome the person in question. It’s not easy. This requires a lot of diplomacy. And on our part – this might sound weird but if, let’s say, you’re considering sending somebody from Guantanamo to another country in order to close Guantanamo, we must have a guarantee that the rights of these people will be protected in that country. That’s not easy either.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) Another question on Instagram on an issue that we handle on a daily basis. It has to do with climate change. What is the policy of the Biden administration on climate change?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) On the first day of our administration, we rejoined the Paris Accords. It was symbolic but it was also important on the substance. President Biden convened a summit on climate in April, just three months after getting into office. He gathered a large majority of those leaders that have the most impact or can have the most impact on climate with a view to having a wider sense of the situation and to also elevate the climate issue. We are currently working towards COP26, which will be held in the U.K. at the end of the year.

There are a couple of things that are important. At the same time, we – with this, which is what we’re trying to do – we must right away, not in 2040, not in 2045, but as of now, this year, but especially this decade is to save our capital because the goals for 2050 will not be attainable if we’re not able to act within this decade, and we’ll never be able to get back the capital that we use. We’ve seen countries that were sort of leaning back and that have now become more involved.

And the second point is that we need a large amount of financing in order to help those countries that do not have the capabilities to do so. For example, to acquire expensive technology or to improve their resilience in the face of climate impacts. There is a fund that we have contributed to and we will continue to do so, and we are trying to make sure that other countries do the same.

On many specific details our government is acting. We’re trying to do this by showing by example. I’ll just dwell on this for a couple of minutes if I may.

There are no big issues that have a bigger impact on our lives that can be managed without cooperation between countries. Climate is one of those. The U.S. is responsible for about 15 percent of emissions in the world. If we did everything perfectly at home, there remains 85 percent of the problem in other countries that need to be managed. And we are trying to do this in a joint manner with the other emitters.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) Right after this meeting – and actually there is one last question: You are going to meet the President of the republic Emmanuel Macron. What will you be covering together?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) The problem is that we have so many things to cover and that we’re working on. We could spend hours. I just spent – I was meant to spend 45 minutes with my friend and colleague Jean-Yves Le Drian, the minister of foreign affairs, but we actually spent 90 minutes together and we could have gone longer.

We’ve done a great deal of work within the G7 at the summit, the NATO summit, and at the EU-U.S. summit as well as when President Biden and President Macron met. Our current mission is to continue this work, to continue exchanging on the next steps. For example, at the G7 summit we worked together in order to ensure that 1 billion doses of COVID vaccines would be distributed throughout the world. Now we’re working on how we can work together to increase production capacity in other countries, namely in Africa, and I know this is something that will be brought up because President Macron is a leader on this. And we will also talk about security in the Sahel and so forth. There are many different issues. Many things.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) What topic did you not cover here that you might be covering with the president?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Via interpreter) In a way, everything is on the agenda. But what I’d like to underscore first and foremost is what President Biden said when he met President Macron during the G7 summit: Not only do we want but also we need to work together. France is our longest-standing ally. As soon as we became independent and even before, France was at our side and this is still the case today. And I’m confident that in next – rather, I’m confident with the work that we’ve been doing in the first six months. And today, we will continue working together.

MR BUISINE: (Via interpreter) Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Many people are watching us and are seeing that your French is stellar. Thank you to the 34 young people who came here from all over France, including the six individuals who posed questions. Thank you to those who watched us. You are used to the way this works. It will be available in replay mode and we will be back soon. Have a great day and see you soon on Brut.

More from: Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

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FTC, HHS, and NAIC provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. HHS provided additional written comments on a draft of this report. For more information, contact Seto Bagdoyan at (202)-6722 or bagdoyans@gao.gov.
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    The procedures that GAO agreed to perform on fiscal year 2020 net excise tax distributions to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (AATF) and the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) and the results of those procedures are described in the enclosures to this report. The sufficiency of these procedures is solely the responsibility of the Department of Transportation (DOT) Office of Inspector General (OIG). The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is responsible for certifying quarterly net excise tax collections to be distributed to the AATF and the HTF. The Department of the Treasury's Office of Tax Analysis (OTA) is responsible for developing reasonable estimates of net excise tax collections to be distributed to the AATF and the HTF. These IRS certifications and OTA estimates are the basis of the net excise tax distributions to the AATF and the HTF. GAO was not engaged to perform, and did not perform, an examination or review. Accordingly, GAO does not express such an opinion or conclusion. The purpose of this report is solely to describe agreed-upon procedures related to information representing the basis of amounts distributed from the general fund to the AATF and the HTF during fiscal year 2020, and the report is not suitable for any other purpose. IRS agreed with the findings related to the procedures performed concerning excise tax distributions to the AATF and the HTF during the fiscal year 2020. OTA stated that it had no comments on the report. GAO performed agreed-upon procedures solely to assist the DOT OIG in ascertaining whether the net excise tax revenue distributed to the AATF and the HTF for the fiscal year ended September 30, 2020, is supported by information from the Department of the Treasury, including IRS's excise tax receipt certifications and OTA's estimates. DOT OIG is responsible for the sufficiency of these agreed-upon procedures to meet its objectives, and GAO makes no representation in that respect. The procedures that GAO agreed to perform were related to information representing the basis of amounts distributed from the General Fund to the AATF and the HTF during fiscal year 2020, including (1) IRS's quarterly AATF and HTF excise tax certifications prepared during fiscal year 2020 and (2) OTA's estimates of excise tax amounts to be distributed to the AATF and the HTF for the third and fourth quarters of fiscal year 2020. For more information, contact Cheryl E. Clark at (202) 512-3406 or clarkce@gao.gov.
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    What GAO Found Climate change is expected to have far-reaching effects on the electricity grid that could cost billions and could affect every aspect of the grid from generation, transmission, and distribution to demand for electricity, according to several reports GAO reviewed. The type and extent of these effects on the grid will vary by geographic location and other factors. For example, reports GAO reviewed stated that more frequent droughts and changing rainfall patterns may adversely affect hydroelectricity generation in Alaska and the Northwest and Southwest regions of the United States. Further, transmission capacity may be reduced or distribution lines damaged during increasing wildfire activity in some regions due to warmer temperatures and drier conditions. Moreover, climate change effects on the grid could cost utilities and customers billions, including the costs of power outages and infrastructure damage. Examples of Climate Change Effects on the Electricity Grid Since 2014, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have taken actions to enhance the resilience of the grid. For example, in 2015, DOE established a partnership with 18 utilities to plan for climate change. In 2018, FERC collected information from grid operators on grid resilience and their risks to hazards such as extreme weather. Nevertheless, opportunities exist for DOE and FERC to take additional actions to enhance grid resilience to climate change. For example, DOE identified climate change as a risk to energy infrastructure, including the grid, but it does not have an overall strategy to guide its efforts. GAO's Disaster Resilience Framework states that federal efforts can focus on risk reduction by creating resilience goals and linking those goals to an overarching strategy. Developing and implementing a department-wide strategy that defines goals and measures progress could help prioritize DOE's climate resilience efforts to ensure that resources are targeted effectively. Regarding FERC, it has not taken steps to identify or assess climate change risks to the grid and, therefore, is not well positioned to determine the actions needed to enhance resilience. Risk management involves identifying and assessing risks to understand the likelihood of impacts and their associated consequences. By doing so, FERC could then plan and implement appropriate actions to respond to the risks and achieve its objective of promoting resilience. Why GAO Did This Study According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, changes in the earth's climate are under way and expected to increase, posing risks to the electricity grid that may affect the nation's economic and national security. Annual costs of weather-related power outages total billions of dollars and may increase with climate change, although resilience investments could help address potential effects, according to the research program. Private companies own most of the electricity grid, but the federal government plays a significant role in promoting grid resilience—the ability to adapt to changing conditions; withstand potentially disruptive events; and, if disrupted, to rapidly recover. DOE, the lead agency for grid resilience efforts, conducts research and provides information and technical assistance to industry. FERC reviews mandatory grid reliability standards. GAO was asked to examine U.S. energy infrastructure resilience. This report describes: (1) potential climate change effects on the electricity grid; and (2) actions DOE and FERC have taken since 2014 to enhance electricity grid resilience to climate change effects, and additional actions these agencies could take. GAO reviewed reports and interviewed agency officials and 55 relevant stakeholders.
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    What GAO Found The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) regulate and manage spectrum, and other agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are among federal spectrum users. To address potential interference among proposed uses of spectrum, these agencies employ various coordination mechanisms. For domestic matters, the agencies coordinate through an NTIA-led committee that provides input to FCC's spectrum proceedings. For U.S. participation in the International Telecommunication Union's (ITU) World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRC), agencies coordinate via a preparatory committee that provides input used to develop U.S. positions that the Department of State submits to a regional body or directly to the WRC (see figure). Technical Coordination Process for U.S. Participation in WRC These mechanisms reflect some key collaboration practices but do not fully reflect others. For example, while the documents that guide coordination between FCC and NTIA and the preparatory committee emphasize reaching consensus whenever possible, there are no clearly defined and agreed-upon processes for resolving matters when agencies cannot do so. Additionally, neither document has been updated in almost 20 years, though agency officials said conditions regarding spectrum management activities have changed in that time. GAO's review of U.S. participation in ITU's 2019 WRC shows that these issues affected collaboration. For example, disputes among the agencies and the inability to reach agreement on U.S. technical contributions challenged the U.S.'s ability to present an agreed-upon basis for decisions or a unified position. NOAA and NASA conduct and FCC and NTIA review technical interference studies on a case-by-case basis. When originating from ITU activities, the agencies conduct or review technical interference studies through participation in international technical meetings and the preparatory committee process. However, the lack of consensus on study design and, within the U.S. process, specific procedures to guide the design of these types of studies, hampered U.S. efforts to prepare for the 2019 WRC. For example, the U.S. did not submit its studies on certain key issues to the final technical meeting, resulting in some stakeholders questioning whether the corresponding U.S. positions were technically rooted. Agreed-upon procedures could help guide U.S. efforts to design these studies and consider tradeoffs between what is desirable versus practical, to mitigate the possibility of protracted disagreements in the future. Why GAO Did This Study Spectrum is a scarce resource that supports vital services, such as mobile communications and Earth-observing satellites. In the U.S., FCC and NTIA regulate and manage nonfederal and federal spectrum use, respectively, while the ITU sets global regulations and hosts conferences to update them. Recent U.S. and ITU activities have sought to designate spectrum for possible 5G use and to study how to do so without causing harmful interference to other uses, particularly satellites like those operated by NOAA and NASA that contribute to weather forecasting and climate science. GAO was asked to review how agencies coordinate on and study these matters. Among other objectives, this report examines: (1) the extent that cognizant federal agencies follow leading practices in collaborating on potential interference effects on weather forecasting and (2) their processes to conduct and review technical interference studies. GAO reviewed documentation and interviewed officials from FCC, NTIA, NOAA, and NASA; analyzed how various agency mechanisms and processes were implemented during recent FCC and ITU spectrum-management activities; and compared agencies' efforts to key collaboration practices and applicable key elements of a sound research process.
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Forbearance was also more common among borrowers at a greater risk of mortgage default—specifically, first-time, minority, and low- and moderate-income homebuyers with mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration and rural homebuyers with loans guaranteed by the Rural Housing Service (see fig. 1). Figure 1: Estimated Percentage of Single-Family Mortgage Loans in Forbearance, by Loan Type (January 2020–February 2021) A small percentage of borrowers who missed payments during the pandemic have not used forbearance—less than 1 percent of those covered by the CARES Act. Yet, borrowers who have not used forbearance may be at a greater risk of default and foreclosure, according to GAO's analysis of the National Mortgage Database. For example, these borrowers tended to have lower subprime credit scores, indicating an elevated risk of default, compared to borrowers who were current or in forbearance, who tended to have higher prime or near prime credit scores. Federal agencies and the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the enterprises) have taken steps to make these borrowers aware of forbearance options, such as through direct phone calls and letters. In addition, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) amended mortgage servicing rules in June 2021 to require servicers to discuss forbearance options with borrowers shortly after any delinquency. Foreclosures declined significantly during the pandemic because of federal moratoriums that prohibited foreclosures. The number of mortgages entering foreclosure decreased by about 85 percent on a year-over-year basis from June 2019 to June 2020 and remained as low through February 2021, according to mortgage data provider Black Knight (see fig. 2). Figure 2: Number of Single-Family Mortgage Loans Entering Foreclosure, by Month (June 2019–February 2021) Note: Foreclosure data were only available through February 2021 at the time of our review. The number of new foreclosures includes vacant and abandoned properties and non-federally backed loans, which the CARES Act did not cover. Federal entities have taken additional steps to limit pandemic-related mortgage defaults and foreclosures. Federal housing agencies and the enterprises have expanded forbearance options to provide borrowers with additional time to enter and remain in forbearance. In addition, they streamlined and introduced new loss mitigation options to help borrowers reinstate their loans after forbearance, including options to defer missed payments until the end of a mortgage. Borrowers in extended forbearances generally have large expected repayments—an average of $8,300 as of February 2021, according to the National Mortgage Database. As a result, delinquent borrowers exiting forbearance have most commonly deferred repayment, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Further, CFPB's amended mortgage servicing rules allow servicers to streamline processing of loss mitigation actions and establish procedural safeguards to help limit avoidable foreclosures until January 1, 2022. The risk of a spike in defaults and foreclosures is further mitigated by the relatively strong equity position of borrowers due to rapid home price appreciation. Home equity—or the difference between a home's current value and any outstanding loan balances—can help borrowers with ongoing hardships avoid foreclosure by allowing them to refinance their mortgage or sell their home to pay off the remaining balance. According to GAO's analysis of the National Mortgage Database, few borrowers (about 2 percent) who were in forbearance or delinquent in February 2021 did not have home equity after accounting for home price appreciation. By comparison, during the peak of foreclosures in 2011 after the 2007–2009 financial crisis, about 17 percent of all borrowers and 44 percent of delinquent borrowers had no home equity (see fig. 3). Figure 3: Estimated Percentage of Single-Family Mortgage Borrowers without Home Equity as of 2020 and 2011, by Loan Type and Status Why GAO Did This Study Millions of mortgage borrowers continue to experience financial challenges and potential housing instability during the COVID-19 pandemic. To address these concerns, Congress, federal agencies, and the enterprises provided borrowers with options to temporarily suspend their mortgage payments and placed a moratorium on foreclosures. Both provisions begin to expire in the coming months. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to monitor federal efforts related to COVID-19. This report examines (1) the extent to which mortgage forbearance may have contributed to housing stability during the pandemic, (2) federal efforts to promote awareness of forbearance among delinquent borrowers, and (3) federal efforts to limit mortgage default and foreclosure risks after federal mortgage forbearance and foreclosure protections expire. GAO analyzed data on mortgage performance and the characteristics of borrowers who used forbearance from January 2020 to February 2021 using the National Mortgage Database (a federally managed, generalizable sample of single-family mortgages). GAO also reviewed data from Black Knight and the Mortgage Bankers Association on foreclosures and forbearance repayment. In addition, GAO interviewed representatives of federal entities about efforts to communicate with borrowers and limit default and foreclosure risks. To highlight potential risks, GAO also analyzed current trends in home equity among delinquent borrowers relative to the 2007–2009 financial crisis. For more information, contact John Pendleton at (202) 512-8678 or PendletonJ@gao.gov.
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  • Semiannual Report to Congress: October 1, 2020 through March 31, 2021
    In U.S GAO News
      This report was submitted to the Comptroller General in accordance with Section 5 of the Government Accountability Office Act of 2008. The report summarizes the activities of the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the six-month reporting period ending March 31, 2021. During the reporting period, the OIG issued one audit report and began three performance audits. In addition, the OIG closed four investigations and two self-initiated inquiries, and opened seven new investigations. The OIG processed 46 hotline complaints, many of which were referred to other OIGs for action because the matters involved were within their jurisdictions. The OIG remained active in the GAO and OIG communities by briefing new GAO employees on its audit and investigative missions, and participating in committees and working groups of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, including those related to the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. Details of these activities and other accomplishments are provided in the report. For more information, contact Tonya R. Ford at (202) 512-5748 or oig@gao.gov.  
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    In Travel
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  • Department of Justice Releases Report on its Efforts to Disrupt, Dismantle, and Destroy MS-13
    In Crime News
    Today, the Department of Justice released “Full Scale Response: A Report on the Department’s Efforts to Combat MS-13 from 2016-2020.”  This report describes the Department’s work to dismantle La Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) in the United States and abroad.  The data show that since 2016, the Department has prosecuted approximately 749 MS-13 gang members.  So far, more than 500 of these MS-13 gang members have been convicted, including 37 who received life sentences.  Department prosecutors are using more than 20 federal criminal statutes to prosecute MS-13 members, including, for the first time, filing terrorism charges against MS-13’s leadership.  The data also show that for decades MS-13 has exploited weaknesses in border enforcement policies, as approximately 74 percent of the defendants prosecuted were unlawfully present in the United States.  The report also describes the Department’s efforts to combat MS-13 internationally through increased partnerships with law enforcement in Mexico and Central America.  Through international cooperation, hundreds of MS-13 members have been arrested abroad and more than 50 MS-13 members have been extradited to the United States.
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  • Justice Department Announces Court-Authorized Seizure of Domain Names Used in Furtherance of Spear-Phishing Campaign Posing as U.S. Agency for International Development
    In Crime News
    On May 28, 2021, pursuant to a court order, the United States seized two command-and-control (C2) and malware distribution domains used in recent spear-phishing activity that mimicked email communications from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
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  • Justice Department Requires Divestiture In Order For Liberty Latin America To Acquire AT&T’s Telecommunications Operations In Puerto Rico And The U.S. Virgin Islands
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice announced today that it is requiring Liberty Latin America Ltd. (Liberty), its subsidiary, Liberty Communications of Puerto Rico LLC (LCPR), and AT&T Inc. (AT&T) to divest certain fiber-based telecommunications assets and customer accounts in Puerto Rico, in order for Liberty to proceed with its proposed acquisition of AT&T’s wireline and wireless telecommunications operations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  The department has approved WorldNet Telecommunications, Inc. (WorldNet) as the acquirer. 
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  • International Trio Indicted in Austin for Illegal Exports to Russia
    In Crime News
    A four–count federal grand jury indictment returned in Austin and unsealed today charges three foreign nationals – a Russian citizen and two Bulgarian citizens – with violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), Export Control Reform Act (ECRA), and a money laundering statute in a scheme to procure sensitive radiation-hardened circuits from the U.S. and ship those components to Russia through Bulgaria without required licenses.
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  • The Space Station’s Coolest Experiment Gets Astronaut-Assisted Upgrade
    In Space
    The Cold Atom Lab is [Read More…]
  • KuuHuub Inc., Kuu Huub Oy and Recolor Oy to Pay Civil Penalty for Children’s Online Privacy Violations
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice, together with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), today announced that KuuHuub Inc., a Canadian corporation, and two Finnish corporations, Kuu Huub Oy and Recolor Oy, have agreed to a settlement to resolve alleged violations of the FTC Act and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) associated with the companies’ “Recolor” mobile app and digital coloring book.
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  • Cameroon National Day
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • Designations of Former Honduran President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa and Former First Lady Rosa Elena Bonilla Avila for Involvement in Significant Corruption
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • 2020 Indo-Pacific Business Forum Promotes Free and Open Indo-Pacific
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Office of the [Read More…]
  • China-Based Executive at U.S. Telecommunications Company Charged with Disrupting Video Meetings Commemorating Tiananmen Square Massacre
    In Crime News
    A complaint and arrest warrant were unsealed today in federal court in Brooklyn charging Xinjiang Jin, also known as “Julien Jin,” with conspiracy to commit interstate harassment and unlawful conspiracy to transfer a means of identification.  Jin, an employee of a U.S.-based telecommunications company (Company-1) who was based in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), allegedly participated in a scheme to disrupt a series of meetings in May and June 2020 held to commemorate the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in the PRC.  The meetings were conducted using a videoconferencing program provided by Company-1, and were organized and hosted by U.S-based individuals, including individuals residing in the Eastern District of New York.  Jin is not in U.S. custody.
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  • COVID-19: Urgent Actions Needed to Better Ensure an Effective Federal Response
    In U.S GAO News
    The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in catastrophic loss of life and substantial damage to the global economy, stability, and security. According to federal data, the U.S. had an average of 116,000 new COVID-19 cases per day from November 1 through November 12, 2020. Between January 2020 and October 2020, at least 237,000 more deaths occurred from all causes, including COVID-19, than would normally be expected, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Further, while the economy has improved since July 2020, many people remain unemployed, including both those temporarily laid off and those who have permanently lost their job (see figure). Also, more households have become seriously delinquent on mortgage payments during the pandemic. In addition, GAO’s review of academic studies suggests the pandemic will likely remain a significant obstacle to more robust economic activity. Number of Unemployed Workers Permanently Losing Jobs and on Temporary Layoff, January 2019 through October 2020 In response to the pandemic and its effects, Congress and the administration have taken a series of actions to protect the health and well-being of Americans. However, as the end of 2020 approaches, urgent actions are needed to help ensure an effective federal response on a range of public health and economic issues. Medical Supplies While the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have made numerous efforts to mitigate supply shortages and expand the medical supply chain, shortages of certain supplies persist. In September 2020, GAO reported that ongoing constraints with the availability of certain types of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies remain due to a supply chain with limited domestic production and high global demand. In October 2020, GAO surveyed public health and emergency management officials from all states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories (hereafter states) and found the following: Testing supplies. Most states reported no shortages of swabs or transport media, but about one-third to one-half reported shortages in other types of testing supplies (see figure). State-Reported Testing Supply Shortages, as of October 2020   GAO surveyed officials in the 50 states; Washington, D.C.; and the five U.S. territories and received responses from 47 of the 56 locations, representing 41 states; Washington, D.C.; and all five territories. Not all states responded to every question. PPE. The majority of states that responded were mainly able to fulfill requests for supplies from organizations and entities within their states. However, availability constraints continue with certain PPE, such as nitrile gloves. Supplies for future vaccine needs. About one-third of states that responded stated that they were “greatly” or “completely” concerned about having sufficient vaccine-related supplies to administer COVID-19 vaccines. An additional 21 states indicated that they were moderately concerned. In September 2020, GAO recommended that HHS, in coordination with FEMA, should further develop and communicate to stakeholders plans outlining specific actions the federal government will take to help mitigate supply chain shortages for the remainder of the pandemic; immediately document roles and responsibilities for supply chain management functions transitioning to HHS, including continued support from other federal partners, to ensure sufficient resources exist to sustain and make the necessary progress in stabilizing the supply chain; and devise interim solutions, such as systems and guidance and dissemination of best practices, to help states enhance their ability to track the status of supply requests and plan for supply needs for the remainder of the pandemic response. HHS and the Department of Homeland Security disagreed with these recommendations, noting, among other things, the work that they had done to manage the medical supply chain and increase supply availability. In November 2020, HHS repeated its disagreement with GAO’s recommendations and noted its efforts to meet the needs of states. In light of the surge in COVID-19 cases, along with reported shortages, including GAO’s nationwide survey findings, GAO underscores the critical imperative for HHS and FEMA to implement GAO’s September 2020 recommendations. Vaccines and Therapeutics In a recent GAO report (GAO-21-207), GAO found that there has been significant federal investment to accelerate vaccine and therapeutic development, such as through Operation Warp Speed, a partnership between the Department of Defense and HHS that aims to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. Separately, Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA), which allow for the emergency use of medical products without Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval or licensure provided certain statutory criteria are met, have also been used for therapeutics. As of November 9, 2020, FDA had made four therapeutics available to treat COVID-19 through EUAs. In that report, GAO recommended that FDA identify waysto uniformly discloseinformation from its scientific review of safety and effectiveness data when issuing EUAs for therapeutics and vaccines. By doing so, FDA could help improve the transparency of, and ensure public trust in, its EUA decisions. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation, but said it shared GAO’s goal of transparency. COVID-19 Testing Guidance HHS and its component agencies have taken several key actions to document a federal COVID-19 testing strategy and provide testing-related agency guidance. However, this guidance has not always been transparent, raising the risk of confusion and eroding trust in government. In particular, while it is expected that guidance will change as new information about the novel virus evolves, frequent changes to general CDC testing guidelines have not always been communicated with a scientific explanation. GAO recommends that HHS ensure that CDC clearly discloses the scientific rationale for any change to testing guidelines at the time the changeis made. HHS concurred with this recommendation. Types of COVID-19 Testing Approaches Nursing Home Care In September 2020, the Coronavirus Commission on Safety and Quality in Nursing Homes (established by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in June 2020) made 27 recommendations to CMS on topics such as testing, PPE, and visitation. CMS released a response to the commission that broadly outlined the actions it has taken to date, but it has not fully addressed the commission’s recommendations or provided an implementation plan to track and report progress toward implementing them. While CMS is not obligated to implement all of the commission’s recommendations, the agency has not indicated any areas where it does not plan to take action. GAO recommends that CMS quickly develop a plan that further details how it intends to respond to and implement, as appropriate, the commission’s recommendations. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation and said it would refer to and act upon the commission’s recommendations, as appropriate. In addition, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) partners with state governments to provide nursing home care to more than 20,000 veterans in over 150 state veterans homes. In March 2020, VA instructed its contractor to stop in-person inspections due to concerns about COVID-19. As of September 2020, these inspections had not resumed, leaving veterans at risk of receiving poor quality care. Additionally, VA does not collect timely data on the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths occurring at each state veterans home, hindering its ability to monitor and take steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in these homes. GAO recommends that VA (1) develop a plan to resume inspections of state veterans homes, which may include using in-person, a mix of virtual and in-person, or fully virtual inspections, and (2) collect timely data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in each state veterans home. VA concurred with both recommendations. Economic Impact Payments The CARES Act included economic impact payments (EIP) for eligible individuals to address financial stress due to the pandemic. As of September 30, 2020, the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had disbursed over 165.8 million payments to individuals, totaling $274.7 billion. According to IRS data, more than 26 million non-filers—individuals who do not normally file a tax return and may be hard to reach—received a payment (see figure). However, everyone that was supposed to receive a payment was not reached. Starting in September 2020, IRS sent notices to nearly 9 million individuals who had not yet received an EIP. Number of Filers and Non-Filers Issued an Economic Impact Payment, as of September 30, 2020 Treasury and IRS officials did not plan to track and analyze the outcomes of their EIP notice mailing effort until 2021. The lack of timely analysis deprives Treasury and IRS of data they could use to assess the effectiveness of their notice strategy and redirect resources as needed to other outreach and communication efforts. GAO recommends that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, should begin tracking and publicly reporting the number of individuals who were mailed an EIP notification letter and filed for and received an EIP, and use that information to inform ongoing outreach and communications efforts. Treasury agreed with this recommendation. Unemployment Insurance The CARES Act created three federally funded temporary programs for unemployment insurance (UI) that expanded benefit eligibility and enhanced benefits. In its weekly news releases, the Department of Labor (DOL) publishes the number of weeks of unemployment benefits claimed by individuals in each state during the period and reports the total count as the number of people claiming benefits nationwide. DOL officials told GAO that they have traditionally used this number as a proxy for the number of individuals claiming benefits because they were closely related. However, the number of claims has not been an accurate estimate of the number of individuals claiming benefits during the pandemic because of backlogs in processing a historic volume of claims, among other data issues. Without an accurate accounting of the number of individuals who are relying on these benefits in as close to real time as possible, policymakers may be challenged to respond to the crisis at hand. GAO recommends that DOL (1) revise its weekly news releases to clarify that in the current unemployment environment, the numbers it reports for weeks of unemployment claimed do not accurately estimate the number of unique individuals claiming benefits, and (2) pursue options to report the actual number of distinct individuals claiming benefits, such as by collecting these already available data from states. DOL agreed with the recommendation to revise its weekly news releases, and partially agreed with the recommendation to pursue options to report the actual number of distinct individuals claiming benefits. Tax Relief for Businesses To provide liquidity to businesses during the pandemic, the CARES Act included tax measures to help businesses receive cash refunds or other reductions to tax obligations. Some taxpayers need to file an amended income tax return to take advantage of these provisions; at the same time, IRS faces an increase in mail and paper processing delays due to the pandemic, which may delay the timely processing of this paperwork and issuance of these refunds. GAO recommends that IRS update its form instructions to include information on its electronic filing capability for tax year 2019. IRS agreed with this recommendation. Program Integrity Although the extent and significance of improper payments associated with COVID-19 relief funds have not yet been determined, the impact of these improper payments, including those that are the result of fraud, could be substantial. For example, numerous individuals are facing federal charges related to attempting to defraud the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), UI program, or other federal programs, and many more investigations are underway. To address the risk of improper payments due to fraud and other causes, GAO previously recommended the following: The Small Business Administration (SBA) should develop and implement plans to identify and respond to risks in the PPP to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in consultation with Treasury, should issue timely guidance for auditing new and existing COVID-19-related programs, including Coronavirus Relief Fund payments, as soon as possible. Audits of entities that receive federal funds are critical to the federal government’s ability to help safeguard those funds.Also, Congress should amend the Social Security Act to explicitly allow the Social Security Administration to share its full death data with Treasury for data matching to prevent payments to ineligible individuals. GAO maintains that implementing these recommendations fully is critically important in order to protect federal funds from improper payments resulting from fraud and other risks. In this report, GAO also identifies new concerns about the timely reporting of improper payments for COVID-19 programs. The COVID-19 relief laws appropriated over a trillion dollars that may be spent through newly established programs to fund response and recovery efforts, such as SBA’s PPP. However, unlike the supplemental appropriations acts that provided for disaster relief related to the 2017 hurricanes and California wildfires, the COVID-19 relief laws did not require agencies to deem programs receiving these relief funds that expend more than a threshold amount as "susceptible to significant improper payments." In addition, based on OMB guidance, improper payment estimates associated with new COVID-19 programs established in March 2020 may not be reported until November 2022, in some instances. GAO is making two recommendations: OMB should develop and issueguidance directingagencies to include COVID-19 relief funding with associated key risks, such as changes to existing program eligibility rules, as part of their improper payment estimation methodologies, especially for existing programs that received COVID-19 relief funding. SBA should expeditiously estimate improper payments and report estimates and error rates for PPP due to concerns about the possibility that improper payments, including those resulting from fraudulent activity, could be widespread. GAO is also suggesting that Congress consider, in any future legislation appropriating COVID-19 relief funds, designating all executive agency programs and activities making more than $100 million in payments from COVID-19 relief funds as “susceptible to significant improper payments.” Aviation Assistance and Preparedness GAO identified concerns about efforts to monitor CARES Act financial assistance to the aviation sector. Treasury’s Payroll Support Program (PSP) provides $32 billion in payroll support payments and loans to help the aviation industry retain its employees. While recipients have begun submitting required compliance reports, Treasury has not yet finalized a monitoring system to identify and respond to the risk of noncompliance with PSP agreement terms, potentially hindering its ability to detect program misuse in a timely manner. GAO is recommending that Treasury finish developing and implement acompliance monitoringplan that identifies and responds to risks in the PSP. Treasury neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation, but committed to reviewing additional measures that may further enhance its compliance monitoring and ensure that PSP funds are used as intended. In June 2020, GAO suggested that Congress take legislative action to require the Secretary of Transportation to work with relevant agencies, such as HHS, the Department of Homeland Security, and other stakeholders, to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan to limit the spread of communicable diseasethreats and minimize traveland trade impacts. GAO originally made this recommendation to the Department of Transportation in December 2015. GAO urges Congress to take swift action to require such a plan, without which the U.S. will not be as prepared to minimize and quickly respond to ongoing and future communicable disease events. As of November 12, 2020, the U.S. had over 10.3 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and about 224,000 reported deaths, according to federal agencies. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions. Four relief laws, including the CARES Act, were enacted as of November 2020 to provide appropriations to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of September 30, 2020, of the $2.6 trillion appropriated by these acts, the federal government had obligated a total of $1.8 trillion and expended $1.6 trillion of the COVID-19 relief funds, as reported by federal agencies. The CARES Act included a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines the federal government’s continued efforts to respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO reviewed data, documents, and guidance from federal agencies about their activities and interviewed federal and state officials. GAO also sent a survey to public health and emergency management officials in the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the five U.S. territories regarding medical supplies. GAO is making 11 new recommendations for agencies that are detailed in this Highlights and in the report. GAO is also raising one matter for congressional consideration. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202)512-7114 or clowersa@gao.gov.
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  • Four California Residents Found Guilty of Scheming to Fraudulently Obtain Millions of Dollars in COVID-19 Relief Programs
    In Crime News
    A federal jury convicted four California residents on June 25, for scheming to submit fraudulent loan applications seeking millions of dollars in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) COVID-19 relief funds.  
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  • Financial Audit: Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Funds’ 2020 and 2019 Financial Statements
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO found (1) the financial statements of the Deposit Insurance Fund (DIF) and of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) Resolution Fund (FRF) as of and for the years ended December 31, 2020, and 2019, are presented fairly, in all material respects, in accordance with U.S. generally accepted accounting principles; (2) although internal controls could be improved, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) maintained, in all material respects, effective internal control over financial reporting relevant to the DIF and to the FRF as of December 31, 2020; and (3) with respect to the DIF and to the FRF, no reportable instances of noncompliance for 2020 with provisions of applicable laws, regulations, contracts, and grant agreements GAO tested. In commenting on a draft of this report, FDIC stated that it was pleased to receive unmodified opinions on the DIF's and the FRF's financial statements. In regard to the significant deficiency in internal control over contract payment review processes, FDIC stated that it began taking steps to address this issue and will work to enhance control activities and expand monitoring capabilities in this area. Further, FDIC stated that it recognizes the essential role a strong internal control program plays in an agency achieving its mission. FDIC added that its commitment to sound financial management has been and will remain a top priority. Section 17 of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act, as amended, requires GAO to audit the financial statements of the DIF and of the FRF annually. In addition, the Government Corporation Control Act requires that FDIC annually prepare and submit audited financial statements to Congress and authorizes GAO to audit the statements. This report responds to these requirements. For more information, contact James R. Dalkin at (202) 512-3133 or dalkinj@gao.gov.
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  • Military Housing: DOD Has Taken Key Steps to Strengthen Oversight, but More Action Is Needed in Some Areas
    In U.S GAO News
    In 1996 Congress provided DOD with authorities enabling it to obtain private-sector financing and management to repair, renovate, construct, and operate military housing. DOD has since privatized about 99 percent of its domestic housing. The Department of Defense (DOD) has made progress in addressing weaknesses in its privatized housing program, and GAO has identified additional opportunities to strengthen the program. GAO reported in March 2020 on DOD's oversight and its role in the management of privatized housing. Specifically, GAO found that 1) the military departments conducted some oversight of the physical condition of privatized housing, but some efforts were limited in scope; 2) the military departments used performance metrics to monitor private developers, but the metrics did not provide meaningful information on the condition of housing; 3) the military departments and private developers collected maintenance data on homes, but these data were not captured reliably or consistently, and 4) DOD provided reports to Congress on the status of privatized housing, but some data in these reports were unreliable, leading to misleading results. GAO made 12 recommendations, including that DOD take steps to improve housing condition oversight, performance indicators, maintenance data, and resident satisfaction reporting. DOD generally concurred with the recommendations. As of February 2021, DOD fully implemented 5 recommendations and partially implemented 7 recommendations. DOD should also take action to improve the process for setting basic allowance for housing (BAH)—a key source of revenue for privatized housing projects. In January 2021, GAO reported on DOD's process to determine BAH. GAO found that DOD has not always collected rental data on the minimum number of rental units needed to estimate the total housing cost for certain locations and housing types. Until DOD develops ways to increase its sample size, it will risk providing housing cost compensation that does not accurately represent the cost of suitable housing for servicemembers. GAO recommended that DOD review its methodology to increase sample sizes. GAO has also determined, in a report to be issued this week, that DOD should improve oversight of privatized housing property insurance and natural disaster recovery. GAO assessed the extent to which the military departments and the Office of the Secretary of Defense exercise oversight of their projects' insurance coverage. GAO found that the military departments have exercised insufficient oversight, and that the Office of the Secretary of Defense has not regularly monitored the military departments' implementation of insurance requirements. Without establishing procedures for timely and documented reviews, the military departments cannot be assured that the projects are complying with insurance requirements and assuming a proper balance of risk and cost. The draft of this report, which GAO provided to DOD for official comment, included 9 recommendations, 2 of which DOD addressed in January 2021 by issuing policy updates. The final report's 7 remaining recommendations, including that the military departments update their respective insurance review oversight procedures, will help strengthen DOD's oversight of privatized housing, once implemented. DOD concurred with all of the recommendations. Congress enacted the Military Housing Privatization Initiative (MHPI) in 1996 to improve the quality of housing for servicemembers. DOD is responsible for general oversight of privatized housing projects. Private-sector developers are responsible for the ownership, construction, renovation, maintenance, and repair of about 99 percent of military housing in the United States. GAO has conducted a series of reviews of MHPI, following reports of hazards (such as mold) in homes, questions about DOD's process to determine the basic allowance for housing rates, which is a key revenue source for privatized housing, and concerns about how DOD ensures appropriate property insurance for privatized housing projects impacted by severe weather. This statement summarizes 1) steps DOD has taken to strengthen oversight and management of its privatized housing program, and work remaining; 2) actions needed to improve DOD's BAH process; and 3) actions needed to enhance DOD's oversight of privatized housing property insurance. The statement summarizes two of GAO's prior reports, and a report to be issued, related to privatized housing. For this statement, GAO reviewed prior reports, collected information on recommendation implementation, and interviewed DOD officials. In prior reports, GAO recommended that DOD improve oversight of housing conditions; review its process for determining basic allowance for housing rates; and that the military departments update their housing insurance review oversight procedures. For more information, contact Elizabeth A. Field at (202) 512-2775 or fielde1@gao.gov.
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