Secretary Antony J. Blinken At the Atlantic Council’s Front Page Pride Edition Virtual Conversation with Jonathan Capehart on “Pressing for Equality: Engaging on LGBTQI Issues Around the World”

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.

MR CAPEHART: Hello and welcome to this special edition of AC Front Page, the Atlantic Council’s premier live ideas platform for global leaders. I’m Jonathan Capehart, a journalist with The Washington Post and MSNBC. Thank you for joining us today.

Across the country and around the world, the month of June is dedicated to celebrating and recognizing the LGBTQI community from all walks of life. However, both at home and abroad, there are significant challenges that affect the everyday lives of LGBTQI individuals. In his first year in office, President Biden and his administration have an opportunity to advocate for the social, economic, and political equality for sexual and gender minorities. Already the State Department has encouraged U.S. missions abroad to fly the pride flag in solidarity with a global LGBTQI community and by taking a more assertive approach to LGBTQI foreign policy, so that the U.S. Government has a chance to effect change and move the needle on human rights around the world.

Today, I am delighted to be joined by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to hear more from him about the Biden administration’s priorities for protecting and promoting the LGBTQI community, starting at the State Department and reaching beyond our borders. Secretary Blinken served as deputy secretary of state for President Barack Obama from 2015 to 2017 and before that as President Obama’s principal deputy national security advisor. Mr. Secretary, I’m looking forward to your remarks and our conversation.

This event is hosted by the Atlantic Council which, through its LGBTI Advisory Council and LGBTI in Foreign Affairs Fellowships and Out in Energy network, is promoting LGBTI leadership throughout the foreign affairs and national security community. The event is also co-hosted by GLIFAA, the LGBTQI+ employee affinity group for the U.S. State Department and other foreign affairs agencies. GLIFAA has been working for nearly 30 years to ensure LGBTQI employees can serve their country proudly and with dignity. We welcome you to engage in the conversation using the hashtag #ACFrontPage.

Mr. Secretary, before we begin our discussion, your opening remarks.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Jonathan, thank you very, very much. First of all, Happy Pride, everyone. I am delighted to be part of this conversation. And I especially want to thank you, Jonathan, for serving as moderator today.

And thank you to the Atlantic Council and all of my friends there for many, many years for helping to bring us together, and to GLIFAA for bringing us together as well for what is an important discussion.

So let me just say a few words to get us started, and then look forward to having a conversation with you and other colleagues who will join in.

One of the leading human rights issues of our time is the treatment of LGBTQI people around the world. You know this better than I do. In many countries, they face violence, harassment, stigma, rejection. They aren’t protected equally by laws – in fact, they’re often targeted and scapegoated by those who make and enforce the laws. They’re denied equal access to health care, housing, employment, justice. And for some, simply living openly as their true selves can be incredibly dangerous.

And I’m not just talking about far-off places. Here at home, LGBTQI people have had to fight tooth and nail for every inch of progress. And there are still painful setbacks. There is still hate and violence. There is still too much bias across our society in workplaces, in schools, in churches, in households, and in our government.

This matters to me as a person and an American. It also matters to me as Secretary of State. One of our country’s greatest strengths is our identity as a place where freedom, justice, opportunity are available to everyone. When that rings true, when we make progress toward those ideals, the world notices. When we fall short, well, the world notices that too.

Our ability to stand up for human rights and democracy in other places depends on whether we’re strong on those fronts here at home. And by standing up for human rights worldwide, we’re not only delivering for people in other countries, we’re also delivering for the American people, because human rights and democracy are intrinsically linked with stability, broad-based prosperity, peace, and progress. And that’s all in our interests.

But most important, defending and advancing human rights, including the human rights of LGBTQI people, is simply the right thing to do. And at our best, the United States does the right thing.

That’s why a few days after taking office, President Biden signed a memorandum instructing all U.S. agencies engaged in diplomacy and development to promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQI people around the world.

Specifically, it named combating the criminalization of LGBTQI status or conduct; protecting vulnerable LGBTQI refugees and asylum seekers; ensuring that our foreign assistance protects human rights and advances nondiscrimination; responding swiftly and meaningfully to human rights abuses; and building coalitions of international organizations and likeminded nations – that is, using our convening power to advance global support for the human rights of LGBTQI people.

So here at the State Department, we’re now putting those provisions into action across our bureaus, across the department, on everything from our refugee programs to our global COVID-19 response to our multilateral engagement. For example, this week, we’re sponsoring our first-ever side event at the United Nations on the rights of transgender and gender-diverse people worldwide. Because again, this is a core human rights issue, and we believe the United States belongs at the forefront of the fight, speaking out, standing up for our values. And we couldn’t do that without our people.

I want to give a special thank you to all the members of GLIFAA, past and present, who have blazed the trail, one step at a time, often in the face of great resistance, to change our country and the State Department for the better.

We still have a great deal of work to do before the human rights of all people everywhere are respected. That’s a mission we’re proud to undertake. And I am very grateful to all you for being part of it.

With that, I’m eager to have a conversation, also to hear from some of you. So, Jonathan, over to you.

MR CAPEHART: Well, Mr. Secretary, again, thank you very much for being here. And before we get to the topic at hand, I do, of course, have to ask a news of day question.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: I’d expect nothing less. (Laughter.)

MR CAPEHART: The New York Times is reporting that a bipartisan group of lawmakers is moving fast on legislation to get visas for folks in Afghanistan who helped the United States. Earlier this month, you told the House Foreign Affairs Committee the administration is looking, quote, “at every possible contingency.” Have you narrowed those contingencies, and do they include evacuation to a third country while they await U.S. visas?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first just to emphasize the point because it is vitally important, we have an obligation, a debt, to help those who helped us. We have people in Afghanistan who worked side-by-side with our diplomats, with our soldiers, as guides, interpreters, translators, put themselves on the line, put their lives on the line, put the security and well-being of their families on the line, and we owe them. It’s a simple as that.

And as part of that we’ve had, starting in Iraq but also in Afghanistan, a program to – for so-called Special Immigrant Visas to put folks who’ve helped us in a special place where they can apply, hopefully in a more expedited fashion, to come to the United States. We are doing everything we can to make sure that that program can move forward with the resources it needs to answer the demand that exists.

Just to give you a sense of where this stands, there are about 18,000 people who have expressed interest – or more – in using this program to come to the United States. In other words, 18,000 people who worked directly with our soldiers, with our diplomats in Afghanistan. About 9,000 of those are just in the beginning of the process. They’ve expressed interest, they’re looking at it, they haven’t filled out the forms. Another 9,000, though, have filled out the forms. They’re working through the process, and we’ve got a number of them that are awaiting approval by our embassy in Afghanistan and others who are actually in the immigration process itself.

We’ve surged resources to make sure that we could make good by the people who are seeking these Special Immigrant Visas. We’ve added about 50 people here at the State Department. A lot of the work actually gets done here at State. We have additional people in the field. We’ve reduced and in fact eliminated some backlogs that existed.

We’ve got challenges. We’ve actually got a new COVID emergency in Afghanistan where we’ve had to pull back a little bit on some of the work that we’re doing in country. But the work that happens out of country, which is actually the bulk of it, is going forward.

So that’s basically where things stand. We’re going to Congress to get more of these visa allowances. At the same time, to your point, Jonathan, we continue to look at every possible contingency to make sure that, one way or another, we can accommodate the demand. We haven’t ruled anything – anything out. And right now we’re focused on making sure that we actually can make good on the folks who are in the system, and as it stands today that’s what we’re doing.

MR CAPEHART: Thank you for that response, Mr. Secretary. So as you mentioned in your opening remarks, you and the President have made it clear that LGBTQ+ issues are a part of U.S. foreign policy. How specifically is that manifesting itself 152 or so days in – to the Biden administration?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: So there are a few things that are happening. First, on one level it’s show me your talking points and I’ll show you your priorities. This is now something that is much more integrated in the day-in/day-out work that we’re doing in the department in our engagements with countries wide and far. We’re doing it – we’re engaged on these issues on a bilateral basis when we’re dealing country to country. We’re dealing much more on a multilateral basis in international organizations. I mentioned this first-ever side event at the United Nations to put a spotlight on some of the challenges. We are working to coordinate more with likeminded countries.

And a lot of this involves programmatic support as well, making sure that we’re getting assistance out to groups that can help put a spotlight on challenges, on issues; emergency assistance to people who are in need and who are threatened by violence, by discrimination; and across the board trying as well to empower some of the local groups and local movements that are trying to make good on the agenda.

So what you’re seeing is actually integrating all of this work into what we’re doing every single day. And this is not just – it’s not just me. It’s not just other senior colleagues. We’re trying to do this spread out across the department.

MR CAPEHART: So – I have a a symbolic question and then a substantive question in terms of manifestation. Symbolically, during the Obama-Biden administration one of the hallmarks was the pride flag being flown at embassies around the world.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah.

MR CAPEHART: The previous administration did away with that, in some ways very proudly doing away with the pride flag at embassies. I saw, I believe somewhere on social media, the pride flag flying at an embassy around the world. Is that a stated policy at the Blinken State Department that if you are an ambassador anywhere at an American embassy around the world and you want to fly the pride flag, fly the pride flag?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: The answer is yes. We’ve made that clear. We’ve given our chiefs of mission, our ambassadors around the world the authority to do that. When we’re trying to advance, defend, support the protection of LGBTQI persons around the world, we want to make sure that we’re doing this in a way that takes into account the specific situation, conditions in a given country. But in every single country where we’re represented, our chiefs of mission, our ambassadors, our charges – whoever’s in charge – have the authority to fly the pride flag on an exterior, external-facing pole at the embassy.

And I think that’s hugely important because this is, again, the strength, the power of our own example, the willingness to speak up, to speak out, to show the strength of our own diversity, including at our embassies, I think sends a hugely important message.

One thing that I can actually announce today for the first time is that we’ll be flying the progress flag, a symbol that encompasses the diversity and intersectionality of LGBTQI persons and communities around the world at the State Department later this month.

We’ll fly the flag from June 26th to the 28th, and that’s a period that I know – as so many know – marks a couple of important turning points in our history for LGBTQI rights: June 26th, the anniversary of the historic Supreme Court decision in 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges, which ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples and is the law of the land; June 28th, I think everyone knows, marks the anniversary of the start of the Stonewall riots, which in many ways back in 1969 was the genesis of the global LGBTQI rights movement. So I think this is going to be a significant couple of days and we will see the progress flag flying at the State Department.

MR CAPEHART: I’m going to just rib you for a moment, because how did the Agriculture Department beat you to this? (Laughter.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, in the category of maybe sometimes a little bit better late than never, look, I’m glad. This is great that we have our administration, our government – across the administration, across the government – firing on all cylinders. And I think it’s a reflection of the fact that President Biden set the tone from day one. So if we have to play a little catch-up, we are.

MR CAPEHART: So in February the State Department – your spokesperson, Ned Price, from the podium – expressed concern over two Chechen brothers who were arrested in Russia and returned to their homeland. You just got back from Geneva, where President Biden met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Did the – did Russia’s LGBTQ rights record come up at that meeting? Did the President push that issue with President Putin?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: The President pushed human rights, including LGBTQI rights, with President Putin. And I think he referred to this in his press conference as well. What he told President Putin is that as an American president, where for all of our challenges – many of which are manifest in recent months and recent years – this is something that is basically stamped into our DNA and he would be abdicating his responsibility as President, as an American president, not to raise these issues. Now, we didn’t get into specific cases in that meeting, but he made very clear to President Putin that this is fundamentally who we are, and who he is, and what we’ll do, and will continue to do going forward.

MR CAPEHART: What was President Putin’s response?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I don’t want to characterize his response. You should ask the Russians.

MR CAPEHART: (Laughter.) You were in the room.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, it wouldn’t be fair of me to say what he said or didn’t said. But I think it’s fair to say that there was at least an acknowledgment of that basic fact of life. This is what an American president should do. This is who we are, and this is what we represent to the world.

MR CAPEHART: You’ve said a couple of times in responses, but also in your opening remarks, about how at home and abroad the LGBTQI community is facing all sorts of pressures. Here in the United States right now, there is the Equality Act that passed the House, is sitting in the United States Senate awaiting a vote. No vote has been scheduled. I know it’s either highly unusual or never that a secretary of state gets involved in domestic politics, but could you talk about why for foreign consumption it’s important that the Equality Act be passed by Congress?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, I really can’t get into – you’re right, I can’t get into domestic politics. I won’t. It’s one of the maybe some would say luxuries of the job, but I think it’s one of the necessities of the job that I not do that. And one of the things I’ve made very clear in taking the job was that politics stops at the C Street doors, where we are here at the department.

But what I can say is this, because it goes to the larger point: I know as I’m traveling around the world – and thankfully we’re now able to really start to do that – that the effectiveness, the impact of our foreign policy is directly tied to our strength at home. And the power of our example, as President Biden likes to say, is as important as the example of our power. And so when we’re seen as making progress at home, when we’re seen as getting a little bit closer to achieving our ideals, something we’ll never fully achieve – forming a more perfect union by definition says that we’re constantly in that quest. But as we’re seen as trying to do that, that gives us so much greater standing around the world to try to advance rights for all day in, day out.

So I know that my foreign interlocutors are looking to this all the time. So I can’t speak to specific pieces of legislation or laws. I can say that our progress at home is directly tied to our ability to be a force for progress around the world.

MR CAPEHART: So, Mr. Secretary, we have questions from the audience, and I’m going to go to the first question, which is from Meghan Luckett, a public affairs officer from the U.S. Embassy in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.

QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon, Mr. Secretary, and thank you very much for this opportunity. My question is this: Since 1999, there have been 13 out LGBTQI+ ambassadors, with President Biden nominating three more. However, all of them have been white, gay, cis men. Keeping in mind that the State Department has rightly centered its DEI focus on the importance of intersectionality and representation, what can and should the department do to ensure the full spectrum of the LGBTQI+ identities and experiences, including black indigenous people of color, are reflected at the highest levels?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Meghan, thanks very much. First of all, thanks for your work and service, and second, thanks for the question. And I think it’s an important one. My belief is that when all is said and done, when you see the appointments that the administration makes in senior positions across the department, as well as abroad, that we’ll be able to show a real reflection of the diversity of the community itself in those appointments. So I can’t get into specific names and positions right now. It’s a lengthy process – I think you know that as well – in terms of getting people in place. But I hear what you’re saying and I think – I expect that what you’ll see will be an answer to that question.

MR CAPEHART: All right, our next question–

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR CAPEHART: — sorry – our next question comes from Austin Richey-Allen, deputy consular chief at the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal.

QUESTION: Hello, sir. Greetings from Kathmandu. Thank you very much for engaging in this important conversation. As an openly transgender employee at the State Department, I’ve spoken to other trans and non-binary employees, as well as those with trans or non-binary family members. The top concerns that I’ve heard relate to the availability of gender-affirming medical care while assigned abroad, policies related to workplace protections, and access to passports and other documents that accurately represent our identity.

Could you talk about what is on the horizon in the State Department to foster a supportive and inclusive environment for gender-diverse people? And if any trans people are watching now who may be considering a career at the State Department, do you have any particular (inaudible) for them? Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Great. Thank you, and again, thank you as well for everything that you’re doing and for your service. Let me pull this back a little bit, and then address the question more specifically. When it comes more broadly to diversity and inclusion in the department, I’ve made – I’ve made that a priority for however long I’m in this job. And I’ve said this repeatedly, I’ve said it publicly as well as privately, that I’ll consider it a mark of my success or not in this job whether by the time I’m done we’ve put in place a stronger foundation to have a genuinely diverse department that truly reflects the people that we’re supposed to represent. And a lot goes into that, as you know. But one of the things that we’ve done is we’ve appointed for the first time ever a chief diversity and inclusion officer. And that office will – is actually an office with a team. It reports directly to me, and it has the responsibility of making sure that across the board the department is genuinely addressing and making progress on building a more diverse and inclusive – and that word “inclusive” is usually important – department so that, again, we reflect the people that we represent.

This starts with recruiting and making sure that we’re actually reaching out really early on in the pipeline to open people’s eyes and hearts and minds to the possibility of serving the country, and serving the State Department, serving our foreign policy. A lot more to follow on that. But we know that even once we get people through the doors here at C Street, that’s not enough. In fact, we’ve seen time and again that people coming from diverse communities get into the State Department and then leave, because we’ve done a bad job in addressing the particular concerns and particular challenges faced by people coming from diverse communities that many of us are simply not in tune with or aware of.

And so one of the responsibilities as well of the chief diversity and inclusion office is going to be making sure that we’re focused on some of the cultural challenges that come to making sure the department is genuinely inclusive across the board, and that people feel that they’re at home, they’re respected, and that they can actually make a real career out of the department, they can see the possibility of advancing, that they can see the possibility of having the most senior jobs over their careers. And that ties into making sure that, again, our appointments, including at the most senior levels, reflect that diversity.

Finally, accountability. And that starts with me. We’ve got to make sure that as we’re working to create a more diverse department, to put in place a foundation that will sustain that diversity going forward, that we actually have accountability, and that comes with making sure that we can actually show the progress, that we have data that’s disaggregated, which has been one of the challenges in the past, and that’s true across different communities.

Now, when it comes to the LGBTQI community in general, when it comes to transgender, gender-diverse persons in particular, this too is an area I think of particular emphasis, of particular need. We put out guidance back in April regarding transgender employees and management rights and responsibilities on – in the workplace. What’s so important here is that that guidance was the product of a consultation with GLIFAA. We wanted to make sure that we had the input going in, not just presenting something on the landing, that we actually had it on the takeoff. Which is another reason, by the way, why this diversity across the board in our department is so important. If we don’t have colleagues here in the department who can help us with internal policy choices and decisions, we’re not going to get it right.

I think the guidance is a good start. It addresses a number of issues, I think, of real importance, where we needed greater clarity, greater understanding, actually needed policies addressing, for example, the use of pronouns, dress codes, usage of bathrooms in accord with identity, et cetera. And it’s also the first means by which we’re actually providing resources to people who have questions, have concerns, have issues. I hope that’s going to be something that sends a message to future colleagues about the environment, the culture, the welcoming nature of this institution.

As I mentioned, we have this – just in a couple of days this first-ever side event in the United Nations that I’m proud to be able to participate in. And beyond that, I think you’re going to see some broader policy announcements that go beyond the State Department that will be coming out of the administration soon, all of which I hope send a very clear, very strong message that not only do we welcome, we want to be part of – this administration to be part of our government, a workforce of talented people that reflect the true diversity of our country.

MR CAPEHART: Austin Richey-Allen, thank you very much for your question. The next question comes from Coco Lim, a program associate for Latin America and the Caribbean at Freedom House.

QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Secretary. Thank you for your time today. So according to Freedom House freedom and the world reports and analysis, the quest to secure greater protections for LGBTQ people in Latin America has lost momentum over the past few years with some Latin American governments pursuing hostile legal frameworks, jeopardizing political and civil rights, especially the rights of trans women as the crimes against this population often go unpunished and sometimes uninvestigated, for instance, in the most recent murder of Guatemalan activists Andrea Gonzalez and Cecy Ixpata.

So in that context with your new leadership in Washington, how can the U.S. help to revitalize efforts to put an end to violence, discrimination, and impunity on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, and perhaps specifically violence against trans folks throughout the Latin American region?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, thank you for the work that you’re doing. I read the Freedom House reports very, very carefully every year. And I think, look, you put your finger on something that unfortunately is very stark and very powerful, and that is a wider trend that Freedom House has done more than any other organization to document of this democratic recession that we’ve been seeing around the world, a recession that’s been going on and getting deeper, going on for the past dozen or more years, 15 years or so – and as I said, getting deeper unfortunately over the last few years.

And this is an issue of profound concern to me, to the President, to the administration. And it’s not surprising that one of the markers of that recession has been exactly what you cited, which is not only a slowing of progress, a diminution of progress for the LGBTQI communities around the work, but in a number of cases actual regression, moving backwards when it comes to violence, when it comes to discrimination, when it comes to legal frameworks. And the two cases that you’ve actually cited I’ll be speaking to in a couple of days at the United Nations.

And for us, in terms of what we can do about it, it really starts with putting democracy and human rights, including the rights of the LGBTQI communities, at the heart of our foreign policy. And that goes back to what we were talking about just a few minutes ago, that it is on the agenda in our conversations country to country, that it’s on the agenda in what we’re doing in multilateral institutions around the world, that it’s on the agenda in terms of our programs and the resources that we dedicate, whether it’s emergency assistance to people from these communities who are in need, in danger, or the support that we’re giving to civil society and organizations that stand up for and advance LGBTQI rights. All of that goes to the heart of our foreign policy and what we’re trying to do.

We have in a whole host of countries efforts underway to push pack against discriminatory legal frameworks and laws. This is one of the most pernicious things in many ways that we’re seeing beyond overt instances of violence, discrimination. When you have a legal framework that actually institutionalizes this, that’s maybe the most fundamental problem of all.

We’re working on this day in, day out, country to country as we speak. I’m particularly sensitive to the plight of transgender people, especially people of color, and especially when we’re seeing within this overall regression particular instances of violence and discrimination against that community. So this is something we’re giving a particular focus to.

But the bottom line is this: It has to be and it is integrated in our foreign policy. Unfortunately, it’s not like flipping a light switch. I don’t think we’re going to see or show results from Friday to Monday, but if we’re doing it in a sustained, focused, and determined way, my hope is that over the next few years we’ll actually start to turn the corner and see progress again, not regression.

MR CAPEHART: Thank you very much, Coco Lim. We have one more question. This one, Mr. Secretary, comes from Michael Castellano, Associate Director for Strategic Partnerships at Heartland Alliance International. Unfortunately, he cannot be on camera because of a train mishap. He’s fine.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good.

MR CAPEHART: But he can’t be with us, so I’m going to ask his question for you. And in your response to this, fold in your final remarks because we are running out of time.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Sure.

MR CAPEHART: He asks: President Biden’s memorandum committing to promoting LGBTQ rights abroad underscores five priorities, one of which is funding efforts to protect human rights and to advance nondiscrimination around the world, which you’ve mentioned earlier. For those of in civil society engaged in the implementation of such programs in collaboration with LGBTQ partners in the field, can you elaborate on how the Department of State under your leadership will leverage foreign assistance funding to support LGBTQ human rights programming?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: So I think there are a number of things. And I appreciate the question but also very relieved to hear that everything’s okay.

MR CAPEHART: Yes.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: So that’s good.

There are a number of ways we’re doing this. Look, we have our efforts, ongoing efforts as a founding member, to lead and administer something called the Global Equality Fund, and that is a pretty unique and I think effective public-private partnership that provides emergency assistance, for example, to LGBTQI organizations and persons that are under threat and as well as supporting human rights programming for grassroots organizations to try to catalyze positive change, and it’s operating in more than a hundred countries. So this is something that really covers a lot of ground.

Tenth year that we’ve been involved in this, and what we’re seeing is – as I said, it’s a public-private partnership – we’re drawing strength and support from like-minded governments around the world, businesses, foundations, the – a number of other organizations. And that’s been an essential resource that we’ve actually been able to help catalyze and provide about $83 million thus far to amplify, support local efforts.

As I alluded to earlier, we’ve also got a number of other programs that are part of our budget, that are in our foreign policy toolkit that go to this. And then more broadly, our efforts to advance across the board human rights and freedoms and democracy hopefully have positive effects as well. So it’s a long way of saying we’ve got this effort ongoing in our programs that are funded in one way or another, and in our day in, day out diplomacy that we’ve already talked about.

Jonathan, last thing I’ll say is this: We have, over the course of however long we’re in this position, over the course of this administration, I think both a tremendous opportunity but also an obligation to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to advance human rights and democracy more broadly and to support and advance and stand strong for LGBTQI rights more specifically.

And it’s simple. It’s the right thing to do. It’s also the smart thing to do. We know from our own experience that the diversity of this country is at the heart of our strength. And so when we’re actually drawing on it here at home, we’re going to be in a much stronger position to advance the same issues, causes, challenges around the world.

And we also know the reason it’s smart besides being the right thing to do is that countries that actually act on reflecting their own diversity are likely to be at peace, likely to actually be successful, drawing on the full talents of their societies, and that’s good for us. That’s good for the world. So that’s why this is at the heart of what the President wants to do. It’s a big part of our agenda. But at the end of the day, like with most things, we’ll get judged by results. So we’re committed, we’re focused, we’re determined, and my hope, my expectation, is that over the course of these next few years, we’ll actually make progress.

MR CAPEHART: And with that, we’re going to have to leave it there. Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, thank you very much for being here and for your – the conversation and your comments on the global importance of protecting and advancing universal human rights, including those of us in the LGBTQI community.

I’d also like to thank the Atlantic Council and GLIFAA for hosting this important event in celebration of Pride Month. Please join the Atlantic Council at their next AC Front Page event with the director of the National Economic Council, Brian Deese, this Wednesday, June 23rd, at 8:30 a.m.

And to the audience, thank you for being a part of today’s conversation. Have a good day.

More from: Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

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  • Government Efficiency and Effectiveness: Opportunities to Reduce Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication and Achieve Billions in Financial Benefits
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found GAO’s 2021 annual report identifies 112 new actions for Congress or executive branch agencies to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government. For example: The Office of Management and Budget should improve how agencies buy common goods and services—such as medical supplies and computers—by addressing data management challenges and establishing performance metrics to help save the federal government billions of dollars over the next 5 years, as well as potentially eliminate duplicative contracts. The National Nuclear Security Administration could implement cost savings programs to operate more effectively at its nuclear laboratory and production sites to potentially save hundreds of millions of dollars over approximately a five year period. The Department of Health and Human Services could improve coordination of its infectious disease modeling efforts to better identify any duplication and overlap among agencies, which could help them to better plan for and more efficiently respond to disease outbreaks. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) could enhance third-party information reporting to increase compliance with tax laws and raise revenue. GAO has also previously suggested (1) providing IRS with authority to correct certain errors—with appropriate safeguards—in tax returns and (2) establishing requirements for paid tax return preparers to help improve the accuracy of tax returns. From 2011 to 2021, GAO has identified more than 1,100 actions to reduce costs, increase revenues, and improve agencies' operating effectiveness. GAO’s last report in May 2020 said progress made in addressing many of the actions identified from 2011 to 2019 had resulted in approximately $429 billion in financial benefits, including $393 billion that accrued through 2019 and $36 billion that was projected to accrue in future years. Since May 2020, at least tens of billions of dollars in additional financial benefits have been achieved. GAO estimates that tens of billions of additional dollars could be saved should Congress and executive branch agencies fully address open actions, including those that have potential financial benefits of $1 billion or more. Why GAO Did This Study The federal government has made an unprecedented financial response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the pandemic recedes and the economy substantially recovers, Congress and the administration will need to develop and swiftly implement an approach to place the government on a sustainable long-term fiscal path. In the short term, opportunities exist for achieving billions of dollars in financial savings and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of a wide range of federal programs in other areas. GAO has responded with annual reports to a statutory provision for it to identify and report on federal programs, agencies, offices, and initiatives—either within departments or government-wide—that have duplicative goals or activities. GAO also identifies areas that are fragmented or overlapping, as well as additional opportunities to achieve cost savings or enhance revenue collection. This statement discusses: the new areas identified in GAO’s 2021 annual report; and examples of open actions recommended to Congress or executive branch agencies with potential financial benefits of $1 billion or more. To identify what actions exist to address these issues, GAO reviewed and updated select prior work, including matters for congressional consideration and recommendations for executive action. For more information, contact Jessica Lucas-Judy at (202) 512-6806 or lucasjudyj@gao.gov or Michelle Sager at (202) 512-6806 or sagerm@gao.gov.
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  • Medicaid Information Technology: Effective CMS Oversight and States’ Sharing of Claims Processing and Information Retrieval Systems Can Reduce Costs
    In U.S GAO News
    The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has reimbursed billions of dollars to states for the development, operation, and maintenance of claims processing and information retrieval systems—the Medicaid Management Information Systems (MMIS) and Eligibility and Enrollment (E&E) systems. Specifically, from fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2018, states spent a total of $44.1 billion on their MMIS and E&E systems. CMS reimbursed the states $34.3 billion of that total amount (see figure). Money Spent by States and Reimbursed by CMS from 2008–2018 for Medicaid Management Information Systems (MMIS) and Eligibility and Enrollment (E&E) Systems For fiscal years 2016 through 2018, CMS approved 93 percent and disapproved 0.4 percent of MMIS funding requests, while for E&E it approved 81 percent and disapproved 1 percent of the requests. The remaining 6.6 percent of MMIS requests and 18 percent of E&E requests were either withdrawn by states or were pending. GAO estimates that CMS had some level of supporting evidence of its review for about 74 percent of MMIS requests and about 99 percent of E&E requests. However, GAO estimates that about 100 percent of E&E requests and 68 percent of MMIS requests lacked pertinent information that would be essential for indicating that a complete review had been performed. Among CMS requirements for system implementation funding is that states submit an alternatives analysis, feasibility study, and cost benefit analysis. However, GAO found that about 45 percent of such requests it sampled for fiscal years 2016 through 2018 did not include these required documents. The above weaknesses were due, in part, to a lack of formal, documented procedures for reviewing state funding requests. CMS also lacked a risk-based process for overseeing systems after federal funds were provided. CMS provided helpful comments and recommendations to states in selected cases, but in other instances it did not. In two states that had contractors struggling to deliver successful projects, state officials said they had not received recommendations or technical assistance from CMS. The states eventually terminated the projects after spending a combined $38.5 million in federal funds. According to CMS officials, they rely largely on states to oversee systems projects. This perspective is consistent with a 2018 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decision that federal information technology (IT) grants totaling about $9 billion annually would no longer be tracked on OMB's public web site on IT investment performance. Accordingly, the CMS and Health and Human Services chief information officers (CIO) are not involved in overseeing MMIS or E&E projects. Similarly, 21 of 47 states responding to GAO's survey reported that their state CIO had little or no involvement in overseeing their MMISs. Such non-involvement of officials with duties that should be heavily focused on successful acquisition and operation of IT projects could be hindering states' ability to effectively implement systems. To improve oversight, CMS has begun a new outcome-based initiative that focuses the agency's review of state funding requests on the successful achievement of business outcomes. However, as of February 2020, CMS had not yet established a timeline for including MMIS and E&E systems in the new outcome-based process. CMS had various initiatives aimed at reducing duplication of Medicaid systems (see table). Description and Status of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Initiatives Aimed at Reducing Duplication by Sharing, Leveraging, and Reusing Medicaid Information Technology Initiative Description Implementation status Number of surveyed states reporting use of the initiative Reuse Repository Used by states to collect and share reusable artifacts. Made available in August 2017. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. 25 of the 50 reporting states Poplin Project Was to provide free, open-source application program interfaces for states to use in developing their modular Medicaid systems. Initiative never fully implemented. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. Three of the 50 reporting states Open Source Provider Screening Module Open-source module for states to use at no charge. Made available in August 2018. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. One of the 50 states reported attempting to use the module. Medicaid Enterprise Cohort Meetings A forum where states can discuss sharing, leveraging, and/or reuse of Medicaid technologies. As of January 2020, Cohort meetings were being held on a monthly basis. 47 of the 50 states reported participating in the meetings. Source: GAO analysis of agency data. | GAO-20-179 However, as of January 2020, the agency was no longer supporting most of these initiatives because they failed to produce the desired results. CMS regulations and GAO's prior work have highlighted the importance of reducing duplication by sharing and reusing Medicaid IT. To illustrate the potential for reducing duplication, 53 percent of state Medicaid officials responding to our survey reported using the same contractor to develop their MMIS. Nevertheless, selected states are taking the initiative to share systems or modules. Further support by CMS could result in additional sharing initiatives and potential cost savings. The Medicaid program is the largest source of health care funding for America's most at-risk populations and is funded jointly by states and the federal government. GAO was asked to assess CMS's oversight of federal expenditures for MMIS and E&E systems used for Medicaid. This report examines (1) the amount of federal funds that CMS has provided to state Medicaid programs to support MMIS and E&E systems, (2) the extent to which CMS reviews and approves states' funding requests for the systems and oversees the use of these funds, and (3) CMS's and states' efforts to reduce potential duplication of Medicaid IT systems. GAO assessed information related to MMIS and E&E systems, such as state expenditure data, federal regulations, and CMS guidance to the states for submitting funding requests, states' system funding requests, and IT project management documents. GAO also evaluated a generalizable sample of approved state funding requests from fiscal years 2016 through 2018 to analyze, among other things, CMS's review and approval process and conducted interviews with agency and state Medicaid officials. GAO also reviewed relevant regulations and guidance on promoting, sharing, and reusing MMIS and E&E technologies; and surveyed 50 states and six territories (hereafter referred to as states) regarding the MMIS and E&E systems, and assessed the complete or partial responses received from 50 states. GAO is making nine recommendations to improve CMS's processes for approving and overseeing the federal funds for MMIS and E&E systems and for bolstering efforts to reduce potential duplication. Among these recommendations are that CMS should develop formal, documented procedures that include specific steps to be taken in the advanced planning document review process and instructions on how CMS will document the reviews; develop, in consultation with the HHS and CMS CIOs, a documented, comprehensive, and risk-based process for how CMS will select IT projects for technical assistance and provide recommendations to assist states that is aimed at improving the performance of the systems; encourage state Medicaid program officials to consider involving state CIOs in overseeing Medicaid IT projects; establish a timeline for implementing the outcome-based certification process for MMIS and E&E systems; and identify, prior to approving funding for systems, similar projects that other states are pursuing so that opportunities to share, leverage, or reuse systems or system modules are considered. In written comments on a draft of this report, the department concurred with eight of the nine recommendations, and described steps it had taken and/or planned to take to address them. The department did not state whether it concurred with GAO's recommendation to encourage state officials to consider involving state CIOs in Medicaid IT projects. HHS stated that it was unable to discern evidence as to whether a certain structure contributed to a specific outcome. GAO believes, consistent with federal law, that CIOs are critically important to the success of IT projects. For more information, contact Vijay D’Souza at (202) 512-6240 or dsouzav@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
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  • North Carolina Man Sentenced for COVID-19 Relief Fraud Schemes
    In Crime News
    A North Carolina man was sentenced today to 63 months in prison for perpetrating three fraud schemes between March and July 2020 connected to the COVID-19 pandemic, through which he defrauded consumers and the federal government’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program (EIDL), created to assist small business owners during the pandemic.
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    In Crime Control and Security News
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    In Travel
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  • Puerto Rico Legislator Indicted for Theft, Bribery, and Fraud
    In Crime News
    A federal grand jury in the District of Puerto Rico returned a 13-count indictment against legislator María Milagros Charbonier-Laureano (Charbonier), aka “Tata,” a member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, as well as her husband Orlando Montes-Rivera (Montes), their son Orlando Gabriel Montes-Charbonier, and her assistant Frances Acevedo-Ceballos (Acevedo), for their alleged participation in a years-long theft, bribery, and kickback conspiracy.
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