Secretary Antony J. Blinken at the International Women of Courage (IWOC) Awards Ceremony

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.

Dean Acheson Auditorium

MS FOTOVAT:  Good morning.  My name is Kat Fotovat, and I am the senior official for the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues here at the State Department.  It is my pleasure to welcome both our in-person and virtual audience to the 15th Annual Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Awards.

We are delighted to join you today on International Women’s Day.  Since 2007, the U.S. has marked this day by recognizing women who have exemplified exceptional courage and leadership, advocating for human rights, women’s equality, and social progress, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families.

Our office is responsible for ensuring that gender equality and women’s empowerment are integrated throughout the work of the State Department, both here in Washington and at our embassies and consulates overseas.  We aim to ensure that women’s issues are at the forefront of our foreign policy in every corner of the world by raising gender equality and conversations with other governments, and listening to, learning from, and working with civil society activists to promote more fair and just societies.

The International Women of Courage Award is a critical component of our work, and an event we look forward to every year.  The award selection process is extremely competitive, and our awardees should be very proud of this recognition.  Each year this ceremony draws greater interest and enthusiasm, and we want to build on this momentum moving forward, in collaboration with all of you watching the ceremony today within the United States and all over the world.

This event is also an opportunity for the United States to reaffirm its commitment to the advancement of gender equality and women’s empowerment, and to recognize the unique contributions of women, and especially today’s honorees.

To this year’s awardees, thank you so much for the work that you do to speak up for the voiceless, to protect the vulnerable, and to push governments to do a better job for their citizens.  We recognize the risks that you are taking and celebrate your courage to persist.  We hope that this recognition will help further advance your causes in your respective countries, and on the international stage.  We are so inspired by all of your stories, and while we recognize the challenges to the advancement of women’s empowerment continue to persist, we also celebrate the enormous progress that has been made over the last few decades due to the efforts of women like our awardees.

Now it is my great and distinct honor to welcome to the stage the First Lady of the United States, Dr. Jill Biden, and the Secretary of State of the United States, Antony Blinken.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good morning.  Good morning, everyone, and welcome to today’s celebration.

We have a few special guests today, because this is an event that always brings people together.

And our most special guest is our wonderful First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden – a dear friend, a fierce champion for women and girls here at home and around the world.  Welcome.  (Applause.)

I’m also particularly pleased to welcome our new Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who is already doing an outstanding job representing America’s interests and values to the world.  (Applause.)

And another good friend of many years, Ambassador Cathy Russell, now helping shape our workforce as director of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, but who did amazing work here at the State Department as the head of the Office for Global Women’s Issues under President Obama.  Cathy, great to have you.  (Applause.)

Kat Fotovat, who is carrying forward that critical work today.  We deeply appreciate it.

Acting Assistant Secretary Matt Lussenhop from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which played a major role in making this award ceremony possible.

And from the First Lady’s office, Ambassador Julissa Reynoso, now the First Lady’s chief of staff, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mala Adiga, now the First Lady’s policy director.  (Applause.)

It is – it’s particularly wonderful to see State Department alumni serving in Dr. Biden’s office, and it’s another reminder of how our work at home and around the world is entwined.

Of course, our most important guests today are our honorees, the 2021 Women of Courage.  We wish they could join us in person today.  But even via video, it’s still a pleasure and an honor to celebrate these extraordinary women.

For 15 years, the State Department has given the International Women of Courage award to women around the world who have shown exceptional strength and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, and gender equality – often at great risk to themselves.

The women we honor today have endured violence, death threats, imprisonment, and police harassment because of their work.  Some have fled their homes.  Some have fled their countries.  They deserve our support and recognition.  And they remind us of something we must never forget – that it is often women who lead the charge for human rights, democracy, and justice, including in places where women hold much less than half of the political, economic, and social power.  And it’s often women and girls who are the most vulnerable to human rights abuses.

That’s why the equal rights and dignity of women and girls is a foreign policy priority for the United States.  When we design our foreign policy with the rights and needs of women and girls in mind, our policy is more effective, more humane, and more likely to make a lasting difference in people’s lives.  And when we support women, we can help foster change on a much broader scale.  Because it’s often women doing the hard work to make that change happen.

That’s certainly the case with today’s honorees.

And so without further ado, here are this year’s Women of Courage.

First, Maria Kalesnikava is a democracy activist in Belarus.  Ahead of last year’s presidential election, she mobilized women across the country to protest the rule of Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator.  She is absent from the screen today, because she is sitting in a Belarussian prison.  The United States will continue to call for her unconditional release, and for the release of all political prisoners in Belarus.

Maximilienne Ngo Mbe is a human rights activist in Cameroon.  She’s worked to bring an end to years of violence between the government and separatists and to hold security forces to account for abuses against civilians.

Wang Yu is one of the most prominent human rights lawyers in China.  She has represented cases involving abused children, ethnic minorities, women, and religious adherents, and her work has brought government pressure on her through today.  We have not been in regular communication over the past two days.  We’re concerned because we know that she wanted to attend today’s ceremony.  We’ll be following up and, if necessary, speaking out on her case.

Mayerlis Angarita has been instrumental in the implementation of the peace accord in Colombia.  Her relentless engagement has brought government and civil society groups together to stop violence and narco-trafficking.

Julienne Lusenge has led the fight against sexual and gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for more than 40 years, founding the country’s leading NGO and helping achieve international agreements against sexual violence in war.

Erika Aifan is a trial judge in Guatemala’s High Risk Criminal Court.  She regularly faces threats and harassment as she presides over high-profile corruption and war atrocity cases.

Shohreh Bayat is a referee of international chess tournaments and she was photographed at a competition in China last year without her hijab visible.  There was an outcry in her home country of Iran.  She sought refuge in the United Kingdom.  And now she is a leading voice for women’s rights in Iran.

Phyoe Phyoe Aung led the movement in Burma to preserve the independence of universities and protect the teaching of ethnic minority languages.  Her NGO builds ties among young people across ethnic and religious groups.

Muskan Khatun is a 16-year-old from Nepal who survived an acid attack after rejecting a boy’s advances.  Thanks to her courageous activism, there are now stronger penalties for acid attacks and regulations on the sale of acids in Nepal.

Zahra Mohamed Ahmed is a lawyer in Somalia who fights for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, internally displaced people, and refugees returning home – some of the most vulnerable people in one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Ranitha Gnanarajah is a lawyer who defends minority Muslim and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka, fights for justice for victims of enforced disappearances and prisoners detained for years without charge.

Sister Alicia Vacas Moro is member of the missionary group the Comboni Sisters.  She ran a medical clinic in Egypt, served a Bedouin community outside Jerusalem, and now coordinates 40 nuns across the Middle East helping trafficking victims, refugees, and asylum seekers.

Canan Gullu is a woman’s rights activist and president of the Turkish Federation of Women’s Associations.  Last year, she successfully organized against Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty against domestic violence.

Ana Rosario Contreras is the president of the Caracas Nurses’ Association in Venezuela.  A prominent labor activist, she organizes nationwide protests and strikes for healthcare workers.

We are also posthumously honoring a group of courageous women from Afghanistan who paid the ultimate sacrifice while working toward a better future for their country.

Fatema Khalil, an official with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, was killed by an IED on her way to her office.

Maryam Noorzad was a midwife in a hospital in Kabul.  When three gunmen attacked the maternity ward, she refused to leave her patient, and was killed along with the patient and newborn.

Freshta, daughter of Amir Mohamed, was a prison guard murdered by an unknown gunman while walking to a taxi on her way to work.

Fatima Rajabi was an anti-narcotics police officer captured and killed by the Taliban.

Malalai Maiwand was a reporter murdered by unknown gunmen in Jalalabad – part of a troubling increase in violence against journalists in Afghanistan.

General Sharmila Frough, the head of the gender unit in the National Directorate of Security.  She was assassinated in an IED explosion targeting her vehicle.

And Freshta Kohistani was a popular blogger and women’s rights and democracy activist killed by unknown gunmen near her home in Kapisa Province.

They represent women and girls across Afghanistan who continue to press on in defense of their hard-won gains, and in the face of high rates of violence against Afghan women.

Finally, I want to mention a woman we honored in 2012, Samar Badawi of Saudi Arabia, who fought a long battle for legal freedom from her father and became a prominent advocate for women’s voting rights.  She has been imprisoned since 2018, along with other women’s rights activists, and we join other nations in calling for their release.

My deepest thanks to all of this year’s International Women of Courage.  You are making our world more just, stable, peaceful, and free.  The United States is proud to be in your corner.  There is no better way to mark International Women’s Day than by celebrating you.

And now, it is my pleasure to introduce our First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden.  (Applause.)

(The First Lady gives remarks.)

AMBASSADOR RUSSELL:  Thank you.  Thank you, everyone.  It’s great to be back.  Dr. Biden, it’s hard to follow you.  I’ve been following you my whole career, so it’s only appropriate that I do it today as well.  Secretary Blinken, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, always wonderful to be with you.  And my former colleagues here at the State Department, it’s really wonderful to be back here.  I love being at the State Department and I’m really delighted to see you all today.

I’ve always loved this event, and so did the colleagues across the building.  Every seat was always filled, and even the gruffest Foreign Service officers came away moved by the stories that they heard here.  We all felt so grateful to be in the presence of such amazing women.  This is an event and an award well-named because the women we’re honoring today and the women who have been honored these past 15 years have shown courage in all its forms.  They’re young and old, they’re lawyers, nurses, human rights advocates, and even nuns.  They’re warriors for justice and advocates for accountability, and every day they make – they’ve worked so hard to make the lives of those around them fairer, safer, and more just.

In the last year, we here in the United States have seen many faces of courage in our own country: nurses, doctors, and countless frontline workers.  We’ve learned first-hand that courage isn’t acting without fear but acting despite it.  Each of our awardees today has summoned courage, many in situations hard for us here to imagine.  Several of them have lost their lives in those efforts.  It’s only right that we honor them here today, but it’s not enough.  All of us have to carry on the struggle for women’s rights here and around the world.  The awardees here today remind us how much that struggle means.

And it’s now my great pleasure to introduce video messages from the chiefs of mission representing the embassies that nominated this year’s awardees.

(Video messages are played.)

AMBASSADOR CURRIE:  You are all truly inspiring, and it is a privilege to be with you today to celebrate your leadership, your bravery, and your dedication.  Each of you has done so much to improve the lives of your communities, your countries, and the world around you.  Every year, I am in awe of the amazing women who are nominated and selected for this award.  As we mark the 15th anniversary, I’m so honored to be part of the IWOC sisterhood.  From a small seed of an idea in 2007 to the globe-spanning network of nearly 200 women who have received this honor to date, these awards have been transformative for everyone involved.  Our shared commitment to using platforms such as IWOC to promote women’s empowerment represents the best aspirations and highest ideals of American leadership in foreign policy.  Congratulations to the Office of Global Women’s Issues and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs for continuing to take this program to new heights year after year, and again, congratulations to all of the amazing recipients this year and in years past.  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER:  I’m delighted to be able to bring greetings on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the International Women of Courage Awards, and I want to reach out and extend my congratulations to this year’s awardees, all 15 of you, on this very special occasion.  I have been privileged as ambassador for women in the four years that I was at the State Department to be able to participate in the awards ceremony, and most especially to get to know the awardees individually – women like you who are on the front lines of change all over the world, doing absolutely remarkable things, often at great risk to them and to their families; so many women, so many like you, who are doing that hard work around the world.  And we all benefit greatly from what you do, because you are working each and every day in your communities, in your countries, and for our world to make it a better place.  So I congratulate each and every one of you and I want to say happy anniversary to the International Women of Courage Award.

MODERATOR:  Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the representative of the United States of America to the United Nations, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.  (Applause.)

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Good morning.  I’m so inspired by what I just heard, the descriptions of all of these wonderful women.  I’m almost speechless.  I don’t know that there’s anything more to say other than thank you.  Please, thank you, Secretary Blinken, for inviting me today and honoring all of us here to come to the State Department and hosting this extraordinary event.  And I’m especially thankful to Dr. Biden for joining us here and honoring us with your presence.

I’m in awe of the heroines we are celebrating today.  Seeing your bravery, hearing about your strength, it’s beyond inspiring.  You have organized mass protests and protected vital human rights, and you stood up to autocrats and authoritarians who, I might add, seem to be mostly men.  Sorry, Tony.

Perhaps most important of all, you have shared your stories with the world, often at great personal risk to your lives.  That is a tremendous service because your courage is contagious.  I have no doubt that each of you has inspired other women to organize, demand equity, break down barriers to a stronger, more secure, and more peaceful world.  I know this is true because women like you, on the front lines of humanitarian work, peace-building, and equal rights advocacy across the globe, have inspired me throughout my career.

You are why I made peace and security a focal point of our work at the United Nations this week.  On my very first day as ambassador, I met with women working on the ground in Yemen to address one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.  The WHO estimates that 2 million children under the age of five are at risk of starvation and acute malnutrition as a result of years of conflict.  Women are on the front lines of this urgent humanitarian crisis and so many conflicts around the world, and that’s why during my presidency of the UN Security Council this month, I’m bringing the voices of women experts into our council meetings wherever possible to ensure that women’s voices are valued and are heard at the United Nations.

After all, women make the world more peaceful.  That is not just anecdotal, it’s a fact.  I lived and worked in Liberia for four years and I saw the amazing work that women were able to do there to bring peace.  And by promoting women’s participation and leadership in politics, in mediation, and in negotiations, we promote more security and more peace.

Yet, women continue to face enormous barriers to representation and leadership, particularly the threat of violence.  The seven Afghan women we honor today are a devastating testament to the violence perpetrated against women across the globe simply for speaking up and contributing to a stronger, safer world.

The violence is meant to silence, and we cannot allow that to happen.  We must address it head on.  We must ensure that their voices continue to be heard.  And that’s why it’s so important that today and every day we continue to spotlight their work.  We must continue to show the world how much it means when you insist on your presence or persist for equity and for justice.

In closing, I want to thank you for your bravery.  I want to thank you for your resolve.  I want to thank you for your resistance and your resilience, and for all that each of you are doing each and every day to make the world more equal and more peaceful and a place that we can leave to our children.

Congratulations to all of you and thank you for your service.  (Applause.)

MODERATOR:  Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs Matthew Lussenhop.  (Applause.)

MR LUSSENHOP:  Thank you.  Greetings and happy International Women’s Day.  Thanks for joining us from across the world.  My name’s Matt Lussenhop and I’m the acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, known as ECA.  To First Lady Dr. Biden, Secretary Blinken, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Ambassador Russell, and the Office of Global Women’s Issues, thanks for your leadership and your support of these incredible International Women of Courage.

For 15 years, our tradition is that each year’s group of International Women of Courage not only receive this prestigious award from the Secretary and the First Lady, they also participate in an ECA exchange called the International Visitor Leadership Program, or IVLP for short.  In a typical year, the IVLP brings over 5,000 current and emerging leaders to the United States, joining a group of over 225,000 alumni since the program began more than 80 years ago.  And the IVLP is as important today as ever to connect American and foreign participants, and we’re proud to have pivoted to a virtual model during this pandemic.

The International Women of Courage will soon join their IVLP virtual programs meeting with American counterparts to share knowledge on global health, civic engagement, and the protection of human rights.  This program is not only beneficial to our international visitors, but it also enriches our local American communities who host them and helps build global networks of activists and organizers.

So to the awardees, as you prepare for your virtual exchange, please know the American people share your vision of positive change, and we support your continued efforts.  Please, stay in contact with the Americans from your programs that you meet, and I’m looking forward to hearing about the impact that you will have on U.S. communities that you meet.

Thank you to all who joined from around the world for this celebration of the 2021 International Women of Courage.  We extend our heartfelt congratulations to all of the awardees, and our best wishes as they continue on their virtual journeys across America.

And now, to conclude today’s ceremony, let’s see our wonderful International Women of Courage 2021 awardees one more time.  Thank you.

More from: Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

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    The Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services (HHS) announced today that they reached a landmark agreement with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF).  
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  • Introductory Remarks of Deputy Attorney General at Announcement of Civil Antitrust Lawsuit Filed Against Google
    In Crime News
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  • Pain Clinic Medical Providers Sentenced for Their Roles in Operating Pill Mills in Tennessee
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  • Operation Legend: Case of the Day
    In Crime News
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  • Veteran Suicide: VA Needs Accurate Data and Comprehensive Analyses to Better Understand On-Campus Suicides
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) process for identifying on-campus suicides does not include a step for ensuring the accuracy of the number of suicides identified. As a result, its numbers are inaccurate. VA's Veterans Health Administration (VHA) first started tracking on-campus veteran suicides in October 2017, and uses the results to inform VA leadership and Congress. GAO reviewed the data and found errors in the 55 on-campus veteran suicides VHA identified for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, including 10 overcounts (deaths that should not have been reported but were) and four undercounts (deaths that should have been reported but were not).   Examples of Errors on the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) List of 55 On-Campus Veteran Suicides for Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019 (as of September 2019) VA has taken some steps to address on-campus veteran suicides, such as issuing guidance and staff training. However, GAO found that the analyses informing these efforts are limited. Specifically, VHA requires root cause analyses—processes to determine what can be done to prevent recurrences of incidents—for some but not all on-campus veteran suicides. According to VHA officials, only 25 percent of on-campus suicides from October 2017 to April 2019 met the criteria for a root cause analysis. does not make use of all relevant information VA collects about these deaths, such as clinical and demographic data collected through other VA suicide prevention efforts. VHA officials said they could not link the different sources of information, but GAO found that selected medical facilities could do so. Without accurate information on the number of suicides and comprehensive analyses of the underlying causes, VA does not have a full understanding of the prevalence and nature of on-campus suicides, hindering its ability to address them. VA established suicide prevention as its highest clinical priority. In recent years, there have been reports of veterans dying by suicide on VA campuses—in locations such as inpatient settings, parking lots, and on the grounds of cemeteries. GAO was asked to review veteran deaths by suicide on VA campuses. This report examines (1) VA's process to track the number of veterans that died by suicide on VA campuses, and (2) steps VA has taken to address these types of suicides. GAO reviewed the sources of information VHA uses to identify and analyze on-campus veteran suicides, VA and VHA strategic plans and policies related to suicide prevention and reporting, and federal internal control standards. GAO also interviewed VA and VHA central office officials, and officials from three medical facilities that GAO selected because they reportedly had on-campus veteran suicides between fiscal years 2018 and 2019. GAO is making three recommendations, including that VA improve its process to accurately identify all on-campus veteran suicides and conduct more comprehensive analyses of these occurrences. VA did not concur with one of GAO's recommendations related to conducting root cause analyses. GAO continues to believe that this recommendation is valid, as discussed in the report. For more information, contact Debra A. Draper at (202) 512-7114 or draperd@gao.gov.
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  • COVID-19: Critical Vaccine Distribution, Supply Chain, Program Integrity, and Other Challenges Require Focused Federal Attention
    In U.S GAO News
    Since November 2020, the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has rapidly increased, further straining health care systems across the country. Between December 31, 2020, and January 13, 2021, new reported COVID-19 cases averaged about 225,000 per day—over 7 and 3 times higher than the surges the nation experienced during the spring and summer of 2020, respectively. (See figure.) The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions and turmoil as a result of the pandemic. As of December 2020, there were more than 10.7 million unemployed individuals, compared to nearly 5.8 million individuals at the beginning of the calendar year. Until the country better contains the spread of the virus, the pandemic will likely remain a significant obstacle to more robust economic activity. Reported COVID-19 Cases per Day in the U.S., Through January 13, 2021 As of January 2021, 27 of GAO’s 31 previous recommendations remained unimplemented. GAO remains deeply troubled that agencies have not acted on recommendations to more fully address critical gaps in the medical supply chain. While GAO recognizes federal agencies continue to take some steps, GAO underscores the importance of developing a well-formulated plan to address critical gaps for the remainder of the pandemic, especially in light of the recent surge in cases. In addition, implementation of GAO’s recommendation concerning the importance of clear and comprehensive vaccine distribution and communication plans remains a work in progress. Moreover, slow implementation of GAO’s recommendations relating to program integrity, in particular those made to the Small Business Administration (SBA) and Department of Labor (DOL), creates risk of considerable improper payments, including those related to fraud, and falls far short of transparency and accountability expectations. See appendix III for the status of GAO’s past recommendations. GAO is pleased that the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021—enacted in December of 2020—requires a number of actions that are consistent with several of GAO’s prior recommendations, including those related to the medical supply chain, vaccines and therapeutics, and COVID-19 testing. GAO will monitor the implementation of the act’s requirements. GAO’s new recommendations are discussed below. COVID-19 Testing Diagnostic testing for COVID-19 is critical to controlling the spread of the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. GAO found that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has not issued a comprehensive and publicly available national testing strategy. HHS’s national strategy documents are not comprehensive because they only partially address the characteristics that GAO has found to be desirable in an effective national strategy. For example, testing strategy documents do not always provide consistent definitions and benchmarks to measure progress, not all documents clearly define the problem and risks, and there is limited information on the types of resources required for future needs. Furthermore, some of the documents have not been made public. While the national testing strategy is formally outlined in a publicly available document, HHS has provided only Congress with the COVID-19 Testing Strategy Reports, which detail the implementation of the testing strategy. Stakeholders who are involved in the response efforts told GAO they were unaware of the existence of a national strategy or did not have a clear understanding of the strategy. Without a comprehensive, publicly available national strategy, HHS is at risk of key stakeholders and the public lacking crucial information to support an informed and coordinated testing response. GAO is recommending that HHS develop and make publicly available a comprehensive national COVID-19 testing strategy that incorporates all six characteristics of an effective national strategy. Such a strategy could build upon existing strategy documents that HHS has produced for the public and Congress to allow for a more coordinated pandemic testing approach. HHS partially concurred with this recommendation and agreed that it should take steps to more directly incorporate some of the elements of an effective national strategy. Vaccines and Therapeutics Multiple federal agencies, through Operation Warp Speed, continue to support the development and manufacturing of vaccines and therapeutics to prevent and treat COVID-19. As of January 8, 2021, two of the six vaccines supported by Operation Warp Speed have been authorized for emergency use, and vaccine distribution and administration have begun. (See figure below). However, distribution and administration fell short of expectations set for the end of the year. As of December 30, 2020, Operation Warp Speed had distributed (shipped) about 12.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and providers reported administering about 2.8 million initial doses, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. In September 2020, GAO stressed the importance of having a plan that focused on coordination and communication and recommended that HHS, with the support of the Department of Defense, establish a time frame for documenting and sharing a national plan for distributing and administering COVID-19 vaccine, and among other things, outline an approach for how efforts would be coordinated across federal agencies and nonfederal entities.To date, this recommendationhas not been fully implemented. GAO reiterates the importance of doing so. Effective coordination and communication among federal agencies, commercial partners, jurisdictions, and providers is critical to successfully deploying COVID-19 vaccines and managing public expectations, especially because the initial supply of vaccine has been limited. Status of Development of Six Operation Warp Speed COVID-19 Vaccine Candidates, as of January 8, 2021 Medical Supply Chain The pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities in the nation’s medical supply chain, which includes personal protective equipment and other supplies necessary to treat individuals with COVID-19. The Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) is an important piece of HHS’s recently developed strategy to improve the medical supply chain to enhance pandemic response capabilities. However, the department has yet to develop a process for engaging about the strategy with key nonfederal stakeholders that have a shared role for providing supplies during a pandemic, such as state and territorial governments and the private sector. GAO’s work has noted the importance of directly and continuously involving key stakeholders, including Congress, in the development of successful agency reforms and helping to harness ideas, expertise, and resources. To improve the nation’s response and preparedness for pandemics, GAO recommends that HHS establish a process for regularly engaging with Congress and nonfederal stakeholders—including state, local, tribal, and territorial governments and private industry—as the agency refines and implements its supply chain strategy for pandemic preparedness, to include the role of the SNS. HHS generally concurred with this recommendation and noted that the department regularly engages with Congress and nonfederal stakeholders. GAO maintains that capitalizing on existing relationships to engage these critical stakeholders as HHS refines and implements a supply chain strategy, to include the role of the SNS, will improve a whole-of-government response to, and preparedness for, pandemics. In August 2020, the President issued an Executive Order directing agencies to take steps toward the goal of strengthening domestic drug manufacturing and supply chains. Federal agencies have started implementing the Executive Order, but expressed concerns about their ability to implement some of the provisions. In particular, GAO found that federal agencies do not have complete and accessible information to identify supply chain vulnerabilities and to report the manufacturing supply chains of drugs that were procured by the agency. To help it identify and mitigate vulnerabilities in the U.S. drug supply chain, GAO recommends that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensure drug manufacturing data obtained are complete and accessible, including by working with manufacturers and other federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs and, if necessary, seek authority to obtain complete and accessible information. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. COVID-19 Data for Health Care Indicators The federal government does not have a process to help systematically define and ensure the collection of standardized data across the relevant federal agencies and related stakeholders to help respond to COVID-19, communicate the status of the pandemic with citizens, or prepare for future pandemics. As a result, COVID-19 information that is collected and reported by states and other entities to the federal government is often incomplete and inconsistent. The lack of complete and consistent data limits HHS’s and others’ ability to monitor trends in the burden of the pandemic across states and regions, make informed comparisons between such areas, and assess the impact of public health actions to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Further, incomplete and inconsistent data have limited HHS’s and others’ ability to prioritize the allocation of health resources in specific geographic areas or among certain populations most affected by the pandemic. To improve the federal government’s response to COVID-19 and preparedness for future pandemics, GAO recommends that HHS immediately establish an expert committee comprised of knowledgeable health care professionals from the public and private sectors, academia, and nonprofits or use an existing one to systematically review and inform the alignment of ongoing data collection and reporting standards for key health indicators. HHS partially concurred with this recommendation and agreed that it should establish a dedicated working group or other mechanism with a focus on addressing COVID-19 data collection shortcomings. Drug Manufacturing Inspections FDA is responsible for overseeing the safety and effectiveness of all drugs marketed in the U.S., including those manufactured overseas, and typically conducts more than 1,600 inspections of foreign and domestic drug manufacturing establishments every year. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, since March 2020, FDA has limited domestic and foreign inspections for the safety of its employees. (See figure below.) FDA has used alternative inspection tools to maintain some oversight of drug manufacturing quality while inspections are paused, including inspections conducted by foreign regulators, requesting and reviewing records and other information, and sampling and testing. Although FDA has determined that inspections conducted by certain European regulators are equivalent to an FDA inspection, other tools provide useful information but are not equivalent to an FDA inspection. As a result, FDA could be faced with a backlog of inspections, threatening the agency’s goal to maximize inspections prioritized by its risk-based site selection model each year. GAO recommends that FDA (1) ensure that inspection plans for future fiscal years identify, analyze, and respond to the issues presented by the backlog of inspections that could jeopardize its goal of risk-driven inspections, and (2) fully assess the agency’s alternative inspection tools and consider whether these tools or others could provide the information needed to supplement regular inspection activities or help meet the agency’s drug oversight objectives when inspections are not possible in the future. FDA concurred with both recommendations. Number of FDA-Conducted Domestic and Foreign Drug Manufacturing Establishment Inspections, Fiscal Years 2019–2020, by Month Federal Contracting Federal agencies are using other transaction agreements to respond to the pandemic, which are contracting mechanisms that can enable agencies to negotiate terms and conditions specific to a project. GAO found that HHS misreports its other transaction agreements related to COVID-19 as procurement contracts, including other transaction agreements with about $1.5 billion obligated for Operation Warp Speed and other medical countermeasures. HHS’s approach is inconsistent with federal acquisition regulations and limits the public’s insight into the agency’s contract spending. To ensure consistent tracking and transparency of federal contracting activity related to the pandemic, GAO recommends that HHS accurately report data in the federal procurement database system and provide information that would allow the public to distinguish between spending on other transaction agreements and procurement contracts. HHS concurred with this recommendation. Oversight of Worker Safety and Health GAO identified concerns about federal oversight of worker safety and health amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has adapted its enforcement methods for COVID-19 to help protect agency employees from the virus and address resource constraints, such as by permitting remote inspections in place of on-site inspections of workplaces. However, gaps in OSHA’s oversight and tracking of its adapted enforcement methods prevent the agency from assessing the effectiveness of its enforcement methods during the pandemic, ensuring that its adapted enforcement methods do not miss violations, and ensuring that employers are addressing certain identified violations. To improve its oversight, GAO recommends that OSHA (1) develop a plan, with time frames, to implement the agency’s oversight processes for COVID-19-adapted enforcement methods, and (2) ensure that its data system includes comprehensive information on use of these enforcement methods to inform these processes. The agency neither agreed nor disagreed with these recommendations. Additionally, OSHA’s data do not include comprehensive information on workplace exposure to COVID-19. For example, OSHA does not receive employer reports of all work-related hospitalizations related to COVID-19, as disease symptoms do not appear within the required reporting time frames. Employers may also face challenges determining whether COVID-19 hospitalizations or fatalities are work-related because of COVID-19’s incubation period and the difficulties in tracking the source of exposure. GAO recommends that OSHA determine what additional datamay be neededfrom employers or other sources to better target the agency’s COVID-19 enforcement efforts. The agency neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. Assistance for Fishery Participants The CARES Act appropriated $300 million in March 2020 to the Department of Commerce (Commerce) to assist eligible tribal, subsistence, commercial, and charter fishery participants affected by COVID-19, which may include direct relief payments. After administrative fees were assessed, $298 million of the $300 million appropriated was obligated for fishery participants.Widespread restaurant closures in the spring of 2020 led to a decrease in demand for seafood, adversely affecting the fisheries industry. As of December 4, 2020, all funds had been obligated and only about 18 percent ($53.9 million) of the CARES Act funding obligated for fishery participants had been disbursed, which is inconsistent with Office of Management and Budget guidance on the importance of agencies distributing CARES Act funds in an expedient manner. Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials said they expect that the vast majority of funds will be disbursed to fisheries participants by early 2021. However, the agency does not have the needed information centralized to help ensure that funds are being disbursed expeditiously and efficiently. GAO recommends that NOAA develop a mechanism to track the progress of states, tribes, and territories in meeting established timelines to disburse funds in an expedited and efficient manner. NOAA concurred with this recommendation. Program Integrity GAO continues to identify areas to improve program integrity and reduce the risk of improper payments for programs funded by the COVID-19 relief laws now that federal agencies have obligated a total of $1.9 trillion and expended $1.7 trillion of the $2.7 trillion appropriated for response and recovery efforts as of November 30, 2020. Federal relief programs remain vulnerable to significant risk of fraudulent activities because of the need to quickly provide funds and other assistance to those affected by COVID-19 and its economic effects. In this report, GAO identifies concerns about overpayments and potential fraud in the unemployment insurance (UI) system, specifically in the federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which provides UI benefits to individuals not otherwise eligible for these benefits, such as self-employed and certain gig economy workers. As of January 11, 2021, states that had submitted data to DOL reported more than $1.1 billion in PUA overpayments from March through December 2020. While DOL requires states to report data on PUA overpayments, as of the beginning of 2021, the agency was not tracking the amount of overpayments recovered, limiting insight into the effectiveness of states’ efforts to recoup federal funds. To better track the recovery of federal funds, GAO recommends that DOL collect data from states on the amount of PUA overpayments recovered. DOL concurred with this recommendation, and has taken the first step toward implementing it by issuing new guidance and updated instructions for states to report PUA overpayment recovery data. GAO also remains concerned about SBA’s management of internal controls and fraud risks in the Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) program. COVID-19 relief laws made qualifying small businesses and nonprofit organizations adversely affected by COVID-19 eligible for financial assistance from the EIDL program. Some approval requirements were also relaxed, such as requiring each applicant to demonstrate that it could not obtain credit elsewhere, through December 31, 2021. As of December 31, 2020, SBA officials said they had approved about 3.7 million applications for loans related to COVID-19, totaling about $200 billion. SBA rapidly processed loans and advances to millions of small businesses affected by COVID-19. GAO’s analysis of SBA data shows that the agency approved EIDL loans and advances for potentially ineligible businesses. For example, SBA approved at least 3,000 loans totaling about $156 million to potentially ineligible businesses in industries that SBA policies state were ineligible for the EIDL program, such as insurance and real estate development, as of September 30, 2020. GAO recommends that SBA develop and implement portfolio-level data analytics across EIDL loans and advances made in response to COVID-19 as a means to detect potentially ineligible and fraudulent applications. SBA neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. As of January 15, 2021, the U.S. had about 23 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and more than 387,000 reported deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 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 November 30, 2020, of the $2.7 trillion appropriated by these four laws, the federal government had obligated a total of $1.9 trillion and expended $1.7 trillion of the COVID-19 relief funds, as reported by federal agencies. In December 2020, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, provided additional federal assistance for the ongoing response and recovery. The CARES Act includes 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 and stakeholders. GAO completed its audit work on January 15, 2021. GAO is making 13 new recommendations for agencies that are detailed in this Highlights and in the report. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202) 512-7114 or clowersa@gao.gov.
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  • Department of Justice Announces Joint Final Rule Regarding Equal Treatment of Faith-Based Organizations in Department-Supported Social Service Programs
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  • Littoral Combat Ship: Unplanned Work on Maintenance Contracts Creates Schedule Risk as Ships Begin Operations
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is a class of small surface ships with two unique design variants. Both LCS variants carry smaller crews and rely more on contractors for maintenance than any other Navy ship. While this strategy was intended to reduce operating costs, it contributes to challenges in the Navy's strategy for contracted maintenance. Specifically: Contractor travel. U.S. law states that foreign contractors generally cannot conduct certain types of LCS maintenance. This results in the Navy paying for contractors to regularly travel overseas to perform routine maintenance. GAO's sample of 18 delivery orders showed estimated travel costs for the orders reviewed ranged from a few thousand dollars to over $1 million. Heavy reliance on original equipment manufacturers. LCS includes numerous commercial-based systems that are not used on other Navy ships. However, the Navy lacks sufficient manufacturer technical data to maintain many of these systems. This can lead to longer maintenance periods due to extra coordination needed for the manufacturers to assist with or complete the work. Although the Navy is establishing teams of its personnel to take on routine maintenance, contractors will continue performing some of this work. Littoral Combat Ship Variants under Maintenance The Navy is beginning to implement contracting approaches for LCS maintenance in order to help mitigate schedule risk, while taking steps to avoid it in the future. GAO found in the 18 LCS maintenance delivery orders it reviewed that the Navy had to contract for more repair work than originally planned, increasing the risk to completing LCS maintenance on schedule. A majority of this unplanned work occurred because the Navy did not fully understand the ship's condition before starting maintenance. The Navy has begun taking steps to systematically collect and analyze maintenance data to determine the causes of unplanned work, which could help it more accurately plan for maintenance. The Navy has also recently begun applying some contracting approaches to more quickly incorporate unplanned work and mitigate the schedule risk, such as (1) setting a price for low-dollar value unplanned work to save negotiation time and (2) procuring some materials directly instead of waiting for contractors to do so. Such measures will be important to control cost and schedule risks as additional LCS enter the fleet in the coming years. Why GAO Did This Study The Navy plans to spend approximately $61 billion to operate and maintain LCS, a class of small surface ships equipped with interchangeable sensors and weapons. With limited operations to date, these ships have entered the Navy's maintenance cycle. Since 2005, GAO has reported extensively on LCS issues, including ships delivered late and with increased costs and less capability than planned. The Navy also encountered problems as LCS entered the fleet, including higher than expected costs for contractor maintenance and numerous mechanical failures. In 2020, GAO reported that major maintenance on other surface ships using the same contracting approach as LCS was 64 days late, on average. The Navy acknowledges the importance of reducing maintenance delays in order to improve the readiness of its surface fleet. A House Report included a provision for GAO to review long-term contracting strategies and challenges for LCS repair and maintenance. This report (1) describes the effect of the LCS program's acquisition and sustainment strategies on its contracted maintenance and (2) assesses the extent to which the Navy is using contracting approaches to address any cost and schedule risks in maintaining LCS. To conduct this assessment, GAO reviewed relevant Navy documentation, including a sample of 18 delivery orders for LCS maintenance from fiscal year 2018 through April 2020 selected to cover each availability type and each LCS variant. GAO also interviewed Navy officials and contractor representatives. For more information, contact Shelby S. Oakley at (202) 512-4841 or OakleyS@gao.gov.
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  • K-12 Education: U.S. Military Families Generally Have the Same Schooling Options as Other Families and Consider Multiple Factors When Selecting Schools
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Traditional public schools were the most commonly available schooling option for military families near military installations, similar to schools available to U.S. families in general, according to GAO's analysis of Department of Education 2018-19 data. Over 90 percent of installations had at least one public schooling option nearby—such as a charter or magnet school—in addition to traditional public schools (see figure). Similar to U.S. schools in general, rural installations generally had fewer schooling options compared to their more highly populated urban counterparts. In addition, about one-half of the military installations GAO analyzed are in states that offer private school choice programs that provide eligible students with funding toward a non-public education. At least two of these states have private school choice programs specifically for military families. Public School Options within Average Commuting Distance of Military Installations, School Year 2018-19 Note: According to GAO's analysis of the Department of Transportation's 2017 National Household Travel Survey, the average commuting distance for rural and urban areas is 20 miles and 16 miles, respectively. For the purposes of this report, the term “military installations” refers to the 890 DOD installations and Coast Guard units included in GAO's analysis. Military families in GAO's review commonly reported considering housing options and school features when choosing schools for their children; however, they weighed these factors differently to meet their families' specific needs. For example, one reason parents said that they accepted a longer commute was to live in their preferred school district, while other parents said that they prioritized a shorter commute and increased family time over access to specific schools. Military families also reported considering academics, perceived safety, elective courses, and extracurricular activities. To inform their schooling decisions, most parents said that they rely heavily on their personal networks and social media. Why GAO Did This Study Approximately 650,000 military dependent children in the U.S. face various challenges that may affect their schooling, according to DOD. For example, these children transfer schools up to nine times, on average, before high school graduation. Military families frequently cite education issues for their children as a drawback to military service, according to DOD. GAO was asked to examine the schooling options available to school-age dependents of active-duty servicemembers. This report describes (1) available schooling options for school-age military dependent children in the U.S.; and (2) military families' views on factors they consider and resources they use when making schooling decisions. GAO analyzed data on federal education, military installation locations, and commuting patterns to examine schooling options near military installations. GAO also conducted six discussion groups with a total of 40 parents of school-age military dependent children; and interviewed officials at nine military installations that were selected to reflect a range of factors such as availability of different types of schooling options, rural or urban designation, and geographic region. In addition, GAO reviewed relevant federal laws and guidance, and interviewed officials from DOD, the Coast Guard, and representatives of national advocacy groups for military children. For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.
    [Read More…]
  • Open Data: Agencies Need Guidance to Establish Comprehensive Data Inventories; Information on Their Progress is Limited
    In U.S GAO News
    The Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary Government Data Act of 2018 (OPEN Government Data Act) codifies and expands open data policy and generally requires agencies to publish information as open data by default, as well as develop and maintain comprehensive data inventories. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has not issued statutorily-required guidance for agencies to implement comprehensive data inventories, which could limit agencies' progress in implementing their requirements under the act. OMB also has not met requirements to publicly report on agencies' performance and compliance with the act. Access to this information could inform Congress and the public about agencies' open data progress and statutory compliance. Implementation Status of Selected OPEN Government Data Act Requirements   Assessment Federal data catalogue: By July 2019, the General Services Administration (GSA) must maintain a point of entry dedicated to sharing agency data assets with the public, known as the “Federal data catalogue”. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and GSA must ensure agencies can publish data assets or links on the website. ✓ Online repository: By July 2019, OMB, GSA, and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) must collaborate to develop and maintain an online repository of tools, best practices, and schema standards to facilitate the adoption of open data practices across the federal government. ✓ Implementation guidance: By July 2019, OMB must issue guidance for agencies to implement comprehensive inventories. ✖ Biennial report: By January 2020, and biennially thereafter, OMB must electronically publish a report on agency performance and compliance with this act. ✖ Legend: ✓Requirement fully met I ✖ Requirement not met Source: GAO analysis of Pub. L. No. 115-435, 132 Stat. 5529(Jan. 14, 2019), resources.data.gov, www.data.gov , and an interview with OMB staff. | GAO-21-29. GAO found that all 24 Chief Financial Officers (CFO) Act agencies display their data inventories on their websites, as well as on an online catalogue of federal data assets. Agencies took a variety of approaches to providing public access to individual data assets such as using Data.gov as the human-readable public interface, hosting searchable inventories on their own agency websites and providing lists of data or downloadable files on their websites. Information on the extent to which agencies regularly update their data inventories is limited. OMB and GSA do not have a policy to ensure the routine identification and correction of errors in electronically published information. The absence of such a policy limits publicly available information on agency progress. As of September 2020, seven of the 24 CFO Act agencies had also publicly released COVID-19 related datasets or linked to related information from their open data web pages as required by the Federal Data Strategy. These datasets provide data on a range of COVID-19 related topics including data on disease transmission and loans provided to businesses. Federal agencies create and collect large amounts of data in support of fulfilling their missions. Public access to open data—data that are free to use, modify, and share—holds great promise for promoting government transparency and engendering public trust. Access to open data is particularly important in the current pandemic environment as government agencies, scientists, and the public work to understand and respond to COVID-19 using data-focused approaches. The OPEN Government Data Act includes a provision for GAO to report on federal agencies' comprehensive data inventories. This report examines the extent to which 1) OMB, GSA, and NARA met their statutory requirements to facilitate the establishment of federal agencies' comprehensive data inventories; and 2) CFO Act agencies developed data inventories in accordance with OMB guidance. GAO reviewed agencies' websites and related documentation, and interviewed OMB staff and GSA and NARA officials. GAO is making two recommendations to OMB to issue required implementation guidance and report on agency performance. GAO also recommends that OMB and GSA establish policy to ensure the routine identification and correction of errors in agency data. GSA concurred with GAO's recommendation and OMB did not comment on the report. For more information, contact Michelle Sager at (202) 512-6806 or SagerM@gao.gov.
    [Read More…]
  • Secretary Blinken’s Call with French Foreign Minister Le Drian, German Foreign Minister Maas, and UK Foreign Secretary Raab
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Office of the [Read More…]
  • New Jersey Man Sentenced to Prison for Tax Fraud Conspiracy
    In Crime News
    A New Jersey man was sentenced to 78 months in prison today for conspiring to defraud the United States, filing false claims, and obstructing the internal revenue laws, announced Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Goldberg of the Justice Department’s Tax Division.
    [Read More…]
  • Justice Department Seeks to Shut Down Fraudulent Chicago-Area Tax Return Preparer
    In Crime News
    The United States has filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, seeking to enjoin a tax preparer from South Chicago Heights, Illinois, from preparing federal income tax returns for others.
    [Read More…]
  • Even During COVID, Courts Find Ways to Welcome New Americans
    In U.S Courts
    When the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic first forced courthouses to limit access to the general public, one of the first events to be canceled was an especially joyous rite: the naturalization of new U.S. citizens.
    [Read More…]
  • Department Press Briefing – March 4, 2021
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Ned Price, Department [Read More…]
  • Secretary Antony J. Blinken at the International Women of Courage (IWOC) Awards Ceremony
    In Crime Control and Security News
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    In Travel
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  • Justice Department Joins Computational Antitrust Project at Stanford Law School
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice announced today that it will participate in the Computational Antitrust project, hosted by the Stanford University CodeX Center and created by Professor Thibault Schrepel. The project brings together academics from law, computer science, and economics as well as developers, policymakers, and antitrust agencies from around the world to discuss how technology and automation can improve antitrust enforcement.
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  • The President’s National Space Policy
    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • At the Virtual Launch of the Inaugural U.S.-UAE Strategic Dialogue
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Michael R. Pompeo, [Read More…]
  • Department of Justice Issues Statement Regarding Decision in Skyworks v. CDC
    In Crime News
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  • National Freedom Day: Deepening Our Resolve to Fight Human Trafficking
    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • Stalking Victimization, 2016
    In Justice News
    (Publication)
    This report details the demographic characteristics of stalking victims and describes the nature of stalking victimization, including the number of offenders, the victim-offender relationship, and the frequency and duration of the stalking.
    4/15/2021, NCJ 253526, Rachel E. Morgan, Jennifer L. Truman [Read More…]