Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Jake Tapper of CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.

QUESTION:  We begin now with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  Thanks so much for joining us, Mr. Secretary.  We appreciate your time.  So let’s just start right there.  The U.S. just announced that it will share up to 60 million COVID vaccine doses with other countries soon.  Today, President Biden indicated that India will get some of those.

How is the Biden administration going to prioritize which countries get the vaccine?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Jake, we’re putting that plan in place as we speak.  And you’re right; we’ll have 60 million vaccines, the AstraZeneca vaccines.  We want to make sure that the vaccines that we have in our possession or will soon have in our possession are safe, so the FDA is reviewing that.  So we’re still a couple weeks away from that, but we’re putting in place a plan right now to do that.

You know that when we came in we immediately made a very significant contribution to COVAX, the international vaccine facility, $2 billion, and then an additional $2 billion between now and 2022.  That is promoting access to vaccines around the world.  So for the vaccines that we have directly on hand or will shortly, we’re going to decide whether to do some or all of that through COVAX or how much of that will be done directly, country-to-country.  All of that is in the works, and we’ll have a plan in place in the coming days.

QUESTION:  So nine Latin American countries are buying or contracting with China for vaccines.  Mexico’s top diplomat over the weekend met with Russian officials to get their vaccines.  As the U.S. is working to re-establish a new position on the world stage, do you worry that the United States is being outpaced by Russia and China when it comes to what’s being called vaccine diplomacy?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  The thing I mostly worry about, Jake, is making sure that as many people around the world as possible can get vaccinated as quickly as possible, because the hard truth is none of us are safe until a vast majority of people are vaccinated.  As long as that virus is replicating somewhere, it’s going to be mutating; and if it’s mutating, it could come back to bite us.  So we have a strong national security interest in making sure that the world is vaccinated, and we are going to be playing our part.

QUESTION:  Let’s talk about China.  You have said that the Chinese Government misled the world about coronavirus, which is empirically true.  Is the Biden administration – are you – working on some sort of repercussions for the Chinese Government?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Jake, I think what we need to focus on is making sure to the best of our ability that we put in place a system that makes it, if not impossible, at least a lot less likely that this is going to happen again.  And that means a couple of things, and it does go directly to China’s responsibilities as well as other countries.  We’ve got to have in place a system that has information sharing in real time when something like this starts up, that has access for international experts in real time, that has transparency in real time – all of the things that were lacking this time around and all of the things that Beijing fell short on.

So I think the focus really needs to be making sure that countries around the world live up to their responsibilities going forward and that we’ve got a system in place to make that happen.

QUESTION:  Well, I understand the idea of wanting to make sure this doesn’t happen again, but how do you respond to somebody who might say, once again, a major power is escaping or a major leader is escaping consequences following the decision by President Biden to not directly punish Saudi leader MBS for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi?  I understand some Saudis were sanctioned, but MBS escaped.  Now President Xi, who misled the world and who knows how many people died as a result, will also escape consequences.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, the first thing that we need to do, whether it’s looking back at who’s responsible or looking forward in terms of how to prevent this from happening again, is to make sure we get to the bottom of what happened.  And we’re still not there.  The initial report that was done, by the acknowledgment of the director of the World Health Organization himself, fell short of the mark.

So I think where we need to put our emphasis now is really digging in to what exactly happened, who was responsible. We can make determinations on accountability from that, but especially determinations on how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

QUESTION:  We already know what happened, though, with the Khashoggi thing, because the Biden administration approved the release of the non-classified version of what happened, and again, MBS escaped any sort of repercussions directly.  Is part of the Biden doctrine that world leaders who commit atrocities one way or the other escape any sort of consequence?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Jake, two things.  First, when it comes to Khashoggi, I think – and his heinous murder, I think what you saw was the United States Government putting its imprimatur on a report in the light of day that made clear responsibility and made clear the role of the crown prince.  That in and of itself is significant because, of course, in a sense, what was in the report itself had already been reported, but the fact that the United States Government puts its imprimatur on it, that speaks volumes.

We’ve put in place the Khashoggi Ban to do – to the best of our ability make sure that anyone who is trying in our country to intimidate, to commit acts of violence against or otherwise push back against people speaking out against a government, will not have the benefit of being in this country.

And beyond that, look – and we’ve talked about this before – we have to think about how we can most effectively advance both our interests and our values.  And we – like it or not, we’re going to need to continue to work with Saudi Arabia, which remains a partner in many respects.  And one of the things that we’re trying to do, as you know, is bring the war to Yemen to an end.  The crown prince is likely to be the leader of that country for a long time in the future. We have to work with leaders around the world who are engaged in conduct that we either object to or, in some cases, find reprehensible.

QUESTION:  Yeah.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  But we do it in order to advance our interests and our values.

QUESTION:  Perfect segue to the story Natasha Bertrand broke, which is that sources tell CNN there may be a summit between President Biden and another bad actor, Russian President Vladimir Putin, one as soon as early this summer.  Is it worth dignifying Putin with a summit after everything he continues to do to the United States?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  It’s important to be able to speak clearly and directly to President Putin or, for that matter, to the leaders of other countries with whom we have significant differences.  And you know, Jake, the President has been very clear about this from day one, actually before day one.  He has been clear about the proposition that if Russia continues to engage in aggressive or reckless actions, we are going to respond.

He’s also been clear that, look, we would prefer a more stable, predictable relationship.  But that’s ultimately up to Mr. Putin.  If he continues to engage in this kind of conduct, we’re going to stand up to it and respond to it.  On the other hand, if he chooses not to escalate, then I think there are areas where we can work together out of our mutual shared interest; for example, strategic stability.  We’ve extended New START.  There’s more to be done in that area.  But all of that, whether it’s making clear what we’re going to do if Russia continues to act out, or what we could do if it chooses to get onto a more predictable and stable course, all of that benefits from being able to speak face to face.

QUESTION:  Have the Russians accepted the invitation?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I don’t know if there’s a formal acceptance, but I know we’re talking about it and talking about the timing of such a meeting.

QUESTION:  The U.S. military has started to withdraw from Afghanistan this week.  Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire recently said, quote, “It’s difficult to see a scenario that doesn’t end in civil war or a Taliban takeover,” unquote.  Is that just Afghanistan’s problem and who cares?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, Jake, that is certainly a possible scenario.  Now, no one has an interest in renewed civil war in Afghanistan.  Certainly, the Afghan people don’t.  I don’t think ultimately either the Afghan Government or the Taliban do.  None of Afghanistan’s neighbors do, neighbors that – and other countries in the region – that have basically been free riders for the last 20 years as we’ve been engaged there with our NATO allies and partners, who are now going to have to decide, given their interests in a relatively stable Afghanistan, given the influence that they have, whether they’re going to try to use that influence in a way that keeps things within the 40-yard lines.  So a lot of people are having their minds concentrated by the President’s decision.

And besides that, Jake – and this is important – even as we’re withdrawing our forces, we are not disengaging from Afghanistan.  We’re remaining deeply engaged in the diplomacy, in support for the Afghan Government and its people, development, economic assistance, humanitarian assistance, support for the security forces.  We’ve trained over the years, as you know very well, more than 300,000 of them.  So all of that remains, and I think that there are different actors at work now who I hope will keep moving this in a more positive than negative direction.  But we have to plan.  We are planning for every scenario.

QUESTION:  There are thousands of Afghans, as you know, who have worked for the United States in Afghanistan who now feel under direct threat – translators, engineers, local partners, their families.  Now, there’s a visa program that would allow about 18,000 of these individuals to come to the United States, but it’s an arduous and lengthy process, one that’s been slowed down even further because of COVID.  What are you doing to accelerate the process so these allies of the United States who are in fear of their lives, that they’re out by September 11th?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah, Jake, I’m really, really glad you flagged that because it’s – it is vitally important.  We’ve had this program in Iraq and also in Afghanistan, and yes, we want to make sure that people who have put their lives on the line working with American folks in uniform, working with our diplomats – who’ve put not just themselves in jeopardy, potentially their families as well – can get expedited consideration if they decide that they want to try to come to the United States.  And you’re exactly right; we’ve got about 18,000 people already in the pipeline, 9,000 of whom who are relatively far along, another 9,000 are just at the beginning of the process.  And clearly, more are likely to sign up.

So we are working very hard to make sure that we’ve got in place the resources to work that program, to work it quickly, expeditiously.  When I was up talking to the House and the Senate about Afghanistan, one of the things that I focused on was the need for us all to come together and make sure that program has the resources it needs.

QUESTION:  What happens to the girls and women of Afghanistan when we pull out?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Jake, when I was in Kabul after the President’s decision, I not only met with President Ghani and other leaders; I spent some time talking to some remarkable women – a lawyer, an NGO leader, a teacher, a mayor, a parliamentarian – and I listened very carefully to their stories, to their concerns, and yes, to their fears.  But here’s the thing:  Our support for them will endure, and I can say very clearly and categorically that an Afghanistan that not – that does not respect their rights, that does not sustain the gains we’ve made, will be a pariah.

QUESTION:  I want to ask you about the refugee cap.  In February, you notified Congress that the Biden administration would raise the refugee cap from 15,000 – a historical low – to 62,500, which was – which is – that was in line with Biden’s campaign promises.  But then for two months, President Biden stalled on improving the increase.  Now, according to The Washington Post, President Biden defied your advice because he was concerned about the crisis at the Mexican border.  The Post reported that you invoked your stepfather’s experience as a refugee.  Tell us about that.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Jake, a lot has been reported, but unfortunately much of that is not accurate, despite my great respect for The Washington Post.  Here’s what happened:  The President has a profound commitment to restoring the refugee program, not only restoring it to its historic levels but going beyond that.  And we made that initial commitment and decision.

But then, when we looked at the reality of the damage that had been done across the board to that program in recent years, and the work that was needed to actually put it in a place where it could start effectively to deal with new refugees coming in, as well as what was happening on the border and the demand on resources, including on an office that – one part of which works on refugee matters; the other part works on immigration – it became clear that we wanted to – we were in a position where potentially we would be overpromising and underdelivering on what we could do in the time frame that we expected to do it in.

So the President wanted to make sure that we could come to him and tell him that the resources were actually in place to get the job done, and that took some time.  But we are doing that, and I anticipate that, as I think the White House has indicated, we’ll be making another announcement on the ceiling in the coming weeks.

QUESTION:  One last question for you, sir, because I know your aides are getting a little antsy there behind the scenes.  John Kerry, the special envoy for climate change, he’s facing criticism from Republicans for allegedly – allegedly, this is not proven – sharing secret intel, secret Israeli military operations, with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.  This is from that leaked audio tape that was recorded in March, where Zarif says Kerry told him that Israel attacked Iran’s interests in Syria at least 200 times.  Now, Kerry categorically denies the allegation.  Have you spoken to Secretary Kerry about this?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Jake, these things were so secret that they were all reported in the press at the time, so it is utter nonsense, and it’s really unfortunate that people continue to try and play politics with this.

QUESTION:  Secretary of State Antony Blinken, we appreciate your time.  We hope you will continue to come here and talk to us.  We really want to give foreign policy a lot of attention as we – as our show transitions to two hours.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks, Jake.  I’d really welcome that.

QUESTION:  Okay, wonderful.  Thank you so much.

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    What GAO Found GAO identified 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 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—with appropriate safeguards—to correct math errors and to correct errors in cases where information provided by the taxpayer does not match information in government databases and (2) establishing requirements for paid tax return preparers to help improve the accuracy of tax returns they prepare. These actions could help reduce the substantial tax gap and increase revenues. 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 5-year period. The Department of Defense's payments to privatized housing projects have lessened the financial effects of the housing allowance rate reductions for these projects, but revising the calculation for these payments could potentially result in millions of dollars of savings. Federal agencies could improve coordination of fragmented cybersecurity requirements and related assessment programs for state agencies, potentially minimizing the burden on states and saving millions of dollars in associated federal and state costs. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) 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. 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. For example, based on GAO's updates for spring 2021, HHS's changes to spending limit determinations for Medicaid demonstration waivers further reduced federal spending by about $30 billion in 2019. 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 report discusses the new areas identified in GAO's 2021 annual report—the 11th in this series—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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  • 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.
    [Read More…]
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  • Navy Maintenance: Navy Report Did Not Fully Address Causes of Delays or Results-Oriented Elements
    In U.S GAO News
    The Navy's July 2020 report identified two key causes and several contributing factors regarding maintenance delays for aircraft carriers, surface ships, and submarines, but did not identify other causes. For public shipyards, the Navy's report identified the key cause of maintenance delays as insufficient capacity relative to growing maintenance requirements. For private shipyards, the Navy's report identified the key cause as the addition of work requirements after a contract is awarded. These causes and other identified factors generally align with factors that GAO has previously identified as originating during the maintenance process. However, the Navy's report did not consider causes and factors originating in the acquisition process or as a result of operational decisions, as shown below. GAO-Identified Factors Contributing to Maintenance Delays That the Navy Identified in Its July 2020 Report The report identified stakeholders needed to implement action plans, but did not fully incorporate other elements of results-oriented management, including achievable goals, metrics to measure progress, and resources and risks. Some examples from the report: Stakeholders: Identified Naval Sea Systems Command as the primary implementer of most initiatives related to maintenance at shipyards. Goals: Included a goal of reducing days of maintenance delay by 80 percent during fiscal year 2020.The Navy did not achieve this goal based on GAO's analysis of Navy data. Metrics: Included some metrics. The Navy is still identifying and developing other key metrics. Resources: Did not identify costs of the actions in the report. Risks: Identified as risks the coronavirus pandemic, unstable funding, and limited material availability. However, the report did not assess additional risks that GAO previously identified. The Navy generally has been unable to complete ship and submarine maintenance on time, resulting in reduced time for training and operations, and additional costs. The Navy's ability to successfully maintain its ships is affected by numerous factors throughout a ship's life cycle, such as decisions made during acquisition, which occurs years before a ship arrives at a shipyard for maintenance. Others manifest during operational use of the ship or during the maintenance process. The conference report accompanying a bill for the Fiscal Year 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act directed the Secretary of the Navy to submit a report identifying the underlying causes of maintenance delays for aircraft carriers, surface ships, and submarines and to include elements of results-oriented management. The conference report also included a provision for GAO to review the Navy's report that was released in July 2020. This report evaluates the extent to which the Navy's report (1) identifies the underlying causes of maintenance delays and (2) incorporates elements of results-oriented management. GAO reviewed the Navy's report and interviewed Navy officials. Since 2015, GAO has made 39 unclassified recommendations related to Navy maintenance delays. The Navy or the Department of Defense concurred or partially concurred with 37 recommendations, and had implemented six of them as of September 2020. For more information, contact Diana Maurer at (202) 512-9627 or MaurerD@gao.gov.
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  • Federal Employees’ Compensation Act: Comparisons of Benefits in Retirement and Actions Needed to Help Injured Workers Choose Best Option
    In U.S GAO News
    Factors such as the timing of an injury in a career affect how Federal Employees' Compensation Act (FECA) total disability benefits compare to income security from typical federal retirement. The FECA program compensates federal employees for lost wages from work-related injuries, among other benefits. FECA recipients can receive this compensation for as long as their disability continues. At retirement age, they can remain on FECA or, instead, choose to receive their benefits from the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). Thus, FECA benefits represent a significant portion of retirement income for some injured federal employees. Through simulations, GAO found that factors such as the length of retirees' careers absent injury affected how similar their hypothetical FECA benefits packages were to their FERS packages in 2018. FERS benefits increase substantially the longer a federal employee works. As a result, median current and reduced FECA packages were greater than the FERS median for retirees with shorter careers absent injury. However, median FECA packages were similar to or less than FERS for retirees with longer careers (see figure). Median FECA Benefits as a Percentage of FERS Benefits by Career Length Absent an Injury For FECA recipients who choose to compare their FECA and FERS benefit options at retirement, estimates for most components of those benefits packages are available. However, the Department of Labor (DOL) does not routinely remind recipients to compare benefits, so they may be unaware of their options or how to consider them. In addition, DOL and the Social Security Administration (SSA) use a manual and highly complex process to calculate one key component of a FECA recipient's compensation in retirement related to Social Security benefits. As a result, estimates of FECA benefits in retirement that include this component are not readily available prior to retirement. These challenges hinder recipients' ability to accurately compare their options and may result in some recipients not choosing their best option at retirement. The President's budgets for fiscal years 2019-2021 have proposed several FECA reforms, including reducing disability compensation at retirement age. In a series of reports published in 2012, GAO analyzed the effects of similar proposed revisions to FECA compensation. GAO was asked to update its FECA and FERS benefit comparisons. This report examines (1) how FERS and total disability FECA benefits at retirement age compare under current and previously proposed reduced FECA compensation rates, and (2) the extent to which FECA recipients have access to information to compare their FECA and FERS benefits options. GAO compared the FERS benefits selected retirees received in 2018 with the hypothetical total disability FECA benefits they would have received from simulated injuries. GAO reviewed agency documents and interviewed officials from DOL, SSA, and other federal agencies. GAO is recommending that DOL remind FECA recipients as they approach retirement to obtain FERS benefit estimates for comparisons with FECA, and that DOL and SSA take steps to modernize and improve their process for calculating and providing information on certain FECA benefits in retirement that would enable recipients to make complete comparisons of retirement options. DOL and SSA concurred with all three recommendations. For more information, contact Cindy Brown Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.
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