Secretary Michael R. Pompeo Briefing with the Traveling Press

Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State

En Route to Shannon, Ireland

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Greetings, everyone.

QUESTION:  Hello.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  How are you all?

QUESTION:  Hello.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Well, that was a – I thought it was a great trip.  We accomplished just about everything we were hoping to do.  We were back in Europe leading from the front this time, talking about staying connected, making sure they lean into their connections to the West.  We all know we have these shared values.

We have watched whether it’s a ship we’re going to port in Greece or the religious freedom effort or the conversations we had about the risks of the Chinese Communist Party – I think in every place that I went, if you compare it to where we were three and a half years ago, I think we have deeper, stronger, better set of relationships and increased economic ties too.  So I’m happy with what we accomplished, and I’m looking forward to getting back home too.  So I’m happy to take a handful of questions.

QUESTION:  You called back to Washington after your meetings today.  What did they tell you and are you proceeding with your trip this weekend to Florida as well as Asia?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  I spoke to the Vice President just a little bit ago.  He’s fine.  He’s engaged.  We’re still planning on making the trips, but we’re going to take a look at them.  We’ll see which one – see which or some parts of those trips make sense and which may not, and we’ll continue to on an hour-by-hour basis take a look at it.

But it’s no different than any other time.  We’re always – I always try to make – keep everybody safe in everything that we do.  And if we can’t – if have to postpone a trip or cancel something, we’ll figure out how to get it back on the schedule.  But I’m hopeful we can at least make sure we get to Asia for sure – some important things, but we’ll see.  If the medical situation doesn’t permit it, we won’t do that.  We won’t put anybody at risk.

MR BROWN:  All right.  Tracy.

QUESTION:  Oh, you’re calling on me.

MR BROWN:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Well, so you’ve talked about sharing the values – getting them to lean into the West, et cetera – but it sounded like the prime minister of Croatia was talking a lot about China.  He wasn’t exactly rejecting China.  So how did you feel that that message is getting through to him?  He mentioned that both Greece and Croatia were part of the China Plus.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Just go look at what the European countries are saying today compared to what they were saying two and a half years ago, and then go look at their actions.  It’s not remotely close.  The tide has turned.  Everyone understands this threat.  This isn’t about United States versus China.  It’s about tyranny.

The Chinese Government unleashed a virus on the world.  We see the impacts of today.  You all are standing here wearing masks because they decided that they were going to let people travel out of Wuhan when they knew – and they disappeared doctors.  You all know the story too well, right?  They deceived the world and they covered up.  And you’re all wearing masks as a direct result of what the Chinese Communist Party did.

And so they all get it.  This is about freedom.  This is about liberty.  They know the threat.  They know the risk.  You’ve seen the changes in what the United Kingdom is doing with their 5G network.  I’m confident that many more European countries now, frankly because of just sharing information with them, they’re going to make their own sovereign decision that says no, we don’t want our citizens’ data in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.  I think every European country now understands this, is increasingly aware of it.  And you’ll see them start to take actions consistent with that, including in Croatia.

MR BROWN:  All right.  Carol.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, today is the second anniversary of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.  Will the world ever know who ordered and orchestrated his killing?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  I’m sorry (inaudible).

QUESTION:    Will the world ever know who ordered and orchestrated his killing?  And maybe you can give us an idea of what’s it like being a diplomat —

SECRETARY POMPEO:  (Inaudible.)

QUESTION:  Maybe you can give us an idea of what it’s like doing diplomacy, being a diplomat in a time of COVID.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Oh, goodness.  With respect to the Khashoggi murder, I don’t have much to update.  The Saudis have now prosecuted a handful of folks.  We continue to press them to make sure we get as much as we can, that everyone who was responsible be held accountable.  There’s not much of an update from where we were two months or four months ago.

It’s been a little harder to travel around the world as a diplomat and see people.  It always matters how you can have private conversations that are harder to have on the phone, but at the same time, we’ve all adapted just as your businesses have – just – excuse me – just as every company and every family has had to do.  It’s given us an opportunity to evaluate too our systems and processes inside the State Department.  We’ll be leaner and better and more efficient than we were when we came into this.  I’m confident.

And then I think too – I think this has shown the face of the Chinese Communist Party and the risk that happened when authoritarian regimes that are designed for the purposes of hiding information around the world – I think the world can now see the impact and the risks associated with that.  And I think the private sector has seen these risks too.  And you’ll watch their decisions in the coming weeks and months about how they’re thinking about their investments inside of China.

MR BROWN:  All right.  Lara.

QUESTION:  I wanted to follow up on Tracy’s question and Abbie’s at the press conference.  Given this – how often you – given how often you’ve been traveling to the region in recent days and in recent weeks, I’m just wondering what the grander strategy is, and I’m wondering if there is some kind of move or thought to work more often with Eastern and Southern European partners that, as you have said, have not been – engages with the United States in prior administrations, as opposed to more traditional allies like the EU – I’m sorry, Britain as it Brexits, Germany, France.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Yeah.  Yeah.  It’s not either-or.  I just happen to be heading to these places.  I spend a fair amount of time in Germany.  I spend a lot of time in the United Kingdom.  We still count them as great partners as well.  NATO is – obviously encompasses all of those nations.  And there will be $400 billion more inside of NATO as a result of President Trump’s actions.  That’s powerful – $400 billion, more secure, a stronger NATO.  I know you all write all the time how President Trump is destroying NATO.  NATO’s stronger today.

QUESTION:  But can you talk about —

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Infinitely stronger.

QUESTION:  Can you talk about the grand – is there a grander strategy for this region that you’ve been traveling to so much?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Yeah.  Look, it’s very important.  You see what’s happened in the Eastern Mediterranean, you see these energy issues that we’ve been working on for three and a half years now.  You start to see – whether it’s Krk Island, you see what’s happened in northern Greece.  You start to see these energy projects.  This will make Russia weaker, it will diversify the energy.  We do that alongside the work we’re doing against Nord Stream 2.  It will make Europe stronger as well.  And that’s not just Southern Europe; that’ll also flow into Central Europe, these pipelines and the liquid natural gas that’ll move – will move all across Europe.  This will make Europe a healthier, stronger, more economically prosperous place.

So I just happened to travel this – these last two trips, I was in Cyprus, then Greece, Italy, and then on to Croatia.  Just happened to be traveling in the southern part of the region.  They’re all important because of big – two big economies in France and Germany, the United Kingdom now moving its way through exiting the European Union.  These are (inaudible), just as close to them as we ever were and continue to work to build on their security as well.

MR BROWN:  Last one.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, thanks for coming back.  I saw a report – I believe it was French President Macron who said that fighters in Syria moved through southern Turkey into Azerbaijan and that Azerbaijan instigated this conflict there.  Why would Erdogan do that or allow that to happen, especially at this time when tensions were easing in the Eastern Med?  And is there any risk, do you think, of Turkey colliding with Russia in that space?  That’s – they’ve certainly got relationships on both sides.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  So I’ve seen the reporting.  You’re referring to the reporting that said that he brought Syrian fighters to Azerbaijan.  I’ve seen that reporting too.  That’s all I can really say at this point.  I hope it’s not the case, right.  We saw Syrian fighters taken from the battlefields in Syria to Libya.  That created more instability, more turbulence, more conflict, more fighting, less peace.  I think it would do the same thing in the conflict in and around Nagorno-Karabakh as well.  So I hope that reporting proves inaccurate.

You’ll have to ask President Erdogan why he would make that decision, but our view has been pretty consistent.  When there’s – when there are rubs, when there are political ethnic tensions and they rise – this is a longstanding conflict in this border space – when those tensions rise, internationalizing this – right – third parties bringing ammunitions, weapon systems, even just advisors and allies joining, you increase the complexity, you increase the risk of loss of lives, you decrease the capacity for peace.

So we’ve urged – just like we have in Libya, we’ve urged everyone to just stay out of this other than to urge that there be a ceasefire and that dialogue be the methodology by which order is restored, peace is restored.  At least we hope that’s the case.  We’ve certainly communicated that to both the Azerbaijanis and Armenian leaders, and to the Turks as well.  I read the message that came out of the EU, and the prime minister in Croatia told me the same thing.  That was the message that the European Union had for the Turks in their meeting yesterday – I guess it was yesterday and this morning as well.

MR BROWN:  Thank you, sir.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  All right.  Thanks, everybody.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.

QUESTION:  Thank you, sir.

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    The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has faced challenges in its efforts to accomplish three critical information technology (IT) modernization initiatives: the department's health information system, known as the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA); a system for the Family Caregiver Program, which is to support family caregivers of seriously injured post-9/11 veterans; and the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) that collects and stores information and is used for processing disability benefit claims. Specifically, GAO has reported on the challenges in the department's three previous unsuccessful attempts to modernize VistA over the past 20 years. However, VA has recently deployed a new scheduling system as part of its fourth effort to modernize VistA and the next deployment of the system, including additional capabilities, is planned in October 2020. VA had taken steps to address GAO's recommendations from its 2014 report to implement a replacement system for the Family Caregiver Program. However, in September 2019, GAO reported that VA had yet to implement a new IT system that fully supports the Family Caregiver Program and that it had not yet fully committed to a date by which it will certify that the new IT system fully supports the program. In September 2015, GAO reported that VA had made progress in developing and implementing VBMS, but also noted that additional actions could improve efforts to develop and use the system. For example, VBMS was not able to fully support disability and pension claims, as well as appeals processing. GAO made five recommendations aimed at improving VA's efforts to effectively complete the development and implementation of VBMS; however, as of September 2020, VA implemented only one recommendation. VA's progress in implementing key provisions of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (commonly referred to as FITARA) has been uneven. Specifically, VA has made progress toward improving its licensing of software and achieving its goals for closing unneeded data centers. However, the department has made limited progress toward addressing requirements related to IT investment risk management and Chief Information Officer authority enhancement. Until the department implements the act's provisions, Congress' ability to effectively monitor VA's progress and hold it fully accountable for reducing duplication and achieving cost savings will be hindered. In addition, since fiscal year 2016, GAO has reported that VA faces challenges related to effectively implementing the federal approach to, and strategy for, securing information systems; effectively implementing information security controls and mitigating known security deficiencies; and establishing elements of its cybersecurity risk management program. GAO's work stressed the need for VA to address these challenges as well as manage IT supply chain risks. As VA continues to pursue modernization efforts, it is critical that the department take steps to adequately secure its systems. The use of IT is crucial to helping VA effectively serve the nation's veterans. The department annually spends billions of dollars on its information systems and assets—VA's budget for IT now exceeds $4 billion annually. However, over many years, VA has experienced challenges in managing its IT projects and programs, which could jeopardize its ability to effectively support key programs such as the Forever GI Bill. GAO has previously reported on these IT management challenges at VA. GAO was asked to testify on its prior IT work at VA. Specifically, this testimony summarizes results and recommendations from GAO's issued reports that examined VA's efforts in (1) modernizing VistA, a system for the Family Caregiver Program, and VBMS; (2) implementing FITARA; and (3) addressing cybersecurity issues. In developing this testimony, GAO reviewed its recently issued reports that addressed IT management issues at VA and GAO's biannual high-risk series. GAO also incorporated information on the department's actions in response to recommendations. GAO has made numerous recommendations in recent years aimed at improving VA's IT system modernization efforts, implementation of key FITARA provisions, and cybersecurity program. VA has generally agreed with the recommendations and has begun to address them. For more information, contact Carol C. Harris at (202) 512-4456 or harriscc@gao.gov.
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  • Higher Education: IRS and Education Could Better Address Risks Associated with Some For-Profit College Conversions
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO identified 59 for-profit college conversions that occurred from January 2011 through August 2020, almost all of which involved the college's sale to a tax-exempt organization. In about one-third of the conversions, GAO found that former owners or other officials were insiders to the conversion—for example, by creating the tax-exempt organization that purchased the college or retaining the presidency of the college after its sale (see figure). While leadership continuity can benefit a college, insider involvement in a conversion poses a risk that insiders may improperly benefit—for example, by influencing the tax-exempt purchaser to pay more for the college than it is worth. Once a conversion has ended a college's for-profit ownership and transferred ownership to an organization the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recognizes as tax-exempt, the college must seek Department of Education (Education) approval to participate in federal student aid programs as a nonprofit college. Since January 2011, Education has approved 35 colleges as nonprofit colleges and denied two; nine are under review and 13 closed prior to Education reaching a decision. Figure: Example of a For-Profit College Conversion with Officials in Insider Roles IRS guidance directs staff to closely scrutinize whether significant transactions with insiders reported by an applicant for tax-exempt status will exceed fair-market value and improperly benefit insiders. If an application contains insufficient information to make that assessment, guidance says that staff may need to request additional information. In two of 11 planned or final conversions involving insiders that were disclosed in an application, GAO found that IRS approved the application without certain information, such as the college's planned purchase price or an appraisal report estimating the college's value. Without such information, IRS staff could not assess whether the price was inflated to improperly benefit insiders, which would be grounds to deny the application. If IRS staff do not consistently apply guidance, they may miss indications of improper benefit. Education has strengthened its reviews of for-profit college applications for nonprofit status, but it does not monitor newly converted colleges to assess ongoing risk of improper benefit. In two of three cases GAO reviewed in depth, college financial statements disclosed transactions with insiders that could indicate the risk of improper benefit. Education officials agreed that they could assess this risk through its audited financial statement review process and could develop procedures to do so. Until Education develops and implements such procedures for new conversions, potential improper benefit may go undetected. A for-profit college may convert to nonprofit status for a variety of reasons, such as wanting to align its status and mission. However, in some cases, former owners or other insiders could improperly benefit from the conversion, which is impermissible under the Internal Revenue Code and Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended. GAO was asked to examine for-profit college conversions. This report reviews what is known about insider involvement in conversions and to what extent IRS and Education identify and respond to the risk of improper benefit. GAO identified converted for-profit colleges and reviewed their public IRS filings. GAO also examined IRS and Education processes for overseeing conversions, interviewed agency officials, and reviewed federal laws, regulations and agency guidance. GAO selected five case study colleges based on certain risk factors, obtained information from college officials, and reviewed their audited financial statements. In three cases, GAO also reviewed Education case files. Because of the focus on IRS and Education oversight, GAO did not audit any college in this review to determine whether its conversion improperly benefitted insiders. GAO is making three recommendations, including that IRS assess and improve conversion application reviews and that Education develop and implement procedures to monitor newly converted colleges. IRS said it will assess its review process and will evaluate GAO's other recommendation, as discussed in the report. Education agreed with GAO's recommendation. For more information, contact Melissa Emrey-Arras at (617) 788-0534 or emreyarrasm@gao.gov.
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  • Facial Recognition: CBP and TSA are Taking Steps to Implement Programs, but CBP Should Address Privacy and System Performance Issues
    In U.S GAO News
    U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has made progress testing and deploying facial recognition technology (FRT) at ports of entry to create entry-exit records for foreign nationals as part of its Biometric Entry-Exit Program. As of May 2020, CBP, in partnership with airlines, had deployed FRT to 27 airports to biometrically confirm travelers' identities as they depart the United States (air exit) and was in the early stages of assessing FRT at sea and land ports of entry. Facial Recognition Technology in Use at an Airport CBP has taken steps to incorporate some privacy principles in its program, such as publishing the legislative authorities used to implement its program, but has not consistently provided complete information in privacy notices or ensured notices were posted and visible to travelers. Ensuring that privacy notices contain complete information and are consistently available would help give travelers the opportunity to decline to participate, if appropriate. Further, CBP requires its commercial partners, such as airlines, to follow CBP's privacy requirements and can audit partners to assess compliance. However, as of May 2020, CBP had audited only one of its more than 20 airline partners and did not have a plan to ensure all partners are audited. Until CBP develops and implements an audit plan, it cannot ensure that traveler information is appropriately safeguarded. CBP has assessed the accuracy and performance of air exit FRT capabilities through operational testing. Testing found that air exit exceeded its accuracy goals—for example, identifying over 90 percent of travelers correctly—but did not meet a performance goal to capture 97 percent of traveler photos because airlines did not consistently photograph all travelers. A plan to improve the photo capture rate would help CBP better fulfill the program's mission of creating biometrically confirmed traveler departure records. Further, while CBP monitors air exit's performance, officials are not alerted when performance falls short of minimum requirements. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has conducted pilot tests to assess the feasibility of using FRT but, given the limited nature of these tests, it is too early to fully assess TSA's compliance with privacy protection principles. Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), CBP is charged with the dual mission of facilitating legitimate travel and securing U.S. borders, and TSA is responsible for protecting the nation's transportation system. For both CBP and TSA, part of their inspection and screening responsibilities includes reviewing travel identification documents and verifying traveler identities. Beginning in 1996, a series of federal laws were enacted to develop and implement an entry-exit data system, which is to integrate biographic and, since 2004, biometric records for foreign nationals. This report addresses (1) the status of CBP's deployment of FRT, (2) the extent to which CBP has incorporated privacy protection principles, (3) the extent to which CBP has assessed the accuracy and performance of its FRT, and (4) the status of TSA's testing and deployment of FRT and how TSA has incorporated privacy protection principles. GAO conducted site visits to observe CBP's and TSA's use of FRT, which were selected to include all three travel environments—air, land, and sea; reviewed program documents; and interviewed DHS officials. GAO is making five recommendations to CBP to (1) ensure privacy notices are complete, (2) ensure notices are available at locations using FRT, (3) develop and implement a plan to audit its program partners for privacy compliance, (4) develop and implement a plan to capture required traveler photos at air exit, and (5) ensure it is alerted when air exit performance falls below established thresholds. DHS concurred with the recommendations. For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or gamblerr@gao.gov.
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  • Military Child Care: Off-Base Financial Assistance and Wait Lists for On-Base Care
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Defense (DOD) has reviewed the financial assistance it provides for off-base child care services and taken steps to standardize this assistance across the military services. Specifically, in August 2018, representatives of each service agreed to work toward a goal of standardizing the only element of the fee assistance calculation that varies among the services—the maximum provider rate. DOD officials said that they assess progress toward this goal each year, but have not set a definite deadline for full standardization. With respect to assistance for off-base child care at high-cost duty stations, DOD's 2020 report on its child care programs states that the Air Force, Marines, and Navy review high-cost locations annually, and the services may approve increased provider rate caps for specific high-cost locations. In addition, it states that the services may grant waivers allowing increased fee assistance for individual families experiencing hardship. DOD has also assessed factors that contribute to wait lists for on-base child care. According to DOD’s report, DOD found that wait lists are the result of a myriad of factors, including staff shortages and facility conditions that vary across service locations. Officials said DOD has worked for several years to analyze and address wait lists. In 2017, DOD launched a web portal that consolidates child care data across the services and in August 2019, DOD officials began monthly monitoring of wait list data from this portal. These data allowed DOD to identify four geographic regions and six additional locations that account for the majority of wait lists, and focus their efforts on addressing the issues affecting these regions and locations, according to the report. DOD officials said that any requests for additional resources to help address wait lists must be handled through the individual services’ budgeting processes. DOD offers child care in a variety of on- and off-base settings for children of military families. In fiscal year 2020 these child care programs received nearly $1.2 billion in federal funds; in addition, parents pay a portion of the costs. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 required DOD to report on elements of its financial assistance to off-base child care providers and wait lists for on-base child care, and included a provision for GAO to review DOD's report. This report describes DOD's assessment of (1) financial assistance provided to off-base child care providers, and (2) its efforts to reduce wait lists for child care at military bases. GAO reviewed DOD's report on this assessment, interviewed DOD officials, and reviewed relevant federal law. For more information, contact Kathryn A. Larin at (202) 512-7215 or larink@gao.gov.
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  • Rural Hospital Closures: Affected Residents Had Reduced Access to Health Care Services
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO found that when rural hospitals closed, residents living in the closed hospitals' service areas would have to travel substantially farther to access certain health care services. Specifically, for residents living in these service areas, GAO's analysis shows that the median distance to access some of the more common health care services increased about 20 miles from 2012 to 2018. For example, the median distance to access general inpatient services was 3.4 miles in 2012, compared to 23.9 miles in 2018—an increase of 20.5 miles. For some of the less common services that were offered by a few of the hospitals that closed, this median distance increased much more. For example, among residents in the service areas of the 11 closed hospitals that offered treatment services for alcohol or drug abuse, the median distance was 5.5 miles in 2012, compared to 44.6 miles in 2018—an increase of 39.1 miles to access these services (see figure). Median Distance in Miles from Service Areas with Rural Hospital Closures to the Nearest Open Hospital that Offered Certain Health Care Services, 2012 and 2018 Notes: GAO focused its analysis on the health care services offered in 2012 by the 64 rural hospitals that closed during the years 2013 through 2017 and for which data were available. For example, in 2012, 64 closed hospitals offered general inpatient services, 62 offered emergency department services, 11 offered treatment services for alcohol or drug abuse, and 11 offered services in a coronary care unit. To examine distance, GAO calculated “crow-fly miles” (the distance measured in a straight line) from the geographic center of each closed rural hospital's service area to the geographic center of the ZIP Code with the nearest open rural or urban hospital that offered a given service. GAO also found that the availability of health care providers in counties with rural hospital closures generally was lower and declined more over time, compared to those without closures. Specifically, counties with closures generally had fewer health care professionals per 100,000 residents in 2012 than did counties without closures. The disparities in the availability of health care professionals in these counties grew from 2012 to 2017. For example, over this time period, the availability of physicians declined more among counties with closures—dropping from a median of 71.2 to 59.7 per 100,000 residents—compared to counties without closures—which dropped from 87.5 to 86.3 per 100,000 residents. Rural hospitals face many challenges in providing essential access to health care services to rural communities. From January 2013 through February 2020, 101 rural hospitals closed. GAO was asked to examine the effects of rural hospital closures on residents living in the areas of the hospitals that closed. This report examines, among other objectives, how closures affected the distance for residents to access health care services, as well as changes in the availability of health care providers in counties with and without closures. GAO analyzed data from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program (NC RHRP) for rural hospitals (1) that closed and those that were open during the years 2013 through 2017, and (2) for which complete data generally were available at the time of GAO's review. GAO also interviewed HHS and NC RHRP officials and reviewed relevant literature. GAO defined hospitals as rural according to data from the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy. GAO defined hospital closure as a cessation of inpatient services, the same definition used by NC RHRP. GAO defined service areas with closures as the collection of ZIP Codes that were served by closed rural hospitals and service areas without closures as the collection of ZIP Codes served only by rural hospitals that were open. GAO provided a draft of this report to HHS for comment. The Department provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact James Cosgrove at (202) 512-7114 or cosgrovej@gao.gov.
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  • Statement of the Department of Justice Antitrust Division on the Closing of Its Investigation of London Stock Exchange Group and Refinitiv
    In Crime News
    Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice issued the following statement today in connection with the closing of the division’s investigation into the proposed acquisition of Refinitiv by the London Stock Exchange Group (LSEG): “After an extensive review of the proposed transaction, the Antitrust Division determined that the combination of LSEG and Refinitiv is unlikely to result in harm to competition or American consumers.”
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    The Department of Justice today announced it has awarded nearly $101 million, through the department’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP) in funding to combat human trafficking and provide vital services to trafficking victims throughout the United States.
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