Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
Thomas Jefferson Room
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, good afternoon, everyone. It’s been a pleasure to welcome Prime Minister Rama here to the State Department, to the United States, and give us an opportunity to talk about the work that the United States and Albania are doing together in so many different areas, so many (inaudible). We actually sit next to each other at the Security Council at the United Nations. We’re grateful for the work that we’re doing there together.
But I have to tell you, Prime Minister, what stays with me and will stay with me for a long time is the fact that early in the summer, after we announced that we were going to leave Afghanistan and end the war there, you were the first to offer to take in Afghan refugees, evacuees, and that’s exactly what you’ve done. I’m grateful to you and to the generosity of Albania that you gave safe harbor to well over 2,000 Afghans.
I’m grateful for that, but also for the work that we’re doing every day in Europe on security in close – increasingly close ties, particularly through NATO, and also, as I said, on the Security Council, where we have many challenging issues to work on together. So very good to have you here. I look forward to a very good conversation. Welcome.
PRIME MINISTER RAMA: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. It is an honor to be here, and of course, it’s also a true pleasure that we happen to see you in the beginning of a year that (inaudible) anniversary of our diplomatic relations. They were brutally interrupted by Albania going a totally different direction for more than half a century, but here we are back together.
We value as most precious this friendship, this relation. We are very proud to be on your side and to help as much as we can to give back what you have done for us during all these years, not just for Albania but also for Albanians in Kosovo and for Albanians all over. So we are very proud to be your allies and we’ll do our best to deserve this special friendship.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. Thanks, everyone.
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August 25, 2021Recent U.S. combat operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq benefited from new Department of Defense (DOD) strategies and technologies, such as improvements in force networks and increased use of precision weapons, designed to address changes in the security environment resulting from the continuing terrorist threat and the advent of the information age. Based on the authority of the Comptroller General, GAO reviewed these conflicts, with a focus on bombing operations, to gain insight into the changes being implemented by DOD. This report focuses on (1) assessing the impact on operational effectiveness of improvements in force networks and in the use of precision weapons and (2) identifying key barriers to continued progress.Improvements in force networks and in the use of precision weapons are clearly primary reasons for the overwhelming combat power demonstrated in recent operations. However, the full extent to which operations have been speeded up or otherwise affected is unclear because DOD does not have detailed measures of these effects. Enhancements to networked operations, such as improved sensors and surveillance mechanisms, and more integrated command and control centers, have improved DOD’s ability to share a broad view of the battlefield and communicate quickly with all elements of the force–reducing the time required for analysis and decision making in combat operations. However, recognizing that the full impact of these changes is unclear, DOD is conducting a series of case studies to better understand the effects of networked operations. Improvements in force networks have also been enhanced by the use of precision-guided weapons and associated technologies. These improvements not only provide commanders with greatly increased flexibility, such as the ability to conduct bombing operations in poor weather and from higher and safer altitudes, but also increase the accuracy of bombing operations. GAO’s analysis found that the percentage of attacks resulting in damage or destruction to targets increased markedly between operations in Kosovo and those in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding these improvements, certain barriers inhibit continued progress in implementing the new strategy. Four interrelated areas stand out as key: (1) a lack of standardized, interoperable systems and equipment, which reduces effectiveness by requiring operations to be slowed to manually reconcile information from multiple systems and limiting access to needed capabilities among military services; (2) continuing difficulties in obtaining timely, high quality analyses of bombing damages, which can slow ground advances and negate other improvements in the speed of operations; (3) the absence of a unified battlefield information system to provide standardized measures and baseline data on bombing effectiveness, which creates confusion about the success of new tactics and technologies, about assumptions used in battlefield simulation programs, and about procurement decisions; and (4) the lack of high quality, realistic training to help personnel at all levels understand and adapt to the increased flow of information, more centralized management, and other changes in the operating environment brought about by the strategic changes.
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- COVID-19: Additional Risk Assessment Actions Could Improve HUD Oversight of CARES Act Funds
September 30, 2021What GAO Found The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) oversight of $12.4 billion in CARES Act funding included monitoring spending and addressing reporting requirements, but further action is needed to more fully assess program and fraud risks. As of July 2021, HUD obligated 94 percent of its CARES Act funds, and 34 percent had been expended (see figure). The CARES Act significantly increased funding for some HUD programs—for example the Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) program for homelessness assistance received more than 10 times its fiscal year 2020 funding. GAO previously reported that programs should update risk assessments when funding or the operating environment changes. To respond to COVID-19, HUD expedited its risk assessment process, and concluded the CARES Act funds did not substantially affect programs’ risks or existing controls. While HUD’s assessment identified risk factors and short-term steps to address them, it did not include some leading fraud risk management practices GAO previously identified. For example, HUD did not identify programs’ new fraud risks or evaluate fraud risk tolerance. Additional risk assessment actions could help HUD better identify and address potential program and fraud risks of its CARES Act programs. HUD CARES Act Funds’ Obligations and Expenditures, as of July 31, 2021 As of July 2021, HUD’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and ESG programs expended about 15 percent of their CARES Act funds, mostly for emergency payments that can include rental assistance. HUD officials said spending is slow because some grantees have limited capacity to administer the larger grants, other federal funding is available, and CDBG grantees had until mid-August 2021 to apply for CARES Act funds. HUD is providing grantees with training and support to help them administer and use the CARES Act funds and developing specific monitoring guidance. Almost all of the CARES Act’s $1.25 billion for the Housing Choice Voucher program has been expended. To help public housing agencies navigate COVID-19, HUD issued numerous program waivers, such as letting owners self-certify property conditions in lieu of inspections. To monitor compliance, HUD is developing a portal for public housing agencies to report their use of the funds, which officials anticipate will be operational in December 2021. HUD also awarded a contract to support the program’s CARES Act monitoring, including collecting information on waiver use. Why GAO Did This Study The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn created housing instability for many families and individuals. Congress appropriated about $12.4 billion to HUD in CARES Act funds to prevent, prepare for, and respond to housing needs related to COVID-19. GAO has previously reported on HUD’s persistent management challenges and noted the potential for these challenges to affect the implementation and oversight of HUD’s COVID-19 response. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to monitor the federal government’s efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines HUD’s actions to oversee its CARES Act funding and manage risks, and HUD’s implementation and monitoring of the CARES Act funds of selected community development, homelessness, and rental assistance programs. GAO reviewed HUD documentation and analyzed HUD spending data, focusing on the four programs that received the most CARES Act funding. GAO also interviewed HUD officials and associations representing HUD funding recipients.
- VA Disability Benefits: Actions Needed to Better Manage Appeals Workload Risks, Performance, and Information Technology
July 13, 2021What GAO Found In March 2018, GAO made recommendations to address gaps in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) plans for reform of its appeals process for disability compensation claims. This reform was intended to offer veterans who are dissatisfied with VA’s initial decision on their claim more timely options to appeal. Since then, VA has implemented new options for appeals in February 2019, reduced the backlog of preexisting appeals from 425,445 in fiscal year 2019 to 174,688 in fiscal year 2020, and addressed aspects of GAO’s recommendations. However, opportunities exist for VA to more fully address GAO’s recommendations and thus better (1) manage workload risks; (2) monitor and assess performance; and, (3) plan for further development of information technology (IT). Specifically: Managing workload risks fully. Since 2018, VA has made strides to manage appeals and address GAO’s recommendations. For example, VA has taken steps to monitor workloads and calibrate its staffing needs. However, further efforts are needed to sustain progress and manage workload risks. Specifically, VA has not fully developed mitigation strategies for certain risks, such as veterans using the new hearing appeals option at higher rates than the options that do not require a hearing. The lack of a risk mitigation strategy is significant because in mid-June 2021, VA reported that this resource-intensive new hearing option accounted for nearly 60 percent of the new appeals inventory, but VA has made relatively few hearing option decisions in fiscal year 2021. This could mean veterans have longer wait times and increasing backlogs under the new hearing option. VA’s ability to effectively manage workloads lies, in part, in planning ahead and in proactively addressing risks that may impact timeliness of decisions. Monitoring and assessing performance. VA has made progress to address GAO’s recommendations, but it is not monitoring or assessing important aspects of performance. VA recently established timeliness goals for all new appeals options, which better positions VA to monitor this aspect of performance and define resources needed to process appeals. However, VA lacks a quality assurance program and related measures to assess the accuracy of its appeals decisions. Planning for further technology development. Since 2018, VA has deployed a new IT system to support its new appeals process, but has yet to address issues GAO identified with VA’s IT planning, such as specifying more fully how and when the new IT system will achieve all needed functionality. VA implemented appeals reform in February 2019, but continues to report that the new IT system provides “minimum functionality” and to identify functionality yet to be implemented. Also, a May 2021 VA report itemized over 35 problems with the new IT system, such as the need to reconcile records contained in multiple IT systems. VA officials told GAO that they are working on a plan to address the identified IT shortfalls. These shortfalls and VA’s response suggest opportunities exist for VA to identify all key and necessary IT activities, responsibilities, interdependencies and resources, as GAO previously recommended. Why GAO Did This Study In fiscal year 2020, VBA paid about $88.5 billion in disability compensation benefits to over 5 million veterans injured in service to our country. Prior to 2018, veterans who appealed decisions on their initial claims for benefits often experienced long waits for resolution of their appeals—up to 7 years on average. These long waits are one reason GAO designated VA’s disability workloads as a high risk issue. The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 made changes to improve VA’s appeals process. The act required VA to submit to Congress and GAO a plan for implementing a new appeals process (which VA submitted in November 2017) and periodic progress reports. The act also included a provision for GAO to assess VA’s original plan. In March 2018, GAO found that VA could help ensure successful implementation of appeals reform by addressing gaps in planning and made several recommendations, with which VA agreed. This testimony examines the extent to which VA (1) manages workloads and associated risks for processing appeals, (2) monitors and assesses performance, and (3) plans for further development of information technology. For this statement, GAO reviewed its prior reports on disability appeals; VA’s progress reports to Congress; and information VA provided for GAO’s ongoing monitoring of this high-risk issue and about steps VA has taken to implement GAO’s prior recommendations. For more information, contact Elizabeth H. Curda at (202) 512-7215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Release of the 2021 Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Report
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- Secretary Blinken’s Call with Dutch Foreign Minister Hoekstra
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- Weapon Systems Cybersecurity: Guidance Would Help DOD Programs Better Communicate Requirements to Contractors
March 4, 2021Since GAO’s 2018 report, the Department of Defense (DOD) has taken action to make its network of high-tech weapon systems less vulnerable to cyberattacks. DOD and military service officials highlighted areas of progress, including increased access to expertise, enhanced cyber testing, and additional guidance. For example, GAO found that selected acquisition programs have conducted, or planned to conduct, more cybersecurity testing during development than past acquisition programs. It is important that DOD sustain its efforts as it works to improve weapon systems cybersecurity. Contracting for cybersecurity requirements is key. DOD guidance states that these requirements should be treated like other types of system requirements and, more simply, “if it is not in the contract, do not expect to get it.” Specifically, cybersecurity requirements should be defined in acquisition program contracts, and criteria should be established for accepting or rejecting the work and for how the government will verify that requirements have been met. However, GAO found examples of program contracts omitting cybersecurity requirements, acceptance criteria, or verification processes. For example, GAO found that contracts for three of the five programs did not include any cybersecurity requirements when they were awarded. A senior DOD official said standardizing cybersecurity requirements is difficult and the department needs to better communicate cybersecurity requirements and systems engineering to the users that will decide whether or not a cybersecurity risk is acceptable. Incorporating Cybersecurity in Contracts DOD and the military services have developed a range of policy and guidance documents to improve weapon systems cybersecurity, but the guidance usually does not specifically address how acquisition programs should include cybersecurity requirements, acceptance criteria, and verification processes in contracts. Among the four military services GAO reviewed, only the Air Force has issued service-wide guidance that details how acquisition programs should define cybersecurity requirements and incorporate those requirements in contracts. The other services could benefit from a similar approach in developing their own guidance that helps ensure that DOD appropriately addresses cybersecurity requirements in contracts. DOD’s network of sophisticated, expensive weapon systems must work when needed, without being incapacitated by cyberattacks. However, GAO reported in 2018 that DOD was routinely finding cyber vulnerabilities late in its development process. A Senate report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to review DOD’s implementation of cybersecurity for weapon systems in development. GAO’s report addresses (1) the extent to which DOD has made progress in implementing cybersecurity for weapon systems during development, and (2) the extent to which DOD and the military services have developed guidance for incorporating weapon systems cybersecurity requirements into contracts. GAO reviewed DOD and service guidance and policies related to cybersecurity for weapon systems in development, interviewed DOD and program officials, and reviewed supporting documentation for five acquisition programs. GAO also interviewed defense contractors about their experiences with weapon systems cybersecurity. GAO is recommending that the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps provide guidance on how programs should incorporate tailored cybersecurity requirements into contracts. DOD concurred with two recommendations, and stated that the third—to the Marine Corps—should be merged with the one to the Navy. DOD’s response aligns with the intent of the recommendation. For more information, contact W. William Russell at (202) 512-4841 or email@example.com.
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- Disaster Recovery: COVID-19 Pandemic Intensifies Disaster Recovery Challenges for K-12 Schools
October 14, 2020Local education officials in natural disaster-affected areas told us the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues and contributed to lost instructional time, staff burnout, delays in recovery projects, and financial strain in their communities. These officials explained that after the natural disaster, restoring students’ mental health was a top priority. Many local education officials said that the services needed to treat trauma and other disaster-related mental health issues were not readily available in their areas, and some noted that providing mental health services has been especially difficult during the pandemic. For example, one official said that because half of her students live in poverty, they usually access mental health services through the school, and were cut off from those services during the pandemic. Some local education officials said they were also particularly worried about the effects of the pandemic on their low-income and other at-risk students, noting that these students are especially vulnerable to learning loss. The COVID-19 pandemic has also affected districts by slowing progress on some disaster recovery projects. For example, an official in a district affected by wildfire said that an effort to restore running water to damaged school buildings was delayed due the pandemic. The U.S. Department of Education (Education) supported school recovery efforts by awarding nearly $1.4 billion to assist schools in over 30 states and U.S. territories with recovery from presidentially-declared major disasters occurring between 2017 and 2019, although some local education officials reported difficulty in using these grant funds during the pandemic. Education provided this funding through the Immediate Aid to Restart School Operations (Restart) and the Project School Emergency Response to Violence grant programs, among others. Local education officials from several districts and counties said that they are using or planning to use Education disaster grants to provide mental health services to students and cover other costs associated with re-opening, such as additional transportation services, but that during the pandemic this was sometimes challenging. For example, officials in two counties said that timeframes for using Restart funds, which expire after 2 years, were too short for long-term recovery needs such as mental health services, particularly with the compounding effects of the pandemic. Education officials said that grantees may request waivers to extend the end dates of these grants and that as of October 2020, no Restart grantees who experienced a 2018 disaster had done so. With regard to oversight, Education officials said they paused on-site monitoring efforts for recent disaster grants as a result of the pandemic, but have continued to hold quarterly phone calls with Restart grantees. These grantees have noted some challenges related to the grant program but have not discussed specific technical assistance needs, according to Education officials. More than 260 presidentially-declared major disasters have occurred since 2017, affecting every state and several U.S. territories, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Many of these natural disasters have had devastating effects, including rendering K-12 school facilities unusable for lengthy periods of time. These schools are now experiencing the compounding challenge of recovering from natural disasters while managing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing practices and building closures are meant to keep staff and students safe, but may also complicate recovery efforts for disaster-affected districts. The Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act of 2019 provided funds for GAO to audit issues related to presidentially-declared major disasters that occurred in 2018. We reviewed (1) how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected schools recovering from recent natural disasters; and (2) support Education has provided to help school recover from recent natural disasters and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected schools’ use of these resources. We interviewed 29 local education officials representing over 50 school districts in California, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Florida, and Hawaii, which were selected because they were affected by a diverse set of major natural disasters in 2018 that occurred in a mix of populated and less-populated areas. In addition, through a national school superintendents association, we convened a discussion group of superintendents who have experienced natural disasters and mentor other affected districts. Finally, we reviewed federal guidance and interviewed Education officials. For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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