Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, thank you for joining us here tonight. I want to get right to what was reported late today from Russian state news, reports that those Russian separatists in those two regions inside Ukraine that Vladimir Putin declared as independent, that those separatists have now made a formal appeal to Vladimir Putin for military help in, quote, “repulsing Ukrainian aggression,” accusing Ukraine of genocide. This was announced in the middle of the night in Moscow. And you’ve been saying all along the U.S. has been predicting that there could be some sort of manufactured plea for help here, that Putin might then use it to send in Russian troops. Is that what we’re witnessing here?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: David, I’d say this is exactly that. This is right out of the Russian playbook, to manufacture a provocation as a justification for invading Ukraine. And this is part and parcel of what we predicted all along.
QUESTION: Secretary, I wanted to ask you about what we heard from John Kirby over at the Pentagon late today. When pressed, what has the U.S. seen inside eastern Ukraine, has the U.S. seen Russian forces move into the Donbas region, he said that we certainly believe that additional Russian military forces are moving into that region but we can’t confirm the numbers, the capabilities, but that we certainly believe that’s happening.
So just to be clear tonight, the U.S. believes Russian forces have moved into eastern Ukraine. Can you shed any more light on the numbers? What do we know right now?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: David, I can’t give you light on specific numbers. But what I can tell is this: Everything we’ve seen over the last 24 to 48 hours has Russia putting the final touches on having its forces in place across all of Ukraine’s borders – to the north, to the east, to the south – to be ready for a full-on invasion.
QUESTION: We know they’re assembled on the borders, though. He made it sound like they’ve begun to push in. Is that your belief, too?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’ve certainly seen the presence of Russian forces inside of – inside of Ukraine.
QUESTION: We all watched as Vladimir Putin suddenly declared those two regions independent, then sanctions from President Biden; 24 hours ago, President Biden telling the American people that the invasion was beginning, and then we saw more sanctions. Now tonight Putin giving every signal that he’s now moving forward. So are the sanctions working here?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: David, the sanctions are designed to do two things. And first of all, we’ve spent a lot of time working with allies and partners to build the sanctions to be able to act in unison, to be able to act quickly, which is just what we did yesterday with significant sanctions against major Russian financial institutions, their ability to raise money around the world for their projects, and critically, the step that Germany took in close coordination with us to end this pipeline, the so-called Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would have been a cash cow for Moscow going forward, $11 billion project that’s now on the ice.
But the sanctions are designed, in the first instance, to try to deter Russia from taking further aggression, from engaging in a massive invasion of Ukraine beyond the steps that they’ve already taken; but if that doesn’t succeed in deterring them, to make it very clear that there are going to be massive consequences, and to punish them for the actions they take.
QUESTION: Will the U.S. sanction Putin —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: All of that is in place.
QUESTION: Will the U.S. sanction Putin directly?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: As Russia – if and as Russia escalates, we will look at every other step to do the same ourselves.
QUESTION: You don’t need me to tell you this. We all know that Russia has been sanctioned before. Putin just told the Russian people this week that the West is going to sanction us. So if sanctions don’t work here, are there any non-economic moves President Biden can take?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: First, the sanctions that we have, not only the ones we’ve already initiated based on Russia starting its invasion of Ukraine but the ones we have in reserve if they actually continue down this path, are unprecedented, and not just from us, in coordination with our European partners, with partners around the world.
Second, beyond that, we’ve made very clear that we’re going to do a number of things that Russia is not going to like, including reinforcing the NATO defensive alliance, including right near Russia’s borders to make sure we’re protecting allies and partners, as well as doubling down on our support to Ukraine. Security, economic, political, diplomatic: All of that will be forthcoming. All things that President Putin says he wants to prevent will be happening.
QUESTION: But bottom line: If sanctions don’t work, is there anything else President Biden can do here?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, if there is any opportunity for diplomatic engagement in – if Russia demonstrates that it’s actually serious about that, which unfortunately it’s doing just the opposite, we’ll certainly pursue that. But we’ve said all along that we’re prepared for this either way. We’re prepared to try to avert this diplomatically, through dialogue. We’re also prepared if Russia decides to choose the path of aggression because ultimately, they get a vote. President Putin gets a vote. And if his vote is for aggression, we’re fully prepared for that.
QUESTION: With just a few seconds left here, we appear to be in the 11th hour here. Do you still believe there’s a diplomatic path?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Until you hit midnight, there always is, and we’ll – we’re certainly looking for it. But it requires Russia to demonstrate that it’s serious about diplomacy. Every step that it’s taken in recent days is moving in exactly the opposite direction.
QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, thank you for joining us here tonight.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, David.
- Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program: Additional Actions Needed to Improve Communication with Applicants and Address Fraud Risks
July 31, 2021What GAO Found Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) applicants and recipients varied in terms of business size, years in operation, and industry, based on GAO’s analysis of Small Business Administration (SBA) data from March 2020 through February 2021: Business size. A majority of EIDL applicants (about 81 percent) and EIDL recipients (about 86 percent) were smaller businesses (10 or fewer employees). Years in operation. A majority of EIDL applicants (about 63 percent) had been in operation for less than 5 years. However, businesses in operation for more than 5 years received the majority of total EIDL loan dollars and had higher approval rates compared to newer businesses. Industry. Businesses in the personal services and transportation industries made up the largest share of applicants, while those in the legal services and lodging industries were approved for loans at the highest rates (see figure). Top Loan Applicants and Approval Rates by Business Industry In addition, small businesses in counties with higher median household income, better internet access, and more diverse populations generally received more loans per 1,000 businesses and larger loans. EIDL applicants have faced a number of challenges, according to applicants and other business stakeholders GAO interviewed between August 2020 and February 2021. For example, applicants from five discussion groups and several stakeholders cited lack of information and uncertainty about application status as major concerns. In addition, until February 2021, SBA did not provide important information to potential applicants, such as limits on loan amounts and definitions of certain program terms. Lack of important program information and application status put pressure on SBA’s resources and negatively affected applicants’ experience. For example, SBA’s customer service line experienced call surges that resulted in long wait times, and SBA’s data showed that 5.3 million applications were duplicates. SBA’s planning documents describe in general terms the public outreach to be conducted following disasters, but they do not detail the type or timing of the information to be provided. Developing and implementing a comprehensive communication strategy that includes these details could improve the quality, clarity, and timeliness of information SBA provides to its applicants and resource partners following catastrophic disasters. GAO’s ongoing review of the EIDL program related to COVID-19 has found that the program is susceptible to providing funding to ineligible and fraudulent applicants. For example, as GAO reported in January 2021, SBA had approved at least 3,000 loans totaling about $156 million to businesses that SBA policies state were ineligible for the EIDL program, such as real estate developers and multilevel marketers, as of September 30, 2020. In addition, GAO found that between May and October 2020, over 900 U.S. financial institutions filed more than 20,000 suspicious activity reports related to the EIDL program with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. Further, GAO’s analysis of 51 Department of Justice cases involving fraud charges for EIDL loans as of March 2021 found that these cases involved identity theft, false attestation, fictitious or inflated employee counts, and misuse of proceeds. Over the course of its COVID-19 response, SBA has made some changes to address these risks. For example, beginning in June 2020, SBA took actions to improve loan officers’ ability to withhold funding for applicants suspected of fraud. However, SBA has not yet implemented recommendations GAO has previously made to address EIDL program risks. In January 2021, GAO recommended that SBA conduct data analytics across the EIDL portfolio to detect potentially ineligible and fraudulent applications (GAO-21-265). SBA did not agree or disagree with this recommendation. However, in May 2021, SBA officials stated the agency was in the process of developing analysis to apply certain fraud indicators to all application data. In March 2021, GAO recommended that SBA (1) implement a comprehensive oversight plan to identify and respond to risks in the EIDL program, (2) conduct and document a fraud risk assessment, and (3) develop a strategy to address the program’s assessed fraud risks on a continuous basis (GAO-21-387). SBA agreed with all three recommendations. In May 2021, SBA officials stated that the agency had started to assess fraud risk for the program. Fully implementing these recommendations would help SBA to safeguard billions of dollars of taxpayer funds and improve the operation of the EIDL program. Why GAO Did This Study Between March 2020 and February 2021, SBA provided about 3.8 million low-interest EIDL loans and 5.8 million grants (called advances) totaling $224 billion to help small businesses adversely affected by COVID-19. Borrowers can use these low-interest loans and advances to pay for operating and other expenses. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to monitor funds provided for the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines, among other objectives, the characteristics of program applicants and recipients; the challenges EIDL applicants experienced and the extent to which SBA has addressed them; and the steps SBA has taken to address risks of fraud and provision of funds to ineligible applicants. GAO reviewed documents from SBA, an EIDL contractor, and two of its subcontractors. In addition, GAO analyzed loan application data, conducted five discussion groups with applicants, and interviewed staff from SBA, six Small Business Development Centers, and six business associations. GAO also analyzed socioeconomic, demographic, and geographic data on EIDL program participants.
- Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC Andrea Mitchell Reports
February 1, 2021
- Owner of Louisiana Construction and Building Inspection Businesses and His Two Siblings Plead Guilty to Tax Fraud
November 5, 2021A Louisiana man who owns construction and building inspection businesses, along with his brother and sister, who were employed by the construction businesses, pleaded guilty today to conspiracy to defraud the IRS.
- Former Priest and ‘Shelter Home’ Operator Indicted for Illicit Sexual Conduct Against Minors
August 27, 2021A federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., returned an indictment today charging a U.S. citizen and resident of Timor Leste with seven counts of engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place.
- On the Occasion of World Humanitarian Day
August 21, 2021
- Department of Energy Contracting: NNSA Has Taken Steps to Improve Its Work Authorization Process, but Challenges Remain
October 27, 2021What GAO Found The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has taken steps to improve its process for developing, reviewing, and issuing work authorizations (WA) for its management and operating (M&O) contractors. Such authorizations specify the activities to be conducted in a given fiscal year by the contractors that operate NNSA’s sites (see figure). However, NNSA continues to face challenges issuing WAs before the start of the fiscal year, as generally required by NNSA’s directive on WAs. As part of its efforts to improve the agency’s WA process, NNSA convened an internal working group in 2017 and 2018 to review the process. In October 2018, the working group recommended that NNSA’s program offices submit draft WAs for review by August 15 each year. This recommendation was intended to ensure that field-based contracting officers and M&O contractor representatives finalized and issued WAs by the start of each fiscal year. However, NNSA continued to experience delays in issuing WAs by the start of fiscal year 2020, in part because NNSA does not have a schedule with required deadlines for review and revisions of draft WAs. Contractors that begin work without a WA in place by the start of the fiscal year risk incurring unallowable costs. Further, delays in issuing WAs may require duplicative efforts, such as the need to create interim “stopgap” WAs. NNSA Work Authorization Development and Approval Process According to NNSA officials and M&O contractor representatives, WAs are an input for setting contractor performance expectations against which to monitor. However, when GAO reviewed performance evaluation reports for each contractor for fiscal years 2019 and 2020, GAO found that the reports did not clearly reference the performance expectations contained in WAs. NNSA officials confirmed that performance expectations contained in WAs cannot generally be traced to contractor’s performance evaluation reports. This lack of traceability occurred in part because NNSA does not have clearly documented procedures specifying how officials should collect and use performance information, including from WAs, for evaluating contractor performance. This issue is similar to one on which GAO previously reported in February 2019 and made a recommendation for NNSA to develop such documented procedures. NNSA concurred with the recommendation but has not fully implemented it. GAO continues to believe that improving the ability to trace performance expectations to performance ratings would enable NNSA to more consistently evaluate contractor performance. Why GAO Did This Study NNSA relies on seven M&O contractors to manage and operate its eight laboratory and production sites. NNSA uses documents called WAs to direct the work of its contractors. NNSA’s program offices collectively issued on average 94 WAs per fiscal year from 2018 to 2020. In 1990, GAO designated the Department of Energy’s (DOE) contract management as a high-risk area and continues to identify ongoing challenges with NNSA’s management of its contractors. As part of an effort to understand the status of NNSA’s actions to address contract management challenges, GAO was asked to review NNSA’s work authorization process and documentation. This report examines NNSA’s (1) efforts to improve its work authorization process, and (2) use of WAs in its contractor performance evaluation process. GAO reviewed relevant laws and DOE and NNSA policy and guidance on WAs; analyzed a nongeneralizable sample of WAs for fiscal years 2019 and 2020; analyzed survey responses from all relevant NNSA program and field offices and contractor sites; reviewed contractor performance documentation; and interviewed agency officials.
- Former Attorney for Municipalities in Puerto Rico Sentenced for Bribery
April 27, 2021A former attorney for three municipalities in Puerto Rico was sentenced today to 10 years in prison after he was convicted of four counts of bribery with respect to programs receiving federal funds.
- Residents of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina Indicted for Promoting Tax Fraud Scheme
May 12, 2021A federal grand jury in Orlando, Florida, returned an indictment April 21, 2021, charging residents of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina with promoting a tax fraud scheme.
- Secretary Antony J. Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Remarks to the Press Before Their Meeting
December 2, 2021
- Attorney General Announces Task Force to Combat COVID-19 Fraud
May 17, 2021U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland today directed the establishment of the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to marshal the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with agencies across government to enhance enforcement efforts against COVID-19 related fraud.
- Justice Department Reaches Agreement with San Luis Obispo County Jail to Ensure Safe and Equal Access to its Programs for Inmates with Mobility Disabilities
June 24, 2021The Justice Department today reached a settlement under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with San Luis Obispo County, California, to ensure that inmates with mobility disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate in San Luis Obispo Jail’s (SLO Jail) programs, services and activities.
- Bastille Day
July 14, 2021
- Coast Guard: Enhancements Needed to Strengthen Marine Inspection Workforce Planning Efforts
January 12, 2022What GAO Found The safe operation of vessels is critical to the maritime sector, which contributes nearly $5.4 trillion annually to the U.S. economy. The U.S. Coast Guard uses a tool called the Sector Staffing Model to assess its marine inspection staffing levels at operational field units for the upcoming year. GAO’s analysis of the tool’s data shows that the supply of marine inspectors has consistently not met the estimated need (see fig.). However, the Coast Guard collects and analyzes limited data to forecast future workforce and industry trends that could affect the supply and demand for marine inspectors. For example, the Coast Guard collects industry data to forecast workforce needs for certain vessel types (e.g., cruise ships) but not others (e.g., freight vessels). Further, the Coast Guard does not regularly collect and analyze other data, such as future potential retirements, that could affect the supply of marine inspectors. Collecting additional data to forecast future trends in the maritime industry and its marine inspection workforce would enhance the Coast Guard’s ability to identify potential future workforce needs. Percentage of Coast Guard Marine Inspection Workforce Staffed Compared with the Sector Staffing Model’s Full Capacity Estimates, 2012 through 2020 The Coast Guard has initiatives as part of its workforce improvement plan to address long-standing marine inspection workforce needs, but they are at varying stages of completion. For example, the Coast Guard began implementing initiatives to address challenges in four key areas—training and skills, technology, workforce staffing levels, and workforce structure. Specifically, in 2020 and 2021, the Coast Guard developed new training courses, deployed a mobile application that allows remote access to its inspection database, and added 65 new marine inspector positions to help address its shortfall of over 400 inspectors. Other initiatives remain ongoing. However, the Coast Guard has not established performance measures with targets for its marine inspection workforce improvement plan and associated initiatives that would identify desired outcomes and provide a means to measure how its efforts help close workforce gaps over time. Doing so would better position the Coast Guard to determine the effectiveness of its efforts to address its marine inspection workforce challenges. Why GAO Did This Study The Coast Guard serves as the principal federal agency responsible for marine safety. A key element of this mission is the marine inspection program, which employs marine inspectors to conduct vessel inspections. However, for decades, the program has faced challenges maintaining an adequate staff of experienced marine safety personnel. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 includes a provision for GAO to review marine inspection workforce issues. This report examines the extent to which the Coast Guard has (1) assessed its marine inspection workforce needs and (2) addressed these needs. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed Coast Guard policies, workforce assessments, and performance plans; analyzed staffing level data from 2012 through 2020 (the years with comparable data); and interviewed Coast Guard officials.
- Former Elected County Coroner Indicted for Illegal Distribution of Controlled Substances
October 14, 2021A federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Kentucky returned an indictment today charging a former elected county coroner with illegally distributing controlled substances such as oxycodone and OxyContin.
- Executions Scheduled for Inmates Convicted of Brutal Murders Many Years Ago
November 21, 2020Attorney General William P. Barr today directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the execution of three federal-death row inmates sentenced to death for staggeringly brutal murders, including the murder of a child and, with respect to two inmates, the murder of multiple victims.
- Court Permanently Enjoins Three Vietnamese Residents from Continuing to Operate a Pandemic-Related Fraud Scheme
December 15, 2021A federal court in Florida permanently enjoined on Friday three residents of Vietnam from operating a pandemic-related scam that targeted American consumers, the Department of Justice announced.
- Costa Rica Travel Advisory
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- Local man sentenced for possession of $5 million in meth
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- Afghanistan and Iraq: DOD Should Improve Adherence to Its Guidance on Open Pit Burning and Solid Waste Management
August 23, 2021From the start of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military and its contractors have burned solid waste in open burn pits on or near military bases. According to the Department of Defense (DOD), burn pit emissions can potentially harm human health. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) guidance directs the military’s use of burn pits, and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) provides healthcare and other benefits to veterans and their families. GAO was asked to report on the (1) extent of open pit burning in Afghanistan and Iraq, and whether the military has followed its guidance; (2) alternatives to burn pits, and whether the military has examined them; and (3) extent of efforts to monitor air quality and potential health impacts. GAO visited four burn pits in Iraq, reviewed DOD data on burn pits, and consulted DOD and VA officials and other experts. GAO was unable to visit burn pits in Afghanistan.The military has relied heavily on open pit burning in both conflicts, and operators of burn pits have not always followed relevant guidance to protect servicemembers from exposure to harmful emissions. According to DOD, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq generate about 10 pounds of solid waste per soldier each day. The military has relied on open pit burning to dispose of this waste mainly because of its expedience. In August 2010, CENTCOM estimated there were 251 burn pits in Afghanistan and 22 in Iraq. CENTCOM officials said the number of burn pits is increasing in Afghanistan and decreasing in Iraq, which reflects U.S. troop reallocations and efforts to install waste incinerators. Despite its reliance on burn pits, CENTCOM did not issue comprehensive burn pit guidance until 2009. Furthermore, to varying degrees, operators of burn pits at four bases GAO visited in Iraq were not complying with key elements of this guidance, such as restrictions on the burning of items, including plastic, that produce harmful emissions. DOD officials also said that, from the start of each conflict, operators routinely burned items that are now prohibited. The continued burning of prohibited items has resulted from a number of factors, including the constraints of combat operations, resource limitations, and contracts with burn pit operators that do not reflect current guidance. Waste management alternatives could decrease the reliance on and exposure to burn pits, but DOD has been slow to implement alternatives or fully evaluate their benefits and costs, such as avoided future costs of potential health effects. Various DOD guidance documents discourage long-term use of burn pits, encourage the use of incinerators and landfills, or encourage waste minimization such as source reduction. DOD has installed 39 solid waste incinerators in Iraq and 20 in Afghanistan, and plans to install additional incinerators in Afghanistan. To date, source reduction practices have not been widely implemented in either country and recycling consists primarily of large scrap metals. DOD plans to increase recycling at its bases in Iraq, but recycling at bases in Afghanistan has been limited. Further, DOD has not fully analyzed its waste stream in either country and lacks the information to decrease the toxicity of its waste stream and enhance waste minimization. U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq do not sample or monitor burn pit emissions as provided by a key CENTCOM regulation, and the health impacts of burn pit exposure on individuals are not well understood, partly because the military does not collect required data on emissions or exposures from burn pits. Army public health officials have, however, sampled the ambient air at bases in each conflict and found high levels of particle pollution that causes health problems but is not unique to burn pits. These officials identified logistical and other challenges in monitoring burn pit emissions, and U.S. Forces have yet to establish pollutant monitoring systems. DOD and VA have commissioned studies to enhance their understanding of burn pit emissions, but the lack of data on emissions specific to burn pits and related exposures limit efforts to characterize potential health impacts on service personnel, contractors, and host-country nationals. Among other things, GAO recommends that the Secretary of Defense improve DOD’s adherence to relevant guidance on burn pit operations and waste management, and analyze alternatives to its current practices. In commenting on a draft of this report, DOD said that it concurred with five of the six recommendations and partially concurred with the sixth. GAO addressed a DOD suggestion to clarify the sixth recommendation. VA reviewed the draft report and had no comments.
- The Election of Gay McDougall to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
June 24, 2021