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Briefing on the Political-Military Affairs Bureau’s Support for Global COVID Relief Efforts (May 8)
May 8, 2020

MS ORTAGUS:  Thank you and hello again, everybody.  Good morning for the second time.  I’m sorry that we’re loading you up on this Friday, but lots of, lots of news today.

So, for our second on-the-record briefing this morning, we wanted to shed some light on the ongoing work by our Bureau of Political-Military Affairs to support global COVID relief efforts.  PM’s Assistant Secretary, my friend Clarke Cooper, will discuss COVID-19, the bureau’s continued focus on carrying out security assistance and defense trade activities, and how we remain as the security partner of choice to partners and allies throughout the world.

Assistant Secretary Cooper will offer opening remarks, of course, and then we’ll answer your questions.  Just a reminder to everybody, of course, that the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call.  This is an on-the-record call, and once again, I think most of you know the drill.  If you have a question, please go ahead and press 1 and 0 now in order to get into the queue.

Clarke, go ahead.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER:  Thank you so much, Morgan, and everybody, very happy to be here today and take opportunity to sit down again.  Again, virtual is how it is.  I would rather we’d all be in person and be able to be with each other, and I look forward to us being able to do this in person in the future.  I also appreciate everyone’s patience as we accommodate ourselves on this alternate form of communicating.

So, I wanted to begin with what is definitely on everyone’s mind, and as Morgan mentioned, how we are adjusting our posture in meeting mission in light of the COVID pandemic, and how its effects are on our operations worldwide with the political-military enterprise.

As Secretary Pompeo noted this week, and actually in several fora, the United States is proud to be the world’s number-one provider of humanitarian assistance to countries worldwide.  In response to the COVID pandemic, we have provided more than $900 million in humanitarian help and economic and development assistance to more than 120 countries.

This is not just in COVID times, but this is across the board.  When times are tough, one can rely on a true friend, like the United States, to provide a helping hand with assistance.  For the Political-Military Affairs portfolio, this means that our allies and our security partners need U.S. defense articles, they need the training, and they still need the assistance more than ever.  And we want to make sure that the United States remains indeed their global security partner of choice.

So now from a posture standpoint on everything – how it’s impacted defense trade, how it’s impacted security assistance, peacekeeping, humanitarian, demining, et cetera – all of this has been impacted by the virus.  Nothing has not been touched or impacted.  But what’s not changed is the programmatic need.  The need is still there.  So far, none of our security cooperation partners, no state has sought or asked to cancel any particular contract or sought or asked to cancel any particular security cooperation commitment.

Of course, we do know at this point that supply chains, revenue streams have certainly been disrupted.  We can assess that defense budgets for a number of partners do remain uncertain based on adjusted revenue streams for those partners.  But the United States Government and United States industry continues to honor our commitments to our partners, and there may be some adjustments along the way to ensure that we fulfill those commitments, but they remain.  And today, I’ll even talk about some of what we’ve been able to do on the immediate side to ensure that we’re able to continue forward.

We remain in the process to move forward on cases.  So, when I talk about a defense trade and export licensing, we are still doing that at the same pace and at the same volume as we did before the onset of a COVID pandemic.  That is significant in that, as I mentioned at the top of the call, we’ve all adjusted to alternate means of communicating.  Well, PM has adjusted to alternate means of doing our work.  And so while physical presence in an office space may not be the same, our capacity to be able to do our work has continued forward, and I’m very proud of that, actually.

Our industry partners, they have also continued to deliver on contracts and deliveries, despite transportation challenges.  And our partners have actually told us they want to continue with pending sales.  Now the variants of those commitments, of course, may adjust, but for now, there are no cessation of particular commitments.  Some partners have even sought to continue more strategic planning, and actually looking forward on new and additional requests.

Industry, to their credit, they have been very candid about where they need our assistance to keep the process moving.  That is at every level within the PM bureau: myself, a number of our deputy assistant secretaries, and well down at the operational level.  Just late last month, the – PM’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, DDTC, responded with some immediate measures that I referenced at the top of the call.  And these temporary measures, some in many cases could actually maybe evolve into additional reforms as we get past the pandemic.  But it responds with a number of temporary changes to the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations, or as we commonly call it, the ITAR, to help industry ensure continuity of operations.  We want to reduce the amount of disruptions as possible, practice social distancing, maximize telework – as I mentioned, as long as the capabilities are there, then we can offset the challenges of physical presence – reduce the burden on IT systems, and also want to make sure that we’re safeguarding national security and protecting our technical data.

So what are these measures?  One of them was reducing registration fees to $500 for applicants in the Tier 1 and Tier 2 categories.  This will save firms – and I want to emphasize firms that are in the small to medium-size enterprises – an estimated of $20 million over the course of the next calendar year.  We also are temporarily suspending the requirement for exporters to renew their registration annually in the period immediately following President Trump’s March 13 National Emergency Declaration.  We’re temporarily suspending the requirement that regular employees must work at a company’s facilities to allow telework; again, addressing capacity versus physical presence.  We want to make sure that this is done so long as the employee is not located in, say, well, Russia or China or another prohibited country.

We have similarly eased requirements on the sharing of technical data during remote work while carefully balancing this need for remote access with our responsibility to protect U.S. national security.  And we’re also extending six-month licenses that would normally expire between the President’s declaration of March 13 to the end of this month, May 31, so long as there’s no changes in the scope or the value or in the name or the address of the parties.  This measure was highly sought after by industry during our consultations at the break of the pandemic, and we wanted to make sure that this helps – creates a bridge and reduces some disruptions.

And then finally, I’d also like to highlight what we’ve actually begun on the transmission of notifications to Congress.  We are transmitting congressional notifications of direct commercial sales to the Hill electronically.  Now that might sound like something we could have done 20 years ago, and we could, but we are taking opportunity of the current conditions to modernize how we do our work in the interagency and with our colleagues over in the Legislative Branch.  We are very much appreciative that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs worked with us to get this protocol in place.  And I would like to see more of this in the future, as I said, reforms that we are capturing now to modernize how we work, to expedite how we work, to reduce the bureaucratic burden on industry.  COVID has provided an opportunity for us to be creative and lean forward.

Beginning with the initial February launch of our Defense Export Control and Compliance System, or DECCS as we call it, DDTC now has a modern cloud-based system for processing export licensing applications.  And we do expect to make more services available electronically or via e-mail over the next coming year.  Some of those parts certainly predate COVID, but the COVID conditions have very much amplified the necessity for electronic communication.

And now let me share with you more about COVID impacts to our security assistance programming as well as our peacekeeping and capacity building and our humanitarian mine action programs.  Many of these activities certainly were impacted by partner nation lockdowns, their adjusting of their posture, closure of their borders, their militaries having similar do-not-travel orders like ours, and then of course the truncated or limited access to civilian commercial air travel.  But as I’ve noted, the need for these crucial programs remains, and there are certainly no changes to U.S. Government funding levels.  In general, our security partnerships with military and law enforcement on hard security issues are least affected, but it’s the pandemic’s second- and third-order effects that are difficult to anticipate or mitigate, and this is a constant measure and analysis that we apply on where we may need to adjust.

As in other areas of life in the time of the COVID pandemic, this is an opportunity, as well as a challenge.  And so looking at that, we are working with our DOD colleagues to find new ways to provide classroom-based professional, technical, and human rights training, either to entirely a virtual platform or with some kind of enhanced social distancing so that that still continues uninterrupted.

To meet the urgent demand on medical services, the Department’s Political-Military Affairs Bureau, along with our colleagues at the African Affairs regional bureau, we have worked with Congress proactively to authorize partner countries to utilize equipment previously delivered for deployments to international peacekeeping missions, or to – and make sure that they are temporarily utilized for domestic COVID-19 response.  This is something that was generated here at the State Department, and we certainly worked with DOD colleagues as far as identifying where best applied.  And as I mentioned, we’re very well engaged with Congress on being able to move forward.

This equipment, including field hospitals and ambulances and in some cases personnel trained to utilize such equipment as well, are all working on the front lines in places like Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal, Uganda, and Mongolia to boost the global response, to treat the infected, and slow the spread.  In doing so, we’re building on the success of similar efforts in response to the 2014 Ebola crisis in Western and Central Africa.  We capture lessons learned at that time and we definitely had historic reference on where we could actually take what was in the field and apply it to help support and help mitigate a medical crisis.

U.S. foreign assistance investments focused on security capacity building help allies and make sure partners acquire those key capabilities essential to safeguarding their countries and work together more effectively for shared security challenges.  And as we’ve talked much today and will about COVID, I want to note that these security challenges as far as state actors, non-state actors, violent extremists – those have not gone away.  And the necessity for our investments in security assistance programs certainly want to make sure that our allies and partners are able to respond quickly and decisively to what are the known as well as the unforeseen crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and certainly demonstrate why the United States remains the global security partner of choice.

And as to the global response as it evolves, we are looking to seek further opportunities to temporarily repurpose delivered U.S. peacekeeping and security sector assistance.  We want to make sure that U.S. partners can meet their domestic needs as well.  If their domestic posture is impeded or degraded, it certainly would be a risk to their sovereignty and also may risk their ability to be a security cooperation partner.  We have notified Congress that we have authorized temporary use of field hospitals purchased for counterterrorism purposes in countries like Mauritania.  We’ve also notified Congress for plans to authorize partners in Burkina Faso, Chad, Malawi, Niger, Northern Macedonia to make sure that temporary use of types of previously delivered equipment, such as field hospitals, ambulances, and other items could be at least applied in a domestic capacity to respond to COVID or mitigate COVID.

Such equipment, like the ones I just enumerated, were purchased mostly for counterterrorism purposes, along with for some peacekeeping operations, as you might have recognized, some of the countries I mentioned are significant troop-contributing countries or TCCs.  When we notified Congress of these temporary loans, we also noted that there may be in some cases a permanent transfer of particular materials like cots and mattresses to make sure that certain entities like the Sierra Leone military could use it for their response.

And then elsewhere, NGOs that implement our land mine awareness programs are also delivering COVID messaging to the rural communities that they serve.  In other places still our demining NGOs are also using their substantial logistics capabilities and networks to help deliver medical supplies where they are needed most – in far away from any particular urban areas or logistic nodes.  This clearly shows how long-term U.S. foreign assistance investments and our contacts and our State boots on the ground focus on security capacity building help our allies, help our partners, not only acquire the key capabilities essential to safeguarding their countries and work together more effectively to meet shared security challenges, but it also provides a reminder as to where we are invested in each other and where we are long-term invested in our partners to help them meet global needs as we respond to this COVID pandemic.

And then finally, I just wanted to close with – if it’s not a declarative maybe an admonition, and you’ve heard this from me before:  Caveat emptor.  In difficult times, there are an awareness – and certainly has become surfaced – some unscrupulous state actors and their proxies.  They are seeking to take unfair advantage of coronavirus-stricken nations.  And so I would assess the question our partners probably should ask at this time:  Is this an altruistic measure?  Is there something behind this assistance that we are getting from somebody that is not an invested partner?  Assistance that comes along with the loss of sovereignty, assistance that comes along with resource extraction, and assistance that comes along with debt trap diplomacy – the signing away the rights to critical physical or IT infrastructure or the exploitation of intellectual property due to espionage or just straight-out theft – is not aid.  It is not assistance at all and should rightfully be refused.  Going forward, America will continue to aid allies and partners in need, and we will always do so without those harmful strings attached.  We have partners, not clients.

So with that, happy to talk a little further about the things that we’ve covered here today.  Certainly happy to talk about posture of what we’re doing with the defense industrial base, but certainly looking forward to the discussion.

MS ORTAGUS:  Great, thanks.  And again, to get in the queue for questions, please press 1 and then 0.  First up is Ben Marks.

QUESTION:  Yeah, hi.  Can you hear me?


MS ORTAGUS:  Yeah, we can hear you, Ben.

QUESTION:  Okay, great.  Thank you, Assistant Secretary Cooper, for doing this.  I have two quick questions.  The first is:  Could you just update us on negotiations between the U.S. and South Korea on a new SMA?  Would you say you guys are close to an agreement or deadlocked?

And then my second question is:  Do you have a date when cost-sharing negotiations between the U.S. and Japan are scheduled to begin?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER:  Hey Ben, I’ll start with Republic of South Korea.  So, the lines of communication between President Trump, President Moon, Secretary Pompeo, Foreign Minister Kang, and of course my colleague, the senior negotiator for the department, Jim DeHart here in the PM bureau and his counterpart, Jeong, all those lines of communication remain open and active.  I do not want to preclude where we are, but I would say that the communication never stopped and there certainly is a healthy discourse that continues.

Regarding Japan and a host nation support agreement, that certainly is on deck.  There are other defense cooperation agreements that are in the queue and active right now.  There is not a linear queuing of these.  I would say there is multiple DCAs happening all at one time.  But to that part of the world, yes, what would – next on deck for East Asia would be Japan.  Over.

MS ORTAGUS:  Great, thanks.  Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  I wanted to ask you about the Apache deal with Egypt that was announced yesterday.  As you know, there have been human rights concerns with Egypt, including those articulated by the Department, such as the death of an American citizen earlier this year.  What is the thinking on approving the Apache helicopter?  Some critics have said this is more of a prestige project or prestige purchase for the Egyptians.  What’s your thinking on the utility of them and why it is approved now?  Thanks.

MS ORTAGUS:  Clarke, did we lose you?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER:  Yeah, so the question was why the release on this package.  So the – on these Apaches, these are refurbished rotor wings that had been long developed for modernization of Egypt’s forces and particularly on their requirement, their counterterrorism requirements on the Sinai Peninsula.  So from – not just from a state local military affairs aspect, I would say from a security, national security enterprise, looking at making sure that Egyptian and Israeli security has that interoperability to make sure that regional stability in the Sinai is consistent with our interests.  So the Apaches, long-term project and something that contributes to what we are – expect from our Egyptian partners as well as what our Israeli partners expect from our Egyptian partners.

As to the question about issues and concerns we have with Egypt, those have not abated.  Secretary Pompeo, myself, we have been very clear with our Egyptian counterparts and interlocutors about the death of Mustafa Kassem, about the case with April Corley and that settlement.  Those have not gone away and they’ve not gone off the table.  And we have a number of other bilateral issues that we are working through with Egypt, but they do remain an important partner on the global counterterrorism campaign, and they certainly remain a partner not only with us but also with our Israeli allies.

MS ORTAGUS:  Great.  Ruben, are you back on yet?  Okay.  I think that – I think he said that Joel Gehrke is on next.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks for doing this.  I wondered – shifting to the Indo-Pacific, we’ve seen a lot of aggressive action out of China in that space – the sinking of the Vietnamese fishing boat, now they’re talking about enforcing a fishing ban in the South China Sea pretty strictly.  There’s also sort of a fraught relationship right now between the U.S. and the Philippines on some different agreements.

So I wonder, given what we’ve learned about Chinese aggression during this COVID crisis, have you heard any – have you seen any outreach from allies in the region looking for particular kinds of assistance or cooperation in your bailiwick to deal with that?  And how has – how might that diplomacy affect sort of the security situation there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER:  Well, if we look at the Indo-Pacific particularly, I’ll start with this:  It has not been lost on any of the states that are in that region of making sure that it remains free and open to all states.  That’s including China.  But any kind of coercive actions or molestation or any kind of bullying would certainly not be acceptable at any time.  But at a time when all economies are stressed and all postures of society are stressed, any kind of course of actions in, say, the South China Sea or anywhere in Indo-Pacific have been amplified to the point of not just irritant, but of concern.

As far as, like, who is stellar and is standing out from a global response and who’s been team players, we – there’s plenty of examples out there coming from Taiwan.  They have been very aggressive in reaching out to help not only immediate neighbors but others around the world on, say, PPE, masks, you name it.  South Korea – we have maintained a very nice, tight line with them on helping each other out, and we have been very welcoming of assistance from our Republic of Korea colleagues.

So, there’s certainly been a team effort amongst states there.  You mentioned the Philippines.  While we are working through the Visiting Forces Agreement issues with Manila, I do remind folks that we still have a number of bilateral agreements that remain in place regardless, and there are significant commitments that the Philippines are not walking away from, even with the COVID posture.  They remain a significant CT partner, and when one looks at some of the non-state entities with branches around the world, the Philippines, particularly in that region, still play a significant role and work with the United States to prosecute terrorist targets, not only for themselves, but also for – on our behalf.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Okay, and for our last question let’s go to the line of Conor Finnegan, please.

QUESTION:  Hey, Clarke, thank you for doing this.  I just wanted to follow up on Ben’s question.  I know you don’t want to get ahead of the talks with South Korea, but we’re in the fifth month of the year; the furloughs began last month with about a half of locally employed staff being furloughed, and there were a lot of warnings by military commanders ahead of time that those furloughs would impact readiness.  Can you speak to the urgency of reaching an agreement and whether or not you have seen an impact on readiness already?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER:  Yes.  I’ll start with that there’s no loss of the sense of urgency and also that there’s nobody, no party, be it in Washington or Seoul, that wants to see an erosion of the alliance.  And so that – folks need to remember is that from – if one looks at from a foundational standpoint, the alliance is strong.  It remains strong.  And as I mentioned looking regionally, South Korea’s been one of the shining stars in the Indo-Pacific constellation on COVID response, and we’ve been working with them on that.

As to posture regarding the furloughs, those that were furloughed would have been absent in the COVID posture.  I talked about no travel orders across the globe and reduced physical presence on military installations not just in the United States but with partners.  So, if one looks at who would be absent today, we’re talking about the same amount of reduced personnel footprint related to the furloughs.  So, one could assess that a furlough might have hurt more in a non-COVID space, and it is certainly not something that is desirous in the long run, but in the immediate term, the personnel that were furloughed would not be on post anyway.  They wouldn’t be there because of the current pandemic posture.

That said, it’s not a long-term proposition, but we are certainly looking for amenable space for Korea and for the United States to get to close on the Special Measures Agreement.  And like I said, the communications have never stopped.

What you have in place are different factors and different conditions that have to be addressed domestically in Seoul, and we are certainly aware of that.  But we also – at the end of the day, nobody – President Moon, President Trump – nobody wants to see the alliance erode.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Thank you.  One last call for any lingering questions.  If anyone has any questions, please dial 1 then 0 now.

Can we please open the line of Michele Kelemen.

QUESTION:  Thanks.  I just had a quick follow-up on Sean’s question on Egypt, because you mentioned the April Corley case.  Did that have to be resolved in any way in order for this Apache sale to go through or is that still lingering out there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER:  Michele, in regard – and I only mentioned two cases.  I mean, any of our Amcit cases globally never go away.  They are a constant in any conversation.   Because each case has different movements, regardless if it’s Egypt or another bilateral partner, they are a constant.  And so I said that the Secretary, ministerial level, head-of-government level, for me sub-ministry, but the ambassador here, they hear it all the time.  And there are movements that occur on cases not always in sequence, sometimes in a parallel course, but they never abate.  They are always a part of it.  And there are and have been consequences on certain work that we may have in place with a partner, and sometimes those consequences aren’t always visible.  But I would say from a general sense they remain a constant and always there.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Assistant Secretary Cooper, do you have time for one more question?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER:  Yeah, sure.  Absolutely.  Especially since we got disconnected there.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  So for the last question, can we please open the line of Carol Morello.  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  I just – just a quick question.  I don’t know if you can answer this or not, but I wanted to know if you issued any licenses to either Jordan Goudreau or Silvercorp USA for exporting the weapons that were used in Venezuela?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER:  I can’t get to that granularity as far as if we issued those licenses.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Okay.  Thank you all very much.  Assistant Secretary Cooper, thank you so much for your time.  Have a great afternoon, everybody.