Lawmakers want GAO study of State Department’s repatriation efforts during pandemic

House Foreign Affairs panel leaders say Congress and State need to understand what worked and didn't work in case of future pandemics

A man and woman wearing masks walk through baggage claim at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington in March.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A man and woman wearing masks walk through baggage claim at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington in March. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 12, 2020 at 7:50pm

As the State Department winds down a massive logistical effort to repatriate tens of thousands of Americans left stranded in dozens of countries because of the coronavirus pandemic, Democratic and Republican congressional overseers have called on Congress’ internal watchdog to conduct a comprehensive audit of the airlift.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., and committee ranking member Michael McCaul, R-Texas, on Monday sent a joint letter to the Government Accountability Office outlining a long list of items they want the watchdog to examine in its audit, which has already begun, of the State Department’s repatriation campaign. The duo said it was essential that State and Congress quickly be able to understand what worked and didn't work as there may be need for future repatriation efforts caused by pandemics or other global crises.

“While large-scale repatriation efforts associated with COVID-19 are moving towards a conclusion, new challenges may emerge in the future either in connection with COVID-19 or other similar global crises,” Engel and McCaul wrote in a Monday letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “It is critical that the department continue to prepare for such scenarios, using lessons it learned in the earliest days of this global repatriation effort … to ensure that future repatriations can be carried out swiftly and smoothly.”

Since the end of January, the State Department has helped fly roughly 80,000 Americans spread across 130 countries on about 850 flights back to the United States, according to the department.

Engel and McCaul have asked Pompeo to provide them with a breakdown of which repatriation flights were chartered with Foggy Bottom funds and which were so-called “commercial rescue” flights, that is buying tickets on commercial flights or charters, and the names of the carriers that provided the flights. The lawmakers also asked for an explanation of what future conditions would be needed for the State Department to ask the U.S. military to use its Civil Reserve Air Fleet to assist in global repatriation efforts.

The Civil Reserve Air Fleet is a voluntary program that uses U.S. civilian airlines to augment the Pentagon’s total airlift capability during a national security crisis. In exchange for their participation in the program, participating carriers are given preference in Defense Department contracts for flying commercial peacetime cargo and passengers.

In mid-March, as the full ramifications of the coronavirus outbreak dawned on the American public, a surge of American tourists, students and vulnerable expats sought advice and assistance from U.S. consulates and embassies about how they could get home. This happened just as travel bans were being erected one-by-one by the United States and other countries and as scarce commercial flights were abruptly canceled or immediately sold out. Many individual lawmaker offices were deluged with requests for assistance from stranded Americans and their family members back home. And the State Department issued confusing statements about just what type of help it was prepared to offer Americans trying to get home.

In response to that initial pandemonium, Democrats strongly criticized Pompeo’s handling of the situation and some lawmakers pushed legislative remedies.

Last month, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, filed legislation that would waive any State Department fees charged to individual Americans for travel expenses or reimburse them for costs incurred during their evacuation from a foreign country this year because of the pandemic. The bill would also order the State Department to increase staffing and resources for its recently established consular affairs task force focused on helping stranded Americans get home.

Engel and McCaul have asked the GAO to examine how effectively the State Department communicated with U.S. citizens abroad about repatriation assistance as well as how effectively the department’s repatriation task force coordinated evacuation efforts with U.S. embassies and consulates. They also want an assessment of the department’s decision to prioritize the use of commercial charter flights as opposed to seeking the Pentagon’s assistance through the activation of its Civil Reserve Air Fleet.

Repatriation efforts ongoing

“We are continuing to bring lots of people home from South America, particularly Ecuador and Colombia,” Ian Brownlee, principal deputy assistant secretary of State for Consular Affairs, told reporters in a conference call last week. “We are still seeing the highest demand in South America, Africa, and South and Central Asia, although demand has been on a steady decline as we’ve worked tirelessly to bring thousands more Americans home.”

He said the department continues to work with airlines and foreign governments to arrange U.S. government-chartered flights for those Americans still seeking a way home and has not set a hard end date for that service.

“As long as there are U.S. citizens in a country, we’ll do everything we can to make sure that they know their options so they’ll know whether to get on the next flight out, if there is one, or whether they’ll need to shelter in place for some time,” Brownlee continued.

He estimated there may be as many as 10,000 Americans abroad who could decide to request U.S. government assistance in flying back but that the number might be significantly smaller once detailed surveys of their situations are conducted.

The situation of Americans still living abroad and their potential need of U.S. government assistance to get home varies as some are in countries such as Brazil that still offer direct commercial flights to the United States. Other countries such as Chile that temporarily ended commercial flights are beginning to resume them again, Brownlee said.

The State Department continues to maintain a Level 4 "Do Not Travel" global advisory, which discourages all international travel, even as a few countries like New Zealand and South Korea have virtually eliminated or nearly eliminated coronavirus cases inside their borders.