MR KEITH: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us today here at the Mickey Leland Federal Building in Houston, Texas. The U.S. Department of State Office of Foreign Missions, Houston Passport Agency, and the Diplomatic Security Service Houston Field Office ask that you join us in sending a warm – a very warm welcome to the 71st Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, good afternoon, everyone. It is – first of all, I know we deserve a lot of thanks for bringing very good omens with us in rain that you haven’t seen in, what, about two and a half months? (Laughter.) So that’s all on us, I think.
It is for me a particular pleasure to be here. First of all, it’s the first opportunity I’ve had actually to visit one of our DS field offices, and I am grateful for that. But I am especially grateful because, as it happens, John Keith is running the show here for the field office. And to those of you who don’t know, John was the head of my protective detail the first year and a half that I was in this job. And it’s hard to convey in words what John and the entire DS team mean to me and to my family. As I’ve said before, other than my family, on any given day the first person I see in the morning and the last person I see at night is likely to be someone from the DS family, and they have become like family for us. Just extraordinary, extraordinary, extraordinary. And so to be able to come to Houston and visit John in his new – not so new now – place of work also has extra special meaning. So John, it’s wonderful to be with you today.
MR KEITH: Thank you, sir.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: To our colleagues with the Office of Foreign Missions and the regional director, Katherine Ho – where’s Katherine?
MS HO: Right here.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Katherine, thank you very much. Thank you for your leadership here, which means so much. And our colleagues from the Passport Agency, Director Lindsey Elhattab and uniform protective officer Sergeant Jeffrey Butler. Where are you? All right. Good to see you all. And everyone who’s here, thank you, thank you, thank you for joining us this afternoon.
We’re in the business of trying to advance America’s interests through diplomacy around the world, and it’s something that the President has put front and center in our foreign policy. And we have folks, as you know, around the world doing that every single day. But in so many ways, we could not be doing what we’re doing without the work that you’re doing every day. The ability to make sure that our folks around the world are as safe and secure as they can be – I’ve seen that in every place I’ve gone. I think we’re now up to something like 75 or 76 countries we’ve traveled to, and I’ve seen the work that’s being done in the field there.
As important, the folks who are here representing their countries – our responsibility to do right by them, to make sure that we’re treating them well and that we’re also protecting them: that is vital. And it also rebounds back on the way our folks are treated around the world, our citizens, as well as our diplomats. So the work you’re doing here in Houston and in the tri-state region is making a huge difference.
And of course, the work of the passport team has been absolutely extraordinary. This has been a challenging period; I don’t need to tell you that. We’ve had – we had the bottom drop out during COVID, and everything you’ve done to build back and build back stronger has been absolutely remarkable. The past year we issued, collectively, more passports than at any time in the history of this country, 24 million. Just here in Houston, you processed over 800,000 applications. (Applause.) Absolutely extraordinary. So you’re doing all this at a time when we’ve had to build back from COVID and meet historic demand. We’ve now decreased passport waiting times by two weeks, and I expect that to continue throughout the year. So my thanks to you.
But one of the things that is so striking is that you are all doing so much that maybe isn’t as well-known as it should be to our fellow citizens but it’s making a profound difference. I just came from seeing some of the work that DS is doing when it comes to tackling passport fraud, when it comes to investigating crime, protecting officials. And it’s quite remarkable, and it’s remarkable because we have a comparative advantage precisely because DS is in so many countries around the world with networks, connections, a knowledge of how to engage foreign countries, foreign officials. We can do things that other agencies of the government simply can’t do. And the fact that we’re joined together in task forces across the interagency is making a very powerful contribution.
I heard about some of the extraordinary work that this team has done just, for example, on human trafficking, something that we’re very seized with across the government. The value add that DS is bringing to this is really extraordinary.
And I think for our colleagues in the Office of Foreign Admissions, making it possible for other countries to strengthen their diplomatic relations with us, that makes a huge difference, and of course to help our people access our passports and visas.
So to each and every one of you, for me this is an opportunity to come and say two words that maybe you don’t hear often enough from Washington: thank you. Thank you for the great work you are doing for your country every single day, for this department every single day.
And the last thing I’ll say is this. For many of you, and particularly our colleagues working on passports, the first place and in some ways the only place that our fellow citizens are actually going to encounter the federal government and certainly the State Department is through you. So that makes a big difference too. Everything that you’re doing to try to help Americans, to make sure that they can travel, take advantage of opportunities overseas, go to school, meet up with loved ones, I think it’s a —
AUTOMATED VOICE: It looks like you don’t have a school address listed. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I’m sorry, what was that? (Laughter.) So thank you, thank you, thank you. And the most impressive thing, of course, that I’ve seen – I saw two things upstairs. I’m not sure if I can talk about them. I saw a cage and a gym. (Laughter.)
Thank you all very, very much. (Applause.)