Daily Press Briefing
- Iranian Diplomatic Mission in Canada / Concerns over Iranian Support of Assad Regime
- Designation of Haqqani Network / Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl Case
- Detainment of Ocean Atlas Captain and Crew
- U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Venezuela
- Expressions of Sympathy for Victims of Civil Unrest / Bilateral Relationship with the U.S.
- USAID Administrator Shah Visit to the Region / Humanitarian Assistance
1:47 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Good afternoon, and happy Friday to all. We’re at a little bit later time than usual, but I will go ahead and turn it over to all of you.
QUESTION: Can I ask you about the Canadian decision to close its embassy in Iran? Is this something you’re pleased by? Were you involved in this process at all?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, thanks, Brad, for the question. As you mentioned, the Canadians have announced their decision today to not only close their embassy in Iran, but to expel Iranian diplomats from Canada. And as you know, we share Canada’s concerns regarding Iran’s behavior, including providing military assistance to the Assad regime, failure to comply with UN resolutions pertaining to its nuclear program, and the continued violations of human rights in Iran.
QUESTION: Is this something you hope other countries would follow, by doing the same thing to isolate Iran further?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, as you know, Brad, that – the Iranian regime is isolated. Obviously, each country’s decision is their own sovereign decision, but there are a number of countries that share our very deep concerns and have taken various diplomatic actions, various sanctions actions to express their concern. And this was the Canadians’ decision, and so they saw it fit, and we share some of their concerns.
QUESTION: But you – so, just maybe in simple – can you say that you’re happy with the decision and that you want other countries to consider doing this, or --
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, you’re trying to ask me to paint sort of a broad stroke. Many countries have different relationships and different types of diplomatic facilities, so I don’t want to paint with such a broad brush to say every country should do this or that. Suffice it to say, we want all countries to join us in isolating Iran as they see appropriate, and there are many different ways that they can do that. And so the Canadians had been in touch with us about their decision, and other countries will also take decisions as they see fit to appropriately isolate the Iranians, given their abhorrent human rights record, given the brutality that they’re supporting in Syria, obviously, given the very deep concerns about their nuclear program.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up? The Canadians said there was also – they accused Iran of not abiding by the Vienna Conventions, and I wonder if they’ve explained to you whether there was any specific incident that sparked this.
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure. I’d really refer you to the Canadian Government for more details on the specifics of their decision. But Canada is a close ally and friend of ours, so we obviously remain in close touch with them, but I’m not in a position to read out any of their diplomatic conversations with us.
QUESTION: Do you have any update on Iran – Iranian support to the Assad regime in the war?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, it continues, Samir. And it’s been very destructive, as we talked about earlier this week, and we haven’t seen a change yet. So they continue not only through weapons and materiel, as we’ve mentioned, but through all sorts of other training and support to the Assad regime, which is deeply troubling.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Haqqani?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: I mean, the statement says that they’ve met the criteria of a foreign terrorist organization. I’m wondering why it took so long to make that decision, and what are the criteria that they’ve met?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, thanks, Michele, for the question. As you know, and many of you have already reported on today, today the Secretary of State, pursuant to the Haqqani Network Terrorist Designation Act of 2012, sent a report to Congress saying that the Haqqani Network meets the statutory criteria for designation as a foreign terrorist organization. And also based on that assessment, the Secretary notified Congress of her intent to designate the Haqqani Network under the INA. And finally, she announced her intention to designate the organization as a specially designated global terrorist entity.
And so this is no secret that for some time this has been something under review. You know squeezing the Haqqani Network is something that we’ve thought is very important, that we set as a priority for us. We had done that through some previous designations. And the Secretary said that – obviously that she would fully review the matter and comply with the law and the legislation to see whether it met the designation, and her finding is that indeed it does. So that was something that was under review. Obviously, these are decisions that take careful review and are complex and require a very detailed review, but that was the decision.
QUESTION: And the Haqqanis said that they were going to bring hardship on the American sergeant that they’re holding. Do you have a reaction to that?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, you’re referring, I believe, to Mr. Bowe Bergdahl’s case, Sergeant Bergdahl. As we’ve said before, our hearts go out to the Bergdahl family. We have great sympathy for them. We understand – as you know, his family has already decided to make his case public, and he’s just been held for too long and we continue to call for his immediate release. And suffice it to say that we – while we can’t discuss all the details of our efforts, there should be no doubt that we work every day, using our military, intelligence, and diplomatic tools to try to see him returned home safely.
QUESTION: Is that – is declaring the Haqqani Network a foreign terrorist organization – is that one of the diplomatic tools to get him released?
MR. VENTRELL: The point of this designation is to degrade the ability of the Haqqanis to conduct violent acts, Brad. And so, as you know, they’ve carried out lethal and complex attacks against American personnel and American facilities. And so the point of this is to degrade their ability to conduct these kinds of violent acts.
MR. VENTRELL: That’s why we made this designation today and – because they meet the legal definition.
QUESTION: But (inaudible) future acts and the current holding of an American prisoner. And would – and she asked about the possible implications for him. And what your answer is is about a future – this degrades their ability to commit future acts. So how would that affect him?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, as you know, we had a background call earlier. We had some senior officials describe some of this in great detail. Obviously, what we’ve said is that the reconciliation track will continue. That’s one of our overall strategies in Afghanistan. It’s something we continue to pursue. This strategy is about getting Afghans talking to Afghans about their future. So that track will continue irrespective of this particular decision. This decision was taken with respect to the law, with respect to all the information in front of the Secretary, to help degrade this terrorist network.
QUESTION: The question is about Bowe Bergdahl.
MR. VENTRELL: I know it is, and I’m saying that the reconciliation track will continue and --
QUESTION: That reconciliation is different.
MR. VENTRELL: --we said within the reconciliation track previously that his case was something that, in that track, could potentially be raised. But --
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you remember the last time that the Administration got confirmation that Bergdahl is indeed still alive?
MR. VENTRELL: I do not know that. We can check in and – after the briefing and get back to you if I have more information, but the broader point, and what I’m trying to say, is that we’re using all of the tools available we have to bring him home safely. I’m saying that the reconciliation track will continue, and we had previously said through the reconciliation track that’s one area where we would discuss his case as part of the diplomatic track, but that we don’t see the designation today having a direct impact on the overall reconciliation efforts.
QUESTION: Did the Secretary personally call the Pakistanis ahead of time about this? And has this building given assurances to Pakistan that it won’t now be considered a state sponsor of terrorism, given its links to Haqqani?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah, well, I’m not going to get into our diplomatic conversations other than to say that we did, of course, raise this with the Pakistanis at a high level and it was not a surprise to them. I believe they’ve also put out a statement of their own just moments ago. The issue of state sponsorship of terrorism is wholly separate and completely different from designating individual terrorist networks. So there are plenty of places when individual countries that may have a terrorist network inside that are not state sponsors of terrorism. We’ve been concerned about safe havens. We continue to raise with the Pakistanis our desire for more pressure on the Haqqanis. It’s something that we raise with them frequently, and we will continue to do so.
QUESTION: Just further to that point, acknowledging that there is a difference between designating a group an FTO and the separate issue of state sponsors of terrorism --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- on the background call with the two officials, one of them seemed to not directly contradict Admiral Mullen’s statement that the Haqqani Network is a veritable arm of the ISI, but he did seem to be backing away from it. And I’d just like to get some clarification on what the Administration’s view is of the relationship between the ISI and the Haqqani Network.
MR. VENTRELL: Our position is that while we have very deep concerns about safe havens, this is an important relationship we have with the Pakistanis. We raise these type of issues, like about the safe havens, through the channels that we have opened with them. And so it’s a challenging and complex relationship, but as the Secretary said, it’s a critical relationship. And so the Pakistanis have a shared desire and a shared goal of combating terrorism as well. Extremism -- terrorism has an extraordinarily negative effect on their citizens. They’ve lost some 30,000 citizens to terrorism. So we have a shared enemy, a shared goal here. We keep these lines of communication open. And we want a strong, mutually beneficial relationship with Pakistan, and we think we’re on the right trajectory. So no doubt that there have been some complex issues, but we continue to be on the right track.
QUESTION: But that doesn’t really answer the question, though. I mean, she’s asking what the connection is between Haqqani and the Pakistanis, and you said that you have concerns about safe haven. But are you concerned that the Pakistanis are giving the Haqqani Network, some members of the ISI, are giving them material support?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, look, I wouldn’t get into sort of a wider assessment of an intelligence assessment.
QUESTION: Well, I mean, people have said this on the record. I mean, General Allen, and before that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary Clinton – I mean, this isn’t the first time we’re hearing about stuff like this.
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again – and I think DOD or other agencies would be appropriate people to raise these kinds of specific questions – suffice it to say we’re concerned about safe havens, and we want them to squeeze --
QUESTION: Not just safe havens, but are you also concerned about possible material support that the Haqqani Network is getting in while they enjoy safe haven in Pakistan?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, I don’t have any updated analysis for us. You can --
QUESTION: So the last analysis that was – has been on the record from other officials still stands?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, I’d have to look and see if we have any update, but the bottom line is we want the Pakistanis to put more pressure on the Haqqani Network. It’s something we raise with them. They have a common enemy in terrorism, and so we’ll continue to work together to put the squeeze on the Haqqani Network. They’ve targeted us, our people, our facilities, and so we think it’s very important to put the squeeze on them, and so that’s our message.
QUESTION: Was this a rushed process to designate the Haqqani Network?
MR. VENTRELL: Suffice it to say these are very complex analyses that have to be done for any foreign terrorist organization designation. It’s something that takes, in many cases, many months, and so it’s something we’ve been reviewing for a long time. And the Secretary made her decision in compliance with the congressional – with the legislation.
QUESTION: So do you think it’s a good process? Do you – would you – I mean, would this be a good precedent that Congress forces you to decide on these things so that it happens faster?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, all I can say is that what’s a little bit different about this designation is normally we would go through a process to actually effectuate the designation before we announce it. In this case, she met the congressional deadline, and we’ll take those other steps and we don’t think that’ll have an effect because there’s really – the Haqqanis know that we’ve had them in our sights for a long time. And these new tools that we have to try to dry up their finances, that’ll involve going to other countries and urging them to take additional actions. And as you know, the Department of Justice will have some new tools to go after those who provide material support to the Haqqani Network.
QUESTION: But if this is such an unrequited good, why didn’t you do this earlier? Why did it take a congressional deadline and, what, the last working day before that deadline to make this decision?
MR. VENTRELL: Brad, you know how complex decisions for foreign terrorist organizations are. It’s the law. It requires a very complex and detailed analysis that has to be thorough.
QUESTION: For two years?
MR. VENTRELL: Sometimes it takes a very long time, sometimes the situation changes, but each designation is different and each one requires a very lengthy and careful review. And so we do that in accordance with our legal requirements as necessary.
QUESTION: It’s not a coincidence that the day before your deadline ran out, the last business day, you’ve come up with the decision. This decision was prompted by a congressional deadline. And yet at the same time, you’re presenting this as such a great decision, and it begs the question, why did it take a congressional deadline for you to make this decision?
MR. VENTRELL: Brad, we’ve been going after the Haqqani Network for a long time. Clearly, we’ve made our own designations. Clearly, we’ve had, from the beginning, other pressure we’ve been putting on this network. And the Secretary said that she would comply with the congressional requirement to finish the review, which she did, and designated them. And so that’s what we’ve done.
QUESTION: Just to make sure we understand it then, was there any point along this past two years where the Secretary actually was thinking about, evaluating, looking into making some type of determination absent the demand by Congress? Or was it just that Congress finally said, you must make a decision?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we never get into the details of our internal decision-making. Suffice it to say we’ve known for a long time that this is something that’s been under review. And so we’ve made no secret about that. It’s something we’ve talked about and it was something under review. And the decision –
QUESTION: Under review by the Secretary or the Department?
MR. VENTRELL: Exactly. It’s been under review for – we said many months ago that it was something that was under review. And so there’s a process that we go through, we were transparent that it was something we were reviewing, and the decision’s been made.
QUESTION: And it pre-dated the request by Congress, right?
MR. VENTRELL: I think -- that’s my understanding. I don’t know when in 2012 the actual legislation passed. Happy to look into it after the briefing; I don’t know the date that the legislation was passed. But suffice it to say, this is a network that has carried out attacks on Americans, so there’s no doubt that they’ve been – and this is something that was under review.
QUESTION: Well, I mean – the question is, how come it’s been under review for so – I mean, what was that finally tipped the balance in the favor of designating? As Brad said, was it the congressional mandate to make a choice, or was it the fact that they’ve been responsible for numerous attacks against – deadly attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan this year? I mean, isn’t that one of the main criteria for designating a group, that they kill Americans? I mean, I don’t –
MR. VENTRELL: The bottom line is that the decision –
QUESTION: I don’t see why it was such a lengthy decision.
MR. VENTRELL: The decision is based on the statutory criteria. So the Secretary made the decision based on the legal, statutory criteria. That’s how we made it. I think we’ve done this one a couple of times, guys. Any other topics we have?
QUESTION: Just – Michele asked you to outline the criteria, and I don’t think we heard from you on that one.
MR. VENTRELL: We actually put out a – and I can have our – the press office rerelease it. But we have a very lengthy fact sheet that describes all the different types of designations, that describes all the statutory requirements. We’ve got that. Let’s rerelease it for all of you, or at least get it to those of you here covering the State Department and if that’s helpful to you all. It’s very highly technical and I don’t think I would add a lot of value here doing it, but we’ll release that for you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Another subject?
MR. VENTRELL: Jill. Go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Yes.
QUESTION: Do you have an update on those – the crew of the – the captain, I guess, who is an American, and I believe some members of the crew also are Americans –
MR. VENTRELL: Yep.
QUESTION: – who are being detained? Do you know what’s going on with them? One crew member says arrest warrants have been issued for the entire crew.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, thanks for the question, Jill. As you know, we can confirm – you know about the incident, and so we can confirm that the captain and crew of the U.S. vessel Ocean Atlas have been detained in Maracaibo – off the coast of Venezuela. We are in contact with the Government of Venezuela on this matter, and we’re working to provide all appropriate consular assistance at the earliest opportunity.
And unfortunately, we don’t have a Privacy Act waiver for these individuals, so I can’t go much further than that. But we understand this has to do with questions about customs paperwork for some rifles they had onboard for self-protection. We, of course, know that the high seas and –that piracy has been a major topic in recent months and years, and so that’s something we’ve been combating. And indeed, it’s normal for many ships to have some type of self-defense onboard. But we’re seeking more information on the case.
QUESTION: Would there be notice to the United States if there were arrest warrants?
MR. VENTRELL: Well again, these are American citizens, and so obviously we’re providing appropriate consular assistance and raising it with the Government of Venezuela through those channels.
Go ahead, Elise.
MR. VENTRELL: Yep.
QUESTION: Is it true that you still don’t have an Ambassador in Venezuela, or has that been --
MR. VENTRELL: Right now we have a chargé – an experienced diplomat who leads the mission –
QUESTION: No, I understand it’s –
MR. VENTRELL: But we don’t have relations at an ambassadorial level now.
QUESTION: Right. So I mean, does that lack of intense diplomatic engagement with the nation of Venezuela hurt your ability to kind of work this out more speedily?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we still have a large mission in Venezuela with appropriate consular personnel. Obviously, we have important interests in Venezuela, American citizens who live there. So we raise these cases. We have a senior and experienced diplomat who runs the mission, so –
QUESTION: No, I understand that this person is serious and experienced. But what I’m saying is, the kind of level of diplomatic ties right now – I mean, clearly the relationship with Venezuela is not as good as it could be. And I’m wondering if that kind of strain in ties that have led to the diplomatic status that you have now hampers your ability to get this resolved.
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t –
QUESTION: It’s nothing about your ability to provide consular access.
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t think it has an impact.
MR. VENTRELL: Quite frankly, obviously, we have a mission that continues to be engaged. We’ve sought – this is – we’re not in a place in a relationship with Venezuela where – a better relationship. We’ve been clear that that’s not the case. And so –
QUESTION: But you don’t think if you had a better relationship with Venezuela, this would not be such a major diplomatic incident?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, look, I wouldn’t – I don’t want to get into hypotheticals about what our relationship could be with Venezuela. We are where we are, and we’ll continue to raise it as appropriate through diplomatic channels.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on the region.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: I’m wondering if you can comment on this assertion by Bolivian President Morales that the U.S. has refused to extradite former Bolivian leader de Lozada.
MR. VENTRELL: Yep. We reiterate our expressions of sympathy to the victims and their families who lost their lives or were injured in the civil unrest surrounding the protests of October 2003. But as a matter of longstanding policy, we don’t comment on specific extradition requests, so I simply can’t get into that.
QUESTION: Okay. Can I just follow up?
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: I think in November, the U.S. and Bolivia began talks about fuller diplomatic engagement –
MR. VENTRELL: Yep.
QUESTION: – because we also don’t have an ambassador there.
MR. VENTRELL: Yep.
QUESTION: How is that going?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, the Departments of Justice and State welcome the opportunity to meet with Bolivian officials at their convenience to discuss our bilateral legal assistance relationship, and that includes extradition cases. So it’s something we’re willing to do. As you know, our relationship with Bolivia actually has gotten a little bit more back on track. We’ve signed an agreement with them and have a little bit more of a way forward with the Bolivian Government because we’ve intensified our relationship a little bit there. But we’re not at a point where we have an ambassador, either, at this point.
QUESTION: Just one. Is there an update on Raj Shah’s visit to the – to assess the humanitarian situation for the refugees from Syria?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. My understanding is that Raj is en route back – or may have already arrived back – to the U.S. He visited the refugee camps in Jordan, made that announcement of 20 million – $21 million more of assistance. So, as you know, the situation remains very serious. I just saw before coming down a report from the UN that they now say that upwards of 2.5 million Syrians in total need assistance. We’ve talked about some 120,000-plus, I believe, that have – no, that’s incorrect – we’ve talked about multiple, hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have streamed across the border and that includes into Jordan. And so this was a chance for him to visit some of those. And we can take a look and see if we can get a chance to talk to him and get little bit more information about how his trip went.
QUESTION: Well, it would be good next week if he could talk to us.
QUESTION: Is he back.
MR. VENTRELL: I’ll check in and see if we can arrange something to find out a little bit more.
QUESTION: Is he back?
MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is he’s either en route back or has just gotten back.
QUESTION: So he’s not going to visit other camps in other countries?
MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is that this visit was to Jordan, and he’s en route back or already back.
QUESTION: Any update on the situation in Syria? There were reports today of bombing Palestinian refugee camps in Yarmouk Camp – the Yarmouk Camp near Damascus.
MR. VENTRELL: Samir, I’ve seen some of those news reports, but don’t have any additional information. You know where we stand on Syria, how important it is that we want to hasten the end of bloodshed and the end of the Assad regime, but beyond seeing those news reports, I don’t have anything for you.
QUESTION: Did you see that Canada withdrew its ambassador from Iran because of --
QUESTION: We did that.
QUESTION: Oh, you did that? I’m sorry.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah, we already had a discussion on that.
QUESTION: Sorry about that.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) defection of senior military officer today in Syria?
MR. VENTRELL: Samir, I hadn’t seen that report. Defections continue. I get a status update frequently from our Syria watchers here in the Department and the defections continue apace. But I hadn’t seen that particular report.
Anything else, guys? Okay. Great.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:11 p.m.)
DPB # 158