1:01 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Good afternoon, and welcome to the State Department. As you know, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues her travel in Africa. I just wanted to point out to all of you, for those of you who haven’t seen it, this morning she gave a significant speech at a South African University, and she spoke about the transformation of South Africa from apartheid to a vibrant, pluralistic democracy and our desire to build sustained partnerships that help African nations fulfill their own aspirations. And she described the Obama Administration’s comprehensive strategy and our four pillars for a relationship with Africa: promoting opportunity and development; spurring economic growth, trade, and investment; advancing peace and security; and strengthening democratic institutions. So for those of you who haven’t seen it, I definitely refer you to the video and to her remarks, which we’ll be putting out shortly.
And having said that, I will turn it over to all of you.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: A couple days ago, you expressed your understanding that Prime Minister Hijab had defected. I think you said it was your understanding. And today, we’re hearing that he actually only arrived in Jordan this morning. Can you explain what you were basing your knowledge on at the time and if you have a kind of greater understanding of how this defection has taken place?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I obviously, Brad, refer you to the Jordanian authorities. My understanding is that this was their final and official confirmation of the defection and that he did indeed defect a couple of days ago. But obviously I refer you to the Jordanians for the most precise update on the timing, as they would know the best.
QUESTION: He did indeed – so he entered Jordan actually a couple of days ago? Because they’re saying today he only entered this morning.
MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is that their announcement was intended to indicate their official confirmation that he was in Jordan. I refer you to the Jordanian authorities for follow-up, but that’s our understanding.
QUESTION: A Jordanian official said that actually they said on Monday that he was in the country as a ruse meant to protect him, and he was still in Syria. And if you were saying that, you understood that he defected –
MR. VENTRELL: Brad, I don’t know. We were –
QUESTION: But I’m asking if you were part of that ruse when you said that you understood that he had defected or if you’re just finding this out through hearsay and –
MR. VENTRELL: I really refer you to the Jordanian authorities, Brad. I just don’t have anything more for you on it. They – obviously, I refer you to them.
QUESTION: Well, they’re saying the opposite. Just to go back, they’re saying the opposite of what you just said now, that you indeed believe he defected a couple days ago. They’re saying, no, he only entered the country today.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, look, we’ve seen what you’ve seen, which is the same Jordanian statement confirming that he’s in their territory. That’s what we know now. As to whether he was there two days ago or not, again, I refer you to the Jordanian authorities. They would be the best ones –
QUESTION: But you’re changing what they’re saying. They didn’t say – they’re not – sorry, I don’t want to belabor the point, but you’re responding by saying – you’re referring us to the Jordanian authorities, and then you’re saying something they didn’t say. They said clearly he entered the country today. So you can’t refer us to something that’s disagreeing with your statement.
MR. VENTRELL: That’s what I understood when I came down here. If there’s anything new to that or if I have it incorrect, we’ll follow up after the briefing, but I just don’t have anything more right now.
QUESTION: I want to switch to Egypt unless there are more Syria –
MR. VENTRELL: Said.
QUESTION: A couple questions on Hijab. Would Hijab be the kind of person that you are hoping to have to sort of garner a primary role in the transition? Is he the kind of leader that can do that?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, it’s – the future of Syria is for the Syrians to decide. Obviously, we’re working with the opposition as they become more cohesive and organized and as they look to potential leadership options, but that’s ultimately a question for the Syrians.
QUESTION: But you do perceive him as someone with the kind of credibility that can bring some sort of harmony to all the different groups?
MR. VENTRELL: We don’t think, from the U.S. perspective, it’s beneficial for us to be picking and choosing and anointing people. That’s really a Syrian decision.
QUESTION: And lastly, as the Secretary of State warned that there are elements – terrorist elements that are being allowed into the country and that you guys disapprove of that, are you conducting any kind of conversation or are you having any kind of conversation with the countries in the region that may be allowing some militant element or indeed some terrorist elements that belong to al-Qaida to disallow that from happening?
MR. VENTRELL: Suffice it to say our conversation about the situation in Syria, for example, with the neighbors, is robust and ongoing. So we absolutely raise – all the concerns that I’ve talked about here publicly are ones that we raise privately with the neighbors. And fortunately, our partners and neighbors – the neighbors of Syria – are ones who also share this concern about extremism, and they’re trying to do their best to make sure that there isn’t further extremism and violence of that nature.
QUESTION: One more thing before we go to Egypt. Do you have anything to say about the Iranians? Have you figured out whether they are spies or pilgrims yet?
MR. VENTRELL: I really have no – nothing further to say.
QUESTION: And have you tried to find out? Has anyone in this building tried?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I’d just say, Brad, that clearly the Iranians are trying to make this about us. Suffice it to say that we strongly disagree with the premise of those allegations. The U.S. was not involved in and we’re not responsible for the disappearance of these individuals. We’ve encouraged that they be treated humanely, but suffice it to say that we disagree with the premise of the Iranians.
QUESTION: The Iranians admitted that among them there are some former members or retirees from al-Quds Brigade. Would that dissuade you in one way or another to sort of encourage those that hold them to be humane and to release them?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we’ve been very clear about the destructive nature of Iran’s involvement -- the Iranian involvement inside of Syria. I don’t have any more information about who these individuals might be. The Iranians themselves, as you said, do appear to be speaking about who they are, but we just don’t have any further information to share.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I’d just say that the United States supports the Egyptian Government’s ongoing efforts to protect its people and others in the region from terrorism and growing lawlessness in the Sinai. We also support the Egyptian Government’s efforts to bring the perpetrators of Sunday’s attack to justice and to address broader threats of violent extremism and border security.
QUESTION: Do you think this is the way to go about it?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, I refer you to the Egyptian Government as they confront this challenge about the details, but we support their ongoing efforts to protect their people.
QUESTION: Well, the reason I ask it is that air strikes can be a rather blunt instrument and can have collateral damage. And therefore, I wonder if you have any misgivings about the possibility that they are using this as their means of going after the militants.
MR. VENTRELL: I would just say that clearly the security in the Sinai is an important issue for them and it’s one they’ve pledged to address, and so we welcome that.
QUESTION: And the – President Morsi, according to his spokesman, has dismissed the governor of, I think, north Sinai and replaced the national intelligence chief. Are those steps in the right direction?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, these, quite frankly, Arshad, are Egyptian internal decisions, and so I refer you to the Egyptian Government for more information.
QUESTION: Right. But you have repeatedly – and the Secretary has repeatedly – said that maintaining security in Sinai is a good thing. And therefore, even though these are internal decisions and obviously who the governor is and who the intelligence chief is up to the Egyptians to decide, do you think that this is the right thing to do to try to improve security in Sinai, which you have said is very important to the United States?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I don’t think we would comment one way or another on sort of an individual personnel decision of the President. Suffice it to say he said that he’s committed to restoring security to the Sinai, and so we’re supportive in those broader efforts. But on this individual personnel decision, it’s just not something we’d comment on.
QUESTION: You said yesterday that you – I think it was yesterday – that you would – the U.S. stood ready to help in efforts to reestablish security in the Sinai. Is the United States involved in any way in these counterterrorism operations now underway?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any information about the Egyptians coming to us with a request for specific assistance in the Sinai. We said that we stood ready, but I’m not aware of any kind of specific request for assistance.
QUESTION: Patrick, the Egyptian Government issued a directive to all airlines that service Cairo Airport to disallow Gaza residents, Palestinian Gaza residents, from embarking to or disembarking in Cairo, which places a tremendous hardship on Palestinians that work in the Gulf and so on, and visiting their families.
One, did the Palestinian Authority raise this issue with you? And second, would you raise this issue with the Egyptian Government to allow, on a humanitarian basis, the Palestinians in and out of Gaza?
MR. VENTRELL: Said, this is the first I’m hearing about that particular announcement. We’ll look into it and see if there’s anything else we have to share on the matter. But I’m just – this is the first I’m hearing about it.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Jill.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: There are reports out there that the U.S. is willing to kind of sweeten the deal to get talks back on track – started – with President Karzai, and the U.S. is now willing to release all of those – I think it’s five – top prisoners at once as opposed to half and half. Do you – are you aware of this? Do you have any comment?
MR. VENTRELL: Jill, I think you’re referring to a Reuters article overnight.
MR. VENTRELL: I would just say that at this point, the United States has not decided to transfer any Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay. We don’t discuss ongoing deliberations on – or individual detainees. And you know where we are more broadly on reconciliation. I just don’t have any updates.
QUESTION: Yes, sir. The Palestinian issue --
QUESTION: Sorry, just --
QUESTION: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: I don’t think the story says that the United States has decided to do so. I think what it says is that they have held out the possibility of doing so. So to ask the question a little more pointedly, is the Administration considering the possibility of such a release, regardless of whether it’s actually made a decision to do so?
MR. VENTRELL: Arshad, I really don’t have an update for where we are on anything regarding reconciliation. We just simply do not discuss ongoing deliberations or individual detainees.
QUESTION: Okay. I just didn’t want your comment to stand as a flat denial of the story because you’re denying something that the story doesn’t say.
MR. VENTRELL: We don’t discuss ongoing deliberations.
MR. VENTRELL: Said.
QUESTION: In response to my email question yesterday about Israel disallowing members of the Non-Aligned Movement into the West Bank under the pretext that there is no diplomatic relations between their countries and the State of Israel, you said that you support Israel’s controlling its point of entry. Now, how else would the Palestinians receive guests, officials, non-officials, athletes, and so on if the Israelis are not allowing them into the West Bank? What kind of status do you see the West Bank is under at the present time?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Said, as you know, and that -- we understand that Israel excluded some representatives of those countries with which it does not have diplomatic relations. As you know and the status has been for many years, Israel has the right to control access to its points of entry. And so this is nothing new; this is ongoing; this has been this – that’s the status of this for many years.
QUESTION: So in other words, if the Palestinians deem it important to invite, let’s say, some Saudis, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, and who are your allies, then Israel has a right to disallow such dignitaries or pilgrims or anyone from going in?
MR. VENTRELL: That’s been the status for many years, including concerning occupied territories. And so obviously there’s – I just don’t have anything new for you on it.
QUESTION: Okay. And finally, regarding the settlements, the Israelis have cut down expenditures almost in every area, except for the settlements that have – they have increased expenditures on the settlements by about 30 to 35 percent in the last 12 months. Does any of that money go from U.S. aid that goes to Israel?
MR. VENTRELL: Does any of the money from USAID go to --
QUESTION: From U.S. aid – from the aid that you are providing, that the United States Government provides to Israel – does any of that aid goes to expanding expenditures to the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, you know, Said, that we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity, so that’s not something we support.
QUESTION: Would that be something that you would protest if you were to find out that some of that U.S. money was actually spent on expanding and enlarging and creating new settlements?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we generally don’t do hypotheticals, but you know where we are on settlement activity.
QUESTION: But there is no hypothetical. I mean, they did declare that they increased expenditures on the settlements by 30, 35 percent last year.
MR. VENTRELL: Again, what we’re focused on is getting the two parties back to the table. We think negotiations are the way forward. We do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity, and that’s not what we support.
QUESTION: Patrick, about the schedule of Madam Secretary’s visit to Turkey, is there anything that you can --
MR. VENTRELL: I still don’t have any updates. We’re still a few days out. As we get closer, we’ll be in a position to provide more information about her visit to Istanbul.
QUESTION: At least the topics that she will discuss with Turkish authorities in Turkey, what – their agenda, what is the agenda?
MR. VENTRELL: No doubt Syria is at the top of the agenda, but as we get closer we’ll see if we have more information about her meetings.
QUESTION: About Turkish-Israeli relations?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, she’s going to have bilateral visits while she’s there. When we get closer, we’ll read out what some of those meetings – planned meetings are. But we’re just not there yet.
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware that we’ve heard from the Government of Bangladesh since we issued the statement yesterday.
QUESTION: And what level are you raising these issues with the Government of Bangladesh?
MR. VENTRELL: At a variety of levels. This is something that we talk about, obviously, through our Embassy out there, but also to their Embassy here as well.
QUESTION: Special Representative Farah Pandith was in Bangladesh recently. She also met some of the Muslims’ communities there. What is the assessment of the situation – as far as the situation in that part of the – of Burma? Is – do you believe that this is some kind of ethnic cleansing going on there?
MR. VENTRELL: We put out a pretty comprehensive readout of Ms. Farah Pandith’s travel to the region, and it included our position. We have had some concerns, obviously, about the ethnic tensions there, and we have been very clear about those throughout.
QUESTION: Some of the Muslim organizations are claiming – saying that this is some kind of ethnic cleansing going on against Muslims in Burma. Do you agree with the assessment?
MR. VENTRELL: What I would say is that we continue to monitor ethnic and sectarian tensions in Burma, in Rakhine state in particular. And as we said before, we continue to urge all parties to exercise restraint, to refrain from further violence, and to uphold principles of nondiscrimination, tolerance, and religious freedom.
QUESTION: And what effort U.S. is doing with regard to providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees, Rohingya refugees?
MR. VENTRELL: Let me see if we have an update on that. We obviously have some concerns about making sure that they get humanitarian aid, but I’ll follow up and see if we have any update on that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any information about any State Department individuals having traveled to Wisconsin. Definitely local law enforcement and the FBI and others have been involved. We, through our channels as the State Department, obviously also communicate to Indian authorities through their Embassy here and as well as our Embassy in New Delhi. I can look into it to see if we’ve had any officials from this building travel there, but not that I’m aware of.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up on that. After the initial exchange of statements and comments, has there been any further communication between the State Department and the Government of India, any follow-up action that you are taking, or is it going to be go off the radar, like usual?
QUESTION: Didn’t the President call the Prime Minister this morning?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure about that. I’d refer you to the White House. What I can say is obviously our communication is ongoing and intensive. We have good lines of communication with the Indians and discuss matters such as these. And I will say that, as I mentioned, I believe it was a couple of days ago, the Secretary did have a chance to talk to her counterpart to convey her heartfelt condolences to him and the greater Sikh community both in the United States and India.
The U.S. and India both strongly share the values of freedom of religion and freedom of worship, and respecting and protecting all faiths. So that’s definitely something – a message that the Secretary conveyed. Our officials at the ambassadorial level continue to be in contact as necessary so that we can facilitate communication. Obviously, our role as the Department of State can be in a facilitative role to make sure that our state and local authorities and our national law enforcement authorities are in touch with their Indian counterparts, to the extent that it’s necessary. So we provide that facilitative role.
QUESTION: Just a day after the Oak Creek tragedy, a mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burnt down. Are you aware of that incident, and do you think that these incidents indicate an increasing tendency of hate crime based on religion against minorities?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of that particular incident. But as I said here at the podium the other day, religious freedom and religious tolerance are fundamental pillars of U.S. society, and we firmly believe that.
QUESTION: Just one more?
MR. VENTRELL: Arshad.
QUESTION: There is a Swiss newspaper report that two Swiss teenagers were stopped upon entry to the United States and questioned regarding the activities of their father, who is apparently a Swiss banker. I realize that DHS would normally be the agency involved, given that Customs presumably are the people who stopped them, but are you aware of this incident? Has the Swiss Government raised the issue at all with the State Department?
MR. VENTRELL: You’re correct, Arshad, that all matters of port of entry operations is a matter for the Department of Homeland Security. I’m inquiring and I’m looking into whether the Swiss Government has been in touch with us through State Department channels. I’m not aware of that at this point, but if that changes, we’ll be back in touch with you.
MR. VENTRELL: One more?
MR. VENTRELL: I would just say that we respect the Afghan constitutional process. We obviously refer you to the Government of Afghanistan for further information. But more broadly, we remain focused on the steady progress of transition to which the two ministries – I believe it’s Defense and Interior – have contributed. The U.S. looks forward to working with our Afghan and international partners to further civilian efforts to build on the security and development gains already achieved.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Why does the Secretary feel like she needs to go there now and meet with Syrian opposition figures? Is the U.S. sort of losing influence with the Syrian opposition because they’re frustrated that they’re not getting the support that they had hoped for from the U.S.?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Michele, we’re still a few days out from the visit. Obviously, as you heard the Secretary talk about Syria yesterday a little bit while she was in South Africa, it remains at the top of our agenda. We remain intensively engaged. We’re not in a position to describe any of the meetings she’s going to have at this point, but we continue to believe that a political transition in Syria, led by the Syrian people and supported by the international community, is the best chance for Syria’s future and for a stable and democratic transition. We think it’s important to be in touch with Syria’s neighbors.
Obviously, Turkey has a strong interest in what happens in Syria as well, and she thought it was important to obviously consult with this close ally. And it clearly demonstrates that the Secretary remains very actively involved as we reach out to many segments of Syrian society, as we continue to work to help strengthen the opposition, as we continue to provide humanitarian assistance. So really, we have all these elements of our policy and our strategy, and the Secretary continues to follow up on that.
QUESTION: Quickly to follow up on that, you almost seem uncertain about the identity of the opposition today, as let’s say you were at the beginning of the Libyan uprising about the Libyan opposition. Why is that after, like, 16, 17 months you are unable to really determine the identity, their political inclination? What is their political program and so on with the Syrian opposition?
MR. VENTRELL: Their political platform, and as they become more cohesive and have a Syrian-designed plan for a transition, is something that we talk with them about at great length. They’re people that we continue to work with and to get to know. Obviously, the opposition continues to expand as well. And so there are new figures, but these are people that we’ve definitely been working with for months that we’re actively involved with at the political level, obviously in terms of our nonlethal support as well. So these are individuals we continue to work with.
QUESTION: So are you comfortable with their political affiliations?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, we think that many of them represent – we think that there is a broad, diverse group of Syrians in the opposition who represent many different segments of Syrian society who embrace the broad principles of a new, free, and democratic Syria that respects the rights of all Syrians. And so there are a group of individuals out there who are looking to help lead this transition.
Now obviously, there have to be – work with Syrians inside and outside of Syria. So we have some who are – continue to be working in the opposition from outside. There are others who are working inside. So it’s a diverse cross-section of people; we continue to work with them.
QUESTION: Patrick, specifically I had a question about this one of – a group of one of them named Syrian Support Group, which has been based in Washington and which has been formed relatively new. They got a permit from the Treasury Department two weeks ago to transfer money and logistical support communication equipment to Free Syrian Army. Do you have any contact with this group?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I really refer you to the Department of Treasury, who issued that license. We’ve said that we wanted to ramp up our assistance to the opposition. We said that we want to ramp up our humanitarian assistance to help the people who are suffering, so clearly our efforts are intensive. But I really refer you to the Department of Treasury on that particular license.
QUESTION: But they have to report about their activities through State Department Anti-Terror and Financing Department. I mean --
MR. VENTRELL: I believe that’s through the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is a Treasury --
QUESTION: Yes. No, I mean, each month they have to report their activities to State Department, according to the permit.
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware that there was a State Department reporting requirement in there, but I can look into it. My understanding is that it was a Treasury matter. But we’ll look into that.
QUESTION: The last one: Are you concerned about the tension between Iran and Turkey after especially this kidnapping situation? Because there are some statements coming from both sides that – accusing, blaming each other.
MR. VENTRELL: We’re deeply concerned about Iran’s destructive behavior in Syria, and we continue to work with our Turkish ally.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:27 p.m.)
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