The video is available with closed captioning on YouTube.
12:36 p.m. EST
MR. VENTRELL: So good afternoon, and happy Friday to all as we head into the holiday season. I do have something for you at the top, and then I will turn it over to all of you.
The United States is concerned by measures in the bill passed by the Russian Duma today that, if it becomes law, would halt inter-country adoptions between the United States and Russia and restrict the ability of Russian civil society organizations to work with American partners.
American families have welcomed more than 60,000 Russian children into American homes over the past 20 years. Just last month, we implemented a Bilateral Adoptions Agreement with Russia to improve safeguards for adopted children and their families. If Russian officials have concerns about the implementation of this agreement, we stand ready to work with them to improve it and remain committed to supporting inter-country adoptions between our two countries. The welfare of children is simply too important to be linked to political aspects of our relationship.
Additionally, we continue to have concerns about efforts to limit Russian civil society’s contact with American partners. Decades of cooperation between Russian and American nongovernmental organizations in a broad array of areas have been beneficial to both our countries and citizens. We have reportedly – we have repeatedly made clear that our interaction with Russian civil society has always been nonpartisan and transparent and in the spirit of mutual respect and common interest.
Having said that, I will turn it over to all of you.
QUESTION: Patrick, since the Mayan apocalypse seems to have depopulated our group here, maybe I can just start.
MR. VENTRELL: Indeed, it’s definitely December 21st and some of us are still here. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Those of us who are left behind, so to speak. Just on this Russian adoption bill, I mean, frequently in the Russian press and elsewhere it’s described as a retaliatory measure for the Magnitsky bill. I’m wondering --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- if you guys see it that way. Do you think that there’s any kind of rational parallel there? And can you tell us, have you made any sort of official representations to the Russians either through Ambassador McFaul or here in Washington about your concerns on this bill?
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks for the question, Andy. Last time I was up here a few days ago, that same question arose, and then I rejected any attempt at sort of reciprocity here. It’s hard for us to imagine a reciprocal situation. And what’s particularly concerning here is, in this present legislation, what the Russians are doing is effectively preventing – what this would do is prevent children from growing up in a family environment of happiness, love, and understanding. And so that’s the basic premise of our Bilateral Adoption Agreement. It’s something we’ve worked for many months with the Russians on. And so, really, it’s Russian children who would be harmed by this measure.
QUESTION: Okay. And the bit about making any kind of formal representations to the Duma or --
MR. VENTRELL: Oh, right. Absolutely our Embassy has been engaged, and Ambassador McFaul’s been engaged. But beyond that, I don’t have any sort of specific meetings or phone calls to read out.
MR. VENTRELL: Other questions? Go ahead, Nicolas. Yeah.
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks for the question. We can, indeed, confirm that a U.S. citizen has been detained in North Korea. The Embassy of Sweden, which is our protecting power in Pyongyang, has been granted consular access and is providing all appropriate consular assistance. But because of privacy considerations, that’s the extent that we can say on this matter right now.
QUESTION: Has the individual signed a privacy waiver?
MR. VENTRELL: We do not have a privacy waiver.
QUESTION: Okay. And has – what has Sweden told you back? That – I mean, if they’ve been granted access, have they given you any information on the individual, good health, anything?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, because of privacy considerations, we can’t get into further detail. As you know, in situations where we don’t have diplomatic representation and these countries are our protecting powers, they go in and provide those consular services that we are unable to. And obviously they’re – we have interaction with them on the results of those. But beyond that I really can’t get into greater detail.
QUESTION: Are you able to tell us if there’s been any communication through whatever channels with the North Koreans directly on this subject? I know sometimes you do talk about that in connection with other bilateral issues.
MR. VENTRELL: Right. We do have additional channels. This is the channel we use on these set of circumstances.
QUESTION: You mean the Swedish Embassy?
MR. VENTRELL: The Swedish are the ones who are our protecting power and provide this function for us.
Guy, go ahead.
QUESTION: Patrick, I wasn’t sure if you’d seen across town today there was an announcement at the White House that Senator John Kerry has been nominated as the – to become Secretary of State in the second Obama Administration. I was wondering if you could tell us whether Secretary Clinton has spoken with Senator Kerry since that – in recent days, and also if you could give us an update on her health status. And I have a follow-up after that.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Well, again, I’m not aware actually that the White House has formally gone ahead with any personnel announcements yet today. So obviously I’ll refer you to them. Suffice it to say, Secretary Clinton, as you’ve heard her say before, has pledged to have a smooth transition with her successor. I don’t have any phone calls or other activities of hers to read out, other than to say that she continues to be on the mend and continues to recover.
QUESTION: Regarding her health situation, there’s been quite a bit of clamor on the Hill throughout this week’s release of the ARB and the hearings about whether or not she would testify. And I know that’s been addressed from the podium this week, but could you tell us whether there’s been any change in status of that? When will she testify, and is she going to?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t really have any update. As you mentioned, this was addressed, including at this podium and yesterday during testimony, so we’ll continue to work with the committees. But I don’t have any specific announcements.
QUESTION: But you said Secretary Clinton’s committed to a smooth transition.
MR. VENTRELL: Yes.
QUESTION: Do you have any updates on what a timeline for that transition would look like? Say Senator Kerry, hypothetically, is nominated today; how does this go forward?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I don’t have a lot of specific detail to read out to you, or obviously there hasn’t been any personnel announcements, but transitions between secretaries of State, there’s a process as a new team comes in and a process that’s been followed many times in the past. So as we get – we’ll be transparent in providing as much information as we can going forward.
QUESTION: India today signed a FTA agreement with ASEAN countries on services and investment sector, and they also had a summit meeting in New Delhi. Do you have anything on that? How do you see India and ASEAN coming together?
MR. VENTRELL: Is this the India-ASEAN summit?
QUESTION: Yes, sir.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, what I can tell you about the India-ASEAN summit is that the United States strongly supports closer economic cooperation between India and the ASEAN member states, and as we’ve long said, free trade and open markets are powerful tools to improve living standards and open up new economic opportunities. So we support that closer economic cooperation, but I really don’t have anything further for you beyond that among those two partners.
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything for you on that. We continue to support his work, but I don’t have anything for you on that in particular. While we’re on the topic of Syria, though, I did want to take the opportunity to mention some of our U.S. Government assistance to winterization efforts in Syria. As you know, as the Syrians head into the winter months and the temperatures drop, it really presents some grave challenges for the safety and welfare of Syrians. And so as the conflict is now extended into the second winter, it’s really become critical to ensure that Syrians, civilians who are suffering, have protection from cold weather.
And so the United States, through our USAID and our Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, we’re providing tens of thousands of dollars of assistance, including winterization kits that have helped an estimated 130,000 Syrians, and we’re attempting to reach an additional up to 515,000, including in locations like Homs and Aleppo and some of the hottest zones of conflict.
So these kits, while not always marked as coming from the U.S., very much are helping the Syrian people as they face those daunting conditions.
QUESTION: Have you seen any --
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Samir.
QUESTION: Have you seen anything new in the Russian position on Syria after the remarks by President Putin that he doesn’t care about Assad personally, he just – they just don’t want Syria to have a collapse?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I don’t have anything specifically new for you, other than to say that we’ve been very clear we want the Russians to wind down their support for the Assad regime. Certainly, that would be a good thing. We obviously want a transition to be as stable and smooth as possible, but I don’t have anything new for you on sort of the Russian position beyond what – obviously, you saw what President Putin said.
QUESTION: Back to the winterization kits.
MR. VENTRELL: Yep.
QUESTION: What is in them, and do you have a timeline for delivery?
MR. VENTRELL: I do. So winterization kits and supplies include winter clothing, such as coats, socks, boots and hats, blankets, mattresses, heavy carpets and floor coverings to insulate the floor, and heavy-duty plastic sheeting to cover windows and provide protection from cold and rain. So my understanding is these kits that we’ve purchased, we’ve already provided, they go to a family of four or five people, each kit. We’ve reached 130,000 people and we’re immediately trying to reach 515,000.
And again, this is in the context of some 2 million internally displaced people who are – some of them are living in damaged public buildings and other places that don’t have proper insulation.
MR. VENTRELL: Said.
QUESTION: The day before yesterday, the Secretary General of the United Nations described what’s going on in Syria as basically a full-blown sectarian war, that it’s basically a civil war. Do you concur with that?
MR. VENTRELL: Said, we’ve been very clear about our concerns about the sectarian nature of the conflict. I do (inaudible) you to the UN’s – the Commission of Inquiry, which is an independent body created by the UN Human Rights Council. They just released their report a couple of days ago, and we commend their work and their ongoing investigation. And we are very concerned about the sectarian undertones and we’ve been very clear to especially the Syrian opposition that they need to clearly provide a way forward so that all Syrians are confident that there’s an alternative to the Assad regime where their rights will be respected regardless of their ethnicity, gender or minority status.
QUESTION: Do you believe that the unbridled support that countries, your allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are giving to certain Islamist groups, and so on, sort of in any way nixes that multi-whatever (inaudible) political representation of Syria?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Said, I think you’ve seen us be very clear, especially in our designations that we made recently, that we don’t believe there’s a place for extremists in the future of Syria, that they’re trying – there are some individuals who are trying to hijack this based on the chaos and what they believe is a target of opportunity to exert influence. And we’re doing everything we can to make sure that that doesn’t happen, because we want to see a Syria that’s free and democratic and prosperous where all Syrians’ rights are respected.
QUESTION: I just – on Syria and then I have one on something else.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: NATO officials today are saying that they have seen evidence of more scuds being used by the Damascus government against their own people in recent days. I’m just wondering if you guys have any sort of supplementary information on these missiles being used against civilians.
And secondly, if you do, or if you just take NATO’s word for it, what does that tell you about where the government, the regime, is at this point if they’re continuing to use missiles against their own people?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Andy, we do have information confirming the regime’s continued use of scuds. And we think that NATO Secretary General Rasmussen put it well today, that these are acts by a desperate regime approaching collapse. So we were able to independently verify that, but I can’t get into the intelligence beyond that.
QUESTION: Okay. And does – I mean, the continued use of ballistic missiles against presumably a civilian population, does this now turning – does this in any way create a more pressing problem for the international community when it comes to Syria, i.e., might this call for a stronger reaction than heretofore we’ve seen?
MR. VENTRELL: All of these reprehensible and despicable attacks against the Syrian people are cause for concern and alarm, and that’s why we are working so hard to hasten the end of the Assad regime and move on to a brighter Syria. So I don’t want to characterize it beyond that, but this is just a pattern of an increasingly desperate regime.
MR. VENTRELL: One more? You said you had another topic?
QUESTION: Well, it’s on a different subject, so if there are any more --
QUESTION: Different topic?
MR. VENTRELL: Let’s change topics.
QUESTION: Okay. All right, change topic. On Iran, I just was hoping you might have an update on the status of P-5+1 diplomacy there. Is there – I know that this past week, Toria said that there had been no response from the Iranians. I’m wondering if that’s still the case, and if you guys, like the Russians, foresee some sort of talks happening next month.
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks for the question, Andy, and indeed, as you mentioned, the EU deputy secretary general had a telephone call with her Iranian counterpart – that’s now going back to December 12th – in order to discuss the way ahead, including a date and venue for a meeting with Iran. But we are still awaiting Iran’s response.
But just to be clear and there’s – so that there’s no confusion here, the IAEA and the P-5+1 are separate tracks, and while there have been some valuable meetings with the IAEA, they do not substitute serious engagement with the P-5+1. So we hope that agreement with Iran can soon be reached on scheduling these talks so we can make concrete progress towards addressing international concerns and finding a diplomatic solution.
QUESTION: Is there any sort of timeline – time limitation on the – I mean, presumably there is because you mentioned a specific date and haven’t heard back, but is there any sense that this offer in its broader terms is time sensitive – is that it will only last for a certain period before it might be pulled back?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I don’t have anything specifically for you other than to say that there’s obviously urgency to resolve this diplomatically, and we’ve been clear the pressure will continue but that we’re willing to – in the P-5+1 we’re all united in our efforts to see a diplomatic solution.
I know Catherine’s been patient.
MR. VENTRELL: So we have seen those reports of Jon Hammar’s pending release from detention. We’re in contact with Mexican authorities involved in the case, but at this time we’re still working to confirm those reports. So if we have an update for you later in the day, we’ll be happy to share that, but right now we’re still working to confirm those reports.
MR. VENTRELL: Said.
QUESTION: New topic?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Patrick, the day before yesterday also the Deputy Secretary General for Political Affairs – the United Nations Deputy Secretary General for Political Affairs, Mr. Jeffrey Feltman, gave his yearly report on the situation for the Palestinians, and he painted a very bleak picture not only in terms of detention and demolitions and checkpoints and so on but prison conditions and all kinds of human rights abuses. I wonder beyond – above and beyond what you said about the settlements, are you raising with the Israelis these issues?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Said, I haven’t seen Ambassador Feltman’s report that he made up at the UN. You know where we are on settlements; we said this is earlier in the week that we’ve been absolutely clear that we’re deeply disappointed that Israel’s continuing this pattern of provocative action, but in terms of the specific UN report, I just haven’t seen it. And so I hesitate to comment on it without having seen it.
QUESTION: Well, okay. Would you take a look at the report? It’s quite thorough, I mean, because he speaks of ill treatment and arbitrary arrests and so on that go on day after day.
MR. VENTRELL: We’d be happy to take a look and get back to you if we have a specific reaction.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Lalit.
QUESTION: How do you see the meeting which went in Paris this week between Afghanistan Government and Taliban representatives and those from the Northern Alliance? It was a track two basically, but how do you see overall in the context of the reconciliation process which is going on?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. Well, you know we continue, the United States, to support an Afghan-led peace process. We continue to support Afghans sitting down with other Afghans in pursuit of that goal. I don’t have a lot more information for you about these particular meetings which were a track two, nongovernment event. We weren’t represented – we weren’t in attendance. But clearly we’ve been in support of Afghans talking to Afghans about their future.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: The EU and Russia today in a joint statement were very critical of the – Israel settlement plans, and it’s sort of noteworthy in that these are two members of the Quartet, and you guys being the third member aren’t a part of this statement. I’m wondering, were you approached to sign on to this joint statement and declined to do so? Are there any elements of it that you do not agree with? Reading through it, it seems to track pretty much what you guys have been saying all along. Why not join with other members of your other partners in the Quartet and kind of make a stronger point here?
MR. VENTRELL: Andy, I’ll have to take the specific part of your question about the joint statement. Suffice it to say, we’re been very clear, both publicly and privately, about our concerns with the settlements, and you’ve heard our clear language about our deep disappointment. But in terms of the negotiation on that particular EU joint statement, I’ll have to look into that. I’m just not aware of how we might have been engaged or whether we were asked about it.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Andy’s point, you’re also (inaudible) the Security Council. All other members of the Security Council condemn the settlements except for the United States of America. Could you explain that?
MR. VENTRELL: Said, suffice it to say, as I just mentioned, we’ve been quite clear in our public pronouncements on this.
Lalit, one more?
QUESTION: One more on Wikileaks?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Wikileaks has announced that next year, means next month itself, it is going to post 1 million documents, which is – which will be virtually from every country of the world. Do you have anything on that?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t really have a specific reaction on that. On Mr. Assange himself, that’s – his particular issue is something between the governments of the United Kingdom and Sweden. But on Wikileaks, I have nothing for you in specific. We’re aware of the reports.
QUESTION: Change topic?
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: I believe late last night – I’m not exactly sure what time – China sent several warships to waters off of Senkaku. I’m – of course, I know you’re concerned or upset about this provocative action. I’m just wondering if there’s any – been any direct communication with the Chinese and if any of that communication is changing at all in light of the fact that China seems to be ignoring your concern.
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything for you specifically other than to say our policy is longstanding and has not changed. I’d have to look into whether we have a specific reaction to developments overnight, but I’m not aware that – of anything at this point.
QUESTION: If you would, I’d be very grateful.
MR. VENTRELL: I’m happy to look into it.
MR. VENTRELL: Iraq? Sure.
QUESTION: With the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in the hospital, tension seems to be rising between the KRG and the central government. Is our – your ambassador in consultation or in talks with both parties to sort of mitigate these tensions?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Thanks for the question, Said. We’re absolutely engaged. Since learning of the reports, we’ve been engaged across the political spectrum. We’ve urged Iraqi leaders to uphold their commitments to due process and the rule of law as enshrined in their constitution. Any actions from any party that subvert the rule of law or provoke ethnic or sectarian tension risk undermining the significant progress Iraq has made toward peace and stability and important work that the United States and Iraq are doing together. So we’ve absolutely been engaged on this, certainly from our Embassy in Baghdad, and we will continue to be engaged.
QUESTION: One of the most daunting issues between the two, the KRG and the central government, is actually the oil law, the hydrocarbon law. What have you done? Sort of what kind of progress is being made in that area, and what kind of assistance are you giving?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, suffice to say our – this is a longstanding policy of the U.S. that we support a constitutional solution to disputes over the management of Iraq’s hydrocarbon resources. So this is something that we continue to urge both sides to reach an agreement on, but I have no update for you on our policy in that regard.
QUESTION: An update on the Benghazi report. After one official resigned and three have been disciplined, any other – has there been any other further update on that, any other officials resigned or disciplined or --
MR. VENTRELL: Lalit, I’ve got nothing further for you. You obviously saw that we had our two Deputy Secretaries of State testifying for multiple hours yesterday, so I obviously refer you to their extensive comments.
Okay. Anything else? Thank you, guys.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:00 p.m.)