The video is available with closed captioning on YouTube.
1:07 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Good afternoon. Welcome to the State Department. I have one thing for you at the top. As you know, we’re doing our two weeks of Free the Press campaigns, so the case we’d like to raise today in advance of World Press Freedom Day is Solijon Abdurakhmanov. He’s a journalist who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2008 in Uzbekistan on dubious drug charges. He – Mr. Abdurakhmanov actively investigated corruption and advocated for farmers’ rights in economically depressed regions of Uzbekistan, and has recently been back in the news because prison authorities allegedly hid him from ICRC monitors who tried to visit him. The United States recently raised this case with the Government of Uzbekistan and we call for his release as we continue to reiterate our commitment to promoting freedom of expression. The U.S. calls on the Government of Uzbekistan and all governments to protect the universal right to freedom of expression and allow journalists to operate freely and independently.
Having said that, I will turn it over to all of you.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Is there any update from your – anything new you can say about contacts between the embassy or people here in Washington with the Russians about the Boston bombing suspect?
MR. VENTRELL: I really have no update for you here from the State Department. This is being done through law enforcement channels. And as I clarified for some folks last week, while we do have law enforcement personnel at the embassy, this is primarily through FBI channels. So I refer them to you – refer you to them.
QUESTION: Well, could you refer them to us? (Laughter.) That would be nice, if you would, because I don’t think they would appreciate it, but it would be nice if we could something about this.
So the people that went from the embassy – and I apologize, I missed this, I wasn’t here on Thursday --
MR. VENTRELL: Law enforcement personnel.
QUESTION: -- from the Embassy in Moscow went to visit the family?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. They were law enforcement personnel.
QUESTION: They were. But they come under chief of mission authority?
MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is they’re chief of mission authority, but there might have been some folks from Washington, too.
QUESTION: Right. Are you aware of any further such visits like that?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of a second visit. No.
Okay. Other questions? Other areas of interest? Jo, go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: There was a couple names mentioned on the weekly schedule, but I wonder if you could tell us who else is involved and what the purpose the meeting is, and what the Secretary’s hoping to achieve from it.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I talked about this a little bit last week, but now that we’re closer to the meeting just to say that the Secretary looks forward to meeting with the ministerial delegation this afternoon representing the Arab Peace Initiative Follow-up Committee. That will be at Blair House this afternoon. Qatari Prime and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jasim, as chair of the committee, will lead the visiting delegation. And we welcome the Arab League’s eagerness to play a constructive role in the pursuit of a durable and lasting Middle East peace. So the meeting comes in the context of a series of productive conversations by the Secretary to explore how we can best move regional peace efforts forward.
QUESTION: Is it expected to issue any kind of a statement afterwards?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if we’ll have a statement or some kind of reaction immediately after the meeting, but we will – certainly you’ll be the first to know once we --
QUESTION: What do you mean “statement or some kind of reaction”? You mean some kind of an announcement? Like, might Secretary actually speak or --
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure about press arrangements for post-meeting, but we’ll certainly endeavor to get you all a readout.
QUESTION: And, I mean, so if it’s all so constructive, I mean, it’s just not clear to me to why you guys wouldn’t have – even have a sense of whether you’re going to issue a statement afterwards.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, let’s let the meeting go forward. Let’s have the participants have a chance to exchange views and talk and then we’ll go forward from there.
QUESTION: And can you list all the other participants?
MR. VENTRELL: Actually I don’t have a full, final list. It’s really the Qataris and the Arab League that constructed the delegation and put it together in terms of its participants. So I don’t have a final list, but again, in endeavoring to get you a readout, we can also get the final list of participants. But it’s a ministerial-level delegation.
QUESTION: Does this have anything to do with – or to take up the Secretary’s proposals for economic development of the West Bank?
MR. VENTRELL: I do anticipate economic development will be one piece of it, but this is primarily to hear from some of these Arab leaders about their opinions on the way forward in terms of peace. And as the Secretary really pointed to what you said – what he said to you all in the press the day that he left Israel – this was a couple weeks back – where he said that the Arab peace plan is – it’s a way forward and has language for the Arab world to make peace with Israel and that that’s a laudable goal and something that we certainly support. And so he wanted to hear from some Arab counterparts.
QUESTION: Other than the Arab League, though, and I realize you don’t have the full list there, but are you aware of any other countries who are joining?
MR. VENTRELL: There are a number of countries: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia – again, we’ll get you the full list. But there’s, I want to say, at least a half dozen countries at the ministerial level.
QUESTION: But isn’t it all the members – foreign ministers of all the members of the Follow-up Committee?
MR. VENTRELL: I believe that’s the final list. Yes.
QUESTION: I think the Follow-up Committee membership you can find on the internet.
MR. VENTRELL: You can probably find that on the internet. But again, we’ll get you the final list of who’s at the table.
Go ahead, Matt.
QUESTION: Yeah, do you expect them to talk about anything – and when you were talking about peace, you’re talking about Israeli-Palestinian?
MR. VENTRELL: Right.
QUESTION: And do you expect them to – any other topics to come up? Syria?
MR. VENTRELL: That’s the main agenda item. If – given we have a number of countries who are interested in Syria, could that come up? I can’t preclude it. But the main focus is Middle East peace process.
Jill. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Just a clarification. Who called this meeting? Is this – was it called by the Secretary or by the Arab League?
MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is they’d expressed an interest in meeting with us and we were happy to facilitate a meeting here. That’s my understanding of the sort of tick-tock of the meeting preparation.
QUESTION: And why will the meeting be held at the Blair House?
MR. VENTRELL: The Secretary sometimes has meetings over there with delegations. I’m not sure, on the logistical planning, about why at the Blair House instead of in one of the 8th floor rooms here. But he’s had some bilaterals there recently, including – I think the most recent was the Foreign Minister – or Prime Minister of Singapore a couple weeks ago.
QUESTION: Bahraini Foreign Minister said that Vice President Biden will attend the meeting.
MR. VENTRELL: I really refer you to the White. If the Vice President is going to stop by the meeting or not, that’s a White House --
QUESTION: Can you rule out the possibility they’re re-launching or reviving or in some way giving yet another statement of support for the Arab League peace initiative this afternoon?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t want to rule in or out anything. Let’s let the meeting go forward and then we’ll get you a readout.
Samir, go ahead.
QUESTION: What specific steps the U.S. wants the Arab League to take to encourage the Israelis and Palestinians to return to the peace talks, can you tell us?
MR. VENTRELL: I think this is more about hearing from them and their perspective on the path forward and some of their opinions. I think that’s really the focus of the meeting, is getting a chance to hear from them.
Okay, other questions? Jill? Or Michel, go ahead.
QUESTION: Go ahead.
QUESTION: No problem.
QUESTION: Okay. But it’s another subject.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: Can I ask one last one on this?
QUESTION: And it’s hard to say, since we don’t actually – since you haven’t provided us with the list of participants. But I suspect he’s met the vast majority, if not possibly all, of those participants. So why the need for a collective meeting to hear what they think when he’s certainly already met the Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, including when we were in Qatar; he’s certainly met with the Saudi Foreign Minister. I mean, I just don’t get why you need to hear from them here, en masse.
MR. VENTRELL: Right. Well, you’re right, Arshad, that the Secretary does have intensive diplomacy with a number of these partners and has met with them repeatedly and, of course, had many times previous to being Secretary, too, and now has in his capacity as Secretary. I think given the renewed interest and focus that the Secretary has played in the diplomacy here, that they felt it would be an appropriate time to collectively come have a meeting with us on the subject and so we, indeed, accepted that.
Jill, go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any information for you one way or another on that. I’ve seen some news reporting, but I don’t have any information one way or another, Jill.
QUESTION: So this is kind of a repeat of the last time, when nobody knew anything?
MR. VENTRELL: I just – I don’t have information one way or another, Jill.
QUESTION: Anything on the meeting between Secretary Kerry and Brahimi in the afternoon?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. So the Secretary will meet with Joint Special Representative Brahimi here at the State Department this afternoon to discuss the troubling situation in Syria. We applaud Mr. Brahimi’s efforts to advance a political solution to the conflict in Syria within the framework of the Geneva communique, and we reiterate our support for his mission despite the challenging circumstances.
QUESTION: Has that meeting happened?
MR. VENTRELL: That meeting is happening shortly.
QUESTION: It has not happened?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah, it’s happening here in a few minutes.
QUESTION: Will you be able to offer us some details of what they talked about once the meeting is over?
MR. VENTRELL: We’ll certainly endeavor to do so. Certainly, the topics are Syria, so – but we’ll endeavor to see what we can do about a readout.
QUESTION: That – well, that’s – the topic is Syria.
MR. VENTRELL: Right.
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, I was hoping for something a little bit more exact.
MR. VENTRELL: I know you are, Matt.
QUESTION: If you can drill down a little bit on the granularity. Maybe like: Assad future, situation on the ground – and I’m not trying to be facetious.
MR. VENTRELL: No, I know you’re not, Matt.
QUESTION: But I would prefer that it not be, “The Secretary and Mr. Brahimi met and spoke about issues of mutual concern.”
MR. VENTRELL: All right. We’ll endeavor to --
QUESTION: Because, frankly, I read enough of the New Light of Myanmar many years ago, and we don’t need those kinds of readouts anymore. So I’d also make the same plea for the Arab League meeting.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Let me clear, though --
QUESTION: If we could actually get some remnant of scrap of substance in what the readout --
MR. VENTRELL: Let me be clear here, though, Matt. The purpose is to encourage him to continue in his good work, and so that’s really the message that Secretary wants.
MR. VENTRELL: No, I think what we’re doing is we reiterate our support for his mission and we want him to continue to – encourage him to do good work. I’m not going to – in terms of his capacity or what he may or may not be willing to do going forward --
QUESTION: What’s your assessment (inaudible) --
QUESTION: Sorry – finish that in terms of the capacity of what he might or might not be willing to do going forward --
MR. VENTRELL: Again, to support a political transition in Syria. But this is somebody who has, for many months, labored in the very noble cause of trying to help peace in Syria, and certainly a political transition which is, as we’ve long said, our preferred route and the best route to end the violence and stop the suffering of the Syrian people.
QUESTION: Is it fair to say the U.S. Government would like him to keep doing his good work?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I think I just said that we encourage him to continue with his work and we continue to support his mission.
QUESTION: Is it not that implicit that you don’t want him to resign?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, we’d like to hear from him. This is a chance for the Secretary to have a discussion with him and see what’s possible going forward. But I’m – let’s let the meeting go forward.
QUESTION: Are you suspecting that three Bs meeting?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any update on that. Deputy Secretary Burns is en route back from a rather lengthy trip to Asia, so I don’t have any update one way or another, but that’s been one potential format of meetings that we’ve done in the past. I don’t have anything about future meetings.
QUESTION: Do you have anything on the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov? He was visiting Lebanon and met with the leader of Hezbollah. Did you send any messages with them?
MR. VENTRELL: I hadn’t seen that one way or another. You know what our position is on Hezbollah and how strongly we feel about Hezbollah.
QUESTION: Any comment on this attack on the Prime Minister?
MR. VENTRELL: We’ve seen the reports but don’t have additional information about the attack. We do condemn in the strongest terms any attacks targeting civilians and any and all violence that results in the indiscriminate killing or injury of civilians. We think that the killing and injury of civilians is reprehensible and cannot be justified.
QUESTION: On Syria?
MR. VENTRELL: You have another Syria question? Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, please. The foreign affairs advisor of the Egyptian President is in Tehran today to talk with Iranian officials, and he said that part of these talks is Syria. Are you aware of that meetings? Or do you have anything to say about it?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of an Egyptian-Iranian meeting regarding Syria, but you know what our position is on Iranian – the negative role that Iran continues to play inside of Syria.
Okay. Mr. Rosen, go ahead. Welcome to the briefing room. We haven’t seen you in a little while.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) It’s good to see you as well.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Earlier today, I forwarded to you an April 26 letter from the Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Congressman Issa of California to Secretary Kerry. I assume that the Department has received and is reviewing the letter?
MR. VENTRELL: We have received the letter and we are reviewing it.
QUESTION: More broadly, I wonder if I could ask whether the Department is aware of any efforts by attorneys representing whistleblowers in the Benghazi case or, in fact, survivors of the Benghazi attacks who have sought any kinds of security clearances so that they can review documents in preparation for possible testimony on the matter.
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of private counsel seeking security clearances or anything to that regard. But let me just take this opportunity to really underscore once again the unprecedented level of cooperation and transparency we provided Congress in terms of the Benghazi situation. You know that there have been eight hearings, 20 briefings, 25,000 pages of documentation, and of course the independent Accountability Review Board, which provided its classified report in full to the U.S. Congress. So our unprecedented cooperation stands on its record going back previously, and we’ve – as you heard the Secretary say, will continue to provide cooperation going forward.
QUESTION: The allegation of the chairman of the Oversight Committee is that in the provision of these documents that you just referenced, the Department has refused to allow lawmakers from relevant committees who do, in fact, possess the requisite security clearances, to make any copies of some of these important documents, but rather have insisted that the documents be reviewed solely in camera. And his further contention is that lawmakers, in meeting with witnesses and in questioning them, have had to rely on handwritten notes from staff aides precisely because these documents may only be reviewed in camera. Is that standard procedure, or is it unique to the Benghazi case? And if so, what is the rationale the Department has for insisting that these documents can only be reviewed in that way?
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks, James. My understanding is that all standard procedures have been followed here in terms of our cooperation with Congress. I’m not going to get into a point-by-point back-and-forth on this letter, because we’ll indeed respond to the letter and get back to the congressman with his concerns through that vehicle. But suffice it to say that standard protocols have been followed in this instance as they have in other – in terms of appropriate redaction in terms of documents going over to the Congress, I believe there’s a lengthier process in terms of getting them documents, and our effort was to get them information as quickly as possible. And the easiest way to do that was through an in-camera review process.
QUESTION: Your earlier answer to me specified that you were – you had not heard of any private counsel seeking security clearances.
MR. VENTRELL: Right.
QUESTION: Are you aware of any State Department employees who are – who would fall under the category of whistleblower in connection with Benghazi who have been denied access to papers?
MR. VENTRELL: Not that I’m aware of.
QUESTION: And one last question: Has the Department issued to its employees any kind of notice that would ensure that anyone who considers himself or herself a whistleblower in this matter would not be subject to any kind of repercussion?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure of a proactive notice saying one way or another, but we always say that to whistleblowers, that they have the Inspector General and other methods of whistleblowing on any range of issues. So that’s a longstanding process that stands for a number of different scenarios.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Excuse me. I’m trying to get my thoughts together.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Matt.
QUESTION: See, I haven’t seen this letter from Representative Issa, so I don’t know what it is, but the term has been used over and over, “whistleblower.” Does the State Department believe that there is anything in the Benghazi incident to blow a whistle on? Is – in other words, the question before was – I believe the question before was something like: Does the State Department believe that there are people who have gone to the Hill or otherwise given information that would put them in the category of being a whistleblower, which generally refers to people who report corruption or some kind of malfeasance or incompetence? Does the State Department believe that there are people involved in the Benghazi case who could be – who are considered whistleblowers?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of whistleblowers one way or another.
QUESTION: So why do you continue to use – you’re accepting the premise of the question, which is that there are whistleblowers. And if you –
MR. VENTRELL: No, I’m not accepting the –
QUESTION: -- think there are, that’s fine.
MR. VENTRELL: No, I’m not accepting the premise of the question. That was Mr. Rosen’s characterization, not mine.
QUESTION: So the Department does not believe that there is anyone that falls – anyone connected to the Benghazi case, for example, the people who testified before the committee that Representative Issa chairs, back on the first hearing months ago, the Department does not consider those people to be whistleblowers under the definition that most of us would understand?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. Not that I’m aware of. I mean, I can’t rule out a negative. I can’t say for certain one way or another that there aren’t people out there. But not that I’m aware of and not that have been – the folks that you’re talking about. I think this comes in the context of some members of the Hill wanting to interview survivors or something of that nature, and the bottom line is those survivors have provided extensive testimony to the ARB and to the FBI, and those – that information was made available to the Hill through that channel. We don’t sort of have people at the operational level necessarily as witnesses or testifying. In fact, many of them are back and have done – and are completing their duties in the field.
QUESTION: No, this just has to do with the definition of the word “whistleblower.” I mean, if you don’t believe that there was any wrongdoing, any illegality involved, then you wouldn’t consider people involved in this case to be whistleblowers. Am I correct?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. That’s not the phrase we’ve used. In terms of they are –
QUESTION: No, but that’s the phrase that – if I understood correctly, that’s the phrase that’s used in the letter, yes?
QUESTION: Yes, it’s used in the letter, and with respect to the question I asked, I simply referred to individuals who may be placed under that category.
QUESTION: Oh, okay. Would you –
QUESTION: The State Department is so recognizing them.
QUESTION: Does the State Department recognize people involved in this incident – some people to be whistleblowers?
MR. VENTRELL: No, not that I’m aware of. I’m happy to look into it, but not that I’m aware of, and we’ll get back to the Hill and respond to their inquiry in written format as we always do.
QUESTION: And just to follow up on what you just said to Matt, you made clear that some of the survivors of the attack have provided their recollections of it to various entities including the ARB, the FBI. Does the Department oppose those individuals being made available for questioning by key congressional staff or lawmakers?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, most of them are back on duty and doing functions at various places around the world. The bottom line is that congressional testimony is at the Deputy Assistant Secretary level and above, and just as you wouldn’t have necessarily a soldier or troops called as witnesses, you have their superior officers, that’s the same practice for the State Department. And again, I think, as I’ve mentioned, we’ve had some eight hearings and 20 briefings and made our senior officials repeatedly available. And in terms of the ARB report, we were clear where there mistakes that were made, and we’ve been clear where we’re implementing very thoroughly all of the recommendations, which you heard the former Secretary say that we accepted all of them and the current Secretary say that we’re implementing all of the recommendations. So –
QUESTION: But to the fact that you’re not making these people available to Congress, is that a suggestion that you don’t think that this is an appropriate venue for further investigation of the matter?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I think that these folks want to be able to continue their professional duties and activities, and –
QUESTION: Are you saying, like, that the ARB and the FBI investigation stand as is, and Congress has --
MR. VENTRELL: And they have access to all of that information.
QUESTION: But do they have access to all the witness testimony from the people that were interviewed?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure of the exact format, but my information --
QUESTION: You said “all that information.” You said, “they have access to all that information.”
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. So, they were interviewed by the ARB, and their accounts are reflected in the unclassified and classified ARB reports, both of which were shared with Congress.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: I didn’t get an answer to my question of whether or not you – the Department opposes the provision of these individuals to the – so the answer is yes, the Department opposes making those individuals available.
MR. VENTRELL: The answer is that the standard practice going back for a very long time is that there are senior officers who are willing to testify on behalf of this Department about our operations, and we’ve done so and will continue to do so, but that our staff members at the working level continue to do their work going forward.
Matt, go ahead.
QUESTION: But that is different; senior officers who weren’t there on the day and night in question obviously have a secondhand testimony from the people who were there. I mean --
MR. VENTRELL: Right. But the appropriate avenue for investigation was the FBI, which interviewed these witnesses, and the independent ARB, which also did so, and that was the appropriate avenue to do so that would allow the information to come forward but do so in a way that protects these people as well.
QUESTION: I have another Libya question.
QUESTION: So that’s your answer to Elise, which is you regard Congress as an inappropriate vehicle for investigating at that level of granularity.
MR. VENTRELL: We think that we’ve done an independent investigation, that it’s been transparent, thorough, credible, and detailed, and that we’ve shared those findings with the U.S. Congress.
QUESTION: But I just don’t --
QUESTION: And that should be enough?
MR. VENTRELL: And that should be enough.
QUESTION: Can we stay in Libya just a minute?
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: Because there’s also an incident going on there for the last two days where the Libyan Foreign Ministry’s been under siege from people who are requesting that the government throw out any Qadhafi-era people who were still working with them. What can you tell us about it, and have there been any requests for any assistance from the Libyan security forces?
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks, Jo. First of all, we call on all those exercising their right to freedom of assembly and expression in Libya to do so peacefully. We recognize that Libyans have concerns and grievances they wish to have heard by their government. Those Libyans should peacefully utilize the democratic process to do so and not attempt to intimidate political officials. Libyans fought their revolution to establish a democratic system in which the voices of the Libyan people could be heard through peaceful means. Violence only threatens to undermine the legacy of the revolution. So we support a peaceful, prosperous, and stable future for Libya.
And in terms of this political isolation law which is something that’s been at stake here, it’s really a decision for the Libyans to make through their democratic process and system.
QUESTION: Has there been any requests for help that you might have (inaudible)?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of any requests for help, although the Libyan Government has assured us that security is its number one priority, that it’s working to establish rule of law and regular order so that people can express their grievances in a political and peaceful way, and not do so through the threat of intimidation.
QUESTION: Patrick, can I just go back to something?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: I want to make sure that you didn’t mean to suggest that it’s not appropriate for Congress to choose to investigate whatever it sort of wishes to investigate, correct? I mean, your view is that you conducted the ARB, that the FBI, which is of course part of the Executive Branch, has done interviews and so on, and that you feel that suffices. But it’s not your view – I just want to make clear – I mean, from your point of view, Congress can investigate what it wishes under --
MR. VENTRELL: Right.
QUESTION: -- the separation of powers.
MR. VENTRELL: Congress has its own prerogatives, but we’ve had a very thorough, independent investigation which we completed and were transparent and shared, and there are many folks who are in a political manner trying to sort of use this for their own political means or ends, and that’s why we’ve been clear that we did our investigation, were so careful in sharing the findings with the Hill, and that the Secretary pledged going forward that if there are issues that they have unresolved, they have a channel to communicate with us and we’ll look at their concerns. And so the Secretary was clear about that, and we’ve received this congressional testimony. We’ll look into it and we’ll respond as appropriate.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Just going back to some testimony earlier on this month, Secretary Kerry has suggested that if members of Congress are still unhappy with the answer they’d received of the Benghazi inquiry, that he would be ready to appoint – I think the phrase was within 24 hours – some kind of liaison officer. Could you tell us where we are with that?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. I mean, he didn’t mean that necessarily we’re going to bring in a new person or staff member, but that he would make sure that someone on the staff was responsive and a point person for the Hill, and I understand that he’s done that.
QUESTION: And do you know – could you tell us who it is, please?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have a name for you one way or another, but my understanding is that there is somebody on his senior staff who will be a point of liaison.
QUESTION: Will be or is already?
MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is “is,” but let me check for you afterward and see if I have any more detail.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) “is” is?
MR. VENTRELL: “Is” is “is.” Thank you, Matt. Okay.
QUESTION: Does it depend on what the definition of the word “is” is?
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: Can you tell us how the meeting went this morning?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. So, Secretary Kerry met with Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa. During the meeting, they discussed recent developments in Bahrain’s national dialogue and reform process. They also discussed a host of regional issues, including Middle East peace and the ongoing crisis in Syria. Secretary Kerry reinforced the importance of the strategic partnership between the United States and Bahrain. He noted the reforms that Bahrain has made and encouraged them to do more in the process so they can continue in order to ensure long-term stability in Bahrain.
QUESTION: Did he raise the issue of human rights violations, or alleged human rights violations in Bahrain?
QUESTION: I think we should let it stand at that. Apparently he didn’t, because it’s not part of what he just said.
QUESTION: Well, let’s give him a chance to – let’s give him a chance (inaudible).
MR. VENTRELL: Human rights were a part of the discussion, and specifically in terms of urging them to make additional progress. They’ve made some progress, but we want them to make more progress in terms of implementing all of the recommendations of the BICI, for instance. And so while we encourage the efforts underway, we want them to follow through on them.
QUESTION: Did the subject of your – of the State Department’s Human Rights Report for Bahrain come up at all, the most recent one?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if – I’d have to check on that. I’m not sure if either side specifically raised the Human Rights Report, but the report stands for itself. And I know that the Bahrainis had some concerns, but we believe the report stands for itself.
QUESTION: Right. Well, their concerns were that they said that it was not impartial and that it was not objective. I think it was – that it lacked objectivity and impartiality.
MR. VENTRELL: Right. Well, we reject that. I’m not sure if it came up on either side during the meeting.
QUESTION: So how would you describe the – how would you characterize the tone in this meeting?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I think it was collaborative. Indeed, there were some very – a lengthy discussion on Middle East peace, the ongoing crisis in Syria, and then there was a chance to discuss the reform process inside of Bahrain as well.
QUESTION: And so in terms of the reform process, you think it needs to be accelerated?
MR. VENTRELL: We do.
QUESTION: You’re not happy with --
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we think that they made some progress, but further action is required.
QUESTION: Okay. And so does that – when you said they discussed recent developments in Bahrain, does that – what does that – does that involve the reforms on human rights, or does it involve anything else?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. It’s some of that. And you’ve had some cases, for instance, of medical professionals who were acquitted, so there’s some positive steps. But you have other steps that haven’t been followed through on.
Okay. Go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: In the coming days it is expected that the NGO law is going to be approved by the Shura Council, the only (inaudible) legislative (inaudible) in Egypt, and of course a lot of concerns are there, especially with civil society organizations regarding this – this whatever it’s called, NGO law. There are many drafts out there. Do you have anything to say about this?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I said this last week and I’ll say it again, that we’re deeply concerned with draft legislation that would severely restrict the ability of NGOs to work in Egypt, and we think that would move Egypt backwards. So this law would weaken civil society’s essential role in government accountability and hamper the accountability of government in the eyes of the people. So we’ve been very clear about that. I said it last week, and our position is the same.
QUESTION: So it’s – your concern is about it is approved without any discussion, or it’s the content of the law?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure about the process, but the content certainly has been of deep concern to us.
QUESTION: What are the main concerns? I mean, it’s the functioning financing issue? Is the restricting of forming NGOs or the participation of the American organization in the part of the civil society?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, it’s all of the above. We’re deeply concerned that this would restrict the ability of civil society to play the important role that it needs to play in a democratic society.
QUESTION: I have another follow-up for this. Recently, one of the advisors of the President, he mentioned that they are not expecting any kind of interference from anybody regarding, as he said, our version of democracy. Do you have any comment or that you consider this an international interference or U.S. interference in issues?
MR. VENTRELL: Who said that quote again? That’s not one that I’d heard before.
QUESTION: This is Khaled al-Qazzaz. He’s the advisor of the President, of Morsy.
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I hadn’t seen those comments one way or another, but --
QUESTION: It was published in Washington Post.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. I hadn’t seen that. But we’re very clear that civil society should be able to operate and that the U.S. around the world – and we do support civil society, we do so in a nonpartisan way and to really help civil society grow and play a productive role in society, but we don’t choose sides or pick one way or another who should have influence. It’s a matter of broadly developing civil society.
QUESTION: And now they talk about it’s maybe related to Egypt. Again last week, Arshad, I think he raised the issue of the visit to Russia and the possibility of making a nuclear plant, and I asked you on that, you said that you’re going to elaborate more about U.S. position. I mean, is it come or not?
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks for following up. This has been a question from Arshad, and I’m glad you reminded me because I do have the answer here.
We support cooperation in the area of peaceful uses of nuclear energy for countries that comply with their international obligations under the treaty, under the NPT. And we encourage all countries to adopt the highest standards of nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation. And while nuclear energy can play a role as a part of a long-term, comprehensive energy strategy for Egypt, we recognize Egypt also faces acute short-term energy shortages and urgently needs power generation capacity now from other sources as well.
So we’ve been clear with the Egyptians that there are other short-term needs as well. So this is one potential avenue. They need to do so under the NPT standards, but there are other things they need to explore for short-term energy needs as well.
Okay. Go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: I asked you about the comment by the Chinese Government last Friday. Did you check the comment about the Senkakus islands? They called --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah --
QUESTION: -- Senkakus as a core interest. This is first time. And I think this changed the status quo. The Secretary Kerry said at the press conference in Tokyo he opposed any steps which change the status quo, and this comment by the Chinese Government is obviously change the status quo.
MR. VENTRELL: I have nothing new for you on Senkakus. Our position remains the same, and I don’t have any reaction for you one way or another.
QUESTION: Did you confirm that comment itself?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I refer you to the Chinese to confirm the comment. I’m not aware of it here.
QUESTION: He said at the press conference. That’s a public statement.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I refer you to the Chinese for their position. Our position on the Senkakus has not changed.
Okay. Jo, you look like you have one more.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: What can you tell us about those wads of cash that have been handed over in suitcases and briefcases over the last 10 years to the Afghan Government?
MR. VENTRELL: I have nothing for you on that one way or another.
QUESTION: President Karzai actually confirmed today that that was the case, that some tens of millions of dollars have been handed over by the CIA over the last 10 years. I mean, this would – would this be a usual way of handing over tax dollar money?
MR. VENTRELL: I really have nothing for you one way or another.
QUESTION: Was there no State Department – there must be some State Department kind of cooperation or insistence, or at least the CIA would have asked for your advice on whether this was a good thing to do or not.
MR. VENTRELL: Jo, I really have nothing one way or another in terms of this – our Department has done extensive cooperation and development work over the years, but I have nothing for you on these specific claims one way or another.
QUESTION: This building has in the past talked about cash being transferred, has it not?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, in terms of supporting Afghan institutions or in other countries, have we provided direct cash assistance?
QUESTION: Yeah, either legally or – yeah, about the delivery of actual cash to Afghan officials, including President Karzai. I mean, one of your predecessors stood at the podium and said that, so I’m not sure I understand why --
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t remember that --
QUESTION: Is it because this – is it because the CIA was supposedly involved that you’re not going to talk about – you don’t want to talk about it?
MR. VENTRELL: Despite remembering very much of what has happened at this podium, Matt, I’m not remembering this specific instance. But the bottom line is we provide our development assistance to Afghanistan, whether it’s done in cash or in kind or otherwise --
QUESTION: No, I’m just trying to figure out, is there a reason that you’re not wanting to talk about this is because it’s the CIA that’s involved and it’s not you.
MR. VENTRELL: It doesn’t involve the State Department.
QUESTION: Okay. But when it comes to the State Department development assistance or whatever kind of assistance the Department is, you’re not denying that some of it was delivered in cash, are you?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I can’t sort of deny a negative over 11 years of cooperation assistance. I don’t know in every form that it went, and we have a number of different ways to support institutions in developing societies. And Afghanistan is, indeed, one society that’s had to rebuild from the ground up. So I’m not aware of all of our assistance programs over the many years.
QUESTION: Do you have anything on the stories that said that the same office – President Karzai’s office received in the past bags of money from Iran, too?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything for you on that one way or another. I’d refer you to the Afghans or the Iranians for more on that.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah. Could you update the status of the American citizen detained in North Korea, Kenneth Bae?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: And specifically, could you tell us the – what the – Kenneth Bae said during the meeting with the Swedish Embassy personnel on Friday?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, to say that we are aware of reports that U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae will face trial in North Korea. You know the welfare of U.S. citizens is a critical and top priority for this Department. We call on the D.P.R.K. to release Kenneth Bae immediately on humanitarian grounds. The Embassy of Sweden in Pyongyang acts as our protecting power for issues involving U.S. citizens in North Korea, so we are in close coordination with representatives at the Embassy of Sweden, and we understand they were last able to visit this U.S. citizen on Friday, April 26th. So that’s the information that I have at this time.
QUESTION: Is this all – what you just read there, was that what was being read to people who called yesterday or Saturday about --
MR. VENTRELL: I think we were --
QUESTION: I’m just wondering. Because I saw that there was a State Department official quoted over the weekend, and it sounded very much like that. And I just want to make sure there wasn’t anything new.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, no. I think we were looking for more information over the weekend. Now we are explicitly calling for the release of this U.S. citizen immediately on humanitarian grounds.
QUESTION: So are you aware of anything that is – you got more information?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I think we’re in the process – we’re trying to find out more about the charges and what more we knew about this.
QUESTION: And so the Swedes – does this mean the Swedes have gotten back to you?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any information on our communication with the Swedes one way or another.
QUESTION: Do you know whether he’ll be allowed a defense at trial and who that might be?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t. I don’t have any information one way or another on that. But we consistently, whether it’s in North Korea or elsewhere, make sure that we can help our U.S. citizens get the best possible access to legal defense in whatever scenario it might be.
QUESTION: Is it – is that – in most places, that’s a list of local lawyers. Do you – are you aware that the Swedes have a list of local North Korean lawyers who might be willing to --
MR. VENTRELL: I am not aware whether they have a list of local defense attorneys in North Korea.
QUESTION: Do you know if there are any defense attorneys in North Korea?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t know one way or another. But we’re calling for his immediate release.
Thank you all.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:43 p.m.)
DPB # 69