The video is available with closed captioning on YouTube.
1:14 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Good afternoon.
QUESTION: Good afternoon.
MR. VENTRELL: I have one thing for you at the top before I turn it over to all of you.
First of all, on our Free the Press campaign, today we have actually something that’s very much in the news today and pertinent, so let me go ahead and say the United States is deeply disappointed that Ethiopia’s Federal Supreme Court upheld the conviction and harsh sentencing of journalist Eskinder Nega and opposition politician Andualem Arage under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the Penal Code.
Today’s decision further reinforces our serious concern about Ethiopia’s politicized prosecution of those critical of the government and ruling party, including under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has a right to freedom of opinion and expression, and that this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media, a universal right that is also enshrined in Ethiopia’s constitution.
The United States believes that upholding freedoms of expression, association, and other human rights is essential if Ethiopia is to realize its stated goal of being a democratic state. We continue to urge the release of those who have been imprisoned in Ethiopia for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms.
QUESTION: I have a question on that one, if you don’t mind.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) but --
MR. VENTRELL: Matt, go ahead.
QUESTION: Oh, please.
QUESTION: No, please, go ahead. You spoke first.
QUESTION: I mean, can you point to one instance in any of the cases that you listed this week where the U.S. – whether there’s been consequences in the relationship for any of these imprisonments?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, we raise these cases very clearly and very directly.
QUESTION: I know you raise them. I know you raise them, but, I mean --
MR. VENTRELL: Let me finish, Elise. Let me finish, Elise. Some of these cases are with governments where we have a more difficult relationship, some where we have a friendly relationship, and we raise them across the gamut of those relationships in a very clear and direct way. And so we’ll continue to do that, and we think it’s been important over these last couple weeks to publicly call out and make very clear our concern about some specific cases, and so we’ve done so.
QUESTION: So Secretary Kerry, in testimony a couple weeks ago, said that he’s going to go to Ethiopia soon. Is this – are your concerns deep enough for him to re-think whether he would go?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I don’t have any travel dates or countries to announce for potential travel to Africa for the Secretary, but it is somewhere he looks forward to --
QUESTION: Well, I know he --
MR. VENTRELL: -- Africa, the continent, somewhere he looks forward to visiting. In terms of a visit to Ethiopia, we do have a bilateral relationship, we have a number of mutual interests and concerns --
QUESTION: Well, I --
MR. VENTRELL: -- and so the relationship continues. But we very clearly and publicly want to state our concerns when we have them, and you know that we’ve talked about this particular case of Eskinder Nega in a number of times in the past, and we thought it was appropriate to do so again today.
QUESTION: Okay. So the answer is no, this – your concern isn’t strong enough that it would stop him from going?
MR. VENTRELL: We travel and we continue our relationship with countries with whom we have a number of --
QUESTION: Can I move to --
MR. VENTRELL: -- where we have human rights concerns. Go ahead, Matt.
MR. VENTRELL: We do have human rights concerns there.
QUESTION: That’s reassuring to know. What can you say about – what’s your reaction to the sentencing of this American citizen?
MR. VENTRELL: So we understand that a DPRK court convicted U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae for hostile acts against the DPRK and sentenced him to 15 years of compulsory labor. There is no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad, and we urge the DPRK authorities to grant Mr. Bae amnesty and immediate release.
QUESTION: On what basis should they grant him amnesty, given that they’ve convicted him of this?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Arshad, part of our concern here – and we’ve had longstanding concerns about the lack of transparency and due process in the North Korean legal system. So now that Mr. Bae has gone through a legal process, we urge the DPRK to grant him amnesty and immediate release.
QUESTION: Do you think he’s innocent?
MR. VENTRELL: We don’t know the facts of the case. The Swedish certainly are our protecting power and have had, I believe, in a few opportunities, the chance to meet with Mr. Bae, but there hasn’t been transparency in the case. So while some of the facts are limited to our knowledge – we don’t know all of the facts – we are concerned that – broadly speaking, about the transparency and due process in North Korea, and we think he should be released.
QUESTION: And are you – in the past, there have been occasions where the U.S. Government has sent envoys, notably former President Clinton, to North Korea. Are you looking into some kind of such arrangement?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware one way or another. I know that a couple of former presidents had their spokespeople clarifying that they weren’t going and – but the bottom line is this is something – you all are aware of the history and how this has been – this has happened in the past with U.S. citizens. But what we’re calling on for and we’re urging the DPRK authorities to do is to grant him amnesty and to allow for his immediate release, full stop.
QUESTION: I mean, it’s precisely because I know the history that I’m asking the question --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- whether you’re thinking about sending an envoy or not, regardless of – I’m aware of the quotes from the various presidents’ offices. We’ve run them too. The question is whether you’re considering that as a possible means to the end of securing the release of your citizen.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, right now, what we’re doing is urging the DPRK authorities to release him. We’ll continue to seek access through our Swedish protecting power. We have ways of communicating with the DPRK if necessary, but right now, we’re urging them to release Mr. Bae.
QUESTION: And do you regard him as a political pawn, as a kind of a hostage?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, I don’t know if I would characterize the case this way. There is a lack of information. I know, for instance, that the Swedish Embassy did not attend the trial, and so part of this is we’ve tried to receive additional information, and we’d like for him to be released.
QUESTION: They were barred from attending the trial, they were not permitted, or they just didn’t go?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure of the circumstances. The information I have here is that they did not attend. But I’m not sure if that was – how that went about.
QUESTION: So when was the last time they had access to him?
MR. VENTRELL: Last time they had access to him was on April 26th.
QUESTION: Okay. And before – is it just the mere fact of the conviction that you’re now asking for amnesty instead of releasing him on humanitarian grounds, which is what you had said up until today?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. The change is now that they’re saying that it would be 15 years of hard labor, given that they’ve made that legal determination under their system, with which we’ve raised our concerns and have issues with their transparency, we’d now like them to provide him amnesty and immediate release.
QUESTION: And I guess the question is: Do you accept the legitimacy of the conviction?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, we have – we’ve had deep concerns about the transparency and due process across the breadth of the North Korean legal system.
QUESTION: Do you understand the charges against Mr. Bae? Do you understand what the charges are actually – I mean, I understand it was hostile acts, but do you know what those consisted of?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, that’s part of the problem, is we’ve had a lack of information here and we’ve seen some of their official releases. But in terms of getting more information through our Swedish protecting power, we don’t have all of the details or facts in this case.
QUESTION: And when the Swedish Embassy officials were able to visit Mr. Bae on April 26, what was his state of health? What was his state, his mental condition?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any information one way or another on his condition. We have had concerns in the past about conditions in North Korean prisons, but I’m not aware of a specific report one way or another on his condition.
QUESTION: And are you in touch with his family here in the United States?
MR. VENTRELL: In cases like this, our Bureau of Consular Affairs does take the lead in being in touch with family members in the United States, or overseas if they have further family overseas as well.
QUESTION: Is the family here or is --
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware in this specific case one way or another.
QUESTION: New topic?
QUESTION: Can we stick with just – okay, we’re still on North Korea?
QUESTION: Yeah, one more. Is there any way North Korea ask for the money for release this Mr. Bae?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of that, anything to that nature.
MR. VENTRELL: One more.
QUESTION: I read that President Carter recently sent a letter to Secretary Kerry urging talks with the DPRK and expressing a willingness to travel there if necessary. Is that the case? And if so, do you have a copy of the – of that letter?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I know that the Secretary and President Carter stay in touch from time to time. I don’t have any details to provide on that specific communication, but they do stay in touch.
Elise, go ahead. I think you had a change of topic or --
QUESTION: Did you have something related?
QUESTION: Well, it’s human rights in Asia.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: That’s close enough.
MR. VENTRELL: (Laughter.) A particular country, or are we --
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: It’s the case of Mr. Chen Kegui, although I fear I --
MR. VENTRELL: Chen Kegui.
QUESTION: Yeah, Kegui. Thank you. So it is – according to human rights groups, it’s six days since he was diagnosed with appendicitis, and a prison doctor has himself described it as serious. Yet he appears not to have been given – to have had surgery for this. And I believe his father was barred from visiting him. Do you have any update on his condition? Are you pressing the Chinese to treat him better? Are you getting – making any headway in that?
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks for the question, Arshad. And we talked about this a little bit earlier in the week, but I will reiterate that we remain deeply concerned by reports of Chen Kegui’s mistreatment in prison and of his acute medical condition. And we have consistently raised Chen Kegui’s case with the Chinese Government.
And just to say that when I spoke to the Secretary this morning, he again expressed his concern with the case. You know when he was on the Hill he testified about having raised the case with the Chinese, and he intends to do so directly again with the Chinese leadership. So the Secretary remains concerned. The U.S. Government remains concerned. We’ve consistently raised the case, and will continue to do so at the highest levels.
QUESTION: How is he going to do that? Is he – well, the highest levels means the President, so are you suggesting the President, then?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not suggesting that one way or another, who the Secretary is going to reach out to, but he intends to reach out to the Chinese.
QUESTION: And is he going to do it by phone or letter or the next time he sees them?
MR. VENTRELL: I believe he’s going to do it by phone.
QUESTION: Sorry, can I --
QUESTION: Can you let us know if that happens, like today or sometime soon?
MR. VENTRELL: I’d be happy to.
QUESTION: You said that you were speaking to the Secretary about this case this morning?
MR. VENTRELL: The Secretary was made aware of this case and some of the developments this morning, and again expressed his concern about it and his intention to continue to raise the case.
QUESTION: Can I change the subject?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: This is about the case that happened last night at the home of a Saudi diplomat, a Saudi --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- military attache. What can you tell us about the State Department’s involvement and whether the diplomat has invoked any type of immunities?
MR. VENTRELL: One second here. Here we go, okay. So the U.S. State Department is aware of this matter, Diplomatic Security is aware of the matter, and we’re working with the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, specifically Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has the lead on this matter, and so we refer you to them on all the details of this specific case that you referenced.
QUESTION: But diplomatic immunity would be a State Department issue. Have there been any immunities made?
MR. VENTRELL: Here’s what I can say, broadly speaking about diplomatic immunity, is that the Department honors U.S. treaty obligations with regard to issues of diplomatic or consular immunity. The Department confirms for law enforcement authorities if a foreign mission member is accredited to the United States and any immunity from jurisdiction or arrest that an individual may enjoy as a result of his or her official status.
But just to reiterate, under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, diplomats are under a duty to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving state. And so that’s something that holds true for diplomats here and that we hold true for our people when they’re posted overseas.
QUESTION: Well, actually it holds true that when one of your diplomats breaks the law, you generally invoke diplomatic immunity. So would you respect the immunity if it were invoked?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, this is sort of a hypothetical on this specific case. We have to look at these case by case. But it’s also true that in many instances our folks face the legal system back here for issues that have arisen overseas. So --
QUESTION: You said --
MR. VENTRELL: -- it’s a case by case basis.
QUESTION: You said that the DOJ was working with Homeland Security. Is the DOJ opening up an investigation?
MR. VENTRELL: I’d have to refer you to them on that for this specific case.
QUESTION: Well, a couple things. One, a country or governments can – well, I don’t know the right word for it, but we waive diplomatic immunity for certain people, so – that wasn’t in your little background thing, and I think that’s an important thing to note.
But you did say that the Department advises local police departments about --
MR. VENTRELL: Right. So how this works frequently in the field is --
QUESTION: So in this case, did – was there such – was such advice sought from a local law enforcement agency, or local or federal law enforcement?
MR. VENTRELL: I can’t get into the details of this case beyond to say that Diplomatic Security was involved. So --
QUESTION: Right. The question isn’t – you said, and were quite willing to offer up without being asked specifically, that the Department advises law enforcement officials when there is a potential situation that involves diplomatic immunity, and I’m wondering if such advice was sought or given – sought by any law enforcement agency or given by the State Department in this case?
MR. VENTRELL: I’d have to check on the details of this case. I know Diplomatic Security was involved in the law enforcement --
QUESTION: Well, what does that mean exactly?
MR. VENTRELL: It means that they worked in very close collaboration with their DHS colleagues yesterday on this law enforcement matter.
QUESTION: What does that mean?
MR. VENTRELL: It means that our agents were involved and --
QUESTION: Well – what? They went out there?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if they were on the scene, but they were in close collaboration with their DHS colleagues throughout.
QUESTION: So is it DS that advises local law enforcement about diplomatic immunity issues?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. I believe it’s our --
QUESTION: It is. It’s not the lawyers.
MR. VENTRELL: It’s Diplomatic Security and it’s our Office of Foreign Missions. And so when you’re out somewhere – out in the U.S. whether it’s nearby here or somewhere out farther in the U.S. when local police have a question they come up to a diplomatic facility and want to know if x, y, z individual is accredited, they get in touch with our Office of Foreign Missions, which is part of Diplomatic Security.
QUESTION: And that’s what happened. And so that’s what the situation is in this case?
MR. VENTRELL: I’d have to check on whether it went through that channel yesterday.
QUESTION: Okay. Can you find out exactly what the role was that DS or the Office of Foreign Missions played?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay, Matt.
QUESTION: Can I ask one? Change it?
QUESTION: Just on the same subject.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Does a foreign diplomat have to assert their diplomatic immunity if they are accused of a crime? Or are they simply blanket covered by diplomatic immunity unless their government agrees to waive it?
MR. VENTRELL: I’d have to ask a lawyer on that.
QUESTION: Could you ask?
MR. VENTRELL: I’d be happy to.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
Samir, go ahead.
QUESTION: Can you give us a readout of the Secretary’s meeting today with the Israeli Minister of Justice?
MR. VENTRELL: So earlier this morning, Secretary Kerry was pleased to meet with Justice Minister Livni who, of course, has been charged with responsibilities related to the Middle East peace efforts in the Israeli Government. This opportunity was part of the Secretary’s ongoing discussions with Israeli and Palestinian officials, and Arab and European officials who have much at stake as well, to explore possible ways forward to resolve this conflict. So they discussed the full range of political and security issues facing Israel.
QUESTION: Change to Syria?
QUESTION: Hold on a second.
QUESTION: A little more on that, sorry. Did she – she stated publicly to Israeli Army Radio the other day that – she essentially hailed or welcomed the Arab League – well, to be precise, the Prime Minister of Qatar’s statement about accepting the possibility of land swaps. Did she reiterate that view? And did the Secretary come away from this meeting with a sense that he is making progress not just with the Arab states but also with the Israelis toward reviving a peace discussion?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, the meeting just happened moments ago, and so I haven’t had – about an hour ago --
QUESTION: It ended at 11:30, right?
MR. VENTRELL: But in terms of --
QUESTION: It was a half hour meeting, right?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. My understanding is --
QUESTION: It was over at noon, right?
MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is a one-on-one meeting. But in terms of --
QUESTION: Well, actually wasn’t Mr. Molcho also in the meeting?
MR. VENTRELL: Let me double check on the attendees at the meeting. I believe they did get some time to spend one on one. But the bottom line here is that – the broader issue is that we’ve seen several positive developments this week. We’ve seen Minister Livni’s remarks in the press, and so we think that there’s been several positive developments and the Secretary is going to continue his discussion going forward.
QUESTION: Was the readout you gave us written before or after the meeting took place?
MR. VENTRELL: No, this was after the meeting took place. But I’ll have to check in terms of the participants.
QUESTION: So when you say that they discussed the full range of, quote-unquote, “security issues facing Israel,” can you be a little bit more specific?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, they were talking specifically about Middle East peace, but as comes up in all of our meetings --
QUESTION: That’s a pretty nonspecific thing. Were they talking about the Arab-Israeli peace proposal? Or were they talking about Israel-Palestinian? Were they talking about both? Were they talking about relations with Turkey? Were they talking about Syria? Were they talking about problems in Egypt, in Sinai? Were they talking about --
MR. VENTRELL: Right. It was primarily on the Middle East peace process and the relationship with the Palestinians as well as the Arab peace initiative. But in terms of the broader security situation of Israel, that was on the agenda for the meeting.
Go ahead. Yeah.
QUESTION: My only question is about Japan’s constitution situation. As we know, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made no secret that he’s going to revise the Article 96 of Japan’s constitution. As we know, the constitution – Japan’s constitution was drafted by the United States after World War II. So in your opinion, does that suggest Japan is not satisfied with the rules set during that time? And does the U.S. support this action?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I really refer you to the Japanese for anything about their constitution. But we have a deep and longstanding alliance with Japan, a relationship that’s based on shared values and mutual trust. And so that’s going to be true going forward, and I really refer you to the Japanese.
QUESTION: Do you support the revising of the constitution this time?
MR. VENTRELL: That’s a matter for the Japanese, internally, to look at.
QUESTION: And some critics believes that actually this is Abe’s first step towards changing the Article 9, which will help the Japanese Government to formalize a military. Also recently, Japanese Prime Minister Abe has made some comments, saying that the definition of aggression is not formally determined yet. Is the United States concerned about these developments?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I really refer you to the Japanese for information on any of their internal issues. You’ve heard the President, you’ve heard the Secretary talk about our cornerstone alliance with the Japanese and how important it is, and so that’s true going forward.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: It has been about five, six weeks that the UN chemical weapon team – investigation team, I believe they have been on Cyprus. What is the update? Do you have an update on the team, what they are waiting for there? And the numbers. There are different reports about their numbers.
MR. VENTRELL: Sorry. Would you repeat the first part of your question again?
QUESTION: UN team – a team – yes.
MR. VENTRELL: A UN team. Ah – here visiting. Thanks.
QUESTION: Are you comfortable answering for the UN?
MR. VENTRELL: No, I’m not going to speak for the UN, but I’ll speak here for the State Department and just say that --
QUESTION: Are there any U.S. members of this team that you can’t speak to --
MR. VENTRELL: No. There are no U.S. members to this team.
QUESTION: They met some people.
MR. VENTRELL: Let me – guys, let me give the readout here. We do have some UN folks who are here today. Mr. Sellstrom here visited the U.S. State Department today – consistent with our longstanding willingness to provide appropriate information, expertise, and resources as requested to support the United Nations’ investigation into any and all credible allegations of chemical weapons use. So he was here in the building today meeting with a variety of offices and around town in Washington.
QUESTION: Who did he meet at the State Department?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have a list of the offices but --
QUESTION: Can you get that? I mean, I think we’ve been asking about this for like 48 hours now.
MR. VENTRELL: Right.
QUESTION: And it’s not unreasonable for us to want to know who the actual --
MR. VENTRELL: I understand the interest to know, but we’re not going to be reading out each individual office that he meets with. This is part of our desire to provide appropriate information to the UN. We’re going to do so in a robust manner; we’re going to do so here at the State Department and other places in Washington. But I don’t think we’re going to provide an office-by-office readout of all the people he met with.
QUESTION: You can’t even tell us – I mean, I don’t know if he met somebody who works in the cafeteria or if he met Robert Ford. I mean, it seems reasonable to want to know did he meet NEA, did he meet INR.
MR. VENTRELL: This was primarily a working-level visit with technical experts but in a range of different bureaus within the building.
QUESTION: And were – to your knowledge, were other agencies of the U.S. Government, did they attend that meeting here at the State Department, or were his meetings just with State Department folks?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m only aware that he was here in the State Department meeting with State Department folks. I don’t know. I’d refer you to the UN about the rest of his itinerary here in Washington.
QUESTION: Patrick, can you try --
QUESTION: You can’t check – sorry, last one for me on this. You can’t check whether it wasn’t an interagency team that he met here? I mean, if you’re hosting the meeting, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask if it’s interagency or just State.
MR. VENTRELL: I’d be happy to look into it.
QUESTION: Can you – I just don’t understand this reluctance to say who – what people from what bureaus that he met with. I mean, surely they were relevant to what he does for a living, right? He wasn’t here to see people in ECA, was he?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. These are folks who --
QUESTION: People who are --
MR. VENTRELL: -- who are experts in the issue of chemical weapons and in experts in the situation in Syria.
QUESTION: In Syria, okay.
MR. VENTRELL: So these are our experts in both.
QUESTION: Well, why was that so hard to say?
MR. VENTRELL: It’s not. And I’m telling you that. I’m not going to provide necessarily a rundown --
QUESTION: No one’s asking you for a specific readout of each and every meeting.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I’m --
QUESTION: All he asked for was what bureau they were in.
MR. VENTRELL: Right. They’re meeting with both technical and regional experts that follow this issue to give – provide our expertise and information.
QUESTION: So is the second mission being worked out, or the one that has been authorized about six, seven weeks ago?
MR. VENTRELL: Just one other thing to say about this, and this is that Dr. Sellstrom – he’s been gathering this information. He’s coming here to Washington. He’s been at other capitals too, so he’s been traveling and meeting with key countries. And so in terms of the UN’s movement to try to get into Syria, our position is the same: We want them to have access; the Syrian Government, if they’ve got nothing to hide, should allow their entrance into the country. But I understand that hasn’t happened yet. They continue to remain – be ready to deploy, but I refer you to the UN for more details.
QUESTION: And how are the conversations with Russians on this issue? Have they been helpful, or how are conversations going with them?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, our conversations are ongoing with the Russians, but I don’t have anything new to characterize today.
QUESTION: The Syrian Ambassador Bashar al-Jafari at the UN, he said that they will not let this fact-finding mission to go and – I mean, to see what’s happening in all Syrian villages, but only to check what happened in Khan al-Assal. So they did not give the green light to this mission, so --
MR. VENTRELL: And they need to give the green light if they’ve got nothing to hide. If they’ve got nothing to hide, there should be no problem allowing these inspectors to have access.
QUESTION: Okay. One more question, please.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: One of the Free Syrian Army today said that they received the nonlethal weapons from the United States and some aids, but they said that it’s a small amount and they are expecting some more, and they want some arms that they can change strategically the situation in Syria. So when are you going to provide the full aid to the Syrian army – the Free Syrian Army?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, this is nonlethal assistance. I think what you’re referring to is part of our efforts to assist the Syrian opposition, including the SMC. Two days ago on April 30th we had the first shipment of medical kits and MREs directly to the SMC. More than 500 medical kits and 46,000 MREs were delivered. This is the first of a series of deliveries, and you know that we’re on an upward trajectory in terms of our assistance to the Syrian people and to the Syrian opposition and SMC specifically, upwards of $250 million of nonlethal assistance.
In terms of any decisions about new announcements about things beyond nonlethal assistance, I have nothing for you. We’ve said that --
QUESTION: No, not the other assistance. The same, but they said that they did not get the whole weapons or the whole assistance that you promised they’re going to deliver. So they had --
MR. VENTRELL: Well, it’s still – it’s all nonlethal assistance. But to break this down for you, we had an earlier announcement that was about specifically MREs and medical kits, and now we’re expanding the range of nonlethal items and doing so in consultation --
QUESTION: Patrick, he’s talking about the MREs and the medical kits. And I think that you will find at least two days ago it was in the guidance that there is another tranche, another shipment --
MR. VENTRELL: Which I just said.
QUESTION: -- they’ll be getting next week --
MR. VENTRELL: Which I --
QUESTION: -- and then there’s going to be about four --
MR. VENTRELL: Right. Thanks, Matt. Which I just said. The distinction here is the type of --
QUESTION: Well, that’s the question he was asking.
MR. VENTRELL: It’s part of the question. But it’s also so that I can --
QUESTION: He just said weapons.
MR. VENTRELL: Right. He said weapons.
QUESTION: Well, there’s no such thing as a nonlethal weapon.
QUESTION: Nonlethal --
MR. VENTRELL: So what I’m trying to clarify is --
QUESTION: These are not weapons.
MR. VENTRELL: What I’m trying to clarify for you all is that there’s nonlethal assistance here. It has started with the delivery of MREs and medical kits, but our nonlethal assistance is expanding into other items which will – we’re continuing to work with the Syrians on in terms of collaborating on what is most useful to them.
Okay, Scott. You’ve been patient.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: You took a --
QUESTION: Can I follow up with Syria? Can we finish Syria first?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry is going to Moscow, I don’t know, in few days. What can you tell us, what’s your expectation --
MR. VENTRELL: Ilhan, we had a whole discussion of this yesterday. I refer you to the transcript from yesterday.
Scott, go ahead. Nigeria.
QUESTION: On Nigeria, you took a question yesterday on violence in the village of Baga.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: The Nigerian military says several dozen houses were burned during that operation. Human Rights Watch says that satellite imagery shows that more than 2,000 homes were burned in that violence. Does the U.S. Government have any reason to doubt the Nigerian military’s assessment of what happened there?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we have seen the Human Rights report, and as I said before, the U.S. strongly condemns the loss of life and mass destruction of dwellings in Baga, Borno State over the weekend of April 15th, which is evidenced in that Human Rights Watch report. So we extend our condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims.
And we understand that President Jonathan has called for an investigation, including ascertaining that security forces, namely the Joint Border Control Forces in the area, had adhered to the rules of engagement. So we urge a full investigation into these attacks, and that those responsible, both military and others, be held to account.
QUESTION: So which of those accounts do you believe to be correct?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, we have the Human Rights Watch study – the Human Rights Watch report. We’re studying it. We’re looking at it very closely.
QUESTION: There were reports earlier today that your Ambassador to Nigeria met with human rights people in – there, I presume, in Abuja or Lagos, and told them that the U.S. would be suspending at least some military assistance in Nigeria --
MR. VENTRELL: Right.
QUESTION: -- because of this. Is that correct? Did this meeting take place? And two, is it correct that you are suspending at least some?
MR. VENTRELL: There’s – no, it’s not correct. There’s been some incorrect reporting out there. The United States works with the Nigerian military and law enforcement to improve communications, mobility, and emergency response through assistance and training. And we take our Leahy vetting obligations very seriously, and so we’ve taken strong measures to ensure compliance. But Nigeria remains an ACOTA partner that contributes significant numbers of troops to several UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, including in Mali. And so we vet all units from African countries that receive U.S. bilateral assistance.
MR. VENTRELL: One more thing to say here, Matt, before you follow up. We will have a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor who’s going to travel to Abuja to discuss the incident in Baga and broader human rights issues with senior Nigerian officials next week. So we’re going to continue our dialogue with the Nigerian authorities on this.
QUESTION: All right. So let me make sure. You have decided that the Leahy Amendment does not apply in this case, or you are waiting for their investigation, or --
MR. VENTRELL: No, I’m saying we continue with our assistance --
QUESTION: So --
MR. VENTRELL: -- but we do so in a way that is very careful to make sure we’re doing our Leahy vetting requirements.
QUESTION: But that predates this.
MR. VENTRELL: Right. This is not a specific --
QUESTION: Okay. So the reports that the ambassador said that there was going to be a suspension of at least some aid are flat wrong?
MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is a misreporting.
QUESTION: Is that being considered?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, we have a Deputy Assistant Secretary for DRL who’s going to go out there, continue to have this dialogue with the Nigerian Government. But --
QUESTION: In light of this incident, is it – are you considering or are you reviewing whether or not this assistance is in compliance with the Leahy Amendment?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, the assistance, in terms of Leahy is – in terms of specific vetting of individual units. That’s the main requirement. And so we continue to do that vetting to make sure that our assistance doesn’t go to units or officers that are involved in human rights abuses.
QUESTION: And right now, there are no units that are – that have done anything that would require you to cut off assistance to it?
MR. VENTRELL: That’s correct.
QUESTION: Okay. And then, is it correct that there was a meeting, this meeting happened?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware one way or another if the ambassador had this specific meeting. I am aware and was told very clearly that – from our folks on the ground that the reporting of this was mischaracterized.
Okay. Go ahead. Yeah.
QUESTION: Local media in Egypt are reporting that the U.S. military attache in Cairo and his family were involved in a serious car accident. Do you have anything on that?
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks, Catherine. We can confirm that a vehicle privately owned by U.S. Embassy personnel was involved in an accident today in Cairo. We were saddened to learn of the death of another driver. All Embassy personnel are okay, and the RSO and Egyptian authorities will conduct their investigation. So we’re not going to get into further details until those investigations have been conducted.
QUESTION: The driver who was killed was an Egyptian citizen?
MR. VENTRELL: My understanding it was a local person. I don’t know the nationality, but not in the vehicle of the U.S. Embassy employee.
Okay. In the back.
QUESTION: Just a question on Benghazi. Since the Office of the Legal Advisor issued the letter with the roadmap for private counsel representing whistleblowers to seek security clearances, has anyone applied for the security clearances?
MR. VENTRELL: Yes. We’ve had an individual who’s been out there on TV making some unfounded and patently false accusations in previous days that she or her partner had contacted the State Department, which they hadn’t. This person suggested on TV that they had been processed for a clearance but – had not been processed for clearance, before she ever had even requested one. And so we repeatedly have this person saying that their – they had a whistleblower who’s been held back from telling their story, and we’re not aware of this individual or anyone who’s asking to tell their story. My understanding is that since these developments overnight, this person has been in contact with us and is now going through the procedures to get a security clearance. But this individual was on TV repeatedly saying that they were being held back from getting a security clearance before they’d even picked up the phone to call us.
QUESTION: Was that --
QUESTION: So have they started --
QUESTION: This person is a lawyer. This person is the lawyer.
MR. VENTRELL: This is Victoria Toensing.
QUESTION: Right. Okay.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: And are you aware of any State Department employees who have contacted a legal advisor or anyone else saying that they would like to have a lawyer get cleared so that they could (inaudible)?
MR. VENTRELL: No, but we’re now aware of Ms. Toensing and --
QUESTION: Well, you were aware of that because she was on TV, right?
MR. VENTRELL: And now she’s been in touch with us directly to go about the normal procedure.
QUESTION: You’re saying that she wasn’t just – she was lying --
MR. VENTRELL: I’m saying she was making false statements that were unfounded that we were --
QUESTION: Making false statements is lying, isn’t it?
MR. VENTRELL: We think that --
MR. VENTRELL: False statements are lying, Matt. And so we had somebody who was on national television saying that we were blocking them from getting a security clearance, which was not true.
QUESTION: That’s appropriate behavior for an officer of the court?
MR. VENTRELL: I am not an officer of the court myself, and so – but again, we think that it was unfounded to go on TV and say, “I’m not getting a security clearance, I’m being blocked,” when she hadn’t picked up the phone and even called us.
QUESTION: Do you know who she’s representing now?
MR. VENTRELL: We do not.
QUESTION: So you still have no idea if this person who says that they need a private security --
QUESTION: She contacted you today?
MR. VENTRELL: This was yesterday.
QUESTION: She contacted you yesterday --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- to start the process of getting security clearance to be able to represent an unknown whistleblower.
MR. VENTRELL: Exactly.
QUESTION: But she did not tell you – inform you of the name of the person she’s representing?
MR. VENTRELL: We’re not aware of who this individual might be that’s supposedly trying to tell their case.
QUESTION: Just out of curiosity, how can you prove a negative, that she didn’t contact the State Department?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, she herself admits that she’s now talked to the Legal Advisor’s office and is following the process. But no one in our building was aware – and we checked very thoroughly – was aware of a request coming in, either from an employee or from this attorney. And so she was quick to go to the airwaves and say that we were blocking or obstructing, and we were not.
QUESTION: Can I just clarify? On Monday, you indicated that it would violate protocol for someone below the level of an assistant secretary to testify before Congress. And yesterday, Jay Carney said anybody who wants to testify can testify. What is the accurate interpretation of the Administration’s policy regarding that?
MR. VENTRELL: And could you tell me your name and outlet as well?
QUESTION: Whitney, Fox News.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Thanks, Whitney. Just to make clear; there is a process in terms of having people testify on the Hill, and the general practice is for Department and – in terms of handling Department processes for congressional testimony, is we ask employees to inform the Legislative Affairs Bureau if they receive a request from Congress to testify. But let me be clear: We do not prevent whistleblowers from engaging with Congress. That’s not what we do.
But in terms of testifying on behalf of the U.S. Government or making statements about their official duty and work, we generally ask that that be coordinated with the Legislative Affairs Bureau, which is consistent with practice across the Executive Branch. But we’re not in the business of blocking whistleblowers from engaging with their U.S. Congress. That’s not what we do.
QUESTION: Patrick, yesterday --
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: -- the FBI released three pictures of men, who they said they want to interview him with regards to the attack in Benghazi. What is your understanding of what their role was in the incident?
MR. VENTRELL: I really refer you to the FBI, but as you know, we continue to seek justice for the perpetrators of this crime.
QUESTION: Just going back to the storm over this testimony --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- are you aware if anyone from the Department has been invited to appear at this hearing next week? I mean, other than – if any official to --
MR. VENTRELL: Let me stress this. Right.
QUESTION: -- represent the Administration, not a whistleblower-type?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Let me stress this. The committee has not contacted our Department directly with a request that any State Department employee appear at next week’s hearing, and we have not heard directly from any current State Department employee who wishes to come forward and testify at next week’s hearing.
QUESTION: But you don’t necessarily need to. I mean, they can go forward and do it on their own without telling you, right?
MR. VENTRELL: I can’t speak to communication between the Hill and an employee directly.
MR. VENTRELL: But in terms of them coming to us directly, that hasn’t happened.
QUESTION: Right. Okay. Well, do you think it would be appropriate for the committee to invite someone from the State Department to be at the hearing to testify, to present the --
MR. VENTRELL: That’s their prerogative to make invitations.
QUESTION: Well, I understand that. But do you think it would be appropriate if they were going to – if they’re going to have a hearing at which --
MR. VENTRELL: Part of the problem is cooperation has to go both ways, and so we don’t have a lot of information about what this is about. So it’s hard for us to say one way or another, given that we don’t – you hear this mysterious thing about there’s going to be testimony of someone. We don’t know who they are, so we’d need more information to assess that.
And let me reiterate again what the Secretary said earlier this week, which is that we’ve got to demythologize this, we’ve got to depoliticize this. You know he’s appointed his chief of staff to be a liaison directly with the Hill. And so we’re open to having a process where we can look at some of these new requests and do so directly with the Hill. The Secretary said he was open to that. But that’s how we’ll deal with new or outstanding requests for information.
QUESTION: But you have not gotten any, that you’re – have you gotten any more – have you gotten any new – specifically related to this hearing next week, have you gotten more requests for information?
MR. VENTRELL: As of 30 minutes ago when I came down, I wasn’t aware of any. And I checked right before coming down.
QUESTION: And no one from the committee has been in touch with David Wade?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, communication between the Hill and the Secretary’s chief of staff continues.
QUESTION: On this hearing?
MR. VENTRELL: Congressional correspondence continues. But in terms of this specific hearing, no, we haven’t been in contact – nobody in the Department.
QUESTION: How would you characterize that?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, I said this – we really need information to go both ways. And we’re willing to cooperate and have a cooperative attitude with the Hill, but that’s got to go both ways.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Go ahead, Illhan.
QUESTION: Turkey became officially a dialogue partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization last week. I believe this is first time NATO member becomes the partner. Do you have any reaction to that? How do you read it?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Turkey is a valued ally and strategic partner, but in terms of this move to be involved in another multilateral organization, I really refer you to Turkey.
QUESTION: So you don’t have any issue with this?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we’re a member of a number of different multilateral organizations. Turkey can be a member of different organizations if they want to be.
Yeah. One last question. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Wait. I got --
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: According to (inaudible) report the President Thein Sein is planning to come to Washington. Could you confirm that, or do you have any information on that?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything to confirm today. I know that our engagement continues with the Burmese as they go through their transition, and when we have something more to announce we’ll let you know. And just to flag that we will have a call here in just a little bit on some issues related to Burma, so stay tuned for that.
Catherine, go ahead.
QUESTION: I know we talked about Gitmo a little bit earlier this week.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: I don’t know if this was addressed. On April 25th, Senator Dianne Feinstein sent a letter to Secretary Kerry and others urging the Administration to review the status of those 86 detainees who were previously cleared for transfer. Do you know if the Secretary has received this? Has he responded? What was his response? Could we get a copy of his response?
MR. VENTRELL: I’d have to look into this specific congressional – into that letter and see if it’s been received. But you know what we’ve heard earlier in the week, that the Administration remains committed to the closure of Guantanamo, and you know here in this building we remain actively focused on pursuing transfer options for detainees approved for transfer by consensus decisions of the departments and agencies involved. And just to say – as you know, I think you’ve heard the White House talk a little bit earlier – they are looking at some options, including potentially a new senior-level person here at this building. I don’t have any decision to announce at this time, but that’s something that is being looked at actively.
QUESTION: Do you think Dan Fried’s office will be reopened with someone replacing him? Is that what they’re looking at specifically, or would it just be a new envoy or --
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we’re looking – the White House said earlier this week that they’re looking to fully implement the Periodic Review Board process. And we acknowledge that it hasn’t moved forward fast enough, and one of the options being look at is to – in terms of the State Department, is potentially a senior-level person. But I don’t have anything to announce today.
QUESTION: Do you have a timeline for that decision, when that is expected to be made or when --
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t. I really refer you to the White House.
QUESTION: I thought there were senior-level people working on this. This is what you’ve been telling us for the last three weeks, and I keep asking if – what are they doing, why are they wasting their time on this, which – if they can’t accomplish anything. You said repeatedly that senior people in the --
MR. VENTRELL: What I said is we have a staff of people who are professionals who continue to focus on this. We’ve facilitated some 71 detainee transfers from 28 different countries. And even since this certification of these new requirements --
QUESTION: Well, I understand that --
MR. VENTRELL: Let me finish, Matt. Let me finish.
QUESTION: But I’m not asking about that. I’m just asking why you – why the Administration or why – I guess I could ask the White House why they think the appointment of a senior-level person is going to make any difference when you – this building has been saying for weeks that senior-level people are working on it.
MR. VENTRELL: No. What I’m saying is we continue our work in terms of our interaction with foreign governments, and if the interagency process is moving forward and the White House deems it appropriate, there could be a senior-level point person. But I don’t have anything to announce today.
Matt, you said you had a couple other things.
QUESTION: Well, yeah. Just briefly, I wanted to know if there’s any update on the situation in terms of your dealing with the Government of Venezuela, President Maduro. We went on at length about this yesterday. I’m just wondering if there’s any – if you have any changes or clarifications that you want to make to --
MR. VENTRELL: Matt, I just want to make it clear that what’s really important – and this is important for the Venezuelan people – is that the 7 million people who voted for the other candidate have their issues and their concerns resolved. And so in terms of working with the Venezuelans, the Venezuelan people have to have confidence in their institutions and the results of these elections. And so that’s something we’ve been very concerned about, and we’re continuing to push for this process to go forward, but in terms of this is something that’s got to be resolved through the Venezuelan institutions and it’s for the Venezuelan people to decide.
QUESTION: Because shortly after you said what you said yesterday, which was in essence that you’re dealing with this government as if it was the legitimately democratically elected – or this president as the legitimately democratically elected, the opposition came out and said that they’re going to go ahead and continue to demand a full recount.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, and they should continue to go ahead and demand the full recount, and that’s something that we’ve consistently said should go forward. In terms of your parsing a hypothetical to me, are you – if they were as the legitimate – I mean, my only --
QUESTION: No. It’s not a hypothetical.
MR. VENTRELL: Matt --
MR. VENTRELL: There’s a hypothetical in there, but let me clarify. Let me clarify, Matt.
QUESTION: Well, I defy you to tell me what the hypothetical is in that question.
MR. VENTRELL: As if they were.
QUESTION: You’re treating them as if they were. That’s not a hypothetical at all.
MR. VENTRELL: The point is that --
QUESTION: You’re – the question is are – do you accept that President Maduro is the legitimately democratically elected president of Venezuela. There’s no hypothetical.
MR. VENTRELL: And our --
QUESTION: Just because the words “as if” are in there doesn’t mean it’s a hypothetical question.
MR. VENTRELL: Let me restate it more clearly then, Matt. The Venezuelans have to make that assessment. And there are 7 million people who voted a different way, who still have concerns, who want them resolved, and the opposition is continuing to work through that. We continue to support the need for looking at all the irregularities, for looking at a full recount. And so that’s what we continue to support.
In terms of the day-to-day bilateral relationship, yes, we do continue to have our Embassy there and have quote/unquote a “bilateral relationship.” But this isn’t about recognition. It’s the Venezuelan people who have to decide about the legitimacy of their leaders.
QUESTION: All right. And then my last one was related.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
MR. VENTRELL: Yes.
QUESTION: Did you get any answer to the unresolved questions from yesterday, not the ones – not the taken questions that came out, but specifically the formal notification on the expulsion of USAID and then if you are considering any kind of step in response?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything in terms of considering a next response. Our folks will be withdrawing – that’s what the Bolivian Government has informed us – and will be doing so in compliance with their wishes.
QUESTION: Do you know about how many people that is?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have the exact number here. We put the taken question and a USAID Fact Sheet yesterday on the dollar amount. I’m not sure if I had the number of personnel, but there are a number of personnel. I’ll see if I can get some clarity on that.
Jo, one more.
QUESTION: Yes. Second one on Bangladesh, please.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: The Bangladesh war crimes court today indicted a U.S. citizen on charges of murder, kidnap, and torture of some 18 academics and journalists in 1971. He’s – his name is Ashrafuzzaman Khan and he’s believed to be in New York. I wondered if you were aware of the case. Have you had any contact with the authorities in Dhaka?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of the case. Let me take the question and then get back to you.
Okay, thank you all.
QUESTION: Sorry, I have one --
MR. VENTRELL: Oh, go ahead Dana.
QUESTION: Do you have any response to the new USAID FEWS report that came out --
MR. VENTRELL: Oh, yeah.
QUESTION: -- that estimates 260,000 Somalis were killed, half under the age of five, in the famine?
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks for the question, Dana. The United States is deeply saddened by the loss of life and human suffering caused by the 2011-to-2012 Somalia famine. The causes of this devastating event were complex and went beyond just poor rains to include difficult economic, political, security, and social issues. But just to say that the regions of Somalia most affected by severe food instability and famine were primarily areas that al-Shabaab controlled. Al-Shabaab’s inhumane blockage of humanitarian assistance prior to and during the famine, including banning dozens of humanitarian organizations from providing life-saving assistance, thwarted a more rapid international humanitarian response that could have saved even more lives. And equally, al-Shabaab’s refusal to allow affected populations to leave al-Shabaab-controlled areas prevented them from seeking assistance elsewhere. So it – our sanctions against al-Shabaab didn’t prevent our aid from getting there; that wasn’t the issues.
QUESTION: But not – at first, it did. You suspended the license – I think it was either August – July or August of 2011 – but you placed the sanctions on Shabaab in 2010 – 2009, before the famine. Isn’t that correct?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. But we provided $360 million in life-saving assistance to go to all Somalis in need, and it was al-Shabaab that prohibited the delivery of assistance to areas of Somalia under its control.
QUESTION: The UN’s saying that they should have done more to prevent this famine. Is that something – is that an assessment you agree with?
MR. VENTRELL: I hadn’t seen that particular UN reaction, but from our perspective, our early warning system network worked and we had information about the crisis as it was developing, and made the efforts to respond appropriately.
QUESTION: I don’t think anyone is trying to blame the United States for the famine. But if the early warning system had really worked, would 200,000 people have died?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, very complex causes here, but we worked very vigorously in the face of this crisis.
QUESTION: Right. Okay. The causes are complex, but if the early warning system worked, then they predicted that this was going to happen. So doesn’t it kind of mean that it didn’t – there wasn’t – it didn’t work very well if 200,000 people still died?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, many lives were saved, and we are deeply saddened by the loss of all the life. But our early warning system did help us get information as it was developing so that we could make appropriate efforts to respond.
QUESTION: Well, but the report actually does state that though the early warning system had information up to five years in advance, the aid and the assistance and the response for that came much too late, until it was already at an emergency level. I mean, is this – is there something policy-wise that needs to be looked at where – is there a disconnect between the early warning system and the science and aid that’s been pledged from there?
MR. VENTRELL: Dana, let’s go ahead and – you have some very precise questions here. Let me go ahead and get an expert who can get into the details of this and get you some more information. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thanks, Patrick.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:01 p.m.)