The video is available with closed captioning on YouTube.
2:14 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Good afternoon, everyone. I jumped the gun a little bit yesterday in saying Happy Friday, but today I’m allowed to finally say it: Happy Friday, and welcome to the State Department. I don’t have anything at the top, so I will turn it over to all of you.
Whitney, you look eager. Go ahead.
QUESTION: So, about the emails that ABC and The Weekly Standard have been reporting on, released today – in the exchanges when Victoria Nuland was emailing with the intelligence community and the White House during the drafting process of the talking points, who was she directly reporting to?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, let me say a few points about the talking points. Just to remind everybody that these were talking points that were developed during the interagency process led by the CIA about how to communicate the best and most current information the Administration had about the Benghazi attacks. And one thing to say that was consistent throughout, despite some of the sort of cherry-picking or looking at one email or another, what was clear throughout is that extremists were involved in the attack and we were clear about that.
And the other thing that was in these talking points throughout – so the question wasn’t whether there were violent extremists. Obviously, there were. But rather, the question was who exactly they were and whether there was also a demonstration at that time. It appears there wasn’t, despite the best intelligence assessments at the time.
Part of the reason that news agencies are now quoting from these is because indeed we made them available to Congress earlier this year, a number of months ago. And so the talking points were based on the intelligence community’s assessments that were the best assessment at the time.
In terms of the State Department role – and you’ve mentioned the Spokesperson’s Office – let me be clear. The State Department first reviewed the points on that Friday evening after the attacks with the understanding that they were prepared for public use by members of Congress. And we in the Spokesperson’s Office raised two primary concerns at that time: that the points went further in assigning responsibility than preliminary assessments suggested and there was concern about preserving the integrity of the investigation; and secondly, were points were inconsistent with the public language the Administration had used to date, meaning members of Congress would be providing more guidance to the public than the Administration. And so those were the two concerns we raised at the level of the Spokesperson’s Office.
Now, I can’t get into the full interagency discussion that was held and every aspect of that. Clearly, there were many other agencies involved, and the White House and others. But that’s what I can tell you about the State Department and our Spokesperson’s Office role the night of that Friday.
QUESTION: The main kind of charge that seems to – is that the CIA warned – says, anyway, in the original draft, in the first few drafts, like, seems to indicate that the CIA warned the State Department several times about a growing threat in al-Qaida, and kind of insinuates through these talking points that they said that they prepared, that the State Department ignored that warning. So did the CIA at any time warn the State Department about a growing Islamic threat in Islamist --
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, I can’t get into intelligence assessments and how they were shared between agencies or relate the back-and-forth between us and the CIA in this regard. But what I said earlier – and I think you were just walking in, Elise – is that two things remained constant throughout. We always said that it was – in all versions of this, that it was extremists. And also, this notion of the protest was in the intelligence assessment from the beginning and through to the end. That was later – the intelligence community has talked about their updated information when they updated that assessment.
QUESTION: But --
MR. VENTRELL: And then I did also, while I have the opportunity, want to raise one other thing. And that is – and this is something that’s come up this week, this notion that Mr. Hicks had testified to that somehow the FBI investigation was slowed down as a result of these talking points. And I just wanted to take that – that’s another thing that I wanted to be very clear about, just to remind people that the Libyan Government granted visas to the FBI team on the day of those Sunday talk shows. They got their flight clearance the next day, and they arrived in Tripoli on September 18th. The reason they couldn’t travel to Benghazi was because of the security situation on the ground.
And I just want to point out to other people – and this is something that seems to have been lost in the back-and-forth – that – remind people that when he was with Secretary Clinton – this is the Libyan Prime Minister, in a joint press appearance on September 24th, about a week later up at UNGA, he made clear that they would do everything – whatever was necessary to expedite the investigation into the incident and to pursue and to bring justice those perpetrators. So we really reject that claim as well.
QUESTION: Just to finish that, to close the loop on the first question --
MR. VENTRELL: Yep.
QUESTION: -- but when Victoria Nuland, in the email – and she said “leadership,” who does that refer to when she was, like, we need changes because of the leadership?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, I can’t speak to every word that’s been cherry-picked from these emails, but I can tell you as a spokesperson myself and the way that we do interagency talking points --
QUESTION: They’re full quotes; they’re not really necessarily words that are cherry-picked. I mean, the emails are out there themselves. I mean, it’s not --
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, excerpts of various emails have been taken --
QUESTION: And you feel that – do you feel that if we were able to read the emails in their entirety, they would show some kind of context that we would understand?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, of course, the emails were only one piece of the wider interagency discussion of this. And so when you take them, and snippets of them, it can be taken out of context.
QUESTION: Well, why don’t --
MR. VENTRELL: And let me clarify, Elise. The things that I made clear, and one of the things that doesn’t necessarily come across in the snippets that have been out there, is specifically that we in the Spokesperson’s Office were looking at them as talking points for members of the House at that time. There’s a wider interagency discussion about how they were developed and how the intelligence community makes their assessments. That’s a different question. So --
QUESTION: I mean, does it matter if they were for Ambassador Rice or if they were for Congress? I mean, talking points are pretty much just like your basic knowledge of the situation and how you want to message it, right?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I think that’s part of the point of – in terms of us at the spokesperson’s level, some of the tactical assessments are made about who’s speaking and what’s been said prior, and when we’re preparing to go to the podium after we haven’t been for a weekend, sometimes what’s going to be said out there will affect how we’re going to brief later. So those are the kind of tactical concerns we raise at a Spokesperson’s Office, and when you say you’re raising it up, that means that some of the policy makers are also going to be taking a look at it.
I can’t speak in this specific case to the exact context of who’s being referred to, but in general terms, when we as public affairs officers or spokespeople inside of an organization are negotiating online, sometimes we make additional reference to other individuals or other policy makers. So that’s the context that I can provide in general terms about how we operate as press spokespeople. And we very frequently have discussions, whether it’s over email or other format, about what are the – not only the best language to use but the best tactics in terms of explaining what we’re talking about to journalists and to others and to the American people.
QUESTION: You seem to suggest that the emails that – just reading snippets of the emails don’t really fully and accurately describe the concerns that you had. So why not just release the full emails, that the full emails will show that this wasn’t about some kind cover-up?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, first to say on that, Elise, we’ve shared these emails with the Congress --
QUESTION: I know --
MR. VENTRELL: -- but let me finish – and that’s been part of their concern, was to see a number of these documents, which we’ve shared – thousands of documents, indeed, including these. In terms of any redaction that would be necessary in an entire email chain in terms of sensitive or personally identifiable information or other things that go through the standard redaction process to make public release, that’s a separate process that goes through the lawyers and I can’t speak to that on an individual document. But suffice it to say, to be transparent with the Congress who had – who wanted some of this information, we shared it with the Congress. Okay?
QUESTION: Just one more.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: The Vice Chairman of the Oversight Committee Cummings said that probably Pickering and Mullen should testify. What does – how does the State Department feel about that?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, that’s really up to them. I mean, there was a back-and-forth, and you heard Ambassador Pickering talk about a little bit before that there’d been a process with the committees where it looked like they were prevented from testifying, and so there was some concern there. Whether the committee decides that they want them to testify and those ARB members want to testify is up to them.
QUESTION: So it has --
MR. VENTRELL: But there was some concern that they were willing to testify. I know Ambassador Pickering in particular spoke to this earlier this week about his willingness, and there was some confusion about why he wasn’t brought into the hearing earlier in the week.
QUESTION: So that’s not a State Department issue. You wouldn’t have a say in if they want to testify or not?
MR. VENTRELL: That wouldn’t necessarily be routed through us. That would be directly to them as individuals.
QUESTION: Change subject?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: On Syria. Secretary Kerry has just said that we have strong evidence that the Syrian regime has used gas against its people. Can you elaborate on that and what kind of evidence you’ve got? And do you think that the Syrian regime has crossed a red line?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, the – and this is consistent with what we said before in terms of the evidence that’s out there that we’re looking at very scrupulously and very thoroughly to try to make a final assessment. The intelligence community had made some initial assessments, but again, we’re looking at this very closely and continuing to review in a very careful, methodical way.
QUESTION: But what did he mean when he said that we have strong evidence that the regime has used gas?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, I think we’ve been clear here for a couple of weeks about the concerns given our intelligence community assessment that indeed the regime might have resorted to these weapons. But again, we’re continuing to look at that in a rigorous and methodical way.
QUESTION: Turkey Prime Minister and the British Prime Minister have confirmed that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons.
MR. VENTRELL: And again, we continue our assessment; we’re looking at it very carefully. And let me say this again, we want to investigate and look for any and all use – potential use of chemical weapons inside of Syria.
QUESTION: And how long will it take?
QUESTION: And would that include the – when you say “any and all use”?
MR. VENTRELL: We’ve long said “any and or all use” regardless of --
QUESTION: What do you mean by regardless of who used them?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we expressed our skepticism and we remain skeptical that the opposition would have the capability or the means to deploy them. It’s the regime that has these weapons. But we want any and all use investigated, and that’s why we’ve long called for the UN monitors, the UN inspectors to be allowed in to investigate all of these claims. The regime made claims, the opposition made claims, but all of them need to be investigated, and we’ve been very clear about that from the beginning.
QUESTION: How long then this investigation will take?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I can’t put a timeline on it, but given the stakes here and given how important this is, we want to be very careful and methodical, and we’ll continue to do that.
QUESTION: And on Syria, today the Syrian regime is besieging Qusair city in Homs and they were ordering 3,000 people to leave the city. Are you concerned about the situation there? Do you have any reaction to that?
MR. VENTRELL: We are concerned. We’ve seen the reports and I believe I’ll have a little bit of information for you later in the day. We’re continuing to assess some of those reports, but we are deeply concerned. And if I have some more information for you later today, we’ll share that.
I do want to say – add one thing since some of you have asked earlier – you didn’t ask directly right here. But just to add: I talked a little bit about it yesterday – about Ambassador Ford and his activities – just to add a little bit more detail to that. I’d spoken to how he was near the border region. So on Thursday, Ambassador Ford travelled to the Syrian-Turkey border where he met with members of the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian opposition and participated in the U.S. Government’s delivery of 52,000 MREs to the Syrian Coalition – the Supreme Military Council. He crossed briefly into Syrian territory but remained within the vicinity of the border crossing area. While at the border crossing, he discussed the situation on the ground with FSA commanders and other Syrians – and the two commanders, just for your reference, were General Idris and also Mr. Akidi, who is the commander for the northern and Aleppo region.
QUESTION: So you say he briefly crossed over the border.
MR. VENTRELL: Right. And this is in the context of the border vicinity. You know where these border checkpoints are sometimes right in the middle. Where the checkpoint – where they’d actually sat down to have their discussion was --
QUESTION: Was inside Syria.
MR. VENTRELL: -- was a few yards inside of Syria. Yes.
QUESTION: Some people have considered that he breached the sovereignty of Syria.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, this is somebody who, in our – you do know the history here, of course, that we had to evacuate Ambassador Ford, and he eventually was considered persona non grata by the regime. But from our perspective, he’s still the U.S. Ambassador to the people of Syria, and he’s still our key point person.
QUESTION: And you still have ties with the government. You never broke official diplomatic ties. Is that correct?
MR. VENTRELL: We have not broken the bilateral relationship formally, but we continue to connect the minimal necessary communication through the Czech protecting power, and we’re grateful to the Czech protecting power for those services they provide, including for U.S. citizens.
QUESTION: Can I ask about that actually?
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Why haven’t you broken ties after two-plus years of all of these atrocities?
MR. VENTRELL: That’s sort of a question for the lawyers in terms of formal breaking of ties with the regime. We do have ways of communicating with the regime as necessary, and we’ve maintained that open channel. But again, we have some U.S. citizens, indeed, who the Czech protecting power continues to look out for.
Okay. Go ahead, Paul.
QUESTION: This internet – this Texas anarchist who was trying to sell plastic gun designs on the internet. It was reported in the Guardian that the State Department sort of issued a ban of these companies. But can you clarify the State Department’s role in that? Was it export control related licensing? You don’t enforce laws --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Let me say a little bit about this specific case and then take a step back and talk about export control. So that we don’t comment on whether we have individual ongoing compliance matters, I can in this case confirm that the State Department has been in communication with this company. On the broader issue of export control, exports of non-automatic and semi-automatic firearms up to .50 caliber are controlled under the U.S. Munitions List. In accordance with the Arms Export Control Act, any person who engages in the U.S. in the business of manufacturing or exporting defense articles, furnishing defense services, or engages in arms brokering covered by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, ITAR, is required to register with the State Department via the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls.
Separate from this registration requirement, licenses are needed for exports of defense articles in most cases. So we view the export of defense articles and defense services as an integral part of safeguarding U.S. national security and furthering U.S. foreign policy objectives. And the U.S. is cognizant of the potentially adverse consequences of indiscriminate arms transfers, and therefore we strictly regulate export of defense items and technologies to protect our national interests.
QUESTION: So what do you have to say about the fact that there have been 100,000 downloads of this material already?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I don’t have more that I can say about this specific case, other than to say we’ve been in touch directly with the company and I’ve outlined for you very clearly what some of the export control concerns are and what the regulations are.
QUESTION: What level was that that made the contact?
MR. VENTRELL: What’d you say?
QUESTION: How – what level official in this building, made that contact? I’ve heard --
MR. VENTRELL: I can tell you that our Bureau of Political-Military Affairs is the lead bureau on these issues. I don’t have a specific individual to list one way or another on this specific topic.
QUESTION: Can we go back to Syria?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: The Iranians have said that they would like to be – they expect to be involved in the next Geneva meeting. And I’m wondering if your position is still that the Iranians should have no role in this process.
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, we’ve been very clear about the nefarious role that Iran has played and continues to play. I don’t have any updates in terms of our scheduling or the details of this upcoming conference, but we’ve been clear about the Iranian role.
MR. VENTRELL: So Bingru, the United States is aware of this incident between a Philippine law enforcement vessel and one or more Taiwan fishing boats that resulted in the death of one Taiwan fisherman. We welcome the Philippine Government’s pledge to conduct a full and transparent investigation into the incident and to work with the Taiwan authorities to establish what transpired. So we urge all parties to ensure maritime safety and to refrain from actions that could escalate tensions in the region and undermine the prospects for a diplomatic or other peaceful resolution of differences.
QUESTION: So you’re not condemning Philippine Government for this attack, which lead to one Taiwanese fisherman’s death?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, they said that they’re going to conduct an investigation. And what we want is a full and transparent investigation into the specifics of the incident.
QUESTION: And how about apology? Because the Philippine Government said if somebody died they deserve our sympathy but not an apology.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, let’s see what the investigation says before we make further judgment.
QUESTION: And then they said is part of Philippines’s water. Do you agree? Is this Philippines’s water or is this disputed water area?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of where the incident actually occurred. I don’t know if we have a definitive understanding. This is, again, one of the things we hope that the investigation can clarify.
QUESTION: Has either side reached to you and talked about this incident?
MR. VENTRELL: Has either side talked to us directly? I’m not aware that they’ve been in direct touch with us since this incident occurred, but we maintain contact with both parties.
MR. VENTRELL: So the Secretary has a good meeting this morning with Cypriot Foreign Minister Kasoulides. Cyprus is a good friend and partner of the United States with whom we have worked for many years. They discussed U.S. support for efforts to reunify Cyprus as a bizonal, bicommunal federation under the auspices of the UN Good Offices mission led by Mr. Downer. Secretary Kerry expressed U.S. support for efforts to restore the Cypriot economy to a path of stability and growth, and they also talked about energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean and other issues.
QUESTION: Did the extradition of that Iranian come up in the talks at all? Do you have anything else to say about that?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware that it did. This is really a Department of --
QUESTION: The Minister himself mentioned it yesterday when he spoke at the Brookings Institution.
MR. VENTRELL: It really is a Department of Justice matter, though, so when we talk about extraditions that’s a DOJ concern.
QUESTION: Yeah. On Egypt.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Ahmed Maher, the founder of the April 6 Movement, flying home from the United States, was detained at the Cairo Airport today for what a security source said was inciting a demonstration outside the Interior Minister’s home in March. Do you have any reaction to that?
MR. VENTRELL: So Michel, we are aware of press reports that April 6 Youth Movement leader Ahmed Maher was detained by authorities on his arrival at the Cairo Airport today. It just happened a few hours ago, and we’re still seeking to confirm these reports. But of course, if it were true, we’ll express our concerns and – but at this time, we’re still seeking more information, so – and I did want to mention that he has met with several – when he was here on this trip met with several senior State Department officials, as do many visiting activists and politicians from across the political spectrum in Egypt. So he had been meeting with us. We’re seeking more information. And once we have that, we’ll be able to express a further position.
QUESTION: Are you talking to the Egyptian Government about this case?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware if our Embassy in Cairo has been in discussion with the authorities already on this specific case. I’ll have to check into that and get back to you.
Okay. Go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Can you describe the current situation, security situation?
MR. VENTRELL: So thanks for the question, Whitney. In light of the current unsettled conditions around major anti-government demonstrations in Tripoli, the Under Secretary for Management has approved the ordered departure of non-emergency personnel from Libya. As you know, the Department’s paramount concern is the safety and the personal safety of all of our employees. And so at this time, we can confirm that a handful of our staff members have, indeed, departed Libya. Our Embassy in Tripoli is still open and still functioning.
Okay. Go ahead, Nike.
QUESTION: Yes. Hi, Patrick. Yesterday, you put a very detailed statement regarding actions against Iranian nuclear enrichment program in which one of the Iranian company, PASK, was found to buy accessories through Asia Best, an Asian intermediaries. I wonder if you have more detail regarding that Asia company.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. I’m going to have to look into that for you after the briefing. I don't have more specifics on that particular company.
QUESTION: And then regarding NDAA exemption, should we expect more renewal of exemptions under NDAA?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, there are 120-day renewals on the exemptions, but I don’t have anything to announce at this time.
QUESTION: North Korea?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Basketball star Dennis Rodman said yesterday that he will return to North Korea on the 1st of August to try to release the American citizen Kenneth Bae. So, are you supporting such a mission? And could you provide us an update on the condition and the situation of Mr. Bae?
MR. VENTRELL: Let me give you an update on – well, first of all, let me say we’ve spoken to Mr. Rodman and his engagement with North Korea in the past. I don’t have anything on private American travel to say in that regard. But we do understand that a DPRK supreme court – we understand that a DPRK supreme court conviction of U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae for hostile acts against the DPRK – and the sentence went through, 15 years of compulsory labor. There’s 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: The other day, you characterized the relationship between China and North Korea as a special relationship, which is usually referred to relations between the United States and England. So, have the United States ask China to exercise an influence over its – North Korea regarding the release?
MR. VENTRELL: I can’t remember using that specific word, but the point that I was trying to make is that there’s a unique relationship historically between the two countries in terms of economic influence and other interactions between the two countries. That was the gist of – the thrust of what I was trying to say there.
QUESTION: Has the U.S. – has the government asked Chinese Government for – to help out with the Kenneth Bae case?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware that we’ve raised the case through the Chinese channels. You did see the Media Note, though, of course, that Glyn Davies is traveling in the region and will meet with his Chinese counterpart in addition to South Korea and Japan. So we put that notice out yesterday.
Go ahead. Luis, welcome back to the State Department Briefing Room.
QUESTION: Thank you, Patrick.
MR. VENTRELL: We’ve missed you over here. We know that you’ve – busy at the Pentagon frequently.
QUESTION: I miss it here, too. There was report earlier today that Malcolm Shabazz, the grandson of Malcolm X, died in Mexico yesterday. Do you have any information on that? There was a citation that the Embassy there was confirming the report.
MR. VENTRELL: So, we are aware of the death of a U.S. citizen in Mexico City. We’ve been in contact with family members and are providing appropriate consular assistance. At their request, we have no further comment at this time.
QUESTION: Can I go back to Benghazi really quick, if I could?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Looking at what you said earlier on, talking about the picture that these documents present, is it your opinion, then, or the presentation here that these documents, the talking points that were publicized earlier today, present kind of an incomplete picture of what was actually occurring within the interagency?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, I can’t speak to the wider interagency. You know I can only speak for the State Department, so I don’t know if I’d have the visibility to be able to speak about the wider interagency process. But what we’ve said all along, and the entire interagency has said all along, is that these were points drafted by the CIA and circulated through the interagency process as points normally are.
Okay? Whitney, go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you have any update on David Wade, any correspondence between Congress and David Wade? Was there anything else?
MR. VENTRELL: And you heard the Secretary refer to his role, I believe it was yesterday, as well. And he continues to be in touch with staff and members on the Hill as necessary to follow up on their – any outstanding issues that they have.
Okay? Thank you all.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:43 p.m.)