Briefing remarks on Syria are also available with closed captioning on YouTube.
The full briefing video is also available with closed captioning on YouTube.
1:08 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Good afternoon. I’ve got a couple things for you all at the top, and then I will turn it over to all of you. First of all, on Egypt, we are deeply concerned by the growing trend of efforts to punish and deter political expression in Egypt. Numerous individuals, including journalists, bloggers and activists have been detained, and some are being charged and put on trial for allegedly defaming government figures. Such charges do not conform to Egypt’s international obligations, do not reflect international standards regarding freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, particularly in a democratic society, and represent a step backward for Egypt’s democratic transition. We call on the Government of Egypt to publicly speak out against this trend and to protect the essential freedoms of expression and assembly as it has publicly committed to do. This is the way to ensure that Egypt’s democratic transition continues to progress in a way that meets the aspirations of the Egyptian people.
Secondly, on Syria, the United States strongly condemns the Assad regime’s intense air and artillery strikes this weekend on the Syrian town of Qusair, along the Lebanese border, where more than 90 people were reportedly killed. The Assad regime deliberately provoked sectarian tensions through its assaults, which we saw recently in Sunni massacres in the towns of Bayada and Banias. We reject the regime’s use of sectarian-driver war to divide the Syrian people. The Assad regime and its supporters who continue to commit crimes against the Syrian people should know that the world is watching and they will be identified and held accountable.
We also condemn Hezbollah’s direct intervention in the assault on Qusair, where its fighters are playing a significant role in the regime’s offensive. Hezbollah’s occupation of villages along the Lebanese-Syrian border and its support for the regime and pro-Assad militias exacerbate and inflame regional sectarian tensions and perpetuate the regime’s campaign of terror against the Syrian people. We reject Hezbollah’s efforts to escalate violence inside Syria and incite instability in Lebanon. We continue to fully support Lebanon’s stated policy of disassociation from the Syrian crisis, and urge all parties in the region to act with restraint and respect for Lebanon’s stability and security.
And then just finally, for all of you who haven’t seen, the Secretary gave a speech this morning on keeping our people safe overseas. We’ve also released a fact sheet that talks about our implementation of the ARB recommendations. So I point you all to that fact sheet and the transcript of the Secretary’s remarks this morning from the Foreign Service Institute.
So having said that, I will turn it over to all of you.
QUESTION: All right. I’ve got three brief ones on each of these.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is we’re making these same statements in private as well to the Egyptians, and part of the issue here, of course, is that some of this is being done through the judicial branch, but we’re calling on the government themselves to make a statement as well.
QUESTION: Right, exactly. So that has been relayed to them directly, in Cairo?
MR. VENTRELL: We are relaying that privately through our Embassy in Cairo.
QUESTION: How about at the higher level, the Secretary?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if we’ve weighed in from Washington, but certainly through the Embassy. I’d have to check on the latter.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- you said that the Syrian – the Assad regime should know that the world is watching and they will be held accountable. Isn’t that part of the problem, the world is only watching?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, Matt, we are doing everything we can to end this violence. The Secretary is very committed to ending this violence. And as we talked a little bit about last week, this is on two fronts. We have – we’re upping our support to the opposition, doing what we can through a group of 11 other countries and many others who are focused on helping the Syrian people. And so that’s hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance. At the same time, we’re very focused on a political transition. We know how hard it is, how hard the road ahead is to get to a negotiated political settlement, but that’s the way – the best way to end the violence.
So the Syrian people continue to lose as they face this violence from their own regime.
QUESTION: The Secretary, I don’t know if he’s left yet or not, but he was supposed to.
MR. VENTRELL: Momentarily is departing, yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah. On the political transition idea and the – is there anything new to report on that front? Or is – or are things just the same as they were on Friday?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, he continues to work on this every day, as do many of our partners. You know one of the stops on this trip will be to Jordan, where he’ll meet with a number of the other parties that are concerned and helping the Syrian opposition.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: One of the last things on that fact sheet was actual accountability and holding people responsible for – and the implementation of that – it seems not to answer the – the stuff in italics below doesn’t seem to answer the question of what’s happened to the people who were criticized or singled out for blame in this. It simply says you’re working with Congress. What is the status of the people who were – who the Board identified as having shown or demonstrated failures in leadership and management?
MR. VENTRELL: There’s a couple different issues here, Matt. First of all is the issue of the individuals you mention. And Jen talked a little bit about this last week, but just to reiterate and add a little bit more detail, that Secretary Clinton began an administrative process to review the status of these four individuals placed on administrative leave. That review process continues, and Secretary Kerry will be continually updated as decisions are made about the status of these employees. None of the individuals identified by the ARB are in the positions held prior to the report’s release, at the time of the attack, and the internal administrative process can take some time. The four remain on administrative leave until a decision is made on their status. They are not currently performing any job for the Department during this period.
Separately from that, there is this issue that one of the recommendations was that the ARB needed the ability to have unsatisfactory leadership performance by senior officials in relation to a security incident under review should be a potential basis for discipline recommendations by future ARBs. So that was a recommendation of theirs. It’s something that we provided legislation up to the Hill, with a recommendation to that regard.
QUESTION: Right. But in terms of the actual accountability for what happened in terms of security in the months before September 11th last year --
MR. VENTRELL: Those who need to be held accountable, Matt, are the terrorists, first of all. So that’s first and foremost when we talk about accountability. In terms of looking internally at our processes and --
QUESTION: Well, I’m talking about the ARB --
MR. VENTRELL: -- what could have been done better --
QUESTION: -- the ARB recommendations. And the ARB doesn’t – I mean, maybe it does recommend going after the people who actually did this, but – who actually committed the attack, but it did mention these four individuals that you’re talking about. And so I just want to make sure that nothing has changed since what you said last week: They’re still on administrative leave; they’re still being paid but they’re not working?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. My point was you’re conflating accountability and discipline. So accountability, those who are accountable for the crimes are those who committed them. On a discipline status --
QUESTION: Well, then, why is it called an Accountability – the Accountability Review Board doesn’t go and identify X, Mr. X --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- who was one of the people who attacked the embassy. The Accountability Review Board – discipline and accountability, I think, are the same thing here, no?
MR. VENTRELL: All right. Let me just clarify here. It’s important to remember we’re dealing with four individuals who – that we discussed are long-serving government officials who over the years have provided dedicated service to the U.S. Government in challenging assignments, and career Foreign Service employees are entitled to due process and legal protections under the Foreign Service Act with respect to any potential disciplinary action. So --
QUESTION: I know all that. I just wanted – nothing has changed in terms of --
MR. VENTRELL: Nothing. I have no update for you, Matt.
MR. VENTRELL: There’s still – the internal review is still ongoing.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Patrick, as the Secretary --
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Leslie.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, look, he has a number of stops going forward. As I mentioned, one of the key stops in relation to the crisis in Syria will be Oman, where he’ll have a chance to meet with a number of the other countries who are very focused on helping the Syrian people. And so – at a similar time, the opposition will be holding some meetings in Istanbul, so some of this will be going on during the trip. I don’t have anything to preview, as that stop’s still a couple of days away. But certainly he’ll be working vigorously on the issue of Syria while he’s on this trip.
MR. VENTRELL: Samir.
QUESTION: The Russian Foreign Minister was quoted today saying that the Syrian opposition should come to the Geneva conference without any preconditions. Is this the U.S. position, too?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, all the modalities of the conference are being worked through. And so we’re working with the opposition, as are others. The Russians are working with the regime. So all the modalities are being worked through.
Go ahead. Can you tell me who you are?
MR. VENTRELL: Hi, Paul.
QUESTION: Nice to meet you. Speaking of Russia, this fellow Thomas Firestone, who used to be a resident legal counsel with the U.S. Embassy in Russia, has been kicked out of the country. Did Russia tell you why, and what’s the story that you can tell us?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any information on this particular individual, who is a private citizen.
QUESTION: What did he do for the Embassy when he worked there?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have particulars on his employment status. I don’t believe it was through the Department of State. I believe it was with the Department of Justice. But again, this is a private individual.
QUESTION: Did Russia inform the State Department that it was kicking out a U.S. citizen?
MR. VENTRELL: Not that I’m aware of. I’d have to check on whether there was a diplomatic exchange on this particular individual.
QUESTION: And do you know if there’s any relationship with the Fogle incident?
MR. VENTRELL: I have nothing on that one way or another.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Just more broadly, does Russia or any other country for that matter, inform you when they revoke a visa from a private U.S. citizen?
MR. VENTRELL: Sometimes we hear through consular channels, sometimes not. But --
QUESTION: But there’s no requirement for them to do so if that person is a private citizen, correct?
MR. VENTRELL: Not that I’m aware of, Matt.
QUESTION: I mean, and Russia does have the right to allow or deny foreign citizens from entering its country or staying there?
MR. VENTRELL: Russia controls its own borders. That’s indeed true.
QUESTION: As does the United States.
MR. VENTRELL: As we control ours.
QUESTION: Do you get any sense that we’re getting into the spy/counter-spy thing of the old Soviet Union days?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, we talked a little bit about this last week, and I’m not sure that I’d read too much into one incident or another, other than to say that we continue to work on our relationship with Russia, collaborate and work where we can together. And where we have disagreements, we have disagreements, but we continue to work intensively together on our relationship. We continue to work intensively on issues like Syria, where even on that issue in particular we have some deep disagreements but we also see a way forward in terms of looking for a negotiated peace.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Will Iran be allowed to participate?
MR. VENTRELL: We’re still working through all the modalities of participation, as I said.
QUESTION: And is it the goal that Assad – there’ll be pressure for Assad to step down, like a formal declaration to come out of the peace process?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Assad needs to step aside, but remember what the original Geneva communique says is that there’s got to be a transition to full executive authority to a transitional governing body, and that would be determined through mutual consent of both sides.
Okay. Lalit, go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: This is on the Chinese visit to India?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I primarily refer you to the Chinese and the Indians. But we continue – strong and prosperous and influential nations, both China and India’s contributions are vital to addressing a broad range of regional and global challenges. But I really refer you to the two governments on this particular visit.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions for you. First question: It is reported that Special Envoy for the North Korean Human Rights Issues Robert King has canceled – suddenly canceled a visit to South Korea. Do you have anything for why he has canceled the visit?
The second question: North Korea for the past two days have ventured to launch short-range missiles. What is the U.S. reactions on that?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay, a couple of issues there. First of all, on Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues Robert King, he regretfully had to cancel his planned travel and speaking engagements to Seoul and Tokyo for May 18th to 25th. It was a clearly logistical matter having to do with flights, so there was no specific reason other than logistical reasons for canceling.
And in terms of the rockets over the weekend, you heard some of the reaction that we already gave, that we’re closely monitoring the situation and we continue to urge North Korea to exercise restraint and take steps to improve its relations with its neighbors.
QUESTION: Will the U.S. have another additional sanctions against North Korea considering --
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I don’t have anything particularly new to read out. We’re always reviewing our sanctions to make sure that they’re as effective as possible.
QUESTION: Do you regard this – these missile launches as a violation of any kind of UN sanctions?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware that there’s a UN – an 1874 type of violation here, but we certainly urge them to exercise restraint.
QUESTION: On Robert King?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Purely logistical reasons having to do with flights?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: What, are there no flights to Seoul anymore?
MR. VENTRELL: Apparently, the connections didn’t work that were booked, and so he would have missed his main speaking engagement. So he’ll have to reschedule for a different time.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, it seems like a – I mean, there are quite a few flights to Seoul from various points in the United States.
MR. VENTRELL: Apparently, something happened with that particular flight or the timing. I’m not sure of all the details.
QUESTION: All right.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: North Korea.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah, go ahead. Stay on North Korea.
QUESTION: Do you consider these launches to be provocative in any way?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, we’re urging them to exercise restraint and improve relations with the neighbors, but I don’t have anything more on this particular launches.
QUESTION: Do you think this affects the overall threat level in the area?
MR. VENTRELL: With this particular launch? Not that I’m – I’m not aware that we’ve given any new update to American citizens in South Korea or anything of that nature.
QUESTION: Any movement or plan to move from the UN about this latest launch?
MR. VENTRELL: I’d have to refer you to my colleagues up at our mission at the UN.
QUESTION: They haven’t told you anything, though, or at least not --
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of any UN meetings happening today on this.
QUESTION: Are you aware North Korea kidnapped several Chinese fishermen? What is your reaction to that?
MR. VENTRELL: I had seen those news reports, but I really refer you to the Government of – the Chinese Government and the D.P.R.K.
QUESTION: This would complicate your effort?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’m not aware of the details of this particular incident. In terms of more broadly speaking with the D.P.R.K., what’s important to us is that we keep our – this is the five parties, that we stay unified, that we continue to approach the D.P.R.K. with a unified front. But I just don’t have any details on this particular incident one way or another.
QUESTION: How nice that you would refer us to the Chinese and the North Koreans.
MR. VENTRELL: It sounds like they’re having a security incident between the two of them. I refer you to those two governments.
Lalit. Go ahead.
QUESTION: The President of Afghanistan is visiting India, and both local media reports in both India and Afghanistan area saying that he is visiting to seek reliable military supplies for Afghanistan armed forces post-2014. Given any apprehensions Pakistan might have because of this, is U.S. okay with India supplying military (inaudible) to Afghanistan?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, first of all, for the details of the trip I refer you – again, this is another of two governments – but this is between India and Afghanistan. But we welcome efforts by Afghanistan’s neighbors and other regional actors to promote Afghanistan’s stability and economic development. We continue to welcome India’s generous bilateral assistance program with Afghanistan, its leadership on private sector investment there, its leadership promoting regional economic integration and linkages. I don’t have anything for you on a military – of a military relationship.
QUESTION: On economic part, Afghanistan, being a land-locked country, is having trouble exporting its things – agricultural things and other things – out of the country to either Pakistan or Iran. Are you helping them out to explore some third, alternative routes to include exports?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I understand we have the New Silk Road Initiative, and that helps linkages throughout that whole corridor. But I’m not sure if you’re referring to one particular activity or another.
QUESTION: That leaves Pakistan, and Pakistan has been blocking them to – they have a lot of different --
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’m not aware of any other particular initiative.
QUESTION: I wonder if you could give me your reaction about the homophobic violence in Tbilisi, Georgia. As you know, a couple of days ago, LGBT rally was derailed by some religious groups. Thank you, sir.
MR. VENTRELL: The United States condemns the May 17th attack on a peaceful march to mark the international day against homophobia in Tbilisi, Georgia. Such acts of intolerance have no place in democratic societies. The United States places great importance on the protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender persons around the world.
Okay? Go ahead.
QUESTION: Something about Japan’s comfort women? Osaka Mayor Hashimoto continued to argue that the American troops utilized women for sexual purpose during the occupation period in Japan, and even later – especially in Okinawa. And he also argues that the United States is unfairly criticizing Japan by putting aside what they did to local women during and after the war period. And I was wondering if you have any comment on that.
MR. VENTRELL: I didn’t hear who you said at the beginning that said this.
QUESTION: Osaka Mayor Mr. Hashimoto.
MR. VENTRELL: This is something that Jen addressed at the briefing last week and gave a very robust condemnation of those remarks. I really refer you to what Jen said last week. But we already condemned those.
QUESTION: But I thought what she condemned last week was his comments about them being a military necessity.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Is this a new --
QUESTION: This sounds to be – this seems to be something new.
MR. VENTRELL: I hadn’t seen these new remarks. Let me --
QUESTION: The mayor says that the U.S. troops used– whatever term you want to call them – during the occupation.
MR. VENTRELL: Let me look in. I’m not aware of new remarks by the mayor of Osaka, more that we had a strong reaction to what he had said previously. Let me look in and see whether we’re aware of any subsequent remarks.
John, I see you being patient there. I have a feeling I know what you’re going to ask about.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) Patrick, yeah, Jen – on the Taiwan-Philippine standoff – Jen said both on Thursday and Friday that you would be taking a closer look at some of the issues, including a report by the Philippine Government on their investigation of the incident. Have you – seeing that report, have you taken a closer look at these issues, and what updates you have for us there?
And another issue: The --
MR. VENTRELL: Why don’t I go ahead and answer that and then you can follow on with – we’ve not yet seen final reports from either investigation from either side. We hope these will be released soon and will help clarify the circumstances surrounding the incident.
QUESTION: It seems that the – it’s deadlocked at this point. Both sides are U.S. allies. What are you telling both to bring this to a quick end? What are you telling both sides?
MR. VENTRELL: We think that the Philippines and Taiwan must work together to resolve this unfortunate and difficult situation, and we’ve urged both Taiwan and the Philippines to exercise restraint, address the events of last week, and take steps to minimize the likelihood of future confrontations.
QUESTION: Assistant – Acting Assistant Secretary Joseph Yun is going to the area. Would he be talking to the Philippine Government about this?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware that’s on his agenda for this visit. I believe he’s going to be traveling elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
QUESTION: Yes, a follow-up.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead. Can you tell me your name?
QUESTION: Yes. Ping Liu of China Times, Taiwan.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: On the case of Natalee Holloway, I think which happened in Dutch Aruba around 2005 – an Alabama high school graduate disappeared there. And I think a joint investigation was conducted by Netherland Government and the U.S. FBI. My question is: Does U.S. support the joint investigation of – by Taiwan and the Philippines on this tragedy?
MR. VENTRELL: I think you’re trying to tie together two very disparate incidents there, but we’ve said that we welcome the Philippines pledge to conduct a thorough and expeditious investigation. We note that the Philippine President appointed a personal representative to Taiwan to convey his deep regret and apology to the family of the fisherman and the people of Taiwan. So we’ve been pretty consistent about this all along.
QUESTION: I’m sorry --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- I’ve been away, as you know, so I don’t know the --
MR. VENTRELL: You’ve missed a lot of back and forth on this --
QUESTION: Were there any American citizens involved in this incident?
MR. VENTRELL: There were not.
QUESTION: So other than the fact that the two entities here, Taiwan and Philippines, are friendly to the United States, there’s not really any reason for the U.S. to be involved, is there?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. This is between these two separate parties, and we’ve continued to urge restraint on both sides.
QUESTION: Sorry if I – because when the incident happened several days ago, you said you welcome Philippine and Taiwan to conduct a joint investigation. And now it seems you change your stance like you welcome Philippine to conduct thorough investigation. So just to clarify: Do you welcome Philippine and Taiwan to do the investigation together?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we understand they’re both doing a separate investigation. We’ve yet to see the final reports from either of the investigations, so --
QUESTION: Before you said you welcomed them to work together.
MR. VENTRELL: It doesn’t appear that that’s happening, so --
QUESTION: So will you tell Philippine that your stance is welcome them to do this together?
MR. VENTRELL: We want them to work together to resolve this issue, this unfortunate and difficult situation. So we want both parties to do that. Okay?
QUESTION: But obviously the Philippine rejected Taiwan’s effort to work this out together.
MR. VENTRELL: We want both of them to work together.
QUESTION: I was late in the beginning, but on Syria, have you addressed the Qusair incident, that when the --
MR. VENTRELL: I did at the top, and I gave some very strong remarks. I refer you to what I said earlier.
MR. VENTRELL: I really refer you to her open testimony of many hours that she gave on the Hill back in – I believe this is in late January, where she discussed her involvement and was very clear about the unfortunate incidents of that night. But I don’t have anything specific on who she may have called.
QUESTION: There’s nothing in the ARB about that.
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’d refer you to the White House or to former Secretary Clinton.
QUESTION: And lastly, did Secretary Clinton ever divulge to President Obama about her 2:00 a.m. conversation with Gregory Hicks?
MR. VENTRELL: I have no information on that one way or another.
Okay. Thank you, everybody.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:30 p.m.)
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