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12:49 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Good afternoon. Welcome to the briefing. I have one thing – two things for you at the top; first of all, a welcome. We have some journalists from Pakistan here who are visitors – welcome to you all – and some outgoing spokespeople to our U.S. embassies overseas. So welcome to all of them.
And then on a policy matter on Niger: We have seen reports of two simultaneous attacks involving vehicle-borne, improvised explosive devices in the northern Nigerian cities of Agadez and Arlit that have killed 20 people and injured 30 more. We strongly condemn this attack and express our condolences to the families of the deceased and injured. There are also reports that attackers involved in the attack on Agadez have taken hostage a group of military cadets. We call for their immediate and safe release, but at this time we note that there are no Americans reported to be killed or injured in the attack.
So having said that, I’ll turn it over to all of you.
QUESTION: I have nothing.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Thanks, Patrick. Just to follow up on the Niger thing, is there any kind of indication that this might also be fueled by the fact that the U.S. has a drone site in – planning a drone site in Niger?
MR. VENTRELL: I have nothing more on the motivations of the attackers.
QUESTION: And then I have a follow-up on a senior Administration official in the comments yesterday, briefing yesterday on the trip.
MR. VENTRELL: Is this on Syria?
QUESTION: Sorry. On Syria, yes.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Said the Administration is considering more ways to support the opposition. Is there a timeline for this? It doesn’t seem to be tied, according to the briefing, to Geneva pre or post what happens there. But is there a timeline for that kind of decision?
MR. VENTRELL: It’s not about a timeline. We’re constantly looking at what more we can do to help the opposition. Obviously, the format of the 11 key core supporters of the Friends of the Syrian People, we coordinate our efforts, but we also individually, in our national capacity, look at what more we can do also. So it’s not necessarily about a timeline, but the fact that we’re augmenting our support to the opposition and we’ll continue to do so. I think the point that one of our briefers was trying to make is if you eventually get to the point where there’s a transitional government, then there wouldn’t be the need for the support of the opposition because you’d have a transitional governing authority. But until we get to that point, we’re going to absolutely continue to augment our assistance to the opposition, and we’ve made decisions about our assistance and others are making decisions about theirs as well.
QUESTION: I asked about the timeline because of the – with, it looks like, the forces pro-Assad backed by Iran and Hezbollah are making vast gains, and therefore it seems to be more urgent that something gets done to back the opposition. That’s why I asked that question.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we’ve been – it’s long been urgent to support the Syrian opposition, and that’s why we’ve had an upward trajectory for some time now. Of course, in the instance of Qusayr and some of the despicable violence there, we’re talking about foreign intervention, Hezbollah fighters, a really dramatic escalation in the conflict. And so that’s what’s happening there. But in terms of our upward trajectory of assistance, that’s something that’s been ongoing, that runs in a parallel track to the political – the – seeking the goal of a political transition. So the idea is to change the balance on the ground in terms of the military balance on the ground so that we can get to a negotiated political settlement. And that’s why we’re working to up our assistance to the opposition.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Samir.
QUESTION: Did you see the initiative by Moaz al-Khatib, the former president of the coalition, for Assad to get out of the country with 500 people of his close circle, and then to give the power to his prime minister or his deputy?
MR. VENTRELL: We have seen that. I mean, this is something that he’s talked about for some time in terms of working to get the Assad regime out through whatever means possible. Just to flag right now that you know that the Syrian opposition is in Istanbul meeting about their leadership transition, and so we urge them to resolve their leadership issues. But we have seen the former SOC President al-Khatib’s statement about trying to get Assad to go away.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, just to say, as you know, that Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen have been clear about their willingness to testify publicly – that’s something that they’ve said previously before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee – in order to directly answer questions regarding the ARB procedures, findings, and recommendations. We understand that Ambassador Pickering continues to consider himself to be under subpoena and will appear in accordance with that compulsory obligation for a deposition.
We further understand that counsel for Ambassador Pickering and the committee have agreed upon a date for the deposition of June 3rd. And finally, we understand the fact that a deposition has been scheduled does not preclude future discussions between Ambassador Pickering’s counsel and the committee about the circumstances and rules for his appearance. So that’s something that Ambassador Pickering and his outside counsel have been discussing with the committee directly.
QUESTION: So the State Department has no involvement?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, this is somebody who has private counsel. He certainly was in his capacity in chairing the ARB, did that work inside here inside the State Department, but he has retained private counsel in this matter.
QUESTION: Has there been any further conversations with lawmakers between the State Department about future Benghazi hearings?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of a status update in terms of back and forth on future hearings. There is correspondence that goes back and forth with us on the Hill, but I’m not aware of any future hearings at this point.
QUESTION: And then on a separate topic, was former Secretary Clinton consulted with the tracking of my colleague James Rosen’s building – State Department building swipe? And were any other employees interviewed in connection with the North Korea reporting that James Rosen did?
MR. VENTRELL: My understanding, this is a law enforcement matter. I really refer you to the Department of Justice for all details on that. In terms of our cooperation with the Department of Justice or the FBI on matters, that would be handled through Diplomatic Security channels and law enforcement channels. That’s how that’s done.
QUESTION: So you – in principle, DS doesn’t have a problem turning over badge records to --
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’m not aware of the specific cooperation on this case, but --
QUESTION: Well, they got the records of his entry and egress, so you guys obviously handed – I mean, they didn’t make them up, I hope.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I can’t --
QUESTION: So you guys obviously gave them to them.
MR. VENTRELL: I can’t comment on any details of this particular case, but when we have --
QUESTION: Well, I’m not talking about this particular case. Just in general, I mean, are you, like, running around, giving out the details of our comings and goings from this building?
MR. VENTRELL: Issues of cooperation on law enforcement matters between Diplomatic Security and the FBI are handled in law enforcement channels. I don’t have anything further on it.
QUESTION: Wait. Well, so you mean you’re not – do you just give the information out if people ask for it? Or do they need a court order or something?
MR. VENTRELL: Matt, I’m not sure of the legal circumstances on that kind of information sharing.
QUESTION: Well, can you check?
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: It would be --
MR. VENTRELL: I’m happy to check on --
QUESTION: If DOJ comes to you and says we want the entry and exit records from people, persons X, Y, and Z, do you just give them to them? Or do they have to --
MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is there’s a legal process that’s followed, but I’d have to check with the lawyers.
QUESTION: Well, can you find out what the – what it is --
MR. VENTRELL: I’d be happy to check.
QUESTION: -- from your end, whether they need a subpoena or whether they need something like that.
And then just the other thing, on the initial question, you said that Ambassador Pickering considers himself still to be the subject of a subpoena. Because my understanding of Representative Issa’s statement yesterday was that he had lifted the subpoena. Maybe I’m wrong.
MR. VENTRELL: I believe that is Ambassador Pickering’s view at this point still.
QUESTION: Well, why would he have that view if Representative Issa said the subpoena no longer exists?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if that’s because it hasn’t formally been lifted or they’re still working out the details of the June 3rd appearance, but my understanding is that he continues to consider himself to be under subpoena and will appear in accordance with that compulsory obligation to appear.
QUESTION: Yeah, but the whole point of the statement yesterday was that he had voluntarily agreed to this private deposition.
QUESTION: And the subpoena was lifted.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, these are the views that have been expressed and that I understand, as of coming down here about half an hour ago. I can check again, but this was what I understood to be --
QUESTION: Okay. I was just curious as to why he would think that he was still under the subject of a subpoena when the subpoena has been lifted. And if he – if, in fact, he has not voluntarily – if he has not voluntarily agreed, if he’s not – if he is doing this only because he’s being – he thinks he’s being compelled to by subpoena, then I would be interested to know why, since that doesn’t really comport with the facts – or with the statement that Representative Issa’s office gave out yesterday. And then – so if you could check on that.
MR. VENTRELL: I’d be happy to check in on it.
QUESTION: Thanks. And then the last one is, my understanding was that this deposition, whenever it takes – you say it’s scheduled for June 3rd – does not – that there will be an open hearing at some point at which Ambassador Pickering will appear. Is that part of the agreement for him to appear in private was that he would then get the chance to appear in public? And if so, has that hearing been scheduled, or is that entirely up to the committee?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we support Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen’s willingness to appear in public hearings and clarify the record, and we hope they’ll be given that opportunity. But in the meantime, our understanding is that Chairman Issa has still opted for a compulsory deposition that is not public. So this is the information I had as of just moments ago.
QUESTION: So the answer to my question is no, it hasn’t been – the public hearing has not been scheduled.
MR. VENTRELL: Not that we’re aware of.
QUESTION: But is that entirely within the purview of the committee, or do you – or does the – Ambassador Pickering or the Department have anything to do with that?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we support them having the opportunity to testify in public, but that would be under the purview of the committee.
QUESTION: All right.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Lalit, go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: -- could you give us a sense of the status of relations that the U.S. has with Pakistan now? And also what will be the key priorities for Secretary Kerry with – handling with – dealing with incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif?
MR. VENTRELL: That’s a very broad question, but in general you know that we have a wide-ranging relationship with the Government of Pakistan. You know that issues like counterterrorism and energy are top priorities, but we have a wide range of assistance and a wide-ranging partnership that we have with the Government of Pakistan.
And you’re all aware of the history that we’ve had over the previous years, but this is a new government that’s coming into place and we look forward to working with them collaboratively as they get their government set up and have this peaceful, democratic transition of power, which we think is really a historic marker in terms of transitioning from one democratically elected government to another.
And so we look forward to engaging on issues of mutual concern and where we can cooperate on things that both of our countries have in common and can work on. And so we’ll continue to work on those priorities, but certainly counterterrorism is one of the major areas, but we have civilian assistance in a range of other areas that are important to us. I mentioned energy as one of those instances as well, something that we’ve talked about here quite a bit.
QUESTION: And very soon the President will be speaking on counterterrorism operations, including the drone strikes. Pakistan, in particular Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan’s party have specific concerns on drone strikes. Would you be addressing their concerns when they come into power?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, the President is giving a major address here just in – I’m looking at the – my watch here – in about an hour. And so I’m going to refrain from any comment as he goes into that speech, but I do encourage all of you to tune in.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up (inaudible)?
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Goyal.
QUESTION: Thank you. Let me ask you differently, Patrick. Do we see any change in the region? We have a new government in – going in Pakistan. And also I understand Secretary is visiting India, if you can give some details, any changes as far as Afghanistan is going to be different things going next year.
MR. VENTRELL: Are you asking about our relationship with Afghanistan or India or Pakistan? I heard three or four --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) in the region, any changes. Do you see any changes in the region?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, that’s a very broad question. On Pakistan, you know that we’ve worked to identify our shared interests and act on them jointly. You know what’s happening in Afghanistan in terms of our transition to an Afghan lead and our partnership there. And you know our deep relationship with the Indian Government as well. So I don’t have a specific – it doesn’t sound like there’s a specific news answer that you want in there, but that’s broadly where we are in the relationship.
QUESTION: Can I just – one more quickly. Can you confirm if Secretary – Deputy Secretary Burns was in India recently, if had delivered a letter from the President to the Prime Minister of India as far as his visit to the United States is concerned? And also I guess Secretary is now going to visit India.
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything in terms of the Secretary’s schedule or travel. I’d have to check in on the Deputy’s visit, whether there was a letter. I don’t have any information on that.
QUESTION: And on the letter --
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any --
QUESTION: -- if Deputy Secretary Burns --
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any information on that. I’m happy to check into it.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Jamie, go ahead.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up on London yesterday.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware that our Embassy has put out any security message or any change for American citizens, but just to reiterate that we condemn yesterday’s heinous attack in the Woolrich district of London and we stand with our close ally, the United Kingdom, in the face of such violence and despicable acts. And of course, we send our deepest condolences to the family of the British soldier. So any of the rest of the details, I refer you to the Government of the United Kingdom.
QUESTION: Got a quick one on North Korea.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: As you know, the – you saw a North Korean military officer was in China, one of the first high-profile visits in six months. And China says that the North Koreans are obviously willing to go back for – to talks. Has anything been conveyed to the U.S. on this?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, my understanding is that the visit is still ongoing and that they’re in the middle of this visit. So China, as I mentioned yesterday, has notified us about the visit in advance, and that we and China very much share the view about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But I’m not aware that we’ve had an update, since that visit is ongoing. But we’re committed to keeping the five parties of the Six-Party process very much united and focused on denuclearization and our core goal in that regard.
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any more information on that particular visit; I’d have to check with the traveling party. But you have heard the Secretary, of course, speak this morning. Before he was meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he was with President Abbas, so his meetings continue. And you know that the Secretary said we’re focused on the possibilities for peace and doing this in a methodical, careful, patient, and detailed way. But I don’t have any more information about that – about General Allen at this time.
QUESTION: Let’s go back to North Korea.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you have a direct response to North Korea’s statement saying they accept Chinese proposal to open up dialogue?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, this visit is still ongoing so I don’t think we’ve had an update since --
QUESTION: (Off mike.)
MR. VENTRELL: -- the visit is still – again, we’ve seen that news reporting, but we haven’t been in touch with the Chinese since the visit started.
QUESTION: So is denuclearization the precondition of the talks between U.S. and North Korea in the future?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, North Korea knows what it needs to do, the seriousness of the purposeness it needs to show in terms of coming in line with its international obligations.
QUESTION: At least do you see this as a positive sign that North Korea is willing to talk?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t think we know enough one way or another to characterize it.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) South Korea.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: One of South Korea’s major newspaper said – (inaudible) – that atomic bombs throughout Hiroshima and Nagasaki is the punishment by God. How are you going to address this statement?
MR. VENTRELL: I haven’t seen the statement. I’m not sure where that’s coming from.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, they’re two very important partners, and we want them to improve their relationship, and that’s something that we’ve long held. We cooperate and work with both of our allies on a whole range of issues, and we want them to have a good relationship.
QUESTION: New subject?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Question, Patrick, on the freedom of the press, globally.
MR. VENTRELL: You ask very broad questions, Goyal. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Just simple question on the freedom of the press.
MR. VENTRELL: We support the freedom of the press. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: And the question is --
QUESTION: Do you?
MR. VENTRELL: We do.
QUESTION: Do you really?
MR. VENTRELL: We do, Matt.
QUESTION: Are you speaking for the entire Administration, or just this building?
MR. VENTRELL: We support the freedom of the press. We support it globally. We support it here at home.
QUESTION: That’s the position of this building. Is it the position of the entire Administration?
MR. VENTRELL: It is.
QUESTION: Just to mark the international freedom of the press, and recently Freedom House, they placed another 84 names of the journalists who were killed in 25 countries, but – these are only official from the Freedom House – but hundreds of journalists are beaten, jailed, or killed in many countries – more than 25 countries. My question is here: When Secretary meets with world leaders here or abroad, does he talk ever other than human rights but on the freedom of the press in these countries?
MR. VENTRELL: Indeed, he constantly and consistently raises these issues with foreign leaders around the world and here when he meets with them. And I think you heard over the two weeks during our freedom of the press activities, many of the cases that we called out, the high priority that we place on this, and our deep concern for the well-being of journalists who face violence and repression for the work that they do around the world. So that’s something we’re deeply committed to.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) especially in China or Saudi Arabia and --
MR. VENTRELL: It includes all those countries.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
QUESTION: Is it just violence and repression? Or is it also government intimidation or – that you’re opposed to?
MR. VENTRELL: That as well. All of that.
QUESTION: So in other words, the State Department opposes the Administration – the rest of the Justice Department’s investigations into --
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, I think you’re trying to conflate two issues here.
QUESTION: No, no. I’m asking about freedom of the press. That was what the question was.
MR. VENTRELL: And we do – and we support freedom of the press. I think you’ve heard the President – I think you’ve heard the White House talk about this extensively.
QUESTION: Right. So you – and you think that violence and repression against journalism – journalists is wrong, as you do harassment or intimidation by government agencies.
MR. VENTRELL: All of the above.
QUESTION: So you do not regard what the Justice Department has been doing as harassment or intimidation.
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I can’t comment on a specific law enforcement investigation.
QUESTION: I’m not asking about a specific case. In general, would the State Department oppose or support harassment, intimidation, or prosecution of journalists for publishing information?
MR. VENTRELL: We oppose that, in terms of them – is this around the world --
QUESTION: Okay. So the State Department then opposes the Justice Department’s prosecution.
MR. VENTRELL: Again, you’re trying to get me to conflate two issues.
QUESTION: Can I – all right. So let me just – I just want to make sure that you – the question that I asked earlier about the badge stuff is framed correctly to DS. So could – I want to know: Is it a matter of routine for the State Department to simply hand over records of people coming and going from this building? Or do you require some kind of a court order to --
MR. VENTRELL: I will check with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Office of the Legal Adviser after the briefing, Matt.
Bingru, go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: I think this was asked yesterday. I don’t have anything to announce on the Secretary’s schedule, if he’ll be able to join the President. He, of course, tries to travel with the President when he has important meetings with foreign leaders, but again, I’m not sure if his schedule – if that’s been all figured out for that particular week.
QUESTION: On North Korea, can you talk about when are you going to talk with your Chinese counterpart and at what level?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we talk to the Chinese constantly about North Korea. We do so with Glyn Davies and his counterpart. We do so at the Embassy.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) for the North Korea’s envoy’s trip to China?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’m not sure if that’s going to be at the Embassy level or what channel. But we will check in with the Chinese, as we do very frequently on the DPRK account.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) a question and probably this is something common, but we don’t talk too much about this. But during the last weeks, and especially these days, we continue to see in Latin America some human rights problems. For example, yesterday was said that in the province of Chaco, Argentina, Indian communities are being all the time being attacked by police. I want to know if the U.S. is following and is part of the conversations with Latin American countries like Brazil or Argentina or also in Central America, where there are Indian communities are being chased and attacked by police forces.
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of the specific incident that you talk about in Argentina, but indigenous issues are something that we very much discuss with our counterparts across the Americas.
QUESTION: What – another in the same region – a high-level Cuban Foreign Ministry official is in town and I understand she was supposed to have her meetings here at State today. I wondered if that has happened, and (b) if the issue of Alan Gross was brought up.
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if it’s happened. We always raise the issue of Alan Gross and we make our case very clearly and consistently to the Cubans on Alan Gross. But I’ll have to check about details of that meeting.
QUESTION: Patrick, can you just answer about this? As far as India-U.S. counterterrorism is concerned, because Home Minister of India Mr. Sushil Kumar Shinde was here in Washington, he met a number of people, including Homeland Security Secretary and Attorney General. Did he meet anybody in the building here? Or where do we go from here since President talking also today about counterterrorism around the globe?
MR. VENTRELL: These meetings were primarily with the Department of Homeland Security, but we do have robust counterterrorism cooperation with the Government of India. But I refer you to the Department of Homeland Security.
QUESTION: The U.S. is following some situation going on in Venezuela where some reporters’ recordings are being broadcasted related to government officials? And now it is said today there’s going to be a second recording coming. Is the U.S. is following all these kind of scandal in Venezuela?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we do watch the situation closely in Venezuela. I don’t have a particular – particular information about this recording of --
QUESTION: It’s a recording they open in all the media regarding the government in Venezuela that created a scandal during the last three days.
MR. VENTRELL: We are watching the situation closely.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Thank you all.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:12 p.m.)