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12:35 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Well, it’s the first day of summer, but I didn’t think the ranks would be this thin. But – (laughter) – welcome to the State Department.
QUESTION: Even Matt’s not here.
MR. VENTRELL: I have nothing for you all at the top. So, over to all of you.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: We had a million people-plus on the streets of various Brazilian cities last night. And although mostly it’s been peaceful, there was instances of violence, and I believe one demonstrator was kind of accidentally killed.
I wondered what the U.S. position is on what’s happening down in Brazil.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, thanks, Jo, for the question. We are indeed monitoring events in Brazil. And our position is clear, whether it’s Brazil or other countries in the world, that peaceful demonstrations are part of what democracy is all about, citizens expressing their views and engaging government leaders about issues that matter to them. So that’s been our position both for Brazil and elsewhere.
And in terms of – also just wanted to mention in terms of U.S. citizens who may be traveling to Brazil during these large demonstrations, just to reemphasize that the protection of U.S. citizens is one of our highest priorities, and we’ve released security messages on June 18th and 20th alerting U.S. citizens to the continuation of protest activity in several cities, including Sao Paulo, Rio, Brasilia, Recife, Belo Horizonte, and Porto Alegre. So we’ve continued to advise U.S. citizens through our security messages as well.
QUESTION: Do you believe that the demonstrators perhaps have a point, a very legitimate point that they want to push, that this – the rising prices and social infrastructure and deterioration of public services?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t think we’re in a position to judge on the merits one way or another. These are Brazilian citizens expressing their views to their government, and we say that peaceful protest is certainly something that’s a fundamental part of democracy. But I don’t think we’re going to judge on the merits of the issues that they’re raising with their government one way or another. I think that’s for the Brazilian people to raise the issues of concern to them.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Jill.
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks for the question, Jill. Ambassador Dobbins is en route to Doha, where he will join the Secretary and meet with Qatari officials. I don’t have any other meetings to announce at this time for Ambassador Dobbins, but he is en route. This is commercial travel separately from the Secretary’s plane, but he’ll arrive in Doha as well and join the Secretary’s party.
QUESTION: So there’s no indication at this point, any plan to actually sit down with the Taliban?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I don’t have a specific meeting to announce. He’s going to join the Secretary’s bilateral meeting with the Qatari officials, and that’s part of our bilateral agenda, reconciliation as well. But in terms of direct meetings with the Taliban, I don’t have anything to announce at this time. We said that this is something potentially in the next few days.
One other thing – and there had been some incorrect reporting on this – just to say again from this podium that it’s not the Secretary who will be meeting with the Taliban; that would be at Ambassador Dobbins’s level or on his team, so – there had been some confusion about that in the press. The Secretary is going to meet with his counterparts and have a bilateral visit as well as the London 11 Syria meeting.
QUESTION: And what is the latest from President Karzai? Are they going to be joining talks? Are they willing to have talks? Have you been speaking with them about that?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if I’ve seen a statement overnight from the Afghan Government, but we’ve been clear all along. Our position has been that we want to get Afghans talking to Afghans. That’s what the point of this reconciliation is and what we’re working toward. We separately have some issues to discuss with the Taliban, principally among them Sergeant Bergdahl. And our hearts go out to his family. We continue to think that he needs to come home as soon as possible. Also, them breaking ties with terrorism, because obviously you know where this goes back to and the attacks on our country and where our interest in all of this started.
But in terms of reconciliation and Afghans talking to Afghans, that’s really what the point of this political office is in Doha, and we want to get that on track. You know that the President – President Obama and President Karzai committed to the process of working toward reconciliation when – back in January. So that’s something that both of our countries think is important. But I haven’t seen any announcements one way or another overnight.
QUESTION: Do you have any indication where Sergeant Bergdahl is actually being held at the moment?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any information one way or another on his whereabouts, but just to reaffirm that we’ve been clear about this, going back quite some time, that we’re doing everything in our – military, diplomatically, with our intelligence community to bring him home. So certainly, his safety and well-being is a priority for the United States Government, and we’ll continue to work toward that. One channel of potential activity is the diplomatic channel and discussing this directly with the Taliban.
QUESTION: Other subject?
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Next week, Tuesday, Congressman Royce has asked for documents to be handed over, and also, I think, for the Secretary to speak with him. Obviously, that is not going to happen because he’ll be out of the country. But is the State Department going to turn over what they want on these OIG – I believe it’s the eight investigations or – from that memo, and --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah, these are some cases that Jen has talked about previously, and of course we’re aware of the congressman’s letter. I don’t have an update on the document piece of it. I know we did provide some briefings on the Hill to staff earlier this week. And the Secretary, as a former member of Congress, is very committed to continuing to cooperate with Congress. I just don’t have an update on the particular document requests or how we’ve processed those.
But just to remind people that part of this goes back to also OIG documents, and those were the ones that were improperly shared with the public. So part of this also has to do with OIG’s property, and so I think there’s an element of this that I have to refer you to the OIG’s office. But let me go back and check with our folks and see if there’s an update to the specific requests within Congressman Royce’s request. I think some of it had to do with the handling of the cases, which is under review indeed by outside law enforcement experts.
QUESTION: And then also, I think there was a request in there for the Secretary himself, or I presume some other official from the State Department, to appear, to talk to them. Do you know the status of that as well?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I don’t have the letter in front of me, so I can’t remember the contents of the request for a briefing. We did brief at the staff level, and I’m sure we’d look at any future briefings as necessary to keep Congress updated. They have, certainly, an oversight role and an interest in this, and you know that we firmly support the OIG having these outside law enforcement folks do their review and look at these cases and look at our processes. So we’ll continue to be transparent and collaborate with the Congress as they look at this, but that’s our position. I’ll check in for any more information about the specific asks in that letter.
MR. VENTRELL: Samir, sure.
QUESTION: A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, the military opposition, said that they received some modern weapons. Is any of these weapons from the U.S.?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, we’ve talked about, and you heard last week as the White House discussed, how the President’s redline has been crossed and that we’re going to be ramping up our support to the opposition. I’m not in a position to get into the details of some of that, but suffice it to say we’ll continue our support for the opposition. I’m just not going to be able to confirm the details on that one way or another.
I did want to take this opportunity, while we’re talking about Syria, just to say that – call out in particular our deep concern by the Assad regime’s ongoing sieges of the Damascus neighborhoods of – and you’ll have to help me a little bit with this, with the proper pronunciation, Samir – but al-Qaboun and al-Barzeh --
MR. VENTRELL: -- Al-Barzeh, which are two neighborhoods in Damascus where regime forces, with the support of Hezbollah, have now repeatedly cut off access to food and medical supplies to 40,000 residents trapped inside. So we’re concerned by the implications that a major impending regime offensive may have in these areas. We expect many residents to try to flee in advance of the possible regime and allied militias’ attacks. So we have out – we’re deeply concerned about the welfare of these civilians.
QUESTION: And on Tuesday, a minister in the Lebanese Government, he declared that the Syrian Government forces, they were forcing Sunni Syrians to flee to Lebanon in a campaign. It’s not like ordinary refugees, like, fleeing; it was an orchestrated campaign. Did you see that?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we have seen that, and we’re deeply concerned, and we’ve long expressed our deep concerns over the regime and allied militias’ efforts to drive sectarian tensions through atrocities. We’ve seen that in their massacres of Sunnis in the coastal villages of Bayada and Banias, where hundreds of people were killed. So sectarian tensions are something we’ve been deeply concerned about and we share those concerns. So we call on all Syrians to resist the temptation of sectarian retributions and further sectarian violence.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: What are your hopes for what’s actually going to be achieved?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, just to say, you remember that we have the two tracks here and one of those tracks certainly is to continue to pursue a political solution to this crisis – the political track. And so what Under Secretary Sherman will be doing is meeting with her Russian counterpart, with the UN, to continue to see what we can do in terms of planning for a Geneva 2 conference. I don’t have anything in terms of the details of when that might be and we know the difficulties, obviously, in the context of what’s happening on the ground and the difficulties that are being faced. But we’ll continue to pursue the political track because, as we’ve always said, a negotiated political settlement is the best way and the most durable way to end this crisis.
QUESTION: So how realistic is it that there will actually be a Geneva 2 conference?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, we’re going to continue to work toward a negotiated political settlement. We still think it’s significant that both we and the Russians and many others in the international community are committed to implementing the Geneva communiqué, and that ultimately having this transfer of full executive authority is going to be the best way to safety and security and potentially democracy for the Syrian people as well. So we’ll continue to pursue that and it’s a priority of ours here, obviously, with the State Department; we’re diplomats and we’ll continue to pursue those diplomatic efforts. But I don’t want to look into the crystal ball and say it’s going to happen at this moment or that moment. We’ll continue to pursue it.
QUESTION: Patrick? Could --
QUESTION: Do you expect --
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Samir.
QUESTION: Do you expect that they will reach an agreement on a fixed date for the conference in Geneva?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t want to look in the crystal ball and predict one way or another but we’ll continue to work intensively with our Russian counterparts and with the UN.
QUESTION: Sorry for – apologies for being late. You know how --
MR. VENTRELL: We started on time today, so --
QUESTION: (Laughter.) Exactly.
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks, Said. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Anyway, I wanted to ask you about a congressional study. A congressional study found that even if Assad is removed, the conflict will go on for years to come. Do you have any comment on that?
MR. VENTRELL: I haven’t seen the particular study. I mean, one of our long concerns is that there are no easy solutions; it’s very difficult. We’ve expressed our concern about the collapse of institutions, the need for existing institutions to still have a role going forward. But obviously the regime has lost its legitimacy in terms of the slaughter of its own people. And so while you may, at a technical level, have the ability for certain ministries to continue to function or continue to provide stability and services to people, whether it’s electricity or otherwise, at the same time, certainly the top of the regime has lost its legitimacy.
So I haven’t seen the particular report, but those are things we’ve had concerns about.
QUESTION: Okay. And you may have addressed this, but the claims by the opposition about receiving anti-armor missiles and anti-aircraft missiles and so on, which probably sort of neutralizes their need for American-supplied weapons. Would that be perceived from that angle?
MR. VENTRELL: Would what be? I guess I’m not sure what the point of your question is.
QUESTION: Would it be – because a week ago, when the President announced last Thursday that they are going to arm the opposition, it was because of the urgency that the opposition was lacking of arms and has suffered a few setbacks. But today, the statements coming out of there, it seems that they are really flush with weapons, they’re awash with weapons, and so on. So with that --
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Samir asked a version of this question earlier and I said I wouldn’t be getting into the details, but we’ve been clear that the President’s calculation has changed and that we’ll be continuing to look at various options as we go forward.
QUESTION: Okay. And lastly, on this issue, on the issue of armament: The French apparently are arming the opposition, in Jordan. Are the Americans taking any part in training or arming the opposition and using --
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any information for you one way or another, but part of what we do through the London 11 process is to continue to coordinate with our allies and partners so that our assistance is effectively reaching the opposition.
QUESTION: Okay. And on the Geneva process, what do you expect out of the 20th – the meeting on the 25th, on Monday?
MR. VENTRELL: And we did just sort of answer that question as well.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, I – apologies.
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I can’t predict what’s going to come out of a meeting, but we’re going to continue our intensive discussions with the Russians, with the UN and with others as we pursue also the political track and a negotiated political settlement.
QUESTION: Is that – do you expect that, like, a timetable will come out of the meeting?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, it’s – I can’t sort of lay out an expectation for a meeting that hasn’t happened in that way.
Jill, go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: I do; a very sad case. Hold on one second here. So I – what I can tell you is that shortly before midnight, a DEA agent assigned to Colombia was murdered in what appears to have been an attempted robbery after watching the NBA finals with embassy colleagues at a local restaurant. U.S. Embassy security officials are working closely with Colombian authorities to investigate the crime and bring those responsible for the heinous murder to justice. We sincerely appreciate the quick response and excellent collaboration of the Colombian authorities to facilitate a full investigation of this matter, and this is really a profound tragedy for our Embassy community and indeed for our government. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of our fallen colleague.
And so, unfortunately, though, due to the ongoing investigation, there’s no more details that I can provide at this point.
QUESTION: But basically a criminal action?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. It appears this was a robbery or criminal activity, not based on who he was.
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure that we’ve finished next of kin notification or that I’m able to share that, but I would refer you to the DEA, who would be – even though, of course, he’s a member of the Embassy community, it would be DEA that would finally release a name, not here from the State Department.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure. Tell me your name.
MR. VENTRELL: And your outlet, please?
QUESTION: Tokyo Broadcasting System.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Thanks, Elliot.
QUESTION: The UN envoy to – the North Korea’s envoy to the UN held a press conference today, basically calling for the dissolution of the UN command in South Korea and also an end to U.S. sanctions. What’s the Administration’s response?
MR. VENTRELL: I hadn’t seen that press conference one way or another, so I’m just not familiar with it.
QUESTION: Okay. Do you think you can get us a response?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I’d be happy to look into it, but the UN command is something that’s been there for many years and be – and will continue to be. And what was the second part of --
QUESTION: An end to U.S. sanctions.
MR. VENTRELL: And again, we’ll – our sanctions will continue. But again, I haven’t seen the full context of that.
QUESTION: He also made allegations that it was in fact U.S. hostility which could lead to any – to war anytime now. And I wondered if you could react to that (inaudible).
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I haven’t seen the full context. Those are things that we’ve heard them, the regime, say before. I’m not sure that I’m aware of the DPRK giving frequent press conferences at the UN, but these are --
QUESTION: No, it’s a rare one, yeah.
MR. VENTRELL: -- these are the types of things that the regime has said in the past, certainly.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: A senior Administration official today said that Secretary Kerry is likely to discuss Pakistan-India relations during his trip to New Delhi. Can you elaborate what kind of discussions those would be?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, just to remind that, as a part of the Secretary’s visit to India, this is really about our Strategic Dialogue with India. So it’ll be the full breadth of issues – economic, education. Really, it’s a deep and intensive two days of meetings. So I don’t really have more detail to provide on sort of the regional issues. Those do come up in these settings when you’re talking about the broad, strategic issues, but it’s really a fulsome bilateral dialogue that we’re going to have with India.
QUESTION: And --
MR. VENTRELL: And the Secretary looked forward to it; a number of other senior officials will be attending, and I know we put out some information from our senior traveling officials about that visit.
QUESTION: But you have the opportunity to say the U.S. obviously has high-stakes interest in a peace process between U.S. – Pakistan and India?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, we always encourage a better relationship between the two, whether it’s economic or otherwise, and so that’s something that we do talk to both sides about.
QUESTION: And yesterday, the U.S. reiterated its commitment to welfare of refugees. Pakistan has – yeah.
MR. VENTRELL: Oh, yeah, this is something that you had asked about – Afghan refugees inside of Pakistan. Just to emphasize that the U.S. is the leading international donor for humanitarian assistance to victims of the Afghan conflict, including those who have gone over into Pakistan. Assistance is provided by our Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. We provide that to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the ICRC and other NGOs to support victims throughout the region. Also, the U.S. Agency for International Development provides food assistance to the World Food Program operations in Afghanistan which meet the emergency food needs.
So this has been something that has been longstanding. We’ve provided – I’m looking here at the numbers – over, in Fiscal Year 2012, $89 million, and in Fiscal Year 2013 I think we’ve already spent $24 million. So this is some pretty robust assistance.
QUESTION: Okay. And how – in recent days Pakistan and Afghanistan, they have been trading allegations of cross-border militancy. How important it is for the U.S. with the 2014 deadline coming that the two countries should work together to resolve those issues?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, it’s important. We’ve long said that both countries should cooperate and continue to work on those issues.
In the back.
QUESTION: Hi. Priscilla Huff from Feature Story News. I apologize if you’ve addressed --
MR. VENTRELL: What was your outlet again?
QUESTION: Feature Story News. We’re a news agency.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Go ahead.
QUESTION: And I apologize if you’ve addressed this before, but the State Department was reportedly going to name somebody to handle the transfer of cleared detainees out of Guantanamo, and now the Taliban is saying: We’ll trade you a U.S. soldier for some people out of Guantanamo. What is the plan? Or what is the response?
MR. VENTRELL: Jen talked about this at the briefing a little bit yesterday, and we’ve said that that’s something that the Taliban is likely to raise, but we haven’t entered into that discussion at this point.
QUESTION: Palestinian issue?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we’re following this situation closely but, of course, defer to the Palestinian leadership to comment publicly. We have a longstanding commitment to support Palestinian institution-building. And whatever happens, it’s important that the Palestinian Authority government remain committed to that effort of institution-building. So I don’t have any further information to share. I really refer you to them.
QUESTION: Okay. But did you have plans to meet with Mr. Hamdallah, the new Prime Minister who apparently was only there for a few weeks, or anything like that?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if he was going to be on the bilateral agenda, but when we talk about the peace process, President Abbas is our interlocutor and so it’s not going to have an impact on the Secretary’s discussion with --
QUESTION: He seems to have resigned under circumstances where there was fear on his part that there is a duplication of authority and so on. Do you support that it should actually be pyramidal* and should be at the top and conducting the business of institution-building and so on, rather than his deputies who apparently were placed there by the President of the Palestinian Authority to basically undermine him?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean – excuse me, Said – I really refer you to the Palestinian leadership for more details.
QUESTION: Just one on Syria and chemical weapons. There was a piece in The Washington Post today about the difficulty of convincing some other countries that actually the proof – the alleged proof that the United States has that there – that they were used, that it’s a problem right now. The Russians have said – or at least some in the Russian Government have said that they are not convinced that that information and data – that those data are really correct. When – as I remember, the State Department, like, a week ago said that the U.S. had handed over to the Russians actual data. That is correct? I mean, did they actually get these reports enough --
MR. VENTRELL: So, Jill, we’ve shared that information with the Russians, with the UN. You know that our intelligence community has a high confidence in our assessment, given multiple independent streams of information. I mean, from this podium I’m not going to get into intelligence, but we have a high confidence in that assessment. Clearly the best way in terms of the UN investigation would be allowing them to get in and get unfettered access. And so the Assad regime continues to obstruct that, but any country that wants to get to the bottom of this should continue to make the position and should continue to support our position and the UN’s position that they need to get in and investigate all that evidence. So we have a high confidence in our own intelligence assessment. We’ve shared that with others, we’ve shared that with the UN, but we agree the best way is, of course, for the UN to be allowed in and to get full and unfettered access. And the Assad regime, if they have nothing to hide, should be willing to have that assessment – and they haven’t been to date.
QUESTION: So your confidence in the veracity of the evidence is derived from, let’s say, physical evidence that is either soil or blood or anything like this?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, I’m not going to get into intelligence assessments from here, but our intelligence community and our national position is that we have high confidence in our assessment. We’ve shared that with other countries – other countries have a high assessment – and we’ve shared that with the UN. The UN’s position – and they can speak for themselves obviously – is that they need to get in, and they’d like to get in to have full and unfettered access to continue their investigation, and we support that. So we’ll continue to do that.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: At a time when Iraq is really suffering a great deal of turmoil, it seems that volunteers or militias are crossing the borders into Syria to aid the Syrian regime. Are you having any kind of special talks with the Iraqi Government to stop them from doing that or to prevent people from going to answer the calls of the Sunni jihadist side?
MR. VENTRELL: So we do – we have seen reports of a limited number of Iraqi Shia and Sunni militants fighting in Syria. These movements stoke the violence in Syria and contribute to the suffering of the Syrian people. So we continue to call on all of Syria’s neighbors to take all possible steps to prevent the flow of militant fighters into Syria in order to prevent exacerbating the sectarian aspects of the conflict. And so I would also note that the Iraqi Foreign Minister himself has made a statement – going back, I believe this is a week or so ago, June 11th – discouraging Iraqis from joining the fight in Syria. So it’s something that we’ve discussed with the Iraqis in the past and they’ve made public statements about.
Okay. Anything else?
QUESTION: And can we --
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: This came up at the beginning of the briefing, and I said he’s not traveling on the Secretary’s plane, but he’s en route to Doha as well where he’ll join some of the Secretary’s meetings.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: You addressed it at the beginning, but it was a fairly regular statement that the State Department would make. Is there any special concern that this is unusual or out of line, especially with Brazil hosting the World Cup coming up and the state visit?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I don’t think I’d characterize it further. Brazil is an important partner of ours who we closely collaborate with, a strong democracy in the region, but as in all democracies, peaceful protest and expressing people’s views is part of the democratic process.
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have an update.
MR. VENTRELL: No.
QUESTION: There’s this report that he might actually escape to Iceland. Do we have an extradition treaty with Iceland?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware that we --
QUESTION: Just in case he should make it there.
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware that we do, but anything to that effect, we refer you to the Government of Iceland about any issue related to whether they’ve had talks or possible extradition. But I’d have to look and check and see if we have an extradition treaty.
QUESTION: Can you check on that just to make sure?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t think we do, but I’ll double check.
QUESTION: He has not been charged in any way to warrant extradition, has he?
MR. VENTRELL: I refer you to the Department of Justice. That’s really a Department of Justice affair.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:01 p.m.)