1:15 p.m. EST
MS. HARF: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Daily Press Briefing over the phone on this very snowy day. I know this is a little unusual for us, but we’re going to make this work. And I just thought there was too much going on in the news and too many important things to talk about to not have a briefing today. So thanks to all for their understanding and for hopping on the call.
I have one thing at the top and then I’m happy to open it up for questions. I know this is going to be a little tricky how we do questions today, but as the operator said, please queue up in the question line. I will endeavor to get to as many as I can, even if we’re jumping around a little bit on subjects. So I, for one, kind of like doing this over the phone. I can wear jeans and L.L.Bean boots. But I think we will not make this a regular occurrence.
So one thing at the top. The United States condemns today’s terrorist bombing – excuse me – in the Haret Hreik region of southern Beirut in the strongest terms. Our heartfelt condolences go out to the victims and their families. Abhorrent acts of terrorism such as this undermine the peace and unity the Lebanese people seek and deserve.
The only answer to such attacks is to reinforce support for the state, which has sole responsibility for enforcing the rule of law. We reiterate our support for the Lebanese Armed Forces and internal security forces as the legitimate institutions of the Lebanese state that protect and serve all Lebanese, and we call upon all parties to refrain from acts of violence and work with those security forces to help ensure those who commit these acts of terror are brought to justice.
The United States renews its call for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701, the Taif Agreement and the Baabda Declaration. Full implementation of these accords would help ensure a stable, secure, and free Lebanon.
And that’s all I have at the top. Again, if you guys – if folks could queue up in the queue, I will attempt to get to as many questions as possible. We’ll do the standard transcript, taken question, whole situation just like we normally do in the briefing room.
So with that, Brad Klapper of the Associated Press, go ahead and kick us off.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Press * and then 1 for – one moment. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Okay, great. Thanks, Marie. I just wanted to ask firstly on the Syrian peace talks whether this whole fiasco with Iran has already detracted from the event, and whether this helps or hurts chances for some sort of comprehensive peace.
MS. HARF: Yeah. Well Brad, thanks for the question. Just a couple quick updates on this. We’re focused on now – delegations are arriving in Montreux and Geneva. We’ve already – we have some meetings scheduled for tonight, and the ministerial will start tomorrow. So what we’re focused on isn’t sort of the tick-tock of what happened over the weekend. We’re focused on getting to work, bringing for the first time since the conflict began both parties to the table and seeing if we can make progress on implementing the Geneva communique.
Just a quick update, tonight the Secretary has a bilat with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. He also will have a meeting tonight with the UN and the Russians, so with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Special Representative Brahimi, and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov tonight. Today already, the London 11 experts met in Geneva to touch base before the start of the conference. Ambassador Ford participated for us there. So this is a good opportunity to get the folks to the table and see if we can make progress, and that’s what we’re focused on.
And we can do follow-ups as well, so if folks have follow-ups, feel free to jump back in.
QUESTION: Can I, then, follow up right now?
MS. HARF: Yeah.
QUESTION: Since the Secretary gave kind of an opportunity for Iran to take place – to take part in this meeting, should they accept the conditions of the first Geneva communique back a couple years ago, now? Is it a disappointment that you couldn’t get Iran on board considering how large a role they play in the conflict now?
MS. HARF: Well, it wasn’t just the – it wasn’t that the Secretary gave them opportunity. We have very clear said – clearly said from the beginning that anyone who wants to participate needs to accept the Geneva I communique. So we see no indications that Iran will do that, quite frankly.
So again, what we’re focused on is having these two delegations sitting down at a table together, which we hope will be the beginning of leading to an end to the war in Syria. We have been very clear about the role Iran is playing in Syria, the destabilizing aspect of their actions there. We’ve been very clear about that. But the point of the conference is to implement fully the Geneva I communique, including a transitional government based on mutual consent. It just doesn’t make sense to have some – an actor there, even if they have an involvement in Syria, that isn’t committed to that same goal.
QUESTION: And then just to – this will be my last one. Just to follow up on that point, do you have any indications, really, that the Assad regime is committed to the Geneva communique and to a full transition with full authority in a transitional government?
MS. HARF: Well, it’s a good question and I don’t want to get ahead of the discussions that will be happening over the next few days. It is significant that we’ll have the opposition and the regime sitting down at the table together, I think for the first time since the conflict started. I don’t want to prejudge the outcome of those discussions or what might come from this. We do know that it’s going to be very challenging. Nobody expects that everything will be resolved in the next 24 or 48 hours, but we really do think this is an opportunity to make progress on implementing the different parts and fully implementing the Geneva I communique.
And again, if folks want to get back in the queue after I’ve answered some of their questions, feel free to do that as well.
So the next question comes from Chris Good of ABC News.
QUESTION: Hey, Marie. Can you hear me?
MS. HARF: I can hear you.
QUESTION: Cool. I’ve got two Sochi questions, so this is a two-parter. In light of the reports that we’ve seen of suspected suicide bombers in the region in Sochi and concerns about the torch relay on the way to Sochi, the State Department has a Travel Advisory for Russia sort of related to the Sochi Games. I’m wondering if there are any plans to update that Travel Advisory to reflect any added security concerns that have come to light recently.
And then part two of the question is: Is the State Department aware of anybody sort of in the State Department or that any American VIPs, anybody who’s traveling from America to the Games, that has altered their travel plans in light of added security concerns?
MS. HARF: Yeah, no, thanks for the questions, Chris. First, not to my knowledge do we have any plans to update our Travel Warning. Obviously, we do that if there’s new information or something we feel is important to get out there. I’m not aware of that, but we’re constantly evaluating the information as it comes in. And if there’s a need to, I’m sure we would. And for major events like the Olympics we always plan for different contingencies, for how we can assist U.S. citizens in any way we need to.
On your second question, I’m not aware of any. I’m happy to check with our folks here and see if they’re aware of any. Obviously, we have a high-level delegation going to attend the Opening Ceremonies. That’s all set and ready to go. And private citizens don’t have to register with us or check in with us when they travel overseas. So I’ll check with our folks and see if they’re heard of any, but not to my knowledge. But doesn’t mean they’re not out there.
MS. HARF: Yes. So the next question is from Michael Wilner of the Jerusalem Post.
QUESTION: Hey, Marie. Thanks. Yeah, I enjoy doing this over the phone as well.
MS. HARF: I know. Maybe once a week, right? I think this could be --
QUESTION: Yeah, seriously.
MS. HARF: -- relaxing for all of us.
MS. HARF: Yep.
QUESTION: First on Geneva II, the secretary general’s spokesman said yesterday pretty explicitly that the announcement – and I’m quoting here – “certainly could not have come as a surprise to U.S. authorities. They were fully aware of the timing of the announcement.” And I know you just said that you don’t want to do a tick-tock, but maybe you could say why was the UN and the secretary general surprised at all by your – by the response?
MS. HARF: Let me do that one first and then we can get to the nuke issue. So yeah, you’re right; I don’t want to get sort of into a tick-tock of what happened here. I would say a few points. The first is that we were very clear both publicly and privately with the UN from Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Power on down that in order for Iran to attend, they needed to publicly endorse the Geneva I communique.
Now, what goes into when the UN announces things and when they actually issue invitations, those are questions better, I think, asked of the UN, and I think they’re speaking about it a little bit. But the bottom line is we were very clear throughout all these discussions leading up to the invitation of Iran and then the eventual rescinding of that invitation, that Iran needed to come out and publicly endorse the communique. When that happened kind of wasn’t the point; it just needed to happen, and it didn’t. And you saw our statements over the weekend about our feelings on that.
And again, at this point we’re focused on the folks that are about to arrive in Montreux, getting everyone around the table and starting to make progress on this very complex issue that is, I think, what everyone certainly is focused on now.
QUESTION: Okay, fair enough. Now on to the nuclear issue?
MS. HARF: Yes.
QUESTION: You say your international partners in the P5+1 would not support any new action on sanctions against Iran.
MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: At this point --
MS. HARF: Nuclear-related sanctions. Yeah.
QUESTION: Right. And – well, impose any new nuclear-related sanctions. Why haven’t we heard from them directly speaking against new sanctions legislation in Congress? Do you plan on lining up support to – sort of evidentiary interviews? Have you encouraged your partners to speak publicly on this to support your argument to the Senate?
MS. HARF: Yeah, it’s a good question and I’d make a few points. I think folks saw yesterday that the Joint Plan of Action took effect. Implementation began yesterday. The IAEA submitted a report on the steps Iran had taken to fulfill its commitments. We received the IAEA’s reports and technical briefing, and as a result of that determined that they had taken the steps they had committed to do. And so based on those actions, we took the steps we had committed to do. So I think it’s important to underscore in all of these discussions that for the first time in a decade, yesterday we saw Iran take credible, concrete, tangible, verifiable steps to halt the progress of their nuclear program. That’s significant. The next part of these negotiations is going to be much more difficult, but as of yesterday their program was not moving forward while we negotiate.
In terms of the P5+1 and the EU, I keep threatening to ask my EU counterpart Michael Mann to come do a briefing in the press room about their position on these issues – in a very joking way. But I’d make a couple points. The first is this is our Congress and it’s most appropriate for us to comment on our pending legislation. I think that, obviously, this is our political system to deal with, and I think our partners are certainly cognizant of that.
But that being said, we are all on the same page in our understanding of the first-step Joint Plan of Action that there are no new nuclear-related sanctions allowed. We are all united in believing that we are in an unprecedented moment for diplomacy here. We haven’t had an opportunity like this probably in the history of our dealings with Iran on its nuclear program, and quite frankly, we don’t know when we would have another one. Doesn’t mean it will be easy, and in fact, quite the opposite, but I do know that all of our partners and we are united in the belief that we have an obligation to test this diplomatic moment, as difficult as it is, and to not do things in any of our capitals that would make that more difficult. So obviously, the P5+1 and the EU are free to express their opinions and speak for themselves about how they view this, but I know we are all united in that, certainly.
QUESTION: All right. Just a quick follow-up on --
MS. HARF: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Because congressional action is – would have such a direct effect on the interests of your partners abroad, because they have a direct interest in how the Iranian nuclear negotiations proceed – and joking aside, do you encourage your European partners (inaudible), even though it is the view of Congress and it is most appropriate for you to --
MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- comment on pending legislation – is it still appropriate for your partners to directly address --
MS. HARF: Absolutely. Yeah, no, Michael, I wasn’t indicating it wouldn’t be appropriate, just most appropriate for those of us who, in our political system, are dealing with this issue to comment. But certainly we welcome statements from the EU, from our P5+1 partners, underscoring what the JPOA, the Joint Plan of Action, does and doesn’t allow us to do, underscoring the importance of not doing anything to threaten that progress. So certainly we would welcome those statements, but I think we’ve made it very clear that we will make the case directly, both publicly and privately in the number of briefings we’ve done up on the Hill before and after implementation took place, to make our case directly to Congress.
So obviously, we welcome our partners making the same case. But last week, Under Secretary Sherman was on the Hill briefing Senate and House leadership on what was going to happen on implementation day. We’ve also been briefing a number of staffers and other members and have a number of other engagements with Congress planned for the coming days and weeks. So we are very committed to taking this case directly to Congress, and obviously we welcome if our partners did the same thing.
MS. HARF: Yeah.
The next question is from Jamie Crawford of CNN.
QUESTION: Hi, there. Thanks again for doing this, Marie. Appreciate it.
MS. HARF: Yeah.
QUESTION: Got a question – I actually have two questions. My first question has to do with Syria and just going back to the issue of Geneva II and having two sides sitting across the table from each other. There was reports out yesterday from some internationally renowned war crimes prosecutors that say they have direct evidence of systematic torture and killing by the Assad regime. I guess there was a photo showing signs of starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, and so forth.
I was just curious: As Geneva II gets underway, does something – a revelation like this make the task at hand at Geneva II even more complicated than it already is? And if you have any reaction to these reports.
MS. HARF: Yeah, yeah, no. Thank you for the question. I think what it underscores – and then I’ll get into our reaction – isn’t that it makes it more complicated. We know it’s complicated. It underscores that it makes it even more important that we make progress, that the situation on the ground is so horrific that we need to get a political transition in place and that we need to get the Assad regime out of power.
In terms of these specific reports, obviously we condemn them in the strongest possible terms. These latest reports that you reference and the photos that support them suggest widespread and apparently systematic violations by the regime in an effort to not only deny freedom and dignity to the Syrian people, but also to inflict significant emotional and physical pain in the process.
When we have been informed of horrific actions such as these, we have spoken out about them, as we are doing now, and we will continue to do so. And as we’ve said before, the Syrian regime is responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. These most recent images, I think presented by your network first, are extremely disturbing. They’re horrible to look at, and they illustrate apparent actions that would be serious international crimes. And we have long said that those responsible for these kinds of serious violations in Syria must be held to account.
QUESTION: Thank you. And then just to follow up, and I apologize, on a different subject --
MS. HARF: It’s okay. I know we’re jumping around a little bit today. I think it’s the nature of the phone call.
QUESTION: The wife – Christine Levinson, the wife of Robert Levinson, who has disappeared, is going to be doing apparently a round of interviews coming up in the next days. I was curious if you could just brief us on what the latest is of the U.S. Government’s efforts to free Robert Levinson.
MS. HARF: Yeah, absolutely. So obviously, we can’t get into some of the sensitive details of our efforts, but let me make very clear that returning Bob Levinson to his family is of the utmost concern to the United States Government, as it is with the other two Americans being held in Iran that we frequently talk about. But this is always at the top of our agenda. We are using all tools at our disposal to determine how to do that. It’s something we are very concerned about. We obviously stand with the family who is – are the ones who every single day live with the fact that their husband, that their father isn’t home with them. So we are using every tool at our disposal to help bring him home to his family. We can’t, obviously, talk about those. The FBI is also involved, of course, in the investigation of a missing U.S. person, and we’re coordinating very, very closely with them.
I’d reiterate what we’ve said for years now, that we call on the Government of Iran or anyone else who has information about Bob Levinson’s whereabouts to assist us in helping bring him home to his family.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. HARF: Yep.
Looks like the next question is from Elizabeth Shogren of NPR.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I wonder if you saw that Ambassador Kennedy tweeted that she’s deeply concerned about – by the inhumanness of drive to hunt dolphins in Japan. I wonder if you know anything about why she decided to tweet this comment and whether there’s any other U.S. reaction to that drive.
MS. HARF: Yeah. Well, obviously, we – in general, in terms of why she tweeted, we communicate with the public in a variety of ways. So I don’t think I have probably more of an analysis of why she went to Twitter to talk about this. But suffice to say the U.S. does remain committed to the global moratorium on commercial whaling, and we are concerned with both the sustainability and the humaneness of the Japanese dolphin hunts. We have been very clear that this is our position, and we remain – excuse me – remain concerned about it. And the Ambassador was expressing our view that we’ve made public for a long time.
QUESTION: And was there any official correspondence with the Japanese officials on this issue?
MS. HARF: I can check and see. We have discussed our concerns directly with Japan. I can check and see what level we’ve discussed those concerns at.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. HARF: Thanks.
It looks like the next question is from Tejinder Singh. Go ahead and open up his line.
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you for doing this. It’s really very interesting to see the snow and listening to you. The question is about the Iran sanctions. How are these – this relief going to affect the oil trade, especially with India?
MS. HARF: Yeah, no, it’s a good question. Let me see what I have on that. I can check with our technical experts to see how it will specifically impact that. Obviously, there were a number of steps we took on sanctions relief yesterday to fulfill our commitments under the Joint Plan of Action related to Iran’s petrochemical exports, obviously certain trade in gold and precious metals, the automotive sector as well. Let me check on exactly how, Tejinder, on that question for you of how it will affect that, India and the oil trade. And we’ll get you a question after – or an answer – excuse me – after the briefing.
MS. HARF: Yep.
And it looks like – actually, if the operator could tell folks how to ask a question again, just so if folks missed it, she can tell them how to do it.
OPERATOR: Thank you. As a reminder, press star and then 1 for questions.
MS. HARF: Great. It looks like the next question is from Catherine Chomiak of NBC News.
QUESTION: Hi, Marie. Thanks so much for doing this. I just wanted to go back to Sochi. Can you recap for us what the U.S. has done and the cooperation there has been with Russia in terms of securing the games? Has Russia actually asked for anything specifically? And what are you urging U.S. citizens who are traveling there to do in terms of signing up for State Department alerts or security awareness? Thank you.
MS. HARF: Yep. Thanks. And I’ll take the second question first. We put out our updated Travel Alert on January 10th, and in that we outlined steps that we were – excuse me – urging U.S. citizens to take. The first is, obviously and sort of the most common sense, to just remain attentive regarding their personal security at all times. This is something that is sort of self-evident, but I think it’s important to keep in mind.
We also encourage U.S. citizens to register at travel.state.gov with our STEP program. So people don’t have to register when they’re traveling overseas, but if they do and we needed to get in touch with them, that’s how we get in touch with them. So any alerts or things like that, that’s how people can get in touch with them. So we encourage people to register there.
Obviously there are different issues – the terrorist threat, the threat of crime and theft. There’s a whole host of things people should do and not do in this Travel Alert, so we’d certainly point people there.
In terms of specifics, the U.S. has offered its full support to the Russian Government as it conducts its security preparations for the Winter Olympics. As I said earlier, for major events like this, we always plan for a number of different contingencies, possibilities. Our top priority is protecting U.S. citizens. I can check and see if there’s specifics that the Russian Government has asked of us. Obviously, Russian authorities are responsible for overall security for the Olympic Games. U.S. personnel will be in Russia in liaison roles, and for us, obviously, this is the Bureau of Diplomatic Security who has the security lead for the United States.
Let me check if there are some specifics. We obviously don’t always talk about specific security measures, but I can certainly find out if there’s more to say on that, Catherine.
QUESTION: That would be great.
MS. HARF: Yes.
QUESTION: I was just thinking about, when London was happening, there was some information shared in terms of the direct liaison between the countries and things like that.
MS. HARF: Yeah. And we talked a little bit about in the past the counterterrorism relationship and cooperation, particularly in the wake of the Boston bombings. So we talked about that a little bit in the past. But I’ll see if there’s more specifics on that.
QUESTION: Thanks, Marie.
MS. HARF: Yep.
It looks like the next question is from Lou Charbonneau of Reuters.
QUESTION: Hey, Marie. I’m joining you remotely here.
MS. HARF: Are you in Geneva or Montreux?
QUESTION: No, no, I’m here in New York with all the snow.
MS. HARF: Oh.
MS. HARF: Uh-huh.
QUESTION: I’m wondering if the U.S. told Ban Ki-moon on Sunday night that he should delay the press conference that he had planned to announce the invitation to Iran to Monday, which is when it was originally supposed to be scheduled for.
MS. HARF: It’s a good question, Lou, one to which I don’t know the answer. In general, we made our position known, right, throughout that we did not believe Iran should get an invitation if they did not publicly endorse the Geneva I communique. And our position all along was that they should ideally do that publicly right before they were issued an invitation – or concurrently, right, because if they had embraced it, it sort of made sense that they should come out and say so. And obviously, you saw the situation that happened.
I can check on the actual press conference. I quite frankly just don’t know the answer to that. But I’m happy to check. But suffice to say, we made very, very clear – both Ambassador Power and the Secretary in his conversations with Ban Ki-moon – that because Iran has never indicated they would endorse Geneva I, the communique – they’ve never given an indication that they would – it made it even more imperative, if an invitation was going to be issued, that they come out and say they endorsed it very clearly and publicly.
QUESTION: Right. That was my – I’m trying to get the sense of whether the U.S. actually asked Ban Ki-moon to wait until the Iranians said something before making the announcement, or if they didn’t, then why they didn’t. So if you can get back to --
MS. HARF: Yeah. Let me check on – I can check on some of those details. Again, we’re probably not going to share all of the tick-tock, but let me see what I can do on that.
QUESTION: Thanks, Marie.
MS. HARF: Yep. You’re welcome.
Looks like the next question is from Ilhan Tanir of Turkish Press. Go ahead, Ilhan.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Thank you for your time. I have two quick questions on Syria. One is that you already talk about – a little bit – about the recent report came up yesterday on Syria, this 55,000 photos. One of the three lawyers who written the report, his name is Sir Desmond da Silva – he is also the chief prosecutor of the special court – he likened those images to those of Holocaust survivors and the Nazi death camps after the World War II.
My question is – this is my first question: Obviously, the U.S. is a superpower, and how do you feel as the U.S. Government who overseeing these unspeakable massacres over three years during your Administration?
MS. HARF: Well, if I understand the crux of your question, and please follow up if I don’t, we have been committed to ensuring that Bashar al-Assad, who is the one responsible for these horrific images, cannot go on leading his country. That is exactly why we are so engaged in the Geneva II process. It’s complicated. It’s difficult. If it were easy, it would have been done months or years ago. And one of the things that makes this even more challenging and even more imperative is the – it appears there’s no level low enough, right, for Assad, in terms of how he treats his own people.
So again, these show systematic violations of Syrians’ human rights; terrible, awful conditions in the prisons; but this is exactly why we are committed to doing everything to ending this bloodshed. Now we – this isn’t for the United States to impose. This is a process led by the UN that we are a key part of, but certainly not the ones driving the process, to help get a political transition in place here. And that’s exactly what they’re going to be focused on over the next few days in Montreux and Geneva.
QUESTION: I understand. Just to follow up on this question, you are stating that you committed to stop these massacres, but obviously, it has been going on three years. And I understand that you are saying that the UN is the driver of this process. But is the U.S. Government – how do you feel that you have basically witnessed this massacre happen and oversee – basically oversaw this --
MS. HARF: We – I would take issue on “oversaw.” That’s – look, the people responsible for this are the Assad regime who are perpetrating it. I’d make a few points. We supported the opposition in its fight against the regime. That’s certainly one way we have worked to help bring about an end to this violence. When we’ve seen horrific uses of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, we, through our diplomatic efforts, negotiated an agreement to ultimately destroy all of the chemical weapons in Syria, which we’re doing right now, so they can’t be used against their own people.
But let’s be clear here about the best way to end the bloodshed. It’s not through a military solution. It’s not through the U.S. imposing a military solution or putting boots on the ground or anything like that. It’s through a negotiated political transition. There have been other ways as well. Obviously, we can’t stop these horrific acts from happening, but we’ve called on the regime, we’ve called on the Russian Government to press the regime to allow humanitarian access, to help with the suffering of the Syrian people.
It’s not enough, certainly. That’s why we need a political transition. But we are trying to make inroads where we can to help the Syrian people. You saw the Secretary at the Kuwait donors conference just last week announcing more money for humanitarian access, talking to the Russians about possibly pushing the regime to allow humanitarian access. Those are the kind of things we’re focused on right now.
QUESTION: Before moving my second question, just one last follow-up: How do you think the U.S. Administration is going to be remembered with its policies regarding Syria in the future, even if it’s not finished yet?
MS. HARF: Well, it’s certainly not finished yet. I think that we’re focused right now – I mean, look, for the first time since this conflict began, tomorrow, the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition will be sitting down at the table together. That’s not an end in and of itself, but it’s a step that we hope can be taken forward in helping to get a political transition in place here.
Again, this isn’t a U.S. Government issue to solve, per se. It is a horrible tragedy that we are doing everything that we think is appropriate and that we can to support the Syrian opposition and the Syrian people, to help end their suffering through humanitarian access, to bring the parties together to negotiate a political solution here, which is the only solution that we see. There’s not a military solution. So obviously, it’s complicated and it’s complex and it’s difficult, but we’re very committed to continuing to work to try and resolve the issue because it’s so important, absolutely.
QUESTION: So how do you think your government’s efforts will be remembered when it comes to Syria, let’s say, a couple years later or 10 years later?
MS. HARF: Well, I think, Ilhan – and then I think we’ll probably move on from this – I’ll leave history up to the historians who decide to write it in a few years. What we’re focused on right now is the work that our folks are doing on the ground – working with the opposition, working with our international partners to try and bring some end to the bloodshed in Syria.
QUESTION: Thank you. My second question is: Yesterday, and it has been a month, reports are coming out that the Assad regime has not bombed ISIS headquarters, whether in Raqqah or whether in Aleppo, and also, the al-Qaida factions – and again, reports from credible sources are coming out that Assad and the – especially ISIS and some other al-Qaida factions have been partnering on some oil interactions. And so the question is whether you believe these point of views that Assad intentionally help some of the ISIS and al-Qaida factions to grow in the opposition areas.
MS. HARF: Well, I could check on specifics. What we’ve said is that the groups that we consider to be terrorist groups, whether it’s ISIS or al-Nusrah, they have been able to flourish in Syria because of the Assad regime’s actions – that the security situation on the ground, a number of other things, has allowed these terrorists to really flourish, take hold not just in Syria but other places throughout the region. So obviously, that’s why we are absolutely concerned about the terrorist threat in Syria. That’s certainly part of what we’re concerned about.
QUESTION: I understand, but I think the point is here that so far, many people told that it is unintentionally these al-Qaida fighters and groups grow in Syria. But these reports, especially within the last month coming out, argue that Assad regime intentionally let the al-Qaida and ISIS groups to grow so that it can present itself as fighting with the terrorist organizations.
MS. HARF: Well, again, I’m happy to check and see if there’s more specifics on this, but I would counter the notion that the Assad regime is responsible for fighting against terrorists; in fact, it’s the atmosphere they’ve created in their own country that’s led to the rise of these terrorists. So I think that’s probably the extent of our comment on that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. HARF: Thank you. Our next question is from Elliot Waldman of Tokyo Broadcasting.
QUESTION: Hi, Marie. I just wanted to wish you a happy snow day and everyone on the call as well.
MS. HARF: Thanks, Elliot.
QUESTION: I have --
MS. HARF: Don’t you miss the briefing room? No. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Well, like you said, the comfortable clothes and the warmth of being able to do this at home --
MS. HARF: I know.
QUESTION: -- make it worth its while. So I have two questions, one on Okinawa. I wanted to see if the State Department has any reaction to the reelection of the mayor of Nago City who has been very vociferously opposed to the relocation of the U.S. base to Henoko Bay.
MS. HARF: Let me – I don’t think I have anything on his election. Obviously, the governor of Okinawa, I believe in December, approved the permit that we needed to build the replacement facility, right, which we saw as a significant step – steps, excuse me – that comes after many years of sustained work between our two countries towards the realignment of our forces on Okinawa. We do believe that the relocation of this facility will reduce our footprint in the most populated part of Okinawa, and enable the return of some land south of the airbase, obviously while sustaining U.S. military capabilities that are vital to the security of the region. I don’t have a specific comment on the reelection. I’m happy to see if we do.
QUESTION: Okay, so just to follow up, the – it’s – you’re absolutely right in noting that the governor has approved the plan, but there are concerns that the reelection of Mr. Inamine in Nago could demonstrate that there’s a lot of publicity still, and strong public sentiment in Okinawa opposed to the relocation, and that he might still be able to block the use of facilities like roads on the island toward the reconstruction effort, essentially bogging it down even more. But is the U.S. concerned about that?
MS. HARF: Yeah. Again, Elliot, I’m happy to check with our folks. I’m not sure what platform the mayor ran on, and if this included this issue. I’m just am not aware. But again, we have been working with the government of Japan for many years on this issue. It’s been sustained work, and we did welcome back in December this approval of a permit that we needed to build this – or to build this new replacement facility. So I’m happy to check and see if that’s a concern. It’s my understanding that this is moving forward, the process is moving forward. I have no indications otherwise, but I’m happy to check in with folks on that.
QUESTION: Okay, great. Thank you. And then just my second question was – I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there was a piece in BuzzFeed last week that quoted from anonymous U.S. and intelligence – U.S. intelligence and defense officials sort of seemingly fantasizing about murdering Edward Snowden. I was wondering, if given – if the U.S. is taking these kinds of threats seriously and if the State Department is concerned about Mr. Snowden’s safety.
MS. HARF: Wow. I didn’t see that piece. That’s totally inappropriate.
QUESTION: It’s quite graphic.
MS. HARF: Our position on Edward Snowden hasn’t changed. We believe he should be returned to the U.S. to face justice, and when Attorney General Holder, if you remember, months and months ago, sent a letter on this issue saying that Mr. Snowden would be afforded due process, sort of outlining all of the steps we would take to protect that due process if and when he’s returned to the U.S. So we’ve made very clear he will be afforded all of the rights of any citizen accused of such crimes. And yeah, I haven’t seen those comments, but they sound pretty awful and obviously have no place in our discussion of these issues.
QUESTION: Okay, great. And then just finally, just so it’s absolutely clear, I was – you make clear and Jen makes clear and we all know very well that the State Department takes very seriously the safety of U.S. citizens overseas --
MS. HARF: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- and that protecting that security is one of the top priorities. Does Mr. Snowden’s safety also fall into that – under that umbrella?
MS. HARF: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes.
QUESTION: Okay, great. Thank you.
MS. HARF: Yeah. Looks like the next question is from Michael Hernandez of Anadolu Agency. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, Marie. I just wanted to touch upon some of what’s already been discussed regarding the Syria report. I guess I just have a couple quick questions. The first is whether or not the U.S. is seeking to independently verify the report.
MS. HARF: Are you talking about the photos?
QUESTION: Yes, yes.
MS. HARF: I can check. We have no reason to doubt their validity or their – whether they’re real or not. I’m happy to check and see on that, though.
QUESTION: Okay. And just briefly, my last question: Does the U.S. have any concerns that the report was funded by the Government of Qatar, a strong supporter of the opposition?
MS. HARF: Not to my knowledge. We don’t have concerns about that. Again, I’m happy to check with our folks, but I think these pictures make very clear what we’ve known for a long time and what we’ve seen reports of in the past, right? So it certainly is in line with everything we know about the Assad regime. I’m happy to check and see if there’s a process for determining their origin or sort of their validity. But again, we have no reason to believe they are not legitimate, accurate photos coming out of these awful Syrian prisons and reflective of the terrible treatment that the Assad regime is giving to its own people.
QUESTION: Great. Thank you very much.
MS. HARF: Yep.
Roz Jordan for Al Jazeera English. You’re up next.
QUESTION: Hey, there. A couple of different topics. First, the Kenneth Bae, in quotes, “press conference” – what is the U.S. Government’s reaction to that? And specifically, does the U.S. believe that Bae was put out there in violation of international norms on how people should be treated when they are in detention?
MS. HARF: Well, obviously we’ve seen the reports. As we’ve said before many, many times, we remain very concerned about Kenneth Bae’s health. We continue to urge the DPRK authorities to grant him amnesty and immediate relief. We’ve said many times – we’ve offered to send Ambassador King to Pyongyang to secure his release. We’ve made this offer repeatedly for many months, reiterated it very recently. And we’ll continue to work actively to secure his release, including, obviously, with the regular and close consultation with the Swedish Embassy.
QUESTION: Is there, as Mr. Bae apparently indicated during his press conference, any U.S. consideration to offering an apology to the Kim regime for a number of violations, atrocities, fill in the blank?
MS. HARF: Yeah, I haven’t – I didn’t see those specific comments. Obviously, we are continuing to work actively to secure his release. I don’t have more details about what those discussions entail.
QUESTION: And do you happen to know the last time that the protecting power was able to see Mr. Bae?
MS. HARF: I don’t have that in front of me, Roz. Let me check on that for you. I’m sorry I don’t have that right in front of me.
QUESTION: Okay. And then just in case the call ends before my colleague has a chance, I wanted to ask you about this pending execution in Texas of a Mexican citizen, Edgar Tamayo. Apparently the Secretary has said in the past that an execution of someone who was never granted access to his consular officials is, in essence, putting U.S. citizens at risk overseas. Can you explain specifically how what seems to have been the case in Texas endangers U.S. citizens, should they be arrested and convicted of felony crimes overseas?
MS. HARF: Absolutely. And I’ll answer that, and then I’ll give you a little update. The State Department has been in regular contact with the Texas state authorities over the years regarding issues related to consular access, certainly, and certainly in the wake of a specific court case that outlined some of our obligations here.
Secretary Kerry did send a letter – and let me just get that in front of me right here.
MS. HARF: Secretary Kerry sent a letter in September, September 16th of 2013, to Governor Perry outlining the case for the fact that not – saying very explicitly that he doesn’t have any reason to doubt the facts of the conviction. Obviously, he’s a former prosecutor and takes these kinds of charges – and in this case I think it was killing a police officer – very seriously. But he made very clear that it’s a process issue, because it could impact the way American citizens are treated in other countries.
We have obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations to allow consular access to foreign nationals, without getting too technical and legal in the weeds here, for folks that are arrested in our country. And if we our self don’t uphold those obligations, it will make it much harder for us to ask other countries to do so. We take the security and safety of our citizens overseas very seriously. If they are arrested and held in detention, we want to be able to go to other countries and ask for these same consular access we are entitled to under the Vienna Convention. And we need to not in any way have that message undercut by not allowing the same thing of other countries’ nationals when they’re here in the United States.
So just as recently as January 14th, some folks with – from the Department of State and Justice met with the Texas Office of the Attorney General to discuss Mr. Tamayo’s case. The dialogue’s been ongoing. We’ve made our position very clear that this is an issue that could impact the consular access we get to American citizens overseas who are arrested.
QUESTION: Is it – is Texas acting against U.S. law if it were to go ahead with this execution? And if it were to be persuaded by the State and Justice Departments to not put Mr. Tamayo to death, what could be the alternatives?
MS. HARF: Yeah. Well, I don’t want to go into sort of a detailed – on your first question, Roz, I’m happy to check with our attorneys on this. I don’t want to get into a legal back and forth here.
First, the Vienna Convention, which isn’t obviously U.S. law, but which we are a party to – there’s no dispute in this case that Mr. Tamayo was not afforded consular notification and access. There’s no disputing the facts here. So obviously that’s the – part of the basis of our argument. What the State Department is asking for is a delay in his execution until he can be provided with review and reconsideration, as is required under a specific court case by the name of Avena – A-v-e-n-a, for shorthand – that outlined our obligations, and to take this review and reconsideration as to whether or not the lack of access prejudiced the outcome in the case here. So that’s what we’re asking for, just a delay in execution until we can see whether denying him this access – the consular access he’s afforded under the Vienna Convention – prejudiced the outcome.
QUESTION: Okay. And then my final question on this point: What discussions has the Secretary had with his Mexican counterpart? Did they talk about it last week when the foreign minister was here in Washington?
MS. HARF: Let me double-check on this, Roz. It’s my understanding that they did --
MS. HARF: -- when he was here last week. I will double-check on that. It’s my understanding that they did. And again, the Secretary sent a letter to Governor Perry in September. We’ve had an ongoing dialogue with the state of Texas, and want to make very clear that U.S. compliance with these obligations is critical to our ability to ensure consular access and protections for our own citizens, including members of our armed forces, who are arrested and detained by foreign governments. It’s also – and this speaks, I think, in the Mexican case as well – crucial to maintain cooperation from foreign governments on a broad range of law enforcement and other issues as well.
QUESTION: Okay. And then I just have one question on Syria. With the meeting now getting underway in Montreux, is there any plan for the Secretary to meet with anyone from Assad’s government or with President Assad himself? And if not, why not?
MS. HARF: Well, not any plans at all to meet with President Assad, period. I would knock that down. There will be meeting – I don’t know the exact layout and specifics of the meetings and who will be in what meeting, whether it – folks will be in any meeting together, I just don’t know, Roz. So let me see if I can get a little more from our traveling party and see what the situation will look like in terms of who’s in what meetings.
QUESTION: Okay. And then this is probably just a housekeeping question: Is the plan for them to just meet on Wednesday? Or are they able to meet on Thursday as well?
MS. HARF: So my understanding – and again, I’ll check with our traveling team to make sure this is completely accurate – is that tomorrow Montreux will be the ministerial level. It’s my understanding then that the folks – many folks will go back to Geneva to continue the discussions, and I – that will be led by Under Secretary Sherman. And as we know, the Secretary will be heading on to Davos. So it’s my understanding that the ministerial will just be tomorrow. Obviously things can change, as we all know.
MS. HARF: But that’s the plan as of now.
QUESTION: Okay. Great. Thanks.
MS. HARF: Yep.
Chris Good from ABC News. You’re up again.
QUESTION: Hey, thanks, Marie. If I could just go back to Sochi for a minute. And I think you said earlier on this call that you might not be able to talk about some of this stuff, but I wanted to ask about the security plan there.
We heard over the weekend that there is maybe going to be some posturing of American ships in the region, and as I understand it, State is kind of in charge of the response plan if anything happens in Sochi. So I guess I wanted to ask if there’s anything more you can tell us about the plan, about how it would work if it’s the case that State kind of triggers a DOD response in the event of any kind of bombing or anything that might happen there. I don’t know if you could tell us how many DS personnel are in Russia, if State has any commercial planes ready to get people out, or any private security firms that State may have hired. If there’s anything that you could talk about about any of that, I’m curious about all of it.
MS. HARF: Yeah. Well, obviously, Chris, we’re not going to talk about specifics of any of our contingencies that might be needed for security, because it seems like it would be fairly bad operational tradecraft to do so. As I said, for events like this we do plan for a number of contingencies. We’re not going to get into specifics.
We have offered our full support to the Russian Government. Speaking to the issue of military assets, U.S. commanders in the region are conducting prudent planning and preparations should that support be required from them. Air and Naval assets, to include two Navy ships in the Black Sea, will be available if requested for all manner of contingencies, right, in support of and in consultation with the Russian Government. There’s no such requirement at this time, right, for utilization of these assets. They’re just taking some planning measures in case they are needed.
QUESTION: All right. Thanks.
MS. HARF: Yeah. I think we’ll do a few more and then let everyone get back to their snow day.
The next question is from Nicolas of AFP.
QUESTION: Yeah. Good afternoon, Marie.
MS. HARF: Hi.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing that.
MS. HARF: Uh-huh.
QUESTION: On South Sudan, sorry, you have probably seen that an emergency regional summit, which was scheduled for Thursday, has been canceled on short notice and without any explanation. So I would like to know if you have any reaction to that or any explanation to this cancelation? And if you could update us on the last U.S. diplomatic efforts to try to resolve the crisis after five weeks of heavy fighting on the ground. And on the Central African --
MS. HARF: Let’s do South Sudan first, then you can ask your Central African Republic question.
MS. HARF: So, Nicolas, we don’t have a lot of updates. I – what – hadn’t seen those reports about it being canceled. Let me check with our folks and we can get you something after the briefing.
As you know, we’ve been working with the different parties to try to have the talks continue, to try to get some progress continue to be made. I just don’t have any updates for you on those efforts. I’m happy to check with our folks and see if there are and to get you a comment on the other thing being canceled.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. On the Central African Republic, do you think that the new president, Mrs. Samba-Panza, is in better position, has more leverage to try to end the fighting in this country than her predecessor had? And you have maybe seen that the EU has eventually agreed to send 500 troops on the ground, so is there any plan from the U.S. side to send troops or further military commitment to this country?
MS. HARF: Yeah. So I think we’ll have a statement later today on the appointment of the new interim president. Just from talking to folks here, it’s my understanding that this is a good step, that we think there is some potential for some progress here. But we will have a fuller statement later today on that.
Obviously, you know we’ve been supporting the international community’s efforts to end the violence there. In terms of our support to this point, it has consisted of committing monetary assistance, right? I think it’s about 100 million, last I checked, with training, equipping, and providing airlift support to MISCA and to the French troops. We’ve airlifted both Burundian troops and Rwandan troops to CAR to help end the violence there as well. I’ll check and see if there’s any update on that, but I just don’t have one. I haven’t heard that there is from our folks.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you, Marie.
MS. HARF: And we also do, just so you know, have – I mean, the U.S. military obviously is not involved in combat operations. We do have a small number of U.S. personnel who are working as liaisons in Bangui to support the airlift mission that I just mentioned. So obviously, that’s another way we’re assisting on the ground.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. HARF: Yeah. The next question – sorry, I’m just pulling up my little – here. The next question looks like it’s from Dmitry Kirsanov of ITAR-TASS.
QUESTION: Hi Marie. Can you hear me?
MS. HARF: I can hear you, yep.
MS. HARF: It’s okay, I’ll let you. It’s a snow day.
QUESTION: I just wanted to ask you if you are saying how many DS personnel you have deployed there or specifying if the complete DS team has been deployed in Russia and in Sochi. That’s the first part.
MS. HARF: Well, on that first question, Dmitry, we’re just not going to get into specifics about numbers. Obviously, some of our security personnel will be traveling with – I’m assuming – our delegation that goes for the Opening Ceremonies. I just don’t have more details for you about that. I probably just won’t be able to share them for security reasons.
QUESTION: Can you say something with regards to the press reports here which said that the DS team might be as large as 350 men there?
MS. HARF: I honestly don’t know what the number is. And even if I did, which I don’t, we wouldn’t be able to share that, I don’t think.
QUESTION: And can you say a couple of words about collaboration between the Russian law enforcement agencies and the U.S. law enforcement agencies with regards to the Sochi Olympics?
MS. HARF: About cooperation in general?
QUESTION: Well, yeah. I guess so, yeah. I assume you wouldn’t go into specific details, so how you assess it. Are you satisfied with that so far?
MS. HARF: Well, obviously, we said we stand ready to assist. The Russian Government has the lead here for security, and we will be in a liaison role. Obviously, we’ve said we’re happy to assist in any way we can, certainly for American citizens. But also if there’s counterterrorism cooperation the Russian Government needs, we stand ready to help them that way. I don’t probably have a further characterization of it.
QUESTION: All right, thanks a lot.
MS. HARF: Thanks. So we’ll just do a few more and then we’ll wrap it up. Alex Wortman of NHK.
QUESTION: Yes, hello. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to ask another question about North Korea and Kenneth Bae. You’d stated that the U.S. has offered several times to send Special Envoy Ambassador Robert King to Pyongyang, and I was curious about when – this was also reported in a Reuters report. And so I was wondering when – can you tell us when maybe was the last time you guys offered up an invitation to --
MS. HARF: I have “very recently” in my notes here. I don’t have specifics.
MS. HARF: Yeah. I can see if I can get some --
MS. HARF: We don’t always go into the specifics of our communications on this issue.
QUESTION: Okay, all right. Well, thank you.
MS. HARF: Yeah. Okay, Peter Green of Bloomberg News.
QUESTION: Hi Marie. Can you hear me?
MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Yeah. Going back to Syria, I’m wondering – the talks would begin between the Syrian Government and the opposition, if they begin, how long will you wait to see concrete action from these talks? And what kind of benchmarks have you set before other measures might need to be taken, and what might those be?
MS. HARF: Well, the goal of the talks --
QUESTION: I mean --
MS. HARF: Sorry, go ahead. Were you still talking?
QUESTION: No, no, I was just going to say it seems like a great opportunity for stalling on the part of one side or the other.
MS. HARF: Well, I don’t want to prejudge the outcome of these next few days of talks, as I’ve said a bunch of times on this call. This is the first time they’ll be sitting down together. That in and of itself is progress. And the goal is implementation of the Geneva I communique, a full implementation. So obviously, there are different steps that the regime could take to show that they’re interested in moving forward and making progress on the Geneva communique, but we know this is going to take time, we know it’s going to be challenging. There’s a civil war going on in Syria, and you can’t end it in 24 hours just by getting folks to the table for a couple rounds of talks. This is going to take some time and effort, but this is certainly our goal, and we want to make progress on that.
I don’t want to speculate about what we might do next. Obviously, we’re committed to supporting the opposition, working with them, and working with our international partners to get a political transition here.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MS. HARF: Yep.
Let’s do one more. From Somini Sengupta of The New York Times.
QUESTION: Hey. Can you hear me?
MS. HARF: Yep. I can hear you.
MS. HARF: Yeah.
QUESTION: – that the order wasn’t really the point, it just needed to happen, and it didn’t happen. And then later you were saying that your position was that they should ideally do it publicly before they were issued an invite or concurrently. So I just want to get clarity on that.
MS. HARF: Well, they’re – right, those aren’t mutually exclusive, right, that – what I was saying is sort of the tick-tock of all of this. We are at the point where we are today where they did not endorse the Geneva I communique publicly, and it’s not that the order – it’s not that we didn’t have views on the order, right? It’s all – it was sort of just that that’s not actually at this point the point. And yet – look, ideally, if Iran was going to endorse it, they would have come out and said so at any point throughout this process.
So I think that the point of the whole tick-tock discussion is that an invitation was extended on the basis of them accepting the Geneva I communique, and they didn’t do that. They didn’t do it before; they didn’t do it after. So at any point during this process, we would’ve needed to see that, and quite frankly, we didn’t. And that’s why they’re not going to Montreux like everyone else.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MS. HARF: Yeah.
Okay, thank you guys so much. I really appreciate folks calling in on this snow day. Again, this is all on the record, like a Daily Press Briefing. We’ll try to do some TQs and more guidance and follow up with folks where I said I would look into things, and hopefully we’ll all be in the office tomorrow doing this in the normal way we do. So thanks, guys. Have a great rest of your day and stay safe and stay warm.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:19 p.m.)
DPB # 13