12:18 p.m. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Light group today except family in the back.
QUESTION: Love it.
MS. PSAKI: I just have one item for all of you at the top. And let me say too, we’ll try to keep this very short, which should be easy given it’s a holiday. First, I want to welcome lots of family in the back. My husband is here in the back, so watch out, and my in-laws Mike and Mary Ann. And Mary Ann, I’ll just brag about her, was the – one of the Catholic school teachers of the year in the country last year. So if anyone does anything bad – Matt, I’m looking at you – (laughter) – she’ll be watching.
QUESTION: It’s Good Friday. I’ll try to be nice.
MS. PSAKI: (Laughter.) And then we also have many of Kate Starr’s family members – her sister Lisa and her nieces and nephews are here. Let’s see, Joey, Nick, Zoe and Kate. Did I get all of them right? All right. Well, welcome. Thank you for coming.
QUESTION: The Buffalo side.
MS. PSAKI: One – what did you say?
QUESTION: The Buffalo side.
MS. PSAKI: The Buffalo side – the Buffalo and the Cincinnati. Okay.
One item at the top. The United States is deeply concerned by the dire and tragic situation in Homs, the latest instance in which the Assad regime is brutalizing its own population. We strongly condemn the regime’s breaking of the cessation of hostilities and its brutal assault against residents of old city Homs. The regime’s bombardment and encirclement of the city is a despicable example of its starve-and-surrender battlefield approach. We urge the regime to cease its attacks on the old city and allow for the delivery of humanitarian assistance. As the UN Security Council made clear, the world is united in insisting that the regime facilitate immediate and unhindered access for UN humanitarian agencies and lift its sieges.
As the situation in Homs reminds us, the regime has not only failed to comply with the requirements of the UN Security Council resolution, it is intentionally increasing the desperation of the Syrian people in its all-out bid to retain personal power. In Homs as elsewhere, civilians must be allowed to come and go freely. The people of Homs must not have to submit to the regime before receiving much needed food and humanitarian assistance. And the United States, along with every member of the international community concerned with the welfare of civilians in this conflict, will not stop its calls in support of the people of old city Homs and all the innocent civilians in Syria who are suffering so much from this brutal war. We will continue to draw international attention to this catastrophic situation until the suffering of the Syrian people ends. We call on all those with influence with the regime to realize the fundamentally inhuman intent of the Assad regime, and push the regime to stop its barbaric acts against civilians.
With that – and we’ll go to Syria next. I don’t know if that’s your first topic.
QUESTION: No, no, no, I’ll start with that.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: You call on all those with influence with the regime. Can you be more specific about that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, certainly we call on the regime, and certainly this issue and the need to exhibit pressure on the regime has been raised with Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Russians and any other who may have influence.
QUESTION: Do you believe that they have been --
MS. PSAKI: That --
QUESTION: -- using their influence with the regime? Considering the fact that the government continues to – this all-out assault, do you – are you aware that they have been using their influence and Assad has just been saying, “No, thanks for the advice”? Or are they not trying to use their influence at all? What have you seen?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve certainly been advocating publicly, and we believe – and we’ve asked them to also advocate privately with the regime on issues like movement of chemical weapons to the port at Latakia. I can’t speak for whether they have been or whether it’s influential. Clearly more needs to be done, and we’ll continue to raise it publicly and privately.
QUESTION: Right. But – okay. So did the situation in Homs come up yesterday at all in – with – in Geneva with the Secretary and Foreign Minister Lavrov? Or was that mainly Ukraine? But surely it came up with Brahimi, yes?
MS. PSAKI: Certainly the discussion with Brahimi covered a range of topics. It was unfortunately a brief meeting because we had to depart, but they did talk about the humanitarian situation on the ground, naturally. With Foreign Minister Lavrov, it was really – the discussion was focused on Ukraine, but they have talked about Syria in recent weeks.
QUESTION: All right. Well, but you do believe that the Russians could do more – the Russians and maybe the Iranians as well could do more to exert influence on Assad to stop this kind of behavior?
MS. PSAKI: Yes. The situation on the ground is catastrophic and we have remaining concerns about the humanitarian situation, and all those who have influence should exert that.
QUESTION: I have Ukraine questions, but --
MS. PSAKI: Syria? Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. Do you know if Mr. Brahimi is going to take any new initiative? Or did he tell the Secretary if he’s going to travel to the region, or --
MS. PSAKI: Well, he did meet – the Secretary did meet with Joint Special Representative Brahimi yesterday. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, it was a brief meeting because the quad meeting ran a little bit late. They discussed the path forward.
QUESTION: A little?
MS. PSAKI: Quite late, a couple of hours late, but it was productive, as we all saw. They did discuss the path forward, but I’m not going to speak for Mr. Brahimi. Our Special Envoy Daniel Rubinstein is traveling around the region, as I believe Marie announced yesterday. He also met with Joint Special Representative Brahimi yesterday, so they’ll continue to have that discussion.
QUESTION: Do you expect Mr. Brahimi to resign from his position?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to speak to what his plans are. I’ll let him speak to that. Obviously, he has served in a difficult role, but we’ll let him speak to his future plans.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Should we go to Ukraine?
QUESTION: Syria, please.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: Yeah. First of all, I mean, what is changing that make you think that now is catastrophic. It was not catastrophic a week ago or something?
MS. PSAKI: I think we’ve long said that the humanitarian situation on the ground is incredibly concerning, it’s catastrophic. Food and medical supplies should not be used as a weapon or taking them away shouldn’t be used as a weapon. And this is something we just wanted to voice our strong concerns about publicly.
QUESTION: And now when you mention the special envoy message or the mission, whatever you can call it, is it now just to focus on the humanitarian? There is not any political solution?
MS. PSAKI: No, not at all. The humanitarian concerns and the situation on the ground has been a longstanding concern of ours. And we feel more needs to be done. The regime has the ability to let convoys through, let aid and assistance through, and that’s something we will continue to raise and continue to call on others to put pressure on the regime. But part of the discussion the Secretary had with Joint Special Representative Brahimi yesterday was about the political path forward. And Daniel Rubinstein will be traveling in the region. He will travel to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, and he’ll also stop in London before returning to the United States. And the big focus of those conversations is on the political path forward. So we’ll see how he comes out on the end.
QUESTION: So just like within two or – the last two or three weeks, we are not mentioning anything related to these “other partners,” quote-unquote, not the Gulf countries, which is like for me the political solution has to be either Russia or Iran in the process of finding a political solution of Syria. Is there anything going on through them or by them or for them or whatever?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I think Joint Special Representative Brahimi and his team have continued to engage on those issues. The Secretary has spoken with Foreign Minister Lavrov about --
MS. PSAKI: -- ongoing concerns about the situation on the ground in Syria. So that will continue. But clearly, our special envoy has a busy and active schedule over the coming days, and he’ll continue those consultations in the weeks ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. A couple questions relating – that go back to the Geneva statement from yesterday.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: I’ll just run down them in order of the – in order that they appear in the statement. The first one is the second paragraph, which talks about the anti-Semitism. I’m wondering if you have figured out anything more about the origin, seriousness of this leaflet in Donetsk.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything new to report. Frankly, at this moment, we’re still looking into that, but the source is less important than how horrific the content was and the message it sent. But I don’t have any new details on the source.
QUESTION: Okay. And then secondly, in Donetsk, the head of the – I don’t know, whatever you want to call it – of the --
QUESTION: Self-proclaimed --
QUESTION: -- self-proclaimed local authorities saying, well, this Geneva statement is all very nice and all very well and good, but we’re not going anywhere because just as you regard us as illegal, we regard the government in Kyiv as illegal, and having come to power by a coup, and so we’ll leave when they leave. What’s your reaction to that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we absolutely reject the comments by the Donetsk separatists that the evacuation of their forces is contingent upon Maidan activities ending their legal and peaceful protests. You know where we stand on the legitimacy of the Government of Ukraine. You know where we stand on these claims that there was a coup, which we completely disagree with. There’s no parallel whatsoever between the armed and illegal seizures of government buildings, streets, and public spaces in eastern Ukraine, which are clearly covered by the accord from yesterday, and the legal and peaceful protests. And furthermore, I think it’s clear to the international community, and the Secretary and the President have made clear, that we see a strong connection with Russia here. That’s why they were an important partner in the diplomatic discussion yesterday. They have a responsibility to take steps to call on the separatists to evacuate.
QUESTION: But the agreement – it seems like the agreement kind of equates the Ukrainian Government and these separatists when you call on all sides to kind of de-escalate. So it seems as if they’re one – they’re both two part – you’re talking of them as equal parties, and it doesn’t necessarily address Russia’s – the agreement doesn’t necessarily, in writing, represent Russia’s role (inaudible).
MS. PSAKI: Well, that’s not how we view the agreement. And Foreign Minister Lavrov was there yesterday because of the role Russia has played and can continue to play in de-escalating.
QUESTION: Yes, but is that evident in the agreement, though?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s evident in what will be required for implementation of the agreement. And Foreign Minister Lavrov was a party to the discussions and to the accord yesterday. And so it’s clear to everyone what steps Russia will need to take in order to de-escalate the situation, and we will see – we will test the proposition of diplomacy over the coming days.
QUESTION: But it doesn’t say anything about Russia moving its troops back, Russia moving its troops from Crimea. I mean, Russia’s role in Ukraine – I know you have stated it, and Russia was a party to the talks, but it doesn’t really spell out that Russia really has a serious responsibility.
MS. PSAKI: I would disagree with that, Elise. Yes, you’re right that these initial steps of what will be – or these are initial steps of what will be, our hope is, a broader de-escalation process. And we expect, as the situation de-escalates, the constitutional reform process unfolds, and the rights of all Ukrainians are ensured, Russia will begin to respond on troop numbers.
We’re going to test over the coming days whether this accord sticks, whether it will be implemented. And I think the clear answer to your question of what’s Russia’s engagement is if they do not play a role here, if they do not take steps they need to take, there will be consequences, and there will be consequences, certainly, for Russia.
QUESTION: But just to Matt’s point, that the kind of leader of these uprisings, in Donetsk in particular, is saying look, Russia didn’t sign this agreement on our behalf. So can you really – so – and they’re saying that they’re not going to implement it. So, a) what do you do in that situation, and b) how can you – do you believe that Russia has the influence over these folks if they’re saying that they’re not beholden to anything Russia signed?
MS. PSAKI: We do believe they have influence, and we do believe they have the ability to implement this accord, Russia does.
QUESTION: Let’s hope they have more influence with them than they do over Assad, yeah?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, I think we can talk about what’s happened with the CW process there, but --
QUESTION: Hold on --
QUESTION: Well --
MS. PSAKI: I’m sorry. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Let me just continue – just one more question. So are you saying that if these self-proclaimed people’s republic and these obviously pro-Russian rebels don’t stand down and vacate these public buildings, that you’re going to hold Russia responsible?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Elise, we’ve talked over the last several days, as has the President, as has Secretary Kerry, about the clear and strong connection we see between these separatists and Russia. So yes, we do feel they have the ability to influence and – influence the separatists and change the situation on the ground. There’s no question about that.
QUESTION: As the discussion was going on in Geneva yesterday, President Putin was on television making a series of statements reiterating the fact that the Russians believe – regard what happened in Kyiv as a coup and that the new government is illegal. Do you – given that, the Russians would seem to be able – because this statement is quite vague, they would seem to be able to argue that all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners could refer to government buildings in Kyiv. I realize that you reject that, you say that your stance is well known, but the Russian stance is also well known. Do you discount them an interpretation of this statement --
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think the context --
QUESTION: -- that would include that? Or do you believe that the fact that Lavrov was there sitting with the Ukrainians is tacit acceptance of the legitimacy of the new government in Kyiv?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not going to speak for Lavrov, naturally, but I think it’s clear in the – all parties came out of the meeting yesterday with a clear understanding of what needed to be implemented. We recognize – and the context and the history here is, of course, important – that Yanukovych left his own government. That was not a coup. He left the country with a vacuum of leadership. The Rada voted to put the legitimate government in place.
QUESTION: Right. I understand your argument, and I understand your position. But the Russian position is diametrically opposed.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: And they could interpret this statement in – from Geneva as meaning that the – what they believe is the illegal government in Kyiv has got to get out. Do you not see how they can interpret it that way?
MS. PSAKI: I do not, and I don’t think any other party there saw that as part of the agreement. I mean, one important contextual piece to --
QUESTION: Well, certainly – maybe not people in Geneva, but certainly the guys in Donetsk see it that way.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think what’s clear here, Matt, is the parties yesterday know what steps need to be implemented. The OSCE will be leading the process of implementing these steps over the coming days, working closely with the Government of Ukraine. We will know and we will see if they take the necessary steps. If they don’t, there will be consequences for their inaction.
QUESTION: Yes, please.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah, Ukraine?
QUESTION: Yes, please. You mentioned that the OSCE is going to follow the mechanism or whatever, the process itself --
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: And more or less, it is mentioned what you are trying to see if it’s Russians or Ukrainians are going to do it. But is there any timetable, or you can see accordingly if it’s – something is done or not and you decide to make sanctions or not or anything else?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we will not know for several days, but we will see over the coming days whether steps are taken to move this forward. And as part of – written into the agreement yesterday was support by the United States, by the EU, by Russia and Ukraine to support the OSCE monitoring mission. The OSCE monitoring mission will be working closely with the Government of Ukraine and they’ll take steps, we hope, in the coming days to begin that process.
QUESTION: So I was asking because OSCE – they – do they have a normal relation with both sides? Because at a certain point, they were not allowed to enter something – some areas.
MS. PSAKI: You’re right. Well, as part of the accord signed yesterday, the Russians as well as the United States and the EU will support their effort. So implementation, it’s not just, as the Secretary said yesterday, what’s on a piece of paper; it’s whether there are actions taken to implement that. So we will see what happens.
One other piece I just wanted to note on – that the Ukrainian Rada has shown its commitment to moving forward on amnesty. In fact, many of these processes were underway, including constitutional reform, as we all know, but the text of the April 8th law on amnesty was published today in the official parliament’s newspaper. And according to the law’s provisions, it will come into effect tomorrow, April 19th. And that was, of course, part of what the Ukrainian Government said they would do yesterday.
QUESTION: The constitutional reform, just to clarify, because it seems that it was – he was quoted many places, Lavrov, that – saying that there is a commitment or promise from the U.S. side that they are going to convince the Ukrainians to make that change. As a matter of fact, constitutional reform, when it was mentioned – it was not mentioned. I mean, do they look for equality in rights, or superiority in rights --
MS. PSAKI: Well --
QUESTION: -- those who are in east coast or east Ukrainian part?
MS. PSAKI: Well, inclusivity is a part of what we have been arguing for, and we’ve seen the Ukrainian Government take steps to be inclusive, to include representatives from all parts of Ukraine, to take steps to protect minority rights, and so we’ll continue to encourage that moving forward.
QUESTION: So there is no like a pushing for being autonomous in deciding what they want to do in the east part of Ukraine?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the Ukrainian Government will make that determination. The prime minister has spoken publicly in the last several days about an openness to having that discussion. So we expect that will continue, but we’re going to make those decision for them.
QUESTION: Yeah, on Ukraine. So 24 hours after the Geneva agreement, what is your level of confidence that Russia will comply with the agreement? And when you said “in the coming days,” when will you start monitoring on the ground that the agreement is implemented?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the agreement takes effect immediately. So clearly, there are steps that need to be taken, including the role – the OSCE’s role, obviously the Ukrainian Government will be closely engaged in that. I’m not going to put a – make a prediction on how confident we are. I will say we’re clear-eyed about Russia’s record of not implementing steps in the past, so we will see if they do take steps this time, and if they don’t take steps there will be consequences. But I’m not going to put a date on that. We won’t know for a couple of days.
QUESTION: Well, I mean, why don’t you have complete confidence that they’ll implement the agreement? I mean, this agreement is very favorable towards Russia because it asks for most – I mean, except for the getting rid of the occupying of the public buildings, I mean, it gives them all the things that they’ve been looking for, such as – well, I guess not annexing the actual territory, but now, between constitutional reform, the autonomy that the Ukrainians are offering, and even Secretary Kerry said it’s far more than any of these other type of territories. Doesn’t it give Russia – if these autonomous regions are leaning towards Russia, doesn’t it really give Russia kind of a firm hand in the eastern Ukraine without having to invade?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the most important priority here, Elise, when we were discussing this yesterday, was de-escalatory steps. So we’re going to see if Russia takes those de-escalatory steps. It doesn’t make a prediction of the outcome of a discussion about autonomy. It says they will have a discussion about autonomy, which the Ukrainian Government themselves have said they’re willing to have anyway. And the constitutional reform process has been underway. So what I’m conveying here is that we’re clear-eyed in the sense that we want to see them take action. It’s not just about having a piece of paper.
QUESTION: If I could just point out that the Russian foreign ministry is already saying that the Kyiv Government has misinterpreted the Geneva statement, and that all illegally – all the buildings occupied illegally includes them. So it seems to me that you’ve got a situation like you had after the Geneva 1 agreement on Syria, where there’s just a fundamental refusal by both sides – by both you and the Russians – to agree on what you agreed.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, I --
QUESTION: Your position after Geneva 1 in Syria was that it – there was no way Assad could remain in power, and the Russians said no, that’s not what it says. And now you’re saying that our interpretation is right and their interpretation is wrong. All that – one side might be right or might be wrong, but the problem is that it’s never going to get implemented as long as you don’t have a fundamental agreement on what you actually agreed to.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, I think there are clear steps that led – that the OSCE-led mission will be implementing, and that is moving out of these buildings, disarming irregulars. We support that, certainly. We’re going to see if they take those steps. At no point have we agreed or would we agree that the legitimate Government of Ukraine has a – would be impacted by this in the way that suggests. If that’s what the Russian interpretation is and that’s all they’re willing to address, then there’ll be consequences.
MS. PSAKI: And we’ll keep preparing those on our side.
MS. PSAKI: Okay, go ahead.
QUESTION: What’s the next step if we see good faith efforts from Russia to work toward the agreement, but the situation in the east does not de-escalate, they don’t come to the table for constitutional reform, they boycott elections? What’s the next step?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not sure if I would characterize what you just outlined as good-faith steps. So we’ll evaluate day by day. The immediate step here is the OSCE will be engaged with the Ukrainian Government about the steps outlined in the accord yesterday related to buildings in the eastern Ukraine. There are obviously a range of steps that have been taken already, including, I mentioned, the amnesty law that’s going to be published or that has been published. So we’ll just watch each day as these steps are implemented and see what happens.
QUESTION: Can I ask you – on the consequences?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: We’ve seen sanctions – if the Administration doesn’t take the next step for sectoral sanctions in terms of sanctioning more individuals, is there any reconsideration going on about sanctioning President Putin himself?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it hasn’t changed that we wouldn’t – there are a range of individuals – not President Putin – who have been engaged in this process in an unhelpful way, who have been helping the illegal activities, who have been providing financial support. There’s a range that are not yet sanctioned, but certainly we continue to look at. We have the ability through the executive order to also put in place sectoral sanctions, but it hasn’t changed that we’re not leading with the sanctioning of the leader of a country.
QUESTION: So is it fair to say he’s off the table for now?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any new update to tell you. Just to convey that there are dozens of individuals who have played unhelpful roles who we could certainly sanction if warranted.
QUESTION: Can I change the subject?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve seen those reports, as obviously you have as well. Let me just see what the latest information I have on this is. We don’t have any further information. Obviously, Treasury would make any determination if there was any violation of sanctions here. I’m not predicting there was. But certainly we look into any instance.
QUESTION: Well, what would violate sanctions in terms of if a U.S. plane lands in Iran without a license? Is that a violation?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the Iranian transactions and sanctions regulations prohibit the exportation of goods, services, or technology directly or indirectly from the United States or by a U.S. person to Iran, and would generally prohibit U.S. registered aircraft from flying to Iran. So we will – Treasury will, of course, have the lead on it.
QUESTION: So just a U.S. plane flying into Iran would violate sanctions?
MS. PSAKI: Well, would generally prohibit it. But again, Treasury has the lead. They’ll take a look at the circumstances here and see if there are concerns about --
QUESTION: But like for instance if a trade delegation or – I’m not saying that they’re trading right now, but like in anticipation of the lifting of eventual sanctions if there’s more – I mean, it’s not illegal for U.S. people to travel to Iran.
MS. PSAKI: No. No. That’s why there’s a lot of nuance and a lot of different questions here, and all of your questions are good questions. It’s just that we look at every circumstance differently. The Department of Treasury will look at this and see if there’s any concern here.
QUESTION: When you generally prohibited from flying to Iran, does that mean – that means that they’re – if one wanted to fly a U.S. registered plane to Iran, one could apply or one could ask for permission to do so and it might be granted, correct?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there may be a process in place. I’m not familiar with those details. But --
QUESTION: And does that apply to overflying Iranian airspace as well, or just landed in Iranian territory?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have that level of detail, Matt.
MS. PSAKI: Do we have a new topic?
QUESTION: New topic?
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
MS. PSAKI: Algeria. Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: The minister of interior announced the preliminary results and declared the winning of President Bouteflika, and the main opponent rejecting this and say it wasn’t just or something like that.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think – I’m not sure – so have they had their press conference? I hadn’t seen it yet, as we came down --
QUESTION: Yes. Yes.
MS. PSAKI: They did?
QUESTION: The minister of interior.
MS. PSAKI: They did. Okay. Well, we’ve seen these reports. Naturally we leave it to the Government of Algeria. We, of course, look for any allegations of fraud to be investigated in any case, as we do around the world. We have not seen the reports of international observers. I’d basically refer you to the Government of Algeria at this point and their specific announcements.
QUESTION: Did you get any reports from the Embassy there, or any --
MS. PSAKI: Well, we didn’t --
QUESTION: -- assessment of how that --
MS. PSAKI: No U.S.-based organizations monitored the election, and the U.S. Embassy staff did not have formal observer status, so I don’t have any other additional updates for you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: I’m getting the hook almost to take my lovely in-laws to lunch --
QUESTION: Yeah, I have – it shouldn’t take too much time.
MS. PSAKI: -- but let’s do a couple. Go ahead.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: Can you outline any specific support that the U.S. is offering in the search and recovery efforts there? I know that Marie said yesterday that the 7th Fleet is in position to offer assistance, but is there any active participation going on?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the 7th Fleet is assisting with the search-and-rescue effort. The U.S. Bonhomme Richard – did I – Richard – did I pronounce it correctly?
QUESTION: You got it.
MS. PSAKI: All right.
MS. PSAKI: -- has been assigned a search area of five to 15 nautical miles from the shipwreck site. Two MH-60 Seahawk helicopters are conducting search-and-rescue operations within the assigned search area. And the U.S. and South Korea will exchange liaison officers to facilitate communications for the search operation. So we are assisting and we’re ready to provide further assistance as needed.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: First very brief one, which is not what you’re expecting – this is about Japan announcing that it’s going to start whaling again.
MS. PSAKI: Oh.
QUESTION: Do you have any reaction to that?
MS. PSAKI: I have not seen --
QUESTION: Particularly as it – they were just ordered by the ICJ to stop whaling in the Antarctic. This announcement today suggests they are going to resume, maybe not this year but the next year, while that case is still (inaudible).
MS. PSAKI: Sure. I had not seen those comments. Our concerns haven’t changed. We’re happy to get around a comment on that if there is such a desire.
QUESTION: Thanks. And then I have several questions about this letter that was apparently sent or allegedly sent yesterday up to the Hill to Representative Lowey and other members of Congress from your Office of Legislative Affairs. I’ve been told since I first raised this to you that this letter was a draft. I don’t know if that’s correct or not, but I still have questions about it, the first question being: It’s dated and signed by the assistant secretary. When do drafts get dated and signed?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have that level of detail. I’m happy to check on that, obviously.
QUESTION: All right.
MS. PSAKI: I’m aware of the letter, but --
QUESTION: Okay. The letter raises a bunch of questions about, one, about visa – about visas for Israelis. And I don’t know if you can answer these, but I’d like to get them out there so that they can be answered. It says that, in fact, the complaints that – it suggests that complaints from Israel that young Israelis are being denied visas at a disproportional rate – these are people from 21 to 26 years old – may have some basis in fact. It says that the rejection rates have doubled from 16 percent to 32 percent from 2009 to 2013.
One, I’m wondering if you can say how this compares to visa rejection rates from other countries. Has any other country seen a spike like that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not going to get into specific countries, and I believe most of that information is available, but I can say the disparity is typical worldwide because younger applicants are less likely than their elders to be able to demonstrate the strong ties needed to qualify for nonimmigrant status under U.S. immigration law. So that is something that those statistics that we’ve seen in other countries as well.
QUESTION: Okay. The letter then goes on to say that Israel is one of – that it’s a misperception that there is some intent to keep – for such a – for the denial rate to go high. It also notes that the actual approval rate is 68 percent, which is actually quite high. But it says it’s a misperception that you’re trying to keep young Israeli – or that young Israelis are unwelcome in the United States.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: It says, “Israel is one of our closest friends and allies.” And while that is undoubtedly true, Israel is not actually a treaty ally of the United States. In other words, the United States is not treaty-obligated to come to Israel’s defense, nor is Israel treaty-obligated to come to U.S. defense.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: But in light of the idea that they are a close friend and ally, which they are, I want to know how the treatment that this letter says Israel is now going to get compares to that of countries that actually are treaty allies of the United States and countries which are major non-NATO allies of the United States, which includes Israel.
One, it says that there – that the – there’s been an increased rate of overstays and illegal employment by young Israelis with visas in the United States.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: And that that trend has been going on over a number of years.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: I’m wondering if that does not mean that because of the – that the consular people who are adjudicating these visa applications are not, in fact, doing the right thing based on this overstay and illegal employment information in denying the percentage of visas that – applications that they get.
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you know, visas are obviously adjudicated on a case-by-case basis, and applicants in that process are required to tell the truth on their application and during their interview about the purpose of their travel as well as their length of stay. So if embassies and consulates begin to notice that applicants are violating the terms of their visa, they will more closely scrutinize all applicants to ensure that the applicants are qualified for the visa under U.S. law.
Now all that being said, you don’t want the fact that that’s being looked at to impact individuals who have met every requirement to meet the requirements.
QUESTION: Is there any evidence – does this letter suggest that your initial review of this has uncovered any evidence that Israeli applicants, young Israeli visa applicants, have been improperly denied visas?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the review is ongoing, but not as --
QUESTION: Is there any --
MS. PSAKI: Not that I’m aware of. And just to be clear, there are reviews that happen not just in Embassy Tel Aviv but in embassies and consulates, as you all know, around the world every single day.
QUESTION: I understand.
MS. PSAKI: So --
QUESTION: I understand. But there’ s no evidence that you are aware of so far that’s been uncovered by this initial review that people – that young Israelis are being improperly denied – or unfairly denied visas?
MS. PSAKI: No, but --
MS. PSAKI: -- obviously, you do reviews to ensure that you’re --
MS. PSAKI: -- not only communicating all the information that you can communicate, you can help groups that need more information. And all of these factors are, of course, looked at.
QUESTION: All right. It’s been my understanding, and you just repeated it here again today, that individual visa cases or the visa applications are judged on their own merits on a case-by-case basis.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: But this whole paragraph would seem to suggest that that is not the case, that in fact other factors are weighed in, including the overall – the overstay rate and illegal employment rate. Is that correct? So that when you adjudicate a visa, it’s not just what that person has in their application; it is also country statistics on overstays and illegal employment that also weigh in. So it’s not just each application weighed on its own merits.
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s not how the applications are weighed. It’s – obviously, you look at how visa recipients use their visas. So posts identify trends among their applicant pools and allow them to appropriately adjust the lines of inquiry consular officers pursue during their individual visa interviews. But still, each individual is adjudicated on an individual basis.
QUESTION: Okay. And the letter then goes on to outline some steps that the Secretary is instructing senior staff to get involved in so that – to ensure that no extraneous issue – I won’t go through the whole thing.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Is there any evidence uncovered in this review to suggest that any of the things that people have expressed concerns about are actually happening? In other words, one of the things is to ensure there are no extraneous issues impacting decisions by consular officers at posts with respect to the granting of visas to otherwise qualified applicants. There’s no evidence, I think, from what you’ve told me the first time, that, in fact, that that’s happened.
MS. PSAKI: No, but you conduct the review to ensure, of course.
QUESTION: Right. People who have been rejected, in other words – in this case, young Israelis who have had their visas rejected, have – those rejections have been in accordance with the proper procedure and the law --
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. Yes. Yes.
QUESTION: -- as far as you know. So there’s no admission that there’s anything wrong with the adjudication process as it regards – as it relates to young Israelis in this letter?
MS. PSAKI: Correct.
QUESTION: All right. It says then that we’re – that you’re going to work to expand outreach and assistance to Israelis applying for visas through education of the Israeli public on how to successfully navigate the visa process, which sounds as though – and correct me if I’m wrong – that you’re going to offer to coach visa applicants in Israel on how they can – how their application can be successful? Is that wrong?
MS. PSAKI: It’s not an indication of that. We do outreach around the world.
MS. PSAKI: And certainly, when there are – there is an age gap or an age group where we’re seeing higher rates of refusal, we want to make sure that individuals are aware of what the requirements are for applying, what the consequences are of violating the terms.
MS. PSAKI: And so it’s simply providing information, and that’s something the Embassy in Tel Aviv is doing.
QUESTION: Can you take this question, or find out --
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: -- if there are any other countries in which there is a similar outreach, expanded outreach to visa applicants, whether they’re young or old?
MS. PSAKI: There is.
QUESTION: There are?
MS. PSAKI: There are dozens of countries, absolutely.
QUESTION: Okay. Okay, then I – could you provide or ask --
QUESTION: Could you provide a --
QUESTION: -- a list – for a list?
MS. PSAKI: I think it’s unlikely we provide a list. I’m happy to take the question and see if there’s more we can provide.
QUESTION: It’s just that, like, I mean – frankly, like, every Arab man of that age group gets denied a visa. So it’s – clearly, it’s – you’re looking for, like, ways to increase Israelis to come to this country. Is that basically what the bottom line is?
MS. PSAKI: Well, to be clear, this letter was a response to an inquiry from a member of Congress, as we respond to those inquiries all the time, asking for more information on this program. There is outreach we do about visa information and how to apply for a visa around the world in dozens of countries. Perhaps those inquiries are not coming about other countries as much from members of Congress. That’s a process we undergo and we undertake. When there’s a high rate of application, when there are – when countries have applied for a Visa Waiver Program, when we do work with them closely, oftentimes you do work with them to see what’s happening with the percentages and why. But it’s not different from what we’re doing in other countries. This is simply a letter responding to a specific inquiry.
QUESTION: So are you saying that this letter is not – is actually the letter; it’s not a draft?
MS. PSAKI: I’d have to check on that level of detail for you.
QUESTION: Okay. One of the other things in here is that it says that finally, and perhaps in the long term most importantly, the State Department, together with DHS, is going to create a joint U.S.-Israeli working group to help Israel move toward eligibility for the Visa Waiver Program, including through reduction of the overall refusal rate. I’ve got a couple questions just about this.
Back on March 21st, you said that Israel was currently ineligible for the Visa Waiver Program for a number of reasons: one is the overstay; one is the illegal employment, what we’ve just been going through; but also, most importantly, you said most basically they are ineligible because of the lack of reciprocity for U.S. citizens, particularly U.S. citizens of Palestinian or Arab origin. This working group is designed to do what?
MS. PSAKI: None of that criteria has changed. If those pieces don’t change, whether it’s the tourist visa refusal rate or other requirements to meet the Visa Waiver Program requirements, they won’t be a member of the Visa Waiver Program. This is a process of working with countries to see if those statistics of those pieces can be improved that we also do with a range of countries who have applied for the Visa Waiver Program where there’s a high rate of application.
QUESTION: But is it the case or is it not the case that reciprocity will remain – and until Israel shows or demonstrates reciprocity with all American citizens, that they will be ineligible for the Visa Waiver Program --
MS. PSAKI: That is --
QUESTION: -- or is that something that this working group is going to try to work to ease --
MS. PSAKI: The requirements have not changed.
QUESTION: -- or drop the reciprocity requirement?
MS. PSAKI: No. The requirements have not changed. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State both remain concerned with reciprocal visa free – travel privileges for U.S. citizens due to the unequal treatment that Palestinian Americans and other Arab Americans receive at Israel’s borders and checkpoints. And reciprocity is the most basic condition of the Visa Waiver Program. That hasn’t changed.
QUESTION: And will remain – remain so?
MS. PSAKI: And will remain. That’s right.
QUESTION: And so that’ll be part of the working – the discussions of the working group?
MS. PSAKI: Correct. How to address these issues, how they can improve --
MS. PSAKI: -- the conditions to meet the requirement.
QUESTION: But – okay. But it’s an improvement in their conditions, not an easing --
MS. PSAKI: Correct, yes.
QUESTION: -- of the U.S. criteria.
MS. PSAKI: Yes, absolutely.
QUESTION: Okay. Are you aware of any other working groups, similar working groups for countries, particularly countries that are in the so-called roadmap to the Visa Waiver Program?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not going to give you specific countries, but yes, we do work with other countries who have applied for the Visa Waiver Program who have a high rate of application, about why they aren’t meeting the requirements and how we can – they can take steps forward to meet those requirements.
QUESTION: Okay. In this kind of working group setting, I’m aware of one. Perhaps there’s others.
MS. PSAKI: I’m not sure if it’s called to the same thing, but --
QUESTION: Well, there’s one with Brazil. It was started in 2012.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: I’m sure you’re aware of that. But I don’t believe that – there are several other countries – Argentina, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Poland, Romania, Turkey, and Uruguay, which are all in this so-called roadmap category, countries that have expressed – and Israel is among them – countries that have expressed interest in getting into it. The only other working group that I’ve been able to uncover, similar to this one that you’re starting with Israel, is for Brazil.
What’s interesting about this to me is because several of the countries that are on the roadmap are NATO members.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Poland, Romania, Turkey. And I’m just curious as to why working groups haven’t been established for them.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, it may not be called the same thing, but we work with a range of those countries to address the reasons why they’re not meeting the Visa Waiver Program.
QUESTION: All right.
QUESTION: What about cynics who are saying that you’re – I mean, to put a fine point on I think what he’s asking is there are some cynics that say that you’re doing this because – to get yourself in better graces with Israel, particularly after some kind of negative comments on both sides between the defense minister and Secretary Kerry, obviously – Secretary Kerry’s comments about the kind of breakdown of this recent deal. There are some people that think that you’re doing this to kind of make nice with Israel.
MS. PSAKI: I would say that we were responding to a letter from a member of Congress. The programs and the steps that are outlined in that letter are programs that were already underway. They weren’t an announcement of new initiatives. There are steps we routinely take, whether that is working to increase our educational programs, whether that is working to address a drop in – or an increase in rejections, and we – we’re responding to a request for more information.
QUESTION: Well, hold on. You can’t say this was – that all this stuff was already going on before the outcry?
MS. PSAKI: Yes, yes.
QUESTION: Why doesn’t the letter say the Secretary has directed us to address these matters quickly and comprehensively?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, they’re looking --
QUESTION: I mean, this is a response to a letter that was – that she sent to you.
MS. PSAKI: They’re looking – they’re reviewing the issues that have been raised, but those are already programs that have been underway.
QUESTION: There are 17 countries – Canada is a – we’ll put in a different category because it has its own deal. There are 17 countries that are members of NATO and major – countries identified as major non-NATO allies, which are not in the Visa Waiver Program.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: It would appear that Israel is the only one of them that is getting this special treatment here. Can you – so --
MS. PSAKI: Well, if somebody from Capitol Hill wants to send a letter about Uruguay, I’m sure we can respond to that.
QUESTION: Okay. So it would be – how about my request? I’ll ask right now. I would like to know what’s going on for Albania, Poland, which President Obama promised in 2010 would be made a member of the Visa Waiver Program --
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- but that hasn’t happened yet.
MS. PSAKI: And we remain supportive of that, yes.
QUESTION: So Albania, Poland, Romania --
QUESTION: So what --
QUESTION: Hold on. Just let me finish this list: Albania, Poland, Romania, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Those are the NATO members which are --
MS. PSAKI: Okay. Let me talk to --
QUESTION: -- treaty allies of the United States.
MS. PSAKI: I understand.
QUESTION: You have sent soldiers to die – fight and die --
MS. PSAKI: I know what a NATO ally means. Let me see --
QUESTION: -- in Afghanistan and Iraq.
MS. PSAKI: Let me see, Matt if – and Elise and any others who are interested, if there’s more details on specific countries. I know we’ve been resistant to doing that, but in the circumstances, I will make that ask.
QUESTION: All right. And I would – and then – those – so those are the NATO ones.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: The major non-NATO allies, of which Israel is one, other than Israel, countries that are major non-NATO allies, which are in – which are not in the Visa Waiver Program, are Afghanistan, Argentina, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Philippines, Thailand, and Pakistan. Are any of those countries getting similar treatment that – treatment similar to what Israel is getting, according to this letter?
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: All right. Thanks, everyone.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:04 p.m.)
DPB # 69