1:13 p.m. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Happy Wednesday. I just have one item for all of you at the top. The United States is deeply concerned over reports that rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and other activists have been detained following their participation in a meeting to peacefully mark the upcoming June 4th anniversary of the violent suppression of demonstrations in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. We call on Chinese authorities to release these individuals immediately, remove restrictions on their freedom of movement, and guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments.
Hello, Arshad. Hope you’re feeling better.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Deb is coming in.
QUESTION: Can we stick with China for a sec?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: I don’t know if you saw the reports about the Vietnamese foreign ministry saying that Chinese vessels had rammed some of their ships in the South China Sea. And this is – I recall what you said yesterday about the oil rig. Do you have any fresh comment on this reported incident, which took place, I think, on Sunday?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. I mentioned this a little yesterday, but for those of you who were not here – and bear with me, I’ll just repeat some of the points, but do have some new ones – given the recent history of tensions in the South China Sea, China’s unilateral decision to introduce its oil rig into these disputed waters is provocative and unhelpful to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region.
As you referenced, Arshad, about some of the recent reports, we are strongly concerned about dangerous conduct and intimidation by vessels in the disputed area. We call on all parties to conduct themselves in a safe and appropriate manner, exercise restraint, and address competing sovereignty claims peacefully, diplomatically, and in accordance with international law.
QUESTION: The Chinese Government – Vietnam Government announced China’s basically intentionally (inaudible). What do you think about intentionally? You agree with that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not going to weigh in on that. Obviously, we oppose provocative or unilateral actions that jeopardize peace and security in the South China Sea. And as I referenced, we’re concerned about the dangerous conduct and intimidation by vessels in this disputed area.
QUESTION: Did you see a video which was released by Vietnam foreign – minister of foreign affairs? Did you see that?
MS. PSAKI: Have I seen the video?
QUESTION: Yes, please.
MS. PSAKI: I have not seen the video. I have seen the reports, which is what I’m addressing.
Should we finish this and then we’ll go to you Deb? Does that work? Okay, go ahead in the back.
MS. PSAKI: Do they have the rights to?
MS. PSAKI: I think you’re referring to the --
QUESTION: The fishing --
MS. PSAKI: -- fishing boats. Yes. So we of course have seen those reports that Philippine police have seized Chinese and Philippine fishing boats carrying illegally harvested sea turtles in the South China Sea, approximately 60 miles off the coast of the Philippines, and detained their crews. We urge both sides to work together diplomatically. Given the United States works with the international community to combat wildlife trafficking, we are concerned that the vessels appear to be in engaged in direct harvest of endangered species of sea turtles. Beyond that, I’m not going to weigh in. I would point you to the authorities there.
Go ahead, Deb.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. Is there anything more that you can tell us about what the Administration’s message is going to be to the opposition leader during his many-day visit here? Assad’s forces sort of scored a pretty big victory today in Homs, and just across the street this morning the Syrian opposition leader renewed his call for weapons to, quote unquote, neutralize Assad’s air force. Is that still a non-starter?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: What more can you tell us about --
MS. PSAKI: Well, good to see you. Let me first say that I don’t believe we’ve announced, but the Secretary’s meeting with SOC President Jarba tomorrow afternoon, so he’ll be here meeting with the Secretary. I have, of course, seen reports of President Jarba’s comments. I believe they’ll certainly be talking about a range of issues, including our shared concerns about humanitarian access and the importance of implementing the UN Security Council resolution; the fact that people across Syria are literally starving; efforts to work with the international community, including an upcoming meeting next week of the London 11 to continue to support and coordinate efforts to provide necessary resources to the moderate opposition; and efforts the moderate opposition itself is taking to continue to expand and strengthen their own leadership. So I expect they’ll have a range of topics on the agenda tomorrow.
QUESTION: The Syrian leader did thank the United States for all the humanitarian support and all the political support that he’s received at the UN, but he said that until there’s a change of power – of balance on the ground, he said there’s just no way for a political solution to have an opportunity to succeed. So, I mean, that’s his main thrust.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. Well --
QUESTION: Because they need weapons, they need --
MS. PSAKI: I’ve certainly seen his comments. Obviously, we’re committed – we remain committed to continuing to build the capacity of the moderate opposition, including through the provision of assistance to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition. As we’ve consistently said, we’re not going to detail every element of that assistance. We’re certainly aware of their comments. We’re working closely with the international community, as is evidenced by the fact that the Secretary will be traveling next week for a meeting to discuss these very issues.
QUESTION: But can I (inaudible)? But even earlier this week, we had – we spoke with a senior Administration official who was talking about the visit, and the Secretary himself has said that without a qualitative change of the military balance on the ground, that’s not going to create the conditions to change President Assad’s calculus to forge a political transition. So, I mean, can’t you acknowledge that without more sophisticated weapons, training, all this kind of stuff, you’re never going to get that – those conditions for a negotiated solution that you seek?
MS. PSAKI: Well, you’re familiar with what our view is, and that, as you know, there is no military solution to the situation --
QUESTION: There’s no ultimate military solution.
MS. PSAKI: -- on the ground. Let me finish. But we still believe that a political process and the pursuit of a political outcome is the best way to proceed here. And certainly, we understand what’s happening on the ground. We understand that there have been ups and downs in what’s happening on the battlefield. But we still believe that the way to bring an end to this is a political process, and obviously that needs to begin in order to see an end to that process.
QUESTION: I understand. But you’re saying you’re just – like, a political process doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and the Secretary himself and yourself and this Administration official this week said that that – there’s – you’re not going to have the conditions for such a political process unless President Assad changes his calculus that, oh, you know what, I can’t win this, there really is no military solution, or whatever reason that’s going to cause him to engage seriously in a political process in a way that he hasn’t yet –
MS. PSAKI: Well –
QUESTION: -- because he doesn’t – his calculus hasn’t changed.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Elise, obviously there is – one of the reasons that there’s going to be a meeting next week is to discuss how the international community can continue to support the moderate opposition, including the vetted members of the armed opposition. So we’ll continue these discussions, but also, we still believe that political pressure and having unity among the international community to convey the atrocities of the Assad regime is part of our calculus in our efforts here as well. It’s not just what’s happening on the --
QUESTION: What kind of political pressure are you – do you think that you could possibly put on President Assad that hasn’t worked until now?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Elise, there’s a range of tools at our disposal. We’ll continue to work with the international community to determine what the next best steps are.
QUESTION: Can I ask you – you said that you realize that there have been ups and downs on the battlefield, but in the year since the Secretary – and it is I think just about a year since the Secretary announced the plans for Geneva II in Moscow – the military trend I think has been pretty steadily downward for the opposition, culminating with, as Elise referenced, the – their apparent evacuation from Homs, which, as you know, was one of the original sites of the uprising against – first of the demonstrations, and then of the uprising against Assad. So what are the ups in the last year, or where are there places where you feel like things have actually gone the way of the opposition on the battlefield?
MS. PSAKI: I’m just not going to give a battlefield analysis of this day or the last six months from the podium. Obviously, as you know, there have been a range of factors that have been contributed to supporting the regime, and whether that is support from the Iranians or support with arms from the Russians and others. That has certainly not helped the opposition, but we still continue to believe that there is a path here to resolve this politically.
QUESTION: And can you explain why – and I know this is your position and has been it for a long time – but why it is the position of the U.S. Government that providing lethal assistance to, in an open manner, to the opposition is not a good idea?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you know, we’re not going to detail now or we have never in the past what types of assistance we have been or are open to providing. Regardless of that, the larger position of the Administration is that there’s no military solution to this conflict, because that only furthers the bloodshed and suffering of the Syrian people. And that is part of the calculus through which decisions are made.
QUESTION: Reason I asked it and the reason I phrased it the way I did when I talked about open lethal assistance is – I’m not asking about classified programs. But it has been the declaratory position of the U.S. Government going back several years now that it did not believe it should be openly arming the opposition. And even Secretary Kerry himself in a round table with reporters about six weeks ago, I think, acknowledged that one of the reasons that Geneva II hadn’t worked was that quite soon after it was announced a year ago, the Syrian authorities, with the assistance of Hezbollah and arms from elsewhere that you just referenced, had gone on the offensive.
And so the question that I have is fairly simple: Why is it still – even if you don’t believe that there’s a purely military solution – Secretary Kerry in those comments made clear that there’s both a political and a military side to this --
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- and that what tipped the scales a year ago, or 11 months ago in June, was that the government raised the upper hand. Sorry for going on so long, but why is it that it is the judgment of the U.S. Government that you should not openly provide weaponry or any other kinds of lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Arshad, I think the best way I can answer this is by outlining what our objectives are as it relates to the conflict in Syria. One is to counter violent extremism and prevent the establishment of a terrorist safe haven. Two is avoiding the collapse of the Syrian state and its institutions. Three is preventing the transfer or use of chemical weapons. Four is to bolster the security and stability of Syria’s neighbors. Five is to alleviate humanitarian suffering, and six is to work towards a negotiated transition.
I’m not going to outline further what kinds of assistance and how we provide assistance than I already have from the podium.
QUESTION: If the position --
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: -- of the Administration is that there should be a political solution, but that also – given the asymmetry on the ground, which is how everyone refers to it – a political solution isn’t likely under the circumstances, how do you propose to change that asymmetry without weapons? I mean, it seems --
MS. PSAKI: Well, we don’t believe a political solution is unlikely. We believe that’s the only path to ending the conflict on the ground.
QUESTION: But given the situation on the ground – and officials have said this, that that needs to be changed in order for Bashar al-Assad to change his calculus – otherwise the conditions aren’t there for a political solution. So they’ve said the conditions aren’t there for a political solution unless that changes, and yet there’s no obvious way that the policies towards changing those conditions --
MS. PSAKI: Well, there’ve been a range of proposals put out there. As I mentioned, there’ll be a meeting coming up next week with a range of important players in the international community on this. And we’ll continue to discuss what the best steps forward are.
QUESTION: What about the effectiveness of the sanctions in the past three years? Have they really made a difference, especially when you consider that to observers looking at what happened today in Homs, that Assad’s patience in dragging out this civil war may finally be coming to his regime’s advantage? He’s been able to maintain supplying his troops with a lot of firepower and we’ve all seen the carnage that’s resulted from it. Can this Administration argue that the sanctions actually helped weaken the Assad regime?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we would certainly argue that, Roz. But obviously, as you know, they don’t happen in a vacuum. We still strongly believe that sanctions are incredibly effective and have been. And obviously, we could talk through a range of examples, including Syria. But we’re also talking about a situation where arms from Hezbollah, from Iran, from the Russians, from others have helped boost the Assad regime. And there are a range of factors that go beyond addressing the question of the – of whether sanctions alone can end the conflict that’s happening on the ground.
QUESTION: Can you walk us through more of the Administration’s thinking on why not helping the Free Syrian Army – I understand the concern about weapons getting into the hands of people who may eventually, if not already enemies of the United States. But why the U.S. has not done more to help stand up the Free Syria Army. Absent the --
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would agree with the premise of your --
QUESTION: Yeah, but absent the Administration’s concerns about --
MS. PSAKI: I would agree – I would disagree, Roz, with the premise of your question. I think one of the points that President Jarba made and virtually anyone in the international community would make is that the United States has been one of the biggest supporters – whether it’s politically, whether it’s financially, in a range of manners – of the moderate opposition, including the Free Syrian Army, including a range of officials over the course of the last few years.
So we understand what they have requested and there may be disagreement about what we should or shouldn’t be providing, but the notion that we haven’t been a strong supporter is simply incorrect, and that’s not a point that they’ve made either.
QUESTION: But if I’m a mother who is in a part of Damascus that is repeatedly shelled and I am unable, for whatever factors, to get my family to the border into a refugee camp in Turkey or Iraq, I’m not seeing where the U.S. support is actually making a difference in my family’s life. What do you say to those people who are still dealing with the civil war who are being shelled because the government thinks that they are harboring people who are trying to overthrow the government?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, Roz, that there’s – it would be challenging to find a country that’s been more supportive of the effort of the moderate opposition than the United States, whether it’s humanitarian assistance, nonlethal assistance, a range of assistance I’m not going to detail from the podium. We continue to stand with the moderate opposition. That’s why President Jarba is here on an extensive visit. He’ll be meeting with Secretary Kerry tomorrow. As the White House has confirmed, he’ll be meeting with President Obama at some point during his trip, and we’ll continue to work with our partners in the international community to determine what the best steps forward are.
QUESTION: But even to the point about humanitarian aid, several hours ago the Syrian military was preventing humanitarian convoys from actually accessing a part of the area which it had agreed it would allow access. Again, I mean, not to --
MS. PSAKI: Well, Roz, no one is saying that they’re satisfied with the situation on the ground. The Secretary isn’t satisfied, the President isn’t satisfied. I don’t think that that is the point we’re conveying. But we are working every day to use every tool in our toolbox to address the suffering and the bloodshed that’s happening in Syria, whether that is pressuring through the UN Security Council or through our international partners for access to humanitarian assistance, whether that’s through resolutions through the UN Security Council, whether it’s working with our partners to coordinate on aid and a range of types of assistance. This is something that we’re working on every single day. It’s a very difficult, horrific situation happening on the ground, with humanitarian – the humanitarian situation and the number of lives that have been lost. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not continuing to work on it every single day.
QUESTION: Can we change the subject?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: One more on Syria?
MS. PSAKI: One more on Syria.
QUESTION: And then – President Jarba also in his remarks said that they can commit to maintaining antiaircraft weaponry in their hands and commit to having it only be used by those who are authorized and trained to have them. But does – is the Administration’s reluctance to provide this kind of weaponry a sign that you don’t have much confidence in their ability to do so?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, as I said a few minutes ago, I would just reiterate the fact that we are committed to building the capacity of the members of the opposition – of the moderate opposition, including through the provision of assistance to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition. I’m just not going to outline further what factors we consider and what kind of assistance we’re providing.
New topic? Oh, Samir. Go ahead.
QUESTION: The Russians are supporting the elections in Syria, which is part of Assad’s strategy to sabotage the political solution.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Are you still on good terms with the Russians on the Geneva process, or you closed the door with them?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you know, the Geneva process has been on a hiatus and we have expressed concerns when warranted about the actions of Russia, and obviously there are ongoing arms supplies from Russia to the Assad regime as it continued – as the Assad regime continues to brutalize its population. And that only serves to reinforce and support this type of intransigence.
But as Secretary Kerry said yesterday, obviously it’s a complete conflict, or contradiction, I should say, that president – that the Russians are supporting and encouraging elections in Syria while the violence on the ground, as many of you have referenced today, is horrific, and the bloodshed and suffering of the Syrian people continues, while at the same time they are trying to delay and hinder elections in Ukraine. So with that, we have a fundamental issue.
QUESTION: Can you talk about President Putin’s comments on the elections? He said --
MS. PSAKI: Do you want to go to Ukraine now?
QUESTION: Yeah, is that okay?
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
QUESTION: More on Syria. Is the United States afraid of fighting a proxy war with Russia in Syria?
MS. PSAKI: Afraid? I think the issue here, Lucas, is: What do we think the most effective strategy is on the ground? I outlined what our objectives are and that’s what we’re making decisions through.
QUESTION: Can I just ask a quick one on a different subject?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Because I know Ukraine will go on for a while.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Go ahead. Go ahead.
QUESTION: On Pakistan. Can you say anything about the FBI agent that was arrested and whether you think that this will be resolved kind of quickly? Do you find that you’re getting good cooperation from the Pakistanis on it?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we are coordinating with Pakistani authorities to resolve this matter. This individual detained is an employee of the FBI who was on a temporary duty assignment to provide routine assistance to the legal attache at the U.S. mission. But we are coordinating closely to resolve this manner with authorities, and we are hopeful in that regard.
QUESTION: Are the Pakistanis cooperating? Are you getting --
MS. PSAKI: We are working closely with them, yes. Mm-hmm.
Should we go to Ukraine? Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. The – President Putin’s comments in which he says that the election, the May 25th election, is a step in the right direction, although that’s qualified, but at least he’s not saying it’s meaningless. And he’s also urging the separatists to postpone their independence referendums this weekend. Did you have a reaction to that? Is this a significant shift in position?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve made clear that we believe the proposed May 11th referendum are both illegal and illegitimate. And we need to see more from President Putin than simply calling for it to be postponed. As it relates to the May 25th elections, as you know, we are strong supporters and believe this is one of the best steps forward for the people of Ukraine. And we believe and we would call on Russia to use its influence to – with the militant groups to ensure a safe and secure environment for all Ukrainians to cast their ballots on May 25th. And that’s how they can deliver on these words.
QUESTION: Would you call his comments, this – what seems to be a shift in position, would you say it’s a positive step?
MS. PSAKI: It is a helpful step, but again, there is far more that President Putin and the Russians can do to de-escalate the situation and to ensure safe elections.
QUESTION: But what more do you want them to do specifically on the – because you said there’s more that they can do beyond calling for the postponement. Would you like to see them call for the – for not holding at all of an independence referendum? I mean, what more do you want?
MS. PSAKI: Sure, we – certainly. We don’t believe they’re legal; we don’t believe they’re legitimate. Also, I think they can endorse Ukraine’s democratic process. There have been a number of steps that have been taken on the ground. Somebody asked this yesterday and I’m happy to outline some of that here as well. They can support the right of all Ukrainians to participate in the May 25th elections. They can refrain from any interference with election preparations. They can use their influence on the armed militants who are taking steps to interfere with that preparation process.
QUESTION: One other thing on this. I know the White House has already commented on this; I just want to make sure the situation hasn’t changed in the 45 minutes or so.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. Sure.
QUESTION: Have you seen any signs that would confirm that Russia – or that would show that Russia is actually pulling back its troops?
MS. PSAKI: We have not seen evidence of such movement to date.
QUESTION: And can I add to that --
QUESTION: Can I go back to the referendum, or --
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: Can I add to his question?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Would that change the plans that they’ll be discussing next week?
MS. PSAKI: I’m sorry, which plans?
QUESTION: The removing of the troops from the border.
MS. PSAKI: Well, there are a range of de-escalatory steps that Russia certainly could take. Obviously, moving troops from the border would be one of them. But as you know, Russia made similar claims back in March and didn’t deliver on that promise at that time.
QUESTION: I just want to go back to the – President Putin’s comments on the referendum. I mean, these comments were made right after his meeting with the President of the OSCE, and he said that more dialogue needed to be had on this particular issue. And – I mean, he wasn’t specific, but one thing that the U.S. and the Ukrainians have also said that it’s possible that a referendum in the east could be held if there was more national dialogue about it --
MS. PSAKI: If the Ukrainian Government is a part of the decision-making process and supports an effort along those lines. Obviously, that’s a decision for them to make. And this --
QUESTION: But I’m just saying, like, don’t you think that instead of – I understand that more needs to be done, and clearly it does, but do you think it’s counterproductive to not, like – even if they’re small steps and more need to be done, that you kind of signal that it’s a positive first step and then say that more needs to be done? Like, even if the Russians were taking kind of small steps, it seems as if you’re dismissive of them.
MS. PSAKI: I said the comments, while helpful, they don’t – there are still efforts underway to hinder the preparations for the May 25th elections. And that’s what we feel the focus should be on. There have been extensive preparations by the Ukrainian Government across Ukraine, and those preparations are on track countrywide, whether that’s voter registration, printing and distribution of ballots, the forming of local election bodies, the deployment of election observers. And Ukrainians are working to ensure every vote is – every voter is able to vote, including through the establishment of alternative polling sites, including for those in Crimea.
I think the vast – I think sometimes what we lose sight of is that the vast majority of Ukraine is – remains calm, and there are a couple of areas where, obviously, there are actions by armed militants that have raised our concerns. But we still continue to believe that elections are the right step. They are one of the next steps that should happen in Ukraine.
QUESTION: Since you brought that point up, some observers have suggested that the amount of ethnic tension caused by Russian meddling in the past several months may actually be coming to a boil. Is that the assessment of this building, and if you could explain what the reasoning is behind the assessment?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not sure what you’re referring to. Can you be a little more specific?
QUESTION: That particularly in light of the incident in Odesa over the weekend, that seemed to be people turning on other people – people who may have been their neighbors, their teachers, relatives – because of some perceived ethnic alliance. And their assessment is that the social fabric of all one people may have been riven irreparably.
MS. PSAKI: I haven’t seen those specific assessments, Roz. Maybe they’re your own assessments. But what is happening by – the Ukrainian Government is taking steps now. They are – actually today I believe, the full cabinet is holding a session in the city of Kharkiv to continue its dialogue on constitutional reform with the regions. Certainly, ensuring people know their voices can be heard and that a unified Ukraine that is diverse and respects the rights of all minorities and all people is the message that is being sent and will continue to be sent.
QUESTION: Jen, I just have a question --
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: -- about the triggers for sanctions that would be implemented if Russia – if Donetsk did go forward with this referendum. I know the Secretary spoke to this yesterday, but Assistant Secretary Nuland also mentioned in her testimony in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the holding of the referendum plus the Crimea-esque interference of Russian troops after that would be the trigger for sanctions. So does that mean simply the holding of the referendum would not trigger sanctions, or would either of those things happening be a trigger of more sanctions?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I certainly understand the desire for everyone to look for the silver bullet that will kind of flip the switch. I understand that. What I would say is that we’re looking at a range of factors, including escalatory steps that Russia has taken, has indicated they may take, and those are all factors. We continue to have a range of tools at our disposal, including sectoral sanctions which, as you know, the Secretary discussed with EU High Represent Ashton yesterday. And there’s a meeting early next week with a range of European countries on that front. But we’re looking at a range of steps on the ground. Yes, we’ve said that, obviously, if Russian troops were to move into Ukraine, that would cross – that would be a significantly – a significant escalatory step. If they take steps to hinder the elections or to prevent the elections, that would be a significant step. But I can’t give you an exact criteria for what will happen if, because we look at all of these factors as we make decisions.
Go ahead. Ukraine? Ukraine.
MS. PSAKI: No Ukraine? Shall we finish Ukraine? Go ahead.
QUESTION: This may have changed, but I believe it was yesterday Sergey -- speaking about Geneva II, I think, or is it Geneva III, Sergey Lavrov had said that the separatists should be included in any discussion. Do you have any more information about that or --
MS. PSAKI: Well, there isn’t a meeting that has yet planned – been planned. Obviously, there are a range of discussions going on between the United States and the Europeans and others about what the next steps should be. But we continue to believe that the legitimate Ukrainian Government represents Ukraine, and I would expect any form of a meeting they would be the representatives and not others.
So are we done with Ukraine? Shall we move on to a new topic? Go ahead.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: Hi, by the way.
MS. PSAKI: Hello.
QUESTION: Can you repeat once more what the support looks like that you’re going to provide to the Nigerian Government?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. I have a little bit of an update too, so maybe I’ll do this all in one. As we announced yesterday and the Secretary announced, we have offered assistance to the Nigerian Government. President Jonathan accepted our offer of assistance, and we’re moving swiftly to put in place a team at our Embassy in Abuja that can provide military, law enforcement, and information-sharing assistance in support of Nigeria’s efforts to find and free the girls.
Our Embassy in Abuja is standing up an interdisciplinary team – this is what we specifically offered – to coordinate with the Nigerian Government. This morning, our ambassador met with the Nigerian national security advisor. AFRICOM will send a team shortly to assess Nigerian needs. Our legal attache has been in touch with Nigerian police. The FBI stands ready to send additional personnel to provide technical and investigatory assistance, including expertise on hostage negotiations, and USAID is working with partners on what we can do to be ready to provide victims assistance.
So that all falls into the various categories I mentioned yesterday as a part of a, interdisciplinary team that would have representatives from different government agencies.
QUESTION: A follow-up question on that one: When you look at the terror group Boko Haram and you look at other terror groups you might be concerned about anywhere in Africa whatsoever, where do you rank this terror group in terms of your concerns?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to do a ranking, but I will tell you that obviously, the fact that we designated Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization last year and we’ve increased our efforts cooperating on counterterrorism in many parts of Northern Africa, not just Nigeria, tells you what you need to know about our level of concern and our focus on Boko Haram.
QUESTION: One more on the assistance?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Is there enough intelligence either from the U.S. or from Nigeria suggesting that all of these students are being held together? I ask only because there’s so much emphasis on dealing with hostage negotiations and trying to provide victim assistance. It sounds as if there’s already a sense of where these girls actually are.
MS. PSAKI: I’m just not going to get into that level of detail, Ros. Obviously, we have a range of capabilities. We’ve made an offer, of course, to cooperate, and we expect that will be – (cell phone rings) – oh, that’s quite a festive ring – (laughter) – that we expect that things will be proceeding in days, not weeks. But I don’t want to get into, from the podium, an assessment of where we think things stand on that front.
QUESTION: And do you have anything more on reports in that same province of Nigeria that there may have been another major attack launched by Boko Haram today?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything on that report. Let me check, Ros, with our team and see if there’s more we have on that.
On Nigeria? Go ahead.
QUESTION: Would you categorize this assistance as a U.S. military operation?
MS. PSAKI: I would categorize it as an interdisciplinary team to coordinate with Nigerian authorities. There are military – military is a part of that, and as I mentioned, in addition to, of course, AFRICOM sending a team, we have a broad range of resources within the United States Government we’ll offer.
QUESTION: Now, when you’re sending this team, I mean, is it your expectation that they’re going to be able to get there and start working right away, or do you think that once they get on the ground, there will be like – then there will be negotiations about the scope and breadth of their work?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we expect additional personnel to be on the ground arriving in the next few days. Obviously, this is in the interests of the Nigerian Government to accept every aspect of our assistance. They conveyed that they were willing to do that yesterday, and it continues to be in their interest to be as cooperative as possible. So --
QUESTION: I understand it’s in their – obviously in their interest, but is it your expectation that once they go, then negotiations will begin on what they’re actually able to do? Or is it your understanding from your discussions with the Nigerians that once they go, the agreement is that they’ll be able to do the work that you propose?
MS. PSAKI: Yes. Our understanding is the agreement is they’ll be able to do the work that we’ve proposed. Naturally, as a part of that, there’s an assessment period of what the needs are and how we can best assist, and the Nigerian Government continues to have the lead. It’s not, of course, a unilateral process we’re conveying here.
QUESTION: Right. There just has been a kind of frustration expressed by some in this government that while the Nigerians have in – it’s more that they’ve, in theory, accepted your help --
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- but that it’s going to be, like, more of a kind of tough negotiation in terms of what you’re actually going to be able to do on the ground.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I believe the Secretary, from his phone call, feels it wasn’t that they just accepted in theory. They did accept our assistance, and there will need to be a discussion about how to best coordinate moving forward, but that will be happening in the coming days.
Catherine, go ahead, and then we’ll go to you next, Arshad.
QUESTION: Can I just ask you a couple of specifics? DOD says the team is going to be about 10 people. How many people do you expect overall? How many people are already there? Any sorts of numbers that you can give us, and a timetable on when additional people will be coming in?
MS. PSAKI: In a matter of days, additional people will be coming in. Obviously, there are some agencies who are able to assess the specific numbers, but some of this we’re still evaluating, and part of that is what’s being discussed through interagency meetings in preparation.
QUESTION: And has Secretary Kerry spoken with President Jonathan today?
MS. PSAKI: He has not spoken with him today, no.
QUESTION: Any more planned calls?
MS. PSAKI: Not that I’m aware of, but we can keep you all updated on that.
QUESTION: And then the British are also sending in a small team. Can you talk a little bit about – they said in their statement that they would be working with a U.S. team. Can you talk a little bit about that cooperation?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any other specifics. Obviously, we work very closely with the British in a range of these efforts, and I’m certain that our interdisciplinary team that has a range of assets will be coordinating with those that they send, but some of that is still being worked out given this was just announced yesterday.
QUESTION: Another question on the troops: The Pentagon went to great lengths to stress that these 10 uniformed personnel would not be the first wave of a larger U.S. military presence, certainly there would be no special forces involved in this operation. Was there ever any discussion, any offer from the U.S. to Nigeria about making many more troops available to help the Nigerian army? And if there was any resistance from the Nigerians, was that expected?
MS. PSAKI: Roz, I would – not that I’m aware of, but I would point you to DOD on any questions about that.
QUESTION: Jen, I understand you may not be able to give a precise number, but will the additional U.S. personnel going into Nigeria, including law enforcement, military, presumably FBI or others – is it going to be dozens, do you think, or --
MS. PSAKI: Let me – it’s a fair question. I just don’t want to put a number on it before we have a full assessment, so let me see where we are and if there’s a number we can get that around, or a broad number, I should say.
QUESTION: Jen --
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: -- when you say that agencies like USAID stand ready to help, does that mean that there have been specific requests by the Nigerian Government for specific help that they can provide? Or are they just waiting for the --
MS. PSAKI: It means we are assessing what the specific needs are. And obviously, USAID is ready to help if there are specific USAID needs, and as you know, they’re very well versed in getting those out as quickly as possible. But again, we’re still assessing at this point where we can help specifically.
QUESTION: And – yeah, sorry. I didn’t mean just USAID, but it sounds like a lot of this is still rather conditional, the legal attaches and --
MS. PSAKI: I wouldn’t characterize it that way. What it is, is we are – obviously, the Nigerian Government has the lead in this effort, and we’re not putting together a unilateral interagency or interdisciplinary team here. We are there to assist and fill in where they have needs. So we need to assess that and determine where they have needs and integrate ours as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: So you’re – you’ll do the assessment, or they’ll do the assessment and tell you what they need?
MS. PSAKI: We’ll work with them.
QUESTION: A joint assessment.
MS. PSAKI: We’ll jointly work with them to do that.
QUESTION: What took so long in designating Boko Haram a terrorist organization?
MS. PSAKI: Well obviously, Lucas, as you know, we did that last fall, if I’m remembering correctly --
MS. PSAKI: -- in November. And there are a range of criteria that go into a decision like that. I don’t have anything to lay out for you in terms of internal decision making, but perhaps we can connect you with our CT team, and if they have more to convey, they’ll be – they’re the experts.
QUESTION: They have been killing and kidnapping people for a long time, for years.
MS. PSAKI: Well, obviously, designating them sends a strong message about how concerned we are about them.
Do we – Nigeria? Should we finish Nigeria? Go ahead.
QUESTION: One last question following up.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: So the decision to send some help and provide some help to the Nigerian Government, has this been taken due to the atrocity of this crime now, or because, as you said, they’ve been going on for a while, for years murdering people and that you’ve been watching them for a long time?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think it’s important to note that we have been providing a range of assistance before the announcement yesterday. So that was specifically an interdisciplinary team related to this horrific kidnapping of the young girls in Nigeria. But to date, our counterterrorism assistance to Nigeria because of threats like Boko Haram has focused on information sharing and improving Nigeria’s forensics and investigative capacity. We’ve been working with them to strengthen their criminal justice system, increase confidence in the government by supporting its efforts to hold those responsible for violence accountable. We’ve provided approximately $3 million just last year in law enforcement assistance to Nigeria to help boost up their capacity.
So we have been concerned and have provided a range of assistance, and been working closely on counterterrorism efforts long before yesterday. That was just a specific announcement as it related to these recent tragic events.
QUESTION: Change topic?
MS. PSAKI: Do we have any more on Nigeria?
QUESTION: Yeah, one question more.
MS. PSAKI: One more. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. know why this happened? Is there any intelligence on this? This is a problem internally inside Nigeria, or this is a message to the world, or what’s the reason of this?
MS. PSAKI: I can’t do an analysis for you on that. Obviously, Boko Haram, as many of you have noted, has been guilty of a range of horrific – what am I trying to say?
MS. PSAKI: Horrific acts – thank you, Arshad, for the assist – horrific acts in the past, and I don’t think we’re going to analyze the steps of a terrorist.
QUESTION: But the fact that you’ve said yourselves that you think that they have taken them to neighboring countries, does that suggest that there is kind of a growth of the group beyond Nigeria?
MS. PSAKI: I’m happy to talk to our C team – CT team and see if that is their analysis. Obviously, we’ve talked about Boko Haram and its proliferation in past months.
Go ahead, Arshad.
QUESTION: Yeah, just a short one.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: The Saudi editor of an internet forum that he founded to discuss the role of religion in Saudi Arabia today was sentenced to – or is reported to have been sentenced to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: He was previously sentenced, I think, to about half that, and then that was set aside and he was retried, and this is the result. Do you have any concern about the severity of the sentence, and also of the freedom of speech issues that this might raise?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t have specific details on this case, so let me venture to get a few more of those for you. But – or you seem to have a number of details. I should say let me talk to our team about it. But I will say, obviously, over the course of last week, every single day we had two journalists we highlighted given our ongoing concerns about media freedom around the world, and whether that’s their ability to report or your colleagues’ abilities to – ability to report around the world, or unjust sentences and severity of sentences, or even arrests to begin with.
So that is, as you know, universally our view. Let me look more specifically into this case. But I think there’s no question we’re – we would be concerned about it.
Do we have more on – new topic. Go ahead, Samir.
MS. PSAKI: Lebanon, mm-hmm.
QUESTION: The Lebanese parliament for the third time by today failed to elect a new president. Do you have any comment on the situation?
MS. PSAKI: I did see those reports, Samir. Let me – I have something on this. I don’t have it with me, so let me venture to get that for you. Obviously, we will allow the process to see itself through, but I will get you some more comprehensive comments after the briefing.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: The Foreign Minister was here last week; there have been Egyptian officials around. And their message, in terms of American concerns about democracy, seems to be essentially we’re going to be holding elections and then we have a brand new constitution and we’re – our parliament will change laws according to that.
Did you – have you been telling – giving them any specific pointers – not pointers, but like requirements that they would have to meet in order to satisfy American concerns? Like, if they hold a free and fair election they get a – or, I mean, have they --
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. I mean, it’s not just about – democracy is not just about having an election, right? It is about governing with democratic ideals, which allow for freedom of speech, freedom of protest, freedom of expression, and we have had concerns, as you know, about all of those issues, but also issues of inclusivity and allowing for civil society groups and international NGOs to play a role in these efforts. So I would say there’s a range of steps that certainly we’ve continued to encourage the Egyptian Government to take, and those are all steps that the Secretary outlined in his meeting last week as well.
QUESTION: And just to follow up on that, the – one of the arguments they gave for the kind of excessive security crackdown – and we’re not talking about the Muslim Brotherhood and that here, because they go on to sort of terrorism stuff there – but in terms of the demonstrators and so on, they said this is a transitional period. We’ve been facing extra chaos, extra terrorism, whatever, so that’s why the excess is needed. Do you think there’s any credibility in that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, obviously we’re familiar with the security situation in Egypt, and as you know we’ve taken steps to help the Egyptians bolster their own security against the growth of extremism, et cetera, which we announced just a couple of weeks ago. But that doesn’t justify the steps that we’ve seen, whether it’s a crackdown on freedom of media or protesters or on NGOs or all of the issues that we’ve regularly raised concerns about.
QUESTION: On the flipside --
MS. PSAKI: Oh, Egypt? Okay, Egypt.
QUESTION: Yes. On Egypt.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: Senator Leahy, chairman of Foreign Relations, put a hold on some of the aid that had been previously designated for the Egyptian Government. Has this building been able to persuade him to release the hold?
MS. PSAKI: I think you would know if that were the case. Obviously, we continue to consult with member of Congress – members of Congress, including Senator Leahy, but I don’t have an additional update in that regard.
QUESTION: Can we go to (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: Egypt?
QUESTION: Can we go to (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. I have three interrelated questions. First one is: Co-chair from the United States of the Minsk Group spoke today at Carnegie on the U.S. policy towards the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. And he basically reiterated the U.S. position on the conflict. Why is this statement being released now? I mean, is there something new? Is U.S. stepping up efforts to resolve the conflict? Can we expect something new from the United States in the foreseeable future?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you know, we often publicize events or speeches that ambassadors or senior officials are doing, and this was the case. I think one of your colleagues may have asked about this yesterday. As you know, the United States is co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group. Ambassador Warlick gave a speech at the Carnegie Endowment, which you referenced. In his speech, he outlined U.S. policy and the well-established principles that will serve as the foundation of a peaceful settlement. I don't believe it was meant to announce anything new other than to reiterate what our longstanding position is and our commitment to this process.
QUESTION: One more question. On May 5th, the Committee on Rules of the state assembly of California, at the behest of the Armenian interest groups, passed a draft bill calling U.S. Government to recognize the illegal regime in Nagorno-Karabakh. So they sent it to the floor of the assembly, which is being voted on tomorrow, May 8th --
MS. PSAKI: In California.
QUESTION: In California. So that’s – I understand that’s the state legislature, but does the Department have any position on that? And if you do, are you going to reach out to the assembly leadership?
MS. PSAKI: I am not familiar with the specific state legislative process or bill, so let me check and see if there’s any comment we have on that.
QUESTION: Can we go to (inaudible)?
QUESTION: Will you take the question, please?
MS. PSAKI: On this topic? Okay. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Is there any link between what’s going on in Ukraine and this new escalation of peace negotiation process in Nagorno-Karabakh? Is any rising concern in this capital that there may be another military arms standoff in the region, and this is what you are trying to prevent by activating --
MS. PSAKI: I am not aware of any link. Obviously, we remain committed to the OSCE Minsk Group process and we remain a co-chair. And you’re familiar with our efforts in Ukraine. I’m not aware of a link between the two.
Should we go to a new topic? China?
QUESTION: (Inaudible) one on China.
MS. PSAKI: Well, do we have any more on the topic I was just talking about? No? Okay, go ahead.
QUESTION: I just wanted to clarify the concerns you raised before about Chinese activities in the South China Sea. Have you conveyed those directly to the Chinese Government through official channels?
MS. PSAKI: As I understand it, we have, but I don’t have any other additional details on that.
QUESTION: Do you know if Secretary Kerry raised it in his meeting yesterday with the international department director of the party?
MS. PSAKI: The focus of that meeting was on – mainly on North Korea.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: Did he cover the (inaudible), or not at all?
MS. PSAKI: That wasn’t the focus of the meeting or the intended focus of the meeting.
QUESTION: But you don’t know if it covered it, or you just --
MS. PSAKI: I know it didn’t.
QUESTION: It didn’t. Thank you. That’s all I wanted. Very easy. (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: I think I just told him that.
QUESTION: The readout from the meeting?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. As you know, Secretary Kerry met with Wang Jiarui yesterday, director of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee International Liaison Department. They exchanged views on U.S.-China relations as well as North Korea. That was the primary topic of the meeting.
QUESTION: On the South China Sea --
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: -- let me ask a little bit more about South China Sea. I don’t know about the U.S. position to the nine-dot-line. As you know, China claimed they have a right to control within the nine-dot-line which covered 80 percent or 90 percent of the South China Sea. What’s the position to that nine-dot-line?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you know, these are disputed waters. Vietnam has declared a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone based on its – on its coastline, in accordance with the Law of the Sea. And we call on China – obviously, China has a different view on that. That’s why we continue to call on both sides not to take provocative or unilateral actions, given this is occurring in disputed waters near those islands. And these events, of course, point to the need for claimants to clarify their claims in accordance with international law and reach agreement of what types of activities should be permissible within disputed areas such as these waters.
QUESTION: So China’s State Council Yang Jiechi called yesterday to the Vietnam deputy prime minister and claimed the rig was operating within the Chinese water. So it’s a kind of different – it doesn’t match the U.S. position. What’s a comment on that?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think I have any further comment than what I’ve offered. Obviously, they have different views. But we are strongly concerned about dangerous conduct and intimidation by vessels in the disputed area, and we call on all parties to conduct themselves in a safe and appropriate manner, to exercise restraint, and to address competing sovereignty claims peacefully.
QUESTION: One more thing.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: And the Chinese press secretary – no, spokesperson announced yesterday these issues is nothing to do with United States and U.S. doesn’t have any right to say anything about Chinese internal affairs. What do you think about this?
MS. PSAKI: Well, obviously, as I’ve conveyed, we don’t take a position with regard to competing sovereignty claims over islands in the South China Sea, but we do recognize that there is a dispute. You’re obviously asking me about this now, so I would point you to that.
Go ahead in the back.
MS. PSAKI: Cuba.
QUESTION: Yeah. Do you have anything on the arrest of the four Cubans leaving Miami that was announced by the Cuban Government? And apparently, they were – they were arrested 11 days ago and they said they actually accepted that they were trying to plan to attack military installations (inaudible).
MS. PSAKI: We have seen the statement by the Cuban Ministry of Interior. We don’t have any further information at this time. The Cuban Government has also not been in touch with us yet on these cases.
QUESTION: They said they were going to do it. They were going to try to get you to help investigate.
MS. PSAKI: We haven’t been in touch at this point.
QUESTION: There is another one on Venezuela. President Maduro is saying they will --
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Can we finish --
MS. PSAKI: Can we do one more on Cuba? Go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m unclear. So you haven’t confirmed that these are actual Americans that have been arrested?
MS. PSAKI: We just don’t have any other further detail.
QUESTION: Okay. Because the Cubans are saying that they work for Luis Posada Carriles who, as you know, tried to launch an assassination attempt against President Castro, former – Fidel Castro.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: But you have no information about these people whatsoever?
MS. PSAKI: Not at this time.
QUESTION: And even if they are actual Americans or residents --
MS. PSAKI: As I understand it, we just don’t have additional information at this point.
QUESTION: A follow-up on that one?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: There’s been a history of attempts from Miami to carry acts of terrorism in Cuba. Are you aware of anything recently, or is – the waters are calmed?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not aware of anything. I think that’s, I guess, sort of a straw man question. But I’m not aware of anything specifically recently, no. I don’t know if you’re referring to anything specifically.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: The one in Venezuela. President Maduro is saying that if the United States applies some sanctions on Venezuela, they will respond firmly and the first affected will be the Venezuelans living in the United States, because they will do things like closing consulates and things like that. And at the same time he’s asking President Obama to accept or the Administration to accept the credentials of the new ambassador they already put up for consideration. So do you have any reaction?
MS. PSAKI: Well, obviously, the Venezuelan Government, as you know, is going through its own process. We’re encouraged – we have been encouraged by the UNASUR-led initiative that has been ongoing over the course of the last several weeks with Vatican involvement. We encourage the parties to remain focused on strengthening Venezuela’s democracy, including the right to peaceful protests. Obviously, there have been a range of requests out there, but we believe the focus should be on resolving, at this point, the conflicts happening within Venezuela.
QUESTION: There is a caravan or a group of Venezuelans coming from Miami mainly to here to protest in Washington.
MS. PSAKI: To Washington?
QUESTION: Yeah. So they will – apparently they’ll be here on Friday, but Maduro’s saying that they want to investigate those people and probably take some measures on that.
MS. PSAKI: I’m not even familiar with that report, so I’ll check and see if we have more to say.
Did you, Elise, have something else, or --
MS. PSAKI: Okay. Go ahead, Lucas.
QUESTION: I just have a follow-up yesterday to my questioning yesterday on Benghazi.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: I’m holding in my hand right here a statement put out by Secretary Clinton on September 11th, the day of the attack, at 10:07 p.m. Eastern. And it’s the first known reference, I believe, where she mentioned that inflammatory – I’m quoting now – “inflammatory material posted on the internet” had something to do with the attack. And I’m wondering on what intelligence report this statement was based on.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Lucas, as you know, there have been countless investigations. We’ve participated in 50 briefings, provided more than 25,000 documents. There have been independent investigations, and even the former deputy CIA director testified about what information was available at the time. So --
QUESTION: You know that one by heart now.
MS. PSAKI: -- that’s the basis on which statements were made. I don’t think I have anything more further for you on this today.
QUESTION: Did Secretary Clinton consult with President Obama before releasing this statement?
MS. PSAKI: Lucas, obviously I’m not going to get into internal deliberations. But the statements and comments that were made by Administration officials at the time were based on what we knew on the time, and I think I’d otherwise point you to the dozens of investigations that have occurred on this manner.
QUESTION: Was the video – was – real quick – was the video just a red herring?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not sure what you --
QUESTION: Was the video just put out there to distract people from finding out what really happened?
MS. PSAKI: Lucas, I would suggest you spend some time reading through all the investigations that have happened about these events and look through, again, a former deputy CIA director’s testimony where he referenced the information we had available and we knew at the time.
QUESTION: If you can find anything from an intelligence agency that suggested a video was the cause of this, I would like to see it.
MS. PSAKI: Again, I’d point you to the testimony. And I’m sure you’ll find lots of helpful information there.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. I believe I do. One moment.
All right. We are, of course, closely following Thai political developments, including the constitutional court decision to remove Prime Minister Yingluck and several cabinet members from office. We continue to urge all sides to resolve Thailand’s political tensions in a peaceful and democratic manner so that the Thai people can choose political leadership they deserve.
In keeping with Thailand’s democratic ideals, a resolution should include elections and an elected government. We urge all sides at this time to exercise restraint and reaffirm that violence is not an acceptable means of resolving political differences.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: All right. Thanks, everyone.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:14 p.m.)
DPB # 82