2:40 p.m. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Thank you for your patience. I know we’re a little – particularly late today, but I wanted to wait until after the Secretary’s meeting. So let me just start by just giving a readout of that. Secretary Kerry met today with Syrian Opposition Coalition President Jarba at the Department of State. He and President Jarba had a productive discussion on the full range of our shared concerns on Syria, including empowering the moderate political and armed opposition, curbing the rise of extremism, completing the work of removing chemical weapons, and easing humanitarian suffering.
As part of our continued efforts to bolster the moderate Syrian opposition and help the coalition serve the interests of all Syrians, the Secretary also discussed with President Jarba some additional measures we are taking to support the coalition, local communities inside Syria, and members of the moderate armed opposition. These steps include our announcement that the coalition’s representative offices in the United States are now foreign missions; working with Congress to provide more than $27 million in new nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition; stepping up deliveries of nonlethal assistance to commanders in the Free Syrian Army to enhance their logistical capabilities; and imposing new sanctions and restrictions announced earlier today by the Department of the Treasury against members of the regime and its supporters who have suppressed the Syrian people.
Additionally, the Secretary reaffirmed to President Jarba that the United States remains committed to working towards a negotiated political solution that puts an end to the violence and ultimately leads to a representative government that is responsive to the needs of the Syrian people. The United States has led the international community’s efforts to advance a political transition and the Secretary commended the coalition’s commitment to that goal.
With that, Lara.
QUESTION: Could you bring us up to speed on where the Administration feels about arming the rebels or sending lethal aid to the moderate rebel groups? And is there more impetus to do this now that he is here and, I believe, directly asking for it?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve certainly seen his public comments and certainly he made the same case he’s made publicly in private. You – we provide a range of assistance to the Syrian opposition, including nonlethal assistance – we just announced an increase in that; including humanitarian assistance – we continue to be the largest donor in the world. As you know, part of our effort has been to continue to boost the moderate opposition and provide additional assistance including to the moderate armed opposition. I’m not going to outline that or detail that from here, but we continue to consider a range of options. I have nothing to convey or announce for all of you today.
QUESTION: Okay. So there’s still – it’s fair to say that the Administration is still debating whether or not to give lethal aid to the moderate opposition?
MS. PSAKI: As you know, in the past we have announced our plans – last year, I should say – to expand the scale and scope of our aid. I have nothing new on that front to announce. Obviously, discussions are ongoing.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Do you have sympathy with the argument that was put forward yesterday by Mr. Jarba that the Syrian rebels, opposition, needs what he called more efficient, more effective weaponry to – particularly, to combat barrel bombs, which he said they’re being rained down on his people daily now. Do you have any sympathy for the argument?
MS. PSAKI: Well, certainly we have sympathy – not just sympathy, but we watch alongside them in horror as we see what’s happening on the ground, whether that’s recent attacks in Aleppo, the efforts by the regime to block humanitarian assistance, to starve people to death within the country. So it’s more than just sympathy. It’s what is in fact driving us to continue to have ongoing discussions, both with the opposition today, but even next week when the Secretary goes to meet with members of the London 11.
QUESTION: I think his contention is, though, without heavy weaponry of some kind, the opposition is in a position where it’s very difficult for them to change the balance of power on the ground. And unless there’s a shift in the balance of power on the ground, you’re not going to open the door towards any kind of political solution.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Jo, you’re familiar with our view, and something, actually, members of Jarba’s own coalition repeated today is that there is not a military solution here to what’s happening on the ground. We continue to believe that, as you know. We understand what their requests are, as I noted. We’re continuing to build the capacity of the moderate opposition, including through the provision of assistance to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition. I’m not going to outline that further, but obviously discussions are ongoing about how to take steps to change the situation on the ground. And that was part of the discussion today and will be next week when the Secretary’s in London.
QUESTION: Just more – one more. I mean, yes, they do agree that there’s no military solution, that they are seeking a political solution. But I think their contention is wider – is broader than that. That if you don’t give them a big stick, if you like, to help them convince the Assad regime that they will not win this war, even if they don’t – they need this, even if they’re not going to use it.
MS. PSAKI: Well, there’s a – obviously, that’s part of the discussion that they have presented and they’ve made the same arguments they’ve made publicly in private. And I’m sure that will continue as they meet with other members of the Administration and members on Capitol Hill. But again, I don’t have anything new to announce for all of you today.
QUESTION: It’s not enough to sway your reluctance to provide them with heavy weaponry?
MS. PSAKI: I have nothing to announce in terms of any change in our position.
QUESTION: A clarification on the aid that you announced. The 27 million, is that strictly for humanitarian aid, or does that include the aid that is also going to the FSA commanders?
MS. PSAKI: It’s 27 million. I believe we outlined it pretty specifically when we announced it to the Syrian opposition. I don’t – it includes nonlethal assistance to commanders in the Free Syrian Army to enhance their logistical capabilities, so it does include that, Roz.
QUESTION: What can we expect from London 11 meeting next week?
MS. PSAKI: What can you expect from the London 11 meeting? Well, as I’ve noted and has been announced, I believe, on the ground, the Secretary will be traveling. We’ll have an official notice, I’m sure, in the next 24 hours or so. But he’ll be traveling to London next week, where he will participate in the UK-hosted ministerial meeting of the core group of the Friends of the Syrian People, also known as the London 11. They will discuss the international community’s efforts to ease humanitarian suffering inside Syria, support for the moderate opposition, and efforts to coordinate on advancing a political transition.
Obviously, the Secretary will communicate on his own meetings here and meetings the Administration is having during the official delegation visit of the SOC. And other members of the London 11 will certainly communicate on their meetings and their views and assistance that we’re all working on.
QUESTION: And President Jarba has announced before he came to Washington that the opposition has started to receive sophisticated weapons from the West. Are you aware of this kind of weapons that the opposition --
MS. PSAKI: I’ve seen those reports. I don’t have anything to outline further for you in terms of our assistance.
Syria? Go ahead.
QUESTION: Syria and Russia coming together here. The Russian ministry is saying that Kerry and Lavrov spoke today. I was wondering how much of the conversation was about Syria and about this meeting with Jarba.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. Well, they spoke prior to the meeting, so it was mainly focused on Ukraine. He talked about – the Secretary talked about, again, the importance of de-escalation, disarming separatists, steps to evacuate buildings. They – he talked about the importance of taking specific steps to move forward in agreeing on those, support for dialogues that are happening around Ukraine and efforts by the international community to support those, and reiterated the importance of the election.
But the conversation was focused on Ukraine.
While I am on this topic, he also spoke with Prime Minister Yatsenyuk as well this morning, encouraged him to continue the broad, inclusive dialogue that is – the legitimate government is supporting across Ukraine; discussed ongoing preparatory efforts for the elections, including how to ensure that people across Ukraine have the ability to vote. So he spoke with both of them this morning.
QUESTION: But – sorry, Syria wasn’t part of that – I know it was prior to Jarba. But --
MS. PSAKI: It – the phone call was focused on Ukraine. It was not – it was all Ukraine.
QUESTION: And not the Treasury designation. That did not come up either? (Inaudible.)
MS. PSAKI: That was not – no, that would not – not probably be the proper channel for that to happen through.
Go ahead, Michael.
MS. PSAKI: In terms of how, specifically?
MS. PSAKI: It’s a very good question. I know when we announced it we had more details. Let me see if I have anything more in front here, and if not, Michael, we can get you something shortly after the briefing in terms of how it’s broken down.
Obviously, as you know, we’ve provided a range of different tools in the past, equipment, et cetera --
QUESTION: If you could just take it – I mean, is it trucks, is it radios --
MS. PSAKI: Yep.
QUESTION: -- is it --
MS. PSAKI: Let me take it and we’ll get an answer around to all of you after the briefing.
QUESTION: Can I add to that? Just in your handout, but when you talked about the 27 million it was for what you specified was the activities of the opposition interim government type things like civil activities, rescue, that sort of thing. You didn’t – so is that all coming out of that same pot?
MS. PSAKI: Of the 27 million?
MS. PSAKI: Yes. Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: So it’s that plus nonlethal – sorry – assistance to the --
MS. PSAKI: It’s nonlethal assistance, yes. It – but it goes to a range of resources on the ground. But let me see if we can get a more complete breakdown.
QUESTION: It would be good to know what portion of the 27 million goes to the military commanders --
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: -- and what specifically they’re getting.
MS. PSAKI: Understandable. Do we have any more on Syria, or should we move on to a new topic?
QUESTION: Yeah --
QUESTION: Yeah, can we talk about – go ahead.
QUESTION: Sorry. Arab foreign ministers will be meeting next Monday on Syria to discuss the deteriorating situation there. Are you aware of this meeting, and is there any coordination with the Arab states?
MS. PSAKI: There’s certainly coordination with the Arab states. As you know, many of them are members of the London 11, so certainly part of their meetings next week will be part of the discussion when the London 11 meets next week.
QUESTION: And next – last one for me: Do you have any comment or reaction to the explosion in Aleppo today that targeted a historical hotel?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we have of course seen that report. I believe there’s still information that is being gathered on that. We have nothing to confirm in terms of the source. We know that in reports the Islamic Front has claimed responsibility, but again, nothing to confirm beyond that. Obviously, any attack or any violence along these lines is something we would condemn in the strongest terms.
QUESTION: Going back to the point about the sanctions, several cabinet-level officers were cited, a presidential advisor, at least one Russian official who may have economic ties or banking ties, an energy facility in Homs --
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- can you give us more insight into why these particular people in this business – why now? What is it the U.S. is trying to achieve by these particular sanctions?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Roz, at this point, more than 200 individuals and entities have been sanctioned since the onset of unrest in Syria, so this is just the latest iteration of that. And these individuals, of course, specifically have been providing support to the regime, which is what the – what we are allowed to sanction under these – under this specific executive order. So I think Treasury put out a specific press release that goes individual by individual and what their ties are, and I would point you to that and the details there.
QUESTION: But are you able to say anything more about, for example, the presidential advisor? I believe his name is Bassam Hassan. Do you have anything more that you can say from here?
MS. PSAKI: Again, the Treasury press release has specifics on the details as to why for each of these individuals. Broadly speaking, it’s because of their support for the Syrian regime and their – the atrocities that are happening on the ground. But I would point you to the specifics they’ve put out.
QUESTION: Are you able to say whether, at this point, every person in charge of a department or an agency or is part of the unofficial cabinet, the advisory staff to President Assad, has been sanctioned at this point? And if not, why not?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s nearly 200 individuals and entities, so I don’t have the list of who is not on that list, but obviously, that is a very extensive and expansive list for obvious reasons.
QUESTION: And then why not sanction Bashar al-Assad? Why not sanction his wife? Why not sanction their close relatives, especially given that most of her family is in the UK? Is there a reason why you would not go after the head of a government that this Administration has said should be out of power?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Roz, I certainly appreciate the question. As you know, we are – speak regularly about our views on how horrific the actions of Assad and his family have been, but I’m not going to preview or give you any insight into any thinking about future sanctions for obvious reasons internally in the government.
Go ahead, Michael.
QUESTION: Jen, have Russian individuals and Russian-based institutions previously been sanctioned with regard to Syria?
MS. PSAKI: That is a very good question. Let me take that for you as well. Two for you today, Michael, that I am sure others are interested in.
QUESTION: Be interesting to know if this is the first time --
MS. PSAKI: Yep.
QUESTION: -- and if it is, why now? Does it reflect general downturn in American-Russian relations?
MS. PSAKI: It does not. It is unrelated to – this is – it’s an entirely different executive order that deals with the situation in Ukraine, is not related to that. It is related to, specifically, their support for what’s happening in Syria, but I can check historically if this is the first time.
QUESTION: Okay, as a historical question.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. Sure.
More on Syria or new topic? Syria, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. I mean, the question was raised a few days ago but do – are they – this group going to – or this status that they have now allow them to have, beside talks with the Americans, any international talks, I mean, with other people like at the UN – for example, are getting to do work with the UN as representative of the opposition?
MS. PSAKI: My understanding is no, but we can check if you have other questions about what we announced a couple of days ago. Yeah.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: I wondered if you had any reaction to the news today from the pro-Russian militias that said that they’re going to ignore President Putin’s words and go ahead anyway and organize a referendum on Sunday.
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you know, we don’t recognize the legitimacy or – of this referendum. We’ve seen the comments of President Putin, but as I said yesterday, it’s more than just comments we need. We need actions. We still continue to believe that the Russian Government has an ability to influence what the separatists are doing on the ground, so we’ll look to see if that happens over the coming days.
QUESTION: Have you seen any evidence that the Russian troops have pulled back from the border --
MS. PSAKI: We have not.
QUESTION: -- so far?
MS. PSAKI: No.
QUESTION: Back on that call, when was the last time that Lavrov and Kerry spoke? There had been some gap in there, right?
MS. PSAKI: Let me see if I can check and get you an answer on that, Margaret. Let’s see. They spoke on Saturday.
QUESTION: Oh, they did?
QUESTION: Oh, that’s right.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Are there any plans, since the Secretary will be in Europe, for him to have a meeting with Lavrov?
MS. PSAKI: The details of the trip are still coming together. Obviously, there is an overlap with a number of the London 11 members in terms of their role in supporting efforts in Ukraine. But at this point, it’s not scheduled, but we’re still working on the schedule. It’s coming together.
QUESTION: Going back to the people who say that they’re going ahead with the referenda on Sunday, have Ambassador Pyatt and his staff been in touch with any of these people at all in Donetsk and Luhansk? Are you able to read out --
MS. PSAKI: The separatists?
QUESTION: Yeah. The separatists. Has there been any U.S. contact to try to persuade them why the U.S. thinks these referenda would be a bad idea?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not – not that I’m aware of, in terms of directly with the separatists. I’m happy to check on that.
QUESTION: If you would.
MS. PSAKI: Obviously, I just stated again our view that, of course, the Russian Government has a strong role to play here in terms of influencing their actions.
QUESTION: Jen, the president of the OSCE presented the – their OSCE roadmap to President Putin and to the Russian side.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: What’s your view of the roadmap? What do you think it – is it – its pluses and minuses? And do you think it’s a basis for making headway in this conflict?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. Well, we certainly welcome the efforts of the international community and a broad range of entities in the international community to put forward ideas to support peace and security in Ukraine. We’ve received the proposed draft roadmap, are – developed by the OSCE’s chairman, and we’re studying and reviewing that. And obviously, there are ongoing discussions with a range of European officials, a range of OSCE officials, about what the best steps forward are.
QUESTION: I just wondered if, peripherally, if you had any reaction to the news that President Putin’s planning to attend the D-Day celebrations in June next month.
MS. PSAKI: Well, our current differences over Ukraine notwithstanding, the fact remains that the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and many others united 70 years ago to defeat Nazism. And this was a historic victory, and those who sacrificed to bring peace to Europe deserve to be honored as part of that.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Jen, you told people that the U.S. will not recognize the Crimea joining Russia. So you consider now Crimea Ukrainian territory. Do you think – but I bet that --
MS. PSAKI: Part of Ukraine.
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
QUESTION: But I bet 25th May election won’t be held in Crimea. Do you think that hurts --
MS. PSAKI: Actually – oh, go ahead. But I do have a quick one.
QUESTION: Do you think that hurts in any way the legitimacy of the elections? And secondly, you mentioned that OSCE is working on – and Ukrainian authorities are working to give an opportunity to vote to every Ukrainian in every part of Ukraine. So does that include Crimea?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. It’s a very good question. Let me touch on a little bit of what’s happening with election preparations. The OSCE’s election monitoring agency, ODIHR, has already deployed 100 long-term observers to Ukraine. They will also deploy 900 short-term observers on May 20th, which will be the largest ODIHR-monitoring mission in the organization’s history. The United States will provide approximately one-tenth of the observers. And these 1,000 observers will be joined by more than 100 members of the OSCE parliamentary assembly, including some members of Congress. The OSCE monitors will complement the work of thousands of Ukraine-based observers who are also deploying across the country. The Government of Ukraine has also modified the presidential election law to allow for domestic monitoring organizations to participate as well. And finally, the United States is providing a total of $11.4 million to support free and fair elections in Ukraine.
In terms of Crimea, the Rada passed special legislation to allow Ukrainian citizens of Crimea to temporarily change their voting place for the purposes of the May 25th election, allowing them to vote at polling stations in the mainland portion of Ukraine. So the Government of Ukraine will set up additional stations in the south to accommodate Crimean voters. We call on the Russian Government and Crimean authorities to allow Ukrainian citizens in Crimea the ability to travel and participate in the vote on May 25th.
QUESTION: Well, but Russian Government may allow, but will they – well, there can be thousands and tens of thousands of people. Will they be able to travel and to – do they have money for that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, it’s – they’re making every – taking every step possible to provide them the opportunity. And obviously if the Russians are open to the Ukrainian voices – the people – the voice of the Ukrainian people being heard, they can allow for people to vote across the country of Ukraine.
QUESTION: What members of Congress are going to be part of that parliamentary observer delegation?
MS. PSAKI: I believe – I think they’re talking about internally, but let me check on that and see if there’s more specifics.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Just following up on election preparations.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Could you talk a little bit about the security aspect of that and to what extent the U.S. will be supporting that, given the sort of ongoing violence and unrest in the east?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I mentioned the money that we’ve been providing, the number of observers we’ve been providing. I will check and see if there’s more details beyond that.
QUESTION: Right. Because a lot has been made about observers and aggregate sums of money --
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- but given the sort of potential for attacks and violence and things like that.
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me be clear, and this is an important point: Most of Ukraine is very calm. There are some isolated areas that we talk about frequently for good reason – Slovyansk, Luhansk, et cetera – where there are separatists that are taking over buildings and wreaking havoc, of course.
QUESTION: Sure. Sorry. I should’ve been --
MS. PSAKI: But most of Ukraine is calm and the elections will – there’ll be no issue with them moving forward.
QUESTION: I was asking specifically about eastern and southeastern Ukraine. Sorry, I didn’t make that specific.
MS. PSAKI: I will see if, beyond the money and the observers, there’s more specifics that we’ll be providing.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: More on Ukraine? Okay. New topic. Go ahead.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: This morning Secretary Kerry was meeting Amr Moussa.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Of course, you defined him as a former Arab League director, but he’s a advisor job to the candidate or the presidency. What – do you have a readout of the meeting?
MS. PSAKI: Let me see if I can get you a little more of a readout, but let – obviously they, as you stated, did have a meeting this morning. They have a long-standing relationship. This most recent meeting was an opportunity to discuss a range of bilateral and regional issues, including Egypt’s ongoing transition. But we will talk with our team and see if we can get a few more details from the meeting.
QUESTION: Yes, the other question, related. Two days ago, General Sisi was on TV and in an interview. Of course, he’s a candidate now, but probably will be the president. He was asked about the future of Muslim Brotherhood and he said it’s finished. Do you have anything to say about that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we continue to encourage an inclusive political process that respects the fundamental human rights of all Egyptians. Ultimately, we believe a transition – not just a presidential election but a broad transition to an inclusive and sustainable democracy – needs to respect freedoms, permit dissent, and foster an inclusive political process, and that is necessary to supporting Egypt’s long-term stability and success.
So democracy is more than a vote at a ballot box, and we’ll certainly be watching it with that in mind. IT’s about equal rights and protection of universal freedoms of speech, assembly, and press, rule of law, accountability, and of course, inclusivity.
QUESTION: Yes, in the same interview, when you ask about the Egyptian-American relations, he mentioned that sometimes you are looking to things going on in the States with American eyes, and we hope that American officials look to what something happening in Egypt with Egyptian eyes. Do you agree with this categorization of looking to things different way?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think certainly we look at things – some issues, like freedom of speech and rights of public discourse and assembly, through universal eyes throughout – across the world, and those are some of the areas where we’ve expressed concerns. But we, as you know, value our long-term relationship with Egypt and have made some – taken some steps in recent weeks in that regard.
QUESTION: Amr Moussa, when he was moving around in this town, many places he mentioned the idea of – or the description of Egyptian-American relations that there is now a new page in it. But first, what do you think if – I mean, I ask him what he means by new page, but I’m trying to figure out if you see there is a new page or it’s the same old page.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would ask him, but certainly Egypt is going through an important transition, as they have been for several years. We know democracy and the transition to a long-term, sustainable democracy takes time. And obviously, we’ve expressed concerns where we have them, but we continue to value our long-term strategic relationship, and so we’re continuing to work closely with them in that regard.
QUESTION: Yeah. There is another one, which is the last question, I hope.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) Or you hope.
MS. PSAKI: (Laughter.) Go ahead.
QUESTION: It’s related to the – your counter – Egyptian counterpart, the spokesperson of the foreign ministry. I usually use the same the same experience – expression “counterpart.”
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: So he was mentioning yesterday that the Egyptian foreign ministry, let’s say, approved the name of a new ambassador and probably soon will be announced from the White House or anything. Do you have the new ambassador to Egypt – and some of already Reuters and others, they already put his name. Do you have anything to say or I have to say you are going to say to me wait for the White House?
MS. PSAKI: That is right. You know this job well. The White House makes any of those announcements, so I would defer to them. I have nothing to announce today.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Both Amr Moussa, and before him Foreign Minister Fahmy, came to Washington and they said we want democracy, we are working for a new democratic government; but at the same time, they were very defensive over the criticism of the rule of law, the recent detentions of journalists, of the death sentences for hundreds of people. And they insist that this is part of their law, but it’s never going to stand. I mean, these – especially the death sentences were never going to stand.
I’m just wondering: Do you all buy that? I mean, it seems like they want to have it both ways; this is a democratic government and we have these laws, but don’t pay any attention to these laws because they’ll never stand.
MS. PSAKI: Well, our view, Lara, is that to build a prosperous, democratic future, Egypt needs to respect fundamental freedoms and universal human rights. And those include many of the issues you’ve mentioned, whether that’s rule of law or respect for media freedom, respect for assembly. And again, we will circle back on the Amr Moussa meeting, but from the Fahmy meeting, those are issues that the Secretary pressed when he was in the meeting because there are not really different definitions of what those are. And we have raised concerns about them in the past. As you know, there are additional certifications that will require steps, additional steps by the Egyptian Government. And not only do we press it, we’ll be watching what they do moving forward.
QUESTION: So basically, your position is that it’s the law, the letter of the law, that needs to be either respected or changed, right? I mean, it doesn’t really matter if there’s these excuses or this justification that some of these things will never stand. It’s fair to assume that the U.S. has problems with the letter of the law as they’re written, correct?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the extrajudicial – the practices that are happening on the ground, I mean, we could outline them for some time about the arrests and the sentencing and how journalists are being treated, how protestors are being treated. So regardless of what is conveyed, I mean, our view is fairly universal on some of these issues, and we believe they need to do more in order to continue on the path to a democratic transition.
QUESTION: Do you think that would include changing some of these laws?
MS. PSAKI: I – not that I – I might have to talk to our team about whether that’s what we’re calling for. But obviously, abiding by respect for a range of these practices may not even require a law; it’s about how you respect human rights and freedom of speech.
QUESTION: Yeah. I mean, the way that they explained it, especially when it comes to the sentencing, is that this is what the judges are legally required to do because some of the defendants weren’t there in court, and blah, blah, blah. And so, I mean, it raises, I think, a fundamental question over, if you support democracy, how can you support these laws?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there are some laws we’ve spoken about, like the NGO law, for example, where we’ve expressed concern about it, and obviously, we don’t feel it should stand. I’ll check and see if there are others that we can reference.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry noted this morning that the team, the American team, is hitting the ground today – or now, and he called on the international community to focus their attention on fighting Boko Haram. I wanted to go back to a question that was asked yesterday but sort of maybe add some more depth to it. You were asked whether – why it had taken so long to designate Boko Haram as an FTO. And I don’t know if you’ve seen the story that’s out today in an online publication that, in fact, Secretary Clinton, who I know was before your time, but she and the State Department on that point, back in 2011-2012, fought against CIA, Justice Department, other advice, to designate Boko Haram as an FTO, which I believe gives law enforcement agencies certain powers that they can then go in and start helping.
What is your reaction to that? Why did the Secretary – did – was that true that she refused the advice of other agencies within the Administration? And if so, why?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m obviously not going to discuss internal debates, especially those that happened years ago. But under Secretary Clinton, I would remind you, we did designate three Boko Haram leaders in 2012. That was an important step, one that the United States was forward on, one that did put in place some resulting actions. And obviously, there’s a long process that goes to determining whether you should designate.
But I think an important reminder here is designations are just one tool we use to fight terrorism. There are a range of steps, including under Secretary Clinton, that Secretary Kerry has continued, stepping up counterterrorism cooperation with not just the Nigerian Government but other governments in Northern Africa, stepping up other resources that we can provide and work with teams on the ground to do. So this is just one tool, but there were many steps that were taken given the rising concern about Boko Haram, and we’ve only seen a lot of the horrific actions that they’ve taken unfortunately increase over the course of the last several months.
QUESTION: But do you feel you lost a couple of years? I mean, the big attack where they first really came to international notice was – well, though, they’d been around a while before that – was in 2011 when they bombed a UN building in Abuja.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Did you lose a couple of years by not focusing attention on Boko Haram (inaudible)? Have – did – they were a very nebulous, shadowy kind of organization. These two years – did it allow them to regroup, and has that in some way hampered the fight that you’re now going to have on your hands?
MS. PSAKI: No, because designating an organization as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is just one tool. Obviously, the rise of Boko Haram, their increasing acts of terrorism around Africa, is something that we’ve been watching closely. It’s something that Secretary Clinton and her team were watching closely. Obviously, with the tragic events, with the kidnapping of the Nigerian girls, the world is now watching this, including many across the United States, more closely. And it does – which is why the Secretary raised this this morning – raise a spotlight on this issue and one that we are, despite the tragedy, happy to have on it, given how horrific these events have been and how concerned we are about their proliferation over the last several months and years.
QUESTION: Jen, on this. The – one of the debates at the time – at least had by many experts, not necessarily within the building – was that by designating the entire organization, not just the individuals, that it would in some ways be used or manipulated by the Nigerian military, which is notoriously brutal, and that it would be used perhaps for them to go in and just carry out massive human rights abuses beyond what they’ve already been accused of. Does this building no longer have that sense or assessment or concern about the Nigerian military given that we’re now talking about them perhaps needing to carry out a hostage rescue operation? Do we no longer have these concerns about their abuses?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I think – if I remember correctly, I think when we designated Boko Haram in November we talked about this a little bit in terms of our concerns and how assistance would be provided as a result of that. That hasn’t changed, but also the Nigerian Government naturally has the lead in this process. The Secretary, as you know, and other members of the Administration have been working closely with them. He’s spoken with President Goodluck Jonathan – I’ve – I don’t have anything new today to tell you on that, but – in several times in recent days. And that will continue. And our view is that obviously, this event is so tragic and horrific. We need to do everything we can, as you’ve heard President Obama say, to provide all the resources we can to bring the girls home.
QUESTION: Do you know --
QUESTION: So has the level of confidence on part of this building in the abilities of the Nigerian military and government gone up since then?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to do a grading of that, but obviously these are --
QUESTION: The concerns persist, though, is what you were saying with the --
MS. PSAKI: Nothing has changed about that, and our limitations on aid and how we provide it hasn’t changed. But at the same time, President Goodluck Jonathan has been open to and embraced our offer of assistance in recent days. Our team, as the Secretary said, has began to arrive on the ground. I know someone asked yesterday about the size. There are – and I think DOD has provided some numbers in a variety of ways. I think one thing to remember is that there are already dozens if not more than that people on the ground who can be put in place to assist. Obviously, we’re sending more, so it’s safe to say that the numbers of people who will be assisting from the United States are in the dozens. The exact numbers we’ll determine over the course of the coming days.
QUESTION: Do you know when President Goodluck Jonathan first requested U.S. aid for – to rescue some of these girls? My understanding is that there was some lapse on that, that that hadn’t happened immediately.
MS. PSAKI: That’s accurate. As you heard the Secretary say yesterday, in order to provide assistance and the resources that the United States Government has, you need to have a willing partner. And obviously, time is of the essence, and it’s been now 24, 25 days since these girls were abducted. But we’re going to move as quickly as possible at this point.
QUESTION: So if he said that yesterday, does that mean that Nigeria formally asked for the assistance as recently as in the last 24 hours?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we offered and it was accepted.
QUESTION: Do you know exactly when?
MS. PSAKI: When we – when the Secretary spoke with the Nigerian president two days ago, I believe.
QUESTION: Okay. All right, thanks.
QUESTION: Do you know whether this building has talked with counterparts in Cameroon or in Chad, perhaps, given the proximity to their borders, on expanding this cooperation and trying to recover the girls?
MS. PSAKI: We have. As we’ve noted in the past, we have been concerned about where – movement of the girls. Our embassies in Cameroon and Chad have been engaging with host governments ever since the abduction occurred several weeks ago. And also important to note for you, Lara and others, that we’ve been closely engaged with the Nigerian Government through our embassy on the ground as well for the last several weeks. It’s just a determination of what additional new assistance beyond what we’ve been providing for some time now.
QUESTION: Have there been any discussion about forming similar teams in those countries with consultation from Abuja on expanding the search, as it were, or has it gotten to that point yet?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Roz, obviously, with our teams on the ground and our additional resources that will be going, that will be the coordinating entity. So beyond that, if there are needs to expand into other areas, into one – I’m sure it will be coordinated through there.
QUESTION: And I’m sure this has been asked and answered previously --
MS. PSAKI: No, go ahead.
QUESTION: -- but is the U.S. assistance that’s coming now or the team that’s getting on the ground now, is that specific to the schoolgirls’ rescue? I mean, as you know, there’s so much violence that’s continuing beyond that --
MS. PSAKI: It is, but --
QUESTION: -- kind of finite event.
MS. PSAKI: -- but it’s also important to note that long before this, and before we designated Boko Haram, we have been increasing our level of assistance – coordination on counterterrorism efforts, intel sharing – before this specific team went to the ground.
QUESTION: But did that --
QUESTION: Why was (inaudible)?
QUESTION: Was that people on the ground? Sorry. Was that actually American units or personnel on the ground at that point?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you remember – I mean, we have an expansive team in Nigeria that works at our embassy from a range of agencies that’s been coordinating. I outlined this a little bit the other day, but prior to the announcement just two days ago we had already been providing a range of assistance, including – to Nigeria, including information sharing, efforts to improve Nigeria’s forensics and investigative capacity.
Our assistance also stresses the importance of protecting civilians and ensuring human rights are protected. We work 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 been working with the military to improve – the Nigerian military – to improve its professional military education, bolster counter-IED capacity, carry out responsible CT operations.
Last year, we also provided an additional approximately $3 million in law enforcement assistance to Nigeria. So point being, we have been providing assistance. This is specific to the events that happened just a few weeks ago.
Go ahead, Jo.
QUESTION: Can I just – last question. When you said designating is only one tool, I’d like to get your reaction from where Congressman Patrick Meehan in 2011 urged the Secretary to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization. And he said that had we done it two years ago, we’d have been able to use to U.S. resources to disrupt and track activities, and that he says we lost two years of increased scrutiny.
MS. PSAKI: I think I already answered this specific question about two years ago and why we designated and what we did.
Go ahead, Elise.
QUESTION: Can I just – sorry. Back in 2012 there was this Nigerian-U.S. strategic dialogue that happened here, and there was a meeting over the USIP at which I specifically asked a question to the Nigerian representatives who were there – I think it was the foreign minister, but my memory’s failing me – about what their position was on designating Boko Haram. And his reply was that they weren’t ready yet, and what actually was needed was better development in the north and to address those kinds of issues.
Was there in 2012 a reluctance on the part of the Nigerian authorities – because I assume you consult with people before you go ahead and do a designation to take – at least get their ideas on board. Was there a reluctance by the Nigerian authorities to have an FTO designation because they believed it would give maybe more of a status to Boko Haram than they wanted?
MS. PSAKI: I just don’t have any other additional insight to offer in terms of two years ago and what factors were – there’s a range of factors. There’s a long process, as you know. As you also know and I noted, two years ago we did designate certain individual leaders. But I don’t have any other insight to provide on that.
QUESTION: Because I think that goes to the issue about whether it was blocked at this building or whether it was blocked by the authorities in Nigeria, as to why this group for two years has been allowed to operate with impunity so far.
MS. PSAKI: Well, again – and I think what you touched on there is the fact that there are a range of tools and a range of coordinated efforts that you work with any country on, or in the case of any concerning organization – whether it’s been designated or not – to prevent extremist actions from happening. And that doesn’t all require a designating an organization as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. We’ve been working with Nigeria, we will continue to, but we have been before the official designation in November.
QUESTION: Jen --
QUESTION: Wait. Can I --
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: On the idea that over the last year – I mean, if you’ve been providing all this assistance and working with the Nigerians on Boko Haram regardless of any type of designation, how come the group has grown in such strength? I mean, are you saying that you haven’t provided enough assistance, that the government hasn’t been able to utilize or doesn’t have the capacity? I mean, you would think that if you’ve been providing all this increased assistance over the last years, it would have made a difference in a positive direction, and certainly the trends on the ground have been the opposite of that.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Elise, no one thinks – and you heard the Secretary say this morning that there needs to be more focus from the global community. No one thinks that because the United States designated an organization as a terrorist organization and that we’re providing assistance that we can alone prevent the growth of that extremist group. Obviously, there needs to be a broad effort, an international effort. There needs to be coordination on the ground, and certainly there’s more focus and attention on the risks or the challenges posed and the threats, I should say, from Boko Haram, and perhaps that will gain more interest and more support from the international community.
QUESTION: I’m not even talking about the designation now. I’m just talking about even before these girls were kidnapped. I mean, there have been over the last years, this group has been growing in strength. And why did it take the kidnapping of these girls, which is clearly horrific and tragic, but there have been a lot of – increased deadly attacks by Boko Haram over the last year.
MS. PSAKI: It didn’t take it. That’s why we’ve been working with the Nigerian Government in increasing our capacity-building, increasing all of the areas I just outlined in response to Lara’s question to help assist them in efforts to combat terrorism, including from Boko Haram, of course.
QUESTION: So are you saying that the government still doesn’t have enough capacity, that they haven’t gone after the group with enough fervor? I mean, what – why is the trend --
MS. PSAKI: I’m not saying --
QUESTION: With all this – I’m just asking, like: With all this increased assistance over the last however many years and all this increased attention that you speak of, why are the trends going in the negative direction?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Elise, I can’t analyze that for you other than to say it’s a terrorist organization that we recently designated, we have growing – have had growing concern about. And that’s why we’re putting – continue to increase – continuing to increase our resources on it.
QUESTION: Jen --
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead, Ali.
QUESTION: I know that you mentioned just a second ago that a lot of the folks in this interagency team are already on the ground, but I just wanted to get clarification on what Secretary Kerry said this morning about the team “hitting the ground” now, was his exact words. So was that a reference to other folks that are a part of this team who are --
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
QUESTION: -- coming from the U.S. to Nigeria? Any numbers you can give us or agencies --
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any specific numbers. Obviously, it’s being worked through on a day-to-day basis, and they’ll be in the dozens.
QUESTION: Can you give us any granularity on what agencies they’re from or any State Department personnel among them – the USAID folks, or is it all AFRICOM?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any other specific detail. We will see if there’s more we can share with all of you.
QUESTION: Different topic?
MS. PSAKI: Sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. I’d like to know if I can get some further comments on you on the increasing tensions between China and Vietnam. So the Chinese pushed back at the notion that there is a clash between China and Vietnam, and they reaffirmed that the disputed area belongs to China. Assistant Secretary Russel, he’s currently in the region, and he said that he discussed this issue at length with the Vietnamese.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Could you elaborate on the message that he conveyed to the Vietnamese about this issue?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I believe he also spoke to this while he was there, which I’m happy to reiterate, and I put out an additional statement last night – or, we put out last night. What Assistant Secretary Russel conveyed is that we don’t take a position on the relative merits of any country’s claim in the South China Sea. But it’s fair to say – and it’s fair to say that both Vietnam and China claim sovereignty over that area, but there is a dispute. It’s not for us to decide which position is stronger, but at the same time we believe that all sides should operate in a way that reduces tensions. And what we’ve seen – and obviously this is what we’ve spoken to – is that the unilateral decision by China to introduce its oil rig into these disputed waters, the dangerous conduct and intimidation by the vessels is concerning and certainly is representative of provocative actions.
QUESTION: And there’s been an escalation recently in activity between the two sides. Is there a concern at the State Department that this could continue to escalate? And what is the State Department prepared to do to help resolve the crisis?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, obviously, we continue to encourage both sides to take – to reduce the rhetoric and to pull back on provocative steps that are causing this level of tension in the region.
QUESTION: Same topic?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Have you been able to ascertain the veracity of the video that the Vietnamese foreign ministry showed to reporters? And have you been able to decide which side – which ships were the – actually the ones doing the ramming, the hostile actions?
MS. PSAKI: Which ships, in terms of whether they’re Chinese or not?
QUESTION: Which – yeah. Whether they were Chinese or – because there’s competing claims. Each side says the other side started it. So do you have any kind of independent --
MS. PSAKI: I think the statement we put out last night and the comments we’ve given make clear we think it’s the Chinese side that is exhibiting provocative actions here.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Any comment on the progress that the Yemeni army has made in its fight with al-Qaida, especially in Shabwa?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything new to offer on that today.
Go ahead, or --
QUESTION: Do you have an update on the status of the Embassy?
MS. PSAKI: Nothing new beyond the statement we released last night.
QUESTION: Is it concerning, that after having this embassy closed for the better part of six months, that the U.S. has had to close it again and make it tougher for Yemeni citizens who might want to do business with the U.S. for any number of reasons, as well as any U.S. persons in country – that it’s going to be very difficult for them, once again, to access the State Department’s resources?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Roz, as you know, the reason that we are in countries around the world is because we want to be able to communicate with the local populations and provide resources, like visa applications and a range of things that we provide. And our preference would certainly be to have the embassy fully open to the public. But we also – our first priority is keeping the men and women who serve safe, and the local employees safe, and we take every precaution to do that, and that’s why we took this step. But we’ll obviously reopen as soon as it is possible to do so.
QUESTION: Are there any travel restrictions beyond those that had existed already for U.S. staff? Is there any thought of having people leave the country temporarily for their own well-being?
MS. PSAKI: Obviously, we don’t preview things like that, but we evaluate constantly and we make that information available publicly when decisions are made.
QUESTION: One more: Any aids that you are providing to the Yemeni Government in this fight?
MS. PSAKI: Any aid? I’m not aware of any new assistance that we’re providing, no.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any update on that at this point. We also haven’t been in touch with the Cuban Government yet either.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: I wondered if you had any reaction on the South African vote and the news that it looks like the ANC’s going to continue to be – run the country.
MS. PSAKI: Let me see. Well, we certainly – and I would point you to – of course, the Secretary put out a statement the other night on this. We – I will reiterate that we congratulate the people of South Africa for exercising their democratic right to vote in Wednesday’s presidential and parliamentary elections. We look forward to working with the new Government of the Republic of South Africa to further strengthen our bilateral relations. We don’t have anything really further. Obviously, we’re in close touch with our team on the ground.
MS. PSAKI: Oh. Go ahead, Ali.
MS. PSAKI: Let me see if I do, and I’m happy to check with our team if I don’t. I know that obviously, Susan Rice is on the ground, and the White House has been putting out a variety of readouts, but let me see if I have anything on that for you.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: Sorry if this was asked.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Are you considering supporting a – UN Security Council authorizing a investigation by the ICC into war crimes in Syria?
MS. PSAKI: Ali, for you, let me check and see with her office if there’s more to convey on that. I do have something for you, Elise. One moment.
We do – the United States supports the referral to the ICC set forth in the draft resolution under discussion. We’ve long said that those responsible for atrocities in Syria must be held accountable, and we’ve been working with our Security Council colleagues on a draft resolution toward this end. We will also continue to support efforts to gather evidence to hold accountable those responsible for atrocities in Syria.
QUESTION: Can you --
QUESTION: What changed your mind? I mean, originally, you had some concerns about whether this was the right venue to pursue accountability for Syrians.
MS. PSAKI: Well, obviously, we’ve remained concerned, continue to be concerned about the atrocities that we’ve been seeing on the ground. I don’t have any specific incident to point you to, just the ongoing gathering of what we’re seeing on the ground.
QUESTION: It’s been reported that the U.S. made sure that there were mention or there were assurances that none of this would ever apply to Israeli activity in the occupied territories. Is there – was there any discussion around that?
MS. PSAKI: I can check with our team and see if there’s anything specific on that.
QUESTION: Just one more from me. Did you have any reaction to the killing this week in Pakistan of a lawyer, Rashid Rehman, who was defending a university lecturer who’s been accused under these blasphemy laws?
MS. PSAKI: I have seen those reports. I spoke with our team about it. They were looking into it. So let me see if we have more we can say about it post-briefing.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. Thanks, everyone. Thanks for your patience today.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:33 p.m.)
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