12:54 p.m. EST
First, with respect to the travel of the Secretary: Since arriving in Vienna last night, Secretary Kerry has had a variety of meetings and consultations with Baroness Ashton, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, French Foreign Minister Fabius, UK Foreign Secretary Hammond, and German Political Director Lucas. Those meetings are still ongoing. He continues to stay in close touch with his interagency colleagues in Washington. The situation on the ground remains fluid, so any updates to the itinerary will come from the Secretary’s team on the ground.
Second item: The United States is deeply disappointed that Chinese authorities upheld the separatism conviction and life sentence for prominent Uighur professor Ilham Tohti in a closed jailhouse hearing today. His detention silenced an important Uighur voice that peacefully promoted understanding among China’s ethnic groups. We will continue to call for Chinese authorities to release professor Tohti.
The United States is also deeply concerned about reports that veteran journalist Gao Yu is being tried on a charge of leaking state secrets to a foreign news outlet. The United States remains concerned by the ongoing detention and prosecution of public interest lawyers, journalists, bloggers, religious leaders, and others who challenge official Chinese policies and actions. We urge Chinese authorities to differentiate between peaceful dissent and violent extremism. And we continue to call on Chinese authorities to release all persons detained for peacefully expressing their views, to remove restrictions on their freedom of movement, and to guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments, including the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.
And the last item: I would like to welcome a group of young Palestinian journalists to the daily briefing in the back. They are here today as part of an UNRWA-sponsored program which brings young people to the United States to learn how journalists here engage on foreign policy and interact with the State Department, of which you all are a model.
So please, Lara, why don’t you lead off.
QUESTION: (In Arabic.) (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Nice job.
QUESTION: Thanks. Let’s start with Iran if we could.
MR. RATHKE: Sure.
QUESTION: The last update we got from Vienna was that Secretary Kerry was planning on traveling back to Paris tonight. Is that still the case?
QUESTION: Okay, but he’s meeting with Foreign Minister Zarif and Baroness Ashton right now. Is that right?
MR. RATHKE: Well, he’s had a variety of meetings. I can’t tell you with certainty exactly whom he’s sitting down with now. It’s been, as I said, a very fluid situation with a number of meetings in bilateral, in multilateral settings. But those meetings continue as we speak.
QUESTION: Right. And so it’s getting kind of late in Vienna, hence the question about what his travel plans are. I mean, the point, I suppose, of this is that since it’s so fluid and since it’s been going back and forth and some of these meetings seem like they have arisen at last-minute notice, what does that suggest in terms of the prospect of a deal and the state of the negotiations right now?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I wouldn’t draw a particular conclusion from it. This is a fluid situation and we’re staying flexible in terms of the logistics and travel arrangements as to what is needed on the ground. The United States intends to keep working hard to resolve the differences and to do everything in our power to try to get across the finish line. But with respect to the fact that meetings are continuing intensively, I think that shouldn’t be a surprise given that we’re nearing the November 24th deadline.
QUESTION: And does Secretary Kerry plan on staying in the region through the deadline, I mean until the 24th?
MR. RATHKE: Again, I don’t have anything to update as far as his travel plans. I have no changes to announce.
QUESTION: Why – can I ask something directly on the travel? Why is it that – I mean, if – I don’t understand why it might be necessary for him to leave and then come back. I mean, if his presence there is of utility, why doesn’t he just stay there and hang out at a hotel or do whatever and step in as necessary? And if his presence isn’t necessary, why doesn’t he just come back to Washington? I don’t fully understand the need to hop to a new European city every couple of days here.
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, his travel schedule is driven by how he sees his time best used, and he’s had a variety of consultations this week in advance of arriving in Vienna. He’s there now. I don’t have further announcements to make, but clearly he remains in close touch with his counterparts both within the P5+1 as well as internationally, and with the team in Washington.
QUESTION: Are all other members of the team, notably Acting Deputy Secretary Sherman, former Deputy Secretary Burns, former National Security Council official Jake Sullivan – are all of them staying?
MR. RATHKE: Again, I don’t have anything to announce about their travel. They’re in Vienna now. I don’t have any announcements to make about that.
QUESTION: And can you offer any characterization beyond what you already have on the nature of the talks given that you are now three days to the deadline?
MR. RATHKE: Well, given where we are in the negotiations, I’m not going to give readouts of those meetings.
QUESTION: Earlier this week, you told us that – you said, “We’re not talking about an extension.” Are – I think that was on Wednesday.
MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Are you now talking about an extension given how close to the deadline you are?
MR. RATHKE: The situation on that hasn’t changed either. We’re focused on the 24th of November. That’s what we’re focused on.
QUESTION: And the statement, “We are not talking about an extension,” is still true?
MR. RATHKE: Right. We’re not talking about an extension with the Iranians. We’re not focused on that.
QUESTION: What are you talking --
QUESTION: Are you talking to your own partners about it?
MR. RATHKE: It’s not what we’re focused on. We’re focused on the 24th.
QUESTION: But can you make the same statement with regard to the Iranians with – about your five other negotiating partners, that, “We are not talking about an extension”?
MR. RATHKE: Again, I don’t have readouts of the meetings that are ongoing as we speak. What I’ve said is that we are focused on the 24th. We’re not focused on an extension.
QUESTION: Would you dissuade us from concluding from your series of answers to these questions that you are, in fact, discussing the possibility of an extension with the other five, just not with Iran?
MR. RATHKE: Again, the meetings are ongoing on the ground. I am not going to persuade you or dissuade you beyond what I’ve said. Again, it’s a fluid situation.
QUESTION: Is it conceivable to you that you could – and I’m not talking about a formal extension to some significant – to some date in the future. Is it conceivable to you that, as was the case a year ago, that you might – that the negotiations might slide an extra few hours or 12 hours or day or two days? I mean, is it conceivable to you without a formal extension that you guys could – that all the parties could just keep talking through Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, maybe even Thursday?
MR. RATHKE: I appreciate the opportunity to comment on a hypothetical, but I’m not going to. We’re focused on the 24th. That’s where our energies are directed.
QUESTION: I don’t think technically it’s a hypothetical. I asked if something was conceivable to you.
MR. RATHKE: Again, we’re focused on November 24th.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
MR. RATHKE: Anything else on this topic? No? Please, Elise.
QUESTION: I’d like to return to the case of Taqi Maidan. You said yesterday – was it yesterday --
QUESTION: Or Wednesday.
QUESTION: -- Wednesday, sorry – that you were aware of the recent report published by the Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and you said you share many of the concerns related to his detention and you take its work very seriously.
QUESTION: Could you say what areas of that report that you share their concerns about?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to get into a further characterization of the content of the report. But I will say --
QUESTION: Well, I can – I mean, there are reports that the detention was arbitrary. There are reports that – about his alleged abuse in prison. There are allegations that the confession was forced. I mean, which of the confessions – which of the allegations in the report do you share the concerns of, or just the general nature that his detention has been arbitrary and that he should be released?
MR. RATHKE: Well, as I mentioned yesterday, this is a case that we’ve taken very seriously. We’ve raised this at the highest levels of the Government of Bahrain. And we continue; we remain in contact with them about it. And our concerns relate to Mr. Al-Maidan’s safety and welfare, his treatment in prison – including his medical and nutritional needs – and the Bahraini court system’s judicial proceedings.
QUESTION: When you say “the Bahraini court system’s judicial proceedings,” are you suggesting that you feel that he did not get due process and didn’t receive a fair trial?
MR. RATHKE: Well, first I would also note in that respect that Mr. Al-Maidan’s attorney has informed us that they plan to appeal the verdict. Of course, we’d refer you to them for any additional information on those steps on their part. But in our discussions with the Government of Bahrain about this case, we continue to emphasize the importance of Bahrain’s commitment to fair trial guarantees required by international law.
QUESTION: When you say that, that would indicate that you feel that the initial trial was not fair.
MR. RATHKE: Well, I would say, again, that we continue to raise our concerns with the Government of Bahrain about a fair trial.
QUESTION: Is there – do you – are you concerned that there’s evidence to support the claim that the confession for what he was actually convicted of, which is – I think there’s a recognition that he was caught up in the protest, so maybe that would be unlawful assembly, but intent to kill police, destruction of police vehicles, and possession of Molotov cocktails, that that was all a forced confession? Because he says he just threw rocks. Is there evidence to support all of these other claims?
MR. RATHKE: Well, with respect to the evidence, I would refer you to Bahraini authorities. I would --
QUESTION: Are you concerned that there was a forced confession, I guess is my --
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, we’ve – I’ve discussed that we have raised our concerns at high levels of the Government of Bahrain regarding his safety and welfare and his treatment in prison, including medical and nutritional needs. I’m not going to specify that further.
QUESTION: Were there --
MR. RATHKE: If I could also, though, mention, because we’ve – we have visited Mr. Al-Maidan several times. We are in regular contact with him and with his family. So since his detention, we visited him five times, most recently --
QUESTION: In two years?
MR. RATHKE: Yes, five times. The most recent was September 30th, 2014. And in addition to that, staff from our Embassy in Bahrain have attended six separate court hearings that concerned Mr. Al-Maidan’s case.
QUESTION: Is that common that in two – like, that in two years, your basic – that a year, when there’s an American citizen in detention on cases that you have a concern about, is kind of two and a half times a year really a sufficient, do you think, amount of time to visit someone in jail --
MR. RATHKE: Well, we --
QUESTION: -- when you have – when you do have concerns and claims of abuse in prison?
MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Well, I don’t have further details to share about the general approach of the Government of Bahrain in terms of access to prisoners, but certainly, we always seek regular access to Americans who are imprisoned overseas.
QUESTION: Okay. And just one more on this: You said that – you mentioned the appeal.
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: It’s my understanding that it’s not guaranteed that the Bahrainis will accept another appeal. I think that this is, like, their one last chance of recourse for a possible appeal, and it’s not guaranteed that the government accepts it. Are you urging the government to allow the case to go forward for appeal?
MR. RATHKE: Well, if my understanding is correct, there is a plan to appeal. I don’t believe that that appeal has actually been filed yet, so it would be premature to say how that will go. But I would revert to the statement I made at the start, which is we remain in contact with the Bahraini Government, including at the highest levels, and we continue to consult with Bahraini officials on this case.
QUESTION: Without getting into the kind of specific question – diplomatic discussions, if there was – this was just a case of an American who broke the law, I don’t think you would be raising this case with the Bahrainis at the highest levels of the government. So why is this case being raised with Bahrainis at the highest level of government? Is it about your concern about lack of due process? Is it concern about the potential abuse in prison? Is it all of it? Do you think that this was a disproportionate sentence for --
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, we have a variety of concerns which I’ve listed, and as a result of those --
QUESTION: But the highest levels of the government would indicate that you feel that something needs to be done about – do you think he should be released?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, we have a number of concerns about his treatment and about the judicial proceedings, which is why we continue to raise this. We take it seriously, which is why it’s been a topic of discussion at the highest levels.
QUESTION: And you’ll continue to raise it at the highest levels?
MR. RATHKE: Well, yes, we continue to consult with government officials.
QUESTION: And Jeff?
MR. RATHKE: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: On this – actually, just quickly, in this time that you’ve been consulting with the government and raising these concerns at the highest levels, has the State Department or the Embassy there or the U.S. Government as a whole seen any indication whatsoever in that time that the government has acknowledged these concerns and is willing to address them?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we take seriously any allegation of abuse, mistreatment, or torture, and that’s why we’ve raised our concerns about the conditions of his custody. We understand that in response to our concerns, he has been given appropriate medical access and treatment. So I would highlight that. But again, this is a matter of ongoing concern. I would not want to suggest that that is the – that that would suggest an endpoint to our concern.
QUESTION: When was that? Do you happen to know?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have specific details to share on that.
QUESTION: Just one more: Are you also raising the kind of length of the sentence? Because my understanding is that when the government – or the court, rather, handed down the 10-year sentence, the consular officer, who I won’t name, expressed shock to the – to Mr. Maidan about the sentence and said that she thought it was a disproportionate sentence.
MR. RATHKE: I don’t – I simply don’t have the basis to make a judgment about that. I lack the information to compare.
QUESTION: And just one other question: If you could clear up why, the last two years, you’ve been saying that you don’t have a Privacy Act waiver? I understand now that one has come to light, you’re talking out about the case and that’s great, but it’s my understanding that the family signed a Privacy Act waiver some time ago.
MR. RATHKE: I’m sorry, but you’re suggesting --
QUESTION: I’m suggesting that for the last two years you haven’t talked about the case, claiming a Privacy Act waiver.
MR. RATHKE: I’m not aware – but perhaps I’m simply not familiar – I’m not aware that it’s been raised in the briefing over the last couple of years.
QUESTION: This is not the first time the case has been raised.
MR. RATHKE: Okay. Well, that’s – I don’t – I’m not aware. Again, I think there may have been a mistake in locating the Privacy Act waiver, but clearly we’ve had a lengthy discussion.
MR. RATHKE: We’re – we’ve got the authorization to speak about it and therefore we’re doing so.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. RATHKE: Anything on this topic? Okay, we can move on. Elliot.
QUESTION: Yeah, can I go to Ukraine?
MR. RATHKE: Please.
QUESTION: I know the Vice President already spoke to this, but do you have any reaction to the new Ukrainian legislative coalition being agreed to?
MR. RATHKE: Right. We welcome today’s signing of an agreement among all five participating political parties in Ukraine to form a coalition government. This is an important and transparent step in the formation of a new government as a result of last month’s parliamentary elections. And we will continue to support the Government of Ukraine in its efforts to build a more prosperous, unified, and democratic society. Of course, the Vice President is there and he’s – his presence certainly underscores that at the highest levels.
QUESTION: And then the coalition has also laid out its major sort of policy and political goals, including – and that includes aiming to join NATO and returning Crimea to Ukrainian control. Does the U.S. support this agenda?
MR. RATHKE: Well, first of all, nobody aside from Russia recognizes the illegal occupation and attempt to annex Crimea. So that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I would also say that the people of Ukraine and in – through their commitment to democratic values and principles and the elections have supported politicians who are focused on reform in a wide variety of areas. So reform, anticorruption, and those sorts of issues are extremely important to them, and we think that emphasis is important.
Now, with respect to their security policy and their calls for ties with NATO, our policy is that the door remains open, and the countries that are willing to contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic alliance, in the Euro-Atlantic space are welcome to apply for membership. Each application is considered on its merits. Ultimately, that’s a Ukrainian decision to make.
QUESTION: Russians have already said that they would need a 100 percent guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO. Given that statement, do you think that this is a positive step toward reconciling with Russia, or do you see it as something that could possibly make tensions even worse?
MR. RATHKE: Which step do you mean?
QUESTION: The step of moving toward joining NATO.
MR. RATHKE: I thought you might have meant the Russian call for veto over Ukraine’s own sovereign decisions.
QUESTION: Well – (laughter) --
MR. RATHKE: Anyway, the United States remains committed to NATO’s open door policy and to previous decisions by the alliance. Again, Ukrainians have the right to make their own decisions about what policies they want to pursue. That’s really their responsibility.
MR. RATHKE: Anything else on Ukraine?
QUESTION: Yeah, I’ve got --
MR. RATHKE: Yes, please.
QUESTION: Just given the amount of – the number of deaths in Eastern Ukraine in the last several months, does the United States still recognize or believe that a ceasefire is in place?
MR. RATHKE: Well, the – unfortunately, the root of the problem in eastern Ukraine remains the same: Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and its support to separatists who are fighting against Ukrainian authorities. Time and again, Russia has made commitments, has failed to live up to them, and then later offered explanations that it knows and the rest of us know are untrue.
So we think that the ceasefire needs to be observed and that Russia and the separatists need to abide by the Minsk agreements, and that’s essential for a peaceful way forward.
QUESTION: But you just laid out a very good argument for why the ceasefire is really no longer in place, given all of the movements.
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to draw that conclusion. We think that this – of course, there is activity of concern, and that’s why we call on Russia and the separatists to abide by their commitments in the Minsk protocols. And that’s essential. There are – the Ukrainian authorities have done what’s been expected of them under the Minsk agreements. That hasn’t been reciprocated.
QUESTION: So would there be any kind of policy adjustment by the United States if the ceasefire were to be called off?
MR. RATHKE: That’s – I’d put that in the hypothetical category.
QUESTION: Probably, but I mean, it’s – goes back to the question of why not just call it as it is. I mean, there is violence happening on both sides. Whether one is instigated and one is in defense – I mean, there’s – it’s undeniable that both sides have suffered attacks and losses.
MR. RATHKE: Well, the loss of life in eastern Ukraine is truly regrettable, all the more so because it didn’t have to happen. It doesn’t – and it doesn’t need to continue. Our policy --
QUESTION: And it wouldn’t have happened if the ceasefire was really in place.
MR. RATHKE: Well, our policy hasn’t changed. We’ve stated that we will increase the costs to Russia if it doesn’t take steps to – on its own and through the proxy separatists to abide by the Minsk agreements.
QUESTION: And on that, do you think that the response to Russia or to the separatists – would that – is the United States still willing to take unilateral action against Russia and the separatists, or would that be only in conjunction with the EU partners?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we’ve had broad agreement with our European partners. Of course, those kinds of steps are always better if taken in harmony and in concert, and that’s our preference and that’s where we remain. And we remain on the same page, so --
QUESTION: So you’d be unwilling to take unilateral steps.
MR. RATHKE: No, I didn’t say that. I --
QUESTION: Would you be willing to take unilateral steps?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we’re not in a situation where we need to contemplate that, because we have a broad understanding and a similar point of view with our European partners with respect to the steps Russia needs to take and the ways in which the costs to Russia should increase if they fail to abide by the agreements.
QUESTION: Not only have they not abided by the agreements, but by the assessments of senior NATO officials and senior U.S. government officials, they have blatantly violated them. I mean, Deputy Secretary Blinken – Deputy Secretary-designate or nominee Blinken said that you have very strong evidence that they have sent troops and materiel into eastern Ukraine. Why haven’t you already, given the harmony with the Europeans – why haven’t you already broadened the scope of the sanctions, given that Russia is not merely not abiding by but is just – in your telling, is flagrantly violating the agreement?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we have continued systematically, in conjunction with our European partners, to increase those – increase the costs to Russia. We remain in contact with the European partners and continue discussions to that end. I don’t have further description to offer.
QUESTION: Are there any kind of discussions ongoing, either just in Washington or with our – the United States European partners as to how long Russia can continue to violate these terms before there is action taken?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I would dispute the notion that no action has been taken. I think we’ve just been talking about --
QUESTION: Before additional action is taken.
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to put a specific timeframe or deadline on it. This is a matter that we remain actively discussing with our European and international partners.
QUESTION: Sure, but it’s ongoing, as you’ve said.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: So at some point --
MR. RATHKE: Well, it was just about a week, week and a half ago that the European Union took certain measures. They – at the end of a European Foreign Affairs Council meeting. So again, there is a continuing ratcheting of the pressure and raising of the costs. And until Russia and the separatists change course, that’s going to continue.
MR. RATHKE: Anything on this topic, or --
QUESTION: Yeah, still on this topic.
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Just on the issue of Crimea, I understand what you said before about nobody recognizing the Russian annexation, but this is – I mean, what they’re calling for as a top-priority policy goal is a little different. It’s actually restoration of Ukrainian control over Crimea, which, in the absence of any kind of Russian action to relinquish Crimea, would presumably require some kind of military action into Crimea. But is that – like, to what extent is the U.S. prepared to support something like that?
MR. RATHKE: Well, in the first instance, I’d ask you to ask the Ukrainian authorities how to interpret the statement in the program that was concluded by the five political parties.
MR. RATHKE: I’m not certain that it necessarily means what you said it implies. We, the United States, have – we believe and we continue to believe that there’s no military resolution to the crisis in eastern Ukraine or, indeed, in Crimea. Our focus from the outset of the crisis has been on supporting Ukraine and pursuing a diplomatic solution.
QUESTION: So what – let me ask you this then: What steps is the U.S. prepared to take in order to assist in that goal of returning Crimea to Ukrainian control?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t have anything – any further details to outline now. We don’t recognize the illegal incorporation of Crimea into Russia, but I don’t have any further steps, other than what we’ve already discussed in this briefing room before.
Yes, just – Pam, on the same topic?
MR. RATHKE: Please.
QUESTION: Are there any new developments on the diplomatic front in talks in terms of whether or not the U.S. should move toward providing Ukraine with lethal aid?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think you will have seen the fact sheet released by the White House today, which outlines more than $23 million in new assistance to help support comprehensive reform in the Ukrainian law enforcement and justice sectors, and also to support the UN World Food Program’s humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. The fact sheet is quite detailed, and indeed, it outlines the full spectrum of areas where the Ukrainian Government has committed to reform, whether that’s in energy security, in economic reform, and so forth.
And I think with regard to the question of lethal assistance, we spoke to this yesterday, and indeed, Tony Blinken in his hearing in the foreign relations committee spoke to it as well. And I don’t have anything to add beyond our discussion yesterday, that this is something that remains an option. I don’t have an announcement to make though.
QUESTION: Over to Iraq?
MR. RATHKE: Yeah. Anything else on Ukraine? Okay, we’ll go to Iraq and then we’ll come to you, Tejinder.
QUESTION: The Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was in Baghdad and Erbil over the past two days. How do you view Turkey’s attempts to mend ties with Baghdad?
MR. RATHKE: Well, of course, we support good relations between Iraq and Turkey. That’s – and indeed, Turkish – the Turkish Government has played a very important role in recent weeks and months in dealing not only with the threat that comes from ISIL in Syria but also ISIL in Iraq. And so we’re, of course, supportive of anything that improves relations between Turkey and Iraq.
QUESTION: And we know that happens at a time when Joe Biden is expected to arrive in Turkey today. I think he arrived, right? Do you think that the two events are related? Is Turkey trying to be a better partner in the anti-ISIS coalition ahead of the visit?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not sure I’d characterize it that way because Turkey has been doing a lot. We talked about this yesterday and the day before. Turkey is – hosts the largest refugee population, people fleeing the fighting in --
QUESTION: That has nothing to do with the coalition. I mean, it’s been hosting a refugee population since the civil war began because refugees been streaming across its border. That is not related to the coalition.
MR. RATHKE: Well, I wasn’t – I hadn’t finished my sentence.
QUESTION: Okay, please.
MR. RATHKE: That’s not all that Turkey has done.
QUESTION: That has nothing to do with the coalition, right?
MR. RATHKE: Well, but we’re not talking about – purely about the coalition. He was talking about Turkey as a partner.
QUESTION: Oh, I’m sorry. I thought he was asking about --
QUESTION: As a part of the anti-ISIS coalition.
MR. RATHKE: Fine. Turkey has also taken steps to impede foreign terrorist financing and also the flow of foreign terrorist fighters. And on the humanitarian side, they have contributed and have helped keep humanitarian corridors open. So these are – in addition to that, they have agreed to host part of the train and equip program for the Syrian opposition. So Turkey is doing quite a lot, and we value greatly the Turkish contribution, which I think is one reason why the Vice President is going there. Turkey is a strategic NATO ally and a valuable partner.
QUESTION: Just one more --
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- question on Iraq – on Kurdistan specifically. Chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce, he introduced a bill yesterday authorizing the President to directly provide advanced conventional arms to the Kurdish Peshmerga. Have you seen that bill? What do you think of the bill?
MR. RATHKE: I think we talked about this yesterday, but I’m happy to --
QUESTION: Well, the bill came out yesterday. I mean, specifically --
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m happy to talk about – I haven’t read the bill, and I’m not going to comment directly on the provisions of the bill that is in Congress. But we have enormous respect for the courage that the Kurds have shown and the fight that they’ve already taken to ISIL. And that’s why, in coordination with the Government of Iraq, the United States and the coalition have been very supportive of Iraqi Kurdish forces. Since the crisis began, the United States and members of the coalition have worked with the Iraqi central government to send 46 plane loads of needed equipment to the Kurdish Regional Government, and we continue our support.
QUESTION: Can you conclude that top lawmakers of this country – I mean, they’re at odds with the Administration on a lot of domestic issues, but also on this matter, which is very crucial for U.S. national interest, like fighting ISIS, you are, like, on opposite sides? They want you to work with non-state actors such the Kurds more closely than what you are already (inaudible).
MR. RATHKE: Well, our policy remains as we’ve discussed it over the last few days, and as it has been indeed for months and years, that all arms transfers must be coordinated through the sovereign central government of Iraq. That’s our policy. It’s also a legal requirement under current U.S. law. And we think this is – this policy is the most effective way to support the effort to combat ISIL and to promote our policy of a unified, federal, pluralistic, and democratic state as envisioned in the Iraqi constitution.
QUESTION: So one more: You said on Wednesday that the Kurdish delegation was going to meet State Department officials on Thursday, yesterday. Do you think that --
MR. RATHKE: Well, they had a variety of meetings throughout the entire week, but yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you have any update, any --
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have a readout of those meetings. Anything more on Iraq?
QUESTION: Yeah. Can I follow up on that?
MR. RATHKE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: I mean, it doesn’t really answer the question of whether the policy that you maintain of supplying arms directly to the central government of Iraq would exist if it wasn’t for the legal requirement that binds you to that. Can you address that?
MR. RATHKE: Well, as I think I said, our policy is to promote a unified, federal, pluralistic, and democratic state, as indeed is outlined in the Iraqi constitution. And so our policy with respect to arms and the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish forces is a natural result of that policy.
QUESTION: So freed from the legal requirement of having to supply arms and equipment to the government in Baghdad, you wouldn’t necessarily shift to directly supplying the Kurds?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I’m not going to get into commenting on a bill that has been introduced, but which hasn’t been passed. So our policy is as I described it for those reasons.
QUESTION: But it has the support of both the chairman of the Senate foreign affairs committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, so it’s --
MR. RATHKE: I’ll decline the opportunity to comment on who supports or has spoken out in Congress on the bill.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: I just kind of want to take a step back if I may and --
MR. RATHKE: Sure.
QUESTION: -- since some things seem to change and some things stay the same, but if you could just remind me, regarding the United States involvement in Iraq and Syria, is it fair still to say that defeating ISIS is still the main effort? I think General Allen said that the other day, that it’s still an “Iraq first” policy, right?
MR. RATHKE: But let me make sure I understand your question correctly. You mean with respect to the fight against ISIL and where our focus is in that regard, or do you mean our policy toward Iraq overall?
QUESTION: Iraq and Syria overall.
MR. RATHKE: Okay. So the – well, I think the – as General Allen has said and as others have said, we’re focused on fighting ISIL in Iraq. We are cooperating with Iraqi authorities to that end, both Kurdish authorities as well as the central government.
QUESTION: And Syria as well.
MR. RATHKE: And at the same time in Syria, so – but the circumstances in both places are quite different, and therefore the approaches need to be different.
QUESTION: Well – okay.
MR. RATHKE: So I don’t have anything to add or change in what General Allen and others have said about this.
QUESTION: Let me just put it this way. I mean, I’m not trying to – I’m honestly trying to understand --
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- a larger point here. I’m not trying to back you into a corner.
MR. RATHKE: Right.
QUESTION: But we do have people saying that what’s happening there is an “Iraq first” policy of defeating ISIS that will also spill over into Syria. At the same time, we have a policy of all of this must be solved politically, which means Assad must go. So I’m just wondering if you can explain the U.S. position on how these two things or where these two things come together, because from the outside, they’re two separate tracks.
MR. RATHKE: Well, but again, are you talking about our policy toward ISIL in Iraq and Syria, or are you talking about our – of course, our position on Assad is well known.
QUESTION: But how does your position --
QUESTION: That is the crux of the problem.
QUESTION: The crux of the problem --
QUESTION: That’s our question too.
QUESTION: The unanswerable question that no one seems to be able to answer, which would make it unanswerable – (laughter) – is that – how does your policy of a political transition in Syria fit into your overall strategy for ISIS?
QUESTION: Or how does the policy for defeating ISIS fit in --
QUESTION: That’s – yes, that’s a better way of putting it. Thank you.
QUESTION: -- with the overall strategy of a political solution that includes removing Assad?
QUESTION: Thank you, yes.
MR. RATHKE: Well, we’ve been clear that our goal --
QUESTION: No, you haven’t been clear. Okay. (Laughter.)
MR. RATHKE: You have, Elise. Let me tell you that. So our goal is helping the Syrian people reach a negotiated political transition that fulfills their aspirations. Now this means a future without Assad or ISIL, and as President Obama has said repeatedly, Assad has lost his legitimacy, and there can’t be a stable and inclusive Syria under his leadership. So we’re taking action against ISIL in Syria because the Assad regime has shown that it can’t and won’t confront terrorist groups effectively.
So remember, of course, as I’m sure you know but it’s worth repeating, that Assad’s own actions have fueled the rise of extremism. And so therefore we are working to support the opposition in Syria. We have been supporting the opposition for years. We’re stepping up that, especially through the train and equip program, and that is to help them defend themselves from Assad but also to defend and fight back against ISIL.
QUESTION: Right, but if Assad’s own actions have fueled extremism, can you really, truly put an end to extremism in Syria without getting rid of Assad?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, our overall goal with respect to Syria is that the Syrian people are able to reach a negotiated political transition that fulfills their aspirations. So – and we’ve also been clear that we don’t see a stable and inclusive Syria under the leadership of Assad.
QUESTION: Are these two separate tracks or are they related?
MR. RATHKE: Well --
QUESTION: Defeat ISIL, unseat Assad, or is it related? I mean --
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think it’s been clear that ISIL represents a threat not only in Iraq and Syria, but the neighboring countries in the region see a clear threat from ISIL and that’s where the international effort is focused as a result.
QUESTION: Is it fair to assume that the U.S. priority is defeating Iraq since – I mean, obvious and --
MR. RATHKE: Defeating Iraq? I’m sorry.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, defeating ISIL. Sorry, not defeating Iraq, but defeating the Islamic State, given that there has been overt and repeated action by the United States to fight ISIL?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think it’s clear from our actions, as you say, that we’re devoting enormous energies – energy and resources to the fight against ISIL, both supporting Iraqi forces as they do so as well as in Syria.
QUESTION: Let me put it this way: If and when Assad ever leaves, who takes his place under the current environment?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t have a prediction or a prescription for that to offer at this point. We believe there needs to be a political solution that embodies the aspirations of all of Syria’s people, but we are unfortunately far from that right now. So I don’t have any further details to offer on (inaudible).
QUESTION: Is it not a concern that elements of ISIL and Khorasan and other extremist groups could step into that vacuum if Assad leaves?
MR. RATHKE: Well, of course we are concerned about Khorasan and ISIL and other extremist groups. That’s indeed why we’ve carried out, I think, over 400 strikes in Syria in recent weeks and months, including most recently just a day or so ago.
QUESTION: Well, but what – I mean, there’s some lip service that’s paid to kind of boosting up the – I mean, train and equip program aside, how are you ever going to get to the day for an Assad-free Syria if your efforts at the – to help not only effect a political transition in Syria, but get the opposition to a place where it can fill a vacuum left by Assad in the event that he leaves? And how is that – is ISIL – are you ever going to truly defeat ISIL and see a political transition if you’re not working with the opposition?
MR. RATHKE: We are. I’m sorry, I --
QUESTION: What are you – do you have in your book, like, recently what has been done to help get the Syrian opposition together? We haven’t heard for months about kind of meetings with the Syrian opposition or any programs that have been done to help the – again, I’m not saying the train and equip program, which is great, but the political opposition. I mean, we haven’t really heard much about that in a very long time.
MR. RATHKE: Well, we remain in close contact with the political opposition, and I think in recent weeks we’ve talked from here about the consultations that Daniel Rubinstein has had. He’s, of course, the envoy who’s most actively engaged on this. So we remain in close contact. We’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars in support of the Syrian opposition, and of course that’s without even speaking about the train and equip program, which is getting underway. So I would dispute the notion that we’ve been inactive.
QUESTION: But for your hundreds of millions of dollars, can you say that the political Syrian opposition is in any more shape to fill a vacuum filled by Assad than it was when you started?
MR. RATHKE: Well, they’re clearly under a --
QUESTION: If he were to go tomorrow, I’m saying.
MR. RATHKE: The political opposition is clearly under pressure both from ISIL and from Assad. That’s why we are committed to supporting them. That’s – I don’t have more to say beyond that.
Anything else on this topic?
QUESTION: Do you have --
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- any more details – just to quickly follow up on Elise’s – do you have any more details on the training and equip program in --
MR. RATHKE: Not beyond what we talked about earlier this week.
QUESTION: Which was just that it was maybe happening.
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, it’s a Department of Defense-led program, so I’d refer you to them for details about the specifics – excuse me – of implementation.
QUESTION: Did it start? Did the program start?
MR. RATHKE: Again, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. They’re working with our partners who have agreed to host the elements of the train and equip program. But I’d refer you to them for the details.
QUESTION: Yeah, but you don’t know yourself if the program ever started?
MR. RATHKE: I think they are putting in place all of the arrangements necessary to commence, but again, as far as the details, I’d refer you to them.
QUESTION: Yes. You mentioned the train and equip program for the opposition, but it seems that the train and equip program is to fight ISIL, or to replace Assad?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think we’ve talked about this already a couple of times this week. We are training and equipping appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian armed opposition through the Department of Defense, and this will help them defend the Syrian people from attacks by ISIL and the Syrian regime, will stabilize areas under opposition control, and empower those trainees also to go on the offensive against ISIL.
QUESTION: The reason that I’m asking this question, because opposition people, most of them are talking about getting rid of Assad and not – they are not just fighting ISIL. And the second thing, which is: Do you believe that Assad and his army, whatever, his security system, are fighting ISIL, or he doesn’t do anything to them?
MR. RATHKE: I think I’ve said already at the start that the reason that you’ve seen the rise of ISIL in Syria is because the Assad regime has shown no interest and no ability to deal with extremist elements and that it’s fueled the fire.
Arshad, did you want to add something on this?
QUESTION: I – no, I wanted to shift to Sudan. So --
MR. RATHKE: Okay.
QUESTION: Well, I – can I just finish the thought?
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Why do you think that is? Because he sees that ISIL is going after the opposition and that’s doing his work for him? Or --
MR. RATHKE: I’m not going --
QUESTION: -- is he cooperating with ISIL in any way, do you think?
MR. RATHKE: Well, clearly, the Assad regime has not gone after ISIL in the ways that it could have. I’m not going to speculate about the reasons why they might do that from this podium, though.
So Tejinder, go ahead.
QUESTION: Two. First is that Secretary Biswal is leaving for India day after tomorrow --
MR. RATHKE: Right.
QUESTION: -- for – and you say internal consultations, bilat meetings. Can you tell us how long she will be in India, how many hours, how many days?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t think I have that level of detail about her schedule. We put out an announcement about her travel, and she’ll be making a trip to a number of places, including India, also to Nepal, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, and to Switzerland. And that’s a long trip. It’s going to start November 23rd, go until December 5th.
I don’t have additional detail about her itinerary or her scheduled meetings at each of those stops at this point.
QUESTION: And is it --
QUESTION: Just a follow-up?
QUESTION: -- is it connected with President Obama’s visit to India in January?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to connect it to the President’s trip. Of course, you will have seen that the White House put out an announcement that the President will be traveling to India. But I think this is a – I think Assistant Secretary Biswal’s trip is a long-planned trip for a variety of reasons. Of course, it gives her the opportunity, though, to contribute to developing the agenda for the President’s visit. But that’s led by the White House, naturally.
QUESTION: And how does this building, the people here, look at the trip of Mr. Obama? Like, it came to light through a tweet from Indian prime minister. So was it already – yes, already there was something going on?
MR. RATHKE: I think if you’ve got a question about the President’s travel, this is not the right room in which to be asking it. I’d refer you to the White House for details.
QUESTION: No. I’m talking about the diplomatic part of it. What is the diplomatic --
MR. RATHKE: Well, of course we’re excited that the President’s going to India. We’ve had a great visit by Prime Minister Modi to the United States, and we have a number of areas where we’re cooperating, some of which I outlined I believe yesterday or two days ago, through high-level visits. So we look forward to that continuing.
QUESTION: So do you feel that this was a – will put a final nail in the coffin of the subject of Khobragade and then other visa issues, other – all these issues that have been really souring the relations?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have anything to add on those. I think we’ve got a vibrant and productive bilateral partnership that we look forward to developing further.
QUESTION: Can I follow up?
MR. RATHKE: On that? Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: As I ask other day, so much going on between the two countries as far as trade, economics, and other diplomacy and other relations are concerned. And a number of agreements were signed by the high level officials in Delhi during this – last week visits. And as far as President’s visits are concerned, of course, he was invited by the Prime Minister Modi in – when he visited the White House and also in Burma and at the G20. My question is: Secretary is going to join him on this trip in January 26 when the President will be at the Republic Day of India, guest of honors?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have anything to announce about the Secretary’s travel at this time, so I simply don’t have anything to add.
QUESTION: And anything on this ongoing agreements signed and ongoing --
MR. RATHKE: I have nothing to add to what we discussed on Wednesday.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: So there is a report that the Sudanese Government has asked UNAMID, the UN-AU peacekeeping mission in western Darfur, to prepare plans to leave, to prepare an exit strategy. That doesn’t mean that they’ve been asked to leave immediately, but they’ve been asked to draw up plans to leave. Do you have any view on that request, particularly in the light of the difficulty that UNAMID had in first gaining access to investigate mass rape allegations, then in getting into the town to investigate them but there being a very heavy Sudanese Government presence when they tried to interview people, and lastly their renewed request to continue investigations in that – into that?
MR. RATHKE: Right. Well, I’m aware of the reports. I became aware of it just before coming out here, so I’m not in a position to verify it or confirm it in any way. But I would refer you and others to the statement that we put out about two weeks ago which still is pertinent, I think, in this regard.
The United States has been deeply concerned by allegations of mass rape by Sudanese military forces in north Darfur. And we took note then of – that the Government of Sudan allowed access to UNAMID to investigate those allegations, but we expressed our regret that the initial access was denied and that access to potential witnesses and victims was only allowed after significant delays and under close observation of Sudanese security officials.
So we urge the Government of Sudan to fulfill its obligation to grant immediate, unhindered, and full access to UNAMID and other UN agencies. That was our position just a week ago, and it remains our point of view now. But I don’t have further reaction yet to those comments.
QUESTION: Okay. A simple question – and I don’t know if you’re in a position to answer it or not.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: But given your belief that UNAMID should be allowed to investigate these allegations, does the U.S. Government believe that it would be bad if UNAMID were to leave at the request of the Sudanese Government before it has had an opportunity to conduct further investigations into the allegations?
MR. RATHKE: Well, UNAMID plays a key role. We think it should be able to carry out its role. That’s – I think that’s clear.
QUESTION: A General Accounting Office report on human trafficking states that oversight of contractors’ use of foreign workers in high-risk environments needs to be strengthened because without consistent monitoring of contractors’ labor practices, the U.S. Government is unable to send a clear signal to contractors, to sub-contractors, and foreign workers. My question is: What concrete steps is the State Department taking to address concerns raised by the GAO on the potential for abuse of foreign workers, particularly the payment of recruitment fees, which opens the way to debt bondage for those contracted to work with the Department of State in high-risk environments such as Iraq or Afghanistan?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we take human trafficking extremely seriously. Of course, you’re familiar with our annual report on human trafficking throughout the world. And our embassies devote a lot of energy to trying to ascertain and improve the human trafficking situation in all countries where we have embassies.
With respect to that particular report, I have to admit I’m not familiar with its recommendations. I’m happy to talk with folks here who are experts in that area and get back to you with more detail, but I apologize I don’t have more at this time.
QUESTION: Can I actually follow up on that?
MR. RATHKE: Yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: Do you happen to know if there’s any kind of standard for pay parity or conditions parity for third-country nationals as what – working as subcontractors or contractors in security situations on behalf of the United States Government overseas?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t happen to know that. I’m happy, though, in looking into that question, to see if we have something on that. That sounds like a pretty broad question --
QUESTION: Well, I mean --
MR. RATHKE: -- but happy to see what we can say about that.
QUESTION: -- there should be some kind of standard of living and security situation for these people who are in these high-risk environments --
MR. RATHKE: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: -- one would think, so --
MR. RATHKE: Yeah, I understand. No, we’re happy to look – I just don’t know that offhand.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
MR. RATHKE: Ali?
QUESTION: I wanted to ask about a report today that details some of the reckless driving violations that various foreign diplomats have been cited for over the past few years, and obviously, as the State Department is the de facto DMV for these folks, these questions apply to you guys. This report said that the State Department has dismissed foreign diplomats 45 times in the past two years because of reckless driving – repeated offenses. I just want to ask, first, is there is a threshold for which – that these diplomats would have to meet that they would be dismissed by the State Department? What is the standard there?
MR. RATHKE: Okay. Well, let me start off by saying that it is important to emphasize that the vast majority of foreign diplomats and their family members operate motor vehicles responsibly and in compliance with local traffic laws. However, the Department, as you say – our Office of Foreign Missions – issues driver’s licenses to eligible members of foreign missions, and we maintain driver histories on those individuals. We have a points system that we use and similar to those used by departments of motor vehicles elsewhere. And if an individual accumulates 12 or more points over a 24-month period, then we will suspend driving privileges for three months. And if there is a pattern of bad driving habits or egregious offenses such as driving while intoxicated – just one example – then those drivers would be subject to having their licenses suspended or revoked. So this of course depends on the infractions being reported to the Department so we can keep track of them, but if – in cases of repeat offenses or especially egregious offenses, certainly, we take action.
QUESTION: Sure. And notwithstanding the fact that the vast majority of diplomatic officials and their families are responsible drivers, there have been hundreds of cases of reckless driving in the past few years. So I’m just wondering, has there been any efforts by the State Department to issue some sort of general alert or guidelines to these embassies for folks who work here, expressing the importance that while they’re not party to the traffic laws here, that it’s important that they abide by the laws that are in place when that --
MR. RATHKE: Oh, it’s absolutely essential that, irrespective of any individual’s entitlement to diplomatic or consular immunity, that they – that there be consequences when they fail to abide by the laws. And so we of course make all missions aware of this, and we keep them updated. I don’t have further details about specific programs that we do.
QUESTION: Yeah, if you --
QUESTION: Do you have the same standards for your own diplomats overseas?
MR. RATHKE: How do you mean?
QUESTION: I mean, like, if there’s reckless driving, or – do you – the same standards that you provide for diplomats, do you have them for your own?
MR. RATHKE: Well, certainly, we expect all of our diplomats overseas to follow local traffic laws, and --
QUESTION: Because there have been numerous, repeated cases of U.S. diplomats not doing that.
MR. RATHKE: Well, and then – and when appropriate, we take action. I know I’ve had to pay one or two speeding tickets to places where I’ve been posted overseas, and it was understood that if you --
QUESTION: Where and when was that, Jeff? (Laughter.)
MR. RATHKE: We’ll talk about that afterwards.
So certainly, we hold our people to that standard too.
QUESTION: I just --
QUESTION: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Sorry. I just have a couple more questions on this line --
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- then I’ll stop.
I wanted to ask specifically about Saudi Arabia, which, according to this report, has more than four times the number of reckless driving citations than any other foreign country. And I’m just wondering: Have any – has there been any communication between the State Department and the Saudi Embassy specifically on what seems to be a specifically high number of reckless driving incidents that have been happening there?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have anything on that. I’d – I’m happy to look and see if there’s more to say.
QUESTION: Mm-hmm. And two more --
MR. RATHKE: I simply don’t know.
QUESTION: -- really quick. The reporter who FOIA-ed the document said that she didn’t receive all of them because some were listed under an exemption for foreign relations, which is typically something that’s used for national security concerns. And I’m just wondering what national security concern does the State Department believe applies to the reckless driving records of foreign diplomats.
MR. RATHKE: Well, we have responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act, and I’m aware that there were some issues highlighted in that story. We’re actively reviewing those issues. So I don’t have further comment beyond that.
QUESTION: And one of the efforts to impose more transparency on the whole process has been some people suggesting that it might be advisable to kind of name and shame those who have repeatedly violated these laws, but may not fall under the 12-point – they might not be at that threshold yet. What’s the State Department’s position on listing --
MR. RATHKE: I’m not going to pin down specific measures, but certainly we take this seriously and we continue to keep it under advisement.
Time for just one more. Michelle.
QUESTION: The UN Security Council added two branches of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya to its al-Qaida sanctions list. Do you agree with the UN’s report linking the groups to al-Qaida?
MR. RATHKE: So there – you are – you highlighted the decision by the UN Sanctions Committee. We certainly welcome the designation of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, and Ansar al-Sharia in Derna as terrorist organizations by the UN Security Council. The Department of State in January of this year, we announced our designations of both organizations as separate foreign terrorist organizations. So this brings the international view on these two organizations in line with the view that the United States had expressed before.
Now, the – it is not the U.S. Government’s assessment that these groups are affiliates of core al-Qaida under Ayman al-Zawahiri, and therefore we don’t recognize them as affiliates of core al-Qaida, but that doesn’t diminish in any way how – our grave concern about both these organizations and their activities.
QUESTION: So you’re not linking them to al-Qaida --
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think the document that the UN Security Council has release, it does not connect – it – that these groups are associated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, but they are not arms of core al-Qaida, if you look at the report. So certainly we take these groups seriously, and that’s why we acted 11 months ago to designate them. But that’s separate from I think what you were suggesting.
QUESTION: So they’re like a second degree of al-Qaida or something. Al-Qaida-lite --
MR. RATHKE: They are --
QUESTION: The JV team.
MR. RATHKE: -- they have been associated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. But in our assessment --
QUESTION: Which in itself is associated with al-Qaida core.
MR. RATHKE: Which is an affiliate. But we don’t see them as being subordinate to or a subsidiary of AQIM. There has been an association --
QUESTION: You mean, like, franchises, like at McDonalds?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t think I can put it in those kind of terms.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. RATHKE: Okay. Thank you very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:55 p.m.)