2:16 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon.
QUESTION: Good afternoon.
MR PRICE: I expect you all have seen the statement from the President, the statement from Secretary Blinken, the statement from the Department of the Treasury, regarding our latest action to hold to account the Cuban regime for its abuses in the aftermath of the protests, the peaceful protests in Cuba. And so, with that, I have nothing but my eagerness and happiness to take your questions.
MR PRICE: Eagerness. I’m always eager, Matt.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, let’s start with Cuba, then.
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: You designated one person and an entity that was already covered by Global Magnitsky sanctions that were imposed by the Trump administration in January. So, I don’t understand why you think that this is such a big deal.
MR PRICE: Well, Matt, let me first give you a bit of context to make sure this is understood in the right light. As we have said, since the onset of the peaceful protests across the island of Cuba, we will stand with the Cuban people, who are exercising their universal rights of peaceful protest, peaceful assembly, freedom of speech. We will look at additional ways we can support them. We have spoken to the formation of a remittance working group. We have spoken about the ways in which we are seeking to expand internet access so that the Cuban people can practice that freedom of expression and have the free flow of information to which they are entitled. We have spoken to our review of how we might augment our staffing at our embassy in Havana.
But we have also said that we are going to hold to account those Cuban individuals and entities responsible for the crackdown on this peaceful protest. And I said yesterday that the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is exploring designating Cuban officials, Cuban entities, responsible for violence, repression, human rights violations against those who are perpetrating this in Cuba.
So, you are right; we designated through the Global Magnitsky sanctions regime one individual and one entity today. This I do not expect will be the sum total of our actions. We’re going to continue to review what more we can do not only to support the Cuban people, but also, again, importantly to hold to account those who would be so brazen in their efforts and attempts to violate the human rights of the Cuban people. So —
QUESTION: Okay. But I mean, the special brigade of the interior ministry was already covered by Global Magnitsky sanctions. So, you – so you’ve – you’ve added another designation on – I just don’t – the impact of this seems to me whatever the impact would have been – it seems to have been – it seems to be negligible, since they were already covered. So, I don’t quite understand how it is that you are presenting this as some grand new initiative to support the Cuban people, when in fact it’s simply adding another layer, which was really unnecessary, since they already were covered by the sanctions.
MR PRICE: I would make a couple points. Number one, the Global Magnitsky sanctions regime is an important tool we have that is applicable —
QUESTION: It is. But they were already under it.
MR PRICE: — that is – Alvaro Lopez Miera was?
QUESTION: No, I’m talking about the – that’s one person, okay, who most likely doesn’t have any assets or any dealings with American citizens.
MR PRICE: Just – just so – just so no —
QUESTION: So, let’s talk about what the real impact would be, would be if you designated the whole entity of the – a part of the interior ministry, like with the Iran sanctions, okay? That would have a much bigger impact, whatever that impact would be. But the fact of the matter is that they were already covered by Global Magnitsky sanctions. The exact same sanction, the exact same executive order was used to do this, and it doesn’t have any – it doesn’t do anything new.
MR PRICE: Just so we’re not having a conversation just with each other, let me just level set with everyone.
QUESTION: Well, I’ll be – I’m done after that.
MR PRICE: Well, so as Matt alluded to, we have imposed sanctions on the minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, Alvaro Lopez Miera, as well as the Ministry of the Interior’s Special National Brigade. These – this individual, this entity, we have targeted them as part of our effort – that is not over, to be sure – to hold to account those actors in Cuba who have been responsible for the crackdown, for the repression, for the human rights abuses on those in Cuba who are doing nothing more than exercising their universal rights.
Now, we obviously do have a well-developed sanctions regime in place that covers different elements and entities in Cuba. That said, the embargo and the other sanctions tools – they do have carveouts. They have carveouts for a number of reasons. It is absolutely true that by sanctioning this individual and this entity some of those carveouts are closed, that there will be repercussions and implications for this individual and this entity. And it’s an important signal of our determination to hold accountable those responsible for this.
QUESTION: Specifically what carveouts are closed in that case? What are they not going to get that they were getting before? Just to follow up on Matt’s question, what’s the practical impact of this, or is it largely symbolic?
MR PRICE: Well, there is an important messaging element to this. The Global Magnitsky regime is a valuable tool we have that, again, is not applicable solely in the context of Cuba but the world over, and we’ve used it to good effect, the world over. Now with the Global Magnitsky regime, there are a number of implications, some of which do apply to this individual and this entity, some of which may not, given the rather unique circumstances.
QUESTION: Like weapons, money, food? I mean —
MR PRICE: So, let me give you a couple examples. And now obviously we’re not able to detail specific holdings of entities or individuals, but under this regime all property, and interest in property, in any of the entities that are owned directly or indirectly or with other designated persons that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons are blocked and must be reported to OFAC, unless authorized otherwise. In addition, these persons and all property and interest in property of these persons are blocked pursuant to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations. These prohibitions further include the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any blocked person or the receipt of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services from any such person.
So, there are a number of implications. Some of this is highly technical, especially given the intersection with the broader sanctions tools we have applied in the context of Cuba. But this is a meaningful and important step.
QUESTION: I want to also ask you about remittances. Because the President said that he’s looking for ways to get remittances directly to the people, not to the regime, as well as looking at the internet being restored, if there was some technical way that that could be done. On remittances, I interviewed Marco Rubio today, and he said it’s just not possible, because – unless the regime changes its policy of requiring that all remittances be deposited in government banks, be converted into pesos, which are useless in terms of any value, even on the island, compared to dollars. So, he said there’s no point in trying to do that, unless the regime changes its policy.
MR PRICE: What the President said earlier this week is that the administration would form a remittance working group to study this very issue. It’s namely to identify the most effective way possible or potentially to get those remittances directly into the hands of the Cuban people. This is a concern we share. The – this administration shares this concern with many in Congress that remittances would find their way into Cuban Government coffers. This is precisely why we are looking closely at the issue, to determine tools, tactics, procedures that might be possible to allow us to push forward with our goals, and that is, in the first instance, supporting the Cuban people, providing them with the much-needed humanitarian relief that so, clearly, they are calling for and desperate for, without buttressing the regime.
So, this working group was just announced earlier this week. Don’t have any more updates to share, at this time. But this concern about funds potentially going into Cuban Government coffers, but also this ultimate objective, supporting the Cuban people, supporting their needs, supporting their aspirations – it’s also something we share with members of Congress, and so we’ll continue to work closely with them.
QUESTION: And anything – has anything been advanced on the internet?
MR PRICE: Well, this is also something that the President spoke to for the first time, at least in detail, this week. And what we said is that we will work closely with two entities, really – the private sector, as well as with Congress – to identify viable options to make the internet more accessible to the Cuban people. This is a goal that’s important, in its own right. Freedom of expression, the ability of people anywhere and everywhere to freely communicate is something the United States always stands for, always supports. But it’s especially important now because the Cuban regime, we have seen in recent days, has enacted these blackouts, these internet shutdowns, precisely in an effort to stifle the protest, to silence the Cuban people.
And, of course, this does nothing to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the Cuban people. This is a sign of a government that, in some ways, is scared of its own people. And so, it’s especially important to us, given the actions that the Cuban regime has undertaken in recent days, to explore again with Congress and the private sector ways we can support the ability of the Cuban people to do what people, the world over, are entitled to do: exercise their freedom of expression, to share ideas without these sort of technical impediments.
QUESTION: Thanks. On the remittances, are you saying we will find a way to allow remittances and to get this money in the Cuban hands, or are you still saying that there is a chance that this won’t work and there is no way to make that money – doesn’t go in the regime coffers?
And also, on – on the embassy staffing, do you have any timing, any date for when it will happen? Will it happen in the next days or weeks or month?
MR PRICE: Well, on your first question, we’re forming a working group precisely to find out. We know that the underlying goal is something that certainly has the support of this administration; it has the support of other key stakeholders, including Congress, including many Americans, including Cuban Americans. And that is the objective of supporting the Cuban people, supporting their needs, also helping them to achieve their broader aspirations. We’re studying it because, again, we want to make sure or we want to test the proposition, I should say, that this is something we can do consistent with a countervailing priority, and that is to ensure that we don’t do anything that buttresses or strengthens the regime. So, we’re taking a close look at the issue. The – again, the working group was just announced this week, so as we have more details to share, we will.
Similarly, with our staffing plan for the embassy, we are – that plan was just announced this week. We’re taking a close look at a couple things: what our needs are, and what we could do with additional resources and additional people from our embassy in Havana, but also taking a close look at a number of factors, including the safety and security of people who may be going to Havana, some people who may be returning to Havana. That’s obviously a top priority for us around the world. It’s, as we talked about in this room the other day, certainly something we’re taking a close look at in the context of Cuba given one of the reasons for our drawdown in the first place.
So as soon as we have —
QUESTION: Is that a matter of weeks or a month?
MR PRICE: I wouldn’t want to put a timeframe on it. Obviously, the – our ability to engage directly with the Cuban people, to support the Cuban people, to hear directly from them, to engage in consular activity – it’s a priority for us. We’re working as fast as we can, but we are also doing it consistent with other priorities I laid out.
QUESTION: And deliver visa to Cuban people is one of the goals?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: To deliver visas to Cuban people is one of the goals?
MR PRICE: We are looking at a number of ways we might be able to support the Cuban people and to hold the regime to account. We’ve spoken to several of them, including the new designations today, but I wouldn’t want to get ahead of that.
QUESTION: Can I go to Nord Stream 2?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: The – so the agreement that you released yesterday has had a lot of response on the Hill, both sides of the of the aisle. Both parties – people from both parties are pretty upset with the way this has been done. And I think one of the – obviously one of the key points is sanctions, which Congress has passed laws to make an administration impose over this pipeline. It’s not mentioned in the statement, joint statement yesterday, but is there an implied agreement that the U.S. will not – will continue to waive the sanctions against Nord Stream 2 and its chief executive? And are you concerned that Congress, if they oppose what you’ve done here, will find some way to force your hand on sanctions?
MR PRICE: So, I want to be very clear on this point. I do want to provide some broader context, but just to be very clear on this point, as you mentioned, there is no explicit agreement, there is no implied agreement that we would do – we would take any particular course, with our sanctions from here out. We are committed to following the law. We will continue to do that. Nothing that was released yesterday changes that in any way. We will continue to follow the law.
Let me spend just a second talking about this decision and the broader context behind it. And in our minds, there were really two options before us in the context of this issue, and neither was especially good, and that is in large part because of the hand we were dealt. But we are confident that the measures we announced yesterday will allow us to see to it that we are able to meet our ultimate and collective goal, and that is to ensure that Russia cannot use energy flows, cannot weaponize energy flows against our partners. And, of course, that includes against Ukraine.
And so let me unpack that just a little bit. As we’ve always said – and it bears repeating – this administration is opposed to Nord Stream 2. That was true on January 20th. It is true on July 22nd, it will be true going forward. And we’re opposed to it because we think it’s a bad deal. We think it’s a bad deal for Germany, we think it’s a bad deal for our partners, ultimately because we see it as a potential tool that the Russian Federation could use against our partners.
And so that’s why in less than the – well, in the six months or so that we’ve been in office, the Biden administration has imposed sanctions on five entities and five vessels, under PEESA, as amended, as well as on additional nine vessels within the Nord Stream 2 fleet owned by a sanctioned entity. These designations represent sanctions on a significant portion of the Nord Stream 2 fleet.
You’ve heard us say this before, but it’s just worth a contextual point: There were two entities related to Nord Stream 2 that were sanctioned before January 20th. There have been 19 applied since. Those two entities sanctioned by the previous administration were done in literally the final hours of the last administration. So, for our part, we will continue to oppose this pipeline, and getting back to your first question, our next sanctions report – it’s due every 90 days – it’s due to Congress next month.
And so, to be very clear, we are not relinquishing any tools available to us. And, in fact, we are adding several more to our arsenal. And I’ll get to that in just a moment. The fact, however, is that by the time we took office, this pipeline was 90 percent complete. And we came to the conclusion, based on the available information, not all of which is public, that sanctions would not halt the pipeline’s construction.
And so, as I said at the outset, we really had two options before us: One, we could undermine our relationship with our ally Germany by imposing sanctions that, again, per our judgment, would not have been effective at a time when we needed our allies – at a time when we need our allies like Germany, perhaps more so than ever. Not only would we have jeopardized our relationship with Germany, but Ukraine and our other partners could have been left to fend for themselves. To us, that was unacceptable. It was unacceptable to us that we would leave our partners vulnerable and susceptible to Moscow’s whims.
Alternatively, we could use the space for diplomacy that the waivers provided. And we could seek to find a way to achieve that overriding goal, and that is to ensure that Russia could not weaponize Nord Stream 2 – could not weaponize Nord Stream 2 against Ukraine, any of our other partners – and that’s precisely what we have been able to do. And you saw that reflected in the package that was announced yesterday. We brought Germany to the table to negotiate these measures designed to reduce the risk an operational Nord Stream 2 would pose to European energy security, to Ukraine, to other frontline NATO and EU countries.
And throughout this process, both we and our German allies have consulted very closely with Ukraine. We have had more than a dozen consultations with Ukraine, in the course of recent weeks. We’ve consulted with Poland as well as other countries that would be harmed by this project.
As the President likes to say, and I think this is particularly apt in this case, don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative. And this applies here. Do we wish that we weren’t dealt this hand? Of course. Would we like to be able to halt the pipeline’s construction? Of course; you bet. But that wasn’t a realistic option. That wasn’t on the table. And we are confident that the measures we announced yesterday constitute the best outcome for the circumstances we inherited.
QUESTION: So, the waivers – you said the waivers brought Germany to the table.
MR PRICE: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Are you saying that your understanding is that if you remove those waivers Germany will still feel obliged to do all the things that it promised to in the agreement yesterday?
MR PRICE: Well, what we are saying is that we are going to continue to follow the law. The law requires us to submit a report with potentially sanctionable activity. We are going to do that. The law also does have this waiver provision. But the ability to use that is predicated on the national interest, and so we are going to follow that to the T, as we have, and we are going to not waver from that whatsoever.
QUESTION: Not waver? That’s funny. (Laughter.) Can I just – I don’t want to get into a long thing here, but you are familiar, I presume, with the package that the Germans have put forward prior to this administration. Is it your understanding – and if it is your understanding, can you elaborate on what in the German offer, the German package, changed as a result of the waivers?
MR PRICE: Yep. So, the package that we spoke to yesterday —
QUESTION: No. Yes, but I’m talking about the package —
MR PRICE: I know. I got you. I got you. It’s quite different from what Germany had on the table before. Let me mention a couple things, and I’ll spare you the full package because I —
MR PRICE: Yes. The package devotes significant new resources to Ukraine’s energy transition with the announcement of the billion-dollar Green Fund for Ukraine and an initial contribution by Germany of €150 million as well as Germany’s $60 million euro resilience package to boost Ukraine’s energy security. Germany will enhance its engagement with the Three Seas Initiative, with an eye towards providing financial support for projects of that initiative to benefit Central and Eastern European EU member-states. This is in addition to the €1.5 billion Germany will invest in energy products as a part of the EU budget between the years of 2021 and 2027.
Germany has also committed to implement the letter and the spirit of the EU Third Energy Package, with respect to Nord Stream 2, which will support the principles of diversity and security of supply within EU energy markets – that’s important, especially in the context of Ukraine – to reinforce diversity and diversification sources.
As I said before, throughout this process we and Germany have consulted very closely with the Ukrainians, with the Polish, with other countries that stand to be impacted. We have taken that into account. We think this package reflects those concerns and mitigates, again, the overriding concern we have always had that an operational Nord Stream 2 could be utilized by the Russian Federation to coerce, to apply pressure, on our partners. This package, we are confident, will prevent the worst-case scenario that I talked about, the first option that we faced, the first option of really two options that we faced: an operational Nord Stream 2 with no protection from its adverse consequences for Ukraine, for other frontline NATO and EU countries, and to European energy security as a whole.
QUESTION: So. your position, your argument, is that without the waivers you might not have gotten all of what you got —
MR PRICE: Without the waivers —
QUESTION: — the other terms?
MR PRICE: Without the waivers – without the waivers, we would have been confronted not with option two but with option one, which was a ruptured relationship with Germany, potentially little or nothing to protect our partners, including Ukraine and Poland and other frontline NATO and EU states against this, and a worst-case scenario on all fronts, yes.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, but you will have seen the joint statement from the Polish and Ukrainian foreign ministers yesterday after this came out, and they’re not exactly welcoming it.
MR PRICE: Again, for us, this goes back to a couple things —
QUESTION: Well, I know. So, they don’t think that this helps them. They don’t think that this is necessarily in their interests. I mean, I’m sure they don’t mind the money, although it’s an open question as to whether Poland really wants Germany in the Three Seas Initiative. I’m sure you’re aware of that bit. But what do you say to them now?
MR PRICE: Well —
QUESTION: And in the consultation that you say, is it not true that Derek was sent over there on Monday, Tuesday, and yesterday to brief them on a done deal?
MR PRICE: Nope —
QUESTION: You say the pipeline was a fait accompli.
MR PRICE: That is not true. That —
QUESTION: But so was this agreement.
MR PRICE: That —
QUESTION: At least that’s what they think. Remember, the Polish foreign minister, as we were headed to the G7 and the EU summit, gave an interview where he said that they hadn’t been consulted at all.
MR PRICE: Well, when it comes to the Ukrainians, we have had more than a dozen consultations with them. I can tell you that they were familiar with the contents of this package. They helped inform the contents of this package, well before Monday. Those engagements have been frequent, and they have been over the course of many weeks.
So yes, Counselor Chollet has been in Kyiv; he is in Poland now. The broader point is that our consultations with Ukraine, our consultations with Poland, they don’t stop today. They’re not going – they will continue. And the counselor is there to reiterate that message, and we’ll continue that at multiple levels going forward.
QUESTION: On Iraq?
MR PRICE: Iraq? Sure.
QUESTION: U.S. officials and Iraqi officials have said today in a news report that they are planning to issue a statement tomorrow that calls for U.S. combat troops to leave Iraq by the end of the year. Can you confirm that?
MR PRICE: Well, as you alluded to, there is a strategic dialogue tomorrow that the Secretary will take part in. Of course, the White House is looking forward to welcoming Prime Minister Kadhimi on Monday.
When it comes to the U.S. military presence in Iraq, this is all under the rubric of our joint and collective efforts to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. We are at – in Iraq at the invitation of the Government of Iraq, precisely to enable the Iraqi Security Forces as they lead the fight against ISIS. So, I would imagine, without getting ahead of tomorrow’s dialogue, without getting ahead of the prime minister’s visit, that our collective and joint efforts to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS will be on the agenda, it will be discussed. I would imagine various tools and tactics used in that effort will be on the agenda and will be discussed.
But again, I wouldn’t want to get ahead of that, and I think the broader point is that Iraq is a partner. Our service members are in Iraq, at the invitation of the Iraqi Government, and we work with them together as a partner against this shared challenge.
QUESTION: On China and North Korea, Korea?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Nice to meet you.
MR PRICE: Yes. Good to see you in person.
QUESTION: Yeah. I’m Janne Pak with USA Journal Korea. And recently you said that – at the briefing China has influence in North Korea. As you know, China is strategically with North Korea, but China will not be completely the side of the United States, because it is using North Korea as a card of competition for hegemony with the United States. Does the U.S. expect China to solve denuclearization of North Korea? Is it – is this the only U.S. have the tool for reserving the North Korea denuclearizations? Or you have – or is there any tools you have?
MR PRICE: Well, thank you for the question. I would answer it by saying that and reiterating that our relationship with China is predominately competitive. It is a relationship predicated on the idea of competition, and that is the overriding feature of it. There are certainly aspects of our relationship that are adversarial. and we’ve spoken quite a bit about that, often in the context of doing so jointly with our partners and allies.
But there are also areas of that relationship that either are or have the potential to be cooperative. And the way we look at this is through the lens of our own national interests. And, that is to say that we seek cooperation with China if and when our interests are aligned. And now, importantly, I think it’s fair to say we are never going to have identical interests with the PRC. But North Korea, the DPRK, is one of those areas where there is at least some alignment of interests. And so, we think that there is room for, at the very least, discussion with the PRC when it comes to the challenge posed by the DPRK’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its other threatening activity.
That’s precisely why Secretary Blinken, when he spoke with Director Yang most recently – I believe it was last month – briefed and offered an update to Director Yang on the conclusion of our DPRK policy review. It is precisely why the United States, over the course of years in different formats, has engaged the PRC in discussions over the DPRK.
So, as you know, Deputy Secretary Sherman will be in the PRC this weekend. She will take part in high-level meetings there. I would expect that the totality of that relationship – the competitive elements, the adversarial elements, but also the potentially cooperative elements – will be on that agenda.
When it comes to the DPRK, I think there is some work for us to do to determine just what we might be able to expect from the PRC when it comes to the DPRK. But more broadly – and you ask about the tools that we have to affect the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – one of the most important tools we have is the unprecedented system of alliances and partnerships that we have around the world. And when Secretary Blinken took his first overseas travel, it was not an accident that he went to Japan and the ROK, the Republic of Korea. It is – it has not been an accident that some of the first visitors to the White House have been the prime minister of Japan, the president of Korea.
We have invested heavily, and we will continue to invest heavily, in these alliances, in these partnerships, including and especially in the Indo-Pacific, knowing that we have any number of shared values and we have any number of shared interests. And the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a diminution of the threat posed by the DPRK and its nuclear – its ballistic missile programs, that is a shared interest across the region; and it’s something we’ll continue to pursue.
QUESTION: How did you see South Korea strategically – ambiguity between U.S. and China affecting the U.S. and Korea alliance?
MR PRICE: Well, South Korea to us is an ally. We have, again, a number of shared interests, and a number of shared values. A DPRK that poses a threat to its neighbors, to our allies – that is not in the interest of the ROK, it’s not in the interest of Japan, it’s not – certainly not in the interest of the United States. So, we cooperate very closely with the ROK on the issue of the DPRK and the threat it poses. And speaking of the deputy, as you know, she is in – has been in Seoul today, and she’s had a series of meetings there. She met with the President Moon Jae-in, she met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung, she met with the Minister of Unification Lee, as well as the vice minister of unification.
In all of her meetings, this – the deputy reaffirmed the U.S.-ROK alliance as the lynchpin of peace, of security and prosperity in Northeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific region, and beyond. And she also reaffirmed, importantly, our shared commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. She and President Moon discussed ongoing cooperation to combat COVID-19, to support the robust trade and investment ties we have between our two countries, as well as the important cooperation between our two countries to combat the climate crisis and to promote transparency, human rights, and the rule of law in the region and around the world.
In her meeting with the foreign minister, the deputy highlighted the importance of the trilateral cooperation between the U.S., the ROK, and Japan in addressing global threats, and, of course, that includes in the context of the DPRK, but it also includes the climate crisis, and more broadly, resisting challenges to what we all ultimately seek to protect and ensure, and that is a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
QUESTION: Lastly, what is the current status of U.S. vaccine support to the North Korea? Do you have anything on that?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry, our support to North Korea?
MR PRICE: As in – can you clarify?
QUESTION: You – vaccine —
MR PRICE: Ah, vaccines.
MR PRICE: Well, we do not currently have plans to share vaccines with the DPRK. We very much remain concerned about the human rights situation in the DPRK, about the humanitarian situation in the DPRK. And ultimately, our policy goal – a policy goal of our DPRK policy review is to not only seek to secure our interests, but also to uphold our values, and that is ultimately part and parcel of the reason why we seek to improve the humanitarian conditions for the people in North Korea. We’ll continue to look at ways to do that consistent with what we’re able to do and what’s appropriate.
QUESTION: North Korea accept that?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: I mean, North Korea accept the U.S. provide the vaccine to —
MR PRICE: You would have to ask North Korea.
QUESTION: All right, thank you.
MR PRICE: Thank you.
QUESTION: Yeah, that’s an easy ask.
MR PRICE: Afghanistan.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan?
MR PRICE: Yep.
QUESTION: During the background briefing we had yesterday, the senior State Department officials said that applicants, SIV applicants would have to make their own way to Kabul, and said in part that seemed to be because the U.S. no longer has a substantial military presence in Afghanistan. Shouldn’t the evacuation flights have started earlier, then, in order to evacuate the most Afghans that you could? And shouldn’t that commitment to their safety, to bringing them to the U.S., include a trip to Kabul, because otherwise they may not be able to get out?
MR PRICE: Well, I would make a couple points. One, the SIV program didn’t start with the announcement of the President’s announcement that we would be withdrawing our military forces from Afghanistan. And in fact, since 2008, the department has issued more than 73,000 special immigrant visas to Afghan principal applicants and their eligible family members. In the last fiscal year, Fiscal Year 2020, we issued nearly 8,000 special immigrant visas to principal applicants and their derivative spouses and children. So, this is a program and a form of support to the brave Afghans who have helped the U.S. Government in myriad ways over the years. That has been ongoing for over a decade now.
We have, as you know, recently launched Operation Allies Refuge knowing that the danger that some of these individuals may face may grow more acute. And as the President has said, as the Secretary has said, we feel a special responsibility to these individuals given the efforts that they have made on behalf of the United States, sometimes at great personal risk, sometimes at great risk to their families as well.
And so, that’s why we are undertaking this relocation effort, not solely just for those who have passed chief of mission stage in their security vetting – and the individuals that have passed their security vetting will undergo the last stage of the process at Fort Lee in Virginia, as we’ve spoken to – but also for those who have passed the chief of mission stage but haven’t yet completed that security vetting procedure, they will be taken to other locations outside of the United States where they will be able to undergo those steps in the process.
So, we are making good on that special responsibility, on that commitment. We will continue to do that going forward.
QUESTION: You’re not making good – sorry – you’re not making good on that special responsibility if some of these people can’t get those evacuation flights because they can’t get to Kabul.
MR PRICE: The SIV program is – guarantees to those who are able to demonstrate their eligibility through the process – guarantees a visa. The United States, with Operation Allies Refuge, is doing something that was never initially envisioned as part of the SIV program. And so, we are doing all that we can, consistent with conditions on the ground, consistent with the fact that the safety and security of the American people, and our service members, our diplomats, our other U.S. Government personnel is also a priority for us. And so, the fact that we have launched Operation Allies Refuge, something that wasn’t contemplated initially with the SIV program, I think underscores that commitment.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on – to Conor’s question, you said yesterday that applicants have begun to be notified. Are they all based in Kabul? Have you heard from folks who are not going to be able to make it to Fort Lee because they are based outside of the capital? And do you have any third country agreements to announce?
MR PRICE: We do not have any third country agreements to announce. We have engaged a number of countries and those discussions are ongoing. When we are able to share more information on that, we will be sure to let you know. The emails that have gone out over the past day or so have gone out to those who have completed the necessary stages of the process, regardless of whether they’re in Kabul, whether they are elsewhere. We have had, I understand, a good response rate. We don’t have numbers to share. And we probably wouldn’t be in a position to share responses, but that process is ongoing. We have surged resources here within the department to enable us to ensure we’re doing all we can to speed up the process, to be responsive to those who have in turn expressed their interest in relocation.
QUESTION: Can I ask one follow-up on that as well? If you don’t have third country agreements yet, is it safe to assume that those flights won’t begin next week like the Fort Lee flights will?
MR PRICE: It is safe to assume that what the President said is accurate and will remain true, and that is that the first flights will begin this month.
QUESTION: Are you confident that e-mails sent to people in rural Afghanistan are actually being received?
MR PRICE: We have metrics, including response rate —
QUESTION: I don’t know what the internet situation is in rural Afghanistan, but it seems to me that sending e-mails to them might not be the best way —
MR PRICE: We are – we will – we are making every effort we can to get in contact with these people.
QUESTION: On the same subject.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: A related to subject to – is there a possibility of expanding the SIV program beyond those who have worked with the U.S. military to women, leaders, and others who are especially vulnerable to being targeted for some sort of a larger mass evacuation?
MR PRICE: So, the SIV program, as you alluded to, is statutorily defined. It is intended for those who have helped us in very specific roles, who have helped the U.S. Government in specific roles over the past couple decades. We do recognize, however, that there are any number of other Afghans who have helped the U.S. Government, who have helped the American people in any number of ways over the past 20 years.
We are, one, going to continue our partnership with the Afghan people going forward. We intend to retain that diplomatic presence, to retain that support on the ground for the Afghan people, but as I said before, we are looking at all contingencies. We are making prudent plans across a number of fronts. If we have anything more to say on that, we will.
QUESTION: And in particular, the American University there, which we were instrumental in helping or in fostering the co-ed university, it’s apparently closing this week. I haven’t – that’s what we are hearing here. I don’t know if you’ve heard that.
MR PRICE: I would have to refer you to the university.
QUESTION: Any effort to help people from there, leadership from that school and other schools, get out?
MR PRICE: We —
QUESTION: If they want to.
MR PRICE: We know that there are myriad Afghans who over the years have provided tremendous service to the United States Government, to the American people in different ways. We are engaged in a broad range of contingency planning, and prudent planning in an effort to do what we can to seek to protect their safety and security.
QUESTION: Ned, on Iran.
QUESTION: Regarding Colombia and Haiti.
MR PRICE: Sure, Colombia and Haiti.
QUESTION: Is there any information about the – has the FBI delivered any report on their investigation about President Moise’s assassination? And is there anything related to the former Colombian militaries? Are some of them involved in the planning, some of them are not? And we’re hearing that they are torturing some of Colombian citizens inside of prison.
And I have a second question: And is there anything – will Colombia receive donations, vaccine donations in the coming days? Is there any exact date of delivery for – we’re hearing about 3.5 million Moderna vaccines being donated by the U.S. Just wanted to confirm this information.
MR PRICE: So, on your first question, on the FBI investigation, as you know, we have – our assessment of Haiti’s needs has concluded that one of the ways in which we can help the Haitian Government is by lending assistance to the ongoing investigation into the horrific assassination of President Moise. FBI and DHS, among others, have been involved in this. I would need to refer you to the FBI for any report they have – they may have prepared. But in the first instance, this is a Haitian investigation, and Haitian authorities are leading it. And so, would need to refer you there.
When it comes to the potential U.S. links of some of those who may have been arrested, including the Colombian suspects, the Department of State and the Department of Defense, we’re continuing to review our records to identify if individuals identified by Haitian authorities as allegedly involved in the assassination had previously taken part in any past U.S.-funded military or police training programs. I believe you’ve heard this from the Department of Defense, but as of to date, State and DOD have identified six individuals among a possible – six individuals who may have been involved in the plot as previously having participated in U.S. military training and education programs, while previously serving in the Colombian military.
When it comes to vaccine deliveries, as you know, the United States is in the process of allocating the 80 million doses of our domestic supply that President Biden pledged to share with the world. We are also purchasing 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine. and donating them to 92 low- and middle-income countries and economies, and eight countries in the African Union to jumpstart and to support the massive global vaccination effort that is ongoing now. We have made a number of announcements of deliveries to countries in our own hemisphere. I expect we’ll have more announcements to make in the coming – in the days ahead.
QUESTION: On Russia?
QUESTION: On the travel ban?
MR PRICE: Travel ban. Choose your own adventure. We’ll go to – we’ll go to the back.
QUESTION: Yeah, on the – until when will the U.S. be waiting for Iran to come back with an answer regarding resuming talks in Vienna? And I have another question on Lebanon, if you don’t mind.
MR PRICE: Well, when it comes to the talks, the timing of the seventh round has not been announced, as you know. We’ve demonstrated time and again that we are ready, willing, and able to move forward with a potential return to joint compliance with the JCPOA. We continue to believe that diplomacy is the most effective tool we have at our disposal together with our P5+1 partners to see to it that we can once again ensure that Iran is permanently and verifiably barred from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
We know that Iran is in the midst of a transition. They clearly have some decisions within their own system that they need to make. We’re not going to speculate on how that’s going, what the implications might be. As we’ve said, there is plenty of work the U.S. delegation is able to do from Washington at the moment. And Special Envoy Malley and his team are fully engaged back with relevant individuals and offices here at the department as we await additional details on a potential —
QUESTION: Is there any deadline for waiting?
MR PRICE: Well, we have said before that we are – we believe that diplomacy continues to constitute the most effective tool to see to it that Iran can – is once again permanently and verifiably barred from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but this process is not – cannot be indefinite. The delay and a drawn-out process will have a bearing on – in our calculus on the advantage of a potential mutual return to the JCPOA. We’re not going to put a timeframe on it, but it’s something we’re taking a close look at.
QUESTION: And on Lebanon —
MR PRICE: Let’s move around just a little bit to make sure we —
QUESTION: On Russia?
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Paul Whelan’s family said they haven’t heard from him in three weeks, and they believe him to be in solitary confinement, and Trevor Reed’s family said last week he was being transferred. Do you have updates on either of these cases?
MR PRICE: I don’t have an update to share with you. Of course, we continue to be concerned over their plight. We know that both men traveled to Russia as tourists. They were arrested, and they were then convicted without credible evidence. We will continue to speak out on behalf of their cases. We will continue to do all we can, both publicly and behind the scenes, to effect their return to – their safe return to their families in the United States. We do so and we will do that knowing that they have been deprived of their freedom for far too long.
QUESTION: On the pandemic, China today rejected the World Health Organization’s calls for – or proposed plan for a phase two of the study into COVID’s origins. The White House said that it was deeply disappointed, but I’m wondering if you have any plans to sort of rally countries to pressure China to allow access to more data to continue the investigation.
MR PRICE: Yes, and we have been doing that. Let me say, and I’ll reiterate what the White House said, we have always supported the WHO plan for a phase two study, which commits to ensuring these studies are scientific, are transparent, are expert-led and free from interference.
We’ve seen the PRC’s comments today, as you heard from my colleague at the White House. We are deeply disappointed. Not only are we disappointed; we know that the PRC’s position – it’s irresponsible, and ultimately, it’s dangerous. And it is dangerous because this is about one thing at bottom, and that is to understand how we can prevent the next pandemic. This for us is about saving lives, and it is not a time for any responsible country to be stonewalling the international community. We owe it to the American people. People around the world are owed answers when it comes to the origins of this virus.
There are certain aspects that are irrefutable. The early days of the pandemic were irrefutably in the PRC. And yet the PRC today continues to obfuscate and to run from these scientific requests.
To your question, Conor, we do believe in a multilateral approach to global health security, which is why, on day one, we rejoined the WHO. Unfortunately, the phase one study did not yield the data and access from the PRC that we think is necessary to understand the COVID origins, and that is not just our opinion. You, in fact, heard that from the WHO secretary-general.
But it – in terms of multilateralism, it is not just us calling for this phase two study. As part of our engagement with allies and partners around the world, we’ve been joined by broad swaths of the international community. You may recall in Cornwall last month, the G7 leaders put forward a call for a transparent, evidence-based investigation, including in China. You may also recall that after the phase one study was published, the United States was joined by a number of allies and partners around the world, in a joint statement, calling for transparent and independent analysis – expressing our concerns over the lack of access and urging momentum for phase two. That – we are – we continue to be joined by many of our allies and partners today in calling for just that.
QUESTION: But China controls this data, obviously controls the sites that scientists would like to have access to. Is there anything that you’re planning to do to pressure them to allow access?
MR PRICE: Well, we are considering ways we can support and participate in this phase two study in collaboration with WHO member-states. We’ll continue to work with international partners and the WHO on their study into the origins. We’ll continue to demand a full and transparent, evidence-based international study. We and the WHO have been clear that sound and technically credible theories should be thoroughly evaluated by international experts. That’s in the context of the WHO phase two study.
But as you know, this administration is moving ahead on a number of fronts to seek all the answers we can about the origins of the coronavirus. The 90-day Intelligence Community review is underway; obviously can’t detail that from here. But as you know, the President was – he made a point to task the Intelligence Community to redouble efforts, and to leave no stone unturned in that effort to determine the origins of this. And so, we’re pressing on a number of fronts. And we’ll continue to do just that.
QUESTION: Yes, I want – the President last week during his press conference with Chancellor Merkel said that the administration would be able to say in the next several days when it will lift the travel ban with Europe, the COVID travel ban. So, do you have any answer on that?
MR PRICE: I do not have an update for you on that. As you know, this has always been a process that has taken place outside of political channels. This is an issue that for us is fundamentally an issue of public health. That’s why our public health professionals at the CDC and elsewhere in the government have been informing this process. We also have formed working groups to study with various partners and blocs how we might safely affect the resumption of travel, but I just don’t have an update for you there.
QUESTION: Hey, Ned. Do you have any guidance – new guidance on the ice cream war?
MR PRICE: We spoke to the —
QUESTION: Now that – yeah, I know you did, but now that there are states that are starting to take action or beginning to take action in line with their anti-BDS laws? I’m just wondering.
MR PRICE: I don’t have anything additional to offer.
QUESTION: So, you don’t believe that what – the decision by Ben & Jerry’s is a – constitutes a boycott of Israel, or you do?
MR PRICE: I did not speak to the —
QUESTION: No, I know. I’m asking now. Do you or do you not?
MR PRICE: Again —
QUESTION: I know that you don’t support BDS, but do you believe that what they have done amounts to a boycott?
MR PRICE: I know that Ben & Jerry’s has released a statement explaining their motivations and their actions, so I would refer you to their statement for further details on the actions of a private company.
QUESTION: But surely the administration – surely the administration has an opinion about whether this —
MR PRICE: We have – we have an opinion on BDS. For the actions of a private company, I would refer you to that company.
Thank you all very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:16 p.m.)