Department Press Briefing – July 8, 2021
2:43 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon.
QUESTION: Good afternoon.
MR PRICE: I’m sorry we’re starting a couple minutes late, but we have a good excuse today, at least.
Just a quick note at the top, and that’s about recent vaccine deliveries. The Biden administration continues to deliver on its promise that the United States will be an arsenal of vaccines for the world. By Saturday, we anticipate that we will have shipped approximately nine million doses to Guatemala, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. In the coming weeks, we will keep you updated as additional doses are shipped and the United States Government continues to lead in the fight against COVID-19 both at home and around the world.
So with that, happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. I just want to start before I get – we get any questions, just a propos of nothing in particular, just again to say that the State Department press corps appreciates the fact that you are getting up every day – or almost every day – and answering our questions, whether we like the answers or not. So —
MR PRICE: Once again, I’m happy to conclude the briefing there, if no further questions. (Laughter.) So —
QUESTION: Yeah, no, you’re not going to be able to get away with that.
MR PRICE: I appreciate that.
QUESTION: So you will have seen the President’s remarks on Afghanistan just now. The – earlier this week I asked you if you recalled the letter that Sirik Matak had sent to John Gunther Dean, who was the ambassador to Cambodia in 1975. And it doesn’t seem to have gotten that much attention, as opposed to other things. So I’m just going to – it’s eight sentences, so I’m just going to read it:
“Dear Excellency and friend, I thank you sincerely for your letter and your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such cowardly fashion. As for you and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it. You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under the sky. But mark it well, that if I shall die here on this spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad, because we are all born and must die one day. I have committed this mistake of believing in you, the Americans. Regards, Sirik Matak.”
Of course, he was killed by the Khmer Rouge several days later.
Given the President’s comments and intention to withdraw, does this have any impact on you guys at all?
MR PRICE: Matt, I would reiterate what it is you just heard moments ago from President Biden, and it is something that you have heard over and over again since the President announced our plans just a couple months ago, and that is the fact that U.S. support for the Afghan people, for the Afghan Government, will endure. And you heard the President very clearly make that point earlier today. He – he –
QUESTION: You know what? That’s exactly what the American president said in – what President Nixon said, what President Ford said, and now, why should anyone believe you?
MR PRICE: Because, Matt, President Biden is a man of his word. This administration is committed to the people of Afghanistan. We – the hard-won gains of the Afghan people over the past 20 years, the amount of suffering that the Afghan people have endured over the past 40 years, this – these are gains that we are going to do everything we can to help preserve. And that is precisely why you heard the President say today that he has asked his team – and that includes, of course, Secretary Blinken; it includes, of course, Ambassador Khalilzad; it includes, of course, our counterparts throughout the government – to work concertedly, diplomatically with the parties, with the international community, with Afghanistan’s neighbors, to bring about a just and durable resolution that includes a comprehensive ceasefire.
So Matt, in all of this, we are not leaving the Afghan people. We are not abandoning the Afghan people. Our goal in all of this is to support the diplomacy that will, we hope and key elements, key Afghan elements hope will bring about a just and durable peace. We hope to help set the conditions so that Afghans can live in their country in safety and security without American military forces there on the ground.
QUESTION: So – okay, all right. So he – so who is it that’s in charge specifically? You mentioned someone was in charge of the – for the SIV applicants, the people who are wanting to get out. Who is that exactly? And then there doesn’t seem to be any definitive resolution as to where people – where those people might be relocated while they await their – the adjudication of their visas. Is there any answer on that at all?
MR PRICE: So as you heard from the President, he has asked Secretary Blinken, he has asked Ambassador Khalilzad to hypercharge our diplomacy. That’s something we’ve been engaged in since the earliest days of this administration. Brian McKeon, the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, is playing a lead role when it comes to the SIV process. He is working closely not only with Secretary Blinken but with the White House as well.
When it comes to the SIV program, of course this has been a priority of ours even before this military withdrawal began. You heard the President say today that we have been – we have identified locations outside of the continental United States and in third countries. The State Department has been engaged with various countries, a number of countries, diplomatically on this issue. Wouldn’t want to detail beyond that at this point. But you heard the President say today that relocation will begin later this month. So as soon as have more details to provide we certainly will.
QUESTION: So this just – they – so Brian is the point person here?
MR PRICE: That’s right.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR PRICE: Abbie?
QUESTION: You said that you’ve identified and engaged diplomatically with third countries. Have you received a commitment from specific countries to take in the SIVs as they finish their application?
MR PRICE: We have had conversations with a number of countries. Many of those conversations have been very constructive and positive, but I wouldn’t want to detail potential locations at this time.
QUESTION: Can you expand upon what the President said regarding asking Congress to change the law to allow for them to come to U.S. territories?
MR PRICE: So as you know, the SIV program – its requirements are statutorily mandated. As I recall, there are about 12 steps that applicants have to go through. So for the State Department, for the Department of Homeland Security, which also has a role in this, we have done what we can to accelerate the processing time through resources, putting more people on this task, more resources at the chief of mission level as well. And by doing so, we’ve been able to shave significant time off the average processing it takes for each applicant. But there are certain things we can’t do, because again the SIV process is written into statute.
And so for us to fundamentally change that process, it would require cooperation from Congress. Of course, we’ve been heartened that Congress also sees this as a priority; Congress attaches a great deal of importance to this program, as do we. And so we have been really gratified by the cooperation and the interest we’ve seen from Congress on this.
QUESTION: The President’s repeatedly been calling for the Afghans to be united and for there to be unity among the Afghan Government. Is the U.S. pressing Ghani specifically to form a national unity government?
MR PRICE: We have always said that this process has to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. Whatever endures will be – will have to be, in our view, Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, because only if it is such will it have support of the Afghan people, will it have legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people, will it have legitimacy in the eyes of much of the international community. And so that is why we have been engaged in this diplomacy, but we have supported the diplomacy. We’re not a direct party to the intra-Afghan talks. Of course, there was a separate agreement between the United States and the Taliban. But when it comes to the intra-Afghan talks, these are talks between and among the Afghans themselves.
QUESTION: Do you think that the current administration has that, the qualities you’ve described?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry. Has the what?
QUESTION: Has the – is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned? The current Afghan Government – does it meet the requirements that you’re describing?
MR PRICE: Certainly the current Afghan Government is. What comes next, any changes that may come in the coming months or years – those will similarly need to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.
Sure, yeah. Christina.
QUESTION: The President just said that about 2,500 of the SIV applicants have gotten their visa but chosen not to come to the U.S. He said they’ve chosen to stay in Afghanistan. How do you know that? And do you know that? Do you know it’s a matter of choice, or is it a matter of not being able to afford a plane ticket, not being able to get to the airport, not to be able to securely leave the country because of fear of – like how are you making that judgment that they are choosing to stay in the country?
MR PRICE: Well, as I said before, the SIV program – there are some 12 steps involved in the program. And some of those steps do entail direct contact with applicants. And so throughout the process, consular officers, State Department officials, do have an opportunity to hear directly from applicants. In fact, it’s required that we are in receipt of a good deal of information from the applicants. So I presume that’s where that comes from.
QUESTION: So you’re (inaudible) of those are a deliberate choice to remain in Afghanistan?
MR PRICE: Say that again?
QUESTION: I said so you’re confident that the 2,500 – all of those are making a deliberate choice to stay in Afghanistan?
MR PRICE: We have no reason to doubt that. As the President said however, that for the group that we have identified, if they so desire to come to the United States, we will see to it that they will have an opportunity to come here upon the completion of their SIV processing.
QUESTION: And with the transports, with the – if it comes to an evacuation or however we’re phrasing that, are you confident that given the military withdrawal, the closing of Bagram, that you will have enough security and resources to be able to carry out the transportation of those people once – if and when they get their visas and if and when there is a third country cleared? Are you worried that there could be a security situation on the ground?
MR PRICE: So as we have said, the – we have identified a group of SIV applicants who have served in roles, including interpreters and translators. They and their families will have the option to be relocated to a location outside of Afghanistan before we complete our military drawdown. And so as you heard from the President today, the military drawdown will be complete by the end of August, so we are talking about this process in terms of weeks rather than months and months.
QUESTION: Can I just move back on that? I’m just curious about you guys continually say this will happen before the drawdown in September, but then you guys also say that approximately 9,000 of these 18,000 are in more progressed positions. So I’m just wondering, does that mean that you’re going to conclude only the 9,000 by September, or does it mean you’re going to conclude the total 18,000 that are on this list?
MR PRICE: So we haven’t attached a number to it yet. But as I just reiterated, we have identified a group of these applicants who have assisted us and who are at some degree of risk. That’s who we’re talking about at the moment. That said, we are – and I’ve made this point before – the State Department, the Defense Department, U.S. Government agencies, we are inherently planning organizations, and so we’re planning for all contingencies so that we’re prepared for all scenarios. So I don’t want to rule anything out at the moment, but when we talk about the SIV applicants that we have so far identified, we’re talking about that group.
QUESTION: And so it’s just – it’s defining those who have some risk associated with their situation? That’s how you’re defining a full evacuation or relocation?
MR PRICE: Well, that’s right. The SIV program, it has a number of requirements, again, that, as I understand it, are written into statute. And so the requirements to qualify for this is quite – quite well defined.
QUESTION: Great. So can I follow up on that?
MR PRICE: Yep.
QUESTION: So the pledge the President has made to get all these people out before the military drawdown does not include the entire set of people who are applying for this SIV visa? It is – you’re defining that by this subset of people you believe are at imminent risk?
MR PRICE: Again, we’re preparing for any number of contingencies. What we have done so far, we have identified a group of SIV applicants who are at risk, and we have – we’ll be prepared to transport them along with their families to third locations while they await their SIV processing.
QUESTION: One more? Is the U.S. looking at expediting visas for some vulnerable Afghan groups that are outside of the SIV applicant pool? And what would those characteristics be, and would they possibly be evacuated as well?
MR PRICE: So to my previous comment, the SIV program is intended for a rather narrow group of people, people who have served the United States Government in various capacities, including as interpreters and translators over the years. We are cognizant, however, that a number of brave Afghans – Afghans who have wanted to see a brighter future for their country – have helped us in any number of ways over the years.
And this goes back to the point I was making before: We’re planning for all contingencies, for all scenarios. We don’t have anything to announce when it comes to programs beyond SIV at the moment, but again, we’re taking a close look at all potential scenarios.
QUESTION: New subject?
MR PRICE: Sure. Anything else on Afghanistan? Great.
QUESTION: Yeah. Do you have any update —
QUESTION: Sorry, (inaudible).
MR PRICE: What – it sounds like we have one quick – yeah.
QUESTION: Just – specifically, I just wanted to push one more time. It’s been reported that Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are among countries you’ve been talking to. Can you – are those the countries that we’re talking about here?
MR PRICE: We have spoken to a number of countries. State Department officials have. Other administration officials have done the same. I’m not going to specify countries at this stage, but as soon as we have more details to share about potential relocation options, we will.
QUESTION: Well, can you at least say that it makes sense for logistically, distance-wise, to put them somewhere close to Afghanistan rather than – I don’t know, I’m looking at the map up there —
QUESTION: — Denmark?
MR PRICE: Look, I’m not going to comment —
QUESTION: No, let’s go down to Chile, for example. I mean, does it not make sense that —
MR PRICE: Well, if the ultimate goal upon processing a successful adjudication of an SIV application is to bring an applicant here to the United States, that speaks to a different theory of the case. So —
QUESTION: Well, okay. So you’re saying that – you’re saying that – are you saying that Chile makes more sense then, because it’s closer than —
MR PRICE: I am not tipping my hand in —
QUESTION: Or to get into something we’ll go into later, maybe Haiti?
MR PRICE: I am not tipping my hand in any direction. We are speaking to a number – a number of countries about this important topic.
MR PRICE: So the – I understand these meetings are ongoing or they only recently concluded. I suspect we’ll have more details to share going forward. But I will say that the French Ambassador Anne Grillo and U.S. Ambassador Dorothy Shea, they’ve conducted important trilateral consultations with Saudi Arabia today to discuss the situation in Lebanon and ways in which together we can support the Lebanese people and, very importantly, help to stabilize the Lebanese economy that has placed such a tremendous burden on the Lebanese people. But as we do have additional details to share, we’ll do that.
QUESTION: Yes. Ned, you said yesterday in the briefing that in partnership with the – her French and Saudi counterparts, Ambassador Shea will also continue to develop a trilateral diplomatic strategy focused on government formation and the imperative of undertaking urgent and necessary reforms. Do you have any or more clarity on the strategy today, or can you elaborate on that strategy?
MR PRICE: Well, the strategy we have called for and the strategy that I think is collectively shared by a number of our partners is one that seeks to have Lebanon’s leaders, again, show sufficient flexibility to support a government that is principally willing and capable of supporting fundamental reform so that the Lebanese people can achieve and have access to some of that humanitarian relief and to achieve their full potential.
They – “they” being the Lebanese people – deserve a government that will urgently implement those necessary reforms, especially given the deteriorating situation of the Lebanese economy. And we talked about the skyrocketing inflation rates yesterday and the burden that that is placing on Lebanese families. It’s in crisis – the Lebanese economy is – because of years, decades even, of mismanagement, of corruption, of impunity, and more recently because of the inability of Lebanon’s leaders to put aside their political bickering and political disagreements to work for the common good of the Lebanese people.
That’s what the international community has been clear about – that Lebanon’s leaders need to put the interests of their people first. And that in turn will lead to, we hope and we seek to help support, concrete reforms that are critical to unlocking longer-term structural support for Lebanon.
QUESTION: One more if you don’t mind. The Saudis washed their hands of Lebanon a long time ago. Is the U.S. trying with France at this time to bring them back to the Lebanese table, and for what goal?
MR PRICE: Well, Saudi Arabia is an important regional player. It has – it is an important stakeholder in Lebanon. What we are trying to do, what any number of partners of ours are trying to do, is to put a spotlight on the humanitarian plight of the Lebanese people. This was a constant topic of discussion when the Secretary was in Europe – last week I suppose it was – and he discussed Lebanon with a number of interlocutors, to include His Holiness Pope Francis.
So this is what we’re trying to do. Obviously, the humanitarian relief that we’re seeking for the Lebanese people will require support from any number of corners, including in the region and beyond. The United States is willing to continue and able to continue to support the Lebanese people, and we are in an effort to galvanize broader international support to provide that relief to the Lebanese people.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Can I switch to Haiti?
MR PRICE: Absolutely. And before you do, Beatriz, I know this may be your last day in our briefing room, so I just want to thank you for your several years here in this room and all you’ve done. And I know you will go on to just down Pennsylvania Avenue, but best of luck.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I wanted to switch to Haiti to ask who the United States recognizes as the prime minister currently in Haiti and if there has been any contact with Ariel Henry or his team. Thank you.
MR PRICE: Well, as you know, the situation on the ground is evolving rapidly. We remain in close contact with Haitian officials and relevant stakeholders. The Secretary, to your question, spoke yesterday with Acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph, and the Secretary reiterated our continued commitment to work with the Government of Haiti in support of the Haitian people and democratic governance, peace, and security.
We know ultimately that preserving Haiti’s democratic institutions is key to restoring peace. The United States, the OAS, our partners in the region and beyond, we have consistently urged the Government of Haiti to organize free and fair presidential and legislative elections. And we continue to urge Haitian Government officials and political stakeholders to dialogue in the best interests of the Haitian people and to refrain from violence.
This is the message we heard – precisely the message we heard yesterday from Acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph. We have, as you alluded to, been in contact with a number of officials and stakeholders. We have also been in contact with Ariel Henry as well.
QUESTION: And do you recognize Claude Joseph as the prime minister?
MR PRICE: Well, Claude Joseph was the incumbent in the position. He was serving as the acting prime minister before the assassination of President Moise. We continue to work with Claude Joseph as such.
QUESTION: And the ambassador, is she back?
MR PRICE: She is back. Ambassador Sison was able to travel back to Haiti, so she is back in Port-au-Prince.
QUESTION: More on Haiti?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: The investigation – the Haitian authorities are saying that one of the people arrested in the assassination was a U.S. citizen. Can you confirm that? Do you have any details on that?
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to confirm that, principally because the Haitian authorities are, of course, leading this investigation. It’s still early days. We’re aware of the reports of the arrests that have taken place, but I would need to refer to Haitian authorities for any details.
QUESTION: And you discussed yesterday whether there was a proposal for – from the Haitians for more assistance. Has there been anything more formal? Is the United States going to offer more assistance, whether it’s terms of the investigation or anything else?
MR PRICE: Well, this has developed over the past couple hours, but we are aware that the Haitian National Police – of the Haitian National Police’s request for investigative assistance, and the United States is responding. The situation on the ground, as I said before, is evolving rapidly. We’ve remained in regular contact with Haitian officials, including the investigative authorities, to discuss how the United States can assist going forward.
QUESTION: Is that – what is that – sorry. Is that —
QUESTION: At this stage, what does that mean? Is —
QUESTION: Is that the FBI? Who is that?
MR PRICE: So we have not – as of – I was coming out here, I did not have a chance to hear the full details of the request from the Haitian National Police, so I’m not in a position to provide any more detail there. But if it is a request for investigative assistance, that would most likely fall within law enforcement channels.
QUESTION: Can I change to the Tokyo Olympics?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Oh, can I just do one more question on —
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: So in terms of sending down any other ways of protecting the embassy, are there more Marines going down? Is that needed at this time?
MR PRICE: So as you know, we don’t speak to security measures. We are constantly evaluating the security situation on the ground. Of course, that includes in Port-au-Prince. It also is the case all around the world. We have no higher priority than the safety and security of our people there. The U.S. embassy is restricting the movements of direct hire U.S. citizens and their family members until further notice, but for operational security reasons, we’re not in a position to discuss the specifics of our security posture.
MR PRICE: For that, we would need to refer you to the Japanese Government. We support Japan’s efforts to hold a safe and secure Olympic and Paralympic Games.
QUESTION: Could I —
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Could I go to the Middle East?
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: The Israeli-Palestinian – go ahead if you want.
QUESTION: Sorry, just one thing: Is there anyone from State going?
MR PRICE: To the Olympics?
MR PRICE: In an official capacity, I assume you mean.
QUESTION: Well, Ned, I’m sure that you’re a great high jumper or whatever – I don’t know – gymnast. I’m sure you are, but no, yes, in an official capacity.
MR PRICE: We have not announced any —
QUESTION: Well, I know you haven’t announced, but is anyone actually —
MR PRICE: Right. Well, if we haven’t announced it, it probably stands to reason that I’m not going to offer anything from the podium just yet.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: The Israeli destruction of the home of Montaser Shalabi near Ramallah – I know the embassy in Jerusalem put something out earlier, but wanted to see if the U.S. has a stance on this beyond that, and the current Israeli Government, if the United States has had any talks with them to express opposition to this.
MR PRICE: Sure. We are closely following reports that the home was demolished. As we’ve said numerous times now, the home of an entire family should not be demolished for the actions of one individual. There is a critical need to lower the temperature in the West Bank. Punitive demolitions exacerbate tensions at a time when everyone should be focused on principally ensuring calm. The Secretary and other senior officials here at the State Department in recent days have raised these concerns directly with senior Israeli officials and we will continue to do so as long as this practice continues.
QUESTION: So the Secretary himself – can you say at what level he raised this?
MR PRICE: The Secretary himself did raise this broader issue with a senior Israeli counterpart.
QUESTION: Are you —
QUESTION: And they declined, I mean, they dismissed the —
MR PRICE: I’m not going to characterize it, but we attach a good deal of priority to this, knowing that the home of an entire family should never be demolished for the action of one individual.
QUESTION: But when you say that you’re following reports that this house was demolished, do you know that it was demolished? I mean, presumably —
MR PRICE: We have no reason to doubt that.
QUESTION: So why do you say you’re following reports? I mean, why don’t you just come out and say that – if you think it was a bad thing, just come out and say that it was a bad thing.
MR PRICE: Well, Matt, we’ve stated on any number of occasions now that the home of an entire family should not be demolished for the actions of one individual.
QUESTION: Okay. Is that what happened in this case, according to you?
MR PRICE: We have no reason to doubt that. We have been in contact with a number of individuals. Not in a position to speak to all of it, including because of privacy concerns.
MR PRICE: Sure. Sure.
QUESTION: Diplomacy at the UN in terms of preserving a border crossing – there was a report that Russia has proposed as a compromise a six-month extension of the Bab al-Hawa crossing. Can you say if the United States would be at all amenable to that?
MR PRICE: Well, there’s only one proposal currently before the Security Council put forward by the humanitarian penholders, and it would reauthorize one crossing for 12 months. And we’ve been very clear that continuing cross-border access – it’s a humanitarian imperative, and it’s a humanitarian imperative because lives are on the line. Millions of lives are on the line. We’ve heard very clearly from UN agencies, NGOs around the world that 12 months is critical to their work to reliably deliver aid while managing the lengthy procurement process. What we find before us in the coming days is an opportunity for the Security Council and, more broadly, the international community to stand up and show that it is on the side of the beleaguered and food-insecure Syrian people.
Just on that, as of January of this year, to underscore the stakes, approximately 13.4 million Syrians, two-thirds of the country’s estimated population, require humanitarian assistance. Nearly 60 percent of Syria’s total population, approximately 12.4 million people, were food insecure as of late last year. And that represents an increase of nearly 60 percent, 57 percent since 2019. Approximately 2 million Syrians are now living in extreme poverty. More than 90 percent of the population is estimated to be living below the poverty line. The World Bank reports life expectancy in Syria has decreased by some 13 years since the start of the conflict.
So we spoke about this in some detail yesterday, but again, for us this is not about politics, it’s not about geopolitics, it’s not about international politics. It is about saving lives and it is about doing the right thing for the people of Syria. Any and every responsible country around the world should be in favor of an extension for as long as can be achieved.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. Seungjin from South Korea. Well, recently, South Korea found out that its nuclear research center was possibly hacked by North Korea. So what do you think about it and North Korea’s attempt to hack other countries, particularly the U.S. and its allies?
MR PRICE: Well, we’re aware of the report you reference. For details of that I would need to refer you to the Government of South Korea to comment. As you know, we don’t comment on matters of intelligence. But what I would say more broadly is that North Korea’s malicious cyber activities threaten the United States, they threaten our allies and partners, countries around the world. North Korea poses a significant cyber threat to financial institutions, it remains a cyber espionage threat, it retains the ability to conduct disruptive cyber activities as we’ve seen it do in recent years. It’s vital for the international community, for network defenders, and the public to stay vigilant and to work together to mitigate the cyber threat posed by North Korea.
MR PRICE: On the talks in Vienna, I don’t have any update to offer you today. We obviously spoke to this yesterday. The timing of the seventh round of talks hasn’t yet been announced. Our understanding is that the Iranian delegation is in Tehran for consultations, as we talked about yesterday. They have not as of yet informed the EU coordinator as to when they will be ready to start the next round of talks. Therefore, the timing for a seventh round has not yet been set, and we’re not in a position to speculate as to when it might take place. But we’re also not going to speculate about the Iranian delegation’s current activities, their decision making processes.
As for our delegation, as you know, Special Envoy Malley and much of his team are back here. There is much work to be done outside of Vienna and the talks there, and so Special Envoy Malley and his team are engaged here at the department. They have briefed the Secretary. They’ve briefed other senior officials as they remain fully engaged in this work to see if we can achieve that mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.
MR PRICE: I don’t – I don’t have an update for you on the COVID situation at the Hong Kong consulate. As you know, we’re constantly adjusting given conditions in any locale.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Thank you very much, everyone.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:20 p.m.)