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Daily Press Briefing

Jeff Rathke
Acting Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
May 4, 2015

Index for Today's Briefing




12:40 p.m. EDT

MR RATHKE: Good afternoon, everybody.

QUESTION: Happy Monday.

MR RATHKE: May the 4th.

QUESTION: Such as it is.

MR RATHKE: I expected you to pick up on Star Wars Day there, Matt.

QUESTION: I think that that is discriminatory against people with speaking problems.

MR RATHKE: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: No, people with speech impediments. It's not very nice to them, is it?

MR RATHKE: I got it. Okay. Well, I actually --

QUESTION: It's the 6th, actually, May the 6th, right? Sith, sixth – that's the --

MR RATHKE: It depends on which movies you're most a fan of.

I have three things for you at the top. The Secretary is in Nairobi, Kenya, today. He met separately with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta; the cabinet secretaries for foreign affairs, interior, and defense; members of the Coalition for Reform and Democracy; and with Chief Justice Willy Mutunga. He also participated in a refugee event at UNHCR headquarters. Additionally, after meeting with staff and families at Embassy Nairobi, he attended a wreath-laying ceremony in honor of the victims of the 1998 embassy bombing. Right now, Secretary Kerry is participating in a Kenya private sector alliance dinner with business leaders.

Second item is about his onward travel. On May 6th and 7th, Secretary Kerry will visit Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He will meet with senior government leaders to discuss a variety of issues related to regional security. Secretary Kerry will then travel to Paris to meet with foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries to discuss shared regional priorities and security cooperation, as well as participate in Victory Day commemorations marking the Allied victory in Europe. While in Paris, the Secretary will also meet with French Foreign Minister Fabius to discuss regional and global issues.

And last issue is Nepal. The USAID Acting Administrator Alfonso Lenhardt traveled to Nepal today to survey damage from the April 25th earthquake, to help in the distribution of USAID commodities, and to meet with Nepal government officials and agency staff involved in the disaster response. Embassy-chartered helicopters have rescued a total of 17 U.S. citizens from remote areas of Nepal impacted by the earthquake, and the embassy has coordinated with the Nepal army to rescue others as part of the Government of Nepal's rescue operations. Embassy personnel continue to focus on the remaining U.S. citizens missing in areas particularly hard-hit by the earthquake. And I would highlight that our team on the ground there is still working around the clock, led by Ambassador Bodde, to deal with all the consequences of the earthquake.

The U.S. Department of Defense provided more than $1.7 million for logistical support, and this brings the total U.S. humanitarian assistance to 14.2 million. And the last point on this: Five U.S. military aircraft – four V-22 Ospreys and one UH-1Y Huey helicopter – arrived in Nepal yesterday, May 3rd, to help deliver USAID commodities to remote villages and to support USAID's humanitarian assessments to ensure that shelter materials and other critical supplies get to people in need. Today, a U.S. military Osprey, in coordination with the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team and the Nepal army, delivered emergency shelter kits containing ropes and tarps to Dolakha district. Also, joint USAID DART and U.S. military aerial assessments began today to view areas made inaccessible by landslides and debris since the April 25th earthquake.

With that, over to you, Matt.

QUESTION: Right. I'm sure we'll get back to Nepal and also the Secretary's travel, but I want to start with something that I believe now there is a response to, and these are the questions that I and others have been raising for the course of the past couple weeks over whether or not the State Department has any concerns about the questions raised by numerous stories in the media about donations to the Clinton Foundation and various other subsidiaries I guess you would call – affiliates. Whether or not there are questions or concerns in this building about whether or not the questions about potential conflict of interest have any --

MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: I'll end there.


QUESTION: Is there any concern in this building about the questions raised by these stories?

MR RATHKE: Well, we are not aware of any evidence that actions taken by Secretary Clinton were influenced by donation to the Clinton Foundation or speech honoraria of former President Clinton. So that's our view of that situation. And a review of private-firm donations was outside the scope of the MOU and was not something that the Department was vetting.

QUESTION: Okay. When you say that you're not aware of any evidence, does that mean that there – that you undertook some kind of – or that the building undertook some kind of review in the aftermath of all these stories that have been coming out over the course of the last month or so?

MR RATHKE: Well, we're certainly aware of the reports that have been – that have come out after a variety of statements made or a book published, in one case. And I don't have a systematic or an organizational effort to outline for you, but we're not aware of anything in those reports that, again, suggests that there's any evidence of Secretary Clinton's actions having been influenced by donations to the Clinton Foundation.

QUESTION: Right, but if you haven't looked into it – I mean, some of these things weren't known before. So if you haven't looked into it, of course there's not – I mean, there's not going to be any evidence one way or another, right? So --

QUESTION: To just ask the question simply: Have you looked into this or not?

MR RATHKE: Well, yes, we've looked at these reports. We don't – we are not aware of any evidence to suggest that there was any influence.

QUESTION: But have you actually looked at not just the reports, but then gone back and looked at the Secretary's decisions on various matters and donations that the foundation received to see if there is any relationship between them? Have you actually conducted an investigation or an inquiry or just a quick look to figure it out? Or not? Or did you just look at the reports and say, "Well, there's no evidence of anything – of an action that she took in response to donations"?

MR RATHKE: Well, we've looked at the reports that have been out there publicly, and we don't have any evidence, any internal evidence to suggest that there was that kind of influence.

QUESTION: So you didn't look?

QUESTION: But did anyone look?

QUESTION: Have – you both looked at the reports and at the Secretary's actions and found that there's no evidence to suggest that her actions were related to donations? I mean, have you looked at both sides of the coin, the reports and then her actions as Secretary of State? Or have you not looked at the second part of the coin?

MR RATHKE: Again, we've looked at these reports, we've compared them to the information available. If you want a more detailed --


MR RATHKE: -- readout of that, I'm happy to look at that.

QUESTION: Well, that suggests that, in fact – that suggests – what you just said suggests that, in fact, you have looked at the reports and also at --

MR RATHKE: Yeah. But your questions were about the scope of that. I'm happy to look into that and come back to you.

QUESTION: Okay. And what about the – well, let me just draw a fine point on this. So you're saying that the Department has looked into the questions that have been raised about potential conflict of interests and found no evidence to support them. Is that correct?

MR RATHKE: We are aware of the reports that have been – that have come out from various publications, and we are aware of no evidence to support the suggestion that there was a – any kind of influence on the actions of the Secretary.

QUESTION: All right. And then on – in terms of whether the MOUs – the two MOUs, the MOUs were actually adhered to at the time specifically related to the stuff that was in this health initiative, where they were supposed to publish the lists of donors and didn't? Is that an issue for the Department?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, if – let me just give one bit of context in answer to your question, because I think these three things come together. There were three undertakings and commitments when Secretary Clinton took office. There was an ethics undertaking, which was a letter in which Secretary Clinton committed, consistent with ethics law, not to participate personally and substantially in matters where the Clinton Foundation or the Clinton Global Initiative were specific parties, or matters that would have a direct and predictable effect on President Clinton's compensation. That was the first element. The second element is the memorandum of understanding which set out commitments – one, that the foundation agreed to publish annually the names of new contributors; and second, that the foundation committed to submit information to the State Department about foreign government donations when they increased materially or when they were new government donations; and then thirdly, the arrangement regarding the speeches and consultancies of former President Clinton were identified in a letter from President Clinton's attorney where he stated that the identities of speech hosts and entities seeking President Clinton's consultation services would be provided to Department ethics officials for review. So those are the three elements of the undertaking.

QUESTION: In the second one, it talked about the release – public disclosure of all the donors. That apparently was not done. Is that correct?

MR RATHKE: So the memorandum of understanding, along with the others, was set up to avoid potential conflicts and appearances of potential conflict between the duties of the Secretary of State and the activities of the foundation and of President Clinton. Again, we are aware of media reports that the foundation did not meet some of the obligations to publish annually the names of new contributors. However, I would also highlight that over the course of Secretary Clinton's tenure, the State Department received requests to review dozens of entities each year, primarily for proposed speeches. And also, I go back to what I said at the start, that we are aware of no evidence that there was undue influence --


MR RATHKE: -- on the Secretary's decisions.

QUESTION: But is it a problem for the State Department that there are these reports that they did not follow through on that part of the MOU in terms of disclosing – the annual disclosure of the donors?

MR RATHKE: We're back now to where we were on Friday.


MR RATHKE: And again, we would say that --

QUESTION: And I don't know. Maybe there isn't – maybe it's not a problem for the State Department. I just want to know yes or no, is it?

MR RATHKE: We welcome the new commitments from the Clinton Foundation to disclose the donors and from the Clinton Health Access Initiative to review their past tax filing, and we welcome the additional efforts to ensure that all those donations are public. So I don't have any problem to outline.

QUESTION: Okay. So the Department is not going to go back to the foundation and say, "Hey, you didn't comply with this; why not?" You've just --

MR RATHKE: Well, they've said they're going to put out that information, so --

QUESTION: And you welcome it, but --


QUESTION: -- you're not – there isn't any kind of consequence or any kind of concern in this – from this building about what happened back in --

MR RATHKE: They're going through and doing that. We'll let them do that.

QUESTION: Jeff, what is the utility of an agreement or a memorandum of understanding, a commitment, if it is not adhered to?

MR RATHKE: I'll let you continue. What's the --

QUESTION: What is the usefulness of a memorandum of understanding designed to avoid conflicts of interests or the appearance of conflicts of interest if it is not adhered to?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, these were transparency measures that were undertaken. As we've talked about before, these undertakings went well beyond, in some respects, what was – what would have been required. And so we welcome those. Again, we are not aware of any evidence of influence, undue influence on decision-making.

QUESTION: But what is the usefulness of an undertaking that is not – of a promise that is not kept? I mean, if they promised that they would disclose all --

MR RATHKE: Well, Arshad, as I've described, there were dozens, each year dozens of --

QUESTION: Let's not mix oranges and apples. What you're doing now is what you did before, where I think you're talking about President Clinton's speech honoraria, right?

MR RATHKE: No, as well as foreign government donations to the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Health Access Initiative.


MR RATHKE: So these aren't apples and oranges.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, I'm talking about the failure of the Clinton Health Access Initiative to disclose on an annual basis from 2010 all new donors. They didn't do it. They said they would do it. They publicly acknowledged that they didn't do it and they publicly acknowledged that they were bound by the terms of the memorandum of understanding. So what is the usefulness of having a memorandum of understanding that is designed to promote transparency if the people who make the commitment to be transparent fail to do so?

MR RATHKE: Well, okay, and I think you're trying to draw a – again, what I'm trying to point out is that the MOU contained two different commitments, one of which was – had reviews by the State Department of the government donations, and we receive dozens of such requests for review and we reviewed every case that was submitted to us. So I don't think that justifies the conclusion you seem to be trying to get at, which is that the MOU wasn't implemented. And so --

QUESTION: Well, I'm not drawing a conclusion. I'm asking a question.

MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And as you're aware, there are two instances in which the MOU was not adhered to with regard to foreign donations, correct?

MR RATHKE: Right, which has subsequently been --

QUESTION: Subsequently, but not real time, not as it was promised to be done under the MOU. So the question is: If somebody says, "I'm going to be transparent," and then then they fail to be transparent, does that not call into question the utility of the agreement in the first place?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, I think the foundation is making efforts now to provide that information that wasn't provided. And I go back to what I said at the start: We're not aware of any evidence of undue evidence – influence coming – stemming from those, so --

QUESTION: Let's forget about the whole --


QUESTION: Let's --

MR RATHKE: Go ahead.

QUESTION: For the time – let's set aside whether or not there's evidence – or you're saying that there is no evidence. Is – and I think I got the answer to this question before. You're saying that the fact that they did not disclose – the health initiative did not disclose these donors on an annual basis, even though they said they would do that, it is not a problem for the State Department?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, I said – what I said is they are --

QUESTION: I'm just – it's an easy – I think it's – is it a problem for the State Department or not that they didn't live up to their – their pledge?

MR RATHKE: So we aren't aware of any evidence of undue influence. So we're not aware of a problem in that regard.

QUESTION: So the fact that they – the fact that they signed off on this MOU to publish the donors annually – even if that wasn't required that they be vetted, just publish them – the fact that they promised to do that and then didn't is not an issue for the building? Is that --

MR RATHKE: I think I've said all I'm going to say about this, Matt.

QUESTION: All right, one more.


QUESTION: President Clinton – former President Clinton this morning in an interview said that there is this attempt to vilify the foundation and that nothing it does is sinister, that – and denied any impropriety – I mean, I believe on either his behalf or his wife's behalf. You're giving – I just want to make again clear you are giving Secretary Clinton a clean bill of health here on the questions about whether there was any improper or undue influence as a result of these donations.

MR RATHKE: Again, as I said at the start, we're aware of no evidence of undue influence.

New topic?

QUESTION: Can we go to Afghanistan?

MR RATHKE: Yeah. Yeah, go ahead, Arshad. We'll come back.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Afghanistan.

MR RATHKE: Please.

QUESTION: So I'm sure you're aware of the reports that Taliban and Afghan government officials met and that they have reached some kind of an agreement with regard to the reopening of the famous Taliban representation office. What does the U.S. Government think about this?

MR RATHKE: Well, what we think about the process of reconciliation and talks between Afghan authorities and the Taliban is we believe an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace effort and reconciliation process is the best way to end violence and to ensure stability in Afghanistan and in the region. We are not in communication with Afghan representatives on any side who are participating in these talks in Doha, so I would refer you to those parties first and foremost for any kind of a readout on what the outcome of their discussions has been. But we certainly support Afghan-led peace efforts.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, surely you're in contact with the Afghan Government about this, even if you're not talking to the participants who are there, right?

MR RATHKE: Well, we're – these are talks they are conducting. I wouldn't – I don't want to suggest that we're in some kind of real-time coordination with the Afghan Government. Of course, yes, we are very interested in being supportive of reconciliation efforts, but these talks that are going on in Doha between Afghan representatives and Taliban representatives are their own initiative.

QUESTION: Right. But surely part of the SRAP's job is to keep on top of what's going on in talks like that, even if you're not a party to them, so that you understand what are the prospects, if any, for reconciliation, right?

MR RATHKE: Well, I'm not going to comment on their ongoing talks, so we'll wait to see the outcome --

QUESTION: And do you have anything to say, then, about what is reported to be an agreement on reopening a Taliban office?

MR RATHKE: Again, I haven't seen the details of those, so we'll wait to see from – to hear from officials what they may have agreed, but I'm not going to get ahead of that process.

Same topic?


MR RATHKE: New topic? Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, cross-strait relations.


QUESTION: The secretary general of the Chinese communist party, Xi Jinping, just had a meeting with Kuomintang's chairman, Chu Li-luan. I'm just curious about the reaction of the U.S. Government to this highest-levels talks between cross-strait political parties.

MR RATHKE: Well, we welcome steps on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to reduce tensions and improve cross-strait relations. We encourage authorities in Beijing and Taipei to continue their constructive dialogue which we believe has led to significant improvements in the cross-strait relationship. And of course, as to the content and the pace and the scope of those interactions, that should be – it should be acceptable to people on both sides of the strait, but we'll leave those details to the people participating in those talks.

QUESTION: And also --


QUESTION: Yeah. Also Chu Li-luan said he hoped Taiwan can take part in the AIIB, and Xi Jinping welcomes that. So will the U.S. support Taiwan's bid to join AIIB?

MR RATHKE: Well, I don't have any comment about the decisions of anyone to participate in the AIIB. The U.S. view on the AIIB has been made quite clear. We consider it important that high standards of transparency be part of the AIIB's approach. I think the President also commented on this just last week, so I don't have anything to add to that.

QUESTION: A follow-up.

MR RATHKE: Yes, yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: And Xi Jinping also mentioned that he has seen some new and important point in cross-strait, and which has impacted Chinese nation and the country's future. I just wonder: Does U.S. have the same point of view?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, we welcome improved cross-strait relations. I'm not going to get into kind of characterizing them further than that. We've seen progress and we welcome that and we encourage continued dialogue.


QUESTION: Thank you, Jeff. The '92 Consensus seemed to be the basis for the two sides to actually make the meeting possible. Would the United States think that this may serve as a point of reference for Taiwan's opposition party, the DPP, so that it would be able to open its own dialogue with the mainland some way, particularly when the DPP chair is about to visit the United States? Thank you.

MR RATHKE: Well, I'm not going to comment about how internally these issues are approached. Again, I think our support for improved cross-strait relations is clear.

Yes, go ahead (inaudible).

QUESTION: North Korea announced yesterday they – they say it's the two student of New York University. Do you have anything on that, about two student --

MR RATHKE: We're aware of those reports, but I don't have any further detail to share. I would refer you to the Government of the Republic of Korea.

QUESTION: Also, North Korea allowed to CNN interview with the student, so they are New York student, but why is that (inaudible)?

MR RATHKE: I simple don't have anything further to share. I'd refer you to the South Korean Government in that regard.

Yes, new topic? Samir, please.

QUESTION: Is the Secretary's meeting with the GCC ministers to prepare for the Camp David summit, or is it the focus on the --

MR RATHKE: Yes, that's --

QUESTION: -- ISIL issue?

MR RATHKE: Well, I think, of course, they will talk about ISIL, but naturally it will also be an opportunity to prepare for the GCC summit, of course.

Other topics? Yes.

QUESTION: Yeah. The situation in Yemen.


QUESTION: The Secretary is going to Riyadh to discuss regional security. I assume this is going to be a – Yemen will be a major topic. Is that correct?

MR RATHKE: Certainly, that'll be one of the things he'll be talking about there.

QUESTION: What is the Administration's current position on what's happening in terms of the Saudi campaign? There are now some – apparently some Arab ground troops on the – or Arab troops on the ground in Yemen.

MR RATHKE: Well, there are a variety of reports – conflicting reports about that, so I don't have any confirmation of any of those reports. I'd refer you first and foremost to the Saudis for any detail about the activities of their – of the coalition they're leading.

Sorry, go ahead. You were about to --

QUESTION: No – well, go ahead and finish.

MR RATHKE: So we of course remain in close contact with Saudi Arabia and we have – as we have been since the start of the coalition campaign in Yemen. We still believe that ultimately political negotiations remain the only long-term path to stability and prosperity for the people of Yemen.

QUESTION: How close in contact – how closely in contact are you with the Saudis if you cannot confirm or deny that there are troops on the ground – Arab troops on the ground?

MR RATHKE: Well, we'll let the Saudis speak for themselves. I'm not going to speak on their behalf. I'll let them speak to what --

QUESTION: Do you know? Do you know? Has this been a topic of conversation with the Saudis if you're in close contact them about this?

MR RATHKE: Well, we are in regular contact about all aspects of the operation.

QUESTION: Have you asked?

MR RATHKE: I don't have any information to share about their posture.

QUESTION: Okay. Whether or not you can confirm or whether or not you have any information about it, is that something that you are either gung-ho in favor of or gung-ho against?

MR RATHKE: Well, we continue to support the Saudi efforts. I would remind that the reason we're in this situation is because of the Houthis' unwillingness to abide by UN Security Council resolutions to take up a political dialogue, and we continue to support actions in support of Yemen's legitimate government, its unity, sovereignty, territorial integrity.

QUESTION: And then tangentially to this, is there any update on the Maersk ship? Have you had any contact with the company, with the Marshall Islands, with the Iranians about what's going on with that?

MR RATHKE: So with regard to the ship – we'll start with the ship and then if we want we can talk about U.S. actions in the region. We have made a variety of efforts with – to help secure the release of the ship, including communicating with the commercial entities involved, our diplomatic communication with the Republic of the Marshall Islands. And we remain in contact with them to peacefully resolve the incident and ensure safe passage for the vessel and its crew. I'm not going to get into further details about all of our diplomatic exchanges about the ship.

QUESTION: Okay. In terms of what the U.S. is doing in the region, you said you had something on that?

MR RATHKE: Yes. So as we've talked about, the U.S. maintains a robust presence in the region to deter destabilizing activities, also to safeguard the maritime links that are so essential to the international community. I think my colleagues at DoD have talked about the accompanying U.S.-flagged maritime traffic transiting the Strait of Hormuz, and we are also accompanying, in addition to U.S.-flagged ships, UK-flagged ships and there are discussions ongoing with other nations to include their vessels as well. My colleagues at the DoD would have more details on that. I'm not going to specify further. We'll let the countries themselves talk about it if they wish to.

QUESTION: But there's been – you have come to some agreement with the Brits about --

MR RATHKE: Right. We're accompanying UK-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz.


MR RATHKE: Again, my colleagues at the Pentagon would have more specifics about that arrangement.

QUESTION: Well, what exactly is the responsibility that you have toward the Marshall Islands for this ship of its? And I have a legal question too. I mean, because they rely entirely on the United States for their defense, does that mean that they are essentially under the NATO umbrella?

MR RATHKE: No, the North Atlantic Treaty applies to the North Atlantic.

QUESTION: It doesn't apply to the south – or to the Pacific?

MR RATHKE: No, I think if you want to read the Washington Treaty, you'll find --

QUESTION: Only Hawaii?

MR RATHKE: -- you'll find where it talks about the regional implications of it.

QUESTION: Only to Hawaii.

MR RATHKE: So with regard to the U.S. compact with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, I think we talked about that a bit last week. I don't have further legal analysis. I don't think I have the description in front of me now, but basically we have a defense responsibility which also includes shipping.

QUESTION: You said at the very top that you maintain this robust presence in the Strait of Hormuz to deter destabilizing actions and to keep the shipping lanes open. But I mean, can you give yourself a grade on that, I mean, since this one ship – all right, it's only one ship, but it – is that --

MR RATHKE: I think I --

QUESTION: Is the seizure of that ship a destabilizing action?

MR RATHKE: Well, as I said, we have – we are undertaking to accompany other ships, U.S. and UK-flagged ships transiting the strait. So I think that's a demonstration of our commitment to, on an ongoing basis, in looking – we're looking forward to ensure that they remain open.

We'll go to John, then Samir.

QUESTION: So just related to Yemen, a few questions related to the Human Rights Watch report that Saudi Arabia dropped cluster bombs in Yemen. Did the U.S. communicate concern over Saudi Arabia's alleged use of cluster bombs?

MR RATHKE: Well, let me start by saying that we take all accounts of civilian deaths in the ongoing hostilities in Yemen very seriously, and we call upon all sides in the conflict to comply with international humanitarian law and to take all feasible measures to minimize harm to civilians.

Now with regard to the specific assertions in the Human Rights Watch report, we're looking into those details carefully. I don't have an outcome of that to report. And we share the concerns regarding unintended harm to civilians caused by the use of cluster munitions. The United States remains the single largest financial supporter of addressing the explosive remnants of war. We, of course, coordinate and talk regularly with the Saudis about all aspects of their campaign, including humanitarian aspects.

QUESTION: Would the U.S. bear any responsibility given that the alleged use of cluster munitions were supplied by the U.S.?

MR RATHKE: Well, we're looking into the specific allegations, so I don't have confirmation of those in the report. As a matter of U.S. law and U.S. policy, the United States may only transfer cluster munitions that meet that our stringent requirements for unexploded ordnance rates, which may not exceed 1 percent. In addition, recipients of such transfers must commit that cluster munitions will only be used against clearly defined military targets and will not be used where civilians are known to be present or in areas normally inhabited by civilians. This is obviously a critical element of our policy.

QUESTION: Yeah. And does the U.S. believe that the operations in Yemen, which are supported by the U.S., does it believe that the use of cluster munitions are appropriate for this type of operation?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, I would go back to the overall principle; that is, the commitment that cluster munitions will be used only against clearly defined military targets. With regard to the particular details in the Human Rights Watch report, we are looking into those. I don't have a conclusion on that.

QUESTION: So as long as they – as long as they've satisfied those rubrics that you've laid out, the use of cluster munitions could be appropriate for the operation in Yemen?

MR RATHKE: Again, against clearly defined military targets. That's our policy on those – on such transfers.

QUESTION: Why? Why is it so important to use them or to continue to sell them? Is it just a money-making thing for arms manufacturers here? I mean, there are clearly a lot of problems with them.

MR RATHKE: Well --

QUESTION: Why is it U.S. policy to sell them – to transfer them at all, given the fact that you can't guarantee this 1 percent rate? And some might argue that even 1 percent is too much.

MR RATHKE: Well, our policy – it is with the 1 percent rate. That is the result of a change a few years ago in our policy, so we have tightened that up. I would refer you to my colleagues at the Pentagon for questions about the particular uses on the battlefield where they are difficult to be replaced by other munitions.


QUESTION: Did you hear from the Iranians – did they justify to you why they are seizing the ship?

MR RATHKE: Well, the Iranians have given a number of different public descriptions for – the reasons for detaining the Maersk. It remains in Iranian custody. We are not aware of any reports of injuries to crew members, but certainly we, with these varying justifications, it's hard to know exactly what the reason is. That's why we continue to work through this with our partners, including the companies and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

I would also go back to what we've said before, which is that any redirecting of a ship that's exercising the right of free – of transit passage through the Strait of Hormuz, redirecting it to a different destination, would not be consistent with the international Law of the Sea. And – yes.

QUESTION: Yeah, but --


MR RATHKE: Go ahead, Samir, and then we'll come to Arshad.

QUESTION: Sorry. But since you have the responsibility to defend the ship carrying – the Marshall Islands ship – aren't you going to ask the Iranians why they are seizing it?

MR RATHKE: Well, we're in discussions with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, on the basis of our compact with them, to determine steps and the way forward. I don't have further details --

QUESTION: But what with the Iranians --

MR RATHKE: -- to outline from those conversations.


QUESTION: Have you had any contacts with the Iranians, either direct or indirect, regarding the fate of the Maersk?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, as I said earlier, we've had a variety of diplomatic conversations. I'm not going to get into the details of all of them.

QUESTION: Why do you not want to say whether or not you've had contact with the Iranians?

MR RATHKE: Again, we – as is our common practice, we have diplomatic contacts on a variety of issues. We don't outline the details of all of them. So I don't have any further --

QUESTION: Wait. So you've talked to the Iranians about enormously sensitive matters on the sidelines of the nuclear talks, including the Islamic State advances in Iraq, which you have confirmed you had done last summer. I mean, why wouldn't you talk to them?

MR RATHKE: Again, I just don't have anything further from our diplomatic engagement on this to outline.


QUESTION: On Iran, specifically --


QUESTION: -- there's a report from an Iranian news agency that's been picked up by a couple other outlets that an American delegation of – is going to be attending some oil and gas show in Iran next week. Do you know anything about this? And is it, right now, where we are in the state of the negotiations – would a visit by a delegation – an American delegation – violate any sanctions?

MR RATHKE: Well, we've seen these news reports, and I would say looking at them, not a single company or individual is identified in them. So it's hard to verify whether these reports are accurate at all, but also we've been quite clear that we don't consider Iran to be open for business yet, and that if there is any sanctionable activity happening, then we will take action, as we've said repeatedly.

QUESTION: Would a visit like this be sanctionable?

MR RATHKE: Well, I'm not going to speculate about a visit which has not even been confirmed and the nature of which is completely obscure right now, but certainly we are – we monitor reports of such activity, and if we see sanctionable activity, then we take action.

QUESTION: Right. Well, then let me not make it based on this report. Is it, right now, a violation of sanctions for an American oil company executive to travel to Iran to participate in some kind of a business-related activity?

MR RATHKE: Well, specifically with regard to U.S. companies, under Executive Order 13059, this goes back nearly two decades to 1997, as well as other relevant authorities, virtually all trade and investment activities with Iran by U.S. persons are prohibited. So that's certainly a starting point but --

QUESTION: So in other words – okay, so --

MR RATHKE: -- not knowing the particulars of --


MR RATHKE: -- the activity, I can't say whether it's sanctionable.

QUESTION: But it would be a violation to go and to conduct business. It might not be a violation to just go and attend a conference.

MR RATHKE: Again, and the details here – it's unclear what activity people might be undertaking. I don't want to give a broad legal interpretation from the podium about --

QUESTION: Right. Does that --

MR RATHKE: -- what all those activities are.

QUESTION: Does that apply to American citizen employees of companies, or could a – only? Or could a foreign employee of an American company go and do business in Iran right now --

MR RATHKE: My understanding --

QUESTION: -- and not be --

MR RATHKE: -- about the executive order and other authorities, that they – is that they apply to U.S. persons. So that would be --

QUESTION: Okay. So in other words, a South African who was employed by an American company could go and engage in business and it wouldn't be a violation?

MR RATHKE: Well, I think we'd have to take a look at the definition of a U.S. person and whether that includes corporations. So it would – we can come back to you with that detail.

QUESTION: You mean corporations are people too?

MR RATHKE: I thought you'd want to take that opportunity.

QUESTION: That applies here as well? Okay.


QUESTION: Can we go to Iraq?


QUESTION: There are reports that the largest Iraqi oil refinery – that the people inside it are besieged and running low on food and pleading for reinforcements to save them from Islamic State militants.

MR RATHKE: You're talking about Baiji?

QUESTION: Baiji. Exactly, yeah.


QUESTION: Do you have any comment on this? And is the U.S. Government thinking about doing anything to help the people at Baiji?

MR RATHKE: Well, as has been the case for a while, the security situation within the city of Baiji and the refinery nearby remains contested. As we understand, Iraqi Security Forces continue to conduct defensive operations in the area, and they have been able to resupply forces in the refinery. And the coalition continues to coordinate with Iraqi security forces to provide targeted air support in ISIL-held and in contested areas, including at Baiji but throughout Iraq and in Anbar province, in order to back up the forces on the ground. We would turn to the Iraqi Government for the latest on the status of their forces in the area. My colleagues at the Pentagon may have more on specific actions, operations undertaken in recent days.

QUESTION: But it is indeed your understanding that Iraqi forces have been able to resupply people --

MR RATHKE: That's our understanding, yes.


MR RATHKE: Yes, please.

QUESTION: Sri Lanka?


QUESTION: Yeah. Secretary Kerry announced at the press conference they reviewed importance of the regional issues, including the maritime security. So with regard to this maritime security, what kind of role United States – does the United States expect Sri Lanka to play in Indian Ocean or other regions?

MR RATHKE: Well, I would refer you to his public comments. I don't have anything further to outline about specific actions by Sri Lanka. Of course, we see Sri Lanka as a partner and we are building up our relationship with Sri Lanka, but I don't have further details to offer on those comments.

QUESTION: Do you have some plan how the United States to support Sri Lanka with regards to this kind of maritime security?

MR RATHKE: Specifically in the maritime security realm?

QUESTION: Yes. Yeah, yeah.

MR RATHKE: I'm happy to talk to our experts on South Asia and come back to you with more detail.

Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, on ISIL, could you confirm the news report that Baghdadi was seriously injured and may not be able to resume?

MR RATHKE: I don't have any confirmation of those reports. We're aware of those, but I don't have any confirmation to offer.

QUESTION: And could you give us an update about the evaluation about ISIL's military power, and how many lands under their control?

MR RATHKE: How many?

QUESTION: Land, territory.

MR RATHKE: Well, again, I think we've spoken about this recently that the amount of territory that ISIL controls has shrunk significantly from last summer. And I think the Secretary has spoken to this, as have his colleagues from the Pentagon. We're happy to go back and get those figures for you. I don't have them at my fingertips. But certainly, we've seen them especially in Iraq losing hold of significant amounts of territory.

Yes, Jake.

QUESTION: On Burma, do you have any readout yet from Deputy Secretary Blinken's meeting this morning with Shwe Mann?

MR RATHKE: I think I do. So Deputy Secretary – Deputy Secretary Blinken met today with the speaker of Burma's union parliament, Shwe Mann. They discussed the importance of inclusive, credible, and transparent elections later this year, meaningful political dialogue among all stakeholders to build trust, advance national reconciliation, and support Burma's democratic transition, as well as the importance of constitutional reform. Deputy Secretary Blinken raised concerns regarding the four draft bills purportedly designed to protect race and religion and the status of so-called white card holders. The Deputy Secretary also stressed the importance of implementing durable solutions to human rights challenges in Burma and asked for a transparent and independent investigation into the use of force against protestors.

Okay. Anything else? Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:23 p.m.)

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