Daily Press Briefing
Acting Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
May 7, 2015
Index for Today's Briefing
12:25 p.m. EDT
MR RATHKE: Good afternoon. I have two things to mention at the top. The first is with regard to Nepal. The U.S. Pacific Command has activated Joint Task Force 505 to support the Government of Nepal and the overall U.S. Government and international response to the April 25th earthquake. The joint task force consists of approximately 500 personnel, and its headquarters will coordinate U.S. military relief efforts working in support of the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team, which is coordinating the overall U.S. Government response, as well as with senior representatives from the U.S. State Department and other U.S. agencies.
And with the monsoon season fast approaching in June, USAID is focused on addressing the critical needs of shelter and medical care. They are airlifting 2,190 additional rolls of plastic sheeting to Nepal to be transported to critical districts identified by the government. This is in addition to the emergency medical supplies USAID is also in the process of airlifting that will help 40,000 people for three months. Both commodities are scheduled to arrive this weekend.
And lastly before we get started, Secretary Kerry was in Riyadh today where he met with Saudi King Salman, Yemeni President Hadi, Saudi Foreign Minister Al-Jubeir, and other senior Saudi leaders. As you may have seen, Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Al-Jubeir announced that the Saudis agreed to a five-day ceasefire and humanitarian pause to cover all of Yemen, to start at a date to be decided very soon. They will discuss more details of how the ceasefire will work in Paris tomorrow, and of course, this is all dependent on the Houthis agreeing to it as well. Secretary Kerry's on his way to Paris as we speak.
So with that, over to you, Matt.
QUESTION: And we'll get back to Yemen in a second, but I just want to start with something that just happened, which is that a judge in Canada has just ordered the release on bail of Omar Khadr. I have been asking about this case for the last several days, attempting to find out if this government, which one presumes, would have an interest – whatever that interest might be, but an interest in it – in the case – if you have any position on it. And you and your colleagues have not – have responded by saying – by referring me to the Canadian Government for any comment on it. Now that he has been released – this is a guy who has been convicted of killing a U.S. soldier – what, if anything, do you have to say about it?
MR RATHKE: I saw the report of that, Matt, just before I came out here. So I don't have a comment right away, but we'll look at that and we'll come back to you.
QUESTION: Can you please --
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Does – can I just ask in general --
MR RATHKE: Sure.
QUESTION: -- does the U.S. have any – have an interest in what happens to this guy?
MR RATHKE: Well, of course, we have an interest in working with the governments in countries to which Guantanamo detainees have been transferred. We work carefully on a case-by-case basis on each of those. So we certainly have an interest in mitigating the risks that these detainees could represent. As to a specific comment on that one, we'll come back to you after we've taken --
QUESTION: Okay. Well, then --
MR RATHKE: -- a look at the ruling and had a chance to --
QUESTION: Well, can you say, then, that – if you expressed your concern or your interest in this case to the Canadian Government prior to today?
MR RATHKE: Well, we have a close partnership with the Canadians – not a surprise to anyone. I'll see if there's more we can say about our consultations.
QUESTION: You can't say that you were in touch with them about this case? Because you certainly didn't – weren't making – saying anything publicly about it. Were you privately in touch with the Canadians? I'm not asking what you might have said to them. But were you – was the U.S. Government or the relevant agencies of the U.S. Government in touch with the Canadians about this case as it proceeded along in terms of this bail hearing?
MR RATHKE: I understand. I don't have a timeline to offer. Of course, we've been in touch with the Canadians about the case, as we are when we have transfers. I'll see if we can say more about timing of those.
QUESTION: Can we go to Yemen?
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: I'm not sure I quite understand what it is exactly the Secretary and Foreign Minister Jubeir announced today in Riyadh. It seems to be a bit of a novel approach to announce a ceasefire that no one has agreed to – or that the other side hasn't agreed to, to be more specific – in the hopes that they will agree to it. Is there any indication at all that the other side to this conflict is prepared to take the Saudis up on this offer? And if not, why come out and claim to have accomplished something that has not been accomplished?
MR RATHKE: Well, the Secretary welcomed the Saudi initiative, and this initiative is to implement soon a five-day ceasefire. And both he and Foreign Minister Jubeir urged the Houthis and those backing them to – not to miss this opportunity. This, as they've said today and as we've said all along, the source of the current instability in Yemen is the aggressive unilateral actions of the Houthis, the support of former President Saleh. And so that is the reason for the situation that exists in Yemen. The Saudis have responded to that. They are, of course, as are we, concerned with the humanitarian situation. They spoke about that at some length as well in their press availability, and so in an effort to address that, the Saudis have announced their intention to carry out this ceasefire. But of course, as they've said before, this depends on all the parties abiding by a ceasefire.
QUESTION: Right, but my question was whether there's any indication that you – whether or not you have any indication that there – this is anything more than an empty gesture.
MR RATHKE: Well, I don't think it's an empty gesture at all. It's quite clear --
QUESTION: You stop fighting, lay down your arms, and allow it and don't move, and then that – I mean, is there any indication that the Houthis are willing to take the Saudis up on this?
MR RATHKE: Well, it's up to the Houthis to make their position known.
QUESTION: Well, Minister Jubeir said there hasn't been any contact between them and the Houthis. The Secretary – or it has been alluded to that the Secretary spoke to Foreign Minister Zarif this week, earlier this week, about the situation in Yemen. I mean, who is it that's putting the pressure on the Houthis, or who is it that is trying to convince them to accept this ceasefire offer, if anyone?
MR RATHKE: Well, I'll let the Saudis speak for themselves. We have not had – we don't have any contacts with the Houthis to read out. We've made clear, both publicly today, that we think this is an offer the Houthis should take up, and that this is an opportunity to – on the one hand, to address humanitarian issues through this pause, and also to get back to a political dialogue process.
QUESTION: And can you talk about Secretary Kerry's call with Foreign Minister Zarif?
MR RATHKE: I don't have any calls to read out in recent days.
QUESTION: So he didn't make a call or you just don't – or --
MR RATHKE: I don't have any – is there something more specific you are referring to?
QUESTION: Well, my understanding is that they spoke, and that the Secretary's intention in making the call – at least one of them, I don't know if it was on more than one issue – but was to ask the Iranians to use their – whatever influence they might have with the Houthis to agree to whatever the Saudis might propose in the way of a ceasefire. Maybe that is incorrect, but – I might be wrong, but you can't tell me that I'm wrong?
MR RATHKE: I don't have any calls this week to read out. Again, our point of view on Iran is – and their role is that those who back the Houthis should use all their influence to get the Houthis to agree to the ceasefire.
QUESTION: Okay. I'll stop after this. You don't have – you don't have any calls to – the Secretary did not call a single person this week?
MR RATHKE: No, you were asking about Foreign Minister Zarif. That was the point.
QUESTION: You don't have any (inaudible) with him.
MR RATHKE: Yeah. Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: Stay on this.
MR RATHKE: Excuse me?
QUESTION: Was this ceasefire, in a way, coaxed by the Secretary of State? Because it seems that the idea of a ceasefire or a temporary ceasefire was floating around, but it took effect today. Would you say that the Secretary sort of pushed for this?
MR RATHKE: Well, the Saudis have been talking about their readiness to consider a humanitarian pause for several days. We've welcomed those indications of interest, and so naturally, the situation in Yemen was a topic of discussion today. But I think it would be a mistake to suggest that – to characterize it the way you did. This is something we both have an interest in.
QUESTION: But would it be a mistake not to assume that the presence of the Secretary of State of the United States of America actually placed some pressure on them to agree to that ceasefire?
MR RATHKE: Again, I don't think we're talking about pressure. I think this is an issue in which the Saudis and the United States both have a very keen interest.
QUESTION: Okay. What is the likelihood that this temporary ceasefire may actually take hold and go on for longer? Was it something that you'd like to see?
MR RATHKE: Well, we certainly – the – what was announced was a five-day ceasefire that would be, then, renewable. So that's – certainly, it needs to start, and again, that depends on the Houthis to abide as well by a ceasefire --
QUESTION: And in his meetings --
MR RATHKE: -- throughout all of Yemen.
QUESTION: Yeah. In his meetings with President Hadi, was this ceasefire talked about in a way that this is it? I mean, "We have five days, we'll do all we can from a humanitarian point of view and then the fighting will resume," or was it a prelude or perhaps some sort of political talks between the two sides? And was Hadi ready to say, "Okay, we will – we want to assume – we want to resume the talks"?
MR RATHKE: Well, so President Hadi, as you know, is going to be convening a dialogue conference in Riyadh on May 17th. This is to support the political transition in Yemen. This is a conference that's referred to in the UN Security Council resolution 2216. And so we support – as the Secretary said today, we support the conference and we support it in the context of a – the efforts to get Yemeni parties to engage in peaceful dialogue in the UN-led negotiations.
Now yes, the Secretary did talk to President Hadi today and they covered, again, our interest in, on the one hand, addressing the humanitarian situation; also our support for Saudi Arabia and for the legitimate government in Yemen; and the need for all parties to get back to the political dialogue process.
Yes, go ahead. Same topic?
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.
MR RATHKE: Please.
QUESTION: Do you wish that this ceasefire, if it takes place, to develop into a negotiation, political negotiation? And if so, do you support Iranian participation in such negotiation?
MR RATHKE: Well, there is a framework for talks and political dialogue in Yemen, and that's a UN-led process. It's consistent with the GCC initiative and the national dialogue in Yemen. So that's the framework. Again, there's going to be a conference soon in Riyadh, which Saudi Arabia supports, which we support, which President Hadi is convening. And we see that as part of the larger process to have political dialogue that leads to a resolution of the situation in Yemen. We've – as we've said over and over again, this depends on the Houthis engaging. That's something they haven't been doing up to now.
QUESTION: Yeah, but you know that the Iranian play a major role in terms of trying to push the Houthi to negotiation, and they expressed their willingness to participate in the negotiation. So my question is: Do you support – I know that the GCC don't like to hear about that. Do you support their participation if it would lead to a negotiation?
MR RATHKE: Well, this is a UN-led process, so any questions about the process I'd encourage you to talk to the UN. In particular, there's a new special envoy whom we support.
Now with respect to Iran and its influence on the Houthis, we've – we strongly urge all those who back the Houthis to use their influence to get the Houthis to agree to the ceasefire and the humanitarian pause. That's what's – that's what needs to happen first, before any of these other scenarios that you were describing.
QUESTION: Well, Iran-related.
MR RATHKE: Anything else on – yeah, okay. Let's go to that.
QUESTION: I'm just wondering if you have anything to say about the Iranians releasing the ship that was detained and whether or not the U.S. had any role in securing its release.
MR RATHKE: Right. As we understand it, the Rickmers Group, as the manager of the ship, has announced that the ship has been released and is continuing toward its originally scheduled destination. The company would have more information on the details of that. Our role over the past week has been focused on maintaining communications with the Republic of the Marshall Islands as the flag state and with the private companies involved. So we've remained engaged in the ways that we've been talking about.
QUESTION: So no U.S. contact with the Iranian authorities about --
MR RATHKE: No, our contacts have been with the – with the companies and with the Marshall Islands.
QUESTION: And then Saudi-related --
QUESTION: Wait. But just on that, did they pay out to get released? I mean, did – was there a financial transaction that occurred?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think I would refer you back to the Rickmers Group.
QUESTION: But you were in communication with them, so that's why I'm asking.
MR RATHKE: Well, they've, I think, put out a statement about this and they referred to a bond having been posted or a security having been posted. I'd refer you back to them for any details of that as far as how exactly that transpired.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: But originally, on – the ship was apparently detained because they did not pay their dues. I mean, they apparently used Iranian facilities and failed to pay whatever fees they were required to pay, so it was --
MR RATHKE: Well, there have been --
QUESTION: It was not --
MR RATHKE: There have been a variety of explanations from Iran about it.
QUESTION: But have you been able to determine why they detained it to begin with?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, we've been in contact with the companies involved. We'll let them speak to the particular details.
QUESTION: But the U.S. didn't do anything to defend and protect the ship according to the security compact with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, did you?
MR RATHKE: Well, we do have a security compact with the Marshall Islands, which we've discussed in a bit of detail here. We have remained in close contact with the Republic of the Marshall Islands Government. And I think our commitment to free commerce and freedom of navigation and safe passage in the Straits of Hormuz and in the region is beyond question. I think the steps that we've taken after this incident took place, including escorting some shipping, shows that we maintain a robust presence in the region and the ability to deter destabilizing activities.
QUESTION: So you think you implemented the agreement, the compact, in this case?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, we've – we have that responsibility under the compact. We immediately engaged with the Republic of the Marshall Islands. We have – we've had ongoing diplomatic discussions with them about addressing the situation. So we've been working to implement the compact.
QUESTION: I just want to know if – is there any question or concern about whether this bond that was posted is legit? I mean – or it's not a violation of any kind of sanctions?
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm. So again, we're aware of the ship's having been released. We're still seeking more detailed information. It's not even clear that money necessarily changed hands here, so we're seeking more information about that. That would be – our Treasury colleagues would be the experts on that.
QUESTION: Okay. And then I wanted to go to a Saudi-related thing.
MR RATHKE: Okay. No other questions on that? Then please go ahead, Matt.
QUESTION: The Turks are saying that – or announcing or revealing or whatever you want to use the word – this new arrangement that they have with the Saudis to train Syrian rebel groups, including some that the United States has particular concerns about. I know the Pentagon announced today that the training in Jordan has begun, or at least some kind of training in Jordan has – but I'm just wondering in general what the U.S. thinks about this Saudi-Turkish initiative.
MR RATHKE: Not clear to me there's a new initiative there, but we'll let them speak for the details. We've been clear that Assad must go, and we continue to appreciate our cooperation with our partners in the region, including through hosting the train and equip program and working to advance the conditions in which a negotiated political solution which would stop the violence and address all dimensions of the conflict would become possible. But I don't have a specific comment on that report.
QUESTION: Could I just follow up on the --
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- Syria issue? Yesterday, I think, the Secretary of Defense, Mr. Carter, said that they are – and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also – they talked about safety zone. Is that something that is being discussed again, that the United States is considering establishing a safety zone that is consistent with Turkey's demands?
MR RATHKE: Again, I don't have any new position on that to outline. Our position on that remains as – the same; that is, to have that kind of military-enforced zone would be – would have lots of complications and implications. We have remained in dialogue with our partners to hear their views, but I don't have any new position to outline.
QUESTION: And yesterday, you talked about Ambassador Rubinstein meeting with Mr. de Mistura.
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Did this meeting take place?
MR RATHKE: No, that hasn't happened yet. It – we expect it to happen May 15th in Geneva.
QUESTION: Okay. So that's a long ways out.
MR RATHKE: Well, as we described, the way these consultations are working, they are first of all organized and led by the UN Special Envoy de Mistura.
MR RATHKE: And he is consulting with the relevant parties. So that is – and these are happening sequentially. They're not – these aren't negotiations where everyone is around a table.
MR RATHKE: He's consulting with the relevant parties. So we'll talk to him soon.
QUESTION: When you say the --
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Right. When you say "the relevant parties," for instance – I mean, there are militant groups in Syria that really have no political representatives and so on. Who are they meeting with? I mean, there's --
MR RATHKE: I'd refer you back to --
QUESTION: With the Saudis or the Qataris and – or the Kuwaitis and so on?
MR RATHKE: I'd refer you back to the special envoy and his staff about the specific details of participation by Syrian parties in the negotiation – or the consultations, pardon me.
QUESTION: He said today that he will not meet with representatives or supporters of Jabhat al-Nusrah or ISIS, and obviously something that you do support him in this rejection, right? He will not meet with al-Nusrah --
MR RATHKE: Well, I think – again, I'd refer you back to him, but our views on Nusrah and ISIL should be crystal clear.
QUESTION: Follow-up on Syria?
MR RATHKE: Samir, on the same topic?
QUESTION: Syria, on Syria.
MR RATHKE: Okay, and then we'll come to you, Ilhan. Yes.
QUESTION: Do you have any update about the situation in the city of Qalamoun in Syria? It's on the northern border of Lebanon, where a big battle is expected to take place between the Assad regime and its allies and the opposition. And if it happens, it's going to have a big negative impact on Lebanon.
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Do you have any --
MR RATHKE: Well, I think – I don't have a battlefield analysis there. But what I can say is that Hizballah's support for the Assad regime has prolonged the war inside Syria, it's brought extremism including ISIL and Nusrah, which we were just talking about, as well as direct security threats to the Lebanese – to Lebanese territory because Hizballah has joined Assad's fight against his own people. Hizballah has dragged Lebanon into a war against the will of the Lebanese people. So we support Lebanon's – the Lebanese Government's policy of dissociation from the conflict in Syria. Hizballah has agreed to that policy in the Baabda Declaration but has violated it. And that's to the detriment of the Lebanese people's interests, so certainly, we are against that.
QUESTION: Thank you. A previous question, Turkey-Saudi partnership or this military agreement.
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Many reports tied in recent northwest gains by the rebels in Syria to this specific partnership between Turkey and Saudis. Would you concur with that? Do you think these rebel gains which you see extreme – extremist elements are tied to this Turkey-Saudi close relationship?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, I'd refer you back to the governments for the specifics of their policies. But I'm going to decline to do a battlefield analysis and to link it to those things.
QUESTION: On train and equip program, is this still this weekend in Turkey – Turkish version, is these plans are still same this weekend starting?
MR RATHKE: Well, as you know, Ilhan, the train and equip program is a program led by the Department of Defense, so I'll let them make any additional information known about that.
QUESTION: Final question.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Just today, Turkey's main opposition party's vice chair stated that Turkey is – Turkish troops about to intervene in Syria, northern Syria. Do you have any information or have you communicated with Ankara? Do you have an explanation?
MR RATHKE: I don't have any information to share about that. We'll go to Justin and then come around the room. Yes, go ahead, Justin.
QUESTION: Thanks, Jeff. The next round of Cuba talks, is that May 19th? Is that right?
MR RATHKE: I don't have an announcement to make about the next round.
QUESTION: It was just – yeah, I don't know that – I wasn't clear if that had been announced or not. I just saw a tweet on that. But – so you can't confirm?
MR RATHKE: No, I don't – I'm not able to confirm that.
QUESTION: All right. And Matt, I know, has been asking you a lot about Omar Khadr. I know he already asked today.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: But just to go back to that, do you – do you believe that Khadr at this point poses a security threat to the United States?
MR RATHKE: Well, with – again, the Khadr case we'll come back to you with any comment on the decision today. Khadr was – as you know, he is appealing his conviction before a U.S. Court of Military Commission. That's an ongoing matter of litigation. But it's, I think, just worth pointing out, so I'm not – I'm not going to comment on that ongoing litigation. And beyond that, I think I'll wait to come – till I come back with a response to Matt's question --
QUESTION: He is out on bail now.
MR RATHKE: -- to address that as well.
QUESTION: He's free now. He's out on bail. So I mean, I guess the question is: Is this person a worry? Is this person a security threat?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, we have --
QUESTION: Aside from the case itself, I mean, do you consider him a security threat?
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Well, we have a very strong and cooperative relationship with Canada on security and law enforcement issues. I think I'll leave it at that to comment on that.
QUESTION: And you're just leaving us with – you will not condemn this decision in any way? I mean, this is --
MR RATHKE: Again, as I said to Matt, the decision came out just a couple of minutes before I walked out here, so --
MR RATHKE: -- we're looking at it and we'll come back to you with more.
QUESTION: The White House has already put out a statement about the formation of the new Israeli Government, but I'm wondering if the State Department has anything to say, to add.
MR RATHKE: Well, you've seen – yes. You've seen the White House statement, and of course we subscribe to the White House statement. We look forward to working with the prime minister in his new government. I think the President has emphasized and the White House statement today also reiterates the importance we place on our close relationship – military, intelligence, security cooperation, as well as regional issues such as preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and the importance of pursuing a two-state solution.
QUESTION: At least one member, and perhaps more, of the cabinet – that would be the new justice minister – has something of a colorful past, at least in terms of statements that she has made. There has been some concern expressed from the Palestinian side – or the Palestinian community about this choice, and I'm wondering if the U.S. shares any of the concerns that have been expressed by the Palestinians, or if you have your own opinions about the comments that she's reported to have made in the past.
MR RATHKE: Well, I'm not going to comment on specific ministers in the new government. Now, with respect, we obviously condemn any statements that are offensive or derogatory. But I'm not going to get into commentary on specific individuals.
QUESTION: So you have no concerns, specific concerns, about this member of the government?
MR RATHKE: I'm not going to comment on specific ministers.
QUESTION: Okay. You don't have any concerns?
MR RATHKE: I'm simply not – not going to – I don't have any – any comment on the cabinet lineup to offer.
QUESTION: Okay. And that would apply to governments in every country everywhere? Because I'm going to hold you to it.
MR RATHKE: You asked a question about this one, and --
QUESTION: I'm going to – I'm going to hold you to it. Thanks.
MR RATHKE: I'm sure you'll find opportunities to comment.
QUESTION: I mean, it may be that you don't have any concerns. I'm just trying to – I don't know why it's pulling teeth to get you to say --
MR RATHKE: No, you're not pulling teeth; I just don't have a comment. I don't have comments on the specific cabinet ministers to offer.
QUESTION: Let me just follow up on this point that Matt was raising. The minister is the Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and last June she basically called for the extermination of the Palestinian people. Are you not concerned that such a high-level portfolio, the minister of justice, who has called for the extermination of a people – you're not concerned that it is a member of a cabinet that you are saying you want to work with on issues like the two-state solution and perhaps arriving at a deal with Iran?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, we look forward to working with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his new government. Matt asked a similar question. I said we obviously would condemn any statements that were offensive or derogatory, and certainly any that would incite.
QUESTION: But she also has – Matt mentioned the colorful past, but she led, actually, a settlement movement, I mean, for a very long time, basically initiating settlements, doing all kinds of things, provoking the local population. I mean, she – she's really quite effective or active within the settlement movement. That wouldn't bother you?
MR RATHKE: Again, our views on settlements, I think, are pretty well known.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, speaking of settlements, today the Israelis announced the building of 900 new housing units in a settlement in the West Bank – in East Jerusalem. Do you have a comment?
MR RATHKE: Which – wait. Which are you referring to? I just want to make sure I --
QUESTION: I'm referring to Ramat Shlomo.
MR RATHKE: Okay.
QUESTION: Ramat Shlomo. Today the – yeah.
MR RATHKE: Right. Well, we have consistently said that we oppose – we strongly oppose steps by the Israeli authorities to advance construction in East Jerusalem. This is a disappointing development, and we're concerned about it just as a new Israeli Government has been announced. Israel's leaders have asserted that they remain committed to a two-state solution, and we need to see that commitment in the actions of Israeli – the Israeli Government. Moving forward with construction of housing units in East Jerusalem is damaging and inconsistent with that commitment. We continue to engage with the highest levels of the Israeli Government, and we continue to make our position clear that we view this as illegitimate.
QUESTION: And one final question on the formation of the Israeli Government. Prime Minister Netanyahu is keeping the foreign ministry portfolio to himself, perhaps hoping that he could entice Herzog into joining his government later on. But for the time being, is this something that you have no issues or no problems with if he keeps the foreign minister portfolio?
MR RATHKE: It's up to Prime Minister Netanyahu to form his cabinet. We'll let him do that.
QUESTION: So are you satisfied --
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: I just wanted to go back to what you just said. You said that you're disappointed in this decision on Ramat Shlomo and the Israeli Government has continued to say that it wants a two-state solution. You say that this is – runs counter to that. And then you said something like "We need to see that in" – what did – what was that?
MR RATHKE: We need to see that commitment, I said, in the actions that the Israeli Government takes.
QUESTION: We – that commitment to --
MR RATHKE: That commitment to a two-state solution.
QUESTION: And if you don't?
MR RATHKE: Well, we remain in contact with – at the highest levels with Israeli Government officials, including on these matters. I don't have --
QUESTION: Well, then what is the point of saying we need to see that commitment? If it becomes the case that you don't ever see that, or you don't see the commitment and you don't do anything about it, what good is saying that we need to see that commitment?
MR RATHKE: Well, this is a longstanding U.S. policy. We're reiterating that policy in relation to this specific development that Said asked about. This is our view and it hasn't changed and --
QUESTION: Okay. Well, so if you're disappointed in this decision, you're saying – you're in effect saying, I think – correct me if I'm wrong – that this new Israeli Government is not really off to a very good start, at least as it – at least in terms of what the U.S. Administration thinks about it. Is that correct?
MR RATHKE: Well, look, our policy on this is longstanding. I'm not --
QUESTION: But in your response --
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: -- to the question, you mentioned that it happened – that this is – comes as the new Israeli Government --
MR RATHKE: Whether this decision was in train and – because I think Said had asked about this same issue earlier in the week.
QUESTION: Okay. Because it was not --
MR RATHKE: I wouldn't characterize this as the first action of the new Israeli Government.
QUESTION: This predates the formation of --
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: -- the government, right?
MR RATHKE: I believe so, yes, because again, Said asked about this earlier the week before --
QUESTION: But in the answer – in the answer that you gave, I think that you said that it – you mentioned the fact that the new government had taken over. So --
MR RATHKE: No, I said that this is a disappointing development just as a new Israeli Government has been – has been announced.
QUESTION: Right. But this is not a decision by the new government or --
MR RATHKE: I believe the decision was made – I believe – that's correct.
MR RATHKE: That's right.
MR RATHKE: Yeah, Iraq and then we'll --
QUESTION: Iraq, very quick.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Yesterday at an event at the Atlantic Council, the KRG President Massoud Barzani – I asked him a pointed question about the independent --
MR RATHKE: I'm sure you did.
QUESTION: -- Kurdistan. And he said that for sure, it's coming. So you guys are fine with that? So we are likely to see an independent Kurdistan and you are likely to support it?
MR RATHKE: You've made several leaps there from the question to our policy. There's been no change in U.S. policy, as I think we've talked about in advance of the visit. We believe that a united Iraq is a stronger Iraq. We continue to support an Iraq that is federal, democratic, pluralistic, and unified, as envisioned by the Iraqi constitution. So there's been no change in the U.S. view. And I think also – President Barzani spoke to this as well – Iraq's territorial integrity is under threat from ISIL, and the only effective way to address this threat is for all communities – Sunni, Shia, Kurd – to work together and address these security needs as well as in the political realm. And I think President Barzani also stated yesterday that the fight against ISIL needs to be the priority.
QUESTION: Well, once that priority is handled and taken care of, or Mosul is liberated and and ISIL is defeated, then the independence of Kurdistan would be fine, wouldn't it? Would be --
MR RATHKE: That's – again, I'm sure you were listening to my answer --
QUESTION: Are you – okay --
MR RATHKE: -- but I'm going to repeat it because it's important: There's been no change in U.S. policy. We believe that a united Iraq is a stronger Iraq, and we believe in an Iraq that is federal, democratic, pluralistic, and unified, as envisioned by the Iraqi constitution.
QUESTION: Would you sort of support a more robust autonomy in the northern region of Kurdistan?
MR RATHKE: Again, we support the Iraqi constitution and an Iraq that is federal, that is democratic, it's pluralistic. I don't have any further comment on it than that.
QUESTION: Jeff, a couple of question on South Asia, please. As far as the earthquake or natural disaster in Nepal is concerned, Nepalese are still crying for U.S. help. Of course, U.S. was the first one to reach the need, but also thousands of Nepalese in the U.S. – many of them wants to help and go back to their loved ones, but they cannot because they have no proper visas. And they are seeking U.S. help to make exception one time for them so they can visit and help the loved ones, and a couple congressmen or senators also – including Senator Schumer, I believe – is trying to help if this possible. State Department does support this policy, one-time exception for these needy?
MR RATHKE: Well, I'm not familiar with that specific concern having been raised. Of course, the United States is doing a lot for the people of Nepal and to help both in the rescue and now in the recovery phase. If there were any questions about visas and so forth, those – depending on where the person is, those are a shared responsibility between the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security. But I don't have any new programs or announcements to make about that.
QUESTION: And one on India: Mr. Arun Kumar – Arun Singh is back now – who was the DCM, deputy chief of mission, at the U.S. Indian Embassy in Washington – as the full-fledged ambassador of India to the U.S. And yesterday he was speaking at U.S.-India Business Council, just like Ambassador Richard Verma was speaking at Carnegie.
Ambassador Arun Singh said that – because he played a big role in U.S.-India relations as DCM in Washington, and including civil nuclear agreement and other many economic issues and all that. Yesterday, he spoke with these 500 Fortune companies, and he said his mission will be here to foster further the U.S.-India relations, as President Obama and Prime Minister Modi both initiated so many issues.
My question is: How you think this new ambassador of U.S. in India and new ambassador for India in the U.S. will play these relations between the two countries?
MR RATHKE: Well, the – of course the ambassadors both play extremely important roles. We've talked a lot about the relationship between the U.S. and India, how it has been receiving high-level attention from the President, from Prime Minister Modi. We certainly see those relations as improving and we want to keep that trajectory going, and so of course the ambassador's going to play key roles in doing that across the broad spectrum of our relations.
QUESTION: And finally, one more quickly?
MR RATHKE: Yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: Please, thank you. So much going on in – around South Asia, like China-Pakistan relations and now India and China relations, and Prime Minister Modi is going to visit China for the three days next week. And you – do you have any concern because of the U.S.-Pakistan and U.S.-India, and now those – China is trying to get the business from these countries and they are getting closer and closer?
MR RATHKE: We support good relations between China and India, so I don't have any comment on that travel.
Go ahead, Taurean.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
QUESTION: Yes, I have one on China.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: So yesterday, the State Department called for the release of human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, and the Chinese foreign minister – foreign ministry responded basically saying that the U.S. should stop being the world police and it's really none of your business. On what basis does the State Department feel it can call for a release of this lawyer in China?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think we've talked about the fact that human rights – international human rights – are not bounded by borders. And we of course make the promotion of human rights one of our priorities in our foreign policy, and so we speak out about human rights, and that's part of who we are as Americans, it's part of our foreign policy, and it's something we do around the world.
QUESTION: And the ministry also said that the U.S. should focus more on its own issues, I guess making a reference – oblique reference to Baltimore. How would you respond to that criticism?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think it's clear, if you look at the U.S. Government's response to the situation in Baltimore from the very top – from the President to the Attorney General and on down; also at the state and local level – we have focused on that situation, and both at the federal – again, at the state and local level are – they're taking steps to address those concerns. So I think that it's a situation where the United States recognizes when there is a situation that requires attention and we take all steps to do it. So I don't think – I think, as we've said before, we are happy to put our record in dealing with difficult domestic issues up against any other country in the world.
QUESTION: Just to be clear, you would reject the foreign ministry's allegation that weighing in and calling for this guy's – this guy to be released is interference or meddling in the Chinese judicial system?
MR RATHKE: Oh, absolutely. Certainly, we would. Yes, we would.
QUESTION: Okay. So you want him – you still think that it would be a good idea for him released? You have --
MR RATHKE: I – we stand by the statement that we have made.
QUESTION: So you have a position on this guy's continued imprisonment, and yet you don't have a position, or you're unable or unwilling to say whether you have a position, about a guy in Canada who has just been released on bail, who's been convicted of killing an American soldier and served a lot of time in Guantanamo Bay.
MR RATHKE: Well, Matt, first of all, they're completely different --
QUESTION: It would seem to me that the U.S. Government might have even a more significant interest in that case than it has in the case of a Chinese person who's been incarcerated for what you believe to be --
MR RATHKE: Matt, as --
QUESTION: I'm not saying you should call for his release, but I would think that you would have some kind of position that you could enunciate publicly. No?
MR RATHKE: As I said, Matt, you asked this question. We did not comment on the ongoing judicial proceedings. They have just concluded about an hour or so ago. We're going to look at that and come back to you.
QUESTION: I have two brief ones, but --
MR RATHKE: Yeah. Ilhan, and then we'll come back.
QUESTION: Just one quick question on Syrian refugee – refugees. Do you have any updated information regarding how many of the Syrian refugees have been taken by the U.S.? The last time I check about six months ago, it was about less than 200. Do you have any updated information on that?
MR RATHKE: I can look and see if we have updated numbers. As I'm sure you recall at that time, the – although there has been a large number of Syrian refugees, it is only recently that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has begun referring them for resettlement in other countries, which is why the numbers have been low. That's one factor, of course. The United States admits more refugees than the rest of the world combined, and we've said that we will be admitting greater numbers of Syrian refugees. Of course, there – this is a process that takes some time as individual cases move through the pipeline. So we're happy to look and see what the updated number is, but I just wanted to put it in that context.
Yeah. Said, and then we'll go over, yeah.
QUESTION: Very quick.
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Today the Russian embassy is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the defeat of fascism. Are you sending anyone to the embassy from the State Department?
MR RATHKE: I wasn't aware that they were doing an event today. I don't really have information about the event or our participation.
QUESTION: Thank you. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute complained that he knows very little about what's happening in Donbas, saying that he gets more information from social media than from, quote, "official intelligence networks. Because networks do not exist today," he said. Would you say that social media are a reliable source of information for a top U.S. official?
MR RATHKE: I'm, sorry. I'm not familiar with the comments that you're attributing to Ambassador Lute. I'd like to see those comments before I respond.
QUESTION: But generally, social media, what would you say?
MR RATHKE: No, I'm sorry. I'm not going to respond to that question until I see exactly what Ambassador Lute said and the context in which he said it. I'm not going to be drawn into that.
Matt, what did you want to say?
QUESTION: I didn't want to say; I wanted to ask.
MR RATHKE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Are you guys – and this is kind of off the beaten track a little bit, but you remember the case of the prosecutor who was found dead in Argentina, the whole rigmarole over that?
MR RATHKE: Yes, I remember.
QUESTION: The discussion is continuing down – there are medical teams talking about what – is the – does – is the U.S. Government following this at all or is it --
MR RATHKE: Following in what sense?
QUESTION: Well, the continued discussion, debate in Argentina over the circumstances of the prosecutor's death and what he was – and aside from that, what he had been investigating and what he had alleged. Or is this a – is this water under the bridge for the U.S.?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, I don't have an update on the particular situation. Again, we've followed the case, but I don't have a comment on the latest developments.
MR RATHKE: I haven't seen recent developments in the last few days about that.
QUESTION: And the last one goes back to the questions about the donations to the Clinton Foundation and whether or not the State Department is going back, at least – has – whether or not the questions that have been raised and the numerous reports that have come out over the course of the past couple of weeks, whether or not the State Department has the same questions, whether or not the department --
MR RATHKE: Right.
QUESTION: -- is looking into them, in particular about the donations that were talked about in the Boston Globe story to the health foundation that were not disclosed as they should have been under the MOU. Is this an issue for the State Department?
MR RATHKE: Okay. You and Arshad both asked about that earlier in the week, and I have a little bit more to say about that. I would start by saying I think it's important as a baseline to recall that the same rules that apply in terms of ethics apply to every employee in the Executive Branch, and they also apply to secretaries of state. Among other things generally, this means that employees must not participate personally or substantially in matters with a direct or predictable effect on the employee's or on his or her spouse's financial interests and should recuse from particular matters involving a spouse's employer as a specific party. So that applies to all.
And in addition to those requirements, before taking office, Secretary Clinton – there were three undertakings. One was an ethics letter from Secretary Clinton. The second was a memorandum of understanding, which dealt with the Clinton Foundation. And third was an ethics letter from former President Clinton. Now these were all steps that were taken voluntarily in the interest of transparency and went beyond the existing ethics requirements.
Now as we've discussed, the department reviewed every request submitted to us under the terms of those. That primarily consisted of speeches and consultancies by former President Clinton. And over the course of her tenure, the State Department reviewed dozens of entities each year. You've mentioned the foreign government donations; we regret that we did not have the opportunity to review all new and increased foreign government donations. We've spoken about that. Now --
QUESTION: Those are the two?
MR RATHKE: Hmm?
QUESTION: The two?
MR RATHKE: Yes. There has also --
QUESTION: There aren't any more that have come to light.
MR RATHKE: No, not that I'm aware of.
There's been discussion about private donations, and that I think was what brought us to the question you raised earlier in the week. The idea that the foundation and its affiliates would publish all of their private donors, which was one of the two terms of the MOU, was intended to provide additional public transparency – but I would note that even if all of the private donations had been publicized, there was no expectation under the MOU that the State Department would be reviewing those. We agreed in the MOU – or committed in the MOU to review the new or materially increased foreign government donations. So there's a distinction there.
Going back to the private donations, the Clinton Foundation appears to have published online now all the donations from this period, and I believe they've announced plans to do so each quarter. And the Clinton Health Access Initiative has said they are undertaking reviews of past tax filings as well. We welcome these steps to ensure that all foreign donations are public.
Now at this point, our role has changed. Secretary Clinton is no longer at the department, for questions about the foundation or the health access initiative or any of the offshoots and their funding, we'd refer you back to them. The State Department has not and does not intend to initiate a formal review or to make a retroactive judgment about items that were not submitted during Secretary Clinton's tenure. The department's actions under Secretary Clinton were taken to advance administration policy as set by the President and in the interest of American foreign policy.
And to be clear, coming back to something that has come up earlier this week, we aren't aware of any actions taken by Secretary Clinton that were influenced by donations to the Clinton Foundation or its offshoots, or by speech honoraria and consultancies of former President Clinton.
QUESTION: Okay, but why not? I mean, why do you not intend to --
MR RATHKE: Again, we aren't aware of any actions taken --
QUESTION: Oh, I know you're not aware, because you haven't looked into them, right? (Laughter.)
MR RATHKE: Well, but again, let's go back to what we did do during her tenure. Over the course of her tenure, we reviewed dozens of entities each year. The Clinton Foundation also is a charitable organization, so we would not have had the obligation to review their donation beyond what was committed to in the MOU.
QUESTION: Right. But the – but what they committed to in the MOU in terms of the – listing the private donors, whether or not the State Department had to review them or was supposed to review them beforehand to see if they were okay or not, it would seem to me to make sense that if they didn't live up to their end of the MOU you would at least go back and take a look at the private donations and see whether that might raise any questions. But maybe not. I mean, I don't – it seems like you're not aware of anything, and there may not be anything there, but the reason that you're not aware of anything is because you're – not you personally, but the reason you're not aware of anything is because the building is refusing to go back and look at it to see if there's anything that might raise a flag.
MR RATHKE: Well, again, these private donations were – there was never any expectation that they would be reviewed.
QUESTION: Right. But there was an expectation that they would be made public and so that you could go and look and see, well, hmm, and then they weren't made public. And so now that they are being made public, wouldn't it make sense – and tell me if I'm wrong, maybe it doesn't make sense – but wouldn't it make sense to go back and take a look at them and see whether there – that there's any – any questions raised, any red flag that might get raised? I don't understand why you would just close your eyes to it, because they have admitted that they didn't live up to their end of the MOU on this.
MR RATHKE: Yeah. And they've – but they have subsequently --
QUESTION: I know. But you're not --
MR RATHKE: -- taken steps to address that.
QUESTION: Right. But you're not going and looking at what they've done to address that to see if it brought them into compliance. It's almost as if they had an agreement that they didn't follow through on, but since she's no longer the secretary of state you're saying, well, that doesn't apply anymore and so it just doesn't matter. But --
MR RATHKE: Look, what we have --
QUESTION: You don't know if it doesn't matter or not because you're not looking into it.
MR RATHKE: I think what we've seen – what we've seen is speculation. We haven't – we're not aware of any actions taken that were influenced by those donations.
QUESTION: Right. But you – but you're not aware --
QUESTION: Yes. What has been put out there is – are questions. But you're saying that the State Department doesn't – either doesn't have the same questions or isn't interested in finding out what the answer to those questions is. That's what it sounds like you're saying because you're saying that you're not going to go back and look to see whether the violations of the MOU might raise questions or raise red flags about what was going on, right?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, we have – I think I don't have anything to say beyond what I've said. We have – we are not aware of any – of any indication that there was influence by these donations. We have reviewed entities – as I described, under the MOU, these private donations would not have been reviewed by the State Department in any event, and we are not going back to do a retroactive examination of each of those – of each of those cases and we're not going to make a retroactive judgment on those items. So that's – yeah.
QUESTION: All right. I'll defer to someone else. It just doesn't make any sense to me.
QUESTION: That was my question. It was the same as Matt's. You've said this multiple times now; you're not going to make a retroactive judgment. Why not? What is the reasoning besides – that follows up on that decision? Because that decision is important and makes it look like, as Matt is pointing out, that you don't want to find something that would look bad on the secretary who's running for president.
MR RATHKE: No, no. Again, these private donations which were the reason these questions arose in this briefing room were not to be reviewed by the State Department under the terms of the MOU and --
QUESTION: But that's if the MOU was adhered to, and it wasn't. And again, I don't think – no one's saying that there is – that there is – certainly that there is something wrong, but there are questions out there that have been raised, and not just raised by opponents of – political opponents, but by many others as well. And if the State Department isn't interested in finding out the answer, I mean, is there a reason why the State Department is not interested in finding out whether there was even a question of or an appearance of any kind of impropriety?
MR RATHKE: Again, we're not aware of any --
QUESTION: Well, you're not aware of any because you're not looking – you're not looking back into it. (Laughter.)
MR RATHKE: I think the --
QUESTION: I mean, I can understand why you would say, okay, if they didn't – if they had agreed – if they had complied with the MOU and published these donors every year as they said they were going to do, I can understand why then that wouldn't be an issue. But the fact of the matter is they didn't publish those things, so you don't know. You would have had the opportunity to know even if you weren't required or even if you weren't going to review them. But you would have had the opportunity to look and see the list and see – and see if there were any issues there, and you didn't have that opportunity, just like the public didn't have that opportunity. And now we're in a position where you are going to have the opportunity to do it because they're going to comply ex post facto with the MOU, but you're not going to take the opportunity to do it. And I guess that's just – that's what is the – is puzzling to me.
MR RATHKE: Well, I don't have much more to say beyond what I've said. All right, thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:20 p.m.)
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