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Homeland Security

Background Briefing on an Announcement From the Treasury Department

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
Via Teleconference
February 13, 2017

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you and thank you all for joining us. Today's call will be on background. For your situational awareness, not for reporting purposes, we have three senior administration officials joining us today on the call. For reporting, they will be known as a senior administration official.

Again, for your situational awareness, our Senior Administration Official Number One is [name and title]. Our Senior Administration Official Number Two, [name and title]. And our Senior Administration Official Number Three is [name and title].

Again, this call is on background. With that, I'll turn it over to our Senior Administration Official Number One. Please, go ahead.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you, [Moderator], and thank you, everyone, for joining this call on such short notice. I want to briefly describe the actions we've taken today and their impact before we get to your questions.

As you've seen in the press release, Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, designated two foreign individuals and eight foreign entities for their involvement in international narcotics trafficking activity. We also identified as blocked property five U.S. companies owned by one or more of the designated persons.

OFAC took today's action under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. This act is Treasury's principal tool for sanctioning drug traffickers and drug trafficking organizations that threaten the foreign policy, national security, and economy of the United States. Specifically, today, OFAC designated Venezuela national Tareck El Aissami Maddah for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking. El Aissami was appointed executive vice president of Venezuela in January 2017 and he previously served as governor of the Venezuelan state of Aragua and minister of interior and justice in Venezuela.

El Aissami facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, to include control over planes that leave from a Venezuelan air base as well as control of drug routes through the ports of Venezuela. El Aissami oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of more than 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions, including shipments to Mexico and to the United States. In addition to his own direct narcotics trafficking activities, El Aissami facilitated, coordinated, and protected other national – other narcotics traffickers operating in Venezuela.

In addition, today OFAC is also designating a key frontman for El Aissami, Samark Jose Lopez Bello. Lopez Bello oversees an international network of petroleum distribution, engineering, telecommunications, and asset holding companies. Lopez Bello launders drug proceeds and is used by El Aissami to purchase certain assets. Lopez Bello also handles business arrangements in financial matters for El Aissami, generating significant profits as a result of illegal activity benefiting El Aissami.

Today, OFAC also designated eight companies registered in Venezuela, the British Virgin Islands, Panama, and the United Kingdom for being owned or controlled by Lopez Bello or by other designated entities. And finally, OFAC blocked an additional five companies in the United States that are owned by or controlled by Lopez Bello or other designated entities as well as significant real estate holdings in the Miami, Florida area.

As a result of today's action, any property or interest in property of these individuals and entities subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them. This means that among other activities, U.S. persons are going to be – are generally prohibited from engaging in financial transactions or other business dealings with the blocked individuals and entities identified today.

The designation is not a reaction to El Aissami's role as executive vice president of Venezuela. The designation is a result of a years-long investigation of narcotics trafficking by OFAC. The designation is not aimed at Venezuela or any specific sectors of the Venezuelan economy, but rather is specifically targeted against individuals engaged in narcotics trafficking and the international network of companies that they manage and through which they launder their illicit proceeds.

For historical perspective, OFAC previously designated several Venezuelan nationals, including various current or former officials of the Venezuelan Government, for either their independent involvement in narcotics trafficking activities, or for their material support of the narcotics trafficking activities of others. But this particular case highlights that - our continued focus on both narcotics traffickers and those who help launder their illicit proceeds, no matter their stature, position, or location. Broadly, these types of designations are critical to protecting the integrity and the security of the U.S. financial system.

And with that, I'd like to turn it back to our moderator, [Moderator].

MODERATOR: Thank you so much and we'll turn it over to our Senior Administration Official Number Two.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Thanks so very much. Let me just take a quick minute to perhaps reiterate a few points that were just made by the first speaker, but as a few points of emphasis from our perspective. First of all, this does indeed reflect a longstanding U.S. bipartisan commitment to hold individuals accountable regardless of their current position or rank, hold them accountable – hold accountable those persons engaged in narcotics trafficking or laundering the proceeds of narcotics. As mentioned, two individuals have been involved – implicated in this designation, only one of whom is currently affiliated with the Government of Venezuela. The other has never been affiliated or directly employed by the government to our knowledge.

This designation process, as mentioned, began many months ago, long before Tareck El Aissami was appointed in January to his current position, and as noted, this – the Kingpin Act is applied to individuals and businesses. It is not applied to countries writ large, and so let me just leave you with this one key takeaway: that the United States Government, the U.S. law enforcement community as well, will continue to conduct investigations and collect information to combat money laundering and narcotrafficking. And we will use all tools in our toolkit, if you will, to prosecute, remove, and convict those involved in these serious crimes.

The designations today send a clear message that we'll use any of these legal tools within our inventory to go after those involved in international drug trafficking and laundering of narcotics proceeds, especially at this level. Put simply enough, we neither want these individuals nor their money in the United States nor in our financial system as we continue to seek to secure our country and its borders. Thanks very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Now turning it over to Senior Administration Official Number Three.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Thank you, [Moderator]. I think my colleagues have really covered the waterfront of this, but I would just make one quick comment, which is that, to reiterate, the message in this designation is not a political one. It's not an economic one. It's not a diplomatic one. This is about going after international narcotics trafficking, and we do that aggressively and we go – do that through the Kingpin Act. The Kingpin Act, to put this in perspective, has been used to designate 2,000 targets since 1999. Since 1999, we have worked for 17 years globally with any country that will work with us to go after these individuals, entities, and their affiliates. I'll go ahead and leave it there.

MODERATOR: Thank you so much to our senior Administration officials. Ernie, if I could have you do the instructions on how to do questions again, and then we can open it up to our first question.

OPERATOR: Thank you very much. And ladies and gentlemen, if you have any questions at this time, please press * followed by 1 on your touchtone phone. And we'll go the line of Joshua Goodman with the Associated Press. Please, go ahead. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yeah. You said this was months in the making, so why is it coming out now when, obviously, there will be an impact in the bilateral relationship from political to perhaps security issues? I mean, were any of these things considered? Because if – if you're saying – if what you're saying is right that it was months in the making and – why not announce it before he was vice president? And what do you expect that impact to be? Are you at all concerned about the security of U.S. diplomats in Caracas? And do you expect perhaps they'll be PNGed or some other drastic measures against them?

MODERATOR: If we could have our Senior Administration Official Number One take the first part, and then we'll have our Senior Administration Official Number Two address the second.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks. And I just want to stress and just – that this designation and this investigation was years in the making. We worked through the evidence, and again, the evidence is tied to evidence of narcotics trafficking activity. As for impact in Venezuela, I'd like to turn it over to [Senior Administration Official Two].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. Again, this was designated – two individuals were designated, not the government per se, so I'm not going to speculate on what decisions the Government of Venezuela might make in response, if they even view that they need to respond as a government. We have kept open, in fact, for many years our offer throughout the entire period with Kingpin that we're willing and able to work with any government that's willing to work with us on counternarcotics issues, including the Government of Venezuela.

And just to again reiterate, this is not the first time that there's been a designation of a senior Venezuelan official. I believe there have been eight previously on at least three different occasions. But, of course, we always take as paramount the security and safety of our personnel as well as private American citizens in foreign countries, and that is indeed always part of our calculation. But as to the question of why now, why not earlier, why not later, if there is a response, there would be a response regardless of the timing. And so at the end of the day, the timing is secondary. It's ready when it's ready.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Operator, if we could have our second question.

OPERATOR: And that will come from the line of Nick Wadhams with Bloomberg News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Just a couple questions. Will – I'm wondering, is there an indictment in the works for the vice president? And also, are law enforcement officials already securing any property or funds he has in the U.S.? Does he have any? And then finally, we understand that a previous effort had been made to put him on the list and sanction him, but – under the Obama Administration – that that was rejected. Did something change this time that allowed this to go forward? Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thanks. We'll have our Senior Administration Official One address that and then we'll have our Senior Administration Official Number Two chime in if we need.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Right, and thanks. And so Nick, as I'm looking at your questions, first you're asking whether or not there is an indictment or something of these particular individuals. And I just want to – all those – all such questions would be – have to be referred to the Department of Justice since what we're talking about today is an OFAC action, which is a freezing, blocking all property under U.S. jurisdiction and preventing U.S. persons from dealing with that, which is – goes to your next question, which is, is there an effort to secure the property located in the United States. That is the effect of an OFAC action, is it does freeze the property. It stops all transactions. It's not the government formally taking title, mind you, but it is a powerful action independent of other law enforcement efforts.

And finally, in terms of any kind of deliberative process that may have been surrounding this action, I can't speak to that. What I can say is the evidence supported it. We went through an interagency process, and we are designating these individuals and their companies under the Kingpin Act today.

MODERATOR: Thank you. SAO Two, anything to add?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I would just reiterate this process was not much different than many other previous OFAC designation processes. It's a long and complicated interagency process, but everyone reached agreement and concord – accord on this, and it moved forward.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Just for a clarification point because I've received a few emails from reporters, this call is not embargoed until the end of the call. You may report on this now.

Operator, if you can move to the next question.

OPERATOR: And that'll come from Paul Handley with AFP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, my question was partially answered last time. But are there any alerts out for – I mean, I understand no DOJ people there. Are there any alerts out through – through Interpol or other agencies to seek these people's arrests?

But secondly, going back to the question that wasn't answered is why wasn't this action taken under the Obama Administration. I know you've said it's years long, years long, but the previous questioners said that – said that something was – it was put off. So what's changed since then? What's changed in the past month?

MODERATOR: Thank you. We actually do not have a representative from the Department of Justice on that. As our previous speaker had noted, that would be a question for Justice. I would turn to SAO Number One to address the second part of your question.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Right. And so – so Paul, for the second part of your question, I just want to reiterate that Kingpin Act designations involve an interagency consultation process. It involves communicating with many different agencies. And when, in relying upon law enforcement information, classified information, and open sources, when we find there is reasonable cause to believe, we can act.

Everything came together at this time to move forward. This isn't a question of – of something being stopped before. I just want to be clear that we – we – the evidence came together. The interagency consultation process, which is not different from any other – others, resulted in taking this action, which is where we are today.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Ernie, if we could move to our next reporter.

OPERATOR: And that will come from the line of Laura Koran with CNN. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this call. There was a report last week that linked El Aissami to a fraudulent passport scheme in the Middle East. I'm wondering whether that played any decision – any part in the decision to issue these sanctions or whether we could expect any other action in the future related to those specific allegations.

And then, not to keep going back to the timing question, but does the fact that this is coinciding kind of at the same time as the Senate vote on Steve Mnuchin, did that play any factor, just sort of having a Treasury Secretary in place when these took effect? Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We'll have Senior Administration Official Number One address that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So the first – thank you. And for your first – first question on passport fraud, I want to stress that this is a narcotics trafficking case under the Kingpin Act, and any kind of other activity is not a basis for our action today.

Second, regarding timing, and I want to stress that this was – this was a time-tested and proven administrative process that was actually carried out by – over multi years and involving administrative officials like myself, not politically appointed. Really has – the timing with the vote on Mr. Mnuchin is not really part of what we're announcing and what we're talking about today.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Operator, if we can move to our next question.

OPERATOR: And that would be from the line of Samuel Rubenfeld with The Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) taking my call. I have two related questions. First, do you have the number and the total value of the real estate property seized in Miami? And second, did the geographic targeting order established by FinSEN play any role in discovering the ownership of this real estate?

MODERATOR: Thank you. Senior Administration Official Number One.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. Thank you, Sam, for those questions. We're still getting our handle on the value that might be entailed with the real estate holdings blocked in Miami. And – but I can tell you their best estimates can be measured in the tens of millions of dollars.

Secondly, in terms of the GTO regarding Miami that was issued by FinSEN, I just want to note that long prior to that our investigation was in the works and looking at real property in the Miami area.

MODERATOR: We also have a comment from Senior Administration Official Number Three.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: If I can make a quick comment about the property, I hope that as this moves forward and information becomes available that the press will be able to look at this question of property and to encourage readers to take a look at the values here and whether this is commensurate with a salary of, for example, an official of a government. To us, I think the evidentiary package – and to those in the interagency – was an extremely strong one. If we look at the Kingpin process as this has been – as it's been used – again, on average, over a hundred designations a year – I think we can really say that this was a very convincing, if not one of the strongest, evidentiary packages that has come across our desks.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Ernie, if we could have our next call.

OPERATOR: And that will come from the line of Franco Ordonez with McClatchy. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks so much for taking the call. I wanted to ask: Was President Trump briefed on this? What questions, concerns, guidance did he provide? Also was curious about if – in the investigation you had talked about different ports. I was curious if any of the drugs were transferred through the Caracas airport, particularly using the presidential hangar, as has happened in past cases. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We'll have our Senior Administration Official Number Three address your first question, and then we will have – we'll have someone address your second. So let's address the first one first.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Let me just quickly say on the process, without going to too many details, that suffice it to say that every person who has a need to know or a desire to know is consulted within the government on these processes before concurrences are given.

MODERATOR: Great. And then your second question we'll have Senior Administration Official Number Two or One chime in.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Great. Thanks, [Moderator]. Second question regarding the ports in Caracas airport, I can only get into – into certain details on this to say that certain ports and airports were used in Venezuela. And sorry I can't go into more detail than that in this setting. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Ernie, if we could go to our next call.

OPERATOR: And that will be from Lori Montenegro with Telemundo. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you for the call. I'm trying to follow up on the last question. Do you have any idea that this activity with the VP was going on with the knowledge of other or cooperation of other Venezuelan officials or with officials in other countries, maybe Colombia or Mexico?

And my next question is also this gentleman Lopez Bello, is he – was he a person that resided in the United States as far as you know, or is he also in Venezuela?

MODERATOR: Thank you. We'll have our Senior Administration Official Number One address that.

Senior --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Sorry about that. Thank you. But yeah, so thank you, Lori, for your question.

On your first question, which is knowledge of other senior officials in Venezuela of these actions or involvement, we're not able to comment on that in this – in this setting. In addition, your second question, Lopez Bello, who is a Venezuelan national and resident of Venezuela, we believe had property and accounts here in the United States that are vulnerable to – for the blocking. But he is – he is a Venezuelan citizen.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We will take our last question now, Operator.

OPERATOR: Okay, thank you. And that will come from the line of Steve Herman with Voice of America. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, just – we've been dancing around an answer, and I guess what people want to know is whether President Trump personally signed off on this. And also could you detail the narcotics involved? Was this cocaine, marijuana, other drugs, or a combination?

MODERATOR: Thank you. I'm going to have our Senior Administration Official Number Three recap our previous comment.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Right. So I think all that I can give you on this is that it is a very deliberative process, it is an interagency process, it involves every agency that you can imagine involved. It can – it involves those who you would imagine to be – to be or need to be or desire to be briefed.

MODERATOR: Thank you. As a reminder, this call is on background. You would identify the speakers as senior administration officials. You will not identify them by name or title. A transcript of this call will be out as soon as we can. I want to thank our senior administration officials for doing this call as well as all – to the reporters who called in. Our thanks, and have a good night.

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