State Department Briefing by Patrick Ventrell, April 16, 2013

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–April 16, 2013.

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Assistance after Boston Marathon Bombings
    • Secretary Kerry’s Meeting with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister
    • CNE’s Decision to Declare Winner in Presidential Election / Violent Protests
    • President Assad Offers Amnesty for Prisoners
  • DPRK
    • U.S. Open to Negotiations
    • Legal Adviser’s Responsibility / Efforts to Close Guantanamo
    • Prime Minister Fayyad’s Resignation / Palestinian Leadership / Statement from the President of the United States
    • Status of Musharraf’s Candidacy / Condemnation of Violence Targeting Political Candidates and Leaders / U.S. Participation in Election Observation Efforts
    • Earthquake near Iran/Pakistan Border / U.S. Emergency Assistance



12:49 p.m. EDT

MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Welcome to the State Department. I don’t have anything at the top. I will turn it over to all of you.

QUESTION: All right. I want to talk about Venezuela, but I will defer if any of my colleagues want to get your non-answers to anything related to Boston, if anyone wants to ask it.

QUESTION: Sure, Boston.

MR. VENTRELL: John, go ahead.

QUESTION: Well, speaking with – on the diplomatic side, whether there’s been any interaction with embassies on this? Do we know if foreigners are injured in —

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any information one way or another on foreigners, but just to let you know that our Office of Foreign Missions is connecting foreign embassies and consulates with local authorities so that they can account for their citizens and provide consular assistance. So that’s really our role in the State Department, is to provide that connection between state and local authorities and foreign embassies and consulates. So we are providing that assistance.

QUESTION: As far as the investigation, obviously, the lead is elsewhere, but has the State Department been involved at all in trying to see if there are potentially foreign elements to this?

MR. VENTRELL: This is really an FBI lead. I don’t have anything on State Department involvement.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Patrick. This morning, there was supposed to be a photo opportunity with the Secretary and the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia. Could you tell us why it was canceled?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, first of all, let me provide a readout of the meeting for all of you. The Secretary and the Foreign Minister from Saudi Arabia discussed a wide range of bilateral and regional issues, including Middle East peace efforts and the current situation in Syria. They met this morning. This is, again, him just coming back from – late last night from 10 days, and so the change in schedule is really just a matter of a very tight schedule. He is back for a couple of days of congressional testimony. He is, again, on the road, as you know, to Istanbul later this weekend. So this is really – I wouldn’t read too much into it one way or another other than scheduling.

But they had a good and productive meeting, and the Foreign Minister did express his condolences for those killed and injured in the Boston Marathon bombings to Secretary Kerry this morning.

QUESTION: A follow-up on some of that meeting.

MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Did they discuss the Saudi national that was questioned by the FBI, whose apartment apparently was searched? Did this come up in the meeting? What can you tell us about that?

MR. VENTRELL: Not that I’m aware. Again, the main topics were regional issues, Middle East peace efforts, and the current situation in Syria. And again, the Foreign Minister expressed his condolences, but I don’t have anything for you on that one way or another.

QUESTION: Are there embassies on a heightened state of alert as a result of what happened in Boston?

MR. VENTRELL: Just to say that we continually review our security procedures and – around the world and domestically to ensure the safety and security of our people, which is our top priority, but I’m not going to get into any details of threat levels or embassy security from this podium.

QUESTION: Okay. Has that exhausted your lack of knowledge?

MR. VENTRELL: That has exhausted what I have to say.

QUESTION: Okay. I just want – before we go to Venezuela, I just want to —


QUESTION: You must – are you really trying to say that this – the meeting was turned from a camera – or from a photo op to a – to being closed for scheduling reasons? Is that seriously your answer?

MR. VENTRELL: Look, Matt, I wouldn’t read into it.

QUESTION: Because the Secretary was tired after 10 days on the road and is going to the Hill tomorrow?

MR. VENTRELL: No. What I’m saying is he has a very tight schedule here in the building and elsewhere, and so part of —

QUESTION: And so that saved – so it saved time somehow by canceling the photo op?

MR. VENTRELL: Let me just say that it —

QUESTION: It doesn’t wash.

MR. VENTRELL: Matt, it really does underscore the value of our relationship that this is one of the few meetings he’s been able to schedule, and on a very tight schedule.

QUESTION: But I don’t understand how canceling a photo op saves him any time or – so I just – and I find it hard to believe that you would expect us to believe that that’s the real reason for this, because I don’t see how his – how canceling a photo op saves him any time in – anyway, that’s neither here nor there. Can we go to Venezuela?


QUESTION: Can I just ask one follow-up on that? Was it the Secretary who asked to have the photo spray canceled or was it the Foreign Minister?

MR. VENTRELL: This was just a scheduling change on our part.

QUESTION: On your part?


QUESTION: So, Venezuela.


QUESTION: You didn’t want to answer the hypothetical question yesterday, so – but the hypothetical has happened.


QUESTION: So what do you make of the fact that they went ahead and certified the result without a full recount or a full audit? What do you make of the violence that has ensued?

MR. VENTRELL: So, Matt, as we noted yesterday, given the very close results, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles and a member of the electoral council, the CNE, as the – it’s referred to, called for a 100 percent audit, a recount of the results. Ruling party candidate Maduro also endorsed this idea. And we said yesterday, a full recount would be important, prudent, and necessary in ensuring that an evenly divided Venezuelan electorate is confident that the election meets their democratic aspirations. The OAS and the EU have expressed similar views. And there are also outstanding allegations of voting irregularities raised by the opposition.

So the CNE’s decision to declare Mr. Maduro the victor before completing a full recount is difficult to understand, and they did not explain their haste in taking this decision.

QUESTION: Sorry. You’re still sticking with this line that Maduro called for a whole – a full recount?

MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is he did endorse that idea at one point yesterday. Now, where he eventually ended up throughout the day – but there was a moment where he endorsed the idea of a recount and said there was nothing to hide. So those were his words.

QUESTION: Okay. So what’s your next step, or is there one?

MR. VENTRELL: We’ll be absolutely in consultation with the OAS, the EU, regional partners, and we continue to believe that resolving the voting irregularities and the calls for a recount would do much to ensure that the Venezuelan people feel included in the process and that their democratic aspirations are being met. So —

QUESTION: So you still think that they should recount the votes?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, that’s been our position. That hasn’t happened.

QUESTION: No, no, even – no, after the vote has been certified, after the election’s been certified, you still think that there should be a recount?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, under the Venezuelan constitution, it’s ultimately up to the CNE to certify the election results, which they’ve done.

QUESTION: Well, I understand that, but what’s the U.S. position? Is the U.S. position that there still should be a recount?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, our position is that —

QUESTION: Or the Venezuelan people have confidence —

MR. VENTRELL: Our position is that – let me finish, Matt – our position is that resolving these irregularities would have engendered more confidence in the Venezuelan people in the quality of this vote. And so that is the concern we’ve expressed. But in terms of where we go forward, I just don’t have anything more for you today.

QUESTION: Well, okay. So are you prepared to congratulate Mr. Maduro on his victory?

MR. VENTRELL: We’re not there.

QUESTION: Why? The vote has been certified. He has been elected. So either you say, “Okay, and we’ll work with you,” or, “try to work with you,” or you say, “We don’t think that you’re the real winner,” or, “We think that there is no winner because the vote hasn’t been certified,” so – I mean, are you prepared to work with President Maduro, President-Elect Maduro?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, we said we’re prepared to work with whichever government comes out of this electoral process. Having said that, given what happened yesterday, we’re consulting with key partners, the OAS, the EU, other regional neighbors as we examine this. We have – the scenario is you have a deeply divided country, roughly evenly divided, and so we thought it was important to resolve some of these concerns, and that’s why we’re going to consult with some of our partners and concerned parties.

QUESTION: Well, do you – so do you or do you not recognize the result, the certified result, as being reflective of the wishes of the Venezuelan people?

MR. VENTRELL: We’re not making a judgment one way or another. This is a Venezuelan process under the Venezuelan constitution. The CNE does have this responsibility, but again, we’ve had our concerns, and many others, including the OAS and the EU, have had their concerns, too.

QUESTION: All right. Well, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil have all kind of – have all accepted the Maduro – Maduro’s victory. These would seem to be – at least Mexico and Colombia and to a certain extent Brazil – would seem to be some of your top friends in this region. I just am not sure why – when you reserve judgment, what are you reserving it for, because the vote’s already been certified?

MR. VENTRELL: Look, we’re just not there yet, Matt. Obviously, we have nearly half the country that had a different view. And so we’ll continue to consult, but we’re not there yet.

QUESTION: One last one?


QUESTION: Do you have anything on – do you have anything to say about the violence that apparently – I think that several people were killed.

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Let me be very clear on this. Violence has no place in a democratic electoral process, so we join in others in calling on all Venezuelans to refrain from violence at this time.

QUESTION: What about protests? There is a call for —

MR. VENTRELL: People, as we say in all countries, should be allowed to peacefully protest and make their views and their voices heard, but there’s no place for violence.

QUESTION: And what – following all these questions of Matt, yesterday the Foreign Minister of Venezuela Jaua rejected the OAS position. He also rejected Spain’s position. He said that Spain should care about their unemployment and not about what happened in Venezuela. These kind of comments that he’s saying, I want to know – tomorrow there is a special session of the OAS – if the U.S. is going to present the case tomorrow in the permanent council tomorrow.

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything to preview about our activities at the OAS. As I said, we continue to consult, but I don’t have anything to preview in terms of tomorrow’s session one way or another.

QUESTION: But you are aware that there is high division in the OAS where Venezuela – it seems not to care about the OAS position, because they didn’t care about what Insulza said proposing – following the Inter-American Charter, right, to recount the votes and have the democracy of Venezuela in high standard?

MR. VENTRELL: One of our concerns – and this is broadly shared and this is, I think, why the OAS Secretary General made the statement that he did is – we didn’t have the kind of independent and respected international monitors that are common in so many other countries throughout the hemisphere. So that’s part of the concern that we’ve expressed, and the OAS was clear too.

QUESTION: If the U.S. has to evaluate the democracy of Venezuela from 0 to 10, where do you put it in this moment?

MR. VENTRELL: We don’t give grades from this podium, but thanks for the try.




QUESTION: Do you have any comment on the – President Assad’s statement that he’s willing to give amnesty to everyone who has apparently blood on their hand up to this point, up to today?

MR. VENTRELL: We did see that. This is not the first time that the regime has promised amnesty for prisoners, but opposition activists remain skeptical of this amnesty, not least because tens of thousands of political prisoners remain in Syrian jails. So independent monitoring groups have not been in to see them, and so there’s some general skepticism, particularly from human rights groups, about some of these claims.

QUESTION: Now, you agree with the principle that there seems to be no military solution for what’s going on in Syria. So would that – should that be perceived as a gesture to sort of initiate talks with the opposition?

MR. VENTRELL: Again, I don’t think we’re going to be getting into their head to try to interpret for them what they’re trying to signal here. But this is something that the regime has said they’d do in the past, but again, there’s tens of thousands of political prisoners that remain in Syrian jails.

QUESTION: And lastly, the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said that every country has a right to arm Syrian rebels. Do you agree with that premise?

MR. VENTRELL: I think we’ve been very clear, and the Secretary and others have been clear, that we’ve made our decisions and others have made their decisions.

QUESTION: Did the Saudi Foreign Minister discuss with Secretary Kerry ways and means to consolidate what apparently have been sort of an agreement between Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Jordan to train the rebels in Jordan?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, we wouldn’t get into the intricacies of our private diplomatic exchange; but as I said in my readout of the meeting, they did definitely discuss Syria, and support to the opposition was certainly one of those topics. But in terms of reading out the particulars of our diplomacy, that’s not something that we’re going to do.

In the back.

QUESTION: On North Korea?


QUESTION: It is reported that United States will not talk with North Korea without any preconditions. Do you have any conditions for talks with North Korea or without any preconditions?

MR. VENTRELL: I really don’t have much to say beyond what I said here from the podium yesterday, what the Secretary said, what the President has now said, that the burden remains on Pyongyang, which needs to take meaningful steps to show that they’ll honor their commitments. And so they know what they need to do to start showing that.

QUESTION: Could I follow up on that?


QUESTION: The North Korean statement – the most recent North Korean statement said that they like the idea of talks with the U.S. but they don’t want to be in what they characterize as a humiliating position. Is there anything that the United States can say to make those conditions right for talks, or is that – is dialogue actually something that’s seen as coming up soon?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, they know what they need to do in terms of stopping their provocations and showing a seriousness of purpose, and so they know what’s required of them.

Go ahead, Camille.

QUESTION: Yesterday I asked about Guantanamo —


QUESTION: — and if the Office of Legal Advisor had come up – if there’s any progress since the special envoy position was eliminated on – any progress on closing it. Do you have any update on that today?

MR. VENTRELL: So, again, I did look for some more information, as you and Matt had requested, and what I said yesterday very much stands, that the Administration remains committed to the closure of Guantanamo and the responsible and safe transfer of the remaining detainees, and we’ve long expressed our opposition to congressional restrictions that impede our ability to implement these transfers.

In terms of our activities here at the Department of State, we continue to have a staff, as I mentioned, that works under the auspices of the Office of the Legal Advisor. They work on all diplomatic activities associated with, concerned with the closure that involves communication with foreign governments concerning particular detainees. And we continue to – again, we have these congressional restrictions, but we continue to work on transfer in the face of these congressional limitations.

QUESTION: Was it your understanding that you – that the restrictions aren’t a complete bar to transfers?

MR. VENTRELL: It’s a very high bar.

QUESTION: It’s a very high bar?


QUESTION: And have there been any transfers since the restrictions came into place?

MR. VENTRELL: I’d have to double-check on that for you, but I think no.


MR. VENTRELL: I’ll double-check.

QUESTION: So what do they do exactly, these people in the Office of the Legal Advisor?

MR. VENTRELL: Like I said, a lot of it is communication with foreign governments in terms of individual detainees.

QUESTION: And if they can’t be sent anywhere, why are they communicating with a foreign government? Why aren’t these people doing something – all right. Either you’re working with Congress to lower the bar to make it easier – to make it possible to transfer these people, or they’re just wasting their time talking to other governments if there’s no way they can be transferred to these places.

MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, I can’t speak to the broader Administration strategy in terms of what the other components are and the relationship with Congress there. Obviously, the White House and other departments are involved. But in terms of our diplomatic work, we’re the point people to facilitate communication with the foreign governments, and of course, we’re always looking at the options in terms of how to facilitate either the return or third countries for people in the future.

QUESTION: Well, I guess I’m just confused –

MR. VENTRELL: So the groundwork needs to continue to be there in the case that we’re in a place where we can make future moves. And so we continue to be in touch with foreign governments.

QUESTION: Okay. So does that mean then that they go to country X and say hey, if we’ve managed to meet the bar or we can get Congress to change the restrictions, will you take one or two or whatever – some number of detainees? Is that what they do?

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t know if I would characterize it exactly like that, but the bottom line is that we’re not in a place where we were back in 2009 where we had Dan Fried as the envoy doing a lot of that work, but we continue to have a core staff should there be opportunities to do more.

QUESTION: Well, do they do – is this what they do full-time?

MR. VENTRELL: We do have a staff that works full-time on this account —

QUESTION: On this?

MR. VENTRELL: — as I said yesterday. I don’t have the number of staff, but we do have staff members who work with us.

QUESTION: Okay. And you don’t think their time might be used more productively doing something that might actually make a difference?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, the correspondence alone is a steady volume of traffic, so they are indeed busy.

QUESTION: All right.

QUESTION: What kind of congressional engagement has there been? I mean, if this staff is working with foreign governments, is there a movement to work with Congress to lower the bar?

MR. VENTRELL: I’d really refer you to the White House and to DOD and to other entities on – other parts of the government on that.

Said, you’ve been patient.

QUESTION: Palestine.


QUESTION: Can we talk about the Palestinians? I know we discussed the issue of the resignation of Salam Fayyad yesterday at length, but there seems to be a great deal of embitterment almost all across board in Europe, across the Arab world, and so on. Do you think that there’s likely to be a backlash in terms of donations and donor money and so on to the Palestinians as a result of his resignation?

MR. VENTRELL: I think we did what we could on this yesterday, Said, and we’re very clear and we’ll let the Palestinians clarify their leadership going forward. And we were clear about the pieces that Prime Minister Fayyad have done that have been so productive on institution building and that’s generated confidence for outside donors. But in terms of any other update, I don’t have anything more for you today.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Different topic?

MR. VENTRELL: I would actually note, though, but since we’re on the region, just point you to the President’s statement today. It is the Israeli Independence Day. As you know, it’s the 65th anniversary of the state of Israel. So a very strong statement from the President of the United States on that today.

QUESTION: Pakistan?


QUESTION: The disqualification of Musharraf from running for the elections. Does the United States have any position on this about whether he should be allowed to run for office?

MR. VENTRELL: In terms of Mr. Musharraf, we respect Pakistan’s constitutional and legal procedures and refer you to the Government of Pakistan on the status of his candidacy. So we don’t take a position one way or another.

I would like to take the opportunity to also, though, while we’re on the topic, to condemn all violence targeting political candidates and leaders in Pakistan. It’s important that violence such as this not prevent the Pakistani people from achieving their aspirations for a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic nation. And we continue to look forward to timely, free, and fair elections with a peaceful transition of power. And as we note, this historic election marks the first civilian government to complete its term in Pakistan’s history, thus leading into elections to a new civilian government.

QUESTION: Is this in reference to today’s bomb attack at the Awami National League election rally in Pakistan?

MR. VENTRELL: That’s one of the attacks, but I understand there’s been others. And so we condemn all violence and all of these attacks targeting political candidates.

QUESTION: And also, is the U.S. sending any election observers or the State Department sending any election observers?

MR. VENTRELL: Toria spoke to this a couple of weeks ago that we do plan to participate along with the EU in election observation efforts, and we’re working with the MFA to help ensure a fair and transparent election process. So I believe we have some aid as well through USAID nonpartisan support to the tune of $6.5 million.

QUESTION: Do you know how many people in the U.S. have been traveling for the election to be an election observer and when they are going there?

MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure whether this will be people traveling in or whether we’d have local staff from Embassy. I’d have to check in to that. I’m not sure on a particular number. But we’re working through that with the MFA.

QUESTION: I think a lot of nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations from U.S. are planning to go there to watch the elections. Is the State Department coordinating with them, or have they approached the State Department for this?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, that sounds like that’s private organizations travel, which they do independently of us.

QUESTION: Sort of the same area.


QUESTION: There was a major earthquake —

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. There was.

QUESTION: — Iran and Pakistan. Has there been any U.S. response to that either in terms of assistance or offers of assistance? Obviously, the U.S. has more of a relationship with Pakistan than with Iran, but has there been – have there been any offers of assistance?

MR. VENTRELL: So we’ve seen the reports of the earthquake near Khash on the Iran-Pakistan border, and we’re monitoring the situation. And we offer our condolences to the families who lost loved ones during the earthquake. And the United States does stand ready to assist at this point.

QUESTION: To assist either country?

MR. VENTRELL: Right. To assist either Iran or Pakistan.

QUESTION: In the past, some Iranian-American groups have voiced concern that assistance for relief purposes could get cut off in the sanctions. Is that something that the U.S. wants to clarify? Is it – it’s okay for —

MR. VENTRELL: We generally made exceptions in the past for things specifically like this, humanitarian in nature and especially for earthquake relief assistance. So that’s something we’ve done in the past.

QUESTION: On this issue, do you have a provisions to sort of – to aid Iran directly in an emergency case like this?

MR. VENTRELL: We have in the past provided direct emergency assistance in terms of supplies and other technical assistance. I don’t know the exact – I can’t remember the year when there was a very major earthquake, going back a few years, but we did provide direct assistance at that time.


QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. VENTRELL: Thank you all.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:10 p.m.)