State Department Briefing by Patrick Ventrell, April 9, 2013

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–April 9, 2013.

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Attack on United Nations Mission Convoy
  • CUBA
    • Hakken Family Case
    • OFAC Licenses
    • Secretary Kerry’s Press Availability
    • Meeting with Syrian Opposition
    • Link between Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Al-Nusrah Front in Syria / Concerns about Extremist Elements
    • Assistance to Opposition
    • Security Posture at U.S. Embassy Seoul / Threats and Provocative Statements from DPRK
    • Constant Contact with Regional Partners
    • Communication Channel with DPRK
    • DPRK International Obligations and Commitments
  • IRAQ
    • Strategic Framework Agreement
    • Prime Minister Maliki’s Op-Ed
    • Reunification Efforts of UN Good Offices
  • IRAN
    • Earthquake Near Bushehr
    • Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day
    • Passing of Russian Journalist Mikhail Beketov
    • Sectarian Violence



12:59 p.m. EDT

MR. VENTRELL: Good afternoon. At the top, I have one thing for you, and then I’ll turn it over to all of you. We condemn in the strongest terms today’s attack by unknown assailants on the United Nations Mission in South Sudan convoy carrying peacekeepers and civilians in the state of Jonglei, which resulted in the deaths of five Indian soldiers and at least seven civilians and injuries to several more UNMISS personnel. We convey our sympathies to the families and friends of those killed and injured in the attacks, to UNMISS, and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, as well as to the Government of India. As you know, India has long been a leading supporter of UN peacekeeping operations, a fact we recognize and applaud.

We call on the Government of South Sudan to conduct a full investigation and ensure the perpetrators are brought swiftly to justice. We urge restraint among the affected communities of the region. We reiterate our strong support for UNMISS which continues to carry out its mandate with admiral determination and dedication, and we refer you to the United Nations for additional details on the attack.

So having said that, Matt, I will turn it over to all of you.

QUESTION: Can we start with Cuba?


QUESTION: I’ve got two different things, but let’s start with the more pressing one –


QUESTION: – which is: What, if anything, is the State Department’s role in dealing with this abduction?

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Thanks for the question, Matt. This is – I think you’re referring to a specific family.

QUESTION: Yes. The Hakkens.

MR. VENTRELL: So we are aware of this case and the U.S. Interests Section is in contact with local authorities. U.S. officials are providing all appropriate assistance to the family. Because of privacy reasons, we are unable to provide additional information about this specific family, but what I do want to say more broadly speaking is that one of the Department’s highest priorities is the welfare of U.S. citizens overseas, and this is particularly true for children who are our most vulnerable citizens. So we work closely with legal guardians and both foreign and U.S. authorities to resolve these cases on a consistent basis when they arise.

QUESTION: Have you ever worked with the Cubans on – quite apart from the Elian Gonzalez case, which was the other way around. Do you work with the Cubans on – is there a history of cooperation there? Is there an agreement on child abduction that you have with the Cubans?

MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of prior engagement other than to say that our U.S. Interests Section is engaging, and we work closely with both legal guardians and foreign governments. And in this case Cuba is the government, so we’re working with them.

QUESTION: Yeah, but is there a framework, kind of an agreed framework between the U.S. and Cuba? I mean, I know that there are treaties and other less formal arrangements with other countries on child abduction.


QUESTION: Is there such a thing with Cuba?

MR. VENTRELL: Our understanding is that there’s not a specific agreement, nor are the Cubans members of The Hague Convention. We have urged all countries to join The Hague Convention, which provides a framework to work through these cases. In countries where there is not a framework, where they’re not members of the convention or there’s not a specific bilateral framework, we work with the government on a case-by-case basis and try to work through the issues, and that would include the Cubans.

QUESTION: All right. And when you say that your – the interests section is engaging, who is it engaging with?

MR. VENTRELL: Again, in touch with family members and in touch with the local government. I don’t know particularly which ministry in Cuba would have jurisdiction here. I’m not aware of their – how their family court system and –

QUESTION: But engaging with the family there or with people back in the States?

MR. VENTRELL: Right. I mean, the idea is that –

QUESTION: I mean, has someone from the interests section gone to the marina where this boat is?

MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is that the interests section is engaging with the host government authorities about the issue to clarify it. So we work through these issues on that basis.

QUESTION: And then I have an unrelated Cuba question. If anyone wants to ask more about this case —

MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Why don’t we go ahead with that?

QUESTION: — they can go ahead. No?

MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Go ahead, Matt.

QUESTION: All right. And I just want to – following up on the question from yesterday about this Jay-Z–Beyonce thing.


QUESTION: It is correct that the State Department had nothing to do with this at all, is that right?

MR. VENTRELL: That’s correct. This was a Department of Treasury matter.

QUESTION: I know. But there wasn’t any involvement by the – does Treasury – quite apart from this specific case, does Treasury get in touch with you guys to determine whether issuing a license would be – to get your input on whether they should issue a license?

MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is this is fully in the Treasury Department’s jurisdiction on OFAC licenses.

Okay? Said.

QUESTION: Can we change topics?


QUESTION: Yes, I go to the Secretary’s trip. Yesterday our colleague Mr. Brad Klapper asked the Secretary about two things: the progress that was cited by the Secretary earlier in the day made with Mr. Netanyahu and when he was coming back. Regarding coming back, he said after we have done our homework. And on progress, he kept it quite unclear. Could you share with us, first, what is meant by doing the homework, and second, what kind of progress did he make with the Prime Minister?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, Said, to disappoint you again, the Secretary spoke very clearly to this. He had a press availability before departing Tel Aviv where he spoke at length about this. We’ve put out the transcript, and the video is available, so I really don’t have anything to add beyond the Secretary’s sort of comprehensive press conference already this morning.

QUESTION: Patrick, that’s the point. It was not very clear. I mean, he spent two or three days talking to them. I mean, they must have talked about a great deal. Was he able to, let’s say, convince the Israelis that the demand or the condition of the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, was he able to do that? Was he able to mitigate their intense demand and so on?

MR. VENTRELL: Said, the Secretary was quite clear in that press avail himself that it’s not helpful to the process to be reading out those kinds of details. So that’s not what we’re going to be doing.

QUESTION: Okay. What about the homework? What kind of homework is he talking about?

MR. VENTRELL: Again, we’re not going to be getting into the details. We’re going to continue the process. You know the Secretary’s personal commitment to the issue.

Over here.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry talked about an economic initiative for the West Bank. You have any details on that?

MR. VENTRELL: And again, he said he’d be clarifying and providing more information on that going forward when we have more to roll out about specific initiatives.

QUESTION: Do you have any –


QUESTION: – details about his meetings with the Syrian opposition in London?

MR. VENTRELL: Just to say, Michel, that details are still being worked on that, but the Secretary, as he announced, does look forward to meeting with some of the Syrian opposition in London later this week to further explore ways to impact Assad’s calculation, and he’ll be joined in London by Ambassador Ford. But in terms of the details of who all he might meet with, that’s still being worked through right now.

QUESTION: Would it be a trilateral meeting? That means French, British, and American foreign ministers will be meeting with the opposition?

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have specific details on exactly how the Secretary’s schedule will go, whether there will be sort of a bilateral scenario or whether Foreign Minister Hague will be hosting other meetings. I really refer you to the traveling party.

QUESTION: Just on Syria, do you have anything to say about the announcement today by al-Nusrah and al-Qaida in Iraq, that they are merging?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, Matt, you know that the link between al-Qaida in Iraq and the al-Nusrah Front in Syria was well known before this announcement, but AQI’s public claim of ownership of the Nusrah Front validates what we’ve long known, that the Nusrah Front is the Syrian arm of AQI – of the AQI franchise. So we’ve long made clear our serious concerns with respect to the threat of violent extremists, including the al-Nusrah Front, which we designated back in December. And in that designation, I’ll just point out so that everybody was clear, that AQI was an alias of al-Nusrah. We want to make that explicitly clear to everyone in Syria.

QUESTION: Well, wait. No, the other way around, right?

MR. VENTRELL: Sorry, that – when we amended the FTO designation of al-Qaida in Iraq, it included the alias of the al-Nusrah Front. Sorry. Thanks for clarifying that. And so part of the reason to do that was to make explicitly clear to everyone who these folks are, and AQI has done that explicitly today.


QUESTION: Patrick, on this issue, there was a number of attacks today, mortar attacks, which are the trademark of al-Qaida. That’s what they did in Baghdad and in Iraq and so on, and they are – increasingly they target civilians. Are you concerned that these groups that seem to multiply every day now just basically at random picking targets and hitting it under the pretext that they are hitting government institutions?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, Said, you’ve long heard us talk about our concerns with regard to extremist elements, and we continue to emphasize that perpetrators on all sides must be held accountable.

QUESTION: Is that – I mean, related to this, your training that you are doing now with the Jordanians of, let’s say, the Free Syrian Army, is it designed to sort of offset the proliferation of these militant Islamic groups?

MR. VENTRELL: Said, look, I’m not going to engage on any specific engagement one way or another, other than to say that everything we’re doing is to help empower the moderate opposition and marginalize these extremists who have a very different vision of the future of Syria and who are doing nothing to promote a free, fair, secure, safe, democratic Syria, which we’re looking for.

QUESTION: Do you have anything to say at all about North Korea’s latest —

QUESTION: One more on al-Qaida?

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Go ahead, Michel.

QUESTION: Will this announcement affect American aids to the Syrian opposition or to the Syrians?

MR. VENTRELL: We’ve already been doing very careful vetting and everything we can to keep any of our assistance away from these extremists. So we already designated them and it doesn’t change that. It just lays bare what we already knew, that these groups are, in fact, one indeed the same.

QUESTION: What do you think of the statement the Free Syrian Army put regarding the – committing to a democratic future against al-Nusrah? Did you see that?

MR. VENTRELL: I hadn’t seen the specific statement. Over time they’ve made a number of very explicit statements that we applaud that help make clear that this is not the kind of future for Syria that they seek, and so we applaud those. And again, I haven’t seen the specific one, but we’re encouraged when the Free Syrian Army makes clear that this is not the future that they’re seeking.


QUESTION: Does the Free Army – Syrian Army distancing itself from al-Nusrah open any other door for military nonlethal assistance?

MR. VENTRELL: Emile, you know we’ve been doing everything – we’ve been analyzing all options and weighing them against whether it will do more benefit than harm to the Syrian people.


QUESTION: I just want to go to Korea.


QUESTION: Korean Peninsula.


QUESTION: What do you make, if anything, of the North’s latest attempt at fear-mongering by telling people that they might want to leave South – or that they should leave the South? This is a little bit further than telling embassies that they can’t guarantee their safety after Wednesday. This is actually – seems to be an attempt to disrupt the South Korean economy.

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Thanks, Matt, for the question. Just to reiterate, and this is what we said back in our U.S. Embassy Seoul message back on April 4th, in our message we reiterated to U.S. citizens that there’s no specific information to suggest imminent threat to U.S. citizens or facilities in the Republic of Korea, so the U.S. Embassy has not changed its security posture. We have not recommended that U.S. citizens who reside in or plan to visit the Republic of Korea take special security precautions at this time. So North Korea’s reported “advice,” quote/unquote, to foreigners that they depart South Korea only serves to unnecessarily and provocatively escalate tensions.

QUESTION: So you don’t – the fact at a nuclear-armed country has told foreigners to get out of South Korea because of a coming war, you don’t regard as a specific threat?

MR. VENTRELL: Matt, well, you well know that they have a pattern of this provocative rhetoric —

QUESTION: Exactly. So you don’t think that it’s credible? You think that they’re just – it’s just bluster?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, we were very —

QUESTION: Because —

MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Because if – in another circumstance, if a country warned Americans or any other foreigners to get out, you might think that that was an actual threat, no?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, look, we’ve been very clear over these past couple of weeks as these sort of provocative statements have come out on a routine basis that, of course, we’re taking all appropriate measures and we always review our security precautions and we always – we’re very much capable of defending ourselves and our ally. But in terms this specific statement today, our analysis remains the same as it was last week, that we’re not discouraging U.S. citizens from traveling to South Korea or encouraging them to take any special travel precautions.

QUESTION: Okay. And you don’t think that that is – that might be irresponsible in light of the situation?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, if we thought otherwise, we’d have a different recommendation. But that’s our recommendation.

QUESTION: Your – okay, so your recommendation to American citizens in Seoul or anywhere in South Korea is nothing’s going on, don’t worry about it, there isn’t any threat, even though a country with nuclear weapons and a huge standing army right on the border about 40 minutes away from the capital is threatening war?

MR. VENTRELL: Look, we’re clear-eyed about the threat, but at this time we’re not recommending —

QUESTION: Okay. You just don’t buy it?

MR. VENTRELL: We’re not recommending any specific actions by American citizens at this time.

Camille, go ahead.

QUESTION: Can you update us on any contacts that you guys have had with South Korean officials or with Chinese officials about North Korea?

MR. VENTRELL: Are you – something in specific you’re looking for?

QUESTION: No, I just wondered, have there been any new contacts in the last 24 hours about —

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we’re in constant contact through our embassies with both the Chinese, the South Koreans, the Japanese, and others. And the Secretary, indeed, will be there later this – going into this weekend, so we’ll have a chance to continue to have a conversation about this.

QUESTION: Hi, Patrick. Actually North Korea usually inform (inaudible) in informal notice to the United States before its missile launch. So did you receive such a notice as of today?

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything to read out in terms of communications between the DPRK and us at this point.

Go ahead, Nicolas.

QUESTION: Yeah. Are you in contact with the North Koreans through your so-called New York channel at the UN?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, you know we have a channel of communications. I don’t have any specific – anything specifically to read out about that. But the channel remains open, as necessary.

QUESTION: Okay. This question because yesterday there was a story in The Washington Post saying that this channel doesn’t work anymore; it’s not closed, but it doesn’t work properly.

MR. VENTRELL: It’s open, but I don’t think I’m going to characterize it further than that in this forum.

In the back.

QUESTION: Yes. If U.S. approaching talk with the North Korea except Six-Party Talks, what kind of an alternative system United have talk with – future talk with North Korea? Because of many – any – many kind of party talks is not work. I think Six-Party work in the talks workings is probably is nothing. So —

MR. VENTRELL: Well, the bottom line is that the onus remains on North Korea to take meaningful steps toward denuclearization. We are open and committed to authentic and credible negotiations to implement their previous commitments, including irreversible steps that lead to denuclearization. But while we’re – we’ve long said that we’re open to these improved relations with the DPRK, it’s got to live up to its international obligations and commitments.

QUESTION: So are you still think of Six – through the Six-Party Talks, it work with the North Korea negotiations?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, that’s been one mechanism that we’ve engaged on this process, but they need to start living up to their recommendations and choose a different path.




QUESTION: Yes. Patrick, today marks the 10th anniversary for the fall of Baghdad, and here we are 10 years later, the city is divided, it’s basically ethnically cleansed, has no services, no security, bombings everywhere. Could you reflect on the past 10 years and what kind of lessons could be drawn, let’s say, as we look into what might happen in Iran and Syria?

MR. VENTRELL: Look, Said, we talked about this last month when we were at the 10-year mark from the beginning of the war, and I’ll just say that we’ll leave the retrospective to historians.

Here’s where we are now. We have a Strategic Framework Agreement with the Iraqis that governs our relationship, and it’s a wide and broad relationship that includes cooperation on economic, political, cultural, and a number of areas. And so we continue to be engaged with our Iraqi partners, and there’s still many complex challenges, but we’ll continue to engage with our partners on the path forward.

QUESTION: Today, in his article in The Washington Post, his op-ed, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki suggests that you are on solid grounds, your alliance is really very strong and solid, and there is tremendous potential for partnership and business. Do you agree with him? Do you concur that relations are excellent with Iraq?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, we read his op-ed with great interest and we share his commitment and that of the vast majority of Iraqis to a strong bilateral relationship as outlined in the Strategic Framework Agreement.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Mr. Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region in Iraq was quoted yesterday as saying that relation with Maliki has reached the non-return point (inaudible) something big coming on. Are you in touch with the Kurd and Maliki with respect to their deteriorating relationship between —

MR. VENTRELL: Well, one of the focuses of our diplomacy is trying to improve that relationship and make sure that Iraqis of all different stripes and affiliations are working through the political process and improving their collaboration, working together through the political process. And so that is a focus of our diplomacy.

QUESTION: But are you concerned about what he’s saying, the point of no return?

MR. VENTRELL: We’ve made very clear that we think that these issues need to be continued to work through in a diplomatic way in the political sphere, and we’ll continue to do what we can through our mission and from here in Washington to help facilitate an improvement in those relations.

Samir, you’ve been – or was it Michel? You’ve been patient.

QUESTION: Yeah. In his op-ed, Prime Minister Maliki has said that the United States has not lost Iraq; instead, in Iraq the United States has found a partner of our shared strategic concerns and our common efforts on energy, economics, and peace and democracy. Do you agree with that?

MR. VENTRELL: We do. It was a good op-ed and it had – yes, this is a very —

QUESTION: How much of it was written by the Embassy? (Laughter.)

MR. VENTRELL: No, this was the Prime Minister’s signature.

QUESTION: Oh, there was no – the U.S. Government had no input into Mr. – into Prime Minister Maliki’s op-ed which extols the wonderful virtues of everything that has happened since the (inaudible)?

MR. VENTRELL: We were not involved in his op-ed —


MR. VENTRELL: — at all, and it very much was his expression.

QUESTION: It was just a coincidence that he – you guys agree on absolutely everything?

MR. VENTRELL: Look, I’ll let the – the Iraqi side can clarify their message, but I think it was very much here, 10 years later, a way for the Iraqi Government and Iraqi people to make clear that there’s still very important collaboration going on between our two countries. And we want to see that continue, so we’re positively encouraged by it.

QUESTION: But why do you think he said that the United States has not lost Iraq?

MR. VENTRELL: I think what the Prime Minister is trying to do is really emphasize how important the Strategic Framework Agreement is and the cooperation we can have on all these issues going forward.

QUESTION: Do you believe —

MR. VENTRELL: Said, one more.

QUESTION: — Mr. Maliki is not listening to anyone? I mean, look at the executions. The death penalty is just getting out of – I mean, out of control in Iraq. In the last week alone, something like 10 people were executed, and there are dozens more that are just waiting in line. Do you raise, at least, this issue with them?

MR. VENTRELL: Which specific issue? What was the question in there, Said?

QUESTION: The issue of the death penalty and executions. And basically, there are – many of them, they are only guilty of belonging to this sect or that sect.

MR. VENTRELL: I’d have to look into seeing what contacts we may have raised human rights concerns.

QUESTION: New topic?

MR. VENTRELL: Camille, go ahead.

QUESTION: A sort of random question: Former UN employee James Wasserstrom has asked the U.S. to withhold UN funding in accordance with U.S. law because he says he was retaliated against as a whistleblower for exposing corruption at the U.S. Mission in Kosovo. What’s your reaction to his request?

MR. VENTRELL: Just to say that this is an employee speaking in his private capacity. He’s not speaking for the U.S. Government. I understand this has to do with his prior employment. I’ll have to, after the briefing, look and see if I can get you some more information about UN whistleblowers. I do have some more information. I don’t have it here with me today.

QUESTION: Okay. I mean, are you guys satisfied with the UN’s – I guess their policy about how they treat whistleblowers?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we’ve worked consistently with the UN and through our Ambassador for Management Reform up at our U.S. Mission on many of these issues. Let me get some of the language for you after the briefing.


MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead. One more.

QUESTION: Patrick.


QUESTION: Turkey and Cyprus. The Foreign Minister of Turkey said on Sunday that he discussed the Cyprus problem with the Secretary. Can you give us a readout of what they said on Cyprus, please?

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have a specific readout, just to say that – and you know where we are on Cyprus and our efforts – we support the efforts under the auspices of the UN Good Offices to reunify the island as a bizonal, bicommunal federation. But in terms of a meeting readout, I don’t have anything for you further.

QUESTION: Can I ask you another, please? Mr. Davutoglu sent a letter to the Secretary. He sent the same letter to many other foreign ministers in Europe. In this letter, he’s talking about the partition of Cyprus. What is the American position on this proposal?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I just said what our position is on Cyprus. We support efforts to reunify the island as a bizonal, bicommunal federation. We’ve received the letter, but I’m stating very clearly here what our position is.

QUESTION: Can we go to Iran for a second? Do you have any comment on the earthquake and on the number of casualties, or if you are doing anything to aid the Iranians?

MR. VENTRELL: We have seen the reports of an earthquake and are monitoring the situation. We understand this was near Bushehr. We refer you to the IAEA for further comment. I think they put out a statement already, given that there was – part of Iran’s nuclear program is near there. But our understanding is that – we do send our condolences to those who lost loved ones, and we understand there are some casualties.

QUESTION: Are you concerned about, let’s say, this possible radiation, or possible —

MR. VENTRELL: I really refer you to the IAEA. I think they’ve already made a clarification on that.

QUESTION: On Iran. President Ahmadinejad said today that Iran has become a nuclear state and they stressed that no one can stop Iran’s peaceful nuclear will. Do you have any reaction to that?

MR. VENTRELL: Just to say that Iran often uses its National Nuclear Technology Day to tout advances, and this is something we’ve seen, sort of this bluster, in the past. So we think this is provocative and not constructive, but it’s something that we have seen in past years, where they use this anniversary date in this fashion.

QUESTION: Patrick, I just have one.

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Go ahead, Matt.

QUESTION: A very brief one. Did – are you aware that a Russian journalist who was really savagely beaten up many – several years ago passed – Mr. Beketov – died yesterday?

MR. VENTRELL: We are, and we sadly note the passing of Russian journalist Beketov, Mikhail Beketov. We express our condolences to his loved ones for their loss as well as to all Russians for the loss of this advocate for clean government and press freedom. He stood out among journalists taking on local corruption, upholding the freedom of expression, refusing to back down even in the face of threats to his personal security. So we do mourn his loss.

QUESTION: Are you concerned at all that no one has ever been arrested for his – or at least no one has ever been punished for his – for beating him up?

MR. VENTRELL: Matt, we are concerned, and we urged – we are urging redoubled efforts to identify and prosecute those responsible for the beating of this respected journalist.

QUESTION: I have one more on Egypt.


QUESTION: Pope Tawadros has criticized the performance of the Egyptian President today in dealing with the violence in recent days. He said that President Morsy promised to protect the cathedral, but not implemented what he promised, and described his behavior as negligence and poor judgment. Do you agree with him?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, thanks for the question, Michel. We have seen statements from both President Morsy and Pope Tawadros regarding the incident. Our understanding is that eyewitness accounts differ about exactly what instigated the violence. That said, the security forces have a responsibility to protect and prevent clashes among citizens, use maximum restraint, and to protect institutions from attack.

So we understand that President Morsy has already promised to conduct a full and transparent investigation. We urge the Government of Egypt to implement this promise expeditiously and to make public its findings, including claims of inappropriate or excessive action on the part of the security forces. The failure to prosecute perpetrators of sectarian crimes has contributed to an environment of impunity in Egypt, and so we are concerned.

QUESTION: But the Pope has said that President Morsy has promised him to protect the cathedral, but he didn’t implement his promise.

MR. VENTRELL: Well, my understanding is this event is under investigation, and we’re going to continue to urge —

QUESTION: So another promise.

MR. VENTRELL: Again, we’re going to be monitoring this closely. You heard what I said yesterday about our condemnation of sectarian violence and our concern, and it’s something that we’ll be raising with our Egyptian counterparts.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. VENTRELL: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:25 p.m.)