Daily Press Briefing - April 26, 2013
Index for Today's Briefing:
- Free the Press Campaign / Vladimir Goncharenko
- Chemical Weapons / UN Inspectors
- Secretary Kerry Briefing on Capitol Hill today
- U.S. Continues Conversations with Russian Government
- Kidnapped Archbishops
- Arrest of an American Citizen
- Building Collapse
- Request by House Subcommittee
- U.S. Policy on the Senkakus Unchanged
- Suspension of Trial of Rios Montt
- U.S. Continues to Call for Release of Amir Hekmati
- Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Needs Peaceful Solution
- Lord's Resistance Army / Pressure Continues on LRA
Daily Press Briefing
The video is available with closed captioning on YouTube.
12:54 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Happy Friday. Welcome to the State Department. One thing for you at the top in our Free the Press Campaign: Today we’re highlighting the case – the murder of Vladimir Goncharenko. He’s editor of – he was the editor of a newspaper on environmental security and environmental activists in the Ukraine. On July 27th, 2012, Mr. Goncharenko held a press conference on his investigation that revealed the illegal dumping of 180 tons of dangerous chemical and radioactive industrial waste in the city of Kryviy Rih in the Ukraine. The city denied the allegations of illegal dumping. Four days later, unknown assailants beat him so severely that he was hospitalized and died. The United States calls for a thorough investigation of his murder in order to bring the perpetrators to justice.
So having said that, I will turn it over to all of you.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Syrian officials today have rejected the assessment that you made public yesterday. Do you have anything to say to that? Do you have any more proof so that this claim you made is somehow substantiated?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, if the regime has nothing to hide, they should let the UN investigators in immediately so we can get to the bottom of this. As we said yesterday, we’re working to establish credible and corroborated facts to build on this intelligence assessment in order to establish a definitive judgment as to whether or not the President’s redline has been crossed. So that’s what we’re pursuing. And as I said yesterday, it’s both the UN process but we’ll continue to consult very closely with friends, allies, and concerned parties as we look at this body of evidence.
QUESTION: Can you just say – there’s been a lot of talk about – including from the President – that this would be a game-changer if they did it.
MR. VENTRELL: Those were the President’s words.
QUESTION: Right. Up to now, nothing seems to have changed. Can you tell me what might have changed now that you’ve – you’ve presented this evidence, yet we’re in exactly the same situation we were yesterday, or two days ago?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, to clarify, Brad, we’re working to establish a definitive judgment as to whether or not the President’s redline of chemical weapons use has been crossed. We’re not there yet, but we’re very carefully looking at the information, working to establish credible and corroborated facts. And to be clear, you talk about sort of an intelligence assessment. That is the assessment, but we’re working to further corroborate the evidence. And the evidence must build on the intelligence assessment as we seek to establish the corroborated facts.
So that’s where we are right now, but the President and others have said, and the White House has said, that all options are on the table as we look at a range of scenarios here and we continue to look at the facts.
QUESTION: If this intelligence assessment has so little fact in it that it’s basically not worth making any policy decisions based on, why make it public?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, look, I really refer you to the White House in terms of the timing of responding to the congressional inquiries on this. It was an Administration decision to respond to those inquiries in a public, unclassified fashion. But the bottom line is, given the history that we all know in terms of intelligence assessments when it comes to WMD, it’s important to look very carefully at all the available evidence. And in addition to the intelligence assessments, we have to work to corroborate the facts.
Jill, go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Secretary Kerry had a briefing on Capitol Hill on the House side, similar to his briefing yesterday on the Senate side. Syria was, again, one of the topics. It was a classified hearing. But again, these were hearings that had been scheduled a while back for the Secretary to update members of both the Senate and House on some of the key issues that – key diplomatic issues he’s been working on, Syria and North Korea certainly among those. So that was the focus of this morning’s briefing.
QUESTION: One of the participants is quoted as saying that they did discuss possible options. Can you confirm that he at least – even in general, you can confirm that he talked about possible options after this?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I can’t get into the details of a classified briefing, but certainly the President on down have said that all options are on the table and we’ll be looking at those. But in terms of the actual details of a classified session, we can’t get into the details of that one way or another.
Go ahead, Camille.
QUESTION: After that meeting, some members of Congress said that Russia needs to be more involved in this. And I wondered if you could update us on this building’s conversations with your counterparts in Russia about where to go next on Syria.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, our interaction with the Russians on the issue of Syria is intensive and has been going back, as you know, many months. I don’t have anything to update you for in terms of meetings or diplomatic conversations just in the past hours, but we do have a robust conversation with the Russian Government on the Syria account, including as recently as when the Secretary met with his Russian counterpart last week. But we continue to brief them in a number of different formats and continue to be in close collaboration with them on all of these issues.
QUESTION: I mean, have you shared your intelligence assessments about this chemical weapons with the Russians?
MR. VENTRELL: I’ll have to check on that detail in specific. I’m not sure in terms of intelligence sharing one way or another other than to say that this issue is something that we, broadly speaking, have been in touch the Russians on, and they too have expressed a concern about the use of these horrific weapons.
QUESTION: Joseph from Sky News Arabia.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: If this is proven, like Syria has used chemical weapons, do you consider this as an act of war, like a war crime? And what are the actions that the United States might take or would take? Does it include military actions?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’m not going to get into hypotheticals of precisely what we may be considering, but all options are on the table and we’ve said that consistently.
Okay. Other topics?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay, sure.
QUESTION: Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News. Patrick, is going back to the UN or another resolution a possible avenue for – to go ahead? Or is NATO expressing any willingness to be more involved? I know people are a little shy from --
MR. VENTRELL: Again, when we talk about all options, of course it came sort of in a – the previous question in a military context, but it’s a diplomatic context as well. So we’ll look at everything appropriately. And we know the history of what’s happened at the Security Council in terms of the three vetoed resolutions and the difficulty we’ve had there given Chinese and Russian opposition, but we’re always willing to look at whatever diplomatic initiatives may be helpful. I don’t have anything for you one way or another.
QUESTION: Is it a war crime?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’m not sure – I’d have to check in terms of a definition one way or another. Clearly, the use of chemical weapons would cross the President’s redline. I’d have to check on a legal definition.
Samir, go ahead.
QUESTION: Any new information, update on the two kidnapped bishops in Syria?
MR. VENTRELL: We still don’t have an update. We continue to call for their immediate release and we’ll continue to look for more information. But it appears they have not been released yet, and we’ll continue to call publicly and make clear our belief that they should be released.
Okay. Go ahead, sir.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Tell me your name and your outlet.
QUESTION: U.S. citizen Timothy Hallett Tracy has been arrested. There are charges that he is a spy for the U.S., that he received funds from a NGO tied to the U.S. Government. Have you been able to – the consulate has been able to talk to him at all? And what is the latest on – from your side?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. So we are aware of the arrest of a U.S. citizen in Caracas. We’re seeking further information from the Venezuelan Government on the case, and we’re seeking consular access to the detained individual. Because of privacy considerations, we’re unable to comment on this specific case further at this time.
But let me just say that these type of accusations are the latest in a series of allegations made by the Venezuelan Government in recent weeks against a variety of, quote/unquote, “foreign actors” suggesting efforts to affect political developments in Venezuela. These allegations have not been substantiated. The U.S. continues to categorically reject any allegations of U.S. Government efforts to destabilize the Venezuelan Government or to harm anyone in Venezuela. So again, we’re still looking for more information about this specific case, but that’s the broad sweep of the pattern that we’ve seen.
QUESTION: But there’s no link between Mr. Tracy and any U.S. Government agency?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, this is about an arrest of a private U.S. citizen.
Go ahead, Jill.
QUESTION: Patrick, another story kind of in that vein. The U.S. has indicted a former State Department employee who is living in Sweden.
MR. VENTRELL: Right.
QUESTION: What can you tell us about that? And what will happen with extradition? We understand the Swedes only extradite citizens to other EU members. Is that correct?
MR. VENTRELL: I really have to refer you to the Department of Justice. This is an ongoing legal matter, and this is really better directed to the Department of Justice. I know you’re interested because of the former employment and that connection, but in terms of the ongoing legal matter, it really is a Department of Justice concern. So I refer you to them on this matter.
QUESTION: Can I ask you --
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Brad.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. I did check again this morning, Brad, and we still don’t have information one way or another on any American companies. I know that it’s a fairly chaotic scene as they go through and continue to work through this very grim scene. But in terms of American --
QUESTION: Right. The companies are not – the names of companies are not lost in the rubble. It’s a --
MR. VENTRELL: Well, my understanding is that there were a number of floors in this facility that had a number of different companies. And so in terms of making – doing our due diligence in terms of looking at not only sort of subcontractors and other associations, we don’t have any information at this --
QUESTION: So you’ve found none so far.
MR. VENTRELL: We’ve found none so far.
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks, Brad.
Go ahead, Catherine.
QUESTION: Today there was a hearing of the Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threat Subcommittee in the House. A couple of the members and even one of the panelists were dismayed that there was not any State Department representation there to testify. Did you receive a request for someone to go to this hearing on State’s behalf? And if so, the representatives were saying the request was declined. Why was it declined? And then one representative specifically said that State seems too busy to send someone here and suggests that this might be part of the problem with the region of Chechnya, that it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.
MR. VENTRELL: I believe we did have a request on this subcommittee. Let me just say that, I mean, first of all, the Secretary of State of the United States of America was on Capitol Hill all morning yesterday and today, and so we’ve had close cooperation with the Congress. And I think in terms of the reason that they’re interested in Chechnya is probably because of the issue going on with Russia and the Boston bombings, and I think that’s the tie that they’re looking at it.
And so my understanding is that there were extensive hearings up on the Hill in the past couple of days, and we did have State Department representatives there to accompany Department of Justice witnesses as well, and this is at the committee level. So I’d have to check again on this particular subcommittee, but my understanding is in the past couple of days, there have been pretty extensive hearings and witnesses from the Department of Justice, and we made State Department people available as necessary. So thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: The Chinese Government called Senkakus as a core interest to the – at press conference. This is first time on this issue that they called Senkakus core interest publicly. How do you take this comment?
MR. VENTRELL: I really hadn’t seen the remark, but our position on the Senkakus has not changed.
QUESTION: Japanese Government and the Chinese Government officials met in Beijing today to discuss the current situation, I think, of East China Sea. And what kind of progress do you expect they’re going to make?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I’m not sure what kind of progress in one specific bilateral exchange, but we’ve consistently pushed for good and close cooperation between the Chinese and the Japanese and an improvement of the diplomatic situation there.
QUESTION: Another question about Japan. Is the --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: The Japanese Government will hold a ceremony on this weekend to celebrate 61st anniversary of the restoration of their sovereignty from the United States to Japan after World War II, and this is the first time that this kind of event will be held by Japanese Government. And I was just wondering if you have any comment on that.
MR. VENTRELL: Let me look into it for you after the briefing. I’m not aware of this specific event in Japan.
Scott, go ahead.
QUESTION: In Guatemala, the trial of Rios Montt was suspended this week as it approached final arguments. Does the United States have any concern that that suspension might undermine efforts to have accountability for human rights violations in Guatemala?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, first of all, let me say, Scott, that the United States supports credible, independent, and transparent and impartial judicial processes, including in Guatemala in this case. The Rios Montt trial is historic not only for Guatemala but for the international community. It’s the first prosecution of a former head of state at the national level for genocide, and the trial is also an unprecedented and complex legal situation.
So we urge the Government of Guatemala to ensure that this legal case is conducted in accordance with Guatemala’s domestic and international legal obligations, and we expect the process and outcome will advance the rule of law. So I don’t have an update for you on these most recent developments one way or another, but broadly speaking, we’re pushing for a credible, independent, transparent, and impartial judicial process in this case.
Go ahead, Lalit.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you have anything additional on this Bangladesh tragedy? Have you any further on any presence of U.S. companies in that building?
MR. VENTRELL: Brad just asked about that. I already answered that we don’t have updated information.
Go ahead, Brad. You looked like you had a question.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: His family was in the building yesterday, I believe, and had some meetings. What are you doing to help get him released?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Thanks for the question, Brad. We continue have serious concerns about the fate of U.S. citizen Amir Hekmati. We are determined to secure his release and remain deeply concerned about his well-being in Iranian custody. Our diplomatic efforts to secure Mr. Hekmati’s release are ongoing, and this is what we discussed with his sister yesterday in the meeting she had with senior officials of the Department. One of our highest priorities is ensuring the safety and well-being of U.S. citizens overseas, and we’ve been continuously working to secure the release of Mr. Hekmati.
QUESTION: They want this to raise to the Secretary level; there’s been no statement, I think, from Secretary Kerry, but there have been statements about the pastor. I mean, are you going to augment your effort by kind of raising the political level of this?
MR. VENTRELL: We’ve been very clear: there’s – a few of these cases of American citizens where we’ve been very clear and robust in our public commentary that they should be freed. I can’t get into sort of our private diplomatic efforts because they’re, again, very sensitive in terms of trying to help secure their release. But we’ve been very focused on his case and, indeed, the others that you’ve mentioned.
QUESTION: Okay. But, I mean, he is a veteran. I guess you would think he would get as much treatment as a private pastor.
MR. VENTRELL: Again, we’re looking for the release of all these American citizens. And there’s a few cases out there, as I mentioned, and so we take them all very seriously.
Go ahead in the back.
QUESTION: Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned President Obama’s April 24 statement on remembrance of the so-called Turkish – sorry, Armenian genocide. Do you have any reaction to that?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, the statement stands for itself, and I really refer you to the President’s very clear statement.
QUESTION: And also, two months ago, U.S. failed to honor victims of the Khojaly massacre committed by the Armenians. Do you have any reaction to the statement that it could be – it is a wrong-sided approach to honor victims on one side and ignore victims on the other side – on all the other sides?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we’ve talked about this before, and I’ll give the same response, which is that the tragic loss of life in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia reminds us that there cannot be a military solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Only a lasting and peaceful settlement can bring stability, prosperity, and reconciliation to the region. And you know that the United States is a co-chair of the Minsk Group, and we remain firmly committed to working with both sides to achieve peace.
Looks like we have one more. Lalit.
QUESTION: Can you follow up on yesterday’s question? The Indian Embassy --
MR. VENTRELL: Right.
QUESTION: -- has said that they have liaised with the State Department yesterday on the ill treatment of an Indian minister at the Boston airport. Do you have any response to that?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure about the Indian communication directly here with the State Department, but what I said yesterday stands. We very much have a strong bilateral relationship with Indian Government officials and refer you to Department of Homeland Security on airport operations.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- and Joseph Kony. Does the United States Government believe that to be the case?
MR. VENTRELL: The United States is aware and continues to evaluate reports that the LRA has operated in the disputed Kafia Kingi area claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. The U.S. and the international community as a whole would take very seriously any credible evidence of support or safe haven being provided to the LRA.
And I do point you back the December 2012 presidential statement at the UN Security Council that expressed concern about possible LRA presence in Kafi Kingi. So we continue to discuss our concerns about the whereabouts of Joseph Kony with all governments in the region, including with the Government of Sudan, and we have encouraged Sudan to cooperate with regional efforts to counter the LRA.
More broadly speaking on the LRA, I did want to make the point that we’re in a position now where two of the top five commanders are gone, the number of people killed by the LRA has gone down by 66 percent, and defections continue. So our pressure on the LRA continues.
QUESTION: Have you had the opportunity to look at the information that was released today and determine whether that meets the threshold of credible information?
MR. VENTRELL: We’re aware of it and we continue to evaluate, and our experts continue to look at it.
All right. Thank you, all.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:13 p.m.)