Daily Press Briefing - December 4, 2015

Index for Today's Briefing:

Elizabeth Trudeau
Director, Press Office
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 4, 2015


2:03 p.m. EST

MS TRUDEAU: Happy Friday, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. First I’d like to welcome a group of 10 Palestinian journalists who are with us here on a UN-sponsored media program. Every year since 1995, the United Nations has provided press training to a group of Palestinian journalists representing print, audio-visual, and online. Been in the States for a few weeks now, I believe, meeting with media experts, policymakers, and international organizations. We’re very pleased to have you guys with us today, so welcome.

On one program note, tomorrow the Secretary will speak at the Saban Forum. This will be the Secretary’s third appearance at the forum. His remarks will be livestreamed on the Brookings website. We’ll have more details on this event for you later today.


QUESTION: Right. So, let’s start with the State Department and its relationship or its involvement in the visa issuance process for Tashfeen Malik.


QUESTION: What more can you tell us that – I mean, presumably, you guys have gone back and looked into the whole process by which she was granted this K-1 visa. What more can you tell us that you didn’t – or that you weren’t able – that Mark wasn’t able to tell us yesterday?

MS TRUDEAU: So I don’t have a lot more to add on that. Thanks for the question. What I would say is that – in fact, I’m going to keep this briefing relatively short today. We understand the FBI will be actually – go out this afternoon and have some more information on this ongoing investigation.

What I would emphasize is the process. And I think we spoke a little bit about this yesterday, the issuance of the K-1 visa. All visa applications in the U.S. are adjudicated on a case-by-case basis with the requirements of the Immigration and the Nationality Act. Again, while we can’t speak specifically about the details of this case, what we can is – I can walk you through the process.

I’m not sure if that would be helpful, Matt, or if you have more specific questions.

QUESTION: Well, I don’t know if it would be helpful, but why can’t you speak in specifics about it?

MS TRUDEAU: So visa records are confidential under section F – or 222(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

QUESTION: Well, that’s wonderful, but there are a bunch of – there is a lot of dead people in California because of what this woman did, who clearly was interviewed and cleared to enter the United States.


QUESTION: So I’m not sure I understand exactly why it is that the immigration law prevents you from talking about a dead terrorist suspect.

MS TRUDEAU: Okay. Well, what I would say is, first, the investigation is ongoing. And I’m not going to get ahead of that. There is --

QUESTION: So is it because of the law, or is it because the investigation is ongoing?

MS TRUDEAU: So the visa records are – I am unable to speak to those because of the confidentiality of the visa records. However, speaking specifically about details of travel and that – that’s the investigation.

QUESTION: Even after someone’s dead? The person’s records are still --

MS TRUDEAU: So visa records are confidential.

QUESTION: Well, I’m sure that’s of great relief to her, but she’s dead now. And there are a lot of other people who are dead, as well. So I’m not sure I understand why it is that you can’t talk about this.

MS TRUDEAU: Again, I can talk about process.

QUESTION: All right, talk about the process, then.


QUESTION: What exactly did – what exactly would someone who was in her position, trying to come to the United States to get married, actually have to do and go through?

MS TRUDEAU: Okay. So, under U.S. immigration law, a U.S. citizen can petition for a foreign-citizen fiance(e). If the petition for a foreign – for an alien fiance(e) is approved by the Department of Homeland Security and the applicant completes the required immigration visa process, the applicant is then issued a visa. What is required is a face-to-face interview. There is required checks, there is required full petition that is brought forward. So this is part of the process.

The K-1 visa, which is – which was what was issued in this particular case, permits the foreign-citizen fiance(e) to travel to the U.S. and marry his or her U.S.-citizen petitioner within 90 days of arrival. Then the foreign citizen would apply for adjustment of status to legal permanent – lawful permanent resident status with DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

QUESTION: And that doesn’t have anything to do with the State Department?

MS TRUDEAU: No, sir, it doesn’t.

QUESTION: So – and can you tell us when exactly the – this, in this instance, the K-1 visa was issued, and confirm again that it was, in fact, issued in Islamabad?

MS TRUDEAU: Unfortunately, confidentiality precludes me from doing that.

QUESTION: Even though the spokesperson up at --


QUESTION: -- the podium yesterday said that it was issued in Islamabad, you can’t say that again today?

MS TRUDEAU: So I’d let Mark’s remarks stand on that.

QUESTION: So can you say that it was issued in Islamabad?

MS TRUDEAU: I’m going to let Mark’s remarks stand yesterday.

QUESTION: Oh, come on. This is – fine.

MS TRUDEAU: Thanks, Matt. Michel?


QUESTION: Yeah, what’s --

MS TRUDEAU: Oh, I’m sorry --

QUESTION: What’s the standard for demonstrating that it’s a romantic marriage and not human trafficking? Do you – what kind of – what do you have to demonstrate to --

MS TRUDEAU: So each case is different --

QUESTION: -- prove a relationship?

MS TRUDEAU: -- and I can actually speak to this, as many Foreign Service officers in the State Department have actually done this sort of work. And each case is looked at individually. There is bona fides that are taken a look at. You establish the relationship. It’s a face-to-face interview with an American officer.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS TRUDEAU: It’s actually with the fiance(e).

QUESTION: They’re both there?

MS TRUDEAU: Actually, it’s – the interview is with the fiance(e). The petition is done by the American spouse.

QUESTION: So did anyone interview --

MS TRUDEAU: So it is required --

QUESTION: -- the Pakistani citizen?

MS TRUDEAU: -- as part of the visa process that the applicant – so the fiance(e) is interviewed face to face.

QUESTION: But is the recipient also interviewed?

MS TRUDEAU: The U.S. citizen spouse?


MS TRUDEAU: On that, let me take that. I’m not quite sure what happens. That’s really a DHS question, because that’s a petition question that happens in the U.S. For the State Department, it’s the visa issuance.

QUESTION: But the prospective arrival in Islamabad has to go and pick up the visa.

MS TRUDEAU: So you’re asking specifically about what do the applicant --

QUESTION: Well, you say you have to – the spouse has to get a face-to-face interview. The U.S. citizen --

MS TRUDEAU: So the U.S. citizen spouse files a petition. If that petition is approved, then the visa process moves forward.

QUESTION: Who gets a face-to-face interview? The U.S. citizen or the --

MS TRUDEAU: So on the petition, I’m going to refer you to the Department of Homeland Security. That’s the U.S. citizen who files the petition.


MS TRUDEAU: For the applicant, which is the fiance(e), that takes place at a U.S. embassy overseas.


MS TRUDEAU: Okay. And I’m sorry, Michel.

QUESTION: How will this case affect the process of resettling Syrian refugees in the U.S.?

MS TRUDEAU: Okay. I’m sorry, so you’re asking about this case and then – so these – this is – the U.S. has made very clear its position on the resettlement of Syrian refugees, that we would take at least 10,000 this year. And I believe the Secretary’s spoken about this, U.S. leaders have spoken about this. I mean we maintain that commitment.

QUESTION: There won’t be any effect on --

MS TRUDEAU: I don’t see a correlation.

QUESTION: Is it because they are two specific, distinct programs?

MS TRUDEAU: So the refugee program versus the fiance(e) visa are very, very different.


QUESTION: But same process, interviewing --

MS TRUDEAU: Well, so the refugee program is actually – it’s a level of screening that takes place through UNHCR. We’ve spoken about it from this podium many times – 18-24-month process. Though there are similarities in face-to-face interviews and the screening and the counterterrorism and the background check, very dramatically different programs.

QUESTION: How long does it take, average, to get a K-1 visa?

MS TRUDEAU: From petition to interview, it varies case to case, it varies on paperwork. Let me get that exact answer for you, Matt.

QUESTION: Well, is it much shorter than 12-18 months?

MS TRUDEAU: It can be, yes.

QUESTION: Yes, it can be pretty – it can be pretty good, right?

MS TRUDEAU: It can also – because each case --

QUESTION: So who determines – who – is it Congress that determines that?

MS TRUDEAU: The amount of issuance --

QUESTION: The process, the process for the K-1.

MS TRUDEAU: So the process for K-1 is actually – it’s codified right now under our procedures in how we issue visas. In terms of the legal authority on that, I’ll have to check that.

QUESTION: Well, has anyone ever given any thought to making the process for a K-1 visa or other types of visas similar to that for the refugee screening process?

MS TRUDEAU: So all of our visa screening process go through multiple layers of security, including fingerprints, face-to-face interviews, the full assortment of background screenings. So I would stand behind the validity on that.

QUESTION: So a fiance(e) – a prospective fiance(e), though, goes through, on average, far less screening and background check than would a – than a refugee – a prospective refugee?

MS TRUDEAU: I wouldn’t characterize it as far less because it’s a very different process. So a fiance(e) visa is – it’s – so it’s a type of visa that is – it’s a visa that allows someone to go to the United States with the intention of immigration. So it follows the standard process line for our visa process.

QUESTION: Right, but --

MS TRUDEAU: A refugee screening is very different.

QUESTION: But a refugee coming to the United States to be resettled --

MS TRUDEAU: Yeah, it is --

QUESTION: -- has the same --

MS TRUDEAU: It is, but they’re a different process, so UNHCR as well as our partners overseas, and then it enters the U.S. system. We have the counterterrorism screening, we’ve got the in-person interviews, we’ve got the – PDAS Henshaw.

QUESTION: All right, but just simply because the time is so much less or can be so much less, it seems as though -- that a K-1 visa applicant would – it goes through far less --

MS TRUDEAU: Well, I think that the --

QUESTION: -- of a background check.

MS TRUDEAU: -- any visa applicant would go through the same sort of screening in terms of fingerprints, face-to-face interview, database screening.

QUESTION: Well, then why does it take so long with a refugee?

MS TRUDEAU: I think you’re looking at a very different process, I think you’re looking at very different players on that. And again, for individual visa cases, it’s hard to make sort of broad statements because they depend on the individual visa situations. So it depends on scheduling the interview, it depends on the background checks.

QUESTION: Yeah, but that’s not a difference between, say, a couple of weeks and 18 months.

MS TRUDEAU: Well, I – let me get you the exact --

QUESTION: All right.

MS TRUDEAU: -- data on that. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: On Syria --


QUESTION: -- is --

MS TRUDEAU: Are we done with this? Because I don’t --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) process points.

QUESTION: No, I have a question.

MS TRUDEAU: Sure, hold on one sec.


QUESTION: Thank you. Are you satisfied that Malik’s application process followed the proper protocol?


QUESTION: How can you say that with such assurance?

MS TRUDEAU: Because we stand behind our screening process for visas. What I will say is that the State Department remains committed to the security of the homeland. We – our process we continue to revise. We continue to look at this. But these are process that happens around the world every day in our U.S. embassies. And while we won’t get ahead of this investigation, the process that visa applicants go through continues to be improved. It was improved after 9/11 – something that we look at every day. But at this stage, we stand behind those process.

QUESTION: So just to put a fine point on it, can you say with absolute confidence that no one dropped the ball in this case?

MS TRUDEAU: At this stage I have no information that indicates that.

QUESTION: Why should Americans have confidence – or to ask it a different way, should Americans, can Americans have confidence in this visa processing system?

MS TRUDEAU: Yes, I believe they can. And I would say this for a lot of different reasons. One, it’s an adaptable system. This is something that the State Department and our interagency partners continue to look at how we can improve this. We improved it, as I said, after 9/11. We continue to improve it. We’re working closer with the interagency community on this. We have shared databases, shared fingerprints. And also there’s the requirement of the face-to-face interview, which, in cases like this for the fiance(e) visa, it’s very important to establish that sort of relationship that would then trigger a fiance(e) visa moving in.

QUESTION: And I understand your argument it’s been improved over time, but the reality is, based on our reporting today, Tashfeen Malik pledged allegiance to ISIS. So how can you say with absolute confidence that someone didn’t miss something in this case?

MS TRUDEAU: Okay. Well, why I can’t – I can’t get ahead of this investigation. I’d say there’s a lot of information out there. So on details of this investigation, I’m going to refer you to the FBI on that. But I would say that the improvements and the continual improvements that we look forward to making as our systems adapt – that the State Department maintains that our primary responsibility in this is to protect the homeland.

QUESTION: I want to follow up on --


QUESTION: -- what Matt was asking to some extent. Is this visa process as rigorous as other immigrant visas?


QUESTION: Just as rigorous?


QUESTION: And what makes it so? What is it --

MS TRUDEAU: So as I said --

QUESTION: The background checks, the fingerprints, the --

MS TRUDEAU: So this is a multistage process. You’re looking at fingerprints. You’re looking at face-to-face interviews. You’re looking at screenings. You’re looking at a multistage process that actually starts in the United States with the petitioner from the U.S. citizen fiance(e), so yes.

QUESTION: Does something need to change, given that this has happened?

MS TRUDEAU: I would say that we always need to adapt. We can always do better, and that’s something the State Department stands behind. We did it after 9/11; we’ll continue to do it now.

QUESTION: And are those conversations ongoing right now?

MS TRUDEAU: The conversations happened last week. They’ll happen next week. They happen all the time.

QUESTION: Can I just ask one more thing?

MS TRUDEAU: Of course, Matt.

QUESTION: The security background check – is that done by consular officers or is that done by DHS officers?

MS TRUDEAU: So it’s actually – it’s --

QUESTION: Who gives – who stamps --

MS TRUDEAU: It’s an interagency process.

QUESTION: Right, but who does the interview for (inaudible)?

MS TRUDEAU: It’s a consular officer.

QUESTION: Okay. So it’s not DHS.

MS TRUDEAU: So for the petition in the United States, that’s approved by DHS, and then it goes overseas, and it’s a consular officer at a U.S. embassy overseas who does the interview.

QUESTION: So in a hypothetical case of a Pakistani American applying for a K-1 visa for his Pakistani fiance(e), the – only the – and I think this goes to what Dave was asking before – only the Pakistani American in the United States who’s applying for the visa has – goes through DHS?

MS TRUDEAU: Well, that said, when someone applies for a visa, there’s interagency background checks and information sharing that goes on there. So there’s several layers of vetting that -- I can’t get into details in terms of the type or the scope of the vetting, but I will say that it’s interagency, and that is the individual who applies for the visa.

QUESTION: Well, after – post 9/11 when DHS was created, they sent agents out to all the embassies to participate in the whole visa issuance process.

MS TRUDEAU: They’re at many of our embassies overseas.

QUESTION: Right. Are – they are in Islamabad, I presume, yes?

MS TRUDEAU: I can’t answer that. I don’t know.

QUESTION: Oh. Okay. So you don’t know, then, if she would have or if a petitioner in Islamabad – the person wanting to get the K-1 visa – would have actually been interviewed by Homeland Security?

MS TRUDEAU: Would have been interviewed by a consular officer.

QUESTION: By a State Department official?


QUESTION: Thank you.

MS TRUDEAU: I’m sorry, Dave. I know you had a question.

QUESTION: That’s okay, but – it’s partially answered by that, but the spouse who petitions here, does he have to fly out to Islamabad to take part in the process --


QUESTION: -- there? So he just – he may never have been to Pakistan or a hypothetical country.

MS TRUDEAU: Speaking of that, the petitioner petitions in the United States. The interview takes place for the fiance(e) overseas.

QUESTION: Right, but he doesn’t need to attend that?




QUESTION: Just to be perfectly clear, there’s no plans to review this K-1 visa process right now?

MS TRUDEAU: What I would say is we always review. We always look for opportunities to improve our process. I’m not going to get ahead of any – of any process.

QUESTION: This isn’t hypothetical. Specifically, in this case, there’s no plan to review the process?

MS TRUDEAU: I’m aware of no plans right now specifically to take a look at that other than our ongoing, always constant assessment on how we can do better.

QUESTION: Does the State Department consider this shooting an act of terrorism?

MS TRUDEAU: I believe Josh Earnest actually just spoke to this at the White House today, and I believe the FBI is going to speak to this later.

QUESTION: You just said that the State Department – that you always look for opportunities to review the process. Is this --

MS TRUDEAU: We always – we always review the process. This would be an opportunity where we could take a look at that. I’m not aware of specific plans that were triggered by this incident --

QUESTION: Well, it seems like --

MS TRUDEAU: -- but I will say that we always are reviewing our process and taking a look at how we can do better.

QUESTION: Yeah. I’m a little surprised at the word “opportunity.” It seems a bit – anyway.

MS TRUDEAU: Perhaps that was a misstatement.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) can we --

MS TRUDEAU: One second. I’ve got one more, and then I’ll come to you, Michel.

QUESTION: One more question.


QUESTION: If you were a foreigner who wanted to immigrate to the United States, would you have a better chance of being approved under a K-1 visa application process?

MS TRUDEAU: As opposed to what? I – every visa applicant is different --

QUESTION: As opposed to the other immigrant application processes.

MS TRUDEAU: Every – it’s absolutely impossible to characterize sort of visa broad brush, because every visa applicant is measured on his or her own merits. Okay.


QUESTION: Yeah. Secretary Kerry has said today that it might be possible for the Syrian Government and rebel forces to cooperate against the Islamic State without Syrian President Bashar al-Assad having first left power. Have you changed your stance regarding the future of President Assad? And do you see that there is a possibility for cooperation between the regime and the opposition now?

MS TRUDEAU: So nothing has changed about our view that Assad --

QUESTION: And what about the statement that the Secretary made?

MS TRUDEAU: -- that Assad cannot be part of Syria’s future. The Secretary was conveying the view that we don’t know, as he has said before, how the transition process will evolve and to what degree Assad’s presence in the near term can be reconciled with the opposition’s view, as well as our view, that he cannot stay in power, and that we cannot expect the opposition to stay committed to either the political process or the anti-ISIL fight if they aren’t assured that Assad will go as the political transition process moves along. I’d look at the Secretary’s full remarks.

QUESTION: And you – do you think that the Secretary has misspoken when he said --

MS TRUDEAU: No, absolutely not. As I’ve said, the Secretary has been clear. He’s been very clear on this. Assad must go. Our position hasn’t changed. What that timeline looks like is under the debate, the consideration right now.

QUESTION: But when he said that there is a possibility for a cooperation between the regime and the rebel forces --

MS TRUDEAU: So we don’t know how the transition process will evolve, but we’ve been very clear Assad must go.

QUESTION: I just wanted --

MS TRUDEAU: I’m sorry, are we staying on Syria?



QUESTION: Another topic.

MS TRUDEAU: Wait, let’s go to Syria, and then we’ll come over to you.

QUESTION: Okay. Carter earlier this week mentioned that Turkey could do more in the fight against ISIS and he mentioned they’re not hitting IS targets. Do you agree they can do more? Have you asked them to do more? If so, how and why or – have they responded?

MS TRUDEAU: So we’ve been – we’ve been very clear Turkey is an important partner in the fight against ISIS. We’re doing – as we’re doing with all of our partners, we continue to talk with Turkey about what we could all do within the counter-ISIL coalition and how we can better cooperate. President Obama spoke to President Erdogan in Antalya about this and again in Paris on December 1st. We continue to work with Turkey to take a look at evaluating our options. This coalition is made of individual nations. Individual nations are contributing what they can, and we have welcomed Turkey’s involvement in this fight as we go.

QUESTION: Have you asked them, “Hey guys, start hitting IS targets”?

MS TRUDEAU: What we have said to Turkey is that we have welcomed their cooperation. Turkey is a valuable partner in this fight. Do we all need to do more? Yes.


QUESTION: The Secretary met with Lavrov yesterday, right? Did you issue a readout about this meeting?

MS TRUDEAU: I don’t have details on that meeting. I’ll see if I can get something for you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Prime Minister of Iraq Haider al-Abadi has said that American or Western troops in Iraq, boots on the ground, would be seen as a hostile act. Do you have any reaction to that remark?

MS TRUDEAU: So what we would say is that all U.S. and coalition military enhancements to support Iraq in the fight against ISIL will be at the invitation of and in close cooperation with Iraq. We fully agree with Prime Minister Abadi that all U.S. efforts will be in coordination with them.

QUESTION: So if they don’t agree, you would not send troops to – or increased --

MS TRUDEAU: It would be at the invitation and in full coordination with Iraq.

QUESTION: Even to the Kurdistan region if they demand more U.S. troops?

MS TRUDEAU: It would be in – the invitation and in full coordination.

QUESTION: But he said he – he hasn’t requested any deployment of foreign soldiers.

MS TRUDEAU: Well, we have been in close coordination with them. This is an ongoing conversation and we’re going to continue to work closely with Iraq in taking the fight to ISIL.

QUESTION: Can I change the subject?

MS TRUDEAU: Of course.

QUESTION: To another hemisphere, actually.


QUESTION: Actually, our own hemisphere.

MS TRUDEAU: Venezuela.

QUESTION: Yeah, but the southern – well, actually, it’s not the southern hemisphere, is it? Anyway, yeah, Venezuela.

MS TRUDEAU: It’s Friday. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yeah. Well, it could be. It’s close. Anyway, yeah. Do you have any thoughts ahead of the election on Sunday?

MS TRUDEAU: Yeah, thanks for that question. All Venezuelans deserve to have full confidence in the important elections on December 6th and their outcome. The U.S. Government supports free and transparent elections so the will of the Venezuelan people is reflected in the final results. It is up to the people of Venezuela to elect their parliamentary representatives.

We support of – the right of people to vote and to have their vote respected. We call on the National Electoral Council to ensure that election day is conducted in a manner to encourage full participation by the people of Venezuela.

QUESTION: Do you have any reason to believe that the election will not be free and transparent?

MS TRUDEAU: At this stage I’m not going to get ahead of this. These are – elections are on Sunday. What I’d say is we are very closely watching how the election results will come.

QUESTION: There’s been some criticism of the fact that they have not allowed observers from the OAS in. Do you share those concerns?

MS TRUDEAU: I think we’ve spoken about that. The people of Venezuela deserve free and fair elections.

QUESTION: Okay, I missed it when you spoke about it. Could you enlighten me?

MS TRUDEAU: Yeah, I think – I think what we said is – is that free, fair, and democratic, transparent elections are often facilitated through observers. We note that decision by the Venezuelans.

QUESTION: Well, are you satisfied with the observers who will be there? Do you think that they can do a good job? There are several --

MS TRUDEAU: I’m not – I’m not going to get ahead of that. I can’t – I can’t --

QUESTION: Well, I’m not asking you to get ahead of anything. I’m asking you if you think the observers who are there now and are going to be observing the election, if you think that they’re – that they’re enough to --

MS TRUDEAU: Well, the election’s Sunday --

QUESTION: -- to do a credible job.

MS TRUDEAU: -- and what we’ll be doing is we’ll be – we’ll be watching.

One in the back. I’ve got one more and then – and then we’ll do that. Sure.


MS TRUDEAU: Of course.

QUESTION: It’s been announced that the U.S. and Japan agreed that they’re hastening the return of some land in Okinawa.


QUESTION: Was this decision spurred by an attempt to try to placate some of the opposition to the Futenma relocation facility?

MS TRUDEAU: Okay, well, let’s back up and I can actually speak sort of to the early land returns. They were announced jointly by the governments of the United States and Japan on December 4th in Tokyo. We believe that these early returns are a tangible demonstration of the cooperative relationship that characterizes the U.S.-Japan relationship. The returns build on the 2013 Okinawa Consolidation Plan and other bilateral agreements which will help to reduce the impact of our military presence while ensuring our capability to fulfill our security treaty commitments.

And Matt, I think that’s it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Is there --

MS TRUDEAU: Thank you, sir.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:28 p.m.)

DPB #201