Background Briefing on the Report Required To Rescind Cuba's State Sponsor of Terrorism Status

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
Via Teleconference
April 14, 2015


MODERATOR: Thank you, Tony, and thank you to all of the participants who have called in today. This is a background call on Cuba. I think you all have seen the statements that have come out just recently from the White House and from the State Department. This call will be on background, so no names or titles, please. But just for your information, we have with us three speakers. They are [names and titles withheld]. Henceforth they will be senior Administration officials one, two, and three. We also have two colleagues from [titles withheld] to respond to questions, but they won’t be making introductory presentations.

So with that, we will also be taking questions at the end. We’ll try to get to as many as we can. And without further ado, let me pass it over to our first speaker.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay, very well. Thank you very much. I’m going to be very brief here because you’ll have seen the announcements and so forth and have seen some of the background. So just to recap very quickly, as part of his December 17th announcement on policy changes towards Cuba, President Obama asked the Department of State to undertake a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Cuba was first designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1982, and this review was sought by the President in connection with and of updating the information that we had about Cuba and our overall relationship with Cuba.

And after a careful review of Cuba’s record, which was informed by the intelligence community as well as insurance – excuse me – assurances provided by the Cuban Government, the Secretary of State concluded that Cuba met the conditions for rescinding its designation as a state sponsor of terrorism and forwarded that recommendation – the Secretary of State forwarded that recommendation to the President last week and recommended he submit to Congress the statutorily required report and certification. Today, this afternoon, the President submitted to Congress that required report and certification indicating the Administration’s intent to rescind Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

To recap and to provide a little context, a country remains a state sponsor of terrorism until its designation is rescinded in accordance with criteria that are established by statute. In Cuba’s case, the – those criteria require the President to submit a report to Congress at least at a minimum of 45 days before the proposed rescission would take effect, justifying it and certifying, number one, that the Government of Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period and, number two, that the Government of Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.

As President Obama noted recently in a separate media interview and in comments subsequently to that, we’re going to continue to have differences with Cuba, including some profound differences on issues that are important in terms of values of U.S. support for democracy and human rights. However, those differences are not necessarily going to be a factor in whether or not Cuba is a designee as a state sponsor of terrorism. Whether they engage in repressive or authoritarian activities in their own country, whether they have relationships with countries that are adversaries of the United States are not necessarily a factor in making this determination. This determination was based on the facts and the statutory criteria.

So with that, I’m going to turn to speaker number two.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you very much. Let me just say that Secretary Kerry has also put out a statement today, and my colleague and I and many of us in the State Department were part of the process that we undertook at the President’s direction when he asked the Secretary of State to undertake the review of Cuba’s listing on the state sponsor of terrorism list. We did so well within the period of time that the President gave to us, as we said we would. But that process was extremely rigorous. Many people asked why it was taking so long, and I think that we can attest to the fact that that is because it was done with every caution and every care to ensure that we looked at as much information as possible and that we took everything into account.

But we also reflect the fact in the report that went to the White House that the world has changed and it has changed in particular in Latin America, as the Secretary said today, when Cuba was originally designated because of its efforts to promote revolution around the Hemisphere, and those things have changed. And now we felt that it was time to make this recommendation based on the particular criteria of the law and the assurances that we have gotten from the Cuban Government.

We did so, as I say, with a lot of care and thought behind it, and my colleague will go into the process on that, but we felt very confident that in the end of that process, the recommendation that went forward to the Secretary, and then from the Secretary to the President, was one that reflected the facts and all of the care and investigation and coordination that we could do within the State Department and our colleagues throughout the U.S. Government.

Let me turn it over to number three.

MODERATOR: All right. Yes, we’ll go to our third speaker now. Please go ahead.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Okay. I don’t have much to add to what my two colleagues have already put forward. I just would echo some of the comments made by [Senior Administration Official Two] to underscore the care and the rigor that went into the review, which was done both with respect to the statutory requirements as well as, of course, the available information that we had, and all of the other relevant care and concern that [Senior Administration Official Two] mentioned already. And I think, again, if there are further questions that anyone has with regard to any of that, we can certainly try to answer them.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you to our speakers. Operator, if you could remind participants now how they get in the queue if they have questions they would like to answer?

OPERATOR: Thank you, [Moderator]. And ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to ask a question, please press * and then 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating that you have been placed in queue, and you may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing the # key. Once again, for your questions, you may queue up by pressing *1.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you. I think we’re ready to go to the first question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you, [Moderator]. That will come from Matthew Lee with the Associated Press. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks a lot. I just have two brief ones. What kind of assurances did the Cubans provide about not sponsoring anything in the future? I recall when Libya came off the list, there was a big public declaration that the Qadhafi regime made on the state television and radio, and pretty much the same with the North Koreans when they came off in 2008. So what – because maybe I’ve missed it, but I haven’t seen anything from the Cubans on this.

And then secondly, your colleague Ben Rhodes tweeted that, put simply, Cuba’s coming off of – President Obama’s moving to take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism because it isn’t a state sponsor of terrorism. A lot of people make the argument that they haven’t been a state sponsor of terrorism for years, let alone not just the last six months. So when could you have actually made this determination? When did Cuba really stop becoming a state sponsor of terrorism? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Let me talk about the first one, which is just to say, Matt, that we did get assurances from the Cuban Government. [Senior Administration Official Three] can go into the language in particular, but the Cubans have for a long time shown us many, many, many speeches by their leaders, both Fidel and Raul, in which they have rejected terrorism; many instances, in fact, of terrorist acts that they have decried publicly, I think the latest probably being the Charlie Hebdo incident in France. But certainly, there are lots of incidents that they can point to. And in terms of commitments for the future, they point to both statements by their leadership and ratifications of international treaties, and the assurances that they gave us.

In terms of when could we have taken them off the list, that’s a hypothetical that we just don’t answer. We did this review now and we are taking them off the list now.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Yeah, I would add just a couple of things to what was just said. I think in the first instance, the assurances they provide were fairly wide-ranging and fairly high-level. So without getting into the nitty-gritty specifics of all of it, they addressed the key elements that we know in the past have been a factor. And as my colleague indicated, they also addressed the pledge or the assurances that they will no longer support acts of terrorism in the future, and that’s also an important component of this evaluation. So those are the two points I would highlight there.

With respect to – I just want to make one thing clear. There is no periodic review of state sponsors of terrorism. It’s not something we undertake on a regularized basis. That’s true of all of the countries that are listed on the state sponsors of terrorism list. We undertook this particular review at the request of the President, and that is why at this moment the review has been successfully completed.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We’re ready to move on to the next question, Operator.

OPERATOR: Thank you. That’ll come from Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Two questions. One, to follow up on Matt’s question, having just completed this exhaustive review, when was the last instance of terrorism that the Government of Cuba or the state of Cuba sponsored? Secondly, what are the implications of removal once the 45-day period ends from the state sponsors of terrorism list? I believe there are four, but I want to make sure. One is that being on the list entails a ban on armed-related – on arms exports and sales, two are controls on dual-use items, three are prohibitions on economic assistance including just direct assistance, and then four are other financial restrictions, including requiring the United States to oppose loans in the World Bank and other international financial institutions.

Am I missing anything? Are there any other significant restrictions that are now going to be dropped on Cuba once the 45-day period expires and they’ve actually been dropped? And I’m very keen to know the answer to the first question of when was the last instance of terrorism that the Cuban state sponsored.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Well, again, just to address this, I don’t – the evaluation of whether a state sponsors terrorism is not based simply on an act of terrorism; it is sustained support for international terrorism. So it’s a different quantity than what I think you’re referring to. So I wouldn’t characterize anything specific to the question that you asked.

But on the second set of questions that you asked with respect to the various statutes that govern the international terrorism specific designations, there are three laws actually that we have to look at with respect to acts of international terrorism and the designation process. I won’t go into the specific laws. If we need that, we can certainly provide that. But – and they do have some of the implications that you mentioned previously.

But I would also – and [Senior Administration Official Two] and [Senior Administration Official Four] may be able to speak to this more – note that they are not, by any means, the only sanctions that are levied against Cuba. So no matter what those specific elements are, there are other things that will have to be taken into account.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you. I’m sorry. Did someone else want to address that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL FOUR: Sure. This is [Senior Administration Official Four]. I can just add that – just to confirm that when – if Cuba is removed from the State Department state sponsor of terrorism list, as it impacts the sanctions on Cuba, Cuba would be removed from our terrorism list government sanctions regulations. But notwithstanding the removal of Cuba from those set of regulations, most transactions involving Cuba or Cuban nationals, including transactions with the Government of Cuba, will continue to be prohibited by OFAC regulations under the Cuban asset control regulations.

MODERATOR: All right. Okay, Operator. I think we’re ready for the next (inaudible).

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Silvia Ayuso El Pais. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Two quick questions. Could – is there any action Congress could do to stop the – President Obama’s decision? And did President Obama get any extra assurance when he met with President Castro in Panama? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: I can address the question of Congress. The statutes that we’re talking about provide that no rescission can be made if within 45 days after the receipt of the report from the President the Congress enacts a joint resolution on the issue prohibiting the rescission. The President, of course, can veto any such joint resolution and Congress then, of course, can further act to override the veto. So it’s the normal sort of process that we see. So on the specifics, yes, Congress has the right to act.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So on the second question, let me take that. This review was undertaken by the Department of State, so it would have been addressed in Department of State channels with Cuban counterparts, in addition to any internal review that was undertaken through the U.S. interagency. So that was done separately from any interaction the President may have had with President Castro.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you. I think we’re ready for the next (inaudible) please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. That’ll come from Jo Biddle with AFP. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello. Yes, a couple questions, please. How and when was this decision communicated to the Cuban authorities? I believe you must have obviously told them about it. Was it the weekend in Panama? Who did it? And how does this now affect the process of going forward with trying to reestablish diplomatic ties? Have you decided on next round of talks and where that might be? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I think I’ll take this one if I could. I don’t know where that echo is coming from either.

The conveyance of this particular data on this moving forward has been conveyed to the Cuban Government. I’ll leave it at that. I don’t think that it really is incredibly important exactly how, but it was not a surprise to them, I don’t think, that it was moving ahead. But because this has not – because it had not been done in terms of sent to the Congress, I don’t think that it would have been appropriate for the President to have conveyed it formally in Panama.

The other thing is that in terms of the diplomatic discussion, we have always said that the two issues were separate, the state sponsor of terror issue and the diplomatic relations. We continue to have the conversations on diplomatic relations. And as the President said, there are a number of issues we’re still working out, and we expect those to continue to be resolved and to move ahead. We don’t have a fixed date or a time for a next conversation or a response or – on those issues. But we hope that will be very soon.

MODERATOR: All right. Ready for the next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Serena Marshall with ABC News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this call. I just wanted to go back to the transactions element. So once the 45 days is up and they are officially removed, will, for example, the banking situation at the interests section here in Washington, D.C. for the Cubans be resolved, or are they still considered to have those sanctions in place that restrict them from using credit?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, if I could just start the answer to that one, while it’s made it – clearly this – the amount or level of sanctions on Cuba have made it difficult for them to find a bank in the United States, it is not the designation of a state sponsor of terrorism alone that has made that difficult for them. Many foreign governments have found it difficult to find banks in the United States in past years, and we had begun working with Cuba on this over a year ago, well before the President’s announcement came out. And we believe that the Cubans have found a bank and that they are very close to resolving that ahead of the resolution of this issue.

So again, I really don’t know that the two things are directly linked, but surely it is easier for a country with fewer sanctions on it to find financial institutions willing to do business with it. But as I think [Senior Administration Official Four] just outlined, many financial transactions are still going to be prohibited under other regulations that Treasury has and other law. So I don’t – this obviously, if the 45 days passes and they are taken off the list – that is the intention of the Executive Branch – we’ll remove one set of sanctions and will certainly be of assistance to the Cuban Government in financial dealings, but we are optimistic that they will have the banking issue resolved independent of this process.

MODERATOR: All right.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL FOUR: This is [Senior Administration Official Four]. I just want to express agreement. The two issues – state sponsor of terrorism designation removal and the OFAC financial sanctions – are two separate issues. But OFAC has taken steps to ease the situation and facilitate banking and banking for the Cuban Interests Section here in the United States.

MODERATOR: All right. We’re ready for the next question. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Karen DeYoung with The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. I just wanted to – this goes back a bit to the previous question, and to ask you whether the Cubans have indicated to you in any way that they would be willing for their part to move forward on the embassy issue before the 45 days have elapsed, that it is enough for the President to have done this. And I realize that on your side that requires some progress on resolving the issues of our diplomatic activity and access to an embassy in Cuba, and I wondered if you could tell us if there has been any progress on that or if you feel that you’re close to making some progress in any way that would actually allow embassies to go forward in the next 45 days.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I think that the conversations in Panama, Karen, were really pretty productive, and I think that especially having presidents talk to each other directly is always a very good thing. So I don’t have any reason – I don’t have any different information today necessarily than I had Saturday when we left Panama. It’s only been a couple of days. But I’m pretty optimistic that things will move ahead on the diplomatic front as well. But I really think that’s as much up to the Cubans as anybody. And we see great value, obviously, in having this relationship normalized. We think that’s what the President decided at the start of this process. But we need the embassy to function the way embassies function around the world. So we’re going to continue to pursue those requirements, and I think that it was a good conversation as to why that’s to the benefit of both of us.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Elise Labott with CNN. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Just one quick follow on the – on what one of the Administration officials said on that there’s no periodic review of taking countries off the state sponsor of terrorism list. So if there is no periodic review, how does a listing of a country not be political if it’s not until the President asks for a review of that? I mean, it’s possible that countries are not conducting terrorist incidences for the – events for the following six months, but unless an administration make a political decision to ask for it, how do they get off? And how does that fit into the charges that this list, in many ways, especially with Cuba, has been political?

And then also, [Senior Administration Official Two], if you could follow up, if you could put a little more meat on the bones of – you said that you still have some differences with Cuba that are hurdles to maintaining normal relations. If you could – if you could flesh that out a little bit, that’d be great. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: So let me be a little bit clearer about that. The – what I said was and what I should have specified is there – unlike with certain kinds of sanctions, for example with respect to foreign terrorist organization designations, we are required by law to periodically, at a certain time interval, review that designation and ensure that the individual or entity still meets the criteria.

That is not the case with respect to the designation of a state sponsor of terrorism. That said, we’re completely cognizant of the fact that the circumstances change over time, and we do undertake reviews from time to time as we are called upon to do it or as we feel there is a rationale for so doing.

In this instance, it’s not required that the President initiate that review – there may be other reasons or other specified instances or circumstances that call on us to do it – but in this instance we were specifically asked by the President to undertake it in light of, again, the evolving situation with Cuba. And that’s why we undertook the process now.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Elise, I think that we’ve been pretty clear from the beginning the kinds of things that we need to have to run an embassy – well, either to run an embassy as we run embassies in other countries with normal relationships, even ones where we have to overcome some history, or, frankly, to open an embassy and probably have some more people in it, some more agencies potentially, that hasn’t been adequately, I would say, stocked and staffed in quite a few years. And that’s really what we’re trying to get at here. We’re trying to get at the issue of the mobility around the country to be able to see the conditions and talk to lots of people. We’re trying to get at the issue of obsolete equipment and facilities. We’re trying to get at the issue of staffing levels. And we’ve made it – a good bit of progress, but we have to have an embassy that functions the way – it may not function the way our embassy functions in London, but it’s got to be able to function at least at a level the way some of our embassies do in other countries around the world.

And so we’re still not quite there yet, and so we’re going to keep working at those things and I – I’m optimistic, especially, as I say, after the conversations with the President. But I think it’s up to our Cuban counterparts. These are ultimately decisions that have to be made by mutual consent. That’s fundamentally what these diplomatic relations are about. We each have to agree to the way we’re going to operate in each other’s countries.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you. We’re running a little bit low on time, so we’ll try to get to as many more as we can. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. That’s from Felicia Schwartz with The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks so much for doing this. One, just to be sure, does anything go into effect before the 45-day review process is up? And then, what – without going too far into the weeds, are there some immediate changes we can expect to see then in terms of what kind of transactions that businesses can conduct? And then also on the sort of diplomatic note, when might we – could we expect to see a trip by Secretary Kerry, like this year, in the next few months? And then what’s next in terms of the State Department once the terror designation gets lifted formally and the embassies get restored. Like what – is the State Department going to try to work with the Hill to get legislation on the books that will further the process along? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: With respect to just the very first part of your series of questions, no. Specific to the state sponsor of terrorism designation, nothing will happen before the end of the 45-day period. That period must elapse for the Secretary of State to be able to lift Cuba off – or to take Cuba off the list.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So I have to remember what some of the other questions were. They were when the Secretary might go to Cuba, I know. Secretary looks forward to going to Cuba to open embassies, and I think he’s hoping to do that as soon as we can get things ironed out. But he says, I think as a good Secretary of State of would, that he wants to get this right, not necessarily fast. So he’s willing to continue to have the conversations that he needs to have and that we need to have to make sure that we get it right.

I think we – the diplomatic part of this and setting up the embassies is one of the places in which you see, I suppose, the evidence of 50 years that we have to overcome, and maybe a little bit more confidence-building is necessary before we can each make sure that we have what we need to move forward, but we’ll get there.

MODERATOR: All right, thank you. I think we have time for one last question. It was a follow-up, if I’m not mistaken. Go ahead, Operator.

OPERATOR: Thank you. That will come from Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Can you please just tick off for us simply, one by one, what are the implications of Cuba ultimately being dropped from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List in terms of the specific sanctions that it is currently subjected to but will no longer be subjected to once it is off the list?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Okay. I mean, again, I can go through what we already went through with respect to the kinds of sanctions that are governed by the statutes on the state sponsor of terrorism designation. That said, I cannot give you the second part, which I think only [Senior Administration Officials] can, which is to say that the broad array of transaction that the Cubans or others may try to engage in are subject to other sanctions. So we can only speak – I can only speak to that first part. The first part of your question is, and we have spoken about this before, the four main categories of sanctions that result from the designation under the state sponsor of terrorism authorities include restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, a ban on defense exports and sales, certain controls over the exports of dual-use items, and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions. So those are the kinds of things that are governed by this one designation. That said, as [Senior Administration Officials] have already talked about, there is another set of sanctions that apply here. They can perhaps give you a little bit more on that part of it.

MODERATOR: We have a [Senior Administration Official] on the line.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL FOUR: Yes. I mean, there – just to agree, to the extent other statutes don’t – and there are many Cuba-specific statutes – don’t conflict, [Senior Administration Official Three] has accurately defined the types of restrictions that are lifted when a State Sponsor of Terrorism designation is lifted. But just to confirm, economic sanctions under Cuba’s – OFAC’s Cuban Assets Control Regulations will remain in effect and most transactions with Cuba and with Cuban nationals and the Government of Cuba will remain prohibited absent authorization from Treasury.

MODERATOR: All right. I’d like to thank our speakers and also our participants, those who have joined us for this call. Again, this call has been on background, attributable to senior Administration officials. And we appreciate everyone’s participation and wish you all the best. Thanks very much. Out here.