Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–January 27, 2015.
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Many people here despite the snow. It’s not too bad, I guess.
QUESTION: I don’t know. I’m kind of lonely here in the front row.
MS. PSAKI: You are? Everyone’s sort of crowded in the second and third row. Don’t take it personally, Matt. I’m sure other people will join you.
QUESTION: I am taking it personally. (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: Okay, a couple of items for you guys at the top. As you’ve noted from the White House’s announcement, the Secretary is on travel today in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with President Obama and other members of the U.S. delegation to offer condolences for the passing of King Abdullah. He’s, of course, participating in the bilateral program, and any readouts of that will certainly come from the White House.
Today, we also mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945 by the Soviet Army. As we face a global rise in anti-Semitism, it is more important than ever to remember these terrible death camps the Nazis created in order to wipe an entire race of people – men, women, and children – from the face of the Earth. They systematically swept up not only Jews, but millions of other innocents because of race, sexual orientation, disability, or political beliefs. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the United States joins many others in paying tribute to the millions of victims who lost their lives under the Nazi regime. We also honor those who survived but still carry its lasting scars and burdens. We owe it to these people to never forget what can happen when hatred is allowed to flourish unchecked.
With that, Matt.
QUESTION: Well, just very briefly on that, your – Auschwitz, you mentioned – you made a point of mentioning that it was liberated by the Soviet Army. I’m wondering if the Administration takes – has any thoughts on the fact that President Putin, who now is the leader of what succeeded the Soviet Union, was not invited to the commemoration. Do you have any thoughts on that at all?
MS. PSAKI: I think we’ve spoken to that in the past. I can certainly check in that. Obviously, Russia has been invited to many international events, and certainly we share commemoration of many of these events.
MS. PSAKI: But I think one thing I would note is that I believe if you’re referring to the Auschwitz commemoration, there was some confusion – I realize this was not what you were asking about – whether a government invite – issued the invitations. It wasn’t the Government of Poland; it was the foundation that issued invitations.
QUESTION: Okay. But you don’t have any particular thoughts about – okay.
On to something a little bit more current, at least in terms of happening this morning, and that is – there was an attack on the Corinthia Hotel in Libya, in Tripoli, this morning, in which a number of foreigners are reported to have died. There are at least a couple reports and one eyewitness account that I’m aware of – there may be more – that an American – private American citizen was among the foreigners who were killed in this attack. I realize you don’t have an – the embassy is not open right now there, and you may be limited in what you know, but do you have any information about this?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first say we condemn the terrorist attack on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli which was carried out earlier today. We send our condolences to the victims and their families. We remain firm in our commitment to supporting the UN efforts that are underway to help the Libyan people build an inclusive system of government. Violence will not resolve Libya’s problems, and this attack cannot be allowed to impede the critical work that is underway to find a political solution.
We are aware of the reports of a U.S. citizen being killed in the attack at the Corinthia Hotel. We’re closely tracking this incident, although we cannot confirm the report at this time.
QUESTION: Okay, do you – presumably, there – even though the embassy staff is not on site in Tripoli, they have contacts in Libya that they’re getting in touch with?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. We have a range of ways of acquiring information, including with companies and individuals who have staff and employees there too.
QUESTION: Okay. And you are in touch with all of them, trying to find out —
MS. PSAKI: We’re reaching out through all of our different avenues.
QUESTION: Can I follow up?
MS. PSAKI: Any more on Libya? But – go ahead, Said. Or, new topic?
QUESTION: Just the President —
MS. PSAKI: Your choice.
QUESTION: The President’s visit to —
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
QUESTION: — Saudi Arabia.
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
QUESTION: Abdullah – the King Abdullah, who just passed away, was described or touted as a reformer in many ways. There are conflicting reports, maybe you can set it straight, on the new king, King Salman. Is he going to be in the same mold, a reformer as his predecessor? Or do you expect him to improve? How do you see the issue of human rights moving forward?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there’s a couple questions in there. So let me see if I can address them. One, as I mentioned at the top, I would expect any readout or impressions of the meetings with the new king would come from my colleagues over at the White House, and I certainly expect they will do that at the conclusion of the trip.
As I mentioned last week when the king passed, we’ve had a long working relationship with Saudi Arabia, an important working relationship with Saudi Arabia. We expect that will continue; don’t expect that will change. Now there are a range of issues that we will continue to work on: fighting against ISIL, efforts to achieve a two-state solution in the Middle East. Those are some of the issues, as you know, that we work closely with Saudi Arabia on. It doesn’t mean that we don’t express concerns about issues like human rights when we have them. I believe my colleagues at the White House did a preview of the President’s trip and mentioned that they expect human rights, of course, will continue to be a part of our dialogue. They also referenced specifically to the meetings today that our efforts against ISIL, the situation in the region, including Yemen, around nuclear negotiations and the broader U.S. Saudi relationship would be central to the conversations while the President and the delegation are on the ground.
QUESTION: Oh, well, can I then – if we’re on Saudi for the moment, is there an answer to my question from yesterday about whether the United States regards beheading as a form of capital punishment to be a human rights abuse?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything new to offer. I don’t know if you had chance to look at the Human Rights Reports from the past. You said you may.
QUESTION: I will confess that I did not. Is there a section on beheading?
MS. PSAKI: There’s a lot going on in the world.
MS. PSAKI: I understand that.
QUESTION: Is there a —
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything new, Matt. If there’s more to offer —
MS. PSAKI: — we will get it to you first and everyone else as well.
QUESTION: Thank you. Is there – do you know if there is a section on beheading as a method of capital punishment?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any more specifics on it for you today.
QUESTION: On this very topic —
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
QUESTION: — because the Saudi foreign minister was absent, or seems to be absent, conspicuously absent from all these meetings. Is there anything wrong with his health as far as you know, or anything like that? Saud al-Faisal.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t. Obviously, I would refer you to the Government of Saudi Arabia. I would also emphasize, though —
QUESTION: He’s saying that Secretary Kerry —
MS. PSAKI: — let me finish – that Secretary Kerry, as you know, has a great working relationship with Foreign Minister Saud. They speak frequently, they meet frequently, and that will continue. I don’t have any more specifics on his schedule.
Any more on Saudi Arabia before we continue? Go ahead, Elliot.
QUESTION: Could we go to ISIS and the Japanese hostage situation?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: Have you seen the latest video that was posted, issuing a 24-hour ultimatum and also threatening the life of a Jordanian pilot?
MS. PSAKI: We’ve seen, of course, reports of the video. We would refer you to the Japanese Government and Jordanian Government for any more specifics. Obviously, we continue to coordinate closely with the Japanese Government, continue to call for the immediate release. The Secretary also spoke again yesterday with Foreign Minister Kishida. He again offered our condolences – which he’s already done, but again, it’s very difficult, as we all know – and conveyed our solidarity with the Japanese people.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. position on the issue of the prisoner swap still the same as —
MS. PSAKI: It’s been the same for some time and it’s the same as when we spoke about it yesterday.
QUESTION: Was that communicated by Secretary Kerry directly to —
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to get into our diplomatic exchanges, but our position is well known, and I think certainly the Government of Japan and others know our position.
QUESTION: On this point, the Turks exchanged prisoners, their diplomats for some ISIS prisoners, some time back. So there is precedent if Jordan does the same.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’d encourage you to ask Turkey about that question. I don’t speak on their behalf.
QUESTION: Yeah, I know. But I’m saying that – yeah, but Jordan is your ally, as Turkey was your ally. Would you counsel the Jordanians not to do a deal or to go ahead and pursue a deal, an exchange?
MS. PSAKI: Our position is well known. We don’t make concessions to terrorists. That’s a well-known position by countries around the world.
QUESTION: And the exchange —
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to get into diplomatic discussions beyond that, Said. That’s our position.
QUESTION: How about your —
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: How about your deal with Taliban last year?
MS. PSAKI: I spoke about this yesterday. I think one of your colleagues with the red scarf on over here, right to your left, asked this particular question.
QUESTION: I wasn’t here. Sorry.
MS. PSAKI: And I conveyed that that is – was a case where Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was a member of the United States military, he was a prisoner of war, and that is a different circumstance, as we’ve said in the past.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead, in the —
QUESTION: Kind of a related question: Do you have any precedent where the United States carried out a rescue mission for a foreign national who was a hostage of a terrorist organization?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there have certainly been cases where we have worked with other countries sometimes. I don’t have a history to outline for you here, but we offer our services. Oftentimes, unfortunately, there are hostages from different countries held together, and so there have been times where we have certainly contributed to the rescue operation of other hostages. But I don’t have any history to outline for you right here today.
QUESTION: I see. So as a general rule, if you have an actionable intelligence about the whereabouts of a foreign national – like this case, Japanese hostage – would you do a rescue mission?
MS. PSAKI: There are a range of factors that go into that decision making, and I think you can understand why we would never predict that in advance. I don’t have anything to speak to in this case, and I’d refer you to the Government of Japan.
QUESTION: Getting back to the Bergdahl comparison, I mean, doesn’t it strike you as a little bit hypocritical that – for the U.S. Government to say it’s all right for us to make concessions in order to get one of our guys back, but we discourage other governments from doing the same thing?
MS. PSAKI: I have just been conveying, I think, from the start of our exchange here what our position is as the United States Government. That’s our position. Do we have any more on Japan?
QUESTION: The position is that you’re not hypocritical, right?
MS. PSAKI: Our position is that he was a prisoner of war and a member of the United States military.
QUESTION: No, but the question is: Isn’t it a bit hypocritical? You would say no, it is not hypocritical, right?
MS. PSAKI: Correct, no, it is not. Go ahead, new – let’s finish this before we move on. Any more on this? Okay. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. Just on the rocket fire from Syria into the Golan Heights, do you have a comment?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. We’ve seen reports of this incident in the Golan Heights, and we do not want to see an escalation of the situation. We support Israel’s legitimate right to self-defense, and have been clear about our concerns over the regional instability caused by the crisis in Syria. We call upon all parties to avoid any action that would jeopardize the long-held ceasefire between Israel and Syria and abide by the 1974 disengagement of forces agreement. We don’t have any confirmation of it; that’s just our view.
QUESTION: Speaking of Israel and Syria, and also bringing in a third country, the —
MS. PSAKI: Okay. This sounds exciting.
QUESTION: Yes. The Iranian foreign ministry says that it has asked the United States through some diplomatic channel, one diplomatic channel or another, to convey to Israel that it is displeased by the fact that one of its generals was killed in what appears to have been an Israeli airstrike in Syria, and to convey to Israel that there will be some kind of retaliation. Is that correct?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I know you didn’t ask me this, but let me just reiterate that we did not confirm nor will we confirm any details of those reports of which you’re referring.
QUESTION: Right. Well —
MS. PSAKI: In terms of – I know you didn’t ask that.
QUESTION: In terms of the —
MS. PSAKI: I just needed to get that out first.
MS. PSAKI: We’re not going to comment specifically or confirm private diplomatic communications. I understand the Iranians have spoken or have commented to this. We’ve seen the reports. We absolutely condemn any such threats that come in any form, and we continue to strongly support Israel’s safety and security.
And while side issues – I know this wasn’t your question, but some others have asked this, so let me address it – while side issues in the news may be mentioned on the margins of the nuclear talks, as we’ve said before, the only issue that is being discussed within the talks concerns Iran’s nuclear program. So you can assume that was not a channel in this case.
QUESTION: So if such a threat was conveyed, it would not have been through – in either the Wendy Sherman meetings or the Secretary’s meetings with Foreign Minister Zarif?
MS. PSAKI: Correct.
QUESTION: You say, then – that seems to suggest that although you won’t confirm that such a communication was made by the Iranians, you’re not denying it either; is that —
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think I have any more to offer. I’ll let you do your own analysis.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: In the area —
MS. PSAKI: Any more on Iran just before we continue?
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead, Michael.
QUESTION: Go ahead.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: No, no. On Iran?
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, I was just going to ask about Senator Menendez’s letter. Do you consider this – I should outline it – he has sent a letter to the President saying that he will not support a vote on his own bill, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, until March 24th. Do you consider this a victory? This is what you sought.
MS. PSAKI: I would point you to the White House, broadly speaking, for a response, since it was a letter to the President. As you know, our position has been – and we’ve stated it many times – that new legislation, putting new sanctions in place, could be detrimental to the ability of the talks to continue, and could even be detrimental to the entire international sanctions regime. So our position on that is well known. Obviously, we have an ongoing dialogue with the Hill, with Senator Menendez, with members from both parties. So that will continue.
QUESTION: Well, recognizing that this is a letter to the White House, let’s just say for a fact that one of the sponsors of this legislation has made it public —
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
QUESTION: — that he will not push for a vote on it until March 24th, which is a week, in fact, before the – what you guys regard as the deadline for a framework agreement. My question is: Is that long enough a wait, or would you prefer to have – would you prefer not to see a vote on this legislation until after the deadline that has been set for a whole or full agreement, which would be the end of June?
MS. PSAKI: Well, broadly speaking, while the negotiations are ongoing and there’s room and an opportunity for the negotiators to make progress – and I appreciate the opportunity to add a little more on this – we would – we do not think sanctions – we think sanctions legislation could hurt that effort.
QUESTION: No matter when it happened?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not going to get ahead of what’s going to happen in March. You’re familiar with what our objectives are and what we’re aiming towards in March.
QUESTION: Right, I understand that. But as long – so as long as negotiations are underway, whether it is for a framework in the shorter term at the end of March or a final, full-on deal in the middle of the summer, you would oppose – you oppose sanctions legislation?
MS. PSAKI: Yes, but if I just play this back – I mean, I don’t like to get into hypotheticals, but I’m just going to do it this one time. If there’s a framework agreement, why would there be sanctions legislation put in place?
QUESTION: Well, I think the concern is from the Hill that there won’t be, that there won’t be a framework agreement. And I realize that that’s a hypothetical, but that there won’t be a framework agreement, that there’ll be another extension, and that you’ll still be opposed to the legislation all the way up until July, and maybe even after July if there’s another extension. So —
MS. PSAKI: Well —
QUESTION: So the concern is is that the Administration wants —
MS. PSAKI: There’s not an – but there’s not an extension required past March. We’ve been clear that there is – the timeline goes until July – the end of June.
MS. PSAKI: Obviously, we’ve been clear and stated very publicly what we want to achieve by the end of March.
QUESTION: So the – so you will – the Administration will oppose new sanctions legislation until the end of June?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’ll let the White House speak to this, and specifically the letter. But I think we’ve been clear – and this is not going to change – that as there’s been – as there are ongoing negotiations, there is no benefit – in fact, it is harmful to have legislation on sanctions.
QUESTION: Well, the concern has been expressed over and over and over again that the sanctions would give you added leverage in negotiations. What you’re saying now sounds like —
MS. PSAKI: And there’s a strong disagreement on that point.
QUESTION: Right, I understand that. Right, and that is – that is a contested pointed. But you seem to be saying that even after – should March – the end of March come around and there isn’t a deal, you’ll still oppose —
MS. PSAKI: We can discuss that at that point, Matt, but the March – end of March is when we want to achieve a political framework, as we’ve talked about in the past.
MS. PSAKI: But the JPOA allows for working on this until the end of June.
QUESTION: Right, and then – but then, as we’ve seen twice before, there could be another extension. So you’re – the Administration —
MS. PSAKI: There’s five months from now. I’m not predicting an extension.
QUESTION: I understand that – okay, but the Administration seems to be – and correct me if I’m wrong – putting out – making the case that there should never be any new sanctions legislation —
MS. PSAKI: That’s —
QUESTION: — as long as you think the Iranians are at the table.
MS. PSAKI: No, that’s not at all —
QUESTION: Well – okay.
MS. PSAKI: We’ve been clear, the President’s been clear, the Secretary’s been clear that if there’s – no deal’s better than a bad deal. They will lead the charge for sanctions legislation, but – and that is not a hard vote to take, but it is detrimental to the talks while they’re ongoing. Go ahead.
QUESTION: But – right, I understand that. But when will they – when will you decide that the point – that you’re going to lead the charge for new sanctions legislation? Because it sounds like you’re never going to be in a position to lead the charge.
MS. PSAKI: That’s inaccurate. We’re focused on leading to the end of March. We can keep talking about it then.
QUESTION: What do you think is the appropriate mechanism for Congress to express disapproval of a deal or a political framework agreement, should one be reached in March?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first I’d say, Michael, that the deputy assistant – deputy assistant secretary – deputy secretary of State is up on the Hill today testifying on Iran. We have a range of dialogue, conversations publicly, privately; briefings – they can pick up the phone. There are a number of ways that they can speak publicly, that their views can be expressed. I expect, as we continue, that will continue as well. They have not been held back in expressing their viewpoints.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) handled better – is that like a – it shows that the initiative was – sort of backfired, so to speak – the initiative of the Congress and the Israeli prime minister?
MS. PSAKI: I wouldn’t put it in those terms. It is not related to the prime minister’s trip, so I wouldn’t link the two.
QUESTION: Let me ask you a question about Kobani?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let’s finish Iran.
QUESTION: Let me ask Michael’s question —
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: — more bluntly: Are members of the U.S. Senate basically acting out of their lane, try to engage in foreign policy? Isn’t that the Executive Branch’s responsibility?
MS. PSAKI: We certainly wouldn’t at all put it in those terms. There’s a Senate Foreign Relations Committee the Secretary was chairman of before he became Secretary of State. There’s a very important role for Congress to play in foreign policy, in a range of areas and on a range of issues. And they’re an essential partner as we work to get legislation through, whether it’s for funding, whether it’s for policies, whether it’s for sanctions. But this is a case where there are negotiations that are happening with a negotiating team, and we need to give them the room and the space to get those negotiations done.
QUESTION: Well, would it not be appropriate to say that members of Congress, both in the House and in the Senate, are essentially interfering with this Administration’s ability to negotiate?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think we’ve made a secret, Roz, of our views on this, and so I’m going to leave it at the thousands of words that have been said on this by senior officials.
Any more on Iran before we continue? Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. The biggest challenge in Kobani seems to be over. The Kurdish officials from Iraq and from Kobani have declared victory there. But as you know, there are many more challenges that faces the rebels protecting the city. Of course, they have said it officially that they don’t have ammunition – enough ammunition and stuff. Also the civilians who want to go back to the city, when they want to rebuild the city – I’m wondering whether the United States is going to be a major player in terms of providing humanitarian and military assistance for the people and the rebels there to help alleviate the challenge that remain.
MS. PSAKI: Well, we have been, continue to be, have consistently been the largest provider of humanitarian assistance as it relates to the Syria conflict in the world, and that won’t change. And certainly, as there are humanitarian needs, whether it’s in Kobani and other places, I expect that we will contribute – continue to be major contributors.
This is – I know you’re looking ahead, but obviously the point we’re at now, so let me just reiterate this. As CENTCOM announced yesterday, anti-ISIL forces now control approximately 90 percent of the city of Kobani, and we congratulate its brave defenders. We’ll continue to support them as we look to the coming weeks ahead. This is an important step in the first phase of a long-term campaign to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL, because of the strategic value ISIL places on Kobani.
I think, broadly speaking, the fight – as CENTCOM also stated yesterday, the fight against ISIL is far from over, but we do feel that their failure in Kobani has denied them one of their strategic objectives. And over time, we’ve seen that they’ve not only used Kobani as a base for driving their own narrative of inevitability, but also they’ve put a lot of resources and people into Kobani as well.
QUESTION: I mean, there is no doubt that without the United States military support, the rebels would not have been able, probably, to do what they have done. But as you know, the United States has helped transfer weapons to those rebels. But should we expect that they would receive more ammunition? Because probably the United States is the only partner they can look up to now. Turkey is not going to do that; Syrian Government is not going to do that. Should we expect the United States to do that? Because ISIS could, at any moment, when the airstrikes are gone, come back and recapture the town and attack the town.
MS. PSAKI: As I mentioned, we will continue to support the effort. In terms of more specifics, I’d certainly point you to my colleagues at the Department of Defense.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Jen, can I just revisit Iran very quickly?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: In the State of the Union, the President said that obviously a quality, comprehensive nuclear accord will guarantee the safety of – the security of Israel. Obviously, the current Israeli Government, at least from what it’s seen, disagrees that the current deal under discussion —
MS. PSAKI: There is no current deal.
QUESTION: That what folks in the Israeli Government have seen is not inspiring confidence that such a —
MS. PSAKI: Do they disagree that the JPOA has halted and rolled back parts of the program, major parts? Because that’s just fact. I haven’t seen them say that.
QUESTION: That – I think that’s separate and apart from what they’ve seen.
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s very relevant, because that’s what’s happening now, in terms of that being implemented.
QUESTION: Right. But surely that is separate and apart from what they have seen from all of these unprecedented briefings that the Administration has given them of the current talks underway for a comprehensive —
MS. PSAKI: But we’re not talking about a final deal that’s in place or being briefed. That doesn’t exist yet.
QUESTION: Okay. Just – I’m talking about the components that the Israelis have seen, but regardless, given the fact that obviously the President values Israel’s national security interests, why is it inappropriate for the prime minister to have a venue here in the United States to express this?
MS. PSAKI: That’s not at all what we said.
MS. PSAKI: What we said was that it was unusual how —
MS. PSAKI: — the process went about last week. We said that we – as a policy, we’re not going to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu while he’s here because it’s two weeks before the election, as you know. But there’s also an ongoing dialogue with Israeli officials up and down the chain about everything from security to the Iran negotiations, and that’s continuing. He has come many times to speak to – and many prime ministers in the past have to speak to a joint session. So that is what that is. But go ahead.
QUESTION: Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. was saying how yes, there is an election in March; there is also this deadline in March, right. So obviously, these two things coincide, but not intentionally so. The prime minister’s obligation as prime minister – is what he says – is to speak up while there is time, when there is time to influence the process, and to be a part of the conversation that affects Israeli national security.
So with that in mind, given that he’s also prime minister and —
MS. PSAKI: Do you have a question, or just —
QUESTION: I do, I do.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Is it not appropriate for him to be speaking on this issue of such —
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think I or anyone else said it was inappropriate for the prime minister of Israel to talk about Iran —
QUESTION: Yeah, but since —
MS. PSAKI: — or speak publicly about Iran.
QUESTION: Can I —
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Just before we get – I have one on Syria. But just on this: Ambassador Dermer, with whom Secretary Kerry had a meeting last week in which he expressed – after which he expressed surprise that he was not told of the potential or impending visit by the prime minister – said in a speech on Sunday night that it was not the prime minister’s intention to embarrass or humiliate or somehow denigrate the President of the United States. Do you accept that explanation?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think anyone said we were embarrassed or humiliated, so I’m not sure why they used those terms.
QUESTION: They didn’t use those terms.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: Oh, sorry. What was the term he used?
QUESTION: Disrespect —
QUESTION: — to show – sorry – that the Ambassador said it is not the Prime Minister’s intention to show disrespect to the President of the United States on this trip. Do you accept that explanation?
MS. PSAKI: I think we’re not losing much more sleep about this particular issue. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: And then the other thing that the ambassador said was that – was also not the prime minister’s intention to somehow interfere in the American political process. Do you believe that?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think I have any more to add on this, Matt. We’ve discussed and debated this quite a bit.
QUESTION: And just one more, then. Do you believe that the invitation was given with a political motive in mind?
MS. PSAKI: I’ll let others evaluate that question.
QUESTION: Can I – I wanted to go back to Syria for one second.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: There was a report this morning – actually two – a couple reports – about the ineffectiveness or paucity of assistance going to the Syrian rebels. There were two reports. Maybe you could take one that said that the cash to rebel commanders has been – that the President has ordered a stop to that. Is that correct?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I can’t speak to those specific reports. I can speak about State Department support, which, as you know, is ongoing and continues, whether it’s in the area of nonlethal assistance to provide food, medical supplies, winter gear, and trucks; or nonlethal support to provide moderate civilian and armed elements of the opposition with assistance. And obviously, as you know, we’re supporting the effort to train and equip that the Department of Defense is leading.
QUESTION: Okay. And as far as you know, from – and speaking of the programs that the State Department runs, there hasn’t been any slowdown —
MS. PSAKI: Correct.
QUESTION: — or cutoff of that?
MS. PSAKI: Correct.
QUESTION: But you were specifically saying you can’t speak for what some other government agency might be doing.
MS. PSAKI: Sure – reported covert programs, no.
QUESTION: All right. And then the other report was – I guess it’s probably better directed at the Pentagon, but it was about the military – about overt, I believe, military supplies. Is – can you speak to that at all?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything specific on that. I would certainly point you to the Department of Defense.
QUESTION: Can we go to Middle East peace? Yesterday, the —
MS. PSAKI: Any more on Syria before we continue?
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead, Roz.
QUESTION: Have you seen the interview that Foreign Affairs did with Bashar al-Assad? And —
MS. PSAKI: I have, or I’ve seen – certainly the reports of it.
QUESTION: One of the things that Mr. Assad was critical of was the U.S. effort to train up to 5,000 opposition fighters. And he said that if they —
MS. PSAKI: Does it surprise you he’d be critical of that? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Well, what is —
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: — what is the U.S. reaction that their presence inside the country to fight ISIL would be “illegal” and that if that – if there’s anyone that should be fighting ISIL, it should be the Syrian military, and other countries should be talking to the Syrian Government about that effort?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as we have stated in the past, we’re not asking for permission to fight ISIL or to train and equip the moderate opposition. So I would leave it at that.
QUESTION: He also —
QUESTION: He also suggested that they could find themselves being targeted by the Syrian military if indeed they come in having been trained by the U.S. and other countries to fight ISIL. Is the U.S. concerned about that?
MS. PSAKI: The moderate opposition could be targeted by the – are they not already targeted by the Syrian military?
QUESTION: Let me just follow up on this issue.
MS. PSAKI: The one – the opposition?
QUESTION: I think what he meant —
QUESTION: On this issue. Okay. I mean, haven’t we learned that training these rebels, they end up somehow either with ISIS or al-Qaida? Isn’t there plenty of evidence to prove that, as a matter of fact?
MS. PSAKI: We have not learned that. We have a vetting program that the Department of Defense runs.
QUESTION: But in fact —
MS. PSAKI: It’s difficult, it’s thorough. Obviously, my colleagues over at the Defense Department have given many updates about when this program would start, how it will work, how it will proceed, and I’d certainly point you to that.
QUESTION: But there are lists and evidence and – of hundreds of these fighters that you have helped or trained, or your allies helped train and equip and so on, found their way to Jabhat al-Nusrah and ISIL and al-Qaida.
MS. PSAKI: I’d love to take a look at your evidence you’re referring to.
QUESTION: Assad also said that the Israeli air force has been targeting Syrian army positions unrelated to Hezbollah and that they are acting as the air force for al-Qaida. You don’t have a comment on that, do you?
MS. PSAKI: I would point you to the Israeli Government for any reports or accusations out there. And I would just reiterate we believe they have the right to defend themselves.
QUESTION: Can we go to Middle East peace? Yeah, Middle East. Yesterday, reports that —
MS. PSAKI: Can we do – any more on Syria? Said, and I promise we’ll go to you right next.
Okay, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. I just wanted to ask you very quickly – the Quartet concluded a meeting yesterday calling for a resumption of talks. Do you feel that the Quartet is still relevant?
MS. PSAKI: Of course. The Quartet is an important partner in this effort. We’ll continue to consult closely with them on the way ahead. We, of course, continue to believe that final status negotiations are the only way for the parties to reach a peaceful resolution, and we continue to work to move forward that objective.
QUESTION: But other than the rhetoric – I mean, you being a robust member of the Quartet – what has the Quartet done in this effort for the past, let’s say —
MS. PSAKI: Well, they’ve been an important partner, an important convener. There’s a need to continue to talk about and discuss and push forward on these efforts, even when they’re frozen and not possible right now.
QUESTION: Mm-hmm. I wanted to ask you about UNRWA. They said in a statement yesterday or the day before that they can no longer dispense aid or money into Gaza because they only received $135 million from a promised total of 724. And there’s going to be some sort of riots in Gaza. The situation is quite bleak. Do you have any comment on that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first say the United States remains a steadfast supporter of UNRWA, which we believe plays an indispensable role in the region, particularly in Gaza. You’re right, over the past few years UNRWA has been dealing with chronic budget shortfalls as donor contributions have not been able to keep pace with the rising needs in places like Gaza and Syria.
Our specific assistance – and I think the reports are referring to the cash assistance program. That hasn’t been a program that the United States has been focusing or contributing our efforts to. We announced an initial $100 million contribution for UNRWA’s 2015 needs, including 38 million for emergency needs in Gaza and the West Bank. These funds support lifesaving interventions like emergency food assistance and management of UNRWA’s collective centers, which are still housing some 12,000 displaced persons through this difficult winter. This funding is in addition to the $74 million the United States provided to UNRWA’s flash appeal in 2014.
So we remain committed. We certainly encourage other states to pledge and promptly deliver the funds they’ve already pledged to fully meet the urgent needs to Gaza’s civilian population.
QUESTION: New topic?
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead, Elliot.
QUESTION: On Cuba?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: The letter that Fidel Castro has apparently published in Cuban state media. What was your response to that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve seen comments purportedly from Fidel Castro that have appeared in the press welcoming the new approach to relations laid out by President Obama and President Raul Castro last month. We take his reference of international norms and principles as a positive sign and look forward to the Cuban Government implementing those international norms and principles for a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba.
Now, it’s important also to note that, of course, our negotiations and the process moving forward is with the Cuban Government. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Obviously, Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson had a first round of talks. The next step is we’ve invited Cuban officials to Washington in the coming weeks. That’s not yet set, but obviously there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.
QUESTION: What —
QUESTION: Sorry, if I could just ask a couple more on this.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: So you have no – have you received any indication from the Cuban side that those comments were actually written by Fidel Castro himself?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any other confirmation of that. It’s more we’ve seen, of course, the reports that you’re referencing.
QUESTION: Great. And I think —
QUESTION: You mentioned —
QUESTION: Sorry, just one more. I think I know what your answer to this one is going to be, but —
MS. PSAKI: Okay. That’s always fun. Go ahead.
QUESTION: The reference to Fidel Castro’s lack of trust in the U.S. – was that disappointing to you at all?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Elliot, it’s not about trust; it’s about what’s in the interest of the people of Cuba, what’s in the interest of our own national security interests, our economic interests, and that’s why we’re pursuing this new path forward.
QUESTION: Do you also have lack —
QUESTION: So you —
QUESTION: Do you also have lack of trust in Cuba?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there are places where we have a lack of trust, but there are diplomatic reasons and strategic reasons to pursue a different path forward.
QUESTION: So can you say that it’s mutual?
MS. PSAKI: That there’s a lack of trust?
QUESTION: On both sides?
MS. PSAKI: I think it’s fair to say there’s a lack of trust, but we’re working to build that trust.
QUESTION: You mentioned that your negotiations are with the Cuban Government. I’m curious, does that mean that you think that Fidel Castro has no influence or role in his brother’s government?
MS. PSAKI: Well, technically, he’s not an official part, as you know. That’s what I was referencing.
QUESTION: Well, technically – a lot of things are technically true.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any other analysis of his influence, but I think you know who the interlocutors are in this case.
QUESTION: Well, right. But the interlocutor is not necessarily Raul Castro either.
MS. PSAKI: Correct. The President’s spoken with him. But I’m referring to the negotiations, of which I don’t —
QUESTION: Right. But you don’t think that —
MS. PSAKI: — think anyone thinks Fidel Castro is planning to be a part of or will be a part of.
QUESTION: Well, no, not personally. But I mean, do you think that he plays no role in the Cuban – in the government hierarchy at all?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any analysis of the influence he has, Matt.
QUESTION: All right. I —
MS. PSAKI: I just was making a reference to the fact that when we invite negotiators – I think you know this, but it’s worth noting – it’s obviously not him. So —
QUESTION: Well, yeah. All right. But this is my problem here, because you have these negotiations, let’s say, going on with Cuba. You also have them going on with Iran. Do you think the Supreme Leader of Iran plays no influence in the negotiation process of the Iranians?
MS. PSAKI: I think we typically don’t do analysis on Iran’s political climate or —
QUESTION: Right. So —
MS. PSAKI: — who has influence on whom, and I’m not going to do it here.
QUESTION: All right. So you then – but you’re – you take Fidel Castro at his word that he is retired and is not – doesn’t have any role. Is that right?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, again, we can’t even confirm these comments were actually from him.
QUESTION: All right.
MS. PSAKI: We’ve seen the reports. That’s what I was speaking to.
QUESTION: Okay. The reports that you mentioned, that you can’t confirm, you said you see that his reference – take his reference to international standards and norms as a positive sign. Can your remember the last time the U.S. Government has said anything that attributed to Fidel Castro as positive?
MS. PSAKI: My bet is you remember. Okay. There’s your answer.
QUESTION: I cannot, but I’m just wondering if – is there a little asterisk in there that says this is the first time —
MS. PSAKI: Noted.
QUESTION: — we’ve ever said anything nice about Fidel?
MS. PSAKI: Noted.
QUESTION: No? All right.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any analysis of that, Matt. We’re not trying to overstate it here.
QUESTION: Fair enough.
MS. PSAKI: Obviously, it’s more about actions and not words.
QUESTION: Who’s head of the Cuban delegation? It’s like the deputy foreign minister or —
MS. PSAKI: The foreign minister – I mean, the foreign minister has been who the Secretary has been engaged with, but Assistant Secretary Jacobson has had negotiations and discussions with Josefina Vidal, so she’s been —
QUESTION: So she will be coming (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think we’ll – we won’t get ahead of what will happen with – the date isn’t quite set yet. I think, Said, we’ll have more on that in the coming days or weeks.
More on Cuba, before we continue? Okay. Okay.
MS. PSAKI: Why don’t we go to the back? Pam and Michele.
QUESTION: What is State’s reaction to the arrest of the three individuals on charges of spying for Russia? And then a broader question. This is, of course, coming on the heels of the increased tensions between the U.S. and Russia over the situation in Ukraine. Does this further muddy the waters in terms of U.S. relations with Russia?
MS. PSAKI: Well, on the first, I think the DOJ put out an extensive set of documents on this, which I’m sure you’ve read through. I know others have, but I would encourage anyone who’s interested to do that. We’re, of course, aware of the charges filed yesterday in the Southern District of New York against three Russian citizens, including against one accused of acting as a covert intelligence agent on behalf of Russia. We’ve been in touch – in contact with the Department of Justice. Given this is an ongoing criminal matter, I’d refer you to them for more specifics on it.
In terms of our relationship with Russia, I think we’ve been very open about our engagement with Russia and where we see things. Obviously, there are issues where we feel we can continue to work together on – the Iran negotiations, those talks are ongoing; they had meetings this weekend. We’ve continued to be partners on those. There are issues where we have disagreements. Ukraine, of course, is an issue we talk about frequently here, and we have strong concerns about their support for Russian-backed separatists, which we’ve made no secret of.
There are certain cases in any relationship where we – there’s legal action that will be taken by the Department of Justice, and that’s something that will continue. But certainly, we hope and expect that areas where we continue to cooperate and work together on will continue.
QUESTION: Has there been any talk within the past 24 hours about this specific case involving these individuals accused of spying, and also Russia’s denial of the fact that they were spies?
MS. PSAKI: Well, specific discussion in what capacity?
QUESTION: Between State – between State Department officials and officials in Russia.
MS. PSAKI: Not that I’m aware of, no.
QUESTION: Jen, because – given the fact that there were two Russians who are named in the complaint who are Russian officials, and apparently enjoyed diplomatic immunity although they were not arrested and they’re apparently no longer in the United States —
MS. PSAKI: Correct.
QUESTION: — are there – does the State Department have any equities in this complaint? Or is it because – given the diplomatic immunity part of it, even though they’re not in the country anymore?
MS. PSAKI: Well, that’s typically, to your point, how often we get engaged in this in some capacity. So we – the two diplomats, we understand, are no longer in the United States. While they were here, both had immunity and could not be arrested. Otherwise, I don’t know what role we would specifically have in that regard.
QUESTION: Well, I’m just curious about the equities. I mean, and I know this is a hypothetical, but is this a situation in which if they had still been in the U.S. you could have – you would have or could have expelled them, not charging them – if DOJ was unable to charge them because of the immunity issue?
MS. PSAKI: Well, in this case what I can confirm for you is that a request for a waiver of immunity was not a factor. Beyond that, in terms of specifics on how this happened, I would point you to the Department of Justice.
QUESTION: Was it not a factor because they’re no longer here or because Justice determined that what these two guys were doing wasn’t necessarily illegal in general or espionage more specifically?
MS. PSAKI: Well, obviously, there were charges filed, right. But typically, when individuals are no longer here, it’s no longer applicable. But I don’t have any more details to confirm for you.
More on – anything more on Russia? Let’s go to Michele. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I have a question about Argentina.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: I know you spoke last week about the death of the prosecutor Alberto Nisman. There are WikiLeaks cables that show that he had a lot of contacts with the U.S. Embassy over the years. Some local commentators say that all those suggested that he was taking direction in some way from the U.S. Embassy, and I wonder if you think that’s a fair characterization of U.S. relations with him.
MS. PSAKI: I certainly wouldn’t characterize it in that way. As we’ve said before, we were supportive of prosecutor Nisman’s investigation into the bombing. We’ve collaborated and consulted with a range of officials, including with him, over the course of this investigation and this process to get not only periodic updates, but to provide any relevant information we have. And that’s kind of been the extent of our contact, not just with him but with other officials who are involved. As you know, this is an ongoing law enforcement matter as well.
QUESTION: Do you have any comment – the president of Argentina gave a speech last night in which she called for the dissolution of the intelligence service and a reformation of it under – with new rules, and she denied that there was any – or she said that this was all – what’s happened was all part of a plot to hurt her. Do you have any comment on that?
MS. PSAKI: I would simply say this is an ongoing investigation, so we don’t have any other comment on it.
MS. PSAKI: Yemen? Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: The latest on the Embassy?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any new updates from yesterday or last week.
QUESTION: Are you – were you in touch with President Hadi the last 24 hours?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any updates on contacts either.
QUESTION: Do you still encourage him to reconsider his resignation?
MS. PSAKI: I think we still consider him the president of Yemen. Obviously, there’s a process that would need to take place. The parliament has not yet decided when the emergency session will be.
Any more on Yemen before we continue? Okay. Why don’t we go to you, Pam?
QUESTION: On Bahrain, there are reports that six young Americans were arrested yesterday in Bahrain. Does State have any information on them and their status?
MS. PSAKI: We are aware of reports that a group of U.S. citizens were recently detained in Bahrain. The U.S. Embassy is in touch with the Government of Bahrain regarding these reports. We take our obligation to assist U.S. citizens overseas seriously. Due to privacy considerations we don’t have any more details to share or discuss at this point in time.
QUESTION: Can you just – on that, can you say if you’re concerned about the situation of any Americans in Bahrain at the moment? I’m not asking who they are, where they might be. But I mean, is there an issue right now that you’re concerned about with U.S. citizens being detained in Bahrain?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think we’re trying to obtain more information, Matt, so that’s where we sit at this point.
QUESTION: I’m trying to figure out whether this is over or whether it is still an issue of concern.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any assessment on that at this point in time, so we’ll see if there is an update after the briefing.
QUESTION: Do you have any message regarding Wendy Sherman’s first day talk in Beijing —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: — and what other key issue she try to sort out in there?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you all know, Ambassador and Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman is in Beijing for consultations the 27th and the 28th. Yesterday she met with senior government officials and scholars to discuss a wide range of bilateral and regional issues, including the P5+1 negotiations with Iran and the situation in the Middle East. She also met with members of civil society for a roundtable discussion.
QUESTION: A follow-up: In the – Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel in Thailand; I think Obama in New Delhi – all talk about South China Sea. I mean, Obama talk about – express, again, concern about the freedom of navigation. But the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said today in Beijing – basically said the situation in South China Sea has been overall stable. And she said there has never been an issue, a problem with freedom of navigation, whether on the sea or in the air, and she believes there won’t be one if China and ASEAN work together. And this is my question: She said she hoped – China hopes certain countries, if they truly want to see peace and stability in the region, they should say more and do more that will help improve the mutual trust and cooperation in the region. I interpreted it as sort of a pointed words at the U.S. What’s your comment?
MS. PSAKI: In what capacity was it pointed words at the U.S.?
QUESTION: Well, I mean, there is a perception in China that U.S. is being biased in sort of being a referee between its allies and non-ally, which is China, regarding the South China Sea issue.
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you know, we’ve had the same position on this particular issue for some time and we don’t take a position on the sovereignty. We do continue to encourage dialogue and for all sides to reduce tensions. And when there has been a need, we have expressed concerns at times about the actions of China. We’ve done that on occasion and we’ve certainly raised it privately as well.
Any more – why don’t we go in the back, if that’s okay, because he just hasn’t – go ahead.
QUESTION: President Obama, during a press conference with Indian PM Modi – he said that we support a reformed UN Security Council that sees India as a permanent member. If you talked about that yesterday, sorry about it, but if you can, please give us a little bit insight on why the U.S. particularly wants to see India as a permanent of the UN Security Council.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think the President addressed this. It’s been our position for some time. Obviously, India remains not just an important partner to the United States, but an important country and leader in the international community. I don’t know that I have any more analysis than that.
QUESTION: Are there any other countries as well the United States want to see as a member of the – permanent member of —
MS. PSAKI: We talk about it country by country, but certainly the fact that the President mentioned it while he was there was only natural, given that he is – he was in India.
QUESTION: And last one, this one: In general term, what is this building’s approach toward reform of the UN Security Council, how it should be reformed?
MS. PSAKI: How should – can you say that one more —
QUESTION: How should it be reformed?
MS. PSAKI: Are you referring to something the President said?
QUESTION: No, no, no. This building’s approach towards the reform of the UN Security Council – how it should be reformed?
MS. PSAKI: I would – I’m not sure there’s a particular – that’s a very big question that we could probably talk about for some time. I don’t think I have anything to address for you today.
QUESTION: Sorry, you just said you would address country by country?
MS. PSAKI: Well, no, I said —
QUESTION: I’d like to go down the list. (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: Thanks, Matt. I appreciate it.
QUESTION: Let’s start with, say, Bhutan, Malta —
MS. PSAKI: I’m not providing any list. I’m not providing a list, is what I was conveying.
Go ahead, Michael.
QUESTION: The leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee – including Eliot Engel, the ranking member, and Ed Royce, the chairman, and basically everybody else – sent a letter to Secretary Kerry about Palestinian aid today.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: The letter says: “We believe the actions that the PA has taken require an immediate and forceful response from the United States that is commensurate with the gravity of its decision. We understand the State Department is conducting a review of assistance to the PA in light of recent developments. The United States should not support direct economic assistance to the PA until it demonstrates a meaningful reversal of this destructive course,” and it goes on. Does the Secretary have a response? Do you have a response?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m sure we’ll respond to their letter, as we respond to every letter. I will say, though, that we’re – there are a number of not just public comments or letters; there are a number of draft bills that have been proposed that would place further restrictions on assistance to the Palestinians. No new legislation has passed. We remain in close contact with Congress about this. Our view continues to be that U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority plays a valuable role in promoting stability and prosperity not just for the Palestinians, but for – also for Israel as well. There have been reports or some have asked about U.S. assistance. U.S. assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has not been suspended. Our assistance programs continue.
QUESTION: In terms of the review that they’re referring to, is that in a stage with any —
MS. PSAKI: We continually evaluate our assistance to ensure that it supports our policy, and we’ll make adjustments if necessary. But our assistance continues.
QUESTION: You believe – you continue to believe that your assistance to the PA is a – plays a valuable role in – I can’t read my writing. (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: I know where you’re going, Matt, and I think the point is that more economic —
QUESTION: In promoting stability and prosperity, right?
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) in promoting stability. So how stable and prosperous do you think that the life under the Palestinian Authority is?
MS. PSAKI: I said “promoting.” I don’t think anyone’s saying it’s been achieved.
MS. PSAKI: All right.
QUESTION: I have just one more.
MS. PSAKI: Okay, go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m just wondering if you have any new thoughts on the formation of the government – or the ongoing formation of the Greek – new Greek Government?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any new thoughts, no. Thanks, everyone.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:05 p.m.)