Department Press Briefing – July 19, 2021

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NED PRICE, DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON

 

QUESTION: Good afternoon, everyone. Happy Monday. Welcome back. We have a few things at the top, so we’ll get right going.

Media www.rajawalisiber.com – At the President’s direction, the Department of State is working to relocate interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their families who have been approved through the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, program.

As the next step in that process, I am pleased to announce that the Department of Defense has agreed, at the request of the Department of State, to allow the use of Fort Lee, Virginia, as the initial relocation site for the pool of applicants who are closest to completing special immigrant processing. These are brave Afghans and their families, as we have said, whose service to the United States has been certified by the embassy in Kabul and who have completed thorough SIV security vetting processes. They will be provided temporary housing and services as they complete the final steps in the special immigrant process.

We expect to begin the first relocation flights before the end of July, as you heard from the President. Approximately 2,500 Afghans and family members are currently eligible to finish special immigrant processing in the United States, and we’ll certainly provide more details as they become available.

On Friday the Secretary will host the Iraqi Foreign Minister Dr. Fuad Hussain in the fourth meeting of the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, reinforcing the strong relationship between our two countries. In support of this engagement, officials from our governments will review Iraq’s political, economic, and security situation and discuss health and human rights, climate change, educational and cultural exchanges. We’re looking forward to a robust discussion with our Iraqi partners on all of these issues and more.

Following the Strategic Dialogue, President Biden will welcome Prime Minister of Iraq Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to the White House on July 26th. The Strategic Dialogue and the prime minister’s visit will highlight the strategic partnership between the United States and Iraq and advance bilateral cooperation under the Strategic Framework Agreement.

And finally, tomorrow, we recognize 22 years since the People’s Republic of China launched a campaign of repression against the Falun Gong movement and its millions of practitioners, advocates, and the human rights defenders working to protect their rights. Thousands of Falun Gong practitioners face detention, harassment, and reported torture and abuse each year for simply refusing[1] to peacefully practice their beliefs. We call on the PRC to immediately cease its campaign against Falun Gong practitioners and release those imprisoned due to their beliefs.

So with that, I am happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Sorry. They face harassment and repression for refusing to stop their beliefs?

MR PRICE: That’s correct.

QUESTION: Okay, all right. I want to go to Afghanistan, but can you – do you have a readout of the meeting with the Belarusian opposition leader?

MR PRICE: We will have a readout for you later today. As you know, we are welcoming Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her team to the department today. The – Ms. Tsikhanouskaya met with Secretary of State for Political Affairs Toria Nuland. Secretary Blinken also was planning to stop by for a part of that meeting, and we’ll have a readout for you of that later today.

QUESTION: Well, can you just be – just in general terms what they – would they talk about?

MR PRICE: Well, as you can —

QUESTION: They certainly didn’t talk about the wonders – the wonderful nature of the Lukashenko government, I imagine.

MR PRICE: Quite the opposite. As you might expect, they discussed the ongoing repression, the crackdown by the Lukashenko regime, and the steps that we have said and much of the international community has said that the Lukashenko regime must take. As you know, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya has been at the forefront of the opposition movement in Belarus, and we are – we were happy to welcome her to the department today and to continue our efforts to stand with the Belarusian people and their aspirations for human rights, democracy, and their broader Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

QUESTION: I want to, unless someone else wants to go on Belarus, I just want to ask really quickly on Afghanistan. So on the SIV announcement that you made, who’s paying for – is it – obviously the taxpayers ultimately, but if – the Pentagon has been very insistent that this is a State Department operation, all questions have to go to the State Department, we’re not saying anything about it. Except that this is their facility, so who is actually, going to be providing these services to them? Is that DOD personnel or State? Do you guys have people who can go down there? And whose budget does this come out of, and how much do you think it’s going to cost?

MR PRICE: Well, I don’t have a specific funding amount to provide to you today. Of course, the U.S. Government will fund the transportation of SIV applicants and their immediate families until they have status as special immigrants. And then resettled Afghan SIVs, like refugees, will receive resettlement benefits through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program administered by resettlement agencies and their affiliates across the country for the first 30 to 90 days after arrival.

As I said in the topper, the Department of Defense, at the request of the Department of State, has identified Fort Lee as a place that is suitable to temporarily house these Special Immigrant Visa applicants as they complete the last phase of that process.

QUESTION: Yes, but my question is not about once they get approved. It’s in the interim period while they’re living at Fort Lee, does – is the State Department going to have people down there attending to their needs? And is the Pentagon paying for this, or is the State Department paying for it?

MR PRICE: So —

QUESTION: Presumably, it costs money to house people there, right?

MR PRICE: Let me just explain a little bit how this is functioning internally, and we spoke about this somewhat late last week. But as you heard, on July 19th, today, officially, the Department of State activated the Afghanistan Coordination Task Force. And that is a task force that, as you heard last week, is led by three-time ambassador Tracey Jacobson. It consists of experts not only from the Department of State but also from the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services. And it is that task force that will coordinate our efforts across the government to take qualified SIV applicants out of harm’s way and to bring them to the United States once their security vetting is complete.

And so, when we talk about this group today, this is a group of SIV applicants and their family members who have completed that step, the security vetting process, the rigorous process that is required before we would bring SIV applicants and their families to the United States.

We are also working to bring applicants who have passed the chief of mission screening but don’t yet have that final step, that security vetting procedure, which is called a security advisory opinion. This group – again, a separate group from the 2,500 referenced earlier – includes about 4,000 applicants as well as their family members.

And we – our plan is to take them to locations outside of the United States, where they will be safe and where they will be provided accommodation during this processing period, which can last a number of months, but as we have said before, we are striving to shorten these processing times at every stage of the process. And I spoke last week about how we have been able to do that by surging personnel, by moving the locus of some of these operations back to the Washington, D.C., area. And the increasing number, the increasing rate at which we’ve been able to approve SIV applicants in recent months – and you’ve seen the upward trajectory of that. We released our most recent quarterly report last week. We will have the next quarterly report in several months, and we certainly expect that increased processing to continue.

I also will say that we do hope to expect to provide you an opportunity to hear directly from members of this task force, those who are leading it. We’ll have more details for you on that tomorrow.

QUESTION: Well, that’s a great answer to a question, but it’s not at all the question that I asked, but thank you for the information in there, especially about the 4,000 others. But do you have an answer to who pays for this, the Pentagon or the State Department? Or is it —

MR PRICE: For the —

QUESTION: Is it all of —

MR PRICE: Specifically for —

QUESTION: For Fort Lee for people staying at a U.S. Army base and if – is it going to be State people who are – State Department people who are attending them? Is it an interagency thing? Or is it all DOD? That’s all I ask.

MR PRICE: We’ll see if we can get you more details on that. It may need to wait for the conversation that we’re planning before long.

QUESTION: Ned, on immediate family —

MR PRICE: Yes.

QUESTION: — is that like parents included, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters? Where do you cut off the immediacy in the immediate family?

MR PRICE: So, as you know, the processing for these individuals is multistep. It is more than a dozen steps before these individuals reach the security vetting procedures. And so over the course of those steps, the screening and the screeners have an opportunity to get a sense from these applicants what that immediate family looks like. I wouldn’t want to offer a broad generalization. But when we talk about – when we talk about each individual applicant, in many cases there are several family members who will be traveling with him or her.

Yes, Kylie.

QUESTION: I’m just curious. I’m trying to – you guys have said that there are 2,500 SIV applicants and their family members —

MR PRICE: Right.

QUESTION: — who have been approved through the security vetting process. So does that figure – is that inclusive of their family members, or is that figure just the SIVs and then it would be plus their, you know, family members?

MR PRICE: So the first tranche we are talking about 700 SIV applicants and their immediate family members, and so that’s how we arrived at that ballpark estimate of 2,500.

QUESTION: Okay, gotcha. And how are they going to be flown to Fort Lee?

MR PRICE: So, as we’ve said before, there are some details that we’re able to provide. We’re, of course, providing additional details today when it comes to this destination for this group. There will be some details that for security reasons we just aren’t going to be in a position to provide. That is going to be one of them.

Yes.

QUESTION: On this as well. It is estimated that about half of the SIV applicants don’t live in Kabul or in the area near the capital. Will you undertake arrangements to bring some of those people to Kabul in order to transport them out of the country?

MR PRICE: So we are providing assistance to these applicants in multiple stage – stages of the process. Again, I think we’ll be able to provide some more details tomorrow, but again, we’re not in a position to do that today at least.

QUESTION: Just stay on Afghanistan for a second?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) again, be really quick. Despite your statement welcoming the round of talks that happened in Doha over the weekend, it failed to reach an agreement, and the statement that was put out – not your statement but the statement that was put out by the embassy and the other – 15 other countries, including NATO, it seemed like it was basically begging the Taliban to stop its offensive and to reach an agreement. And I’m just wondering, have you guys yet come to the realization that they’re not going to stop, that they are going to continue this offensive? Zal spoke about reports of atrocities and other things that are only increasing, and the fear is getting more and more palpable and more and more immediate as the final withdrawal approaches.

MR PRICE: Well, Matt, I assume you saw the statement that the parties issued over the weekend, and we’ll have a statement on that for you today, if we haven’t issued it already. But you saw in that statement on behalf of the Islamic Republic and the Taliban a commitment that the two sides declared to accelerate negotiations towards an inclusive political settlement. We certainly welcome that statement. We welcome that sentiment, and we hope to see follow-through, because we – as we have said, we continue to believe that only a negotiated settlement can bring an end to 40 years of conflict that the Afghan people have endured, and we urge the Taliban to uphold the commitment in the joint declaration – the declaration that I just mentioned – to protect Afghanistan’s infrastructure, to protect civilians, and to cooperate on humanitarian assistance. We are certainly pleased to see those pledges in this declaration, and now we are looking to see the follow-through.

We also, in the context of this, do commend the leadership of the state of Qatar in bringing the parties together as well as the United Nations for the essential role that it is playing. And for our part, we continue to work alongside not only the parties whose discussions we are supporting in Doha, where they remain ongoing, but also Qatar, the UN, the broader international community, and, crucially, Afghanistan’s neighbors – and we’ve talked about this before, but the critical role that Afghanistan’s neighbors have to play and must play in order to bring – to help bring about a political settlement to this and to help bring about, to help effect an Afghanistan that is more stable, more secure, and one day more peaceful over time. We’re going to continue to support that work on all of those tracks, and we were encouraged by what we saw over the weekend.

QUESTION: On Afghanistan still?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: A follow-up on – the reports coming from the ground in Afghanistan does indicate that the policies and the approach that the Taliban is taking is reversing the gains that the country has made in the terms of women rights and children’s rights. Are you worried about that or you just let it go the way they are doing it?

MR PRICE: Well, the United States has for two decades now worked with the Government of Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan to support the hard-won gains, including those by Afghanistan’s women and Afghanistan’s girls. The United States has played a pivotal role in that over time. We have provided humanitarian assistance. We have provided development assistance. Our embassy on the ground has and will continue to be a partner for Afghan civil society knowing just how important it is and knowing the gains that have been achieved over the course of the past 20 years.

The point that we have been making is that any government that comes to power in Afghanistan that doesn’t protect those gains, does not respect human rights, that seeks to rule at the barrel of a gun, will not be a government that has legitimacy either on the part of the Afghan people or from the Afghan – or from the international community. And when it comes to that latter constituency, it is – we can presume it will be, continue to be important that any government in Afghanistan have the backing of the international community for the assistance that that provides. And any government that comes to power that is willing to let those gains be entirely squandered, that is willing to stand idly by, or worse, as Afghanistan’s women, girls, minorities are deprived of their rights, that is not a government that will be legitimate in the eyes of the international community. And critically, because of the assistance and the other elements that we’ve talked about, that’s not a government that we can expect will have any degree of durability.

What we seek for the people of Afghanistan, what we’re seeking to help support, is a just and durable solution to not 20 years of conflict since October of 2001, but really 40 years of conflict that has deprived the Afghan people of the rights, the freedoms, including their right to safety and security. And so we will continue to partner with the Afghan people, to partner with the Afghan Government, and support that diplomatic process that did receive a boost over the weekend from the joint declaration that was issued by the Afghan parties. Again, declarations are positive. What we are going to be looking for is the follow-through, and we expect to see that follow-through in the coming days and weeks.

QUESTION: You spoke about the neighboring countries in the – on Afghanistan. Do you see the role of Iran is supportive in the peace process?

MR PRICE: Well, I wouldn’t want to offer a blanket characterization. What I will say is that Afghanistan’s neighbors – Iran, of course, included – they need to play a constructive role if we are – in order to most effectively support the conclusion of that sort of just and durable settlement. We have seen Iran play host to talks between the parties, attempt to facilitate. We have seen other countries do that as well.

The United States for too long has – and you heard this from President Biden in his announcement several months ago, but for too long has shouldered too much of the burden. And what we have consistently said is that now is the time for Afghanistan’s neighbors to support the process, to play a role that is responsible, a role that is constructive, a role that facilitates the efforts of the parties to reach this just and durable political solution.

So, we certainly have welcomed efforts of regional countries to do just that, and we would like to see all of Afghanistan’s neighbors play a similar role.

Yes.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) go to Pakistan, a neighboring country. I would like to have your comment on the tweets by the – Pakistan’s foreign minister on FATF in which he makes allegation that India is politicizing the FATF, other things, and also the statement by the foreign ministry. How do you see Pakistan is trying – is abiding by the restrictions or the conditions that are imposed and the FATF asked them to do in funding terrorist organizations? Are they abiding by those? How far they are from that?

MR PRICE: Well, you’re referring to Pakistan’s obligations under the Financial Action Task Force, and we do recognize, and we support Pakistan’s continued efforts to satisfy those obligations. Pakistan has made significant progress on its first action plan with 26 of 27 action items largely addressed. We encourage Pakistan to continue working with the FATF and the international community to swiftly complete the remaining action item by demonstrating that terrorism financing, investigations, and prosecutions target senior leaders and commanders of UN-designated groups. We do further encourage Pakistan to expeditiously implement its new second action plan.

QUESTION: And I was going to ask on China, please?

MR PRICE: Yeah.

QUESTION: Can I just briefly follow up —

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: — on Pakistan?

MR PRICE: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: The rift between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the withdrawal of the Afghan ambassador, do you have anything to say about that and how the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan moving forward will affect what’s happening there?

MR PRICE: Well, what I would say is to reiterate what I just noted – that Afghanistan’s neighbors do have a role to play. I would add that tangible and material support for the Afghanistan peace process – it’s vital for its ultimate success, as are the longer-term relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And so, we certainly do hope to see Afghanistan’s neighbors play a constructive, responsible role in bringing about a just and durable solution here. And we understand the crucial role that Pakistan has the potential to play in this regard as well.

Will.

QUESTION: Yes, I wanted to ask about the U.S. reaction to the Chinese hacking and the blaming of that on China and the MSS for the Microsoft-related hacking. It says in Secretary Blinken’s statement that they’re holding these few individuals accountable, but is there going to be any effort to hold Beijing accountable, at large? Is that the kind of thing where the U.S. would consider sanctions or other steps to really make a difference there rather than indictments of a few accused hackers?

MR PRICE: Well, we did announce a series of steps today, including with a statement from the Secretary, as you alluded to. I would add that together with our allies, together with our partners, we’re not ruling out any additional actions to hold the PRC accountable, including for its malicious activity in the cyber domain. But as you saw, and just to reiterate, it was an unprecedented group of allies and partners – and the includes the EU, it includes the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and NATO – that joined the United States today in exposing the PRC’s Ministry of State Security, or MSS’s, malicious cyber activities. It’s notable that this was the first time that NATO has condemned PRC cyber activities, and we spoke about this last week and before in terms of the new content that NATO’s strategic concept has on the threat that the Alliance potentially faces not only from Russia but also from – from the PRC’s aggression as well.

It is these shared concerns regarding the PRC’s malicious cyber activities that are bringing countries around the world together to call out these activities, to promote network defense and cyber security, and to work together to seek to disrupt the kind of activity that the United States and our partners exposed today.

We are deeply concerned – and you saw this across a number of the statements this morning – that the PRC has fostered an intelligence enterprise that includes contract hackers, who also conduct unsanctioned cyber operations worldwide, including for their own personal profit. The PRC’s unwillingness to address this activity that is indeed criminal by contract hackers – it harms governments, it harms businesses, potentially critical infrastructure operators, including through billions of dollars in lost intellectual property, proprietary information, ransom payments, and mitigation efforts that have to go into halting this activity.

We have raised concerns about both the compromise of the Microsoft Exchange server platform and the PRC’s broader malicious cyber activity, with senior PRC government officials, making clear to them that the PRC’s actions do indeed threaten security, confidence, and stability in cyberspace; and that is also why we are not ruling out further action should it be merited and should it be appropriate.

Look, we know that we can’t change the PRC’s malicious cyber activity on our own. We also know that it’s not going to be one action or even one well-coordinated series of actions that will be able to do that. But as we have consistently shown with our approach to the PRC, we know we are going to be more effective, especially in these areas in which our relationship is competitive or adversarial, as it may be in this realm, when we bring along our closest allies and partners. You saw us do that today. You’ve seen us do that in the case of Xinjiang. You’ve seen us do that in the case of Hong Kong. You’ve seen us do it in reinforcing the rules-based international order, whether it is in the maritime domain, cyber domain, or elsewhere.

QUESTION: Just a very quick follow-up. Is the reason you like to call out China over these behaviors, whether it’s the business risks in Hong Kong or whether it’s Xinjiang supply chain or whether it’s the hacking, is that because the administration hasn’t decided yet whether it merits further action such as broad sanctions, or is it because there are divisions within the administration? I’m just wondering why the careful approach of calling China out on behavior that we know that – that we know that China has been involved in. Just wondering what’s – what’s stopping the more immediate, deeper actions that you discussed might be possibilities for the future?

MR PRICE: Well, so, as you know, we don’t preview potential policy responses. As I’ve said, there may well be additional steps that we can take to hold the PRC accountable. I think you’ve seen us across any area in which we face a challenge, collectively a challenge from the PRC, whether it’s human rights, whether it is repression in Hong Kong, whether it is intimidation of the people on Taiwan, whether it is human rights in Xinjiang, that we have not hesitated to act. I think that in this case, as you know, there is a process that the U.S. Government needs to go through in order to attribute an attack of this nature, an operation of this nature. You heard today from the interagency that the U.S. Government was able to conclude with a high degree of confidence that this, in fact, was attributable to the PRC.

So, these are processes, some of which are intelligence-driven, that are thorough, that are robust, and in some cases they will take time to make sure that we are going out on solid footing and, importantly in this case, that we are going out with the backing and in coordination with some of our closest partners around the world. Across every challenge, our response to the PRC, to any country, any nation-state that may seek to undermine the rules-based international order, we know it will be more – we know it will be stronger, we know it will be more effective when we act collectively. And that’s what we’re able to do today.

Said.

QUESTION: Thank you. Can we go to the Palestinian issue?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Real quick. Thank you, Ned. Last week, while Mr. Hady Amr was visiting the West Bank and Israel, the Israeli occupation authorities razed 50 structures – 50 structures – while he was there. Are you not offended by that? Why is there no statement on these things? Why can’t you say you have to cut this out, stop it, just stop it?

MR PRICE: Said, we have spoken very clearly in public and in private. We have made the point that we believe it is critical to refrain from unilateral steps that increase or exacerbate tensions and then make it more difficult to, over the longer term, achieve that two-state, negotiated solution. This certainly includes demolitions. We’ve certainly made that point. You’ve heard me make that point before. We have made that privately as well.

QUESTION: Yeah, I mean, I hear you all the time. But apparently, they are not hearing you. They are not listening to you. So, what is the use of saying what you’re saying without having – without putting some teeth or some oomph behind your statements?

MR PRICE: Well, Said, we certainly have, and you’ve seen that in any number of forms. We have spoken recently about the steps that we have taken to re-engage the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Authority, to provide humanitarian assistance, to provide support. And we do that not only for the humanitarian implications, because the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank – in the West Bank, are in need of this humanitarian assistance, but also because we are trying to set the conditions to eventually be able to work towards a two-state solution. That has been the overriding goal of successive American administrations, obviously has been an overriding goal that has eluded successive administrations.

As you have heard from us, we aren’t under any illusions that a two-state solution is right around the corner. We’re not under any illusions it will be here next week or even next month. But what we are trying to do now is to set the stage to make meaningful progress, and I think we’ve done that in ways that are both rhetorical but, more importantly, are tangible, including for the welfare and the well-being of the Palestinian people. We have repeatedly made the point that Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve equal measures of safety, of security, of prosperity, and importantly, of dignity. And that is what much of our humanitarian assistance, what much of our support, is aimed at enhancing: a sense of dignity that has in many ways eluded the Palestinian people for far too long.

QUESTION: I mean, you speak of dignity to me. As much as I hate to do it, it’s a personal thing. A cousin of mine, young cousin of mine, 29 years old, was shot dead in cold blood a year ago on the 22nd of June. They still hold his body. Last month, another relative of mine, a young woman, 29 years old, shot in my village. They still hold her body. I mean, talk about dignity. Why do this? Isn’t that collective punishment?

MR PRICE: Said, look, I’m, as you know, not in a position to speak to individual cases. We have spoken to the broader issue of what some might call collective punishment, and we spoke of home demolitions of Palestinians suspected to have been behind attacks. And we made clear that entire communities, entire families shouldn’t be punished for the actions of one individual. But again, I’m just not able to comment on specific cases.

QUESTION: Well, let the record note their names: Ahmed Erekat and Maya Afana.

QUESTION: Hey, Ned, just – you said what some may call collective punishment? Haven’t you guys called it collective punishment in the past?

MR PRICE: And I think I just said last week.

QUESTION: All right. Are we good?

QUESTION: I can wait.

QUESTION: Go ahead.

QUESTION: You said last week you called it – so I just want to make sure that you’re not backing away from what you —

MR PRICE: Oh no, absolutely not.

QUESTION: And then, Ned, can you take this question? Because I expect if you do have an answer that will last about 20 minutes. On Friday, you guys released your MOU with UNRWA about renewed – and it takes great pains in that statement to say – and I think it’s on the first page – that it’s not a legally binding agreement.

So my question is this – and if it can be boiled down to one sentence, a one-sentence answer that you can get later, that would be great: If UNRWA does not meet the criteria and the vetting standards that is – that are outlined in this, are you – does this – because it’s not legally binding, does that mean that you’re not obligated to reduce or cut funding to it?

MR PRICE: We’ll see if we can get you an answer there.

Yes, Shaun.

QUESTION: Can we go to Haiti?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: The resignation of Interim Prime Minister Joseph, I wonder if you have any reaction to that and if you could explain the statement by the so-called Core Group last week distancing itself from him. And what was the point of, if he will (inaudible) that of sidelining him?

MR PRICE: Well, we, of course, have seen the reports that Claude Joesph has agreed to step down from his role as acting prime minister and handover authority to Dr. Ariel Henry. I don’t know that the parties have confirmed that officially themselves, but we are watching closely.

We have always said and we continue to believe that the decision of who should lead Haiti belongs to the Haitian people. Political gridlock – it has taken a tremendous toll on the nation of Haiti, and it’s vital for the country’s leaders to finally come together to chart a united, inclusive path forward. And so we continue to urge Haitian political actors as well as civil society, private sector to work together in the interests of Haiti’s people. We are encouraged to see Haitian political and civil actors working to form a unity government that can stabilize the country and build the foundation for free and fair elections. Ultimately, that is what our policy seeks to facilitate.

We are engaging with all relevant Haitian stakeholders to encourage an inclusive dialogue and a consensus-based government. In these difficult times, the people of Haiti should know that the United States is standing with them to build a more stable, a more secure Haiti, and we certainly will continue to do all we can to support the formation of a unity government that is inclusive, that puts Haiti down a more united path.

QUESTION: Just to pursue that, then in terms of the statement last week by Core Group, for example, was interim Prime Minister Joseph – was he considered an obstacle to these goals that you are describing?

MR PRICE: Well, as you know, Henry was the prime minister-designate. What the Core Group statement called for was precisely what we have said today, calling for an inclusive unity government, and we have always said that – and the Core Group reiterated this broad message – that the decision of who should lead Haiti belongs with the Haitian people. And so we are encouraged to see political stakeholders working together.

The United States has been in a supporting role. We have been in regular contact with various political stakeholders but also a broader range of civil society actors in Haiti. Ultimately, these are decisions that the Haitian people will need to make. We continue to support legislative and presidential elections later this year seeking to put Haiti back on the constitutional path.

Yes.

QUESTION: Ned, on that – sorry. It was this apparent shift, at least from the United States – I don’t know about the other members of the Core Group – but you guys had been all behind the acting prime minister until Saturday, until this statement came out. And even if you don’t want to be seen as putting your thumb on the scale of political leadership in Haiti, it’s going to be perceived that way anyway. So what was it that changed? Why did you sign on to this statement which basically said, “Okay, Designate Henry, go do your thing” and made no mention of Joseph at all?

MR PRICE: Well, I think the statement was pretty clear, that it called for a unity government, a consensus government, an inclusive government. As you know —

QUESTION: Well, why did it take sides between one of the two prime ministers?

MR PRICE: Matt, we are taking the side of the Haitian people. We’re taking the side of —

QUESTION: No, you took the side of the guy who was named but hadn’t taken office.

MR PRICE: We are taking the side of the Haitian people. This is a dialogue that has been ongoing between various Haitian political stakeholders.

QUESTION: Ned, whether you want to admit it or not, there was a shift in what you had been saying – prior to that statement, you were all in support of the acting prime minister, and then all of a sudden on Saturday, you and the other members of the Core Group came out in support of Mr. Henry.

MR PRICE: Matt, we are supporting the inclusive dialogue that Haiti’s political actors are undertaking themselves. As you know, Henry was the prime minister-designate; Claude Joseph was tasked at the outset to attempt to form a consensus government. Those talks have led him to step aside and for Henry to become the acting prime minister, at least these initial reports.

QUESTION: So you’re suggesting that this statement and your weighing in on it had nothing to do with his decision to resign – reported decision to resign?

MR PRICE: I’m not going to speak for Claude Joseph, I’m not going to speak for Mr. Henry. What I will say is that we – what we have consistently supported is a process that is inclusive, driven by dialogue, in an effort to achieve a consensus government to allow the Haitian people to later this year select their leaders.

QUESTION: Can I go to Vienna?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: So there are these reports of these mysterious health incidents on about two dozen U.S. Government officials in Vienna. Has the State Department informed the State Department workforce of the increased number of diplomats who are reportedly experiencing these symptoms?

MR PRICE: Well, we have engaged – senior department leadership has engaged in a number of communications with the workforce, including in places around the world where these incidents have been reported, to make sure that they know the options that are available to them. When it comes to Vienna, in coordination with our interagency partners, we are vigorously investigating reports of possible unexplained health incidents among the U.S. embassy community there. And we’re also doing that wherever these incidents are reported.

We have made clear that any employee who has reported a possible unexplained health incident, or UHI, has what she or he needs to seek immediate and appropriate attention and care. These health incidents have been a priority for Secretary Blinken since his day one. And as I made clear before, even before he was sworn in as Secretary of State during the transition between the two administrations, he specifically requested a briefing on these UHIs, and when he came in, he set clear goals for our Health Incident Response Task Force to strengthen the department’s communication with our workforce, to provide care for affected employees and family members, and to better protect against these events in the future as we work closely with the interagency to find answers and the cause of these unexplained health incident.

Just a bit more background: The Secretary early on in his tenure reinvigorated this Health Incident Response Task Force and designated Ambassador Pamela Spratlen to lead it, and Ambassador Spratlen has been leading this charge day to day within the department.

Ambassador Spratlen, together with other senior department leaders, including Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources Brian McKeon, they have directly engaged with affected employees around the world to hear firsthand of their experiences, of their concerns, to listen and to determine how we can best support employees who may have been affected by this.

Ambassador Spratlen developed and sent out a message to the entire workforce that could be shared with all U.S. Government personnel and family members who operate under chief of mission authority on this issue. The deputy secretary emphasized that message by sending an email to our workforce early on in her tenure.

We have established a team of medical experts that can respond to reports of possible health incidents around the world. We’ve created a triage tool shared by the interagency that standardizes these assessments when these reports come across our desks, and we’ve implemented, as you might have seen, a pilot baseline to collect pre-incident information on our employees in the event that they later do report an incident. And in those cases, we’ve also partnered with the National Institutes of Health to serve as a center of excellence on an assessment process, and we’re in discussions to partner with an appropriate facility for any employees that may need extended care.

So we have worked very aggressively not only to do all we can to determine the cause of these incidents, but just as importantly, something that’s very important to us, to work to support our workforce, including those who have been affected by these incidents, and to do all we can to seek to protect our workforce, including those who are deployed around the world.

QUESTION: Ned —

QUESTION: And just to be clear, so has the State Department workforce been informed that the reports of these incidents in Vienna have gone up, or is that not something that’s been shared widely with the department?

MR PRICE: I will say that we have engaged the Vienna community. We have sent, beyond that, broad messages to our workforce to make sure that each and every member of our workforce knows the resources available should they think that they might have experienced such an incident.

QUESTION: And based on these reports, is there anything more that the State Department is doing to protect their diplomats in Vienna?

MR PRICE: As you know, we – there is nothing that we take more seriously than the safety and the security, the well-being of our personnel around the world. That certainly includes to the tri-mission community in Vienna. But as you also know, we don’t speak to measures that we’re taking to enhance security or protection for our workforce.

QUESTION: Can we stay in Vienna?

QUESTION: Ned.

MR PRICE: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: Can we stay in Vienna? Do you —

MR PRICE: I don’t have any staffing changes to preview or announce.

QUESTION: No, no, I want to talk about the rather —

MR PRICE: Oh, stay.

QUESTION: — rather, rather extraordinary exchange you had with Abbas Araghchi over the weekend.

MR PRICE: Matt, can we —

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR PRICE: Maybe we’ll move around a little bit and come back.

Rich.

QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. On passports, Senator Schumer held an event this week where he was calling for an emergency personnel surge. Senator Lankford today has sent a letter to Secretary Blinken calling for all passport centers to be reopened at 100 percent unless local COVID protocols prevent that. I’m wondering if there are – if the State Department is considering those measures or anything else to get through this backlog.

MR PRICE: Well, Rich, as you know, we have been surging resources knowing that there is a backlog, knowing that in many cases Americans are having to wait many weeks for passport renewals. We are doing all we can and we will continue to look for ways that we might seek and be able to accelerate passport processing. I don’t have any additional measures to preview or to announce, but if we do, we’ll let you know.

QUESTION: And really quick on numbers, Senator Lankford cites in his letter that there are – that there is a backlog of 2.2 million. The range given by State last week had a top end of 2 million. Also, he says there’s a – for a regular passport there’s a delay of up to 24 weeks, where the last update given last week was 18 weeks. Are the senator’s numbers updated and accurate as to what the State Department is telling Congress?

MR PRICE: We’ll see if we can give you those precise numbers. What I will say is that – and just to give you a bit more texture, we’re surging staff, and that includes both adjudicators and contractors, back into the office as agencies add – as COVID restrictions do ease. This summer, over 150 staff will return to work at 21 agencies across the country. This, of course, will increase our capacity to process applications more quickly. It will also take time for us to ramp up, however, and for the time being, the current wait from when a customer mails their applications to when they receive their passport – our most recent estimates put that at 12 to 18 weeks.

Yes.

QUESTION: A couple of questions on Iraq and then I have a couple questions on Syria, too. But on Iraq, you said the Strategic Dialogue, they are discussing the political landscape, and I assume the election is a major part of that. But Muqtada al-Sadr recently announced that he is not taking part in the elections or the next government, leading some to speculate that if there was going to be – and if there is going to be an election. Any reaction to that?

And then also, the second question on Iraq: The Baghdad-Erbil issues, is that something that you expect to come up in the Strategic Dialogue? And do you encourage some sort of permanent solution to those issues between Baghdad and Erbil?

MR PRICE: Well, broadly, when it comes to the Strategic Dialogue, we have made very clear that we support a stable, prosperous, democratic, and unified Iraq. And the Strategic Framework Agreement remains the foundation of that bilateral relationship. It will continue to be the anchor for discussions with our Iraqi partners going forward. Speaking of our Iraqi partners, as I noted, we are very much looking forward to hosting them this week. Of course, Prime Minister Kadhimi will be at the White House in short order as well. So I expect we’ll have more to say in the aftermath of the Strategic Dialogue.

In the meantime, when it comes to parliamentary elections, we support free, fair, credible, and secure parliamentary elections in Iraq in October, and as well as accountability for violence committed by protesters. During the upcoming Strategic Dialogue, I do imagine that these issues will be on the table, and we will look for ways to appropriately support the democratic process in Iraq. On that score, we have already contributed $10 million to UNAMI’s work in Iraq.

When it comes to relations between Baghdad and Erbil, of course, I don’t want to get ahead of the Strategic Dialogue. But we do support continued efforts by the Government of Iraq and by the Kurdistan Regional Government to resolve any remaining issues between those two entities. We believe that a strong KRG within a unified and federal Iraq is essential to Iraq’s long-term stability and to the enduring defeat of ISIS. And so I expect we’ll be discussing that more in the coming days.

QUESTION: And also on Syria, there was some help from the U.S. in talks between the Kurdish parties there. Those talks have stopped. Do you encourage the resumption of those talks?

And also, a second question on Syria: Are you there only to fight ISIS or also to work with the local administration there to promote stability? Now recently, there has been a growing demand that in Syria, they’re asking that – in northeast Syria, asking the U.S. to recognize the political entity there and some sort of status. Why is that so difficult for you guys to do that?

MR PRICE: Well, when it comes to the intra-Syrian dialogue, we do support the Syrian intra-Kurdish dialogue. The resumption of the dialogue would complement our efforts to stabilize areas of northeast Syria liberated from ISIS and they would complement our efforts to promote transparency and inclusivity in local governments.

When it comes to our role, the role of the United States, the role of U.S. service members in Syria, our forces are there to help ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. They are there for no other reason. We recognize the value, the – we recognize and we value the sacrifices of our partners along the way, including our partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces, to liberate territory from ISIS. And we intend to remain in northeast Syria to see to it that ISIS does have an enduring defeat. We also work with local partners in northeast Syria to advance our stabilization programming, to address local needs and ensure that ISIS cannot exploit a lack of good governance, public services, or access to livelihoods.

In one of its first acts, in fact, this administration unfroze $50 million in stabilization funds for northeast Syria to do just that: to help ensure the recovery of areas liberated from ISIS, to help serve as a bulwark against the regime and extremists who seek to exploit vacuums in security and public services, and to promote justice and accountability for human rights violations and to support the political process necessary to resolve the conflict in line with UNSCR 2254, which continues to provide the roadmap for doing so.

QUESTION: Well, one of the concerns that the locals have there, or the SDF and the political entity there, that with no status, with not even calling it a political entity, they are having issues with being part of the UN talks, on any talk. Would that be something that – I mean, they are asking you to kind of recognize them as a political entity. Is that something – not a state or – obviously, but some sort of status. Is that something that —

MR PRICE: I don’t have any update for you on our position. As you know, we work with a range of partners in the context of the counter-ISIS mission, but we don’t have any upcoming plans to announce any change in posture there.

QUESTION: Go to Iran?

MR PRICE: Iran? Sure.

QUESTION: The Wall Street Journal reports that the U.S. is considering tightening enforcements on Chinese purchases of Iranian oil. Is that something you can confirm? And if so, isn’t that something that you were already enforcing – enforcing the sanctions on Iranian oil? And secondly, there’s reports that the Vienna talks won’t resume until September or October. If that’s so, what’s the hitch? Why the delay?

MR PRICE: Well, when it comes to sanctions and sanctions enforcement, you are, in fact, correct. All U.S. sanctions remain in place until and unless they may be lifted through a diplomatic process. Of course, that brings us to Vienna. We’ve been very clear on that. We remain open to continuing and ultimately to completing the JCPOA discussions in a productive manner and returning to the boundaries of that deal. And we are – we remain open to doing that precisely because we recognize, along with the international community, the advantage of a mechanism that ensures permanently and verifiably that Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon.

Now whether the Raisi government chooses to see – chooses to move forward with those discussions and when, that’s certainly something we hope the Raisi government will do, but we’re not in a position to speak for them. And we would need to refer you to them for comments on their position.

QUESTION: And just on sanctions, so your position is there has been no loosening of enforcement – it’s the same.

MR PRICE: That’s correct. That’s correct.

QUESTION: And – okay, and on Vienna, the signals you’re getting are not good, right? Do you not sort of – you do accept that things are not looking good for this to come back? Is there – are you going to change your position at all, or are you just waiting for them to come back to —

MR PRICE: Well, you heard this from us last week, but – we were prepared to continue negotiating, but the Iranians have requested more time to deal with their presidential transition. We remain interested for precisely the reason I said earlier: the benefit of having Iran permanently and verifiably prevented from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon. We remain interested in seeing to that, and consequently for seeing a mutual return to the JCPOA. Look, we’ve been in this position for quite some time. We’ve made no secret about our willingness to entertain these talks, about our desire precisely because it is in the national interest to see a mutual return to the JCPOA. But we’ve also been clear that this offer won’t be on the table indefinitely. When Iran is done with its process, we are prepared to return to Vienna and to continue with those talks.

QUESTION: Ned, on it, despite your statement over the weekend in response to deputy prime minister – Deputy Foreign Minister Araghchi, the Iranians insist that there was a prisoner swap deal, it could have happened yesterday, and yours and the British resistance to that cratered it – that the deal went through. Was there anything in principle agreed to that could have led to an exchange happening yesterday, meaning Sunday?

MR PRICE: Matt, I – we want to be very clear on this. We stand by what you heard from me yesterday concerning our talks with Iran, including on the matter of the Americans who are held unjustly. I’ll repeat: There was and is as of yet no deal with Iran on the release of our unjustly detained citizens. We have discussed options for effecting their release. Unfortunately, we are not and have not been in a position to move forward with the deal as has been claimed. We – it is true that we have made progress in the course of those indirect discussions. And because this pertains to Americans unjustly detained against their will, we remain interested in continuing talks in some form or fashion so as to be able to seek to secure their release as soon as possible.

Now, I know there’s a lot of interest in this. I certainly understand why. We treat this with the utmost priority, but there is just not much that we’re going to be in a position to add right now. What we don’t want to do is to further complicate an already very complicated and sensitive matter and one that we are seeking to resolve as expeditiously as possibly, because it does directly implicate the well-being, the safety, in this case the freedom of Americans who have been held against their will in Iran for far too long.

QUESTION: Okay. So you took issue with his – with Araghchi’s description of what might have been in the works for a swap yesterday. You did not take issue – and I’m wondering if you do now or if you just think that it’s kind of irrelevant – about him explaining the reason that the Iranians don’t – that his delegation won’t go back to the table until the new government is in place, and he referred to what’s going on in Tehran now as a democratic transition of power, which the U.S. and the British should understand. Do you accept the characterization of what’s going on in Tehran as a, quote/unquote, democratic transition of power?

MR PRICE: Matt, we were very clear in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian elections that it was a predetermined outcome. That hasn’t changed.

QUESTION: So you don’t think that that’s an accurate description?

MR PRICE: We were very clear with our characterization.

QUESTION: Then why don’t you take issue with that, then, also, in addition to the prisoners from this – I mean, it was pretty unusual.

MR PRICE: Well, it was – I’m not —

QUESTION: You called his – you called his – you called his tweets outrageous.

MR PRICE: I’m not going to disagree with you that it was an unusual statement. But I think what you saw from us, what you saw us reacting to, was a statement that we called cruel – because it was cruel. There were many things that I think we could have taken issue with in his statement, but the fact that he would put – the fact that anyone would put forward statements that were not rooted in fact and that would provide false hope to families that have endured far too much pain, to us that was outrageous, to us that was cruel.

QUESTION: Cuba real quick.

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: The president of Cuba, Diaz-Canel, said that you guys are acquiescing to a small right-wing minority in Florida and their whims. Are you really acquiescing to their desires and their perceptions and their politics?

MR PRICE: Said, what we are doing is standing up for the same principles and values that we support around the world. It’s human rights, it’s democracy, it’s basic civil liberties and civil rights that the people of Cuba have been denied for far too long. So look, for us, we have made very clear that human rights are at the center of our foreign policy. The Cuban Government, every government around the world should take us at our word that human rights will be an anchor of our policy. That’s precisely what you’re seeing and what we have said in the mechanisms of support over the years that the United States has provided to the Cuban people, and it is precisely what we mean when we say that we will consider additional forms of support, including any humanitarian support for the Cuban people.

Again, we are standing up for and supporting the same rights in Cuba that we do around the world.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Can I ask —

MR PRICE: Oh, sure.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Sorry, go ahead.

QUESTION: Just one question. Trevor Reed’s family said late last week that they learned that he had been transferred from Moscow to a prison camp. Does the State Department know where Trevor Reed is right now?

MR PRICE: So we have – as you know, this is something that we watch very closely. I don’t have an offer – an update to offer at the moment. We have seen the reports of his transfer. We have no higher priority than the release of Trevor Reed, of Paul Whelan. This is something that President Biden raised with President Putin. It is something that Secretary Blinken raised with Foreign Minister Lavrov. It is something we will continue to do all we can to seek to effect the release of these Americans, in the case of Russia now, who are being held unjustly against their will.

QUESTION: So the Russians aren’t telling you where Trevor Reed is right now?

MR PRICE: I just don’t have an update to offer you at the moment.

QUESTION: Okay. Will you get back to us when you can?

MR PRICE: Yeah, we can.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Is Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman – is she going to visit China, and if not, why not? There’s been some back and forth on this, and just wondering if she’s going to go if it would have been to prepare for a higher-level meeting, and if not, then why not?

MR PRICE: Well, it was the National Security Advisor who, in the immediate aftermath of President Biden’s meeting with President Putin, who said that we – the President believes there is no substitute for face-to-face diplomacy, that we are prepared, if it’s appropriate, to engage in direct diplomacy with the PRC if and when it is in our interests, and when we think it would be constructive and meaningful to do so.

We have continued, to that end, to explore opportunities to engage with PRC officials, including at senior levels, as part of that broader effort, and it is an effort to advance U.S. interests and to seek to responsibly manage the relationship. This is no different in any other instance, in all travel abroad. We make announcements only once and if we determine that a visit has the potential to be just that, to be substantive, to be constructive for our purposes and for our interests. We have been clear that we will engage the PRC when it is – when it is in our interests, and when – and will do so in a practical, substantive, and direct manner, and that remains the case.

I think —

QUESTION: So the answer is no?

MR PRICE: The answer is there was a travel —

QUESTION: It was a pretty simple question.

MR PRICE: There was a travel announcement for the deputy secretary last week. I just don’t have —

QUESTION: Okay. Well, is she going to Brazil?

MR PRICE: I don’t have any updates from the travel announcements that —

QUESTION: Well, is she going to Suriname?

MR PRICE: — that —

QUESTION: If you can say no to them, why can’t you say no to China if she’s not going there?

MR PRICE: — we – Matt, we released last week. But Matt, if you will indulge me, I do want to come back to your first question because I have a bit more on the funding for this. So initial —

QUESTION: For Fort Lee?

MR PRICE: For Fort Lee.

QUESTION: Yes.

MR PRICE: Initial refugee resettlement costs such as for housing upon arrival, home furnishings, clothing and food, they’re funded by a per-capita grant from the Department of State to the resettlement agency responsible for receiving the refugee upon arrival. So this is —

QUESTION: That’s the Pentagon.

MR PRICE: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: That’s the Pentagon.

MR PRICE: This is – this is in the – once they become – once they have cleared the final processing we’re talking here. So this is refugee resettlement. And this year the per-capita grant amount is 22 – $2,200 and 75 – $2,275.

QUESTION: Okay, but —

QUESTION: Per person?

MR PRICE: Per person.

QUESTION: But who – but who pays – who’s going to pay for them[2] while they’re at Fort Lee?

MR PRICE: That we’ll see if we can get you an answer, but there is a per-capita grant involved in this.

All right. Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thanks.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:17 p.m.)

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