2:03 p.m. EDT
MR KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. A couple of things at the top. You probably saw the statement that I just put out about Thailand. I’d like to cover some of the high points in here as well, if I could.
We condemn Thailand’s forced deportation of over – today of over 100 ethnic Uighurs to China, where they could face harsh treatment and a lack of due process. And we are concerned for the welfare of these individuals.
We’ve expressed our grave disappointment to Thailand, and we urge Thai authorities as well as authorities in other countries where Uighurs have taken refuge not to carry out any further forcible deportations. We also urge Chinese authorities to uphold international human rights norms with regard to these individuals who have been returned to China and to ensure transparency, due process, and the safety and proper treatment of these individuals.
We also likewise condemn the violent attacks against the Thai honorary consulate in Istanbul, and we urge all parties to peacefully express their views.
A quick note on the U.S. and Switzerland. Today the United States and Switzerland signed an agreement providing a framework for cooperation on vocational education and training, and also announced new apprenticeships to be offered by 18 Swiss companies here in the United States. Secretary of Commerce Pritzker and Swiss Vice President and Federal Counselor Schneider-Ammann signed the agreement at the Commerce Department. The Swiss companies are bringing their expertise to the U.S. on a wide range of fields from aircraft maintenance to insurance adjusting, IT management, software development, and machine tooling. This kind of international cooperation has a real benefit here in the United States, helping create quality jobs and career paths.
And then lastly, the United States is pleased to welcome Burma as the 191st state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. We fully support Burma’s efforts and continue to offer our technical experts to assist Burma with its national implementation of the treaty as needed. Burma’s commitment to join the CWC serves as a reminder that the international community is one step closer to achieving the goal of completely eliminating the scourge of chemical weapons.
With that, we’ll go to questions. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I wonder if I could ask about Russia. General Dunford told Congress today that Russia is the greatest threat to U.S. national security, and I was wondering if the State Department shares that assessment.
MR KIRBY: Well, what we’ve said all along and continue to maintain is that Russia certainly represents significant security challenges to not just U.S. national interests but to the national interests of our allies and partners in Europe. And that’s why we are taking – that’s why we are taking such significant measures in the last couple of years particularly to make sure we can reassure our partners in Europe, can reinforce our commitment to Article 5, and to try to work towards a full implementation of the Minsk agreement.
You may have seen Assistant Secretary Nuland was – met with Deputy Foreign Minister Karasin today. They talked about Minsk and how to better get the agreement actually implemented – both sides. And I think – and you may have seen the Russian side speaking to this meeting that they though it was productive, constructive, and the basis for further dialogue.
QUESTION: Could you maybe elaborate on what he might have meant by a threat to U.S. national security?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to speak for General Dunford. I think General Dunford, a seasoned American general —
QUESTION: But —
MR KIRBY: Hang on a second. I got you, I got you. I’ll get to you. I’m not going to speak for General Dunford. I mean, a seasoned American general who is expected and is paid to offer his frank military assessment, and that’s for him to speak to.
Okay, now you can go.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you very much.
MR KIRBY: You’re just jumping out of your chair.
QUESTION: So within 24 hours, two top U.S. military officials called Russia the greatest threat to U.S. national security. Is that the official position of the U.S. Government?
MR KIRBY: I won’t speak for the comments made by members of the —
QUESTION: But is it the position —
MR KIRBY: — senior leaders of the Defense Department. I think I’ve stated – I stated very clearly nobody – I think everybody in the United States Government shares the same sense of concern over the security challenges that Russia is representing, particularly on the European continent.
QUESTION: They didn’t call it “a threat,” “a challenge.” They said “the greatest.” Isn’t it confusing that from this podium you say one thing and the top military officials say something else?
MR KIRBY: I’m – I don’t know how to answer your question.
QUESTION: But you don’t seem to be saying that – you don’t – do you agree with them?
MR KIRBY: I just told you what our position here is: that we are mindful of the security challenges that Russia continues to pose on the European continent, and nobody’s turning a blind eye to that.
QUESTION: Would you call it the greatest threat to the U.S.?
MR KIRBY: I will let the Defense Department speak to this issue – to the issue as they see it from their perspective. I think that everybody in the —
QUESTION: But what is the U.S. State Department perspective?
MR KIRBY: If you just let me finish. I promise I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: Thank you. Sure.
MR KIRBY: Okay? Everybody in the United States Government shares the same sense of concern about where Russia is headed – their aggressive actions, their violation of Ukrainian territory and sovereignty. And everybody wants to see Minsk implemented. That is a solid position across the government. I won’t speak to what other people outside this building – their assessments. That’s – they get paid to offer those assessments and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment one way or the other.
We all in the United States Government share the same sense of concern about where Russia is heading and what they’ve done over the last couple of years.
QUESTION: But you don’t just speak just for this building but for the foreign policy of the United States, right? So how can —
MR KIRBY: I don’t speak for Defense Department equities and what Defense Department leaders might be saying.
QUESTION: But do you agree with their position, with their statement, that Russia is the greatest —
MR KIRBY: I think we all agree – I’ll say it one more time.
QUESTION: Do you agree with that?
MR KIRBY: I’ll say it one more time. I think we all agree —
QUESTION: That it is the greatest threat.
MR KIRBY: — and share a sense of concern about the security challenges that Russia represents on the continent.
QUESTION: But you do not agree that it is the greatest threat to U.S. national security?
MR KIRBY: I’ve answered the question.
QUESTION: No, you have not.
MR KIRBY: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Is it the greatest threat —
MR KIRBY: Yes, sir. Go ahead.
QUESTION: — to U.S. national security?
QUESTION: I wanted to go to Malaysia, if I may. I was wondering if you could comment on reports that the U.S. is planning to upgrade Malaysia from the bottom rank in the – this year’s human trafficking report?
MR KIRBY: Yeah, look, I’ve seen these press reports about the Trafficking in Persons Report. That report is not finalized; work continues on it here at the State Department, and so it would be very premature for me to get into any characterization of what may or may not be in that report.
What I can tell you is that the analysis that the report represents is based on a very pragmatic sets – set of assessments in each case, and it’s something we take very, very seriously. And when the report is finalized and when we can talk about it and the contents of it, we will.
QUESTION: So is it fair then to say that the contents of the report will be based only on the findings made by the relevant department and the investigators and not on any considerations such as Malaysia’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think, as you know, I mean, this is a report we have to do annually. We take it very, very seriously. And it is – it’s one that is done with a significant amount of coordination here at the State Department across directorates here inside the State Department, and that’s how the report is pulled together and factored in. It’s, as I said, done on a very pragmatic analysis of various factors.
QUESTION: Sure. But I think what people are wondering is there’s – independent experts and NGOs say that Malaysia has not made any kind of improvement in its trafficking in persons record, and so any upgrade by the United States State Department would smack of a effort by the Administration to bypass a provision passed by Congress in TPA that would bar TPP from being fast-tracked if Malaysia was included.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: And I was – and I’m wondering if you can tell us from the podium that that would not be the case, that that would not be a consideration in where Malaysia winds up in the Trafficking in Persons Report.
MR KIRBY: Well, again, you’re asking me to talk about details in a report that hasn’t been finalized yet, and I’m just not going to do that and I’m not going to talk about hypotheticals. What I will tell you is that the report is put together here at the State Department, it’s well coordinated inside across the bureaus, and many factors go into the ratings that are given to countries. It’s not done from a political perspective. It’s done from a pragmatic analysis of progress or not made in trafficking of people.
QUESTION: Okay. But it’s a – I mean, it’s a simple yes-or-no question of whether the Administration’s desire to include Malaysia in the Trans-Pacific Partnership will influence its standing in the Trafficking in Persons Report. Is that a yes or no?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to talk about – I’m not going to talk about a report that hasn’t been finalized. But to suggest —
QUESTION: It has more to do with the process of putting the report together than with the actual report.
MR KIRBY: No, I understand. I mean – but I’m just not going to get ahead of a report that’s not done yet. I know what you’d like me to say. I’m just not going to go there until this report is done.
What I can tell you is the analysis that’s done is, again, very pragmatic. It’s very focused on facts. It’s about progress made or not made, and there is a – as there should be, a rigorous discussion about those facts and that analysis before a final adjudication is made on any given country in that report. But it’s not finalized yet.
QUESTION: Just one more on that, if we can go back to —
MR KIRBY: Ma’am, if you’re going to ask me the same question again, I’m not going to have any kind of a different answer for you.
QUESTION: It is not the same exact question. Is the official position of the U.S. Government different from the position of the country’s top military generals – officials?
MR KIRBY: I’ve told you how we view the security challenges that Russia represents. I am not going to speak for the assessments made by leaders outside this department. That is not my role, it’s not my place, and it would be inappropriate. And I’m not going to take any more questions on this.
QUESTION: Yeah. Very quickly, John, I assume that you’re speaking about General Dunford’s testimony at – on the Hill? Are – is that the topic?
MR KIRBY: That was the basis of the question —
QUESTION: Okay. Now, he also said just —
MR KIRBY: — about 10 questions ago.
QUESTION: Okay. Let me just – sorry. Apologies for being late. I just wanted to ask you whether this consideration of arming Ukraine —
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Is that something that we are likely to see in the next couple weeks —
MR KIRBY: There’s been no change to the U.S. policy about assistance to Ukraine. We continue to review and examine all Ukrainian requests for assistance as we have. The focus of the support that’s been provided has been on the nonlethal side. I’m not aware of – not that I’m not aware; there are no policy changes with respect to that.
QUESTION: Now, just a quick follow-up: There has also been reports that Chechen fighters and other Islamist extremists are actually going into Ukraine to fight against the rebels in eastern Ukraine. Are you aware of these reports?
MR KIRBY: We’ve seen these reports. And what I would say, Said, is that we’ve long talked to Ukrainian authorities about the composition and the makeup of volunteer and/or militia forces that are in Ukraine, and we’ve certainly provided our counsel with respect to how adequate organization, command and control, and that kind of thing should be done.
Yeah, right here.
MR KIRBY: Germany.
QUESTION: The region, yeah.
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: In the weekly Spiegel today published that U.S. is pushing to Chancellor Angela Merkel in order to Greece to stay in the euro. Do you have any comment on that?
MR KIRBY: Well, look, on Greece, let me just restate what we’ve been saying here. Secretary Lew is sort of leading the coordination efforts here in the United States Government on what’s happening with Greece, but essentially, this is between Greece and their creditors, and that’s where the discussion lies. I won’t speak for what Secretary Lew’s views may be on this. We’re watching this situation closely, just like everybody else, and what we want here at the State Department is a path forward that allows Greece to continue the necessary reforms it needs to return to a rate of growth and to deal with their debt in a sustainable way, and that’s really where we are focused right now.
QUESTION: Turkey. Germany-based Focus magazine published a report claiming NSA spied on a top Turkish security meeting about the possible Turkish intervention in Syria to protect the Turkish enclave in 2014. The magazine claims NSA tapped Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan’s phone and therefore collected the audio from the meeting. This story is on many front pages of today’s Turkish newspapers. Does U.S. Government spy on Turkish authorities, or do you have any comment on that?
MR KIRBY: I’ll say the same thing I’ve been saying throughout when we’ve talked about these issues: We’re not going to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence or disclosure activity. I just – I would refer you to the National Security Council for anything more.
QUESTION: John, just a follow-up on that.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Can you update us on the meeting of General Allen with the Turks, Turkish counterpart? It seems that the United States Government is trying to sort of press Turkey to sort of control its border a little better and disallow against entry of foreign fighters.
MR KIRBY: What I can tell you, Said, is that General Allen as well as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth, as well as an interagency delegation, did hold constructive meetings over the course of the last couple of days with Turkish counterparts to discuss our mutual efforts in the coalition – a broad coalition against ISIL. And I believe General Allen will be returning shortly from those discussions.
I’m not going to detail all the various things that were discussed, but I think you can understand that – I mean, again, it was a pretty wide-ranging sets of discussions about all the different challenges we’re facing against ISIL.
QUESTION: But you don’t see eye-to-eye with the Turks on the local partners, because you definitely look at the Kurdish fighters in the north one way and Turkey looks at them in another. Is this a – potentially a point of conflict between you and Turkey?
MR KIRBY: We’ve talked about this before, Said. I mean, we understand the Turkish concerns with respect to fighters across the border. We’ve long said that. This is not a new topic of discussion. It’s not something that we ignore. What our focus on inside Syria is against ISIL. That’s the focus of the coalition effort. And I’d like to remind everybody that Turkey is a part of that coalition, not just a NATO ally but a part of that coalition, and they’re contributing to the effort.
They also have a significant refugee problem that they’re dealing with, and dealing with ably, considering the heavy demands that these millions of refugees are placing upon their infrastructure.
So lots of issues to discuss with Turkey; understand those concerns. But I think everybody shares a concern about where ISIL is going and about moving forward and trying to stop this group.
QUESTION: A follow-up on Turkey?
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: Is there any way you can confirm the reports that part of the Incirlik airbase is now open to coalition or U.S. forces to use more actively against ISIL?
MR KIRBY: No, I mean, I’ve some press reporting on that, but I’m in no position to confirm any kind of decision in that regard.
QUESTION: One more on Turkey. A couple weeks ago you were asked about these letters sent by Secretary Kerry to the Congress regarding a strategic dialogue between the Turkey and U.S. regarding the human right issues. I was wondering if you have any update on that proposal.
MR KIRBY: I do not. No.
QUESTION: You do not.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Any update on the – I don’t know it’s a base or it is something in Erbil that I think you mentioned in the past it would be used for the rescue mission. When you were at DOD I asked you some questions. So is there any update that this base – it’s not a base, but it is also will be used for the rescue mission. What is the update?
MR KIRBY: I love how you’re trying to get me to answer this by saying it’s not a base, and since I’m not a military guy anymore I should be able to talk to places that aren’t bases. I don’t have any update for you. You’d have to go to DOD —
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
MR KIRBY: — and I’m no longer an employee at DOD. So, yeah.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: We spoke to President Morales this morning, and he says that he wants to restore full diplomatic relations with the United States, but he’s not received a response to a request to meet with President Obama. I just wondered what the U.S. position is and what it would take to restore full relations with Bolivia.
MR KIRBY: Our position is that we continue to engage with the Bolivian Government to discuss avenues for improving the relationship. We seek a productive relationship based on mutual respect and trust. There’s a number of areas in which we do engage cooperatively with the Bolivian Government, including commercial and environmental issues. And I mean, if you exclude natural gas, for instance, we’re the largest importer of Bolivian goods in the world. So there’s lots of issues that we can – or that are uniquely bilateral – cultural perseveration, people-to-people exchanges. And so there – we’re – there are ways we’re engaging. We’re always looking for ways to try to improve that. But I don’t have any announcements to make.
QUESTION: But specifically on restoring full relations, what – is there a conditions-based process then? What is —
MR KIRBY: I don’t have any updates on the – with respect to the restoration of diplomatic relations. As I said at the outset, we’re always seeking to try to find ways to improve the bilateral relationship.
QUESTION: Yeah. Can we go to the Iran talks? I know we can’t improve on what the Secretary said —
MR KIRBY: No, I can’t.
QUESTION: — but I wanted to ask you: Regarding Congress, now that they have more time, would that really sort of relieve the pressure on the negotiation, perhaps give the United States a much stronger position to negotiate over the next, let’s say, three or four weeks?
MR KIRBY: Well, the question implies that the deadline of the 9th or the time – the 9th was somehow driving the pace of negotiations, and that’s just not so. And that has not been a factor weighing heavily on Secretary Kerry’s mind over there in Vienna. You heard him say it today: These talks are not going to be open-ended, but that while progress is being made, he believes it’s important to stay at the table. And that’s, as I’ve said day after day after day, that’s where his head is, is what – is inside that negotiating room and trying to reach the right deal for the American people and for our national security interests.
QUESTION: What about congressional pressure? Does that give Congress more of a leeway to even insert more pressure on the Secretary and on the Administration on what kind of deal they ought to negotiate?
MR KIRBY: Well, the legislation as written gives them more time now to review the document. But it doesn’t – it’s not going to fundamentally change the character of any deal that’s reached. And I would remind you there’s no deal right now.
MR KIRBY: And again, I think the Secretary was far more eloquent about it today than I can be that whatever deal – if we get a deal – if we get a deal, it’s going to have to be good enough to withstand the test of time. And he put it in the terms – he put it in terms of decades. So I think he was very clear about what he’s driving at. And it’s not being driven by the clock on the wall or the date on the calendar.
QUESTION: More on Iran. The Democratic senators who met with the President came back and quoted him as saying chances of a deal are less than 50/50. Does the department agree with those odds?
MR KIRBY: Well, I’m not going to speak to specifics that the – about the President, what he may or may not have said to congressmen at the White House. That would be inappropriate here. I can point you, though, and I will say that the President and Secretary Kerry for many, many months now have been very pragmatic and clear-eyed about how they’ve spoken to potential outcomes here. I mean, you can go back and look for yourself. But I think the President, the Vice President as well, and certainly Secretary Kerry have made it very clear that nothing’s a done deal until there is a deal, and that – and they’ve been, I think, suitably pragmatic about what the outcomes might be. And I think – again, you heard Secretary Kerry say it again today. I mean, I think he expressed the same exact clear-eyed sense of it today that he always has.
QUESTION: Another – new subject?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: A couple questions.
MR KIRBY: It’s not about yoga, is it?
QUESTION: No, no yoga. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: Okay.
QUESTION: I hope you are doing – you’re doing great. Anyway – (laughter) – you have done your yoga at the DOD.
MR KIRBY: Yes, I did.
QUESTION: So a couple questions. As far as these BRICS made of five nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa —
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: — meeting in Russia, anything new you have that – any impact on U.S. and bilateral relations with these five countries, what they decide? And also, signing and inaugurating the development bank, this may be a challenge to the IMF and the World Bank?
MR KIRBY: Okay. Those are two different things, I think, Goyal. I don’t have any update on what’s coming out of the BRIC conference. As you know, Foreign Minister Lavrov departed – I think he’s back in Vienna now, but – or if not, will be soon, and – but I wouldn’t have any readouts from that. I mean, this is a conference that I think I’d let national leaders speak to their participation.
On the – I think what you’re talking about is the AIIB, right – the Asian Instructure Investment Bank. Nothing’s changed about our position on that – I mean, that – look, these are, first of all, decisions that nations have to make for themselves, and that what we would like to see – and I said this before – is that the same sort of procedures, process, transparency, discipline, and organization that is applied to organizations like the IMF would be used for the AIIB. That China wants to lead or help do this, I mean, that can be – that could be a productive thing. But it’s – the devil’s going to be in the details and we’re just going to have to see.
QUESTION: And the second: As far as you – India and Pakistan relations are concerned, two leaders also meeting in Russia at this meeting. But the problem is people of Pakistan and people of India both want peace – both want these two civilian leaders to meet and solve the problems and open the doors for people-to-people.
But now I understand that according to experts in Pakistan, also in India, also here in the U.S., Pakistan is being run by three governments – civilian government under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, ISI, and the military. Whenever two leaders of two nation wants to meet, somehow before their meeting the statement will come – last time the statement was made by General Musharraf, and now the statement was made by – yesterday by the defense minister of Pakistan that we have bombs, nuclear bomb, and if needed we will use against India. And also it is a warning to – for India.
So what do we make? What is the future? What role you can – U.S. can play to bring these two civilian governments on a table rather than involving the – because India’s military is not involving anywhere in these talks or the intelligence agencies of India. But only it happens from Pakistan.
MR KIRBY: Well, look, I didn’t see those comments and I can’t speak for how leaders in either country are going to make announcements on their bilateral relationship – or, frankly, their bilateral tensions. I think we welcome the recent meeting between Indian and Pakistani leaders there on the sidelines of this – of this conference. And we also welcome any steps that both countries can take to try to reduce the tensions. That’s been our longstanding position. You heard the Secretary say it here just a couple of weeks ago. We want to see the tensions reduced, and we want to see these issues resolved bilaterally between the two countries. It’s in nobody’s interest for the tensions to rise and to increase, and for the tensions in the region to become less stable in many ways than they already are.
You mention both want peace; that’s certainly what we want as well. There’s an awful lot of kids living in that part of the world who I think everybody wants to make sure they have a better future. And I think that’s what we would hope the leaders in both countries are also trying to pursue. But this is ultimately – these are issues that we want to see them solve bilaterally.
QUESTION: May I go one more, John? Back – this on Greece, a question on Greece financial problems, please?
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Once Greek was a major financial center, and so old, ancient, and Alexander the Great. He made money, today’s economy billions and billions of dollars by hooks and crooks, but what he said when he left the world before he died, he opened both his hands, and he said, I’m not taking anything with me, and I’m leaving all this wealth for my future generation.
My question is here – you think this impact of Greece may follow other nations in Europe because President Obama’s initiative to open the Swiss banks where all the black market money was going, including billions and billions from India, and now the banks are open, of course, thanks to the U.S. Treasury and the President Obama – you think this is the – because of this happening, all this?
MR KIRBY: Well, you got me on Alexander the Great. I – (laughter) – I got a history degree from the University of South Florida, but I didn’t learn that part of him. I guess I was – of course, my grades weren’t all that good, so it could’ve – (laughter) – I might just have been asleep that day.
I mean, look, I think – I’m not going to get into a forensics on how Greece got to the point that it’s in right now. We’re watching this closely, and I think – again, and I won’t speak for Secretary Lew or the Treasury Department, but I think it’s safe to say that from a U.S. Government perspective, what we want to see is debt sustainability. We want to see Greece work this out with their creditors and – and I would just point you to what Greek leaders have said themselves, the prime minister specifically, that he sees the future of Greece in the Eurozone.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
MR KIRBY: Said.
QUESTION: Yeah. Very quickly on the former Secretary Clinton emails. The – apparently in an email, Secretary Clinton early in 2009 told her staff that she got a call from former Secretary Condoleezza Rice that there’s been no promises by the former administration, the Bush Administration, to okay settlement and settlement expansion and so on. I wonder if you would comment on that, or are you aware of the email?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have any visibility on that specific email, Said. And I – as a – just as a matter of principle, as I’ve tried to do from here, we’re not going to get into the specific content of the email traffic.
QUESTION: Because the Israelis – and the former Israeli ambassador to this town is disputing that. And he said basically the Obama Administration broke with a promise that it had given former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the expansion of settlements.
MR KIRBY: I just – again, I’m not going to get into the content of this email traffic. But Said, you’ve – you know very well our policy on settlements hasn’t changed at all. It remains exactly the same.
Okay. Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it. Only 35 minutes.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:33 p.m.)