Department Press Briefing
March 20, 2018
2:55 p.m. EDT
MS NAUERT: Hi, everybody.
MS NAUERT: Hi. Good afternoon. Welcome.
So you may see some very young, fresh faces in the building today, and that’s because – yes, of course, I’m talking about Michelle here.
QUESTION: The new Trump political appointees?
MS NAUERT: No, just a little bit younger, Michelle. We have a new A-100 class that started this week, so we’re thrilled to welcome them. They’re not in the room with us here today, but they are here at the State Department and also over at the Foreign Service Institute. We have welcomed this week the 193rd Foreign Service Generalist Class on March 19th.
Thirty-six officers are in this class, in the A-100 training class over at FSI for the rest of the week. The class includes a number of distinguished veterans in U.S. Armed Forces, former Peace Corps volunteers, and former employees of various government agencies. In the private sector, they’ve worked as researchers, analysts, students, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and also contractors. Also included are two Thomas Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellows – one in the political career track, and one in the public diplomacy track. Almost all the class has post-graduate degrees, and many have worked, studied, or volunteered abroad. The languages spoken by the group include French, Romanian, Swahili, Tagalog, Spanish, Hindi, Czech, Japanese, and – well, there are a whole lot of others that I won’t --
MS NAUERT: -- that I won’t – thank you.
MS NAUERT: Thank you. So welcome to this class. And we look forward to seeing them around, and perhaps we can invite them to a briefing some day while they’re up there if they’re bored and want to join us.
Next I’d like to mention the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the United States. We would like to warmly welcome him on his visit to the United States. As you likely saw, the President met with the crown prince just a short while ago. Our Deputy Secretary John Sullivan was also over at the White House for a lunch in his honor earlier today.
Saudi Arabia is a key partner and a longtime friend of the United States. The U.S.-Saudi relationship has evolved and strengthened since 1940, when our two countries first established full diplomatic ties. Saudi Arabia’s security is a priority for the United States, and we work closely with our Saudi partners to counter the threatening behavior of dangerous actors in the region. The visit provides an important opportunity for discussions on a wide range of regional and bilateral issues. We look forward to further strengthening U.S.-Saudi relationship and advancing our common security and economic priorities.
And lastly, I’d like to draw your attention to the ongoing humanitarian crisis taking place in Venezuela. Effective immediately, the United States is increasing its humanitarian assistance to Venezuelans who are in Colombia, who were forced to leave their own country due to the ongoing crisis created by the Maduro regime. USAID is providing a new initial immediate assistance – excuse me, initial immediate assistance – which totals $2.5 million in partnership with the Government of Colombia. That funding is in addition to $36.5 million that the State Department is providing in Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018 to support the regional humanitarian operations of UNHCR and other international organizations. The operations include assistance for Venezuelans who are now residing outside of their country.
We applaud the government and the people of Colombia for the compassion in hosting hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who’ve fled their country. The United States stands with the hemisphere and democratic nations around the world in support of the Venezuelan people, wherever they may be. We will continue to closely monitor the crisis. And we are aware that UNHCR has issued an appeal for funding, and we are now considering that additional funding.
And with that, I’d be happy to take your questions.
MS NAUERT: Hi, Matt.
QUESTION: Hello. Happy Tuesday.
MS NAUERT: Tuesday.
QUESTION: Just briefly, very briefly on the A-100 class --
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: This is the first of the year, correct?
MS NAUERT: Yes, it is.
QUESTION: And how many more are planned?
MS NAUERT: I don’t know the answer to that, but we’re happy to have the first one, and if I can find out how many more classes will be announced, I will let you know.
QUESTION: And – that and any progress made on the strategic hiring. Is that still a thing since the Secretary has gone?
MS NAUERT: Which the – the hiring --
QUESTION: SHI – the SHI, SHI?
MS NAUERT: The hiring freeze, is that what you mean?
QUESTION: No, the Strategic Hiring Initiative that was announced by the deputy secretary a couple weeks ago.
MS NAUERT: And this is where we can bring on people on an as needed --
QUESTION: The end of the hiring freeze.
MS NAUERT: -- on an as-needed basis. I believe --
QUESTION: I’m just wondering if there’s --
MS NAUERT: -- I believe that that is all ongoing, but I’ll double-check the details and provide them to you.
QUESTION: Okay. Because I just would like to know if there’s any impact that has – if that has any impact on the A-100 class.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Now, let’s start with --
MS NAUERT: They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them, though, those A-100 students do.
QUESTION: Oh, I’m sure they do. I’m sure they do. Let’s start with Russia, given --
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: -- the fact that I don’t believe you guys have said anything yet – this building has not said anything yet – about the election over the weekend. What did you make of it?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. I think I would first draw attention to the fact that it’s simply no surprise that Vladimir Putin was reelected and that he remains the leader of Russia. We have talked for a long time here about the clampdown on many of the freedoms that people should enjoy in Russia and have not been able to enjoy. We’re watching closely the monitors who were involved in the election – the gold standard of monitors, the OSCE monitors. They have issued a preliminary report on the election. We have no reason to doubt that the report’s conclusions are incorrect. We have every reason to believe that the conclusions are correct.
I’d like to read for you a – just an excerpt from their preliminary report. The OSCE ODIHR team noted that the election in Russia “took place in an overly controlled legal and political environment, marked by continued pressure on critical voices… Restrictions on…fundamental freedoms… resulted in a lack of genuine competition… [and] an uneven playing field.” We saw on the news over the weekend that some people were paid to turn out to vote. We’ve seen that opposition leaders have been intimidated, jailed, and other things of the sort. So I would just draw us back to the OSCE preliminary report. We will review that report. We’ll take a look at their final report when it comes out.
QUESTION: Okay. So just a little aside, ODIHR --
MS NAUERT: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: We like to call it “oh dear.”
MS NAUERT: Oh, thank you, Matt.
MS NAUERT: I’ll tell you, Matt – Matt should be doing this job. What are you doing sitting down there, Matt?
QUESTION: This is very – this is a bit of a contrast here between what you just said and what was not said at the White House a little while ago, what was not said in the President’s phone call with President Putin, at least according to what the White House said. Does this mean your acceptance – your endorsement of the ODIHR assessment – does that mean that you do not believe that the Russian – that this election was a free and fair one?
MS NAUERT: I think that we would agree with the OSCE and its preliminary report. Again, it’s preliminary. We’ve seen all the news that has come out of Russia. I would direct you back to the readout that the White House provided of the President’s phone call with Vladimir Putin. Just because you see certain words in a readout does not mean that the call wasn’t more comprehensive than the readout that was provided.
QUESTION: Okay. But one --
MS NAUERT: We’ve seen that on many occasions at the State Department, where a readout just provides somewhat of a limited scope or description of a phone call.
QUESTION: Right. But, I mean, one thing that the President said himself but also was in the statement was that he had congratulated President Putin on his victory. Is that something the State Department shares --
MS NAUERT: You know what? I would say that that’s called protocol. And there are many countries from around the world that when someone wins, if you will, an election, that you pick up the phone and you place that phone call. We saw that from Macron; we’ve seen that from other world leaders who have done the same thing with Vladimir Putin. People call the United States when we participate in an election and win an election. So I’d just say that’s standard.
QUESTION: Well, but --
MS NAUERT: Look, there’s one thing that we have to do. Whether folks like it or not, we have a relationship with the Russian Government. That is just a part of the world. That is just simply a reality. That does not mean that we agree with them on everything. That does not mean that we get along on every single issue. We have been very clear about calling them out for their responsibility of the horrific attacks that have continued to take place in Eastern Ghouta, in Syria, and we hold Russia accountable for that. So I want to be clear that we call out Russia when they are responsible for an action and we will not hesitate to do so. But the reality is that we are two nuclear powers, two superpowers in this world, and we still have to be able to pick up the phone and have a dialogue and conversation with one another.
QUESTION: Well, that’s okay. That’s understood. But the OSCE didn’t come out with a damning report about the French presidential election. You don’t – I don’t remember the President calling up President Maduro of Venezuela after he won in what you guys said was a sham election last year. I can’t remember any president calling up President Mugabe and saying, “Congrats on your Zimbabwe election” over the course of decades, until he was finally ousted. So I just don’t --
MS NAUERT: Well, Matt, I can give you the phone numbers to reach Angela Merkel, also Macron, and --
QUESTION: Oh, if you got their cell --
MS NAUERT: -- the President of the United States. You can call them and ask them why those world leaders and others did this as well. The reality is we have to have a relationship, whether folks like it or not.
QUESTION: Did you get Chancellor Merkel’s number from the NSA or somewhere – someone else? (Laughter.)
MS NAUERT: I’ll see – very funny. I’ll see where I – yeah.
QUESTION: And just the last thing on this.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: When she was asked if – that you guys thought that the election was free and fair, your colleague Sarah Sanders said, “We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate.” Does this – I mean, no one is saying that the United States dictates how other countries operate, but you do call them out. And you seem to have called them out here, despite what the – what was not said at the White House. So I’m just wondering, when the Human Rights Reports come out later on this month, potentially, or next month, is there going to be criticism or a recognition of shortcomings in other countries’ elections, regardless of Russia --
MS NAUERT: Well, that Human Rights Report has not been released just yet. We look forward to releasing it in the coming weeks. We don’t have a date for it just yet. It is not – it has not been finalized at this point, so I’m not going to preview what’s in it. And by the way, it’s big, thick, and I haven’t taken a look at all the details yet.
QUESTION: You’re not removing the United States from the – from criticizing elections that don’t meet international standards, are you?
MS NAUERT: The State Department – the State Department does this. We will certainly call out other countries, where other countries are responsible for bad actions. That hasn’t changed. That doesn’t change administration to administration.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Lesley, go ahead.
QUESTION: So Heather, by the President calling and congratulating President Putin, was he actually saying that he then accepts that he is the new leader of Russia?
MS NAUERT: As you know, I’m not over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I’m right here. So I’d have to refer you to the White House for that. I was not on the call, I don’t know the tone, I don’t know what was said in the call beyond what was released in the readout and knowing that they also addressed some other matters, such as Syria and other things that were not included in the readout.
QUESTION: Right. Has there been anything from this department to the Russian Government as far as reaching out and saying that they – you don’t necessarily agree with them.
MS NAUERT: Not that I’m – not that I am aware of. I’m sure our embassy has had contact with the government, I would imagine. But I don’t have anything specific to provide you.
QUESTION: And then I have a follow-up. So if you – if the congratulatory phone call to President Putin from Donald Trump accepts that he is the new president, do you expect – and also this was the same week that the U.S. – well, actually was it? Today is Wednesday. I think it was Friday where the U.S. added sanctions to – against Russian officials.
MS NAUERT: That was last week, yeah.
MS NAUERT: Last Thursday.
QUESTION: Correct. Do you expect President Putin to soften his stance towards U.S. – do you expect President Putin to be less aggressive towards the U.S. now, or do you see the U.S. continuing to up its pressure on Russia through sanctions?
MS NAUERT: Well, sanctions remain a tool in the toolkit of the United States and many other countries. It’s something that we don’t hesitate to use. Whether it’s sanctions related to CAATSA – that’s what was announced last week – we don’t preview our sanctions, but keep an eye on what will be coming forward in the coming weeks and months with regard to the United States and Russia.
We have put sanctions in place as a result of Russia’s activities in Ukraine. We, as many of you will recall, kicked out diplomats last year, or not that long ago. We also shuttered some of their buildings here in the United States, to much criticism from many in the press who accused us of being overly aggressive in asking the Russians to leave and in closing down some of those buildings.
So we will take those actions and won’t hesitate to take those actions when they’re necessary and we believe they’re correct to do so. Okay. Hi, Michelle.
QUESTION: Thanks. Speaking of holding Russia accountable, how would you describe the process as it stands right now for punishing or taking action against Russia for the spy poisoning?
MS NAUERT: I’m sorry. Say that again?
QUESTION: Well, how would you describe where the process is right now in terms of looking at possibly taking action against Russia after the poisoning in the U.K.?
MS NAUERT: I think I just addressed that with Leslie. Let me back up for just a minute and say we stand firmly by our ally, firmly by the Brits. We have every reason to believe their accounting and their concerns, as do many other countries as well, about what took place against the – the gentleman living in the U.K.
So you saw the statement that was put out by the EU. NATO put out a statement, as well as did the Quad. So many other countries share out tremendous concerns about this activity that Russia took against this individual and his daughter living in the United Kingdom. So we understand and support what the British Government has chosen to do in terms of kicking out the Russian diplomats from its country.
As I just said to Leslie a minute ago, we’re not going to preview some of our activities, but we are watching closely and we may be taking action.
QUESTION: Okay. And what would – because the U.S. at this point believes the U.K.’s assessment, has no reason to disbelieve it, how does that make Russia any different from say North Korea, which has now been designated a state sponsor of terror for a very similar assassination.
MS NAUERT: Right, we covered this last week. You may recall that under the chemical weapons treaty, that North Korea was determined to be out of compliance with that treaty obligation, and that is because North Korea used a weapon, a chemical agent, against Kim Jong-un’s – I always forget – half-brother or step brother? Half-brother. Thank you – used that. It was not something that was put in place right away, sanctions against North Korea. So some of that can take some time. We evaluate, we assess, and then we put in place sanctions. I’m not going to rule out that that won’t happen in the future. Okay?
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Can I move on?
MS NAUERT: Hi. Said, hi.
QUESTION: Wait – some Russia?
QUESTION: Yes --
MS NAUERT: Oh, okay. Said, let me come – let me – I’ll come back to you. Okay? We’ll do Said next.
MS NAUERT: Hey, Laurie.
QUESTION: Okay. Hi, just on Russia. The British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has said that over the past decade, Russia has stockpiled nerve agents. That’s not some simple small thing. Do you agree with that assessment that Russia has been stockpiling some significant amount of nerve agents?
MS NAUERT: I’m not sure that we have a final conclusion on that. We know that Russia has declared some of its stockpiles, but I want to be clear that sometimes countries will not declare everything that they have. This is something that the United States will closely evaluate.
QUESTION: So you don’t accept as conclusive the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons’ determination that Russia had destroyed everything last fall? That’s not a conclusive determination?
MS NAUERT: Well, no. What I said is “declared,” and that’s the key word, what a country has declared. We believe that they have destroyed their declared stockpile, but whether or not there was something that perhaps was undeclared, that could be a different story. Okay? Said, hi.
QUESTION: Yes, I want to go to the Palestinian issue. Do you have any reaction to the speech by Palestinian Authority President Abbas in which he levied a direct insult on the American ambassador?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. I had a chance to meet with Ambassador Friedman last week and had dinner at his home, and spent some time with my colleagues in Tel Aviv and also for a short period of time in Jerusalem. I can say when I saw the comments that came out by Mahmoud Abbas – I mean, you look at that, it’s a terrible thing to say about anyone. It’s a terrible thing to say about a U.S. official. So comments like that are not only rude, but they’re unhelpful. They’re unhelpful because this administration would like to see an – pardon me, an Israeli and Palestinian peace process. What he said is – hampers the ability, we believe, to have the Israelis and Palestinians sit down and have a conversation together to work out a peace process.
What they should focus their ire on is the horrific situation that has been unfolding for residents in Gaza. You and I have talked about this on numerous occasions – the difficulties with electricity, with clean water, and all of that. Our colleague Felicia Schwartz back here knows that well since she’s spent quite a bit of time in Israel lately, which – by the way, can I say congratulations?
QUESTION: Not yet.
MS NAUERT: No? Nothing? Okay. All right, never mind. Disregard that.
MS NAUERT: In any event, so my point is, Said, that kind of comment is unhelpful.
QUESTION: Okay. Let me ask you, conversely --
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- but the ambassador said he – he said that President Abbas was anti-Semitic for saying what he said about him. Is that tantamount to anti-Semitism?
MS NAUERT: I haven’t seen that part of the – I haven’t seen that part of the comment, but it’s certainly --
QUESTION: Do you know – right.
MS NAUERT: -- not a kind thing that he said.
QUESTION: Right, right, okay. And basically, the context in which Abbas was talking was talking about what seems to be sort of an encouragement or support for settlement activities in the West Bank by the U.S. ambassador. Are you worried that there is a creeping annexation in the West Bank by their building settlements?
MS NAUERT: Said, we’ve talked about this so many times, I want to just hit the play-button, about settlements. And the President’s position on settlements has been clear that we do not believe that unrestrained settlement activity advances the cause for peace or the prospect for peace, and we’ve made that position clear to the government over there.
QUESTION: So there is an asymmetry between the position of the White House and the position of the American ambassador to Israel?
MS NAUERT: Look, we are all on the same page with regard to this. That is the administration’s policy and that’s what we work on from this building. Okay?
QUESTION: And one last thing, I promise.
MS NAUERT: And then I’m going to – and Said, last one, then I’m going to have to move on.
QUESTION: Right. I want to ask you about the young Palestinian teenager, Ahed Tamimi, who is being refused a public trial. She’s being tried behind closed doors for slapping an Israeli soldier. Do you have any comment on that? Are you concerned?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. I mean, I’m certainly aware of her case. You and I have talked about this before. We believe that people should have the right to a fair trial. Beyond that, Said, I’d just have to refer you to the Government of Israel for just the details on her particular case.
Miss, hi. Remind me, your name is?
QUESTION: Can we stay --
MS NAUERT: Zuzanna, hold on one second.
QUESTION: -- on the Abbas comment just for a second?
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: No doubt that what was said was offensive and terrible, but I mean, is this administration really in a position to take the moral high ground that it seems to be taking when the President of the United States routinely insults his political opponents, routinely denigrates members of the press and others and with language that is in some cases harsher than what President Abbas – what President Abbas used?
MS NAUERT: Matt, I think I would go back to one of the main tenets that we support here at the State Department, and that is not only the right to a free press but also the right to free speech. And I may not like and others may not like what Mahmoud Abbas had said about our ambassador. I don’t think it’s right. As a mom, as a woman, as a citizen of the United States, I don’t like hearing that about our ambassador. But we believe also in the right to free speech and that includes for our President as well. Okay?
QUESTION: Okay. So then there won’t be any, quote-unquote, “punishment” for President Abbas for using his right to free speech in this case?
MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of any whatsoever.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Okay? Okay. Go right ahead. Sorry, miss.
QUESTION: So Heather, a few days ago, 39 senators sent a letter to Acting Secretary John Sullivan in which they stressed their opposition towards Nord Stream 2 --
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: -- and encouraged the administration to utilize old tools at its disposal, including a provision in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act to prevent construction of the Nord Stream 2. A week before, Russian newspaper Kommersant informed that the U.S. has no appetite for introducing sanctions on Nord Stream 2. Do you think that, should the sanctions be introduced, of course, they could have a serious impact on the project and companies which are engaged in construction and financing of the projects like Nord Stream 2 or Turkish Stream 2?
MS NAUERT: Sure. So one of the things you’re talking about is CAATSA, and at the State Department, we’ve spent a lot of time speaking with our partners and allies in other countries overseas to explain to them the ramifications of CAATSA and how an individual or a company or a country could run afoul against CAATSA and fall into sanctions. So in general, as a general matter as you all know, we don’t tend to comment on sanctions actions, but we’ve been clear that firms that work in the Russian energy export pipeline sector could – if they engage in that kind of business, they could expose themselves to sanctions under CAATSA.
As many people know, we oppose the Nord Stream 2 project; the United States Government does. We believe that the Nord Stream 2 project would undermine Europe’s overall energy security and stability. It would provide Russia another tool to pressure European countries, especially countries such as Ukraine. We’ve seen that – what Russia has done in the past, when they’ve turned off the pipeline in the middle of winter, causing some families to not have heat, not have the oil that they need to stay warm or cook their food, and we think that that is simply wrong. Okay, thank you.
QUESTION: I thought that there was --
MS NAUERT: Sorry. Rich, hi.
QUESTION: Hi, Heather. Just a quick one on Pakistan. Has Pakistan come any closer to satisfying the conditions the United States has laid out to unfreeze the aid that was frozen? Any progress update on that relationship?
MS NAUERT: Sure. So we made an announcement – I believe it was late last year – my days get a little confused sometimes – about that freeze in the foreign military assistance for Pakistan. One of the things that the President has called for in his South Asia strategy is for Pakistan to take on greater responsibility for cracking down on terror groups. And we’ve certainly seen Pakistan take some positive steps in the right direction, but a lot more needs to be done, in terms of Pakistan cracking down not just on the Taliban, but the Haqqani Network and other terror networks as well.
Mike – Vice President Mike Pence met with the Prime Minister Abbasi of Pakistan just on Friday of last week. They talked about the overall South Asia strategy, the administration’s South Asia strategy, and that’s one of the things that the Vice President addressed with him. He said the Government of Pakistan has to do more to address the continued presence of terrorism in Pakistan. There’s a lot more that they can do, but they can also play a critical role in the – with the Taliban in getting the Taliban to come to the table in Pakistan.
QUESTION: So encouraged by some steps, and then – and what you were saying, the improvement, that has to do specifically with terror networks?
MS NAUERT: That is one of the key points, yes. Mm-hmm. Okay. Hi, Janne.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you very much. On North Korea, two questions on North Korea, quick questions.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Did you get any signal that North Korea has decided to release the U.S. detainees?
MS NAUERT: I don’t have anything for you on that. You know that the American citizens who are being held all around the world are – remains one of the top priorities of this administration. When the President first came into office, that was something that he directed the State Department to do, to best oversee the welfare, the care, and bringing home of American citizens who are being held overseas. We do have Americans there. You all know that, but I don’t have anything new for you on that.
QUESTION: So any optimistic or pessimistic signal from Ri Yong-ho talks with the Swedish ambassador in Sweden?
MS NAUERT: We don’t have anything on that. We were not a part of those talks in Sweden. Alicia, do you have a – Alicia, I know you want to get a question in earlier rather than later. Do you have anything today?
QUESTION: Actually, just following up on that.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Ambassador Yun on CNN last week said that he had reached out to the North Koreans and urged them to release the Americans. Was that a message that was coordinated with the State Department?
MS NAUERT: Not that I am aware of. If he did, I have no confirmation of him actually doing that. I saw part of the report that you’re referencing, but I just don’t have any confirmation as to whether or not he did that. We certainly hope that our people would be able to come home, though.
QUESTION: He also said that he would work for this administration again if asked. Is that at all being considered?
MS NAUERT: Not that I’m aware of. We have our colleagues firmly in place, and they are doing a great job. And we are pleased to have Mark Lambert having picked up Ambassador Yun’s responsibilities, and also Susan Thornton and others taking on that role. So they’re working hard on that portfolio.
QUESTION: North Korea.
MS NAUERT: Hey.
QUESTION: So still on that topic just to --
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: -- clarify something. The – there was a news report from MBC TV in Seoul – so South Korean media – that Pyongyang and Washington were working on an agreement to release the three U.S. citizens held there. So can you confirm that that report is incorrect?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. A bunch of you e-mailed me about that over the weekend, and I think that’s just purely speculation at this point. We would love to have our American citizens brought home – a huge priority for this administration – but as far as we’re concerned there’s nothing underway. We would all – however though, I want to be clear about how much we’d like our people to come home.
QUESTION: Sorry, I – has Mark actually taken over that job?
MS NAUERT: Not officially, but he’s handling that portfolio, as is Susan Thornton. All right. Dave, hi.
QUESTION: Hi. The State Department Global Engagement Center has a contract with a British company, Strategic Communications Laboratories, to provide support to their – well, the GEC stuff, the counterpropaganda effort. SCL Limited has been kicked off the Facebook platform because it’s the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. Can it continue to do its work without access to the Facebook platform, and do you share the concerns that Facebook have – has that it’s been misusing user data?
MS NAUERT: So I’m certainly aware of that report. What our relationship with that company – the Global Engagement Center entered in a contract with Strategic Communications Laboratories. That is a division or a sister company of this Cambridge Analytica. The State Department has never worked with Cambridge Analytica, so I want to make that clear.
The type of work that they have done for the Global Engagement Center is not related to social media. We do not take social media information. What – the way that we have engaged them is we have hired them overseas in other countries to conduct in-person interviews. Part of our – the portfolio that they have handled for us is the de-radicalization, essentially, of people who would be interested in joining ISIS. So the company has engaged with people who have either left the battlefield or people who might be prime for joining groups of that nature, and we’ve gotten information from them and talked with them about it. So it’s not a social media-based thing.
QUESTION: Okay. But – and it isn’t in the social media that they’re accused of unethical practices, but they have been accused of unethical practices. Do you have any concerns about them as a company?
MS NAUERT: Look, it’s not my place to weigh in on what this company is alleged to have done in a space that we have not engaged them. They’ve done that work with other companies, other entities that we have not been a part of. We engaged them in a very specific way to interview people who we thought were at risk as a part of our way of retraining people’s minds or getting people to not jump into terrorism.
QUESTION: And the contract was a year long and it was signed in February, so it ought to have expired. Has it continued or has it been renewed?
MS NAUERT: As far as I know, the contract was signed in 2016 – in November of 2016. I believe that contract has not expired just yet. Hold on, let me see what I have in here. Yeah, so the contract was signed in November 2016. I believe they’re putting together their final reports at this time, and we just always closely review our contracts as they go forward.
QUESTION: So in other words, this was – this contract was signed by the previous administration?
MS NAUERT: That is correct.
QUESTION: How did they find those people that they were interviewing?
MS NAUERT: I don’t know. I don’t – and I’m not sure that we would even give the specifics because some of this would probably fall under sensitive information about the countries in which some of these people were operating.
QUESTION: The reason I ask is because some of – when I did the article about the Global Engagement Center a couple – two weeks ago --
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: -- they talked about a very similar project that actually used Facebook to get in touch with those people.
MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that, then.
QUESTION: So was this the first time --
QUESTION: So would that have been a different project?
MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that, what you just referenced. This is – that’s the first I’ve heard of it. Okay?
QUESTION: So was this the first time that the State Department or a State Department branch has hired this company, SCL, or any of its subsidiaries?
MS NAUERT: My colleagues who predate me here at the State Department have told me that we have hired or have worked with SCL in the past.
MS NAUERT: That I’m not sure. I think similar kinds of programs in the past.
QUESTION: And are you --
MS NAUERT: And I know that many other governments work with them as well. It’s not just the United States Government. I believe the Brits work with them and other countries.
QUESTION: Given the success, if you will, questionable legal or whatever that they – that their other companies seem to have had with social media, one might wonder why social media wasn’t – they seem to be good at doing that – whether it’s --
MS NAUERT: Matt, I’m sorry. I wasn’t here at the time. I don’t have any information on why the decision was made back in November 2016 to engage them in this kind of fashion and not in a social media – have them work on social media.
QUESTION: Last thing very briefly: Can you explain how it is that it seems to – if this contract was in fact signed in November 2016, how did the – was there confusion that this contract was actually signed in February of 2017?
MS NAUERT: I don’t know. I don’t know.
QUESTION: That’s what – it’s on a government contracting website. Defense One found it yesterday.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: And it said --
MS NAUERT: Robert, do you have anything more on that?
MR GREENAN: I think they’ll – usually, in a contract they have a beginning work period and I think that beginning of the work period was defined as February 2017.
QUESTION: Oh, okay.
MR GREENAN: But the agreement to engage that contract was made in November of 2016.
QUESTION: So it was three – okay, is that typical for – maybe I should get my – into government contracting. You’re at three --
MS NAUERT: I think I’m going to have to learn more about how government contracting works.
QUESTION: They were getting paid for three months without doing any work?
MR GREENAN: No, your period of work began on February, so your payments began in February.
QUESTION: Oh. All right.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Anything more on that for you, we’ll let you know. Okay?
Go right ahead. Hey.
QUESTION: Turkey. Today, Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Kalin said that – reiterated that the U.S. and Turkey have reached an agreement over Manbij and he said the implementation of Manbij deal would be delayed for a couple of weeks until the new secretary takes over.
MS NAUERT: Well, that’s funny, because no agreement has been reached. All right. We’re going to have to wrap it up shortly.
MS NAUERT: Pardon me?
QUESTION: Yeah, (inaudible) earlier in your discussion with Matt about the U.S. doesn’t dictate to other countries. It’s the 15th anniversary of the Iraq war, and of course, the --
MS NAUERT: I don’t think that I said – I don’t think that I said to Matt that we don’t dictate to other countries.
QUESTION: It might have been him. I wasn’t sure.
MS NAUERT: I think Matt said that.
QUESTION: It’s hard to tell.
QUESTION: I was quoting the --
MS NAUERT: Yeah, yeah, he --
QUESTION: -- the White House spokeswoman.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Should the U.S. apologize for regime change operations from meddling in elections in multiple countries through many means over the years?
MS NAUERT: That is a big question. You’re asking me about the entire history of the United States – should we apologize? That’s the question?
QUESTION: Well, let’s start with the Iraq War.
MS NAUERT: Should we apologize for our government all around the world?
QUESTION: No, no.
MS NAUERT: I think that the United States Government does far more good --
QUESTION: Are you asking me to clarify?
MS NAUERT: -- than we ever do bad. And certain people in the United States and in other countries have a look or have the perspective that America does more harm than good. I’m the kind of American that looks at it from the other way around. We do far more good.
QUESTION: Most Americans are opposed to the Iraq War. Should the U.S. Government apologize for things that were put out by that podium, people who are in this administration who fabricated information to start the Iraq War?
MS NAUERT: Look --
MS NAUERT: -- I get what you’re getting at. You want to be snarky and take a look back.
QUESTION: No, I don’t want to be snarky. I want to get real.
MS NAUERT: No, hold on, and take a look – okay, and take a look back --
QUESTION: I want to get real.
MS NAUERT: -- at the past 15 years. And Iraq is certainly a country that has been through a lot.
MS NAUERT: I’ve been to Iraq; many of you have been to Iraq in covering what has taken place there, okay.
QUESTION: I’m being anything but snarky.
MS NAUERT: Let me finish, okay. They’ve faced a lot of challenges. Right now the most significant challenge there is ISIS, and the United States remains there at the invitation of the Iraqi Government to fight and take on ISIS. I want to commend the Iraqi Government for something – that is, for the past 15 years, that they have had a history of free and fair elections over 15 years. That is remarkable given where they were under the regime of Saddam Hussein. I recall having met Iraqis at that time – and this dates back to 2004, 2005 – and certainly everyone that I had talked to, an Iraqi citizen had had a family member that was killed in some sort of horrific fashion or disappeared and was never heard from again. I mean, that is something that as an American, when you start talking to citizens, and that is their experience, that is something that’s very difficult for the average American to understand, because that is simply the way of life there.
The United States has a strong relationship with the Government of Iraq. I’m going to look forward from this podium in this room. We have a good relationship with the Government of Iraq; I’m not going to look back at this point, okay?
QUESTION: So no responsibility for --
MS NAUERT: Go right ahead.
QUESTION: -- the bloodshed of --
MS NAUERT: Go right ahead.
QUESTION: A follow-up question --
QUESTION: -- or anything else?
QUESTION: A follow-up question on Turkey?
QUESTION: You get lots of questions. You get lots of questions.
QUESTION: And that is that the Turks, in addition to the question of Manbij, they have also said that talks are about to resume very shortly. Is that true? Do you have a date for talks?
MS NAUERT: We do not have anything to announce at this time.
QUESTION: Do you – does the administration have a public view on this vote, that’s supposed to happen later today on the Hill, about Yemen?
MS NAUERT: So I’m certainly aware of that vote taking place. As it pertains to Saudi Arabia, we typically don’t comment on pending legislation or voting action taking place in Congress. But after the fact, if we have something for you on that, I’ll let you know.
QUESTION: Well, that’s not true. You take positions on – statement – there’s statements of administration policy on proposed legislation on almost every single bill.
MS NAUERT: That’s not true, Matt.
QUESTION: Yeah, it is.
MS NAUERT: Because I punt to Congress quite often – (laughter) – when it comes to those types of things. So I would just refer you back to Congress. Okay?
All right. Thanks, everybody. We’ve got to go.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:31 p.m.)
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