Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing: September 19, 2014

1:40 p.m. EDT

MR. RATHKE: Hi. Good afternoon, everybody. So I – as you all are aware, we have the Secretary appearing shortly, so I’ll be quick and get to your questions. But I do have two things at the top.

Today at 2:00, Secretary Kerry will chair a ministerial debate of the United Nations Security Council on the situation in Iraq at the UN headquarters in New York. The United States holds the presidency of the Security Council for the month of September. I spoke with the Secretary this morning and he sees this session of the council as an opportunity to demonstrate unified international support for the new Iraqi government and emphasize the need for broad political inclusivity as the new government pursues its agenda on behalf of the Iraqi people.

And this council session will also provide a platform for the international community to underscore its support for the new government as it fights against ISIL and responds to the ongoing humanitarian crisis. This builds upon conferences in Jeddah and in Paris that have happened recently and builds now to this broader international stage. In addition, the council session will highlight support for Iraq’s political, economic, and diplomatic reintegration into the region and the international community. It’s going to be livestreamed on the UN website at 2:00, and I’ll finish up in time for people to watch that.

One word about the —

QUESTION: So you hope.

MR. RATHKE: Yes, so I hope. One word about the UN General Assembly, which takes place next week. The Secretary is in New York today, and the U.S., as president of the Security Council this month, will also raise other important issues to the highest levels. Yesterday, for example, the council held an emergency meeting on Ebola, the first ever emergency meeting on a health crisis in the history of the United Nations. It resulted in the adoption of a U.S.-drafted resolution that received the largest number of cosponsors of any resolution in UN history, 134. There will be numerous activities in New York next week to extend the conversation on Ebola, including the Secretary General’s high-level meeting on Thursday.

And the President will be making his annual address to the General Assembly on Wednesday. Later that day, we’ll chair a meeting of the Security Council to discuss the threats posed by foreign terrorist fighters. And this will be the second time the President has chaired a council meeting. Other leading themes include ambitious action on climate, which will be discussed at the Secretary General’s climate summit, and the Secretary will employ this week to hold high-level follow-up meeting to the June Oceans Conference which we hosted here at the State Department.

Now, this is just a quick snapshot, so there will be important high-level events also on gender, on education, human rights, peacekeeping, development, and much more. We look forward to talking about those next week. And for organizational issues, we will be in touch directly with the press corps as the schedule takes shape.

So with that, Matt.

QUESTION: Can I just ask – yeah, first, welcome to the podium —

MR. RATHKE: Thank you.

QUESTION: — for your first briefing, which – since you only have about 15 minutes left before you have to go, I’m going to run through a quick —


QUESTION: — logistical one. The first one, just on what you mentioned on the Ebola resolution: I believe there are 190-something members of the UN. Does this mean that 60 countries or so are in favor of Ebola?

MR. RATHKE: Well, no. Those were the cosponsors.

QUESTION: Well, why wouldn’t everyone co – are you disappointed that you couldn’t get the entire world united behind – or against Ebola?

MR. RATHKE: No. I think – look, we had a huge number of countries, more than ever before, step up to cosponsor. We’re very happy about that.

QUESTION: All right. Very briefly, do you have anything to add to the President’s statement on the Scottish referendum?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I think the President’s statement really speaks for itself and —

QUESTION: All right.

MR. RATHKE: — I don’t have anything to add.

QUESTION: Okay. So now I just want to go to Iraq and the coalition. The other day, when the Secretary was on the Hill – his first – before the Senate, not the House – in answer to one Senator’s questions, he referred to the apparent doctrine of hot pursuit. Can you explain what he was talking about? Was he talking about hot pursuit by Iraqi troops, by other troops? And does he mean that it’s somehow legal for whoever those troops are to cross into another country if they’re chasing bad guys?

MR. RATHKE: Right. Well, the question – and the Secretary was referring to self-defense, which includes the right to use necessary and proportionate force to address armed attacks that emanate from another nation if that nation is unwilling or unable to address the threat. So I’m not going to get ahead of where we are right now and lock into a specific legal justification. I think the Secretary was talking about – that was only one of a few things the Secretary referred to in response to the question, but that’s the context in which he referred to it, and that’s the concept.

QUESTION: Well, I understand that. So the Administration believes that hot pursuit is a legal – under international law, hot pursuit is a legal justification for pursuing terrorists or whoever across borders?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I’m not going to get ahead of the legal discussions that are happening inside the Administration —

QUESTION: I’m not asking you to get ahead of them. I just want to know if that’s what his comment meant, or if he was just speaking off the cuff and saying something that perhaps is not being used as a legal justification or a legal argument to do this.

MR. RATHKE: Well, I think, if you recall, the Secretary and the Administration has been clear that with respect to actions inside Iraq, the Iraqi Government has asked the United States and other members of the international community for support, and then there’s also the question with reference to Syria. And I think as we’ve said, the – that when and if such action takes place, it will be on the basis of justification. The Secretary was asked about possible ways in which one could look at it. He was talking about a possible way. I don’t want to suggest more than —

QUESTION: Well, does that mean that the Administration believes it is okay and legal under international law for Iraqi troops or any troops to – troops that have been invited by the Iraqi Government, whether they’re Iraqi or not, to cross the border into Syria in hot pursuit of ISIL?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to speak to a specific circumstance or a specific scenario which you’re —

QUESTION: That’s not specific at all, though. It’s just a —

MR. RATHKE: Well, no, but I’ll go back to what I said, which is the Secretary was referring to the right of self-defense, and that includes —

QUESTION: And you believe that that includes hot pursuit?

MR. RATHKE: — that includes the right to use necessary and proportionate force to address armed attacks emanating from another nation if that nation is unwilling or unable to address the threat. That’s the —

QUESTION: And that, you believe, encompasses the idea, concept, of hot pursuit? The Administration believes that?

MR. RATHKE: Well, that’s what the Secretary was referring to in his answer.

QUESTION: Okay. So in other words, the short answer is yes. Am I right? You believe that that is a – that self-defense includes hot pursuit.

MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to suggest – I don’t know if that’s the right tag to put on it, but I’ve explained our view of the substantive matter, which is —


MR. RATHKE: Yes, Jo.

QUESTION: Can we go to the action on the ground today? The French, after President Hollande said that they were going to order in airstrikes, actually ordered in airstrikes today in Iraq against ISIL targets in the northeast. Do you have any details on that that you can share with us?

And more broadly, how is this going to be coordinated? Who’s in charge on the ground? Who’s actually telling the French or – you can go in? Is it the Americans or is it the Iraqis? Could you give us a sense of how this is going to work?

And that goes to the broader question of the coalition once more people start. The British have already flown some air sorties. So how is this all being done?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we welcome the announcement by France and their airstrikes today against ISIL targets in Iraq. We consider this a significant contribution to the efforts of the growing international coalition to combat ISIL.

Now, I’m not going to get into operational details, but we are coordinating closely with the Iraqi authorities and with our French partners and with other international partners on this effort and we’ll continue to do so going forward. But for the specifics of that particular action, I’d refer you to the French Government and to the Iraqi authorities.

QUESTION: But who’s in charge? Somebody has to be in charge. Obviously, you don’t want everybody flying off and doing things ad hoc, at random, because you could end up with a – in a bit of a mess.

MR. RATHKE: Well, our point of view on this is that all nations assisting Iraq in its efforts against ISIL have to fully respect Iraq’s sovereignty and independence. So everything we do in Iraq is in support of the Iraqis and with the full consent of the Iraqi Government. Now again, in the – I’ll let my colleagues at the Defense Department talk about the particulars of coordination with the Iraqis, but I think it’s important to remind that, as it was stated today, I think, by Ayatollah Sistani, that we are supporting Iraq and we respect Iraq’s sovereignty and independence.

QUESTION: Jeffrey —

MR. RATHKE: Just —

QUESTION: Yeah, I just had a connection with that. We saw yesterday – and there hasn’t been any – much reaction from the United States about this because there weren’t any briefings as such – of the Australian – what happened in Australia and the fact that they detained these people who they said they were ISIL members as well. Was there any – first off, what is your reaction to that news? And secondly, was there any U.S. involvement in terms of intelligence-sharing? Was it something that you tipped them off to? How did that happen?

MR. RATHKE: Well, our intelligence professionals for a long time have talked about the host of terrorist threats that emanates from Syria, and we’ve discussed quite a bit the challenges posed by foreign terrorist fighters. The President will talk about this next week when he chairs the UN Security Council meeting on this topic.

Now, I’m not going to get into details here about specific threats or other details. I would refer you to the Australian Government for that. We’ve of course seen the Australian prime minister describe the disruption of what seems to have been an ISIL plot to mount a demonstration killing. This was a very large law enforcement operation, one of the largest in Australian history, and resulted in 15 people being detained. But this is an ongoing Australian investigation, so I’d refer you to them for details.

QUESTION: Does it surprise you, though, that a group that’s primarily based in Iraq and Syria was able to apparently have such reach down into Australia?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, this is an ongoing Australian investigation, so I’d refer you to them, but as the United States has said and as the President himself has highlighted in his address last week, we believe that thousands of foreign terrorist fighters, including Europeans and some Americans, have joined the fight in Iraq and Syria. So we certainly recognize that these people could try to return to their home countries and carry out attacks, and that’s something we are quite cognizant of and we see as requiring extreme vigilance.

QUESTION: Jeffrey, just a quick follow-up.

MR. RATHKE: Just a moment. Yeah, Said.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up. Welcome to the podium. Now on the issue of hot pursuit, you’re saying that any nation that is unwilling or unable – does that mean – and we’re talking about Syria. I mean, we’re not talking about a country that is far away. So does that mean that you will discuss with the Syrians to see whether they are able or unable, or willing or unwilling to sort of control their borders? Does that mean any kind of communication —

MR. RATHKE: No, it doesn’t mean that at all. I think we’ve spoken quite a bit in this briefing room in the last few days about that. We’re not coordinating with the Assad regime.

QUESTION: But – mm-hmm. But —

MR. RATHKE: Roz, and then Ilhan.

QUESTION: Okay, very —


MR. RATHKE: I’m sorry, we’ve just got to go quickly.

QUESTION: Yeah, but the question about the coalition overall.


QUESTION: We’ve gone through the lists of statements and commitments, and it seems there are 11 countries – or rather, 10 countries and one regional group that have made statements condemning ISIL, have vowed support, but haven’t actually done anything concrete – airstrikes, humanitarian airdrops, and so on. Do you consider these countries, which are pretty significant countries when you take a look at the list, of being active central parts of this organization? And they include —

MR. RATHKE: I’m sorry, I don’t know which – yeah, which you’re talking about.

QUESTION: Well, they include Egypt, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Jordan, Oman, Romania, Singapore, Taiwan, the UAE, and the Arab League. None of them have actually put any troops, equipment, supplies, money on the table. Are they part of the coalition?

MR. RATHKE: Well, look, every country is going to make their own decisions and make their own announcements. So I’m not going to speak on behalf of them. I – as the President outlined our strategy and as the Secretary will be speaking to very shortly, our strategy is centered on building a global coalition that will collaborate across a number of areas. Military support is one component of this. That includes training and equipping, it includes logistics, it includes airlift, as well as other more direct actions. And there are countries in Europe, there are other countries that are committed to being part of a kinetic effort.

And – but there is also a lot of contributions that other – in other areas that can be made. There’s illicit funding which has to be dried up. Not every country is going to play a military role, and we’re not asking every country to play a military role, frankly. So we see this also as a way of trying to interdict the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, to dry up illicit funding sources, as well as dealing with the humanitarian consequences of ISIL’s actions in Iraq and Syria, as well as the distortions of Islam that ISIL is responsible for propagating. So there are a variety of ways in which countries can contribute, and we’ll let them make their own announcements.

QUESTION: Quick follow-up: Given that while it does take a lot of time to ramp up military assistance, it doesn’t take a lot of effort by contrast to dry up funding. There are already lots of mechanisms in place. Would you expect these countries as an example to basically crack down on the funding sources, to crack down at border controls to make sure that people aren’t crossing borders, particularly among these countries in the region, to actually put into place their stated commitments, or to make real their commitments?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we’re working with all countries in the region and across the world to find ways to disrupt and block terrorist financing, as well as the flow of foreign terrorist fighters. The Secretary will be talking about that as well next week when he’s at the UN hosting – or co-chairing a meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum. So this is certainly an issue on which we’re actively engaged.

QUESTION: One final point.


QUESTION: The airstrikes have been going on for more than six weeks, since August 8th. Where is the urgency on the part of these countries and others that have yet to actually put their promises into play?

MR. RATHKE: I wouldn’t suggest a lack of urgency on anyone’s part.


QUESTION: Near Turkish border, Kurdish city Kobani been under attack by ISIL forces for the last few days. According to reports, about 16 Kurdish villages now taken over by the ISIL, tens of thousands of Kurds fled to Turkey. Are you considering any kind of action against these force anytime soon?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we’re deeply concerned about ISIL’s reported seizure this week of – by, we understand, 20 to 30 Kurdish villages, and we’re closely following the situation. We are aware of reports of anywhere between 3- and 7,000 displaced Syrian Kurds gathering at the border with Turkey, and we understand from UN estimates that maybe up to 5,000 of them, mostly Kurds, are seeking to flee to Turkey.

Now Turkey has continued to show great generosity, hosting nearly 850,000 refugees from Syria as well as 200,000 from Iraq. But I’m not going to get beyond that information right now and speculate about any particular action.

QUESTION: Are you coordinating with Turkish Government?

MR. RATHKE: Oh, we remain in close contact with our Turkish counterparts.

QUESTION: On this specific issue?

MR. RATHKE: I would have to check if there has been some specific conversation, but we’re in regular contact.


QUESTION: Jeff, to come back to Africa —

MR. RATHKE: Hang on just a second. Anything else on Iraq?


QUESTION: Yeah. What —

MR. RATHKE: Okay. Nicolas then Elliot and then —

QUESTION: We have three minutes.

MR. RATHKE: Yep. Nicolas.

QUESTION: Back to the coalition-building process, the Secretary told us in Paris that the U.S. was opposed to any military coordination with Iran on the fight against ISIS, but that the U.S. was open to a diplomatic conversation with Tehran. So could you tell us if yesterday, on the margin of the nuclear talks, the two countries talk about Iraq and the fight against ISIS?

MR. RATHKE: Sure. As you know, we have a team in New York right now for the P5+1 talks. The United States and Iran held bilateral consultations Wednesday and Thursday in New York. Those meetings were constructive, focused primarily on the nuclear issues. So with respect to your specific question, we’ve always said that the nuclear issues are separate from actions regarding ISIL, but discussion of this threat did arise on the margins of the meeting, as they have from time to time. They also happened during this – during the bilateral in this latest round. I don’t have any details on the specifics to share, but yes, it did come up.

So Elliot.

QUESTION: Yeah, thanks, and congratulations again on your first briefing.

MR. RATHKE: Thank you.

QUESTION: Yesterday and the day before, Secretary Kerry faced a lot of skeptical questioning from members of Congress on whether the Administration has the authority under the AUMF of over a decade ago to conduct this operation. Is the Administration’s reasoning for that – is it that ISIS used to be a part of al-Qaida? Is that the central tenet upon this – which this reasoning rests or – is that understanding correct?

MR. RATHKE: Right. Well, the Secretary, as you say, he did speak to this at some length. I don’t have anything to add to his comments. I thought he was exhaustive, however, in addressing the issue.

QUESTION: He did say that the – well, he said that the Administration would welcome a new AUMF and that it would work with Congress on such an authorization, but that the Administration has the – believes it has the authority under previous AUMFs. Will the Administration be lobbying Congress to get a new authorization in the way that it aggressively lobbied for the passage of the authorization to train and equip Syrian forces? Or is it the kind of thing where —

MR. RATHKE: Well, if I understand correctly, they recessed yesterday, so as a practical question, I’m not sure that’s something that can be done in the long term, but —

QUESTION: But going – I mean, this is a multiyear operation, so going forward —

MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to get ahead of what may happen with Congress to come.


QUESTION: Just on the meeting at 2:00 p.m., do we know how many countries and which countries will be participating today?

MR. RATHKE: So this is a meeting of the Security Council, so of course, the 15 members of the Security Council will be in attendance. And this is also – just a moment – all right.

So the – this is also a session in which interested countries and those affected by the situation can ask for the opportunity to speak. In this case, I don’t have an estimate of how many countries will participate, but I can say that the Iranian delegation made a request to participate and to speak at the meeting. Again, this is something that UN members have the right to request – the ability to speak. We did not – we invited at the start those member-states that had expressed an interest in making contributions to the international coalition fighting ISIL, but of course, other states can come as well.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: Is Israel attending this meeting?

MR. RATHKE: I don’t know. I don’t have —

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MR. RATHKE: — that information.

QUESTION: Another question: Do you have an update about the U.S. Egyptian, Mohamed Soltan, who is imprisoned in Egypt?

MR. RATHKE: Yes, I believe I do. So the welfare of U.S. citizens incarcerated abroad is a top priority for the State Department. We continue to provide appropriate consular services to Mr. Soltan, including monitoring his health, pressing Egyptian authorities to ensure he has access to appropriate care, and maintaining regular access. We routinely seek consular visits with him and we arranged for him to be seen by an outside physician to assess his condition, and we continue to closely monitor this case and to raise it with Egyptian officials, urging the Egyptian Government to speedily present its evidence against him or to release him.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. RATHKE: So, Matt, come back to you. You have other topics?

QUESTION: I have – yeah, one very brief one, and it’s just on Mexico.


QUESTION: There’s a report that Mexican security forces basically murdered 21 people who had surrendered to them, and I’m just wondering if you have any concerns or comment about that, given the fact that you have been very active at both – in training and cash and supplies to the Mexican war on the drug cartels.

MR. RATHKE: So we are committed partners of Mexico in the fight against transnational organized crime. Of course, the framework for us is the Merida Initiative, which has bipartisan support in Congress, and we maintain a high-level dialogue with Mexico in the context of the Merida Initiative.

We have seen these most recent reports and we’re following this case. We’ve been following this case since June. We have encouraged the Government of Mexico to investigate, and we understand that several Mexican entities are investigating this incident, so we would refer to them for the status of those investigations. But as in all cases where security forces use lethal force, we think it’s imperative that there is a credible review of the circumstances undertaken in response to them, and the appropriate civilian authorities should conduct those investigations. So I’d refer you back to the Mexicans, though, for details.

QUESTION: All right. And then just one – on the Iraq discussion in New York, was that both days that it was raised or just one of the days?

MR. RATHKE: That level of detail I don’t believe I have. We certainly raised it. I can see if there’s more on whether it came up both days.

Yes, Jo.

QUESTION: I have something related on Iran, please. I don’t know if you’ve seen that a group of young people who did a video of themselves dancing to the “Happy” song from Pharrell have been sentenced to up to one year suspended sentence in jail and 91 lashes. I wondered if the United States had a reaction to what would seem to be a pretty severe sentence.

MR. RATHKE: We are aware of the reports that sentences were handed down in this case – Iranian youth who were arrested for making a video of themselves. We’ve followed this closely and with great concern. The reported punishments are, in our view, an unacceptable response to the exercise of freedom of expression by the participants in the video. We would urge the Iranian Government to respect human rights that are protected by its own constitution as well as its international obligations and commitments.

QUESTION: And I have one more, sorry. Just to jump to Ebola —

MR. RATHKE: Yeah. Okay.

QUESTION: — and Sierra —

MR. RATHKE: Is – sorry, is your question on Iran or Iraq?


MR. RATHKE: Okay. We’ll come, then, right after Ebola.

QUESTION: Sorry to —

MR. RATHKE: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Just very quickly, Sierra Leone today started imposing a three-day curfew for all its citizens in its bid to try and stem the spread of Ebola. In the United States opinion, is this a wise move? I’ve seen that some agencies have been concerned that it could stop people from getting care. Other agencies believe it could actually be effective. Is there a United States view on this?

MR. RATHKE: I’ll have to come back to you after the briefing. I don’t have it at hand, but we’ll come back to you.


QUESTION: Following Hurricane Odile —


QUESTION: — can you say how many Americans are still stranded out in Cabo, and has the U.S. Government been coordinating with the Mexican Government to try to help them with that?

MR. RATHKE: Right, thanks. So there is active engagement across the U.S. Government working with Mexican authorities to assist the safe return of U.S. citizens after Hurricane Odile. We have consular personnel in the affected area providing assistance to stranded U.S. citizens. They are also at airports throughout Mexico to provide assistance to U.S. citizens who are on their way out.

The State Department arranged four charter flights that evacuated more than 500 U.S. citizens over the past 24 hours, and so far thousands of American citizens have departed the area on evacuation flights.

I would also – we have – the State Department also requested the assistance of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Defense, and both agencies responded positively. I think DOD may have put out some information about their role. So we remain in close contact with Mexican authorities, but also across the U.S. Government.


QUESTION: Do you have – can you say how many are still there or what the situation is on the ground?

MR. RATHKE: Difficult to estimate. So we know that thousands have departed, but I don’t have a specific figure about how many were there to begin with.


QUESTION: Can I ask you one question about Argentina? There is a political thunderstorm in this moment with reactions —


QUESTION: — from the president, twitters against the U.S., summon to the ambassador. Any comment on that?

MR. RATHKE: Well, our Charge d’Affaires Kevin Sullivan met with Argentinean Foreign Minister Hector Timerman on Tuesday morning. We don’t have any comment about that private conversation. We seek a constructive relationship with Argentina across a range of issues, but I don’t really have more to say than that.




QUESTION: For few days now, New York Times reporter wrote a story that ISIL recruitment is going on in Turkey, and since then it has been under attack. And today, Assistant Secretary Doug Frantz tweeted about it. I just want to see if you have any further comment on the situation.

MR. RATHKE: No, I don’t think I have anything further beyond his comment.

Yes, Said.

QUESTION: Very quick question on the Palestinian-Israeli —


QUESTION: Today, President Hollande said that he has some sort of a plan or a proposal for getting the negotiations going and perhaps getting to a two-state solution. Is that something that he has coordinated with you, or is that something that you would oppose, or you would allow the French to take a lead in this case?

MR. RATHKE: I’ll have to check. I wasn’t aware of that report. Thank you.

Matt, anything more from you?


QUESTION: That’s it.

MR. RATHKE: Okay, all right. Thanks, everyone.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:08 p.m.)