Department Press Briefing – March 4, 2021

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

Washington, D.C.

2:38 p.m. EST

MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Actually, I don’t have anything at the top, so we will move right to your questions. Sorry to take you by surprise.

QUESTION: Wow. Obviously because there’s nothing going on in the world.

MR PRICE: Well, I want to allow plenty of time for questions.

QUESTION: (Laughter.) Can I – I want to start with Burma, Myanmar, because yesterday was another bad day. And I’m just wondering if you have anything that you can say about what the administration is doing. Is there anything both – just in the general sense, but also about particularly journalists who have been rounded up and detained?

MR PRICE: Well, let me start by saying that we are deeply saddened by reports that security forces killed as many as 24 people yesterday, March 3rd. We strongly condemn the use of violence by Burmese security forces against the Burmese people, including peaceful protesters – to your point, Matt – journalists, and civil society. We continue to urge the Burmese military to exercise maximum restraint. This latest escalation in violence demonstrates the fact of the junta’s complete disregard for their own people, for the people of Burma. It is unacceptable, and the world will continue to respond. The United States will continue to respond; we’ll continue to respond in tandem with our partners and allies around the world.

We’ve said this before, but it remains true that tens of thousands of Burmese have courageously taken to the streets peacefully to show the strength of their will and the power of their collective voice. We have sought, again with our partners and allies, to amplify the power of their collective voice. We call on the military to act peacefully and with respect for human rights, including the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. These are two universal rights that are as applicable in Burma as they are anywhere else.

We will continue, as I said, to work with the international community to take meaningful action against those responsible. There will be additional action on the part of the United States. We support freedom of peaceful assembly, including to protest peacefully in support of the restoration of the democratically elected government.

And Matt, you asked about the journalists that have been detained. So allow me just a moment on that. We are, of course, aware of the reports that the military has charged additional journalists with crimes. We are deeply concerned about the increasing attacks on and arrests of journalists. We call on the military to immediately release these individuals and to cease their intimidation and harassment of the media and others who are unjustly detained for doing nothing more than their job, for doing nothing more than exercising their universal rights. We’ve said this before in the context of Burma – we’ve said it before in the context of other countries around the world – but a free and independent media, it plays a critical role in ensuring that people are able to make informed decisions.

We call upon the military to work – on the military to allow journalists to work independently and without harassment, intimidation, or fear of reprisal. As I’ve said before, we have taken a number of actions against the military junta, against the military leaders and military entities responsible for the coup and for related violence, including visa restrictions and asset blocking sanctions. We will continue and expand our efforts to promote accountability for the military’s actions, including the detention of these journalists and the heinous violence that we’ve seen in Burma in recent days.

QUESTION: Can I just get – two very brief things on this, and then I’ll move on, then I’ll stop. But one, and the Khashoggi ban, right, that obviously was related to Saudi Arabia, but is that something that you’re considering using in relation to Burma because of what you’ve just talked about? And then just secondly, you mentioned twice that you’re working with partners and allies. Well, what about countries that might not necessarily be partners and allies, specifically China?

MR PRICE: No, absolutely.

QUESTION: Are you – have you approached the Chinese about maybe them using their influence, whatever it is, with the with the Burmese military?

MR PRICE: So in terms of your first question, the Khashoggi ban, we did unveil this new policy of the Department of State and the United States Government in the context of our response to the gruesome, heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but a very important point: The Khashoggi ban is as applicable to Saudi operations as it is to those operations targeting dissidents the world over. The ban has global applicability for countries who would pursue dissidents, political opponents, extraterritorially. So if it is appropriate, if it is relevant in this case, we will not hesitate to apply it.

When it comes to China, let me first start by saying that as you know, and as I think as I repeated yesterday, we have worked since February 1st, since the United States declared the overthrow of the democratically elected civilian government in Burma to be a coup, primarily with our likeminded partners and allies: our partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific, our treaty allies, institutions like ASEAN, our allies in Europe with the G7. But this is a challenge where we have sought to see to it that the world speaks in – with as close to one voice as possible.

We have urged the Chinese to play a constructive role, to use their influence with the Burmese military to bring this coup to an end. As you know, Secretary Blinken has had an opportunity to speak to Director Yang. President Biden has had an opportunity to President Xi. There have been a number of conversations with Chinese officials at different levels. And our message in all of those conversations has been consistent: The world, every responsible, constructive member of the international community needs to use its voice, needs to work to bring this coup to an end, and to restore the democratically elected government of Burma.

QUESTION: Can you say when the last – are you – do you know when the last conversation was with the Chinese about Burma specifically, even —

MR PRICE: We’ve read out many of these conversations. Some of them have taken place at very senior levels, others at lower levels, but we’ve read out the relevant ones.

We’ll move this way. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Follow-up on Matt’s question.

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Since one of the journalists detained is an AP journalist and it’s an American news organization – you kind of addressed this a bit yesterday, but is there a specific communication that you’ve made to the Burmese Government or the embassy has made to the Burmese Government to say we’re concerned about this journalist particularly and we want to see – what do you want to see in that case?

MR PRICE: It’s not always appropriate and it’s not always helpful for us to speak to specific cases. Often times, we can’t speak to specific cases out of privacy concerns as well. But the Burmese military should have no doubt, and I can assure you has no doubt, about where the United States stands when it comes to these unjust detentions. I have just repeated it now. We have made it clear in voices that are certainly much more senior than mine from this government, and so there’s no doubt when it comes to the Burmese authorities.

Yes.

QUESTION: Can I follow-up on Matt a little bit? With respect, the U.S. action so far does not seem to have deterred or caused the military junta to change course. So what more do you think you could do when U.S. sanctions don’t really have much of a reach there? And when it comes to China – let’s say any other country, but China seems to have the most influence – is there a specific action you want to see from them? What action could they take that you think would have the most impact in turning this around?

MR PRICE: Well, I would say a couple things. Number one, when it comes to American actions, the – this continues to develop. The full story is yet unwritten in terms of our policy response. And I expect and I am confident that you will see us take additional policy moves to hold to account those responsible for this coup in Burma, for the overthrow of Burma’s civilian and democratically elected government.

In some ways, though, the more important point is what we are doing with our partners and allies around the world. We know that as the most powerful country in the world, what we do matters. What we do will have important impact. But when we work with our partners and allies, using – working with them, cooperating with them as force multipliers, as the Secretary has put it, that we can bring to bear much more influence and sway, regardless of the challenge, and that includes when it comes to holding to account those responsible for this coup in Burma.

I mentioned this yesterday, but a couple of our close partners, including the Brits – the British Government and the Canadian Government have announced sanctions, their own sanctions, against Burmese authorities. We continue – Burmese military junta, I should say. We continue to work with – primarily with our likeminded partners and allies around the world to speak with one collective voice and to act collectively to hold to account those responsible for this.

When it comes to China, our message has been very clear. China needs to be a constructive, responsible actor when it comes to the military coup in Burma. Of course, there was a statement that emanated from the UN Security Council several weeks ago now that no country, including China, stood in the way of. We would like to see responsible actors and parties around the world, including the Chinese, continue to condemn this, to condemn this forcefully, and to use appropriate policy responses to hold to account those responsible for this.

QUESTION: Is there a specific policy response you want to see from China on this?

MR PRICE: Look, it’s not up to us to dictate what any other country does. But we have made very clear to countries around the world, our close partners and allies, and our competitors, our chief competitor in the case of China, what we think a responsible and constructive response might look like.

Yes. Anything else on Burma, or should we move on?

QUESTION: Iran?

MR PRICE: Iran. Sure. We’ll start with Iran, and then we’ll go there.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you. I was wondering if the U.S. regrets the withdrawal of the European resolution in – to censor Iran in Vienna, or if you’ll see it as a good way to allow diplomacy to happen, the meeting to happen.

MR PRICE: Well, I would say just first of all that IAEA Director Grossi offered a proposal for Iran to address unanswered concerns regarding its nuclear program. The E3 decided, with the full support of the United States, that the best way to support the IAEA’s process was to refrain from putting forward the draft resolution at the meeting of the Board of government – Governors.

We are pleased with the outcome of the IAEA Board of Governors meeting with respect to Iran. The proposal that was put forward by Director Grossi were – we supported the E3, we supported it. We also recognize that the director general has put forward a realistic schedule, which we understand Iran has accepted, when it comes to the next steps. And we will look forward with strong interest for Iran’s willingness to engage in a way that leads to credible, concrete progress on these issues.

QUESTION: Some French diplomats told us in Paris today that they are now quite optimistic that the meeting including the U.S. and Iran could happen in the next couple of weeks in Brussels. Do you share this feeling? Do you have some feedback about that?

MR PRICE: What we’ve consistently said about this is that we are neither optimistic nor pessimistic. We are clear-eyed when it comes to our diplomacy, knowing that we are engaging in this with our closest partners, the E3 in this case; knowing that we have put a proposition on the table, both a strategic proposition – the shorthand for which is compliance for compliance; if Iran resumes its full compliance with the JCPOA, the United States will be prepared to do the same – as well as a tactical proposition. And that tactical proposition was one we first talked about last month that if the EU put forward an invitation, the United States would be prepared to accept in the context of talks, direct talks with Iran and the P5+1.

Again, we’re not dogmatic about the format. What we are dogmatic about is our overarching objective, and that is to ensure that Iran is subject to permanent, verifiable restrictions that prevent Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon.

QUESTION: And just a quick last one. At such a meeting between Iran and the U.S., are you ready to negotiate synchronized steps by the U.S. and Iran to come back in compliance? Is that the idea? I think that’s —

MR PRICE: What we are ready to do —

QUESTION: — what Iran is waiting to know, if you’re ready to negotiate synchronized steps.

MR PRICE: Well, Iran should not be waiting for anything, because we have stated very clearly that what we are prepared to do is to engage in constructive dialogue. That is the offer that has been on the table. I know that various proposals and ideas have been put forward from various capitals. The proposal that we have put forward, that the E3 has accepted and endorsed, that the EU has now put forward its own offer, is to take part in principled, clear-eyed, constructive negotiations in the context of the P5+1 with the Iranians, where we can discuss the very issues that might be at play.

Again, if there are other proposals for formats, we are open to those. But what we are going to be rigid about is our recognition about what we seek, and that is very simple: permanent, verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program, limits that permanently prevent Iran from ever attaining a nuclear weapon. (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton – Blinken yesterday talked about two foreign policy achievements under Obama-Biden administration, and one was the Iran deal. Are you at all worried that this sort of “you go first” and getting entangled in who takes the first step will result in precious time lost in the collapse of a deal under your watch, something that didn’t happen under Trump administration even though they tried very hard. Are you worried about that?

MR PRICE: Well, I think I would take issue with the premise of the question. It was under – it certainly hasn’t been since January 20th that the United States has withdrawn from the deal. It certain – it certainly hasn’t been since January 20th that Iran has distanced itself from the requirements imposed by the JCPOA.

What we are concerned about is the idea that Iran would remain unconstrained by nuclear limits, limits that are verifiable, limits that permanently prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That is why we are approaching this challenge with urgency. That is why, from essentially day one, we have taken on the task of undertaking those consultations with partners, with allies, with members of Congress, that culminated a couple weeks ago now in our offer that the EU put forward to take part in direct talks with the Iranians in the context of the P5+1.

So look, I think when you – if you want to dissect what happened with the JCPOA, you have to start well before January 20th. What we are focused on is ensuring that we get back to a point where Iran is permanently and verifiably constrained and to a point where Iran can never acquire or produce a nuclear weapon.

QUESTION: Your incoming deputy secretary, likely incoming secretary, Ambassador Sherman, said in 2009, “I would be shocked if Iran agreed to a meeting without some sanction relief.” How is – what makes you think that is not the case now?

MR PRICE: 2009 is very different from —

QUESTION: ’19.

QUESTION: ’19.

MR PRICE: Oh, ’19. ’19. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: 2009 is – you were – whatever.

MR PRICE: I’m sorry, I misheard you. Look, the point we have been making is the point I would remind you of, and namely that there have been various proposals that have been put on the table. We feel that the best place to address those proposals is in direct diplomacy with the Iranians that we are willing to undertake in the context of the P5+1. The EU has offered to convene these talks. We had accepted that invitation. I understand we are still waiting to hear from the Iranians.

But all these questions about the details behind the strategic proposition that President Biden has put forward, this proposition of compliance for compliance, the best place to address that is through the context of diplomacy.

QUESTION: And one last one on visa restriction, because absent in these conversations is the impact of the previous administration’s policy on Iranian people other than sanctions. The ban, the Muslim ban has been removed, but a lot of other policies remain, one of which is Washington Post reported a few days ago, the people – many young men in Iran are forced to do their – serve their military service in IRGC. And since the designation, there’s a letter from U.S. embassy in Dubai in Abu Dhabi telling one American who’s trying to bring his – her husband to United States that you did your military service in IRGC, therefore you cannot join your wife and your child. There seems to be a continuation of implementation of those policies under Trump administration.

Is there any review for cases like this where ordinary people are getting caught up in policies that remain in – on the books?

MR PRICE: Well, I couldn’t speak to any specific case, nor would it be appropriate for me to do so. What I would say is that – and I have said this in other contexts as well – that we can do a couple things at the same time when it comes to Iran. We can seek to ensure, as we are doing, that Iran can never be allowed to acquire or produce a nuclear weapon, just as we put pressure on Iran’s continuing support for terrorism and terrorist groups throughout the region. We can do those two things simultaneously.

And in fact, our principled, clear-eyed pursuit of a means to verifiably and permanently prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, that in turns – that in turn allows us take on in a more effective way other areas of Iran’s malign activity and influence. Every challenge we face with Iran would be compounded, would be all the more difficult if Iran were on the precipice of producing a nuclear weapon, if Iran were on the precipice of producing a nuclear weapon, or certainly if Iran over time were able to cross that precipice.

We are committed to preventing that. We are committed to preventing that for our own national security, for the national security of our close partners and allies in the region, but also because we know that all of these challenges would become more difficult and more complex. And the idea that we have talked about, going beyond this idea of compliance for compliance, going beyond this idea of lengthening and strengthening the nuclear agreement, is the idea that the mutual return to the JCPOA is necessary, but in the long term it’s insufficient. It’s insufficient because of Iran’s continuing malign influence and malign activities in the region. And that’s why, using the stronger and longer JCPOA as a platform, we ultimately seek to negotiate follow-on agreements that address some of these areas of concern. And, of course, Iran’s continued support for terrorism throughout the region is a profound concern of the United States and our partners and allies.

Yes.

QUESTION: Yes, I wanted to ask about the National Security Strategy, or the interim guidance. It seems to differ from the past national security strategies in terms of making China the primary global threat. Russia seems to be secondary; it doesn’t have the sort of global language about Russia. That seems to reflect what the U.S. has focused on lately, which is China the last few years. My question is: How does Secretary Blinken plan to follow that? Does that mean in regions like Europe, where there are priorities related to China and priorities related to Russia, that the one related to China will take precedence? Some things – Nord Stream 2 – if that’s an issue with Russia, does that need to be patched up so that we can work together on China? In the Middle East or Africa, where China and Russia are both active, is it more important to counter China? Is it – in other words, will this document be something that’s acted on, and how will that work in the Secretary’s diplomacy?

MR PRICE: Well, I think it’s fair to say that the White House wouldn’t have put out this document and Secretary Blinken wouldn’t have previewed it in his speech yesterday if it’s not something we don’t seek to adhere to, something that we don’t seek to follow through on. Even before we get to China, I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the defining features of this document and one of the defining features in Secretary Blinken’s remarks yesterday, and that is that the foreign policy vision that President Biden has set out, and really our North Star in executing it is a vision of foreign policy that delivers for the American people. At every step of the way, at every crossroads, we seek to make their lives more secure, create opportunities for them and their families, and to tackle to the global crises that are increasingly shaping their futures.

I believe the National Security Advisor has put it this way, that there’s one simple question we should ask ourselves at every single policy decision: Is what we are doing making the lives of the American people safer, easier, and better? And that’s precisely what this policy sets out. It seeks to bridge that longstanding and in some cases wide chasm between domestic policy and foreign policy.

Now, one of those issues that is really at the nexus of the domestic and the foreign is China. And that, of course, is because China is fundamentally a competitor of ours. It is a competitive relationship. It is a relationship that has adversarial elements that we all know about. It is a relationship that, when it’s in our interest, can have cooperative elements. And I think the fact that one of the priorities that Secretary Blinken laid out in his speech yesterday – he did mention managing the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century, our relationship with China. You didn’t see other countries enumerated on his list of priorities in precisely the same way because China is a strategic competitor that crosses virtually every realm – the economic realm, the security realm, the technological realm, our shared climate, weapons of mass destruction, the Indo-Pacific region itself. And so it is a challenge I think that in many ways is qualitatively different from the other country-specific challenges that we have.

Now, that’s not to say that we don’t face threats from Russia, and in fact we do. We, of course, just this week spoke about our actions against Russian Government entities for their grave violation of human rights of their own citizens. The director of national intelligence is undertaking a number of reviews into Russia’s malfeasance, including its interference in our elections, the reports of bounties on American service members in Afghanistan, the SolarWinds cyber security breach.

So we are clear-eyed about the threat that Russia poses, and Russia also seeks to gain influence in regions that are somewhat farther afield from the Russian Federation. But Russia doesn’t pose or have the capability – have the ability, I should say, to pose quite the same challenge that China does, given the way in which the China challenge is – transcends, I would say, these various realms in ways that other country-specific threats don’t always do.

QUESTION: So does that mean, like, in Region X, when it comes to China, the Secretary will follow the course that is most useful in competing with China in region X, rather than whatever other influences looks to be out there?

MR PRICE: No, I think the way to think about it is that the Secretary or the President in region X, Y, or Z will pursue what’s in our interests and what’s consistent with our values. And in many cases, what is in our interests and consistent with our values will be to push back on adventurism on the part of Russia or China. But I would hesitate to apply a cookie-cutter model to it, because each situation, each region, is going to be somewhat different.

What isn’t different is that, across the globe, we recognize this competitive relationship with China. Our strategy is one that seeks to compete and to outcompete with the Chinese across the board. And to what the Secretary said yesterday, to what the interim strategic guidance said yesterday, we do that knowing that we have these unique sources of strength that truly no other country around the world does. It’s our values. It’s our system of alliances and partnerships.

But it is also our sources of domestic strength, what we bring to the table as the American people, from our innovation, from our creativity, from our vibrant economy. And those are sources of strength that China can’t match, that Russia can’t match, and that when we bring them fully to bear, that task of competing and ultimately outcompeting with Beijing becomes all the more achievable.

QUESTION: Ned, one of things that Will mentioned in his – in the first question was Nord Stream 2.

MR PRICE: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And I’m just curious. There’s another report today about yet more ships or another ship that was not sanctioned but that is involved in laying the pipeline. And I’m just wondering, the Secretary’s supposed to go up to the Hill next week to the House Foreign Affairs Committee —

MR PRICE: Are you asking a question or are you looking for —

QUESTION: I’m wanting to know if he’s going to be able to tell them anything about adding additional sanctions onto – and I see Nick is standing up, but we still have a lot of other stuff to go through including Yemen, Lebanon, refugees, and I also have a question on Bahrain, so maybe he should sit down, because you’re going to have to go through all of this.

MR PRICE: We’ll let Nick assume whatever posture he would like. So on Nord Stream 2, we have spoken about the report that we submitted to Congress in recent days. That report to Congress did detail the sanctionable activity of KVT-RUS, an entity knowingly selling, leasing, or providing the vessel Fortuna for the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. It was the department’s analysis and determination that the Fortuna was engaged in just the sort of activity that was proscribed in the Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act, or PEESA.

Now, of course, this is not the end of the story. Every 90 days, we are required to provide Congress with an update of our analysis and our determination of relevant and applicable sanctionable activity in the context of Nord Stream 2. So, again, if we determine that other entities are engaging in sanctionable activity as outlined in – by PEESA, the congressional legislation, we will report that to Congress going forward. I believe the next report is due to Congress in May.

QUESTION: There’s PEESCA too.

MR PRICE: PEESA.

QUESTION: Yeah. But there’s another one, PEESCA.

MR PRICE: PEESCA, okay.

QUESTION: PEESA and PEESCA.

MR PRICE: Please.

QUESTION: Go to Lebanon?

MR PRICE: Okay.

QUESTION: My Bloomberg colleague had a story earlier today saying the administration is thinking about sanctioning the central bank chief. Can you speak to whether that’s the case, and also whether the State Department remains concerned about what appears to be continued protests, obviously, but also concerns about corruption and embezzlement in Lebanon?

MR PRICE: Well, to your second question, we are closely monitoring the situation in Lebanon. We and our international partners – we have repeatedly underscored both publicly and privately, the urgency for Lebanon’s political leaders to finally act upon the commitments they made to form a credible and effective government. The United States supports the Lebanese people and their continued calls for accountability and the reforms needed to realize economic opportunity, better governance, and an end to the endemic corruption, much of which has fueled what we have seen in Lebanon in recent days. I wouldn’t want to get ahead of things. I wouldn’t want to preview or speak to any potential policy responses at this time.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PRICE: Yes, Paola. Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION: Oh, Ryo Nakamura from Japan’s Nikkei newspaper. Thank you very much for taking my question. Several questions. There are reports that Secretary Blinken will visit Japan and that U.S. and Japanese Governments are considering having a 2+2 secretary dialogue in Japan. Could you confirm this report?

MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to confirm any reports of travel at this time. I think what is true and what I can confirm is our deep commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. Obviously, the Secretary has had an opportunity to speak with many of our close counterparts, including our treaty allies in the region, other partners in the region. I think you’ll see us continue to demonstrate our commitment to the Indo-Pacific going forward.

QUESTION: Separate question: I want to ask you about the importance of in-person meeting in the U.S. diplomacy. What do you think is the difference between in-person meeting and virtual meeting in terms of messaging? Do you regard in-person meeting as a better way to demonstrate the strength of the – the U.S. strength or partnership with American allies?

MR PRICE: It’s a really interesting question and it’s one we’ve thought about. Obviously, the pandemic and our current reality poses any number of challenges for daily life, but also for the conduct of diplomacy. It has heretofore prevented us from the Secretary traveling around the world. I know that this Secretary has been itching to get on the road and to conduct that diplomacy in person, but, of course, our priority is not only to the health and safety of our own staff but also to those with whom we would come into contact. And so, of course, we are cognizant to ensure that we are operating consistent with relevant guidelines.

I think, at the same time, the pandemic does also afford us opportunities, or at least the opportunity to explore new diplomatic opportunities. And you saw the Secretary do that last week when he embarked on his first virtual trip to Mexico and Canada. It would have been a very long day had Secretary Blinken physically traveled to both Mexico and Canada last Friday, but he was able to engage in bilateral diplomacy with our North American partners from the confines of the Benjamin Franklin Room.

QUESTION: It was a long day anyway.

MR PRICE: It was a long day anyway. That’s true. Not quite as long.

So we are looking for ways to take advantage of technology where appropriate. I think over the longer term, no one is under the illusion that technology is going to be a substitute, nor should it, for the conduct of face-to-face diplomacy. But we have been trying to make lemonade out of the lemons that the pandemic has delivered to us.

Yes.

QUESTION: Question on Yemen. The Houthis have now claimed another attack on Saudi Arabia. Do you expect the recent sanctions on the two Houthi leaders this week will do anything to deter them? I mean, the criticism being that it just plays into their narrative that they’re under assault from the West.

MR PRICE: Well, you’re right that we will continue to hold the Houthi leadership to account for their reprehensible conduct, including for continued attacks against our Saudi partners.

I think over the longer term what not only the United States but also Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region recognize, what we certainly recognize, is that there is not a military solution to the conflict in Yemen. I think that is growing increasingly clear the world over. It is precisely why President Biden in one of his first major national security appointments as President appointed Tim Lenderking as a special envoy for Yemen. It is precisely why Tim Lenderking has been on the road for much of his time in that role, to support in large part what UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has sought to do.

And so I think just as we continue to put pressure on the Houthi leadership, we are going to continue to work with all relevant parties to see to it that we can achieve a durable and a lasting – first a ceasefire and a durable and lasting political settlement. Ultimately that is what will bring an easing of the humanitarian suffering to the people of Yemen and what will also I think lead to a more stable Yemen and ultimately a more secure Saudi Arabia as well.

Yes.

QUESTION: A couple questions on Ethiopia. The prime minister’s office announced yesterday that they are investigating what they say are credible reports of atrocities. Do you think that is enough? You’ve previously called for an independent international investigation.

MR PRICE: Do we think that is enough?

QUESTION: Is it enough that they would conduct their own?

MR PRICE: Well, we have repeatedly engaged the Ethiopian Government on the importance of ending the violence, ensuring unhindered humanitarian access to Tigray, and allowing a full, independent international investigation into all reports of human rights abuses. We also noted the commitments, the public commitments, that the prime minister had made in recent days. Secretary Blinken spoke to the prime minister earlier this week, on Tuesday I believe it was, and the readout of that call noted that Secretary Blinken raised Prime Minister Abiy’s own commitments.

I think what we’re going to look to are both the right words, but of course, even more importantly, the follow-through. And it’s that follow-through that is important for us to see, precisely because it is that follow-through that will be so important to end the plight of the people of Tigray, to put an end to these reports of terrible human rights abuses that have plagued that region in recent weeks.

QUESTION: You’ve said that atrocities have been committed by multiple parties in your readout on Tuesday, your statement over the weekend. Can you be more specific in terms of who you believe are committing these atrocities? And if not, why wouldn’t you name names on this?

MR PRICE: Well, there have been a number of reports that have emerged, a number of credible, public reports. Before we – rather than speak to that at this moment, we’ve called on all relevant parties to ensure that these atrocious human rights abuses come to an end. We’ve been clear that Eritrean troops need to leave, that these abuses on all sides need to come to an end.

QUESTION: When you say Eritrean troops need to leave, do you believe that they are, in part, responsible for some of these atrocities?

MR PRICE: Again, we’ve seen multiple reports of these atrocities. It’s increasingly clear that what has transpired in Tigray has been reprehensible. And so our focus is on bringing this conduct to an end. That’s why we’ve engaged at multiple levels, including recently with the prime minister of Ethiopia himself, to see to it that humanitarian access is allowed and to see to it that the Ethiopian Government – and to call on all sides to do all they can to bring the suffering of the people of Tigray to an end.

QUESTION: The last question on it —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.) I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Sorry. Just one last one.

QUESTION: Go ahead.

QUESTION: The EU has named a special envoy and they’ve made the decision to withhold aid to Ethiopia over all of this. Why haven’t you taken similar steps?

MR PRICE: Well, we have taken steps that are very much in line with what you have heard from the EU to bring an end to the reported human rights abuses in Tigray. We are – we have been very clear in our words. We have been very clear in our private words with relevant parties as well. And I think you will see a continued focus on the part of this administration on Tigray given the atrocious reports that have continued to emanate from the region.

Yes.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?

MR PRICE: Okay.

QUESTION: Have any American diplomats either requested access to that region or been granted access to that region?

MR PRICE: So USAID, U.S. Agency for International Development, issued a statement earlier this week, I believe it was, noting that they are sending a Disaster Assistance Response Team, or DART, to Tigray. So we are very much engaged in doing all we can to facilitate and to provide some of this humanitarian relief to the people there.

Yes.

QUESTION: On Kashmir, it’s been a while for the ceasefire to stay into effect, but peace is tenuous, and I’m curious if you’ve had any specific conversations, what Secretary Blinken is going to do to ensure or try to ensure that the ceasefire maintains.

MR PRICE: Well, I think we said this yesterday, but it is true that we have continued to follow very closely developments in Jammu and Kashmir. Our policy towards the region has not changed. We call on all parties to reduce tensions along the Line of Control by returning to the 2003 ceasefire commitments. We condemn terrorists who seek to infiltrate across the Line of Control.

When it comes to how we will support that, we continue to support direct dialogue between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and other areas of concern.

QUESTION: There are a number of Kashmiri leaders who feel voiceless in the process. Is the United States going to do anything to actually engage not just the officials from the Indian and Pakistani official delegations but Kashmiris within the contested region to see what they – what you can do to help elevate their voices in the solution?

MR PRICE: I don’t have anything for you on that. If there’s anything we can add, we will.

Yes, please.

QUESTION: Thank you. I would like to ask about Brazil. Secretary Blinken has already spoken with Minister Ernesto Araujo, but I would like to know when President Biden will speak to President Bolsanaro.

MR PRICE: Well, I wouldn’t be in a position to preview any calls, any potential calls, on the part of the White House. I think what is true pertains to our partnership with Brazil, our two centuries of that partnership have been and remain today important to both our nations and to our hemisphere. Brazil and the United States are the region’s largest democracies and the largest economies. We share a commitment to democratic values. We work together to address the most urgent global and regional challenges of the 21st century. Our partnership is important to both our nations – and the entire region, in fact – and it’s based on shared commitments to democratic values that, again, span nearly two centuries.

QUESTION: Also, the Brazilian foreign minister said this week that President Bolsanaro will make efforts to attend the Earth Summit in April. So I’d like to ask, what kind of commitments does the United States expect from Brazil for Brazil to make during that meeting?

MR PRICE: Well, that is obviously for Brazil to decide and to announce themselves. I think what is true is that the President, the Secretary of State, Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry, they’re focused on advancing action at home and around the world to reach net zero emissions globally by mid century and to keep the limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius average temperate increase within reach.

And when – in order to achieve that goal, partnering with Brazil is critical to effectively tackling the shared global challenge of climate change. We hope to expand on our track record of cooperation with Brazil and see Brazil take additional concrete steps towards combatting climate change and achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

QUESTION: And just one last question, if I could. Does the U.S. Government see the current state of the pandemic in Brazil as a threat?

MR PRICE: Well, we see the pandemic around the world in every country as a potential threat, and it is precisely because as long as the pandemic continues to rage, no one can be safe from it. As we have seen with the development of variants – various variants around the world, until the pandemic is controlled, until it is contained, we can’t achieve our end goal of putting this pandemic to an end.

That is precisely why on his first day in office President Biden re-engaged with the World Health Organization, recognizing that, again, this is one of those challenges that the United States can put a dent in but we can’t certainly solve on our own. It’s precisely why you heard from President Biden of our $4 billion commitment to the COVAX facility, including $2 billion in the near term, knowing that for the United States in the first instance we are focused on getting a safe and effective vaccine to millions of Americans here at home, but there is also a broader task. And Americans won’t be safe, no other country will be safe, as long as the pandemic continues to spiral. And that’s what we seek to put an end to.

QUESTION: Does the U.S. plan on helping Brazil with that, with vaccines as well?

MR PRICE: Well, again, we have been engaged with the international community, we have re-engaged with the WHO, we have made a substantial commitment to the COVAX facility in the first instance in the form of $2 billion. So we are doing what we can to alleviate this global pandemic.

QUESTION: And – Hi, Ned. The WHO mission to Wuhan to investigate the origins of the virus, there’s reporting in The Wall Street Journal today that they’re considering not even publishing the interim report on that. At the time, you said that you were waiting to see the data. Did you ever get the full data from that team? And there’s also calls today for a new international inquiry, basically start again, because this one doesn’t seem to have been given access in the right way. Does the U.S. support that, calls for a new inquiry?

MR PRICE: Well, we haven’t seen the findings in question. Of course, aware of the report that the findings – that the interim findings won’t be released publicly. What we’ve made clear for several weeks now is that we have deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of COVID – of the COVID-19 investigation were communicated, and questions about the underlying process used to reach them.

We believe – and you saw a statement from the National Security Advisor to this effect a couple weeks ago now – that it’s imperative that this report be independent with expert findings free from intervention or alteration by Chinese Government authorities. And to better understand this pandemic and prepare for the next one, we know and we’ve continued to call upon China to make available its data from the earliest days of the outbreak.

The important point here is that it is not just about understanding what happened when it comes to the origins of this pandemic. It is about learning and doing, being positioned to do everything we can to protect ourselves, the American people, and the international community against pandemic threats going forward. That’s why we need this understanding. That’s why we need this transparency from the Chinese Government.

QUESTION: Ned, I’ve got two that I think you can dispatch with very quickly. One is on Bahrain. Yesterday – we spend a lot of time talking about the Middle East in here. Yesterday there was a letter that was sent to the Secretary by some human rights groups about the situation in Bahrain, which has not come up in this briefing. And I’m just wondering, one, if you are aware that the letter has been received; and secondly, whether or not it has been received or not, is the situation in Bahrain something that this administration is taking a close look at?

And then secondly on refugee admissions, there are reports today – there’s one on CNN about refugees who are booked on flights to come, even including today, but because the presidential determination has not yet been sent to the Hill, they were basically removed from these flights. So I’m just wondering if you can update us on, one, if you’re aware of those – these reports; and two, what, if anything, is being done about them. Thanks.

MR PRICE: When it comes to Bahrain – and we’ve made the point which applies to Bahrain equally as it does any other country that the United States – we bring our values with us in the context of every bilateral relationship. That includes with our close security partners. It includes with countries with whom we have a strategic partnership.

I would need to get back to you as to whether the Secretary has received that letter. But of course, human rights in the Middle East and beyond will continue to be at the center of our policy. We have talked about that in different contexts to date, but it applies equally across the board.

When it comes to refugees, of course, the President believes, Secretary Blinken believes, that it is very much in our DNA to be a country that welcomes those fleeing persecution, welcomes those fleeing violence the world over. It’s precisely why discriminatory travel bans were done away with. It’s precisely why the President spoke early on of his commitment to the United States refugee program.

I don’t have any updates for you in terms of our efforts to undo some of the damage to that program, but I’m sure we’ll be in touch going forward.

QUESTION: Well, are you aware of these reports about people who were supposed to, like, come even today and got bumped off flights?

MR PRICE: I would need to look into it.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

MR PRICE: Okay, I think we’ll call it a day. Thank you very much. We’ll see everyone tomorrow.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:27 p.m.)

# # #

More from: Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

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    The Navy and Marine Corps continue to face significant readiness challenges that have developed over more than a decade of conflict, budget uncertainty, and reductions in force structure. These challenges prevent the services from reaping the full benefit of their existing forces and attaining the level of readiness called for by the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Both services have made encouraging progress identifying the causes of their readiness decline and have begun efforts to arrest and reverse it (see figure). However, GAO's work shows that addressing these challenges will require years of sustained management attention and resources. Recent events, such as the ongoing pandemic and the fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard affect both current and future readiness and are likely to compound and delay the services' readiness rebuilding efforts. Selected Navy and Marine Corps Readiness Challenges Continued progress implementing GAO's prior recommendations will bolster ongoing Navy and Marine Corps efforts to address these readiness challenges. The 2018 National Defense Strategy emphasizes that restoring and retaining readiness is critical to success in the emerging security environment. The Navy and Marine Corps are working to rebuild the readiness of their forces while also growing and modernizing their aging fleets of ships and aircraft. Readiness recovery will take years as the Navy and Marine Corps address their multiple challenges and continue to meet operational demands. This statement provides information on readiness challenges facing (1) the Navy ship and submarine fleet and (2) Navy and Marine Corps aviation. GAO also discusses its prior recommendations on Navy and Marine Corps readiness and the progress that has been made in addressing them. This statement is based on previous work published from 2016 to November 2020—on Navy and Marine Corps readiness challenges, including ship maintenance, sailor training, and aircraft sustainment. GAO also analyzed data updated as of November 2020, as appropriate, and drew from its ongoing work focused on Navy and Marine Corps readiness. GAO made more than 90 recommendations in prior work cited in this statement. The Department of Defense generally concurred with most of GAO's recommendations. Continued attention to these recommendations can assist the Navy and the Marine Corps as they seek to rebuild the readiness of their forces. For more information, contact Diana Maurer at (202) 512-9627 or maurerd@gao.gov.
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  • Justice Department Updates 2015 Business Review Letter To The Institute Of Electrical And Electronics Engineers
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department today issued a supplement to its Feb. 2, 2015 Business Review Letter from the Antitrust Division to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Incorporated (IEEE) (“the 2015 Letter”).  The 2015 Letter analyzed proposed revisions to the IEEE’s Patent Policy of that same year pursuant to the department’s Business Review Procedure, 28 C.F.R. § 50.6.  The Antitrust Division took this step to address concerns raised publicly by industry, lawmakers, and former department and other federal government officials that the 2015 letter has been misinterpreted, and cited frequently and incorrectly, as an endorsement of the IEEE’s Patent Policy.  Additionally, aspects of the 2015 letter had become outdated based on recent jurisprudential and policy developments.
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    A Florida couple pleaded guilty for their participation in a scheme to file four fraudulent loan applications seeking more than $1.1 million in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
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  • VA Research: Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Partnerships and Guide Decision-Making with Nonprofits and Academic Affiliates
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) extramural research spending totaled about $510 million in fiscal year 2019—nearly half of the $1.1 billion in total spending on VA research. Of the $510 million, federal sources, such as National Institutes of Health, funded $382 million (75 percent), and nonfederal sources, including private entities, academic institutions, state and local governments, and foundations, funded $128 million (25 percent). Spending at the 92 VA medical centers that conducted extramural research in fiscal year 2019 ranged from less than $2 million to more than $10 million (see figure). VA medical centers' nonprofit research and education corporations (NPC) and academic affiliate partners administered the grants that accounted for 91 percent of the spending. Figure: Extramural Research Spending by VA Medical Centers that Conducted Extramural Research in Fiscal Year 2019 VA has made efforts to promote and support VA medical centers' partnerships with academic affiliates—for example, by coordinating a mentoring program for local VA research officials—and considers effective affiliations as an enhancement to research. However, VA's Central Office officials have not provided examples of successful practices for strengthening research partnerships with academic affiliates. Having such practices would promote collaborative opportunities for VA medical centers with academic affiliates, particularly for medical centers that have poor communication with affiliates. Additionally, VA's Central Office has provided general guidance but not specific tools to VA medical centers for determining when an NPC or an academic affiliate should administer a project's extramural funds. Having specific decision-making tools could help medical centers make more informed decisions to provide optimal support for the research. VA research, which has contributed to many medical advances, may be funded by VA's appropriation or extramurally by other federal agencies and nonfederal sources. To access extramural funding, investigators at VA medical centers usually work with an NPC or academic affiliate partner to submit a grant proposal. Once a grant is awarded, medical centers' partners administer the grant by distributing funding, fulfilling reporting requirements, and performing other administrative activities. GAO was asked to review VA's extramural research. This report examines, among other objectives, (1) how much VA spent on extramural research in fiscal year 2019 and (2) the efforts VA has made to support medical centers' partnerships for extramural research. GAO analyzed VA policies, documents, and data. It also conducted site visits and interviewed officials from VA's Central Office and from a nongeneralizable sample of VA medical centers, NPCs, and academic affiliates, which GAO selected to represent variation in geographic location and funding. GAO recommends that VA (1) provide more information to VA medical centers on strengthening research relationships with academic affiliates and (2) develop decision tools to help VA medical centers determine whether NPCs or academic affiliates should administer extramural grants. VA agreed with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact John Neumann at (202) 512-6888 or neumannj@gao.gov.
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  • VA Disability Benefits: VA Should Continue to Improve Access to Quality Disability Medical Exams for Veterans Living Abroad
    In U.S GAO News
    The number of disability claims for veterans living abroad—in foreign countries or U.S. territories—increased 14 percent from fiscal years 2014 to 2019. During this time period, claims processing time frames improved. In fiscal year 2019, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) approved comparable percentages of disability claims for veterans living abroad and domestically—63 percent and 64 percent respectively. However, for a subset of these claims—those where veterans likely received a disability medical exam scheduled by Department of State (State) embassy staff—approval rates were often lower. Veterans' access to disability medical exams abroad improved as VBA has increasingly relied on contracted examiners, rather than embassy-referred examiners, to conduct these exams. According to VBA, this shift expanded the pool of trained examiners abroad and increased the frequency and depth of VBA's quality reviews for contract exams. These quality reviews help VBA and its contractor identify and address common errors, according to VBA and contractor officials. However, several factors continue to limit some veterans' ability to access quality disability medical exams (see figure). Factors That Impair the Access of Veterans Living Abroad to Quality Disability Medical Exams Unknown quality of certain exams: A subset of veterans living abroad receive disability medical exams from an embassy-referred provider. VBA does not systematically assess the quality of these exams. Without doing so, VBA cannot determine if such exams affect the approval rates of veterans who receive them or contribute to longer processing times and are unable to make informed decisions about their use. Travel reimbursement: Under current VA regulations, VA is not authorized to reimburse veterans for travel expenses for certain services incurred in foreign countries as it is for those incurred within the United States, including U.S. territories. Consequently, some veterans living in foreign countries may be unable to afford to travel to exams. Examiner reimbursement: The Veterans Health Administration's (VHA) Foreign Medical Program reimburses examiners referred by embassy staff via paper checks in U.S. currency. These checks may be slow to arrive and not accepted by foreign banks, according to State and other officials and staff we interviewed. Such payment issues can deter examiners from being willing to conduct disability medical exams and thus limit veterans' access to these exams in foreign countries. Of the roughly 1 million disability claims VBA processed in fiscal year 2019, 18,287 were for veterans living abroad. Veterans living abroad are entitled to the same disability benefits as those living domestically, but GAO previously reported that veterans living abroad may not be able to access disability medical exams as readily as their domestic counterparts. VBA uses medical exam reports to help determine if a veteran should receive disability benefits. GAO was asked to review the disability claims and exam processes for veterans living abroad. Among other things, this report examines disability claims trends for veterans living abroad and these veterans' ability to access quality disability medical exams. GAO analyzed VBA claims data for fiscal years 2014 to 2019; assessed data reliability; reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, policies, and contract documents; and interviewed employees of VBA, State, and other stakeholders. GAO is making five recommendations, including that VBA assess the quality of embassy-referred exams, VBA and VHA assess whether to reimburse beneficiaries for travel to disability medical exams in foreign countries, and that VBA and VHA pay examiners located by embassy staff electronically. The Department of Veterans Affairs concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Elizabeth Curda at (202) 512-7215 or curdae@gao.gov.
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  • Justice Department Settles with Minnesota-Based Company to Resolve Discrimination Claims Under the Immigration and Nationality Act
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    The Department of Justice announced today that it reached a settlement with WinCraft, Incorporated (WinCraft), a Minnesota-based sports manufacturing company with locations in Iowa, Florida, and Washington. The settlement resolves claims that WinCraft violated the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) by requiring lawful permanent residents to provide specific work authorization documentation without any legal justification because of their immigration status. 
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    A federal grand jury returned an indictment charging Neeraj Jindal, the former owner of a therapist staffing company, for participating in a conspiracy to fix prices by lowering the rates paid to physical therapists and physical therapist assistants in north Texas, including the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, the Department of Justice announced today. The indictment also charges Jindal with obstruction of the Federal Trade Commission’s separate investigation into this conduct.
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  • North Carolina Return Preparer Sentenced to 50 Months in Prison for Multi-Year Tax Fraud Scheme
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    A Rocky Mount, North Carolina, tax return preparer was sentenced to 50 months in prison today for conspiring to defraud the United States, announced Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Goldberg of the Justice Department’s Tax Division and U.S. Attorney Robert J. Higdon Jr. for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
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    A North Carolina return preparer pleaded guilty today to conspiring to defraud the United States.
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