Briefing with Senior State Department Officials On U.S. Limiting the People’s Liberation Army’s Ability to Use Nonimmigrant Visa Programs to Illicitly Acquire U.S. Technologies and Intellectual Property

Office of the Spokesperson

Via Teleconference

MODERATOR:  Good afternoon, everyone.  Thanks for joining us today for this background briefing to discuss the announcement made last week by President Trump and elaborated on by Secretary Pompeo on limiting the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to leverage nonimmigrant student and researcher visa programs to acquire United States technologies, intellectual property, and information to develop advanced weapons systems in China.

As the Secretary noted, we will not tolerate PRC attempts acquire American technology and intellectual property from our academic institutions and research facilities for Chinese military end uses.  We want to stress, however, that the United States will continue to welcome all legitimate students and scholars in the PRC for student – for study and research once routine visa processing resumes.

To help further explain our thinking behind this decision and its implementation by the State Department, we have joining us today , , and .  For the purposes of this background briefing, they will be referred to as Senior State Department Official One, Two, and Three, respectively.  They have short opening remarks, and then we’ll take your questions.

A reminder that the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call.

, please go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Thank you very much, .  I want to begin by quick talking something that just said.  It is absolutely imperative that folks understand this is not targeting the vast majority of Chinese students who, COVID permitting, are still welcome to come to U.S. schools and research institutes and whose contributions we value greatly.

That said, we do have a very narrow problem, a national security problem, a very important one that we are seeking to target with a scalpel.  This policy is very, very narrowly targeted on this narrow problem set.  This is not something that should affect, as I said, the vast majority of Chinese students and scholars who are coming to do totally legitimate academic and research work here in the United States.

That said, it is true that the People’s Republic of China for a number of years now has very deliberately been targeting sensitive technologies in the United States and other advanced economies and that these technologies have been put to the use of modernizing China’s military to the detriment of our national security and that of our friends and allies.

In particular, China has either coopted or coerced a finite, small number of academics and researchers who have come to the United States and other countries where they have engaged in activities that have given them access, taking full advantage of our open academic and research environment, to sensitive technologies.  And they’ve done so without revealing in these small number of cases their ties to China’s security apparatus, and thus whether they have been actually stealing technology per se or merely diverting it, they have nonetheless, under less than completely honest pretenses, have been a channel for taking this technology back to China for nefarious purposes.

I will point out that in this area, as in so many others, we find that China over recent years has become increasingly more aggressive.  I would say the technology space is one of, if not the most important, of these arenas where there is increased competition between China on the one side and the United States and other rule-of-law, democratic countries on the other.

So our approach here is of a piece with the rest of this administration’s policy of seeking to enhance and strengthen our resilience to the PRC’s increasingly aggressive and underhanded tactics on the one hand, while at the same time, to the extent possible, maintaining as much as possible the open flows of people between our two academic and research institutions.

The particular program that we’re targeting here mentioned up front, it’s called “military-civil fusion.”  And I’d like to turn it over to my colleague to talk a little bit more about that in particular, which, again, is the narrow focus of this policy.  Over to you, .

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Thank you, .  So good afternoon, everyone.  I just very briefly would like to highlight what MCF is and how the administration’s actions last week and this policy sets of visas is a consequence of the PRC’s MCF strategy.

As I had discussed maybe with some of you guys before, military-civil fusion is a Chinese whole-of-government, whole-of-nation – not just government – strategy, directly overseen by Xi Jinping, and it seeks to merge civilian and government sectors, civilian research, civilian education, civilian tech with government security, military sectors in order to acquire and then develop advance technologies for the benefit of the People’s Liberation Army.  In doing so, it subverts a range of exports controls that other countries have on their technologies, precisely so that civilian trade doesn’t get diverted for military end uses.

In this particular case, the PRC seeks to exploit the access that some of China’s brightest graduate students and researchers have to leading U.S. institutions in order then to divert and steal sensitive technologies and knowledge and intellectual property and, again, divert them to security purposes.  We, the government, are deeply concerned about the serious risk that this strategy poses, both from a national security perspective but also to maintain integrity of the academic – the open academic and collaborative research institutions that we have.  It’s a security risk for us and also to advanced technology producing countries around the world.

Our expectations for this policy is to prevent the PRC from acquiring for their military use sensitive research and technology in the United States academic and research institutions.  We also hope that this will contribute to an improved environment in which the U.S. and Chinese scholars can engage free from the distress caused by the course of efforts of the PRC.  And to reiterate the point that had made earlier that this is a narrow approach that we’re trying to take; it only affects a small subset of the breadth of Chinese students that come that we benefit from them coming to study in the United States.

Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Okay, and I guess I will take over from here.  This is .  Let me just echo what my colleagues said about the value of international students and legitimate Chinese students to the United States.  We fully understand and support that.  Traditionally, we have afforded international students priority in the visa appointment process.  And when we were able to open up again after the COVID pandemic, we hope to continue that practice.

But all that said, the first task of a visa system is to protect national security, and that includes, as my colleagues have pointed out, the safeguarding of sensitive technology and research.

So in the visa context, the President’s action suspends the entry into the United States of any PRC national seeking to enter pursuant to an F or J class visa to study or conduct research at the graduate or post-graduate level where the individual’s academic or research activities are likely to support the development of the People’s Liberation Army advanced capabilities.  So again, as my colleagues have pointed out, this is a small subset of the large number of legitimate Chinese students who are currently studying in the United States, and we continue to welcome all those legitimate students while ensuring that our national security is protected.

Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Okay, Operator.  We’re ready for questions.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  And ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please, press 1 then 0 on your keypad.  You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating that 1-0 command.  And if you’re using a speakerphone, please, pick up your handset before pressing the numbers.  Once again, it’s 1 and then 0.  One moment, please, for the first question.

And that will come from the line of Humeyra Pamuk of Reuters.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hello.  Thank you for doing this.  I just want to clarify something.  Are you revoking the existing visas of Chinese nationals who are in the United States, and therefore effectively expelling them?

And my other question is a little bit wider:  I’m just curious how the heavy-handed intervention of U.S. law enforcement on peaceful protesters is affecting your ability to point out the erosion of human rights and the right to assembly in Hong Kong, and what kind of an impact it has on the weight of your diplomacy.  I’m sure you’ve seen Carrie Lam’s accusation of double standards, and she’s hardly the only one.  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Well, let me —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Yes, if you could – the visa question, definitely, but —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Yeah, I’ll address the revocation question, and it came up.  And let me point out that domestic enforcement of immigration laws is the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security.  So the department does have broad authority to revoke visas under U.S. immigration law, but we always work in concert with other agencies that have domestic enforcement authority, and so I would direct you to DHS to get an answer to that question.  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  On the Hong Kong question, the Secretary of State and the President have both had quite a lot to say about that, and it’s not just the United States; it’s the international community at large.  I think I will just refer you to the comments of the Secretary and the President over recent days.

MODERATOR:  Thanks.  Can we open the line of Matt Lee for the second question?

QUESTION:  Hey there.  Good afternoon.  In all of this discussion since last week when this became the reality, there has been no mention of the actual numbers of Chinese students who you think will be affected.  In other words, how many current Chinese students fit the bill for having their visa either revoked or how many applicants do you estimate per year from China would be affected by this?  Presumably, you’ve done due diligence and figured that out.

And then once you’ve given that number, I think what we can expect:  The Chinese are nothing if not insistent on reciprocity.  And regardless of whether you accept the argument that an American student in China might have connections to a U.S. military or the Pentagon or an affiliated institution, how many American students would you expect to see hit by a reciprocal Chinese action?  Thank you.

And if you guys can’t give an answer to either question, then I – please, explain to me how this makes any difference at all.  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Let me address the numbers question.  As noted in my opening remarks and that of my colleagues, we expect that this will affect only a small percentage of the total number of Chinese students studying or seeking to study in the United States.  According to figures that the Institute for International Education released for the 2018-2019 academic year, there are approximately 369,000 Chinese students in the United States, representing a 1 percent increase from the prior year, and accounting for about one-third of the total of all international students.

So it is impossible to say because we don’t know how many individuals will seek to apply in all of these fields, but based on research that we’ve done, we expect the percentage to be low.  The total number of 369,000 is far in excess of the small percentage that would be affected by this targeted approach, but it’s important to keep in mind this is a carefully calibrated, targeted initiative that’s going after individuals at certain levels of study.  Remember, it’s targeted at graduate students and above and researchers in certain sensitive fields.  It’s not designed to impact large numbers of people.  It’s going after individuals who have been determined to be – to represent a potential serious threat to national security.  Over.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  And this is .  I would say I obviously have no crystal ball so I cannot tell you what the Chinese may or may not do in response.  I would – but I would – I guess I would take exception to the premise.  What we are responding to is an action on the part of the PRC government, where it is specifically targeting sensitive technologies, it is specifically looking to avoid transparency.  So the folks who are doing the work of the Chinese security agencies are not being upfront either with our consular officers with whom they’re applying for visas or with the academic or research institutions with which they’re engaging.

So rather than us worrying about what the Chinese reaction to our step would be, I would characterize this as a U.S. – a very judicious and narrowly targeted U.S. reaction to a set of Chinese actions which are very troubling and undermine U.S. security.

MODERATOR:  Great.  Next, let’s go to the line of Nick Wadhams, please.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks very much.  I just wanted to push you a little bit more on two elements you just mentioned.  One, if you have the numbers saying that there are 369,000 Chinese students in the U.S., you must have an estimate currently of how many of those are graduate students who fall under this category.  So could you tell us how many graduate students in these sensitive fields are currently in the U.S.?  Because just saying it’s going to be a low percentage, that could be anywhere from 1 percent to 30 percent.  So could you – could you narrow that down by telling us how many are currently there?

And then, second, could you tell us who is going to be sort of adjudicating which visas get denied and which people?  I’m not really clear on the precise criteria.  Are you just setting aside a certain set of fields and saying, okay, these fields we’re no longer going to give visas to Chinese graduate students seeking to study them?  Are you – is it going to be Chinese graduate students from particular universities?  And who specifically will be making that judgment?  Is it the consular officer at the desk in the embassy or someone else?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  , do you want to talk about the fact that a consular officer at the window will still be doing this on a case-by-case basis?  And I’m happy to talk a little bit more about the broad areas we’re looking at, or, , if you want to do that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Yeah, no, I —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  But maybe, , you could start off with that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Yeah, I was just about to, in fact, point out that we will be handling this the way we handle any other type of visa adjudication.  Consular officers will receive guidance on the overall program, and then they will assess each applicant and each applicant’s situation on its own individual merits.  And that holds for our consular sections in China and anywhere else around the world where a PRC citizen might choose to apply.  Over.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  And regarding the fields, I’m reluctant to prejudice the implementation of this rule, and so I don’t think it would be appropriate to discuss which specific fields.  However, I would want to provide a view of the technology areas that we’re concerned about, and there’s things like quantum technology; for example, artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, advanced materials.  These are the broad areas that the U.S. Government has routinely been concerned with in the context of military-civil fusion, and so I would refer you to those kinds of documents such as the Export Control Reform Act that list a range of technology areas that the U.S. Government is trying to wrap our arms about in how to better control these technologies and these researches.  Over.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  And this is .  The one thing I would add there is, again, without prejudice to any particular case, clearly we’re not looking for anyone engaged in these fields; we’re looking for folks that we have reasonable – reasonable suspicion to believe have been either co-opted or coerced into basically acquiring these technologies for the purposes of PLA modernization.

So again, this is a very narrowly focused problem set and a policy that is – like I said, more of a scalpel than a baseball bat, if you will.  We are trying to keep this as limited as possible to address the specific concerns that we have about these particular technologies making their way to the People’s Liberation Army.  Over.

MODERATOR:  Next to Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) ask you a question about what you said about welcoming Chinese students overall despite these restrictions.  As you know, China has been the top source of students both – at the overall level, including undergraduates, in the United States for many years.  How concerned are you and to what extent was it a factor in your decision making looking into what the broader effect would be on Chinese students?  Are there any efforts that are going to try to make – to reassure students that don’t have any links to the military, that they’re welcome to come to study – to the United States?  Are you worried at all that the numbers could go down?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Well, I am hoping that everyone who is engaged in this call will write in big, fat, bold font at the very top of this story the repeated assertions we’ve all made that, in fact, we continue to welcome and value the contributions of the vast majority of Chinese students and academics.  And of course, in addition to calls like these we’re messaging this as best we can through all available useful media for that purpose.  But yes, we – looking at this as one of many tools that we can use to get that message out.  We’ll be doing the same via our embassy and our consulates in Beijing and obviously back here in the States as well with Chinese students, with academic and research institutions, and of course, as we’re doing right now, with the press.

MODERATOR:  Okay, for the next question, let’s go to the line of Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you.  I was wondering if you could, following up on my colleague’s question, say whether vetting guidelines have been given to embassies and consulates for determining which students will get visas and what you’ve told the universities and research institutions to assuage any concerns that they might have going forward?   Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Yes, like any other immigration policy, consular officers will be acting under the basis of guidance from Washington.  And as one of my colleagues pointed out at the beginning, currently because of the COVID pandemic we are not providing any nonessential visa services, which would include students, at the present time.  So consular officers will have full guidance when we reopen for student visas in the future.  Over.

MODERATOR:  Okay, next to John Ruwitch, NPR.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Just curious:  The question of how many people you expect to fall into these categories has come up a couple of times.  I just wanted to ask a couple of things.  One is:  Do you have an estimate and you’re just not sharing it with us?  And then is this – what evidence do you have that the situation is getting worse with regard to Chinese scholars that fall into these categories stealing or gaining – seizing technology or gaining knowledge that they’re using to sharpen the PLA’s edge?  Do you have any specific examples that you can tell us about?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Again, with respect to the numbers, the research that we’ve done indicates it would be a small percentage of the total number of Chinese students in the U.S.A., but we’re unable to say exactly what that number is going to be because we can’t predict how many individuals will actually be applying in any given month.  I’ll let colleagues address your other question.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Sure.  So regarding is this getting worse, well, it’s certainly not getting better.  I will point you to – there’s two specific FBI cases regarding U.S.-based scholars that are kind of caught up in this problem that we’re trying to address here, which is preventing stealing of IP and the diversion of sensitive research to military end uses.  There is no indication that we have seen that the PRC Government is slowing down their efforts to acquire these technologies across the board.  Here we’re focused specifically on research and academia, but the same applies with commercial transactions and regular export controls of goods shipping overseas as well.  Over.

MODERATOR:  Great.  Next, Ed Wong.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks for doing this.  I have a quick question.  The – I mean, there’s different tiers of schools in the PRC, and various schools have various ties to the PLA.  I’m just wondering if you could at some point release a list – you don’t have to do it right now on the call – but release a list of some of the schools to which, like if people have graduated from, they’ll be barred from getting visas.  Is that something you can do?  And also, there’s other universities like Tsinghua, which is a very well known school but does received some funding, I think, from parts of the military, and so those are less clear-cut.  I’m wondering how you plan to address that.

The – another thing is also:  Have there been historical precedents for this?  Like, for example, in our rivalry with the Soviet Union, did you bar certain classes of students or categories of students from studying certain fields in the U.S. at that time?

And then the third question is why do it against – why, I guess, label a class of students as being off-limits rather than just doing standard counterintelligence on these particular students when they’re here in the U.S.?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Thank you.  So I can address some of those questions.  The – we are not likely to release a list of the universities any time soon because – again, I don’t want to undermine the effort even before it gets off the ground, so to speak.  Our approach here is to identify universities that are critical, important to Chinese military-civil fusion purposes.  Some – you’re right, some of them are more apparent than others, but we try to do our due diligence to identify which are the ones that fall in that bucket.

I do not know – regarding your question with the USSR, I’ll take that back.  I do not know what the history is of that one.

And then regarding the last question about counter-insurgency – or counterintelligence, sorry – we are not – we’re certainly not going to diminish our counterintelligence efforts.  This is an effort that we’re going to try to take at the front end to also complement counterintelligence efforts.  Over.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Last question that we have in our queue for right now is Jessica Donati.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi.  I’m sorry to repetitive, but it seems like a very simple question that we’re asking in terms of the percentage.  You’re saying it’s low.  Can you give us a ballpark estimate based on the figure that you already have for Chinese students last year, which presumably was part of your calculation, and give us, say, within the nearest 5 percent how many this would be?  Or if you cannot tell us, can you just say that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  We’re not able to narrow it down beyond the term “low” because of the other uncertainties that were mentioned earlier.  Over.

MODERATOR:  Okay, that looks like it’s our last question.  Thank you to our briefers for joining today and for everyone dialing in.  Have a great afternoon.

Assistant Secretary of State Schenker Leads U.S. Delegation to High-Level Virtual Pledging Conference for Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen 

Office of the Spokesperson

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker led the U.S. delegation at the High-Level Virtual Pledging Conference on June 2 for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen co-hosted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Nations.  He was joined by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs Mark Pekala, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Richard Albright, U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Chris Henzel, and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Food for Peace Deputy Director Matt Nims.

The United States remains one of the largest donors to the humanitarian response in Yemen, where more than 24 million people– 80 percent of the population – require humanitarian assistance.  As Secretary Pompeo announced on May 6, 2020, the United States is providing nearly $225 million in additional emergency food assistance to support the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in Yemen.  In the past 20 years, the United States government has provided more than $4 billion in overall assistance to Yemen. This $4 billion includes $1.1 billion in humanitarian assistance since October 2018 and nearly $140 million in development assistance since 2017.

We welcome the announcements of additional pledges today, and hope for the swift disbursement of this urgently needed funding.  This event clearly demonstrates donors’ continued commitment to assisting the Yemeni people, and collective position on the need for this assistance to be provided according to globally-accepted humanitarian principles.  The United States urges the Houthis in particular to demonstrate the same level of commitment to assist their fellow Yemenis, and to cooperate with donors and humanitarian aid organizations to allow aid to reach those who need it most without undue interference. We further urge all parties to continue working towards a lasting political solution to this conflict which is the surest way to bring relief and hope to the people of Yemen.

The UN website and KSRelief’s YouTube channel livestreamed the event.  For further information, please visit https://www.unocha.org/yemen2020.

Secretary Pompeo’s Call with French Foreign Minister Le Drian

Office of the Spokesperson

The below is attributable to Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus:

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo spoke today with French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian to discuss steps to reduce violence and advance a negotiated political solution to end the conflict in Libya. Secretary Pompeo and Foreign Minister Le Drian also discussed ways the United States and France will cooperate to strengthen the Transatlantic relationship and solidarity at NATO, the need to support security and stability in the Sahel, and the importance of coordinating efforts at the United Nations on issues confronting global security and public health.

Assistant Secretary Fannon Holds Workshop on Mineral Criticality and the Energy Transition

Office of the Spokesperson

The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Energy Resources and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) held a virtual workshop on governance of energy mineral supply chains on June 2, 2020. This event furthered a global commitment to responsible sourcing of minerals and metals critical to clean energy.

Through the Energy Resource Governance Initiative (ERGI), which was launched by the State Department one year ago, the United States and its partners promote policy frameworks that foster good governance and transparency in the energy minerals mining sector to improve the quality of investments in that sector and supply chain security

This joint workshop featured remarks by Assistant Secretary for Energy Resources Frank Fannon, IRENA Director General Francesco La Camera, and Payne Institute Director Dr. Morgan Bazilian. Two panels were held discussing both governance and stewardship around the energy mineral supply chains. For more information on ERGI, visit www.ERGI.tools.

Secretary Pompeo’s Call with Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and UK Counterparts

Office of the Spokesperson

The below is attributable to Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus:

Secretary Michael R. Pompeo spoke yesterday with Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters, and United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. They discussed our coordination on responding to urgent global challenges, including the PRC’s unilateral and arbitrary decision to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong; Iran’s destabilizing activities in Iraq and the Middle East; and the need for a transparent accounting into the origins of, and global response to, COVID-19. They also discussed coordination to maintain supply chains for PPE and medical equipment and our joint efforts to control the export of sensitive technology.

The United States Targets Maritime Entities for Supporting Illegitimate Maduro Regime in the Venezuela Oil Trade

Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State

Today the United States imposed sanctions against four companies for operating in the oil sector of the Venezuelan economy.  These companies are transporting oil that was effectively stolen from the Venezuelan people.  Theft of Venezuela’s oil assets for the benefit of the illegitimate regime of Nicolas Maduro is unconscionable, and those that facilitate this theft risk losing access to the U.S. financial system.

Maduro’s corrupt regime is directly responsible for the political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.  The international community should increase pressure against the Maduro regime until it relinquishes its illegitimate hold on power.  The United States will continue to increase pressure on Maduro and his enablers until a democratic transition begins.

Italian Republic Day

Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State

On behalf of the United States Government and the American people, I congratulate the Italian people on the 74th Anniversary of the founding of the Italian Republic.

More than 20 million Americans, including myself, can trace their roots back to Italy, and Italian-Americans have made important contributions to every facet of American life.  I fondly remember the hospitality of the Italian people during my trip to Italy in October 2019.  I especially appreciated the warm welcome I received when visiting my family’s ancestral home in the town of Pacentro, where my grandfather was born.

As close allies and friends, the relationship between the United States and Italy is wide-ranging, with cooperation ranging from trade and defense to educational and cultural exchanges.  The United States deeply appreciates Italy’s active leadership in strengthening regional and global security.

As our nations and the rest of the world work to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, our alliance is more important than ever.  On behalf of the American people, President Trump announced a substantial assistance package to support Italy’s fight against COVID-19.  I commend the Italian people for their resolve and resilience during this challenging time.

We will emerge from this crisis stronger together, united in our commitment to our common values of democracy, respect for human dignity, and individual freedom.

I look forward to many more years of friendship and cooperation between our two countries.

Briefing with Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad On Updates from the Road to Afghan Peace and Reconciliation

Morgan Ortagus, Department Spokesperson

MS ORTAGUS:  Thank you.  Good afternoon, everybody.  Happy Monday.  Welcome to June.  Hard to believe we’re here in June already and to this on-the-record briefing from U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.  Just a reminder to everybody, if you want to go ahead and get into the questions queue now, you can by dialing 1 and 0.  And also please remember that while this is on the record, the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call, please.

All of you know that it has been almost 20 months and a lot of ups and downs since Ambassador Khalilzad came into the department to find a way forward in Afghanistan.  Since we last spoke with the ambassador, he has traveled to the region again, which means we’ll have a chance today to hear about his engagements with senior representatives of all sides involved in the Afghan conflict.

Over the course of the past few weeks, we have had a number of positive developments we’d like to highlight:  the Eid ceasefire and strong effort by both sides to release prisoners and address other concerns.  But the road to peace and reconciliation is not linear, and we continue to work through other remaining challenges.

Today is International Children’s Day, and our ongoing diplomatic process in Afghanistan is all about securing a peaceful, safe future for the children of the United States, Afghanistan, and around the world.

Ambassador Khalilzad will open with brief remarks, then per usual will take your questions for the remainder of the time.  Again, contents of the briefing embargoed until the end of the call.  It is on the record.  Go ahead and get in the answer – excuse me, in the Q&A queue by 1 and 0.  Okay, go ahead, Zal.

AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD:  Thank you very much, Morgan.  Good afternoon, everyone.  The last time when I spoke with you, I emphasized the issues of violence and that violence has increased inconsistent with the spirit of the agreement at least that we have signed with the Taliban, and two, that the prisoners release was not where we wanted it to be.  Today, I want to update you as to where we are, and as Morgan mentioned, I believe we are in a more hopeful moment that validates our approach.  One, that with regard to violence, Morgan mentioned the Eid ceasefire by the Taliban which was reciprocated by the government, and by all accounts violence was down dramatically during Eid.

Since the Eid ceasefire, violence has been relatively low.  It hasn’t gone back to pre-Eid circumstances or conditions.  And at the same time the Government of Afghanistan in response to the ceasefire and the reduction of violence that has taken place has accelerated the release of prisoners.  So far, we have about 2,400 to -500 number of Talib prisoners that have been released since the signing of the agreement between the United States and the Taliban, and two, that the Talibs have released some 400-plus government prisoners that they hold.

We’re focused now on getting to the intra-Afghan negotiations, which is really the most important for Afghans to have peace is an agreement on a roadmap for a political settlement between the representatives of Afghanistan’s Islamic Republic, an inclusive team that was established some weeks ago, and the Taliban.

Also, I am happy to report – you knew that already – that the political crisis in Afghanistan that produced two presidential inaugurations, now it’s been resolved and the two leaders are working together on an agenda for peace.  We’re beginning to discuss with them where the intra-Afghan negotiations will take place, when it will take place, what role will the international community play, and those are the kind of issues that we are focused on.

So let me conclude by saying that we are in a good place.  The road ahead, as Morgan mentioned, will have challenges and difficulties, but we’re optimistic that finally we are moving forward to the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations.  And not only we are trying to make sure that the remaining issues dealing with the prisoners release, which is that up to 5,000 prisoners have to be released by the government, and all the prisoners that the Talibs have must be released before intra-Afghan negotiations can begin, and that we are hoping that violence will stay low so with the release of prisoners we can begin the intra-Afghan negotiations about the future of Afghanistan and an end to the war in that country which has been going on for 40 years.

Thank you, and over to you for questions and comments.

MS ORTAGUS:  Great.  Thanks.  First up in the queue is Kim Dozier, Time Magazine.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Ambassador Khalilzad, the UN just came out with a report today that’s drawing on member-states’ intelligence and security services for its evidence.  And it says that the Taliban has maintained relations with al-Qaida, told them throughout their talks with you they told al-Qaida they’d honor their historical ties, and they’ve even talked about forming a joint force, whereas Secretary Pompeo told Face the Nation after signing the deal that the Taliban had agreed they’d break that relationship and push al-Qaida out.  So which is it?  Is the al-Qaida relationship moving on a different timeline?

AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD:  Well, thank you, Kim.  First, the report I have not read, but from what I’ve heard it covers the period until March 15th, and you remember that the agreement we signed on the 29th of February.  Two, we are monitoring Taliban compliance with that agreement, which, as you know, stipulates that there will be no hosting of al-Qaida or any other terrorist group that could threaten the security of the United States and our allies.  We have had good discussions with them, and we have a monitoring group that monitors in detail what’s happening with regard to their commitments, the Talib commitments on terrorism, not only vis-a-vis groups such as al-Qaida but also on Daesh or ISIS.  And we believe that there is progress, but we will continue to monitor those activities very closely.

MS ORTAGUS:  Thanks.  Let’s go over to Tracy Wilkinson, LA Times.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you.  Sort of a follow-up to that:  U.S. troops withdrawal has been conditioned on the Afghani partners meeting certain requirements like, as you just talked about, the relationship with al-Qaida.  Are those conditions still in place and are they being met?  In other words, where does the withdrawal of U.S. troops stand at this point?  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD:  We are committed to the agreement that we have signed, which we believe historic, that opens the opportunity for us to achieve our goal of not feeling – not being threatened by terrorists based in Afghanistan.  And that commitment is not only from the Taliban, the result of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, but also by the Afghan Government as a result of the joint declaration between the two sides which was signed – or declared, rather, on the same day.  Now, as you say correctly, our commitment to what we have said we will do is conditioned on what the other side’s commitments are and the delivery on those commitments.  That framework is fundamental and that is very much in place.

On the reduction of forces, of course based on the agreement and subject to the conditionality that I mentioned, we are proceeding with the drawdown.  For details of that, I encourage you to talk to the Pentagon.

MS ORTAGUS:  Great, thank you.  Dan Sagalyn, NewsHour.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  Hello, Mr. Ambassador.  Can you tell us, have the Afghan Government – has the Afghan Government and the Taliban agreed that the prisoner issue that has stalled progress in the next round of talks – have they agreed that this prisoner issue has been resolved, or are still more prisoners having to be – or do more prisoners still have to be released before a commitment to the date and the details of the intra-Afghan dialogue begins?

AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD:  Of course there has been a lot of progress in the last few days on the prisoners released, as there has been progress on the violence issue.  But there is more prisoners to be released by both sides, and we hope that violence will stay at very low levels before intra-Afghan negotiations begin, and those negotiations will determine and decide on a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire in Afghanistan.

So we’re hoping that we can get into the details of when, where, and related issues regarding the intra-Afghan negotiations, but no, more work still needs to be done, more steps need to be taken on release of prisoners and, as I said, the importance of keeping violence low.

MS ORTAGUS:  Thanks.  Jennifer Hansler, CNN.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you for doing this.  Could you go into more specifics on how the U.S. intends to hold the Taliban to account on its commitments, particularly on breaking ties with al-Qaida given that our presence on the ground is being reduced?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD:  Well, thank you for the question.  We, as I said, monitor closely what happens with regard to terrorism, in terms of delivery on the commitments that the Taliban have made.  We do notice that they are fighting Daesh and that’s one of the commitments that have been made.

Second, we know that they are moving on the other fronts in terms of commitments that they have made.  You can, I’m sure, appreciate that I can’t go too much in details in an open press brief on what they have done vis-a-vis particular groups, but we see progress.  But they have a lot – a lot more to do, and our commitment on the commitments that we have made, our delivery on those commitments, is very much conditional on them delivering on their commitments with regard to terrorism and related commitments.

So we are monitoring it, as I said, closely.  We have a group that pays attention to this, watches it very closely.  And we also raise issues that we have if there are issues – when there are issues with the Taliban, not only by me when I visit with them and with the Afghan Government when I visit with them, but we have also special channels for this effort, and they are raised in those channels, and of course raised by military and political representatives in Kabul as well.

We recognize the importance of this issue – this is vital – the issue of terrorism.  And not only we press them, but we also take measures when necessary.  We continue to do the security steps, operations that are needed as well.  So we have a comprehensive approach for different phases on how to deal with the issue of terrorism, but we – we believe there is progress, but more work needs to be done by them.

MS ORTAGUS:  Thank you.  Okay, let’s see, Aamer Madhani – I apologize if I screwed up your name – AP.

QUESTION:  Yeah, thanks.  Hi, Ambassador.  How much pressure does the Islamic State’s stepped-up activity put up on the deal moving forward?  And from a U.S. security perspective, how critical is it to get the Taliban into the fight against IS?

AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD:  Well, the Taliban fight Daesh, as you know, and they’ve been substantial adversaries vis-a-vis each other.  Daesh is working against peace, is working against reduced level of violence, and they have been responsible, some of – for some of the most dastardly attacks recently, including the attack on the hospital.  We believe that the Talibs have been important, besides the Afghan Security Forces and ourselves, in the fight against Daesh that has taken place.  And Daesh is a fact of life in Afghanistan.

We believe that an agreement between the government and the Taliban to end the – that war, and cooperation between the two on a political roadmap, will put Afghanistan and the Afghan forces, Taliban, the government, in a much stronger position to pursue the fight against Daesh until Daesh is eliminated in Afghanistan.  So we regard the agreement that we have made and the steps that have been taken as helpful in the fight against Daesh, but Daesh is still there and a lot of work needs to still be done to deal with the threat that Daesh poses.

MS ORTAGUS:  Thank you.  Jessica Donati, Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks for doing this.  The agreement states that the U.S. will withdraw based on conditions, but if Trump pulls out on Election Day, as he is reportedly planning to do, will you be able to preserve the agreement?

AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD:  Well, two points on that, that one, we have agreed on a timeline already for withdrawal in the agreement, and as you said correctly, it’s condition based.  And the issue of whether – if the conditions are met at a faster pace or sooner than the timeline that we have agreed to in the agreement, whether – it is the prerogative of the President if he thinks that the conditions have been met and we could do it faster.  But the key thing is that whether the conditions have been met, and I think that is a – we are – is the most important issue, and we are monitoring that very closely.

MS ORTAGUS:  Thanks, Jessica.  Okay, let’s see, Conor Finnegan, ABC.

QUESTION:  Hey, Ambassador, thanks for doing this.  Just following up on my colleague’s question earlier on the UN report, it also said that the Taliban was consulting with al-Qaida during your negotiations with them.  Were you aware of that?

And then a second question:  What’s the status of the $1 billion of U.S. assistance that Secretary Pompeo said was frozen?  Was any of that money ever withheld?  Is it being released now that there is a political agreement?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD:  On the money, you should consult with the Pentagon.  I think the Secretary has spoken on that issue.  On the details of the implementation, I refer you to the Pentagon.  On the al-Qaida-Taliban issue, I’ve said before as well that the Taliban have committed to breaking with al-Qaida and not to host al-Qaida, not to allow any group including al-Qaida to use the territory that they currently control against the United States and our allies, to threaten us or our allies, and that if they become part of a future government as a result of intra-Afghan negotiations that they will follow the same policy nationwide.

And as I said before, we have the same agreement with the Afghan Government, and as I said again, that we are monitoring that very closely.  And the Taliban are a complex entity – individuals, subgroups – and I can’t speak on behalf of any individual Talib member, but the Taliban as a whole have made this commitment.  We hold them to that commitment, and what we do and what we have committed to – its implementation is very much dependent on them delivering on their commitments.

MS ORTAGUS:  Thanks.  Nick Schifrin, PBS.

QUESTION:  Hey, Zal.  Thanks for this.  Got NewsHour in stereo today.  Couple questions, one on the conditions-based that you said – referred to with the President.  Just confirming that you do believe that the President will maintain the strategy of a conditions-based withdrawal instead of a withdrawal simply based on a timeline.

And to go back to the original question about the UN, as you know, you and your military colleagues found more connections between the Taliban and al-Qaida than I think a lot of people expected during these conversations.  You used the word “progress.”  Can you detail with as much specificity what kind of progress you’ve gotten since February 29th?  Thanks very much.  On – specifically on separating the Taliban and al-Qaida.  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD:  First, our approach is condition-based and remains so.  And second, that the Taliban have made commitments, specific commitments with regard to al-Qaida and other groups that could threaten the United States in terms of the – their presence, in terms of training, in terms of recruiting, in terms of fundraising in the territory that they currently control.  And the job is not done yet on that, but as I said before, progress has been made and our future steps in terms of force reduction and related commitments depends on the Talibs delivering on those commitments.

I’m sorry I can’t be too specific or very specific about this as to what they have done, but we are monitoring that.  That is obviously very important, and the key is – the key message that I want to send is that our delivery on the commitment that we have made is contingent on them delivering on their commitment and those two are a package.  Actually, there are four issues that are a package: withdrawal, terrorism, intra-Afghan negotiation, and permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.  Now, with the prisoners released and the reduction of violence, we are hopeful that we will soon be able to focus on the intra-Afghan negotiations and a political agreement and on a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.

I believe that our approach by the progress we have seen recently is validated and – however, you all are very experienced people.  This is a complicated situation both internally and internationally, and it’s – it’s not a straight line, this progress.  There might be setbacks, but we are at a better spot than when I briefed you last.

MS ORTAGUS:  Thanks.  Okay, the last person that I see in the queue is Kylie Atwood, CNN.  If anybody has a final question, dial 1 and 0 now, because we don’t have anyone else.  So Kylie Atwood, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thanks, Ambassador.  Two questions:  So first, you’ve mentioned a few times that you can’t be too specific about what the Taliban has done to fight al-Qaida or break from al-Qaida.  And why is that that you can’t be more specific about that?

And my second question is:  Last year Secretary Pompeo said that al-Qaida doesn’t amount to a shadow of its former self and that the U.S. had delivered on its mission to oust al-Qaida from Afghanistan.  Does that remain true today?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD:  Thank you.  On the second question, of course al-Qaida once used to be present in Afghanistan in a big way.  Usama bin Ladin and many of the leaders of al-Qaida were in Afghanistan.  We asked the Taliban to deliver them after 9/11 to us.  They refused.  As a result of the fight that we have had, al-Qaida has been devastated in terms of numbers of losses.  And there is still some presence but a small presence, and we have succeeded in getting Taliban, which refused to break with al-Qaida at that time, to say what I have repeatedly referred to.

So on that front I think no doubt that is a big change that has happened in terms of al-Qaida and Afghanistan, al-Qaida and the Taliban compared to what was the case before 9/11 and then afterwards in the – so.

On the second note – your first question asked why I can’t talk in greater detail.  These are sensitive issues between al-Qaida, which is a terrorist organization, and the relationships that have existed, the break or adjustments that are being made, and these are issues of intelligence and I don’t want to get into those, not surprisingly, as to exactly how – what we see happening.  I hope you’ll understand that I can’t talk about it, because if we talk about it, it may have other consequences.  And besides, I’m not allowed to talk about them.  That’s all I can say about that.

MS ORTAGUS:  Zal, do you have time for another question?

AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD:  Sure.

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay.  We – Sami Mahdi from Radio Azadi in the queue.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you so much, Mr. Ambassador, for this opportunity.  I have two questions.  The first question is the inclusive government is formed and we have the High Reconciliation Council now.  What do you think – when will the intra-Afghan peace talks start?  And some names like – names of countries like Germany, Norway, Qatar, and Uzbekistan are mentioned.  Any idea where this will take place?

And the second question is:  The change in the Taliban (inaudible) reports suggest that the COVID-19 has spread among the leadership of the Taliban.  Do you see this as a positive progress and for peace or not?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD:  Well, thank you.  On the intra-Afghan negotiations, the date and the location are two of the issues that we’re very much focused on right now among other issues regarding intra-Afghan negotiations.  As you can imagine, both sides, meaning the government or the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan team and leadership and the Taliban, have to agree on those issues and others, location.  And there are obviously several countries that have offered to host those negotiations, but two sides have to agree where.

And then there is also the issue of date and the issue of date relates to prisoners issue as well and that – but the fact that we are focusing on those issues right now is a sign of progress.  Perhaps to – some of you might have been hopeful and optimistic that we will get there by now, but a lot of people who have been pessimistic that we could get to this place where we are discussing where and when intra-Afghan negotiations would begin and that there will be enough progress on the prisoners issue.  You know the evolution of the discussion among Afghans in the government and with the Taliban on that issue and on the issue of violence.  So we’re working on that, and we’re working also with international partners both in the region and internationally.  My trips are in part to make sure we have everyone together internationally in support of this process.

Now, on the issue of the virus, the coronavirus issue, its impact.  Yeah, we are very concerned about this impact in Afghanistan, and we have provided assistance to Afghanistan.  We are concerned and worried about the impact that the virus is having, could have, as we are concerned about this issue in many other places.  But as far as the specific implications for specific groups, I do not have anything to share at this time.

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay.  Thanks, Zal.  Zal, we’re over time now.  There’s still people left in the queue, but unless you want to take anything else – do you have time for anything else or do you want to go ahead and end?

AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD:  Well, I leave it to you, Morgan.  If you want to take another one, I am willing, but it’s up to you.  You are the boss.

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay.  I apologize, because we still have three or four more people in the queue, but I’m just going in the order that it came in.  So this will be the definite last one.  And I apologize that we can’t get to everybody today.  Shaun Tandon.  Shaun, are you still on?

OPERATOR:  I don’t see that participant queued up.  My apologies.

MS ORTAGUS:  Arshad Mohammed.

QUESTION:  Thanks, Morgan.  Ambassador Khalilzad, two things.  One, going back to your comment on the UN report, the agreement that you reached was indeed February the 29th, but the UN report, as I believe you said, goes up to March 15th.  That still suggests that there is a contradiction between your agreement saying that they would cut ties – the Taliban and al-Qaida – and what the UN report says.  So can you please address that?

And second, the Secretary of State said in writing on March 23rd that a billion dollars was being cut from U.S. aid to Afghanistan.  The last time I checked on that, which was 10 days ago, nothing had been cut.  Can you not tell us whether any of that money has been cut?  And if you can’t tell us, I mean, does – if the money hasn’t been cut, does it not suggest that your threats in this regard are empty and will be taken as empty by the Afghans and potentially others?

AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD:  Thank you.  On your second question, I think the money is cut and the implementation is – and – with the Pentagon, so you’ll have to get on the details of the implementation as to when, what part, from which account they are taking that’s – that end of it handled – the Pentagon, and I would like you ask them that.

With regard to the report, as I said, I haven’t read it in detail, but I was just briefed by the staff a little while ago that it covers that period that I mentioned, until March 15th.  Yes, the Taliban have obligations with regard to al-Qaida.  This covered the period immediately after the agreement.  We recognize it takes time to take the steps necessary operationally to deliver on their commitments.  We observe they’ve taken some steps.  They have to take a lot more steps.  And we will monitor this very closely, and we will take appropriate steps to protect our national security.

With regard to terrorism, we do not want Afghanistan to again become a platform.  And if the Talibs not do deliver – and I’d rather not speculate – then, as I said before, the commitments that we have made is also then subject to change if the other side doesn’t deliver on its commitments.  And the commitment is also not only with the Taliban but with the Afghan Government as well, so all sides of Afghanistan.

The commitments themselves were significant for them to commit in a public agreement the commitments that they have made.  We couldn’t get that a long time ago, so I would not dismiss that as important.  Implementation is also very, very important, and we are saying that they have made moves, but we – a lot more steps have to be taken by them, and we will be watching that very closely.

So thank you, everyone.  Thank you, Morgan.  I appreciate this opportunity, and all the best.

MS ORTAGUS:  Thanks, everybody.  Thanks for dialing in.  Have a great one.

Transnational Organized Crime Rewards Program Offer for Information to Bring Venezuelan National to Justice

Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State

Today the U. S. Department of State announces a reward for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of Venezuelan national Joselit de la Trinidad Ramirez Camacho for participating in transnational organized crime.

The Venezuelan people deserve a government that they have chosen freely and whose officials do not conspire with associates to engage in crimes of theft from the people of Venezuela, including money laundering to hide the proceeds of those illicit activities.  The United States is committed to helping Venezuelans restore their democracy through free and fair presidential elections that will provide them with honest and capable national leadership.

The Department is offering a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of Joselit de la Trinidad Ramirez Camacho for participating in transnational organized crime.  While holding public positions in the Venezuelan regime, Ramirez Camacho violated the public trust by conspiring to launder illicit funds obtained in Venezuela.  Ramirez Camacho, the current National Superintendent of Cryptoactive and Related Activities in the Maduro regime, was charged by indictment, along with former Venezuelan Vice-President Tareck El-Aissami, in the Southern District of New York with several transnational crimes, including money laundering.

This reward offer is made under the Department of State’s Transnational Organized Crime Rewards Program (TOCRP).  Together with the Narcotics Rewards Program, more than 75 major narcotics traffickers have been brought to justice since these programs began in 1986.  The Department of State has paid more than $130 million in rewards for information leading to those apprehensions.

The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs manages these rewards programs in close coordination with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Homeland Security Investigations (ICE/HSI), and other U.S. agencies.  These actions demonstrate the State Department’s commitment to support law enforcement efforts and a whole of government approach to combating transnational organized crime.

For more information on the individuals listed above and the Transnational Organized Crime Rewards Program, please see https://www.state.gov/joselit-de-la-trinidad-ramirez-camacho-wanted/ or contact INL-PAPD@state.gov

U.S. Limits the People’s Liberation Army’s Ability to Use Nonimmigrant Visa Programs to Illicitly Acquire U.S. Technologies and Intellectual Property

Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State

On May 29 President Trump issued a proclamation that limits the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) ability to misuse nonimmigrant student and researcher visa programs. The Trump Administration is committed to achieving a fair and reciprocal relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and also continues to value the important contributions of international students and researchers, including from China.  However, the Administration is also committed to protecting our national and economic security. We will not tolerate PRC attempts to illicitly acquire American technology and intellectual property from our academic institution and research facilities for Chinese military ends.

The President’s proclamation suspends the entry into the United States of any People’s Republic of China national seeking to enter the United States pursuant to an F or J visa to study or conduct research in the United States, except for a student seeking to pursue undergraduate study, where the individual’s academic or research activities are likely to support a PRC entity that implements and supports the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “military-civil fusion” strategy.  Our actions last Friday are a direct consequence of PRC government strategies and policies that exploit the access of some of China’s brightest graduate students and researchers, in targeted fields, to divert and steal sensitive technologies and intellectual property from U.S. institutions, taking undue advantage of our open and collaborative academic and research environment.  This action will help safeguard U.S. national and economic security interests and the productivity and security of the U.S. research enterprise.

Our concern is with the malign actions of the Chinese Communist Party and specific individuals, not with the Chinese people.  The graduate students and researchers who are targeted, co-opted, and exploited by the PRC government for its military gain represent a small subset of Chinese student and researcher visa applicants coming to the United States.  We expect this new visa policy will contribute to an improved, open, and transparent environment in which U.S. and Chinese scholars can engage with greater trust. At the same time, the United States will continue do everything in its power to safeguard U.S. technology and institutions, and to ensure our national and economic security remain safe and free from foreign interference.