US State Dept Presser

State Dept Presser -May 2, 2023

18 Min
State Dept Presser -May 2, 2023

The State Department held a presser on May 2, 2023 with Principal Dy Spokesperson Vedant Patel fielding a wide range of questions. His Q-A on B’desh and Afghanistan is tweaked to appear up-front

 Some Excerpts

QUESTION: I’m wondering will you ask Bangladesh prime minister for a formal apology, as she accused United States that they are doing – involving a regime change in various part of the world as she’s visiting Washington, I guess private visit or the – for the World Bank thing. One of the mouthpiece of the Bangladesh Government, Somoy News, they made a lengthy report and accusing U.S. that U.S. embassy in Bangladesh – they’re characterizing that a political party of Bangladesh, and that’s why the U.S. ambassadors have been upstart by the various group, and they are instigating like that. So what is your comment and then – an institution like NED that told that lengthy report, that they are involved in regime change and spreading monies. So what is your comment on that and what is your response?

MR PATEL: Let me try to unpack that a little bit. So first, I don’t have anything to offer on the prime minister comments. Broadly what I will say is that the U.S. doesn’t consider it interference to have honest dialogue with our friends and partners about concerns that we have and shared interests that we have that may or may[1] impact the bilateral relationship, that may – may or may[2] impact regional concerns and regional priorities. And as we have said, the U.S. supports free and fair elections in Bangladesh as well as around the world, and we do not endorse one political party or candidate over another.

Specifically on the criticism about our embassy in Dhaka, I will say our embassy in Dhaka acts as an envoy for our bilateral relationship with Bangladesh as well as all of our embassies around the world do. And what I will note – you heard me speak to this yesterday – Bangladesh is a country of great importance to us. It’s a country we are interested in deepening our relationships with. In 2022 we celebrated 50 years of bilateral relationships with Bangladesh, and we believe that there’s a number of issues in which we can continue to deepen our cooperation on – not just with the Bangladeshi Government, with the Bangladeshi people as well, whether that be addressing the threat of climate change, whether that be deepening economic ties, security concerns as it relates to the Indo-Pacific, and what have you.

QUESTION: Follow-up?

QUESTION: One more on Bangladesh. Just yesterday I think it’s misrepresented by the various media – controlled media in Bangladesh, your statement that Secretary Blinken made it very clear when he met foreign minister that not only U.S., whole world is watching for Bangladesh election, as Bangladesh experienced two farcical election, 2014 and 2018, and you are always urging for a free, fair, credible, and neutral election. But they have —

MR PATEL: That’s our expectation for any – any country in the world, is that for elections to take place and for them to happen freely, fairly, and as you said, with neutrality as well, and for them to be conducted with neutrality, as I might add.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Patel, for the opportunity. During the last decade and half, under the present government, Bangladesh has become a model of development around the world. Both World Bank and IMF acknowledged that last – even this week when the PM is visiting right now here in U.S. capital. Under these circumstances, how is U.S.-Bangladesh relation can develop the next level? Many believe that responsibility lies on U.S. being the most powerful country in the world and you are supporting everywhere the democracies. So what will be the next level of the relationship with Bangladesh?

MR PATEL: So I think I spoke to this a little bit when answering your colleague’s question, and I think you asked a similar question yesterday when I spoke to this. But I will reiterate again that Bangladesh is a country that we’re looking to continue to deepen our partnership and relationship with. As I said, this year would be the 51st year of bilateral relationships between the United States and Bangladesh. There are a number of areas – deepening economic ties, addressing climate change, security cooperation – that we believe are very important to continuing to deepen this partnership.

 QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. After the department’s refusal to comply with the House subpoena for the Afghan cable, is it now prepared to defend this matter in litigation?

MR PATEL: I spoke to this yesterday. We continue to be in direct engagement with the House Foreign Affairs Committee on this. We continue to believe that the engagements and accommodations that we have had with the committee are sufficient to meet their legitimate oversight requests. That has – include a classified briefing on dissent coming from Embassy Kabul as it relates to the NEO in Afghanistan and the time leading up to that. It also included a written summary of dissent emanating from Embassy Kabul, including some of the items that are laid out in the dissent channel cable.

The important thing to remember here, Jackson, is that the dissent channel cable is something that this Secretary regards as of deep importance to this institution. He reads every dissent channel cable he gets, and it is a mechanism for any member of the State Department to offer clear and candid feedback and dissent on any issue under the sun for the senior leaders of this department.

QUESTION: But there are members of the committee who said that briefing was just not enough, and like – just anything short of not getting the cable is just not enough for the committee, so —

MR PATEL: The cable is – the dissent channel is not an avenue for engaging with members of Congress. It is an avenue for any member of the State Department to engage with leaders of the State Department to offer candid feedback on any issue. We have been very clear about the options that we have afforded the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and we believe that those options have sufficiently met their legitimate oversight needs. And anything beyond that, we’ve continued to engage with them on this process.

QUESTION: Do you have anything to add to the evacuation operation situation in Sudan.

MR PATEL: I do have a new metric to share today that is in line with some of your questioning yesterday. But if you’ll allow me, I will – let me use this opportunity to reiterate again that over this – course of this past weekend, through the three convoys that the U.S. Government coordinated, 70 individuals – 700, sorry, I apologize – 700 individuals were able to depart Khartoum. Over the course of this crisis, we have messaged and communicated with approximately 5,000 U.S. citizens in Sudan who were interested in communicating and seeking guidance from the American Government. And as I said yesterday, since the violence began, the U.S. Government, in tandem with allies and partners, have helped facilitate the departure of over 1,000 U.S. citizens from Sudan.

A little bit more specific for that for you, Matt: We can confirm that our consulate in Jeddah has welcomed and offered consular services to more than 350 American citizens and Legal Permanent Residents in – who have departed Sudan safely and have made their way through Jeddah. I will note that this is from the various modalities that have been available to people seeking to depart Sudan over the course of – since this violence intensified, not specifically just from this weekend’s convoys.

QUESTION: Okay. So – and I really don’t want to harp on this, because I know it’s kind of a – kind of getting into the weeds. But the 700 who have been able to leave in the three convoys are a mix of American citizens, LPRs, locally employed staff, and some —

MR PATEL: American citizens, locally employed staff, LPRs, and citizens from other allied and partner countries.

QUESTION: And the 1,000 figure that you say – since the fighting began, is –

MR PATEL: U.S. citizens.

QUESTION: So – well, then how many of 700 are not U.S. citizens?

MR PATEL: I don’t have a breakdown for you of the convoy manifests yet, Matt. Just – I’m not able to parse the data further. If that changes in the coming days, we’ll of course be in touch. But what we can say is that the three convoys that took place over the course of this weekend safely moved 700 individuals from Khartoum to Port Sudan.   Let’s take a step back. Since over the course of this crisis, we have communicated with 5,000 American citizens who have sought to seek communication and be in touch with the American Government – not necessarily depart Sudan, but be in touch with us. Of that population, a fraction have sought to safely depart Sudan. Since the violence began, we can confirm through our mechanisms, through mechanisms of allies and partners, we have facilitated the departure of over 1,000 U.S. citizens from Sudan.

These three convoys that took place over the course of this past weekend assisted 700 individuals made up of American citizens, of LPRs, of locally employed staff, of citizens of allied and partner countries as well.

QUESTION: Okay. So –

MR PATEL: And then, our consulate in Jeddah has welcomed and offered consular services to more than 350 American citizens and LPRs from Sudan who have made their way to safety to Jeddah.

QUESTION: Follow-up on Sudan?

MR PATEL: Yeah. Go ahead, Daphne.

QUESTION: South Sudan said that the generals have agreed to a new longer, seven-day ceasefire. Have you been in communication with the generals about this?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any specific diplomatic engagements to read out, Daphne, but we of course have remained in close touch with General Burhan and General Hemedti through various levels here at the State Department, and we have continued to call for the adherence and extension of this ceasefire in hopes of it getting to a durable, workable cessation of hostilities that gets us back in line with the will of the Sudanese people, which is a transitional government rooted in democracy.

QUESTION: How are you going to get them to actually adhere to the ceasefire, as the fighting has continued despite the different ceasefires that have been announced?

MR PATEL: No ceasefire is perfect, but what we feel confident about is that these ceasefires – the subsequent ones, including this most recent extension – have led to a reduction in violence. And they have led to a reduction in violence that have allowed, specifically I might add, for some of these operations to be conducted that have allowed allied and partner countries to evacuate their own citizens. It’s allowed us to play an integral role in those efforts, through ISR overwatch and other mechanisms. It’s also allowed us to coordinate the three convoys that we spoke about over this – course of this past weekend.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Two follow-ups on – two questions with my friends and colleagues here. And I’ll start by the same one. Usually you welcome ceasefires, but here, you appear to be very cautious with this one announced from South Sudan, at which the two sides, by the way, have not – as far I know – spoken to it. So why is that? Are you worried that —

MR PATEL: No. Leon, I would not overread into my comments. I don’t have a confirmation to offer on this latest announcement. But were it to be true, it’s something that we, of course, would welcome. Because again, we have felt that ceasefires and the extension of them have given us – created opportunities for two things: first, of course, allowed for the security conditions for the safe departure of American citizens, American personnel, and citizens and personnel of allied and partner countries; but also it – every time that the ceasefire is extended, it allows us to continue to work, hand in hand, through the auspices of the Quad, through the auspices of the AU, IGAD, and the UN, to get us to a durable cessation of hostilities that will hopefully take us back to what we believe is the will of the Sudanese people, and that is a transitional government.

QUESTION: So in this specific announcement, a seven-day ceasefire, you have not been involved? I mean, the State Department?

MR PATEL: We have been involved. I just don’t have any specific updates to offer. Don’t have any updates to offer from the State Department on this specifically.

QUESTION: And just to follow up to your questions, Matt, on the – sorry – on the numbers —


QUESTION: You literally said – and this is why I need to clarify, because you said it both ways. You literally said that approximately – you were messaged and communicated with approximately 5,000 U.S. citizens in Sudan.

MR PATEL: Correct. Correct.

QUESTION: So, there are at a minimum 5,000 U.S. citizens in Sudan?

MR PATEL: There – we are in touch with 5,000 American citizens in Sudan who have sought to seek communication from the U.S. Government.

QUESTION: Very quickly, just to follow up. So whatever talks or interlocution that is taking place now is really totally focused on a ceasefire, correct? Possibly for seven days, and that’s what the government of South Sudan said, or there are some talks in – possibly in Saudi Arabia, but nothing beyond that. Are you proposing any kind of timetable or calendar on how you will go back to that local transition, that transition that was so much talked about?

MR PATEL: Said, both things can be true. We can continue to call for and seek the extension of these ceasefires while also working a process to achieve a permanent cessation of hostilities and humanitarian arrangements that we believe will be beneficial to the country and to the Sudanese people. To support a durable end to this fighting, the United States, from all levels of this department, are coordinating with regional and international partners and Sudanese civilian stakeholders to assist in the creation of a committee to oversee the negotiation conclusion and an implementation of a permanent cessation of hostilities. Extension of a ceasefire, we believe, are steps that will continue to help get us in that direction.

QUESTION: The Government does not have something – the U.S. Government does not have something, the step one, step two, step three, step four, going back to where we were?

MR PATEL: Not anything that I am going to read out or parse from here. We continue to be deeply engaged on this and are working collaboratively with relevant partners.

QUESTION: And then I just have a question about the current ceasefire.  Do you feel like this current ceasefire provides the same or similar conditions as the previous one in terms of the conditions that you’ve spoken about being demand and security conditions for a possible other convoy? Is it the same or is it —

MR PATEL: I don’t have any additional updates to offer on a potential future convoy. At this time, we have no additional convoys planned, but we’re continuing to assess the demand for safe departure from American citizens as well as what the security conditions on the ground both in Khartoum and Port Sudan, what those conditions will allow. So I’m not going to get ahead of hat assessment process. However, we continue to believe that broadly a ceasefire continues to allow for security conditions that will help us get civilians to safety. It’ll allow those conditions to persist.

 QUESTION: And are there plans to dispatch the Brunswick or other U.S. naval assets to keep ferrying people from Port Sudan to Jeddah?

MR PATEL: I will let my colleagues at the Pentagon speak to any specific asset movements. But what I will say is that, as you saw over the weekend, of course, the Brunswick played an integral role in helping move American citizens and other individuals to safety. And so we’ll continue to look at all options. And of course, at Port Sudan there continue to be a number of options available for those seeking safety, including commercial ferries.

QUESTION: And sorry, last one. Is it still your understanding that only two Americans have been killed as a result of —

MR PATEL: That’s my understanding. 


QUESTION: Is Ambassador Godfrey and the diplomatic delegation still in Washington, and what are they doing?

MR PATEL: I don’t have – for obviously privacy reasons, I don’t have specific updates to offer. Obviously, Ambassador Godfrey has been someone who has been deeply, deeply engaged in this issue. As you know, we of course suspended operations at our embassy, and so the diplomatic presence that we have there is currently on hold and the team is back in Washington. But I don’t have – I’m not going to read a checklist of what those individuals are up to at this time. A lot of them continue to be deeply engaged on our engagements with Sudanese military and civilian leaders, but obviously they have had a fairly harrowing experience as well.

Still on this topic before we move away?

 QUESTION: On Azerbaijan-Armenia, do you have any update on the second day of the ministerial?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any updates for you, Alex. We remain committed to this process and remain committed to promoting a peaceful future in the South Caucasus. We believe that direct dialogue is key to resolving the issues, but I’m just not going to get ahead of the meetings themselves.

QUESTION: Since it’s happening behind closed doors, can you help us set the stage? So who is behind the table? We have two ministers. Who else is there?

MR PATEL: There are a number of – obviously, the – I will let these two countries speak to their own delegations. But we obviously have had a number of officials from the U.S. side deeply engaged on this. Obviously, Senior Advisor for Caucasus Negotiations Lou Bono has been deeply engaged in this not just through these meetings but through his continued engagement in the South Caucuses. You know that Secretary Blinken attended the plenary session yesterday morning and had the opportunity to host these ministers for a dinner Sunday night. And so it’s something that we will continue to be deeply engaged on.

QUESTION: Is the Secretary still trying to meet with the ministers —

MR PATEL: I don’t want to get ahead of the schedule this week, Alex, and we’ll just let these meetings and engagements take part and take them day by day.

QUESTION: And last one. Just more broadly, how close do you expect the sides to move towards each other at the end of this time?

MR PATEL: Again, Alex, I’m just not going to get into a hypothetical. We’re going to let this process play out before offering any comment or punditry, if you will.

QUESTION: Thank you. My second topic, if you don’t mind, press freedom. The Secretary yesterday told Ben Hall that we remain in contact through our embassy, embassy when it comes to Evan’s case. Has there been any contact recently?

MR PATEL: I don’t have specific updates to offer, Alex. As you know, Ambassador Tracy had the opportunity to be present for Evan’s sham hearing about two weeks ago. That same week, she also had the opportunity to offer him a consular visit in addition to consular officers from Moscow. And so in every engagement with the Russian Federation we have been very clear that both Even Gershkovich and Paul Whelan are being wrongfully detained and need to be released immediately and be offered consistent and regular consular access in line with what our consular convention is with the Russian Federation.

QUESTION: Just to confirm, the Secretary was present at the Correspondents’ Dinner last weekend where both Evan’s parents and also Austin Tice’s parents were present? Did the Secretary have a chance to come and visit?

MR PATEL: I believe the Secretary did have an opportunity to spend some time with – briefly with Evan’s family. I of course am not going to get into the specifics of that as it was a very private moment, but I’ll see if we have any specific updates about his other engagement as well.

QUESTION: And last on Austin Tice. It has been a year since we have heard from the administration entertaining some real action on this case. Any update on whatever’s happened with it throughout this year?

MR PATEL: Let me say a couple of things on that, Alex. We are engaging extensively to try and get Austin home. We have and will continue to pursue every channel we can to seek his safe return to his family, and we will continue to do so. And that means discussing this case with a number of countries in the region, and we’re going to continue to keep working until he returns to the United States.

As President Biden said and as he said as recently as this weekend, we will not cease our efforts to find Austin and bring him home.

QUESTION: The President has instructed the NSA to re-engage last year at this time. There was no engagement, no connection between —

MR PATEL: This is – Alex, I’m just not going to offer a piece-by-piece update. This is something that we continue to be deeply engaged on directly, and we’re going to work tirelessly to bring Austin home.

QUESTION: Liz Oliva Fernandez, Belly of the Beast. Administration officials meet last week with Cuban officials to discuss counterterrorism, but the administration has Cuba on the state sponsor of terrorism list. Why is Cuba on the state sponsor of terrorism list if you are trying to work with them to fight against terrorism?

MR PATEL: So these security dialogues with Cuba, my understanding is that they are very standard and they happen at regular intervals and regular cadence. There is obviously, given the maritime boundary, important pieces of coordination that need to take place with Cuba. But these are dialogues that happen regularly, at regular intervals, and we continue to not have a change in policy as it relates to Cuba’s place on the designation list.

QUESTION: What evidence is there that Cuba sponsored terrorism?

MR PATEL: Well, the regime has a long track record of egregious human rights abuses, suppression of a free press, suppression of civil society, and other key factors that continue to keep them on that list.

QUESTION: Does the department have any response to Speaker Kevin McCarthy saying he will invite Prime Minister Netanyahu to the United States if President Biden does not do so soon? This was in response to the President saying he had no plans to meet with Netanyahu in the near term. If the Speaker were to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu to the U.S., would Secretary Blinken meet with Netanyahu?

MR PATEL: So I’m not going to engage in – on the second part of your question, I’m not going to engage in a hypothetical. We obviously remain in close touch with our Israeli partners at all levels. What I will also say is that the President and the White House have spoken to this a great deal before. I don’t have anything additional to add.

Our relationship and our partnership with Israel is deep-rooted. We were one of the first countries to recognize Israel when it was founded as a country, and so as the White House has said, we will continue to engage them, and I don’t have any visits or anything to preview.

QUESTION: Late last night or early this morning Jerusalem time, a Palestinian political prisoner died as a result of 85 days of a hunger strike. I did raise his issue in this room at one point. And my question to you is: Do you have a view on this? Do you have a position on Palestinian political prisoners that go on hunger strikes? Many of them do – that many of them get close to dying. There has been like 237 Palestinian political prisoners who have died in Israeli prison. Do you have a view on this?

MR PATEL: Said, our view is that we have a deep respect for human rights and believe that all individuals, including prisoners, should be treated humanely. What I will also note, Said, is the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, and as we have seen with today’s rocket attacks, this group continues to advance violence.

QUESTION: So let me ask you, then, why don’t they charge such people with any particular charges? Any – I mean, they are held in limbo endlessly under administrative detention.

MR PATEL: Any prisoner – Said, any prisoner, political or otherwise, should be treated humanely. That is our belief; that is our view. We have a strong respect for human rights, and that’s something that we believe and it’s something that we practice as well.

QUESTION: Should they have a trial?

MR PATEL: Again, that is for the Israeli Government to determine. I don’t have anything to offer on that.

 QUESTION: Yeah. Vedant, what’s behind the statement that the department has issued yesterday on Lebanon? And why now? And was there any message to France or others on this statement who support a specific candidate?

MR PATEL: We believe that a specific leader is ultimately up for the Lebanese people to decide. But what we are hoping for is for the Government of Lebanon and the people of Lebanon to choose a president, to select a president who can help the country and the people of Lebanon address the immense challenges that it is facing right now, the immense economic challenges that it’s facing, and that the time is now to do so.

QUESTION: And was there any message to France?

MR PATEL: We talk to our French allies all the time at a variety of levels. Obviously, this was a statement about the situation in Lebanon. I would not read into it into being anything otherwise.

QUESTION: And are you on the same page with France regarding Lebanon?

MR PATEL: I am here to speak to what our belief is. I will let our French counterparts speak to theirs. And our viewpoint is that the time is now and the time is appropriate for the people of Lebanon to pick a president, and pick a president who has the skillset and the experience to help address the immense challenges that the country is facing at this – at this very critical time.

Samira, you had your hand up.

QUESTION:  Because this statement on Lebanon is different from the previous ones, so when you are calling for the election of a president free of corruption who can unite the country, we have a candidate on the table, Suleiman Frangieh. Is there a message that you are opposing this name, or do you think this qualification that you are asking for are not applicable to this candidate?

MR PATEL: We are not attempting to pick a candidate or put our finger on the scale for anyone one way or the other. What our desire is is for the people of Lebanon and the Government of Lebanon to pick a president – to pick a president that can address the immense challenges that the country faced[3]. I’ll remind you that yesterday marked six months since the departure of the previous president and the subsequent failure to select a new one. The country faces some dire challenges, dire economic challenges, and we believe the time is now for the people and the government to move forward.

The answers to Lebanon’s political and economic crises can only come from within, can come from within the Lebanese people and not just the international community. And so we think it’s time for action.

QUESTION: One question on Türkiye.


QUESTION: Yesterday, Erdogan said: My nation will not surrender this country to a person who becomes president with the support of Qandil – PKK, obviously. And his interior minister also called this election as Western coup. Do you have concerns over the peaceful transition of power in case Erdogan loses this election?

MR PATEL: What I will say is that Türkiye is an important NATO Ally. They have played an integral role in holding the Russian Federation accountable and supporting our Ukrainian partners; they have played an integral role in making the Black Sea Grain Initiative possible.

The Secretary had the opportunity to visit Türkiye earlier this month – not earlier this month, earlier this year, in February, where he had the opportunity to sit down with Foreign Minister Cavusoglu as well as President Erdogan. I’m not going to get into domestic elections or domestic politics of another country. But what I will say is that, regardless of who is in power, we know that we have a deep relationship and partnership with Türkiye, and they are – have been an integral member of the NATO Alliance as it relates to our efforts.

 QUESTION: In your statement yesterday on Lebanon, you mentioned the word appropriate president ought to be elected. This is the first time this word’s been used in this context. Is that mean implicitly that Frangieh is not the appropriate one?

MR PATEL: I would not parse specific words here. What I would say is that this is about ensuring that there are steps being taken to address the immense political and economic challenges that the country of Lebanon is facing. That’s what this is about.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, yes. Just a follow-up on the U.S.-Cuba counterterrorism dialogues from last week.


QUESTION: Based off your previous response, I was wondering if you’re saying that any government that commits any rights abuses deserves to be on this list?

MR PATEL: I’m not going to parse the specific participation on this list or not. Your question was about the security dialogue. The security dialogue is something that we have conducted with Cuba at regular intervals. It is an interagency dialogue; the State Department is not the only department involved. It obviously takes place in close coordination with the Department of Homeland Security and other cabinet agencies as well. So —

QUESTION: Yeah, but is it not a contradiction to be discussing counterterrorism with a country that’s currently designated a State Sponsor of Terrorism?

MR PATEL: As I said, these are talks that happen regularly at regular intervals, that there is a – obviously a nexus for this dialogue to take place between the United States and Cuba, given the maritime boundary and the waters that we share. And so that’s what this is about.

All right. Thanks, everybody  

(The briefing was concluded at 2:02 p.m.)