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Department Press Briefing – October 15, 2021

35 min read

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

2:02 p.m. EDT

MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us today. I have two items at the top, and then we’ll turn to your questions.

Today, we condemn in the strongest terms the attack on a Shia mosque in Kandahar, the third such attack this month. We offer our condolences to the victims and their families. All Afghan people have the right to live and worship in peace and safety.

Second, as announced by the White House today, the new travel policy requiring foreign nationals traveling to the United States to demonstrate proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 will take effect on November 8.

The CDC’s website explains that, for the purposes of entry into the United States, the accepted vaccines will include FDA approved or authorized and WHO Emergency Use Listing vaccines.

CDC and the interagency are working to develop the orders and guidance documents to implement this new travel policy, and those details will be available well in advance of November 8 – for the airlines, for airline passengers, and for people coming to the land border to understand what is required for them to be in compliance.

So with that, we will go ahead and turn to your questions. Let’s start with the line of Shaun Tandon, please.

QUESTION: Thanks for that. Could I follow up on Afghanistan. The Russians have announced talks coming up next week, including the U.S. and other regional players. Could you – could you say if the United States – could you confirm that the United States does plan to participate in that? At what level? What do you hope to get out of it? And related to that, President Putin today is speaking of resurgent threats from ISIS in Afghanistan, talking of hundreds of fighters massing there. How concerned are you about the ISIS threat right now? Do you see it as having grown in the past month? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Thanks for that, Shaun. So let me start with your first question. As you know, for a – we have been engaged in concerted diplomacy with our partners and allies to establish shared expectations for the Taliban and for any future government in Afghanistan. We’ve done that in any number of fora. We have done that bilaterally. We have done that multilaterally. In the latter context, we did it with the G20. We’ve done it with the UN Security Council. We have done so pulling together more than half of the world’s countries to make clear our expectations on one of our core imperatives, and that is safe passage.

We’ve also been in close consultation with countries with whom we share, in many cases, few other interests because, when it comes to Afghanistan, we do have an alignment of interests with countries like Russia when it comes to Afghanistan. And so we previously have found the extended Troika format to be useful. We’ve taken note of the upcoming session in Moscow. But we don’t have any meetings or participation to confirm on our end at this point.

When it comes to ISIS-K, we have made very clear that one of the core requirements for us and for the international community is for the Taliban to live up to the commitment it has made to counterterrorism, and specifically to taking on the shared threat we face from ISIS-K. We have seen, even in recent days, the threat – in recent hours, I should say – the threat that continues to persist inside Afghanistan.

We are determined to see to it that no group – be it al-Qaida, be it ISIS-K, be it any other transnational terrorist group – can ever again use Afghan soil as a launching pad for attacks on the United States or other countries. We are resolute in that. It is one of the shared interests that unite us not only with our allies and our close partners but also with countries like Russia, who also are very focused on the threat from ISIS-K and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

We’ll go to the line of Michel Ghandour.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Greece defense agreement signed yesterday affect the U.S. policy on the Eastern Mediterranean and the U.S. relationship with Turkey?

MR PRICE: Thanks, Michel. You were cut off at the beginning there. I think your question was pertaining to the renewed agreement with our Greek allies that the Secretary and his counterpart signed yesterday and whether that has any implications for our position when it comes to the Eastern Mediterranean.

We support efforts toward de-escalating tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, including the continuation of exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey. As a matter of principle, we encourage all states to resolve maritime delimitation issues peacefully through dialogue and in accordance with international law.

As you know, the United States generally does not take a position on how other states should resolve their maritime boundary disputes.

Let’s go to Said Arikat. And Operator, I think it’s rendered Sanid Ariata (ph) in the system.

QUESTION: Oh, okay. All right. Can you hear me?

MR PRICE: Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. I appreciate you taking my question. Listen, two quick questions. The Israelis advanced thousands of housing units in East Jerusalem, basically cutting off Jerusalem from Bethlehem, in essence. But there has been almost deafening silence. That’s according to Haaretz, for instance, deciding that there is silence on this issue.

And second, yesterday – this is the olive harvest season, and every year the settlers attack the Palestinians. It’s getting worse and worse. The attacks are protected under the protection of the Israeli army. And I wondered: Why can’t you demand that Israel cease and desist from that and in fact stop the settlers’ attacks? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Said. I appreciate that question. I’m not sure I agree with the premise of your first question. This is an issue that I have an opportunity to speak to, even within the past 24 hours, our position on settlements. Just to reiterate that, we believe it is critical for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and, critically, that undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution. We’ve been very clear that this includes settlement activity.

Similarly, when it comes to the destruction of property that you spoke to, the assault that you spoke to, we similarly believe, again, it is critical that all parties refrain from steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut those efforts that will help us arrive at a two-state solution. That includes, as well, destruction of property and violence against civilians. We’ve been consistently clear on those fronts.

Let’s go to Nick Wadhams.

QUESTION: Thanks very much. Can you just clarify on your comments about the Troika? You said the U.S. – or you have no travel or participation to announce. Does that mean that the U.S. will not send a delegation of any sort, that the Biden administration will not have any presence there whatsoever? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Nick. We are just not announcing any travel or participation at this time. If and when we do have participation to announce on our end, we will let you know.

We’ll go to Missy Ryan.

QUESTION: Turkey and Syria. There were reports from the region that President Erdogan is threatening another offensive against Kurdish-held areas in Northern Syria and talking about terrorist activity around Tell Rifaat. Just wondering if I could have a response to that. Thanks.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Missy. We’ve had occasion over the past couple days to condemn once again the cross-border attacks against our NATO ally, Turkey, and to express our condolences for, in this case, the Turkish National Police officers who were killed in Syria. For us, it is another important reason to underscore the imperative of maintaining ceasefire lines and halting cross-border attacks.

Similarly, and to your question, it’s crucial for all sides to maintain and respect ceasefire zones to enhance stability in Syria and to work toward a political solution to the conflict. We have many interests with our NATO ally, Turkey. Countering terrorism is one of them. Ending the conflict in Syria is another. Deterring malign influence in the region is another.

As I said, we share an interest with our Turkish allies in sustainably ending the conflict in Syria, and we will continue to consult with Ankara on Syria policy, just as we do with Syria’s other neighbors and our other partners in the region as we seek to cooperate with our allies and partners on this challenge.

We’ll go to Jenny Hansler.

QUESTION: On Afghanistan, I was wondering if you have any updates on the number of American citizens and LPRs and SIVs who have gotten out of the country. The Qataris said yesterday they had a rather large passenger flight that was able to depart for Doha.

And then the Russians are saying they summoned the U.S. military attaché over an incident in the Sea of Japan. Can you confirm that, and do you have any details on that meeting? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Jenny. So in terms of Afghanistan and our ongoing efforts to facilitate the departure of Americans, of lawful permanent residents, of Afghans to whom we have a special commitment, those efforts are ongoing. As you know, we’ve been working and we’ve been in constant touch with Americans and others in Afghanistan who have expressed a desire to leave.

Most recently, there was a charter flight with Americans on board on October 11th. It was a Qatar Airways charter flight. In total, at least 129 U.S. citizens and 115 lawful permanent residents have departed Afghanistan with our assistance since August 31st. That is to say these departures were facilitated by the United States either with a charter flight or, in some cases, an overland transfer.

We will continue these efforts. We’re often not able to speak to them in real time because there is ongoing sensitivity with operations of this nature, but our commitment to Americans, to LPRs, to Afghans to whom we have a special commitment, is as strong as ever. And we are continuing to work with them and to facilitate the departure from Afghanistan, again, for those who wish to leave.

Let’s go to Pearl Matibe.

QUESTION: Happy Friday, Ned. My question is a two-part question this afternoon on Kenya and on Zimbabwe.

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Starting with Kenya, could you respond to a statement put out by Ranking Member Risch? Leading up to the U.S.-Kenya bilateral at the White House yesterday, Ranking Member Risch said that while he is encouraged that President Kenyatta is, quote, “working with the United States on several fronts,” he still has several concerns, quote, “about deep government corruption, ongoing incidents of intercommunal violence.” He still is concerned about increasing debt in China, how Kenya might prepare for these contentious elections coming up next year, and Kenya’s own role on the UN Security Council. So on that question, what gives you confidence that Kenya can deliver, for example, on Ethiopia?

And on the Zimbabwe question, the international relations world order sanctions are valued when actors are not complying with international laws. My question is: Relevant to the United Nations special rapporteur and professor from State University in Belarus and the advocate for removal of sanctions, she is expected to start investigating in country the removal of sanctions based on Human Rights Council Resolution 2701 – 21 – sorry, Resolution 2721. That investigation starts on October 18. So since the United States has targeted sanctions on the – on the SDN list, do you have any comment on the legality of U.S targeted sanctions? Does the United States feel intimidated or do you feel compromised? Thanks, Ned.

MR PRICE: Thanks very much, Pearl. Let me take those questions in order.

First on Kenya, as you alluded to, the President did have an opportunity to host President Kenyatta of Kenya at the White House yesterday for a meeting. Secretary Blinken as well as our newly-confirmed Assistant Secretary for Africa Molly Phee were in attendance at that meeting. This was the leaders’ first in-person meeting. It was President Biden’s first bilateral meeting with an African leader. As you I’m sure recall, Pearl, we conducted a virtual visit to Kenya earlier this year.

When it comes to the bilateral relationship, Kenya is a strong partner. It is a leader on regional and global issues. We are committed to working closely with Kenya to advance peace and security, to defend democracy and human rights, to strengthen financial transparency, to accelerate economic growth, and to tackle climate change. We think this visit demonstrates that we have embarked on a new era of U.S. partnership with Africa based on the principles of mutual respect and the principle of equality.

Africa is a continent with tremendous opportunity. There is rapid demographic growth. There is vast economic potential and significant geopolitical influence on the world stage. And Kenya has been an important partner when it comes to our shared security concerns and interests and our shared desire to see an end to the conflict in Ethiopia. So the conflict in northern Ethiopia was certainly on the agenda. The conflict in northern Ethiopia is consistently on the agenda when the President, when the Secretary, when senior administration officials engage with others in the region and, as you know, well beyond the region given the imperative that we see in doing all we can to bring about an end to the conflict with a negotiated settlement as we provide humanitarian relief to the long-suffering people of Tigray and northern Ethiopia.

When it comes to transparency, when it comes to allegations of corruption, the – we have taken note of President Kenyatta’s statement in this case, for example, that the Pandora papers will enhance financial transparency and openness around the globe. The United States will build off of our current efforts with the Kenyans to bring additional transparency, additional accountability to domestic and international financial systems, just as we seek to do with partners around the globe.

When it comes to Zimbabwe and sanctions, our sanctions there target human rights abusers and those who undermine democratic processes or facilitate corruption. I want to be very clear that these sanctions do not target the Zimbabwean people. Zimbabwe’s economic ills, we know, are caused by leaders, those leaders abusing power, not U.S. sanctions. Our sanctions target only 83 individuals and 37 entities. We review our sanctions list regularly to acknowledge developments in Zimbabwe.

U.S. sanctions do make it more difficult for targeted individuals and entities to access funds through the global financial infrastructure. Sanctions do not target Zimbabwe’s banking sector, but rather ensure that sanctioned individuals and entities cannot use the U.S. financial system to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. To be very blunt, blaming U.S. sanctions for Zimbabwe’s problems detracts from the core issues of better governance that are required in Zimbabwe, and to that end, Zimbabwe must make reforms consistent with its constitution, with its international obligations, and with its other commitments.

Let’s go to Simon Lewis, please.

QUESTION: I have a question on Myanmar and ASEAN. Coming after the statement that you guys signed up to earlier on ASEAN’s handling of the – of Myanmar/Burma. I wondered: Did the U.S. support or suggest this approach that ASEAN has taken to not invite the Burmese military senior commander, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to its regional meeting? Is that something that you – that the U.S. side has sort of suggested, and do you specifically welcome that? It wasn’t sort of specifically stated in the statement, so I just wanted to kind of clarify that.

And secondly, the statement that you signed up to sort of commits to or reaffirms the endorsement of ASEAN’s efforts on the crisis in Burma. But given the special envoy – the Bruneian foreign minister has not been able to meet – was denied permission to meet with Aung Sung Suu Kyi and subsequently canceled his trip, do you not think that perhaps some envoy with more heft might be required to get the Burmese junta to listen? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Thanks for that, Simon. So let me take your – take elements of your question here. When it comes to the report that Bruneian Second Foreign Minister and ASEAN Special Envoy to Burma Erywan Yusof canceled his visit, we are, as I said, aware of those reports. We, along with our international partners, strongly support the ASEAN Special Envoy’s mandate and efforts to press the regime to urgently and fully implement the five-point consensus. We urge the regime to facilitate a visit by the Special Envoy and his engagement, importantly, with all parties, and that is very much in line with the five-point consensus of which we have been a strong and consistent proponent.

When it comes to Burma more broadly, we are concerned over the violence and the deteriorating crisis there. The Burmese military must cease the violence, release all those unjustly detained, address human rights abuses, and restore Burma’s path to inclusive democracy.

As I said before, we are determined, along with our ASEAN partners, to hold the military regime accountable to the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus, and to facilitate a meaningful visit to Burma by the Bruneian Second Foreign Minister. We respect ASEAN’s centrality. We value our strong partnership with ASEAN. Decisions when it comes to internal ASEAN dynamics and the appropriate level of participation in ASEAN-related events, those should be made by ASEAN members and we respect such decisions. The military has so far been unwilling to productively engage with ASEAN to respond to the crisis in Burma. We continue to support those ASEAN efforts to press the regime, and we continue to support a visit by the ASEAN Special Envoy – a meaningful visit where he would be meet – able to meet with all parties.

Overall, our goal is to support all efforts that promote a just and peaceful resolution to the crisis in Burma, and a restoration of Burma’s democratic transition.

Let’s go to the line of Laura Kelly, please.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) taking my question. Secretary Blinken said alongside the Saudi Foreign Minister yesterday that the two men would talk about the continued progress the U.S. hopes to see in Saudi Arabia on rights. Is the State Department satisfied with Saudi Arabia’s actions on rights as they relate to freedom of expression? And did the Secretary raise concerns with the Saudi Foreign Minister over the 20-year sentence handed to the Saudi aid worker, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan?

MR PRICE: Thanks for that, Laura. So as you know, we have a partnership with Saudi Arabia that is important across a number of shared and mutual interests. The Secretary had an opportunity, one of many he has had, with his Saudi counterpart to discuss some of those shared interests. That includes the situation in Yemen. That includes the challenge posed by Iran. That includes the challenge and the threat posed by climate change. But it also – the discussion included broader issues, to include human rights.

Human rights is a staple of our conversations with partners around the world, and that includes with our Saudi partners. We have not been shy about speaking up when it comes to – when it comes to shortcomings in that arena. We spoke up regarding the sentencing of Abdulrahman al-Sadhan. We made very clear that we were disappointed by the reports that the Saudi court upheld the prison sentence and the travel ban given to Abdulrahman al-Sadhan.

The ability of individuals to express themselves freely, to assemble peacefully, to associate is one that we support, one that we speak up for around the world, whether that is in the Middle East or any other region. And so we issued a readout of that meeting, and I would refer you there for further detail.

We’ll go to Conor Finnegan.

QUESTION: Hey, a couple questions on Afghanistan as well. Just first to start, it’s a follow-up on Jenny’s question. Why weren’t there any Americans on yesterday’s Qatari Airways charter flight? And then secondly, UNHCR called today for countries to facilitate and expedite family reunification for Afghan – sorry, Afghan families who have family members left behind in Afghanistan, saying that the principle of family unity is protected under international law. Does the administration believe it has a responsibility to help reunite families? Does that go beyond minor children and spouses to other family members? And then do you have any update on your efforts to provide electronic visas or other ways to continue visa services for Afghans? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks for those, Conor. So when it comes to our efforts to assist Americans who wish to leave Afghanistan, as I said before, those are ongoing. We have to-date facilitated at least 129 U.S. citizens and 115 lawful permanent residents. We’ve facilitated departure from Afghanistan since August 31st.

Our goal, as we discussed at some length yesterday, is to see to it that these – in the first instance, these charter flight operations become more routine, that they garner a degree of automaticity in terms of their frequency and their cadence. We are continuing to work closely with our partners, including our Qatari partners, including our Pakistani partners, to facilitate these flights and to see to it that Americans and others to whom we have a special commitment are able to be on these flights. And we will continue to report our progress when it comes to that.

Your other questions – oh, in terms of family reunification, we have been clear that our first priority in terms of support is always going to be to American citizens. We’ve also made clear the priority we attached to lawful permanent residents and to Afghans to whom we have a special commitment.

When it comes to family members, this is a question that in some ways is governed by the Immigration and Nationality Act. It is written into statute the assistance that – to whom we’re able to provide some of these forms of assistance. So all of our operations need to be consistent with the Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows us to provide similar services to American citizens and their dependents. And dependents is defined not by us; it is defined in statute written by Congress.

So I would make the point that our operations have to comport with the INA even as we are continuing our efforts to prioritize support to American citizens, LPRs, and to Afghans to whom we have a special commitment. And that will be ongoing.

We’ll go to Eunjung Cho.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) foreign ministry announced U.S. Special Representative for DPRK Sung Kim will hold a series of meetings with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts in Washington on the 18th and 19th. Can you confirm this meeting? And can you tell us about the ongoing coordination with Seoul and Tokyo to revive denuclearization talks with North Korea?

I have one more question. There was a phone conversation between President Moon of South Korea and the new prime minister in Japan, and they only found their differing views on historical issues, including the comfort women issue. How important is Japan-South Korea relations for the United States? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks for those questions; I think they are related. As you know, part of our strategy when it comes to the DPRK is to work closely with our allies and partners, to work in lockstep with our allies and partners towards our ultimate objective, and that is the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That is why we have put such a premium on our coordination, on our consultation with our Japanese allies, with our allies from the Republic of Korea.

You probably recall that the first physical trip that Secretary Blinken took upon his confirmation in this in this job was to Japan and the Republic of Korea. He was accompanied by the Secretary of Defense, where we met jointly with our foreign minister counterparts and the minister of defense counterparts as well in a 2+2 format with – in Japan and South Korea.

But we’re also committed to the trilateral relationship, knowing just how important it is. And we’ve had any number of opportunities to meet with our Republic of Korea and Japanese counterparts in a trilateral format. In fact, the Secretary did that just the other week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. He has done that on other travels as well. Special Representative Sung Kim has done the same with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts.

I don’t have any meetings to announce at this time but suffice to say that we are – we continue to work closely on a bilateral basis as well as on a trilateral basis with our Japanese and South Korean counterparts to advance that ultimate policy objective.

Let’s do Ross (ph) Jaboori.

QUESTION: It’s actually Rafid Jaboori. Thanks for taking the questions. Hi.

On the Iraqi elections on Sunday, although the final results are yet to be announced, but it has become clear that the followers of the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr won the most seats, and it’s acknowledged by almost everyone. How do you feel about it? And has been there, like, direct contact with al-Sadr and his movement since the elections?

And the second question is about the Iraqi SIV program or the direct access program for Iraqis who worked of the U.S. forces in Iraq. Now, correct me if I’m wrong: This program was suspended in January for 90 days, and then when that suspension expired in May it was – the suspension was extended, but it’s still suspended. Do we have any update on that? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks very much for those questions. We’ve had an opportunity to speak to the Iraqi elections. As you alluded to, the results have not been certified, but at this point we’ve congratulated the Iraqi Government on having fulfilled its promise to hold early elections. We are – we were pleased to see that the election days were conducted largely peacefully. We’ve seen the preliminary results announced by the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission, but as noted before, we are waiting for the final certified results.

Once those results are certified, we hope that the new Council of Representative members will form a government that reflects the will of the Iraqi people and which can work to address Iraq’s governance, security, and economic challenges. We look forward to working with the new government once it’s formed.

To your second question, I believe you’re referring to a suspension of what is known as the Priority 2 or P-2 program that had been active in Iraq. I don’t have an update for you, but if there is a change in status, we will be sure to make that known.

We’ll go to Sangmin Lee.

QUESTION: I have a question to DPRK. So you mentioned yesterday you have made specific proposals to DPRK and then you will wait. So can you tell me what the specific proposal was?

MR PRICE: Thanks for that. So you’re referring to the fact that, as we’ve said, we remain prepared to meet with the DPRK without preconditions to try to advance that overarching policy goal. We have conveyed messages and we have made specific proposals for discussion with the DPRK. Those aren’t specific messages or proposals that we are in a position to detail, but our – the message we have been quite clear about is that we are ready and willing to engage in constructive diplomacy even as we continue to engage, as I said before, with our allies and partners around the world, including our allies in the Indo-Pacific, Japan, and the Republic of Korea.

We will conclude today’s briefing there. Thank you very much, everyone, for joining us, and we will see you in person on Monday. Have a good weekend.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:37 p.m.)

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These efforts include federal assistance to (1) expedite procurement and delivery of critical manufacturing equipment, (2) develop a list of critical supplies that are common across the six OWS vaccine candidates, and (3) expedite the delivery of necessary equipment and goods coming into the United States. Additionally, DOD and HHS officials said that as of December 2020 they had placed prioritized ratings on 18 supply contracts for vaccine companies under the Defense Production Act, which allows federal agencies with delegated authority to require contractors to prioritize those contracts for supplies needed for vaccine production. Gaps in the available workforce: Hiring and training personnel with the specialized skills needed to run vaccine manufacturing processes can be challenging. OWS officials stated that they have worked with the Department of State to expedite visa approval for key technical personnel, including technicians and engineers to assist with installing, testing, and certifying critical equipment manufactured overseas. OWS officials also stated that they requested that 16 DOD personnel be detailed to serve as quality control staff at two vaccine manufacturing sites until the organizations can hire the required personnel. As of February 5, 2021, the U.S. had over 26 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and about 449,020 reported deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions, with the unemployment rate and number of unemployed in January 2021 at nearly twice their pre-pandemic levels in February 2020. In May 2020, OWS was launched and included a goal of producing 300 million doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines with initial doses available by January 2021. Although FDA has authorized two vaccines for emergency use, OWS has not yet met its production goal. Such vaccines are crucial to mitigate the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic. GAO was asked to review OWS vaccine development efforts. This report examines: (1) the characteristics and status of the OWS vaccines, (2) how developmental processes have been adapted to meet OWS timelines, and (3) the challenges that companies have faced with scaling up manufacturing and the steps they are taking to address those challenges. GAO administered a questionnaire based on HHS's medical countermeasures TRL criteria to the six OWS vaccine companies to evaluate the COVID-19 vaccine development processes. GAO also collected and reviewed supporting documentation on vaccine development and conducted interviews with representatives from each of the companies on vaccine development and manufacturing. For more information, contact Karen L. Howard and Candice N. Wright at (202) 512-6888 or howardk@gao.gov or wrightc@gao.gov.
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