Off-Camera, On-The-Record Gaggle (Excerpts)

May 22, 2019

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QUESTION:  I want to ask an Iran question.  Yesterday —

MS ORTAGUS:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  — 62 organizations – mainly NGOs – wrote to every member of Congress, calling on lawmakers to urgently pursue legislation that would basically require the administration to get congressional approval to do any military action against Iran.  Do you have a response to that?  Is that something that is a good idea, that legislation, or do you feel like the – that Congress has been sufficiently briefed now after yesterday’s briefings on Iran?

MS ORTAGUS:  I haven’t seen the note that the – that you’re referencing from the NGOs.  Feel free to email it to me.  I’ll be happy to look at it.

I was with the Secretary yesterday in both those House and Senate briefings and I think that they were – and it wasn’t just the Secretary, of course.  We had General Dunford and Acting Secretary Shanahan, and I’m forgetting the name of the other briefer.  We can get him to you.  But I think that they were very thorough.  They went quite long, longer than we expected, so I think that you’ve seen a number of members of Congress make statements on what they thought about that briefing.  But my perception is that they were briefed on the current threats and where we stand at the moment.

QUESTION:  Can I ask a follow-up on that?

MS ORTAGUS:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  The Secretary yesterday – I think it was yesterday when he said that it was possible that Iran was responsible for these tanker attacks.

MS ORTAGUS:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  Do you have any sort of further evidence on who may have been responsible, or is there any – anything new that led to him to say that?  Is the U.S. getting a greater sense that Iran may have been behind that?

MS ORTAGUS:  We continue to work with the Saudis, with the Emiratis, and with other partners to investigate.  I don’t have an outcome of those investigations to announce.  I would assume that those countries that were affected will probably be the ones that would be announcing the outcome of those investigations.  But they’ve asked for assistance, and we are cooperating.

QUESTION:  Can you bring us up to date on the diplomacy around Iran?  I mean, has the Secretary made any more calls on the subject?  What’s the state of play?

QUESTION:  And is Oman acting as a possible middle party in this?

MS ORTAGUS:  What’s your name?  Sorry.

QUESTION:  Oh, Edward Wong from The New York Times.

MS ORTAGUS:  Oh, Ed.  Hey, sorry.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Nice to meet you.

MS ORTAGUS:  I know – well, I knew everyone’s names, not necessarily faces.  Okay.  So your question is:  What’s the update on the diplomacy effort?

QUESTION:  Yeah, just on the – has there been any – I mean, other than the Hill with foreign governments.

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay.

QUESTION:  And is Oman acting as a middle party in this since they traditionally have served that role?

MS ORTAGUS:  Yeah.  I mean, I – as it relates to diplomatic efforts, I don’t know that we would have an update.  I mean, I think that we have – the Secretary said yesterday and so did Acting Secretary Shanahan – I actually think that their public statements are what I would refer to – in which they said the – what we’ve engaged in over the past few weeks is really looking at protecting our people, first and foremost.  Also, deterring any sort of additional threats by the Iranian regime to us or to our allies and our interests.  And I think that the immediate discussions right now as it relates to protecting our people and to deterring the Iranians from taking any further escalating behavior.

QUESTION:  Right, but I – that’s more of – I’m asking a much simpler question.

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay.

QUESTION:  So in the – or since the – this began, the heightened tensions and the national security advisor’s statement on the third —

MS ORTAGUS:  Well, I don’t think the heightened tensions began with the national security —

QUESTION:  Well, no, but since then —

MS ORTAGUS:  Yeah, okay.

QUESTION:  But since then, the Secretary has changed his travel plans twice, flown to Baghdad, flown —

MS ORTAGUS:  He did.  You were on the trip when he did that.

QUESTION:  — flown to Brussels to talk to the Europeans about this.  He’s been on the phone with the sultan of Oman, he’s been on the phone with – he talked about it with Lavrov and Putin, he talked to the Japanese about it.  I mean, these are all just public readouts that you guys have —

MS ORTAGUS:  Sure.

QUESTION:  — that have all – including yesterday he spoke to the Norwegian foreign minister.  I’m sure there’s others that I’m not – I’m just asking if there have been any more of those since the last call I guess that we know about was the Norwegian.

MS ORTAGUS:  I’d have to check on that.  I don’t think so.  I mean, I know that he spent a significant amount of time on the Hill yesterday, which is important, obviously.  They’re a co-equal branch of government.  And I don’t know that I’ve ever worked with anyone as hard-working as the Secretary.  I know that he’s talking to our allies constantly, traveling the world constantly.  He takes the safety and security of the people who work for him very seriously.  He takes the safety and security of the American citizens very seriously.  So if there’s any further calls, I’ll certainly let you know.  We’ll have readouts.  Not aware of any, but he takes the —

QUESTION:  Morgan, after the briefings yesterday some of the members of Congress, both in the House and the Senate, said that they were somewhat skeptical that it was the Iranians who were provoking this.  They may have been taking steps designed to thwart the United States, but some of its – it was not clear who was starting this.  It could have gone either way.  Is there one piece of evidence, is there one thing out there that makes you think that it was the Iranians who were acting in a way that was not responsive to American actions and that made you believe that the threat was imminent?

MS ORTAGUS:  Well, first of all, I’d point out for every legislator that was skeptical, you have an equal number of legislators that went out and were very concerned about the threats and that were very supportive of the – actions that the administration is taking to deter Iran.  There’s never one piece of information, as the Secretary has said I think to many of you, or at least on the record there’s 40 years of information that you can point to.

And so – I mean, I think many of you know this, there’s never sort of actions that are taken based on one piece of intelligence, right?  Like, I know this from my junior days as an intelligence analyst, that’s never how the U.S. Government makes decisions.  This is clearly incredibly highly classified information that has been kept at the very highest levels of government but has now been briefed to the Congress.  It’s clearly incredibly sensitive and very serious.  This isn’t about politics, this isn’t about posturing, this is about keeping the American people safe, keeping our diplomats safe.

QUESTION:  Morgan?

MS ORTAGUS:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  On Iran —

MS ORTAGUS:  Wait, just let her really quick, thanks.

QUESTION:  This is related, thanks.  A couple members of Congress yesterday hoped that – or expressed hope that you could reveal a little bit, without revealing sources and methods, to sort of demonstrate to the American people the severity of the threat.  Is there any plan to do that?

MS ORTAGUS:  To declassify intelligence for the American people?

QUESTION:  Not necessarily to declassify intelligence, but to elaborate a little bit more so that perhaps that skepticism dissipates, or that —

MS ORTAGUS:  I think – I mean, you guys are asking me questions, which I understand, but they’re questions from how a certain group of people see the world.  I mean, again, I would refer back to many members of Congress who have been in the Intelligence Community or have served overseas who have very vastly different readouts from the briefing yesterday.  So I certainly understand that there may be a few people, of course, that were skeptical and voiced that.  I would just refer you back to every member in Congress who wasn’t skeptical, who was quite grateful, and say, obviously, in democracy in America sometimes people disagree about policy and the actions that we take.  But I certainly didn’t read an overwhelming amount of skepticism.

QUESTION:  I don’t know that this was necessarily all from members who are skeptical of the administration’s motives or the validity of the intelligence, but I think the goal that some members expressed was just to demonstrate to the American people —

MS ORTAGUS:  To communicate to the —

QUESTION:  Yeah.

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay, well that is why I’m here, to communicate to the American people through all of you.  So thank you for this opportunity to do so.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Excuse me.  Hi, Morgan.

MS ORTAGUS:  Hi.

QUESTION:  This is Nike Ching with Voice of America.  Pleasure meeting you.  So kind of a follow-up with Matt’s question about – Secretary Pompeo spoke to Japanese foreign minister and the Chinese foreign minister Monday and Saturday.  What is the U.S. asking those two countries to do regarding Iran specifically?

MS ORTAGUS:  I would need to take a look at the readout of those calls.  Off the top of my head, I – I’m – Iran may have been discussed, but I would need to go look at the readout and speak to him to fully answer that question.

QUESTION:  If I may —

QUESTION:  Morgan?

QUESTION:  If I may —

MS ORTAGUS:  Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION:  The – Michel Ghandour with Alhurra Television.

MS ORTAGUS:  Yes.

QUESTION:  My question was asked by colleague too, on Oman, if Oman is playing any mediating role between the U.S. and Iran, especially that Oman foreign minister went to Iran after the Secretary’s call with Sultan Qaboos.  And the Iraqi prime minister said that he would be sending an Iraqi delegation to Washington to talk about the tension between the U.S. and Iran.  Are you expecting any delegation?

MS ORTAGUS:  I have not seen anything official from the Government of Iraq expecting a delegation, so I can get back to you on that.  And I don’t think we have any new announcements on – oh, you said on Oman?

QUESTION:  Yeah.

MS ORTAGUS:  Yeah, we don’t have anything new on Oman other than clearly they’re part of the GCC and an ally of ours, and a country that we work with quite closely on a range of issues.

QUESTION:  Two questions, one Iran and one on Syria.  On Iran:  Is there any sense that – do you have any evidence or any observations of whether China is abiding by the end to the oil imports?  We know that China – both China and Turkey had said that they don’t believe that the U.S. can impose unilateral sanctions, and so there’s a lot of analysts who think China will continue to import oil whether it’s in the open or sort of in – sort of more covert ways.  I was just wondering whether you have any intelligence on that.

And then the second one is on Syria.  I just want to broaden the discussion beyond just chemical weapon attacks, and there’s been this offensive going on in Idlib for a couple weeks now where there’s air bombing by Assad and by the Russians, which you mentioned in your statement yesterday.

MS ORTAGUS:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  But does the U.S. plan on doing anything about that?  Like, the Trump – last fall it was a big deal, and Trump expressed concern that civilians will be killed, and now a couple of —

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay, do me a favor.  If you ask me one at a time, it’s probably easier for me to get —

QUESTION:  Okay.  All right, so those were the two.

MS ORTAGUS:  So let’s go back to China.

QUESTION:  Right.

MS ORTAGUS:  So what exactly do you want on China?

QUESTION:  Are they importing oil?  Is there any sense that they’re importing – continuing to import oil from Iran or that they will continue to import oil?

MS ORTAGUS:  Yeah, got it.  So listen, the SREs have expired.  This is a part of our maximum pressure campaign.  We – I think we have been – the Secretary spoke to all of you I believe from the podium about this, about getting to zero, which is something that – since we withdrew from the JCPOA, there is no hiding this, right.  Like, the moment that we announced from the – withdrew from the JCPOA, it was something that we said very publicly that we would be getting to zero.  We have done that, and we expect all countries to comply with our sanctions.  And obviously any country in the world, any sanction in the world that the U.S. has, if a country does not comply with them, there are ramifications for not complying with sanctions.  And that goes for any country.

QUESTION:  Right.

QUESTION:  But his —

MS ORTAGUS:  And sorry, the second question about Syria?

QUESTION:  Wait, wait.  But his question is specific to do you —

QUESTION:  Is China complying or not?

QUESTION:  Is China continuing to import or have they stopped?  Do you know?

MS ORTAGUS:  I’ll have to get back to you.

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QUESTION:  Back to Iran, if I may.

MS ORTAGUS:  Are you going on the trip too?

QUESTION:  Yes, I am I think.

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay, good.  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Back to Iran, if I may.

MS ORTAGUS:  Sure.

QUESTION:  The Secretary also said yesterday that there are plenty of ways to have a communication channel with Iran.

MS ORTAGUS:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  My question is:  Has the U.S. used any of those channels in the recent days to reach out to them to – at least to avoid miscalculations?  And if yes, are you confident that this could work out and that —

MS ORTAGUS:  Right.

QUESTION:  — this is a – the de-escalation period after escalation?

MS ORTAGUS:  So I’m not going to telegraph the Secretary’s conversations, obviously, on this.  I think it’s important to note – and the Secretary has said this emphatically, the Acting Defense Secretary has said this, the President has said this – we are not seeking a war with Iran, right.  This is all about deterrence.  It’s not about going to war.  Our main focus right now – and Shanahan said this yesterday – our biggest focus at this point is to prevent Iranian miscalculation, and we do not want the situation to escalate.  And I actually don’t think I could say it any better than Secretary – Acting Secretary Shanahan said it.

MR PALLADINO:  All right, great.

MS ORTAGUS:  Thank you for having me.

QUESTION:  Morgan, can I ask one tiny follow-up?  Can I ask one tiny one?

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay, Christina.

QUESTION:  I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

MS ORTAGUS:  You’re making me feel bad.

QUESTION:  Can you – just – but on that nature —

MS ORTAGUS:  Yes.

QUESTION:  — can you characterize – because everything yesterday was about deterrence and preventing Iranian miscalculation.

MS ORTAGUS:  Mm-hmm.

QUESTION:  Can you give us any kind of guidance about the current nature of the threat?  Do you feel like U.S. action repositioning assets has deterred it, has it lessened it, is it the same, is it going forward, are we worried it’s going to pick up again?  Like, can you just – because it’s so vague, it’s hard to quantify it, and can you give us some sort of —

MS ORTAGUS:  Mm-hmm.  Sure.  Well, I mean, again, we would hope that the actions that we’ve taken over the last two weeks – well, longer than the last two weeks, but if we’re just looking specifically at what’s gone on the past couple of weeks, two and a half weeks at this point, certainly the goal is deterrence, and that’s the reason why we have taken the position that we have.  I mean, listen, the —

QUESTION:  Do you have any evidence that it has deterred it, that it’s worked?

MS ORTAGUS:  I think it’s difficult to answer that.  I would just say, as it relates to deterrence and as it relates to the conversations and the actions of the Iranian regime writ large – and I’m going to keep going back to this every time, I know you guys have heard the Secretary say this – he laid out, I think it was at least a year ago or nine months ago at least, in between nine months and a year ago, 12 steps for which the Iranian regime can be welcomed into the national – international community, 12 steps for how they can relieve sanctions.

If they want sanctions gone, there are steps that we have laid out very clearly and communicated to them publicly by which they can become a normal member of society, they can have the sanctions gone.  We welcome any efforts by the Iranian regime to take a serious look at those 12 steps and enter into dialogue with us around that, and that’s going to be our steadfast position.

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