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Daily Press Briefing - August 2, 2011

Daily Press Briefing - August 2, 2011

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
August 2, 2011


1:04 p.m. EDT

MR. TONER: Good afternoon. Welcome to the State Department. I would note that former Press Office Director Gonzo Gallegos is in the back of the room. Shout out to you, Gonzo.

MR. GALLEGOS: Thank you.

MR. TONER: I don’t have anything for the top. So I’ll take your questions.

QUESTION: Can I ask – oh, I want to ask Gonzo a question. (Laughter.) Can you –

MR. TONER: I’m sure he’ll give you a colorful answer.

QUESTION: I’m sure. Could you or him tell us what happened at the meeting this morning with the Syrian activists?

MR. TONER: The Secretary’s meeting with Syrian American activists? Sure. Well, as you know, the Secretary did meet with a small group of U.S.-based Syrian and – Syrian activists as well as members of the Syrian American community. In large part, she wanted to express her sympathy for the victim of the Asad regime’s abuses.

QUESTION: Sorry. Victims, yeah?

MR. TONER: Victims, I said, yes. She also expressed her admiration for the courage of the brave Syrian people who continue to defy the government’s brutality in order to express their universal rights. And for their part, the activists reaffirmed the internal opposition’s vision for a representative and inclusive and pluralistic Syrian government that respects the rights of all Syrian citizens. And the Secretary did express her confidence in the Syrian people’s ability to chart a new course for Syria.

QUESTION: But she was not able to tell them of any new Administration plan or move to put pressure on Asad?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to wade too deep into the substance of her meeting. It was a private meeting. But I would just say to your – in answer to your question that we do plan, as I mentioned yesterday, to move forward with additional sanctions under existing authorities, and we’re exploring the scope of those sanctions.


MR. TONER: But our goal here is to isolate Asad both politically and deny it revenue.

QUESTION: But you said the primary meeting – or primary – sorry, excuse me – the primary reason for the meeting was for – so she could express her sympathy?

MR. TONER: Well, that was – one of the main messages of the meeting was for her to convey her profound sympathy for the victims of Asad’s abuses.

QUESTION: All right. So when you say you plan to move forward on additional sanctions under the existing –

MR. TONER: -- authorities --

QUESTION: -- the existing authorities, are you aware that there’s legislation being introduced today in the Senate that would allow the Administration to go – to target foreign companies doing business in Syria’s energy sector? Is that something the Administration would support?

MR. TONER: Again, I think we’re working with Congress, certainly. But in the meantime, we are looking at additional steps we can take to increasingly isolate Asad.


MR. TONER: Go ahead, Said.

QUESTION: Is there a primary opposition interlocutor that the State Department deals with like Mr. Radwan Ziadeh? Or is the other groups and so on?

MR. TONER: My sense is that – and I know Ambassador Ford conducts regular outreach within Syria with the opposition there. My sense right now is that it is evolving and that it’s not exactly as cohesive as we might say in Libya. But as this process goes forward and as the Syrian people continue to protest the government and, frankly, the government continues to carry out its campaign of violence against these protestors, that the opposition is increasingly trying to come together.

QUESTION: I guess my question, just to clarify, among the people that she met with today, are they an ad hoc group or do they represent anything in particular? I mean, we know of one person who seems to be on all television stations and so on – Mr. Ziadeh. But is there any kind of a group that he represents?

MR. TONER: Again, the primary purpose of the meeting today was to meet with these prominent Syrian Americans and Syrian activists resident here to express our solidarity with the Syrian people. We’re in regular contact in Syria through our Embassy with members of the opposition, and again, we’re trying to get a sense of, as we’ve seen elsewhere, how these groups evolve.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Mark, I have just a follow-up on that. Does the U.S. – are you guys confident that they have a coherent platform or a set of priorities moving forward in Syria post-Asad? Have they explained to you what it is that they think will happen next, and is that something the U.S. can support? And secondly just on this meeting, was this something that they requested or was this – did the Secretary invite them? Who caused this meeting to happen?

MR. TONER: Your second question, I’ll take that. It’s a good question. I don’t know.

On your first question, as I think I just tried to explain, the opposition is coming together, it’s evolving. It’s, as I said, perhaps less coherent than we’ve seen in Libya, where they have taken steps to define themselves and what they stand for. What we’re seeing in Syria is very much a grassroots movement, one that has grown in strength and numbers as the Asad regime has carried out its brutal crackdown. And we’ve said many times that the Syrian Government’s violence against its people only, I think, serves to strengthen opposition to his regime. So it’s hard for me to pinpoint where they’re at in that evolution. I think they’re still coming together. There are – they are seeking to meet both outside of Syria, where we’ve seen them meet in Turkey, as well as within Syria and come together with a more single voice, I guess.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: What is the status of Ambassador Ford? Is he going back to Syria?

MR. TONER: He is – he’s continuing his consultations. As you know, he met with President Obama yesterday. And he’s on the Hill today. He, I believe, has his confirmation hearing soon this afternoon, and then he plans on heading back to Syria just as soon as his consultations are over.

And just in answer to your question yesterday, he arrived here Sunday night.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Was Ford at the meeting this morning?

MR. TONER: Good question. I believe he was. Yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah. Did he give them any indication of his talks that he’s had with Syrian opposition?

MR. TONER: Yeah. I’ve not talked to him since that meeting, as he’s up on the Hill. But my sense was that he’s – he would have always given his assessment of the situation on the ground, what he views as – his analysis of the situation, as well as his own outreach with the opposition there.

QUESTION: Yeah. And then just one more. Did the activists provide their list of things that they want to see the Administration do? When they came to the cameras, they said they wanted President Obama to say Asad should go, that – UN Security Council sanctions and the ICC. Did the Secretary have any response?

MR. TONER: They did express their views, and it was a constructive exchange.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Again, from the meeting today, do you have a sense whether the reported harassment of the Syrian (inaudible) here in U.S. has stopped or are there more complaints?

MR. TONER: It’s a good question. You’re talking about something we raised publicly but also raised privately with the embassy here and Syrian officials both in Damascus and here about our concerns that Syrian Americans were being targeted and harassed, who were coming to express their views at events across the country. We did make that clear that we were watching the situation closely. I don’t have an update. I’ll try to find out.

Go ahead, Jill.

QUESTION: Somalia.

QUESTION: Well, can we stay – I don’t – it’s not on Syria, but it is in the region, but go to Somalia.

QUESTION: Thanks. I just wanted to get, if you could, a little bit more clarification of how this would work in terms of new rules or a new approach on these aid organizations, giving them – we, of course, had a briefing, but giving them the understanding, a legal basis that they would feel comfortable that going and providing the aid, they would not be violating U.S. Treasury laws. So can you explain it a little bit more precisely?

MR. TONER: Well, again, this does get into legal issues. I’ll try my best. And as you mentioned, there was a background briefing a little while ago, and we’ll have a transcript out on that very shortly, I imagine.[1]

Look, our fundamental goal is recognizing the significance – the seriousness of the famine that’s going on right now in the Horn of Africa and the fact that many of the individuals most affected are under areas controlled by al-Shabaab. We thought it – and also in our desire to help bring as much relief to bear on these individuals who are suffering right now, we thought it was important to unequivocally state that – or issue new guidance that would allow greater flexibility for NGOs and aid workers to get their assistance into those regions that are controlled by al-Shabaab and to the people who need it.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on that --

MR. TONER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: So – but could I just --

MR. TONER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: So they said that the modalities, the way this will be carried out, will be worked out later. But it is correct that there actually is some type of plan for these modalities? I mean --

MR. TONER: Well, there are. And without getting into too great a detail, my understanding is that we’re talking about easing some of the restrictions in these licensing procedures that would, again, as I said, allow them to access these areas where al-Shabaab controls.

QUESTION: Okay. That was sort of the same question. I mean, the problem with that background briefing this morning was that they were talking about a change in policy, but when we asked what the actual change was, nobody could be very specific about it, which seems – it’s a bit confusing. And so is that there’s actually – the language of these – of the restrictions is going to be changed, or is it just a decision not to enforce restrictions that are on the books or not to proceed with prosecutions that could be undertaken if you choose to do so?

MR. TONER: My sense is it’s an easing of the restrictions and that – in a sense that we’re trying to ease the process or ease the ability for these organizations to get the proper licenses that they can then carry out these actions. But on a broader sense, we’re also saying that we recognize, given the tremendous constraints of what they’re trying to carry out, that we’re not going to uphold some of the legal constraints that they’re operating under in trying to access these areas that are controlled by al-Shabaab, which is, as you know, a foreign terrorist organization.

QUESTION: So the easing – there’s no easing of restrictions or sanctions on Shabaab, right?

MR. TONER: Absolutely not. This is --

QUESTION: This is an easing of restrictions for getting the license?

MR. TONER: That’s correct. That’s my understanding. And again, the --

QUESTION: And is it correct that these people wouldn’t necessarily – that these aid organizations wouldn’t necessarily have been prosecuted even without --

MR. TONER: I think --

QUESTION: -- even without those changes?

MR. TONER: As I just said, we fully recognize the challenges that – of the operating environment that they’re working in, and as such, I think we would not apply some of the legal restrictions or constraints that they might normally apply, in order that these people can get this assistance to the Somali people.

QUESTION: And they wanted – and they basically wanted something in writing? Is that what --

MR. TONER: Well, precisely. I think there was a sense that – again, some of these had expressed --

QUESTION: But these groups were actually saying that they weren’t going to send aid --

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- to famine-stricken people because they were worried about the U.S. Government taking them to – prosecuting them?

MR. TONER: There were legal constraints, as you well know, in play regarding this – the al-Shabaab. And what we’re trying to do is to ease those restrictions so that these groups can get the aid, the assistance to where it needs to be.

QUESTION: And they weren’t satisfied with you just saying that? They wanted something in writing, that (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: Well, I think we said that. We’ve given that verbal, but we’ve also --

QUESTION: So they said that they weren’t going to send food to starving people unless they were assured that --

MR. TONER: No. I think there was --

QUESTION: -- the U.S. wasn’t going to prosecute them?

MR. TONER: That’s not necessarily what we heard from everyone, but what we wanted to do, what we felt was important, was to send that strong message.


MR. TONER: Go ahead, Mary-Beth.

QUESTION: But is – doesn’t this also imply certain changes in what the groups are allowed to do under the licenses that they get? For example, under the old license, maybe they weren’t allowed to transport – U.S.-funded groups weren’t allowed to transport aid.

MR. TONER: That’s my understanding.

QUESTION: And now that regulation changed.

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: Now they can transport aid, right?

MR. TONER: That’s my understanding as well. Yeah.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MR. TONER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: But Mark – but it seems like from the beginning, one of the biggest problems is not so much what the groups are allowed to do, but what they had to do it with, right? And the UN was saying that since the new rules went into effect for the U.S., the U.S. contribution to Somalia dropped from number one to number seven or eight. I mean, is this going to affect the amount of aid we are giving now to these countries? I mean, are we going to be more free with giving it or --

MR. TONER: Right. Well, I think that’s a good question. We are one of the largest donors of humanitarian assistance to the region. I think we provide around 459 million this fiscal year to those in need. And again, I just would go back to what I said earlier, which is that, given the scope of the crises right now in the Horn of Africa, what we thought was important was both to send a strong message publicly to these groups that are working in the region that it’s okay for them to bring this kind of humanitarian assistance into areas that are controlled by al-Shabaab – they won’t be held accountable to U.S. laws that previously constrained them – and also to ease some of the licensing requirements on them.

QUESTION: So can we move back to the Middle East?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: I presume that you’re aware of these reports out of Israel last night and then again this morning that Prime Minister Netanyahu has agreed to the President’s proposal to use the ’67 lines as a basis for proceeding in negotiation, and that there are talks underway between the Israelis and you guys to – well, there are continuing talks underway to try and stop the Palestinians from going to the UN with their plans. What can you tell us about either of those?

MR. TONER: Well, in terms of what Prime Minister Netanyahu specifically said, I’d just have to refer you to the Government of Israel and to his office. I’ve also seen those press reports. Our focus remains on how to overcome the current impasse between the parties. You mentioned September and the Palestinians’ desire to move this into the UN. We think that’s a bad idea; we’ve said so. And so we’re working hard with both parties to find a way back to the negotiating table before then.

QUESTION: So the Israelis haven’t come to you and said, “Okay, fine. We’re on board with the Obama speech idea”?

MR. TONER: Again, I’ll leave it to the Israelis to clarify what they said.

QUESTION: Well, I’m not asking what the Israelis said.

MR. TONER: We’re talking to both parties --

QUESTION: I’m asking, have they told you?

MR. TONER: We’re talking to both parties on about how to get negotiations started again. We continue those discussions.

QUESTION: Was this something you would like to see?

MR. TONER: Well, we’ve – the President --

QUESTION: Would you like to see Prime Minister Netanyahu say, “Yes. I agree -- ”

MR. TONER: We would like to see – we would like to see --

QUESTION: -- “with the President that the ’67 lines should be the basis for negotiation”?

MR. TONER: We would like to see the parties get back to the negotiating table. We believe that the President outlined principles and goals in his – both in his – well, his speech here at the State Department and subsequent speech that set a foundation for these talks to take place.

QUESTION: Let me put it this way: Are you aware of any change in the Israeli position --

MR. TONER: Again, I really --

QUESTION: -- from where it was last week? Are you --

MR. TONER: And I leave it to them to clarify what their – what, if any, change has taken place.

QUESTION: All right.

MR. TONER: We remain in discussion with --

QUESTION: But – so you’re not aware of any change?

MR. TONER: We remain in discussion with them.

QUESTION: Mark, there’s --

MR. TONER: We’re not aware – we’re really – it’s really up to them to clarify what their position is. I mean, we’re --

QUESTION: All right, forget about what their position is. Are you aware of any change in their position?

MR. TONER: Again --

QUESTION: You’re not?

MR. TONER: I’m not going to qualify or characterize their position. It’s not up to us.

Go ahead, Said.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up. The Palestinian negotiator stated very clearly that if Mr. Netanyahu says that in any language he chooses – Hebrew or Arabic, English, whatever – that we agree to the ’67 principles, that then going through the UN might be changed or the position on the UN might be changed. So in light of this new development, would you issue an invitation to the Palestinians to come to Washington to negotiate such a development?

MR. TONER: All good questions. I think we’re getting a little ahead of the process. We remain hard at work. We believe we can still get both parties to the negotiating table.

Mary Beth.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, just one more Somali question. So al-Shabaab just put out a press release saying that they killed three American trainers and eight Ugandan commanders in a raid on Mogadishu yesterday. Is that --

MR. TONER: I have no confirmation on that. I’ll have to --

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

MR. TONER: -- look into it.

In the back.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) As you know, Turkey and the United States have big cooperation on Syria issue. Is that satisfying cooperation or are there any differences to build a mutual policy toward Turkey – toward Syria?

MR. TONER: I apologize; I didn’t quite hear the question. One more time?

QUESTION: Turkey and United States have big cooperation on Syria issue. Is this --

MR. TONER: On what issue? Syria?


MR. TONER: Syria. Okay.

QUESTION: Is this satisfying cooperation or are there any differences to build a mutual cooperation?

MR. TONER: Well, I think I said yesterday we’ve been quick to recognize Turkey’s role in accepting the refugees that have flowed over its border or have been fleeing the violence in Syria, and they’ve taken on this added responsibility and stepped up and provided refuge for these refugees. And I think also you heard yesterday some pretty strong language from the Turkish Government about the situation in Syria. We remain in close contact with the Turks on developments in Syria. Certainly, Turkey is a country that is – as a neighbor is keenly aware of the impact that the violence in Syria is having on the broader region. And we’re working closely with them and consulting with them as we continue to seek to apply pressure on Asad to allow this democratic transition to take place.

Go ahead.


MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: Mr. Stevens said that the Libyan people were not monolithic, but in fact, they are tribal but they are, I mean, one group. In fact, they all belong to the same denomination within Sunni Islam, which is almost unheard of throughout that part of the world. So why would he say that? Why would he say that they were not a monolithic group?

MR. TONER: I think he was just trying to reflect the fact that there is many different tribes within Libyan society and it’s a – in that sense, it’s a multiethnic society and that the TNC is working to ensure that all these people are represented.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: On North Korea?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Can you tell us whether the food aid issue was discussed at the New York meeting?

MR. TONER: I can’t.

QUESTION: Kim Kye-gwan on food aid issue, he told reporters yesterday that North Korea had already demonstrated its willingness to assure that they would fully meet all the demands related to food aid a few months ago, so it doesn’t make any sense to say something about transparency of food distribution. Is there any element of truth in his remarks?

MR. TONER: All I’m going to say is that we continue to assess the situation based on the three criteria we’ve laid out many times before, and until we’re satisfied we won’t make a decision.

QUESTION: Well, your answer to the first question was – the first question was did --

MR. TONER: Were human rights – were – was food aid raised in the meeting.

QUESTION: And you said no, it was not?

MR. TONER: I just said I can’t answer that. I don’t know whether it was raised or not.

QUESTION: This is the third day in a row you – or second day in a row --

MR. TONER: I’m aware of that.

QUESTION: -- and you’ve been asked, and you said you would try and get an answer --

MR. TONER: And I have --

QUESTION: And you sought an answer, and the answer came back?

MR. TONER: And I have not gotten an answer, and partly because --

QUESTION: Well, did the answer come back that, no, we’re not going to – don’t tell them that it came up or not?

MR. TONER: -- that we’re not going to talk about the – getting in the detail.

QUESTION: All right. So we should stop asking about it; is that the idea?

MR. TONER: Thank you. Yes. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Can I ask one more quick question? In what capacity Mr. – did Mr. Clifford Hart greeted Kim Kye-gwan in front of the building on the 2nd day of the New York meeting?

MR. TONER: He is an officer here who is working on Korean – North Korean issues, and that he remains hard at work on that.

QUESTION: Is there any specific reason for State Department has not – is not announcing who the next special envoy to Six-Party Talks is going to be?

MR. TONER: No. When we have something to announce, we’ll announce it.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: I’m not asking about North Korea today.


QUESTION: You can relax a bit. (Laughter.) You said on diplomatic tensions between South Korea and Japan, I think you know that Japan released defense white paper describing a set of South Korean-controlled islet in the East Sea as its territory, so relations between the two countries are worsening. So I think I know it is a sensitive diplomatic matter, but I think you have some things to say about comments about the issue.

MR. TONER: You’re referring to what are broadly known as – or internationally known as the Liancourt Rocks, I think?


MR. TONER: That’s right. Okay. Well, you know, probably, that – already that we don’t take, as a government, a position regarding the sovereignty of the Liancourt Rocks. We do recognize this is a longstanding dispute between the two countries. And thus far, it’s an issue that’s been handled with restraint. We would hope that such restraint would continue to be exercised and that they would work – both South Korea and Japan – work peacefully and diplomatically to find a mutually acceptable solution.

QUESTION: Following up, I know there are a number of Japanese lawmakers from the right of the political spectrum who are trying to go to what the Koreans call Dokdo, what the Japanese call Takeshima. Does the U.S. have a view on that and whether the (inaudible) – that was a good idea to try to go there?

MR. TONER: I just would say what – reiterate what I just said, which is that thus far, this is an issue that’s been handled with restraint, and we would hope that both sides would continue to exercise restraint.

Yeah, in the back.

QUESTION: A question on Taiwan: Are you aware yesterday there were 180 congressmen wrote a letter to President Obama regarding arms sales to Taiwan?

MR. TONER: Am I aware that 180 --

QUESTION: Congressmen wrote a letter to President Obama asking for the sales of F-16–

MR. TONER: I’m not aware of the letter, no.

QUESTION: And could you please update arms sales to Taiwan?

MR. TONER: There’s no announcements. No decisions have been made. And with regard to the letter, I’d have to check. If it went to President Obama, I’d ask that you check the White House.

QUESTION: So will you make an announcement on two – October 1st, as Secretary Clinton promised?

MR. TONER: We’ll make an announcement when we make an announcement, when we make a decision.

QUESTION: I’ve got two –

MR. TONER: Oh, sure. Go ahead.

QUESTION: -- two brief ones. Do you have any response to the reaction to the Vietnamese upholding the seven-year sentence to this dissident?

MR. TONER: I do. We are very concerned by the denial of activist Cu Huy Ha Vu’s appeal by a court in Hanoi on August 2nd. Mr. Vu was convicted and sentenced to seven years imprisonment on April 4th for propagandizing against the state. And at this time, we expressed our deep concern with the apparent lack of due process in the conduct of the trial.

We continue to urge the Government of Vietnam to immediately release Mr. Vu as well as all other prisoners of conscience, and believe that no individual should be imprisoned for exercising the right to free speech. And I do note that we did have an officer from the U.S. Embassy who was allowed to attend the appeal.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that? This – the upholding of the sentence came the same day that the U.S. – that the Pentagon announced an expanded military relationship with Vietnam. Is there any sense that perhaps there is some leverage that the U.S. could have to press these human rights issues a bit more?

MR. TONER: Well, I – our bilateral relationship with Vietnam is, in general, very good, but we do have serious concerns about human rights issues, including the case of Mr. Vu. And we’re going to continue to press that and look for ways to convey our concerns to the Vietnamese Government.


QUESTION: Do you have an update on whether there will be a delegation to the Nagasaki --

MR. TONER: I don’t. We’ll get something for you on that.


QUESTION: Sudan, South Kordofan?

MR. TONER: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: The situation there is getting grim, getting grimmer. I’m just wondering if you have anything new – if there’s anything new to say about it and if you’re concerned at all that these UNMIS reports detailing extrajudicial killings and Sudanese intelligence people – this is – they came out about a month ago where they were leaked; they weren’t released. I’m wondering if you have any concerns that these reports have not been released.

So two questions: One, the general situation there, and two, on these reports.

MR. TONER: We are concerned, very much so, about the situation in Southern Kordofan. It has been alarming, the escalation of violence there, and we would urge both sides to cease all hostilities and allow for humanitarian workers to have access to some of the displaced people, or the – for some of the people who’ve been displaced by the fighting there In terms of the release of – and I know Princeton Lyman was just in Sudan, as well as Ethiopia, I believe, and I’ll try to get an update on what his discussions were regarding Southern Kordofan.

And then your second question was about the release of these reports?

QUESTION: Yeah. Are you --

MR. TONER: I’ll try to get an update. I’m not – we’ve always been concerned about these credible reports of human rights abuses and atrocities, and we – it was disappointing to see the UN forces have to leave that area, because we believe they play a very important role there monitoring the situation.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:33 p.m.)


[1] The State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID) are authorized to provide grants and contracts to fund Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) providing humanitarian assistance in Somalia, including in areas under the de facto control of al-Shabaab, and such organizations are covered under the license from the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in the event their operations may accidentally benefit al-Shabaab. This includes the Department of State or USAID-supported organizations that are partners of certain UN-related organizations, including those participating in the current United Nations Consolidated Appeal for Somalia, for the provision of urgently needed humanitarian assistance in Somalia.

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