MS. NULAND: Good afternoon, everybody. Before we do the daily briefing, we have a special briefing today on the next stage of implementation of Secretary Clinton’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, the establishment in the State Department of a Bureau of Counterterrorism. As you know, we’ve had an office under Ambassador Dan Benjamin. It is now about to become a full-up bureau. So to tell you more about that, Ambassador Daniel Benjamin.
The mission of the new bureau will be to lead the Department in the U.S. Government’s effort to counter terrorism abroad and to secure the United States against foreign terrorist threats. The bureau will have a number of concrete responsibilities. In coordination with Department leadership, the National Security Staff, and U.S. Government agencies, other U.S. Government agencies, it will develop and implement counterterrorism strategies, policies, operations, and programs to disrupt and defeat the networks that support terrorism. The bureau will lead in supporting U.S. counterterrorism diplomacy and seek to strengthen homeland security, countering violent extremism, and build the capacity of partner nations to deal effectively with terrorism.
There are many examples of the growing importance of civilian counterterrorism work, what we here call strategic counterterrorism, which the Secretary discussed in her September 9th speech on the issue. The Administration puts a strong emphasis on increasing counterterrorism diplomacy, both multilaterally and bilaterally. And just last September, you may recall in a major initiative we established the Global Counterterrorism Forum with the goal of building an international architecture for dealing with 21st century terrorist threats. The GCTF offers CT policy makers and experts an opportunity to exchange best practices and to improve programming around the world. The new bureau will work with partners in the GCTF on a wide range of challenges, such as strengthening the rule of law in countries where terrorism poses the greatest threat.
Our ability to oversee and implement CT programs, which cover, by the way, everything from police training to countering the al-Qaida narrative, will be strengthened by the establishment of the bureau. The new bureau will lead the Department in U.S. Government efforts to reduce radicalization and mobilization abroad. It will work with the recently established Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications to de-legitimate the violent extremist narrative, to develop positive alternatives for populations that are vulnerable to recruitment, and it will work to partner with governments and civil society in building capacity to counter violent extremism.
As part of the standup, we are reorganizing and taking steps to make the new bureau effective across a wide range of policy and program activities. For example, we’re creating a new Strategic Plans and Policy Unit to improve our ability to do strategic planning and to develop metrics to measure the effectiveness of our programs. We’re also making changes that will tighten coordination between counterterrorism policy and programs, and we’re doing more to improve program implementation.
Finally, I want to emphasize that in these tight budget times, we’re doing our part to be good stewards of public funds by standing up the bureau with existing resources. PA will have a Fact Sheet that outlines the bureau’s mission and its priorities, and will provide you with some additional detail. And I’d be happy to take a few questions now.
MS. NULAND: Arshad.
QUESTION: Not about the creation of the new bureau itself per se, but can you give us an update on where things stand on your ongoing review of the MEK’s status as a Foreign Terrorist Organization?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, obviously, designations of Foreign Terrorist Organizations is one of the core activities of the office and of the new bureau, and it will continue to be so. And what will also continue is the policy of saying that we continue, pursuant to the U.S. District Court’s order, we continue to do the review. And obviously, it’s a very exhaustive effort, and we’ve been exchanging material with counsel for the other side. And it – I – there’s – we don’t have a date set for any decision, but you will certainly know it when it’s done.
QUESTION: And one other one, if I may, on Pakistan. As you well know, there’s been a significant deterioration in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship over the last year, going back certainly to the case of Raymond Davis, but other – lots of other events. From your vantage point, to what extent has or has not U.S.-Pakistani cooperation on counterterrorism deteriorated over the last 12 months or so?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, metrics are important, but I don’t think we have metrics for assessing exactly that. There’s no question we’re going through a difficult time in the wake of the cross-border incident and a number of other incidents that have occurred in the last year. But let me go back to basics. We think that it is essential that we have a good counterterrorism relationship with Pakistan. We believe it’s in both of our nations’ interests. No country has suffered more at the hands of militancy than Pakistan.
And I would add that this bureau, when we’re doing our job right, is also going to be working closely with Pakistan. We hope to continue building civilian capacity for countering terrorism, which is an essential need there and which was one of the working groups of the Strategic Dialogue that the Secretary created with the Pakistanis and which I am sure is something that we will continue doing. And it’s in everyone’s clearest interest.
So I can’t – I’m not going to give you a meter – a needle reading on the meter. We obviously have issues that are being worked out. The Pakistanis are doing their own review within their parliament. But we look forward to resuming some of our collaborative efforts.
QUESTION: You say, “When we are doing our job right, the bureau will be working with the Pakistanis.” Is it fair to say then that you’re not really doing anything now with the Pakistanis?
MR. BENJAMIN: No, it’s not.
QUESTION: Your bureau?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: We do have these long-term processes going on. We are deeply engaged with our post in Islamabad on countering violent extremism, on disability and capacity building, on what we’ve done in the anti-terrorism assistance program. So we’re not going to make any blanket statements that we’re not cooperating by any means. Absolutely, we’re still working together.
QUESTION: Can I ask you a question about Iran? In the last couple of days there’s been a lot of bellicose talk from Iranian military leaders. And I’m just wondering, are you worried that as the sting of sanctions grows over this year and as Iran finds itself feeling more isolated, that the threat of Iranian terrorist activity is going to rise or destabilizing activity abroad?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, another issue that we’ve dealt with extensively as an office and we’ll continue to deal with extensively as a bureau. Obviously, Iran was and remains the number one state sponsor of terrorism in the world. The recent discovery of plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington and the arrests in that connection have certainly given us a great deal to think about and to wonder about exactly the same question you posed.
I don’t want to engage in hypotheticals and suggest that the Iranians are going to amp up their support for terrorism, but we know that they do believe that it is a legitimate tool of policy, something we vehemently disagree with. And we’re, of course, going to be as vigilant as we can to ensure that no one is resorting to terror to strike at us or our partners.
QUESTION: I’m not asking you, obviously, where, when, or how, but do you see it as a rising threat based on the tendencies that we’re seeing right now?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: I see it as an existing threat and one that has been there for quite some time. And we’ll have to see how the Iranians respond to the fact that this plot in our hemisphere, in our country, was disrupted.
QUESTION: Related to that, you just referenced –
MS. NULAND: Can I?
QUESTION: Oh, sorry.
QUESTION: Yeah. Last year top – several top terrorist leaders were killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan region. Can you give us a sense where do you stand in terms of achieving your goal of defeating these terrorist organizations, terrorist outfits in that region?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: There’s no question that 2010 – I’m sorry, 2011; I have to get my calendar straight – 2011 was a very successful year in terms of taking some bad actors off the street. And as Administration spokesmen have said on many occasions, we will continue to do what we need to to safeguard our national security against the groups that carried out the 9/11 attacks. But as – I want to underscore we all know that there is no way to shoot our way out of this problem conclusively and forever, and that’s why strengthening our engagement with others to support their civilian institutions so that they can actually hold that territory, police that territory, try people who want to carry out violent attacks either against people who live there or abroad, is an absolutely vital undertaking.
Al-Qaida, core al-Qaida, as we’ve called it, is certainly under greater pressure than it has been at any time since 9/11. But as the President has said and as others have said, the job’s not over and the work goes on.
QUESTION: And secondly, in November Secretary Clinton has said that the sanctions against Haqqani Network is on its way – they are – U.S. is very close to declaring this as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Where do we stand now on that front? When is it going to become –
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, much as we discussed a moment ago, we don’t set timelines or dates as to when we’re going to put out particular decisions on designations. So we are looking at that very closely and we’ll continue to do so. And obviously, we have a huge concern in reducing the ability of the Haqqani Network to carry out terrorist attacks.
MS. NULAND: Can you identify yourself?
QUESTION: Mike Ledeen with Fox News. In terms of the bureau, can you talk about what the bureau will be doing that the office before it didn’t do, and also what the bureau will be doing that other parts of government aren’t already doing?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: The establishment of the bureau in many ways is a confirmation or ratification of the things that we have been doing increasingly in recent years. So the fundamental tasks remain the same, but what we have now is an infrastructure to continue doing them more effectively and building on those successes in the future.
So we now are in a position where we can continue to innovate our programming to counter violent extremism, to enhance partner capacity around the world, to do the bilateral diplomacy that we do with other countries to discuss the threats, to underscore where there are gains to be made against particular terrorist groups in particular regions. We have a better platform for doing the work we undertake with, for example, the Department of Homeland Security to work jointly to stop terrorist travel, to improve aviation security, to do all those things we need to do to make for a safer United States at home and to protect our interests abroad.
So the fundamental mission doesn’t change, but we now have a much better organization for building on that and for moving beyond this outdated organization that we had that was really to support coordination, which is something that we’ve long since left behind.
QUESTION: And in terms of what the bureau will be doing that other entities in government don’t do?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, we’re the State Department; we have a set of tools and a set of activities that others don’t do. No one else does the bilateral kind of diplomacy that we do with others on a number of different issues, whether it has to do with how we reduce the space that terrorist groups have to fundraise, to operate. We provide a lot of training. We fund other agencies of the U.S. Government to send their experts out to do it in countries around the world, whether it’s anti-money laundering, counterterrorism finance, border security, rule of law with regional resident-led legal advisors – a whole range of different things that are really in the diplomatic toolkit and that we work with our partners in the government to do. So these things couldn’t be done without a strong State platform for carrying them through.
I hope that answers your question. There are just different things that are in different agencies’ lanes, and the State Department remains at the forefront in terms of those foreign engagements.
MS. NULAND: Karen.
QUESTION: I’m wondering how important the cooperation of certain governments will be in your effort and how much you can achieve. If the – if Iran is the number one sponsor of terrorism and it won’t cooperate with you, and Pakistan – let’s say they choose not to cooperate with you, and other countries where terrorism is a problem, how effective can you really be?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, I would say that in terms of the international cooperation assessment, the glass is 98 percent full, and you’ve got, at least on Iran, the 1 percent that isn’t and the one or two other countries that we have grave concerns about. But international cooperation and the partnerships that have been built have really been one of the great unsung successes of the last decade. There’s extraordinary cooperation in intelligence around the world, in military affairs, and in the diplomatic work to constrain the ability of terrorists to operate and to cooperate, to arrest them, to ensure that they can’t carry out attacks.
Yes, there are problems, and we have countries that we have serious challenges working with, and there are a small number of countries that still view terrorism as a legitimate instrument of policy. But I think the remarkable thing about the post 9/11 period is how much countries have cooperated against al-Qaida, the core al-Qaida, against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and their – the governments of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen, Qatar, on and on, against AQ in the Islamic Maghreb, as they call themself, and there we see much greater cooperation among regional partners, for example, in Southeast Asia.
There have just been tremendous strides, and frankly, we’re hoping that this Global Counterterrorism Forum will build on those strides and that terrorist – counterterrorism experts will be able to exchange best practices and identify problems and design solutions in a way that we haven’t been able to before on a multilateral basis.
MS. NULAND: Samir.
QUESTION: Yes. The Syrian Government, after two bombings happened in Damascus two weeks ago, accused elements of al-Qaida behind the bombings and they said they came from Lebanon. Do you know if al-Qaida have a presence in Lebanon?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, let me just say we’ve seen the reports, and I don’t have any further comment on them. We certainly know that there have been sympathetic groups to al-Qaida in Lebanon for many years. You may recall that the Lebanese forces went into one of the refugee camps some years ago to deal with a group that had an al-Qaida-like ideology. So it is certainly true that there have been elements like that in Lebanon over the years. Whether that had anything to do with what’s going on in Syria is another matter entirely.
QUESTION: A follow-up --
MS. NULAND: I understand that the Fact Sheet on the bureau has just been released, so that should be available to you all.
QUESTION: And do you think that al-Qaida was behind the explosions in Damascus?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: I don't know. We don’t have anything conclusive on that.
MS. NULAND: Said.
QUESTION: Thank you. Yes, sir. Do you ever reexamine your classification of Hamas, the entity that governs the Gaza Strip, as a terrorist organization in view of steps taken in the last few months, sort of distancing themselves from Syria and Iran and inching their way towards a unity government with the Palestinian Authority that is a partner with the United States in the peace process?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: I think we’ve been very clear about what Hamas needs to do if it wants to get out from under the FTO designation, and that has to do with renouncing violence and accepting the Quartet principles. I think that the groundwork is there. The step – the footprints are on the ground. They need to go through them, and we would certainly welcome that, and it’s long overdue.
QUESTION: A couple questions on --
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Arshad.
QUESTION: -- that I think are addressed in the – I don't think they’re addressed in the Fact Sheet. How many people are there in the bureau? Do you know?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Yes. I believe that we have 70 FTE government employees and then detailees, contractors, and the like, I think we get to 120, roughly that.
QUESTION: Okay. And it’s no – when you said in being a good steward of the public money, you’re not getting any more money or any more people than in becoming a bureau, correct?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: That’s correct.
QUESTION: And then will the bureau continue to produce the Country Reports on Terrorism? And will the intel community continue to separately – as has been the case for years – produce the underlying data based on number of terrorist incidents?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Let me just say that we – it’s a congressionally-mandated report, the Country Reports on Terrorism. We’re already gathering information for this year. Rhonda Shore sitting over there has this task, and we’ll be putting out the report again.
QUESTION: And last one from me. And admittedly, unabashedly, it is hypothetical, but I think it’s of sort of topical interest. Brad talked about the threats that Iran has made and obviously the threats towards the Straits of Hormuz. The question I have is whether an attack on shipping in the Straits of Hormuz would be regarded as an act of war or an act of terrorism, and what is the key determinant? Is it whether it is a non-state actor and therefore it’s terrorism, but if it’s by a state military then it’s an act of war? How do you determine those things?
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: I think that that’s – falls into the – square in the category of hypotheticals, and if there is such an attack we’ll make that determination at that time. As you know, the whole issue of what is an act of state-sponsored terrorism, what isn’t, it’s one we get into frequently. We did with the North Korea issue, for example. So rather than lay out lines that will immediately be overtaken by events, I’ll just leave it at that.
And I think that I would remiss if I didn’t save some time for your reliable spokesperson.
MS. NULAND: Excellent. Thank you all.
AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: (Laughter.) Okay. Thank you.