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Middle East Digest - September 3, 2009


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Washington, DC
September 3, 2009

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The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.

From the Daily Press Briefing of September 3, 2009

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MR. CROWLEY: New topic.

QUESTION: Yeah. Do you have reaction to the confirmation of the Iranian defense – the new Iranian defense minister --

MR. CROWLEY: We, the United States, have been awaiting a message from Iran, a message that they want to shift – take a new approach, take a fresh approach. We’ve been hoping that they would be willing to engage the United States and the international community to help to move forward, to resolve the questions that we have about their behavior, and including their well-known state sponsorship of terrorism.

We find today’s action disturbing, and we think that for Iran, it is sending precisely the wrong message. And we certainly support Argentina’s efforts to bring justice to the perpetrators of the 1994 terrorist bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association in Buenos Aires, and we will continue to support that, but – so unfortunately, rather than taking a step forward to engage the United States and the international community, Iran today is taking a step backward by putting into a high office a well-known individual suspected of participation in a terrorist act.

QUESTION: A new topic?

QUESTION: Just to follow up on that?

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah.

QUESTION: There was a report in the Iranian press yesterday that the Administration actually sent a second letter to the supreme leader. Is that correct?

MR. CROWLEY: I am not going to comment about specific diplomatic correspondence from here.

QUESTION: So does that mean that it’s – that you’re just not commenting on the correspondence?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not commenting.

QUESTION: So that means there was correspondence?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not commenting, which means I’m not confirming or denying. I’m just saying I’m not commenting.

QUESTION: A new topic?

MR. CROWLEY: Well --

QUESTION: And is he a subsidiary --

QUESTION: I wanted to just follow up on the ArmorGroup Kabul story. Wackenhut, two days later, has put out a statement referring all questions to the State Department and saying they’re fully cooperating with your investigation. I know it’s still early, but have you been able to shed any light on these hazing incidents, and have they been cooperative with you? And also, has anyone been fired that’s been involved?

MR. CROWLEY: Let me answer as many of those questions as I can remember. Obviously, the various investigations that we have are ongoing. I think the first investigator from Washington has arrived on scene in Kabul. But Ambassador Eikenberry has taken aggressive action over the last day or two regarding this incident. He has put almost every security resource that he has available on this case. They have interviewed some 60 individuals yesterday and today.

So in Kabul, first and foremost, they’re trying to get an understanding of what happened, who was involved, how it could have happened, who either knew things, didn’t know things. And Ambassador Eikenberry also today had a town hall meeting with the American community in Kabul to discuss the situation and --

QUESTION: The American Embassy?

MR. CROWLEY: The Embassy, yeah, the American Embassy community. And I think as part of his message to the American community, he continued to reassure them that notwithstanding this episode, that he believes and we believe that the Embassy is being well protected.

QUESTION: What about the question of whether anyone’s either stepped down or been fired as of yet?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, on that, I would refer – we are interviewing people, so obviously, for the moment, we want them to remain on site so we can learn as much as we can about what happened, who was responsible, how could it happen. We have taken some steps --

QUESTION: I’m sorry, what – how could what happen?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, depending on how you want to provide – I mean, I’ll talk first about the party or parties involving a set of individuals, describe it – “Lord of the Flies,” as you described it, or frat party gone bad, however you want to describe it.

QUESTION: Right.

MR. CROWLEY: It was awful, it was disgusting.

QUESTION: But that --

MR. CROWLEY: The Secretary, in her morning meeting, had a lot to say about this. It’s – she is genuinely offended by what has occurred. And she has directed all of the relevant agencies to aggressively take action.

She also pledged, because obviously, this has been – the other part of this, the status of the security contract and the security performance in Kabul has been of significant interest to the Congress, and she pledged, at the same time, we will do everything necessary to keep Congress fully informed about what we find out during these various investigations. We will be sending out additional people from Washington. The IG will also be looking at various components of this.

But regarding the disgusting incident that occurred at least in early August, if not previously, we’ve already taken additional steps – we’ve taken steps in terms of increasing our presence in Camp Sullivan so that we are – we have better situational awareness of what is happening there. I believe the contractor has taken steps in terms of – regarding alcohol, so that hopefully, these are – these incidents are in the past.

But we are – at multiple levels, we’re trying to figure out what happened, how is it that key people would not have been able to see this. We are concerned about reports of intimidation. Where – there were genuinely, within the contractors’ ranks, people who were concerned about this, tried to report it in various ways, and were able to do so. So there are a variety of things that we’re looking at as we go forward.

QUESTION: So you’re saying you suspect that – you think that there was more than one outrageous party?

MR. CROWLEY: I think that it’s our judgment there were probably – undoubtedly more than one.
QUESTION: Just about the interviews, the investigator that came from Washington is doing the interviews, and that’s a DS investigator?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think the interviews that I’m aware of involve the RSO and his people in Kabul. But we have sent out people from Washington. The first of the various individuals and teams that will be going there from here have arrived on site as well.

QUESTION: So the RSO that was supposed to have oversight over this Camp Sullivan is actually doing the interviews himself?

MR. CROWLEY: I’ll give you some additional information offline, but I’m not going to talk about the specific – the Ambassador has taken control and responsibility for what has happened there. He has directed that his staff aggressively investigate what is going on. They are already doing so. But we will obviously keep on site those people who can help us understand what has transpired. But clearly, the behavior that was depicted in those pictures is unacceptable. Those who have participated in those – those who participated in those acts will be removed as we go forward.

But obviously, first and foremost, our current focus is to try to best understand what happened, and then the consequences will fall to those who have – are guilty of misconduct.

QUESTION: You mean you’ve already decided to fire the people who are depicted in the pictures?

MR. CROWLEY: The Ambassador – anyone who --

QUESTION: That’s what you just said. For those who participated --

MR. CROWLEY: Anyone who – all right, Matt, let me – all right, you’ve asked the question, now it’s my turn, okay? Anyone who participated in the kinds of acts depicted in those pictures should not and will not be working for the Department of State. It is inconsistent with our values. It’s inconsistent with the terms of the contract. Anyone in a supervisory role who either participated in that action or condoned that action has forfeited their ability to serve in a leadership position. We recognize that, but the Ambassador has the ability, on his own authority, to send home anyone in – overseas who he believes is detrimental to the operation there.

Now – so those who we judge participated in this action will be removed from their current roles in providing for the security of the United States Embassy. That’s – there will be a separate judgment over time as to what their future employment will involve, but anyone from our standpoint who either participated in this action, condoned this action, we believe will not serve the best interests of the United States going forward. And we expect, as we signaled yesterday, that there will be changes in the management of ArmorGroup.

QUESTION: Did you talk to the Afghan Government about this at all? Because there were some charges in this POGO report that Afghan nationals were mistreated, and their customs and traditions were disrespected.

MR. CROWLEY: Put it this way: I think that if anyone looks at those photos, lots of customs and values and standards have been violated here.

QUESTION: But I mean, there were specific charges that --

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, it – that gets to the point that Matt raised. I mean, irrespective of a formal judgment that we make regarding the performance of the contract or any legal steps that might be forthcoming, this violates our policies. This violated our values. This potentially compromised the important work of the United States Embassy in Kabul. We all find this abhorrent. And so on that basis alone, anyone who was involved in this, we feel has forfeited their right and their opportunity to work in that place for us, expressly because it not only is contrary to our standards of conduct, but it potentially compromises our standing with the Afghan people. And that’s why the Ambassador is taking this aggressive action. We do expect that there will be changes. We do expect that those who are responsible here will be removed and taken out of the country and will find a new line of work.

QUESTION: P.J., just to follow up on Libby’s question that I don’t think you addressed, which was that the specific allegation in the POGO statement today saying that the whistleblower for this – for these events has apparently been forced down by the company. The company says it’s contractually bound to refer questions to the State Department. So what do you have to say about that?

MR. CROWLEY: We will be looking at how this could have happened. We’ll be looking at anyone who potentially tried to stop it. I mean, we’ll look at all of the elements here, not only what happened within the contractor and his operation, but also what happened in the interaction between the contractor and the Embassy. We’re going to be looking also at what – the reporting stream and oversight back here within the Department of State.

The Secretary made it clear to the Department and the leadership this morning: She is very displeased that this could have happened, and that this could have happened without our knowledge.

QUESTION: I understand that.

MR. CROWLEY: And that they’re going to look at this from top to bottom. The Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew is in the region and will be visiting Kabul in the next couple of days. And I’m sure he will be fully briefed on this as he is there as well.

QUESTION: Can you confirm that one person was forced down or was fired or was not working there who was involved?

MR. CROWLEY: I will – I’m not going to comment on – obviously, on that particular subject, there are legal issues at stake there. I’m not going to go into them.

Yes.

QUESTION: Can you tell me really quickly about the Xe subsidiary contract extension, the latest on that, and when DynCorp said it’ll be ready to take over?

MR. CROWLEY: Just to put that in context, obviously, this week, we expected to see a transition from – on the aviation services contract from Xe, formerly Blackwater, to DynCorp. DynCorp told us in the last couple of weeks that they would not be ready to assume responsibility. Under the provisions of the existing contract, we have temporarily extended it so that the Embassy in Iraq can have access to the aviation services that it needs to do its important work. I can’t predict how long this process will take, but we would expect it to be temporary and of relatively short duration, just a few weeks, we hope.

QUESTION: So is this temporary extension open-ended right now or --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, obviously, it’s predicated upon DynCorp and being able to take over the operation. They’ve got some issues with getting their helicopters into place in Iraq to take over the mission. Blackwater will continue to fly until DynCorp is ready.

QUESTION: And this is one of these things where DynCorp will contact you when it’s ready, or are you in constant collaboration with them?

MR. CROWLEY: We are in – obviously --

QUESTION: It seems just so ambiguous, I guess, is what --

MR. CROWLEY: No, it’s not ambiguous at all. I mean, actually, this is a standard procedure. DynCorp is taking over an operation. DynCorp has told us it’s not ready. We’re obviously going to stay in continuing contact with DynCorp to monitor what is happening to get its helicopters in place and its operations underway. There is a standard clause in the contracts that we have that if we have to extend an operation for a period of time, we can do so. And we notified Blackwater, and Blackwater will continue to operate until DynCorp is ready. But obviously, we want to see this process move forward as quickly as possible. We expect it will be done in a relatively brief period of time. And we’ll stay fully focused on DynCorp as they move towards taking over.

QUESTION: Who’s paying for the extension?

MR. CROWLEY: Hmm?

QUESTION: Since DynCorp wasn’t ready, who’s paying for the extension of the Blackwater contract?

MR. CROWLEY: Obviously, this will have consequences in terms of the contract that DynCorp signed. But, obviously, we’re continuing to pay Blackwater under the terms of the contract. But, obviously, because DynCorp was not ready and – there will be consequences for DynCorp.

QUESTION: P.J., can we switch back to Afghanistan and a different issue, please? Are you familiar with Global Post’s story – and there are others out there as well – about allegations that AID contractors – or money from AID is ending up with the Taliban for protection?

MR. CROWLEY: I’ve heard that report. We are concerned about it. I think there’s an – we’ve already confirmed there’s an investigation underway. Obviously, we want to see the aid that is flowing into Afghanistan moving in – towards constructively improving the security situation, the economic situation in Afghanistan. Any diversion of funds for any reason makes it that much more difficult for us to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan. We’re very concerned about any kind of diversion.

But this is, I think, an indication of where we do, within a very difficult environment, closely monitor the flow of aid. And when we do find that there’s been a diversion of aid to whatever party for whatever reason, we take those allegations seriously and we’ll fully investigate them.

QUESTION: Just to be clear, have you found – have you confirmed any diversion?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t – we’re obvious – we’re looking at it. We’re aware of the allegation, and we’re looking at it.

Samir, all the way in the back.

QUESTION: Can you give us a readout on the – about the Secretary’s meeting today with Senator Mitchell?

MR. CROWLEY: Obviously, Senator Mitchell had important meetings with Israeli officials in New York yesterday, and I think the senator both updated the Secretary on his ongoing discussions with the parties. Senator Mitchell will be going to the region in the next few days for further consultations with all of the parties involved in the peace process.

QUESTION: Are you close to figuring out the scope of the settlement freeze?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m sure the senator updated the Secretary on the discussions that he has. I’m not going to detail them for you.

QUESTION: But I just – would it be correct to say that the Administration is looking for a settlement freeze of about six to nine months?

MR. CROWLEY: I think the United States is looking to create the conditions that allow negotiation, formal negotiations, to begin. We hope to reach that point and the end of this particular phase of the process in the next few weeks. But beyond that, where we are in the process, I think we – as we’ve said, we think we have made progress. But, obviously, there is still work to be done.

QUESTION: Can I --

QUESTION: P.J., just to close this one --

MR. CROWLEY: Sure.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on Israeli media reports that under the agreement that’s under – or under the formula that’s under discussion for a settlement freeze, that Israeli construction in Jerusalem would continue, that Israel would complete 2,500 settler housing units already under construction, that Israel would be allowed to construct public buildings in settlements, but that Israel would freeze all other West Bank projects for nine months?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going to comment on any stray voltage that is out there regarding things that we may or may not be discussing. Just to make the larger point, obviously, there are responsibilities that all of the parties have, and there are things that all – we expect all of the parties to bring to the table as part of our efforts to get these negotiations underway.

QUESTION: Just quickly?

MR. CROWLEY: Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION: I guess, you know – I mean, obviously, we’ve all been reading those Israeli media reports, and we have our own understanding of what may be going on. I’m having some hard – I’m having a bit of a hard time reconciling that kind of outcome with the statements that the Secretary herself made earlier this year, where she said we demand a freeze to settlements, no more natural growth, no more this, no more that, which was a pretty clear and definitive line in the sand that she’d draw. And what – it seems like what you’re emerging with is a rather fuzzy little, you know, line that fades out over time there. So I’m just wondering --

MR. CROWLEY: Welcome back from vacation, by the way. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Maybe things changed in the last three (inaudible).

MR. CROWLEY: No. I mean, nothing’s changed, except remember what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to get to negotiations. We’re trying to negotiate terms that are acceptable to all of the parties that tell them there is a level of commitment and political investment in moving to negotiations and then moving to a successful completion of those negotiations. Ultimately, it’s up to the Israelis and the Palestinians to judge, based on what each side comes to the table with, is this enough to get the negotiations started? And then, if so, we have to make sure that there is sufficient support in the region so that both sides are encouraged to move ahead with those negotiations.

So as to who’s putting what on the table, what counter-offers, what counter-counter-offers, ultimately, the proof here is whether we get to a point where the Israelis, based on commitments they’ve made in the past, say we’re prepared to do this; Palestinians, based on their obligations and commitments in the past, have said we’re prepared to do this; and then, if there’s adequate support so that we all have confidence that we can move forward, that’ll be a collective judgment. It won’t be based on any one particular ingredient. Our objective here is to get to the negotiations.

We’re in difficult discussions, detailed discussions that will help us assess and then present to all the parties – is this enough to move to negotiations? And the answer – the collective judgment of the Israelis, the Palestinians, the United States, others in the region, will either be yes or let’s keep at it. And so notwithstanding all of these reports, keep the focus where it belongs, on is there a sufficient investment by all of the parties that gives us confidence that a negotiation can be started and successfully completed.

As to where we are in the process, George Mitchell when he was here a while ago said, hey, in a negotiation, people always stake out a variety of positions. Will that be the final position? Who knows? We have brought our own views into this process. And as we’ve said, our views of what’s necessary has not changed. But, ultimately, the calculation will be up to the parties, along with the United States, to judge that whatever is offered, is that enough to get us started?

QUESTION: A court in Pakistan has restored restrictions on A.Q. Khan. Do you think this satisfies your – addresses your concerns about him?

MR. CROWLEY: We remain very concerned and we remain in discussion with the Government of Pakistan to clarity what these – what the situation is.

QUESTION: So this step is not enough, from your perspective?

MR. CROWLEY: Obviously, we are greatly concerned about the proliferation risk that he poses, and we continue to talk to Pakistan about it.

QUESTION: There’s another question on the UN. The G-8 members are informally discussing about reforms at the Security Council and its expansion programs. What’s the Administration’s stand on it, and do you favor the expansion of permanent and non-permanent members?

MR. CROWLEY: Whatever our stance on UN reform is very, very complicated. (Laughter.)

Go ahead.

QUESTION: P.J., on Iraq, the Iraqi Government and Camp Ashraf, there’s still tension going on between them. Their families and relatives have been on a hunger strike in front of the White House for about two months now. And today, some U.S. military officers were at the Foreign Press Center talking about the responsibilities of the U.S. towards those people. What exactly does the SOFA agreement talk about with respect to the Camp Ashraf residents there that the Iraqi Government has actually undertaken?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m – this is a complicated issue. We have stated many times that the action by the Iraqi Government to extend its sovereignty to Camp Ashraf was an appropriate step; however, it was a step that was done badly and that this was an avoidable tragedy. And – but the responsibility for the protection of those at Camp Ashraf is an Iraqi responsibility. We continue to hope that this can – going forward this can be done in a peaceful way, and we hope that both those at Camp Ashraf and the Iraqi Government will continue to interact in a peaceful way.

QUESTION: What about the agreement between the U.S. and those people? Is that in any way – has it been considered into the SOFA agreement or talked about?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, under the SOFA agreement, the responsibility passed to the Government of Iraq, and we continue to hope the Government of Iraq will work constructively and peacefully with the people at Camp Ashraf.

QUESTION: Just one more on that, actually.

MR. CROWLEY: Sure.

QUESTION: The group today at the press conference was calling for some sort of UN monitoring force to go in and protect them. They don’t feel that the Iraqis are going to do so. Is that something the U.S. would support?

MR. CROWLEY: I can’t – I’ll take that question. If we – if we have a view on that, I – we will let you know.

QUESTION: I have a question on Gabon.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. CROWLEY: What?

QUESTION: After this?

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, we’re poised to start that call as soon as we finish here.

QUESTION: Is it just going to be a call? It’s not going to be someone here?

MR. CROWLEY: I think it’s going to be a call.

QUESTION: Well, can I just ask on that? Can we – can you hold off on that for 20 minutes or so --

MR. CROWLEY: Sure, you can --

QUESTION: -- after this is done?

MR. CROWLEY: At this end of this, you tell me what time you want it to start, and we’ll tell them what time to start.

QUESTION: And you’ll (inaudible), right?

QUESTION: No. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: No. I have a question on --

QUESTION: Yesterday, Ian took a question on the U.S. position on the Egyptian candidate for UNESCO. Do you have an answer to that yet?

MR. CROWLEY: If we took the question, did we provide an answer yet?

STAFF: No.

MR. CROWLEY: No. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: No? Do you know when you might provide that answer?

QUESTION: When they develop a position.

QUESTION: Do you agree with Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi that --

MR. CROWLEY: I doubt it.

(Laughter.)

QUESTION: No, I mean, what do you think of his proposal that Switzerland should be divided – wiped off the map and divided between Italy, Germany, and France?

MR. CROWLEY: You’re right; we disagree with the colonel on that assessment.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, are you concerned, on a larger issue, that when Libya takes over the General Assembly this year, that there are going to be a lot of these types of initiatives that are the whim of Muammar Qadhafi and not necessarily relevant to international affairs? Your UN ambassador warned against that.

MR. CROWLEY: And I’m sure I share the UN ambassador’s point of view.

QUESTION: Well, I’m serious --

MR. CROWLEY: Look, we – the UN is a valuable institution. It has lots and lots of members, some of those members are well lead, some of those members are a work in progress.
And --

QUESTION: I’ll take it.

MR. CROWLEY: And as to what fanciful kinds of ideas will emerge in the next session, we’ll wait and see.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:52 p.m.)



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