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Middle East Digest - September 10, 2009


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Washington, DC
September 10, 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 10, 2009

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MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon and welcome to the Department of State. I have several announcements before we take your questions.

George Mitchell, our ambassador for Middle East Peace, will depart the United States tomorrow night, will be in discussion with officials from Israel and the Palestinian Authority Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. Some of that schedule is still being worked. He will have other stops in the region following his stops to talk with Israeli officials and Palestinian officials, and we’ll announce those sometime once they’re firmly established.

Special Envoy Gration – Scott Gration is in Juba, Southern Sudan today, where he was involved in discussions with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the National Congress Party as part of our significant action to try to implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. And later today, he will hold a roundtable discussion with members of the Sudanese diaspora who have returned to the country to contribute their skills and knowledge to progress in Sudan.

I’ll anticipate one question. Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman is in Libya today for a wide-ranging bilateral discussion with his counterparts and looking at ways to promote peace and stability in the region. They will be discussing a wide range of bilateral issues.

With that, I’ll take your questions.

QUESTION: What’s your take on the Iranian proposal that was submitted yesterday?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we – obviously, the Swiss ambassador, among other ambassadors, received the Iran proposal yesterday. It is not really responsive to our greatest concern, which is obviously Iran’s nuclear program. We are consulting with our other P-5+1 colleagues. There will be a conference call tomorrow involving the political officers to talk about next steps.

As our ambassador in – to the IAEA, Glyn Davies, said very compellingly yesterday, he reiterated, as we continue to, that we are willing to engage Iran in direct diplomacy based on mutual respect and mutual interests, and we seek a willing partner. But I think that as we consult with our P-5+1 colleagues, we’ll be looking to see how ready Iran is to actually engage, and we will be testing that willingness to engage in the next few weeks.

QUESTION: P.J., on the --

QUESTION: When you say not – it’s not really responsive, what does that mean?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, obviously, we have a wide range of interests, common interests, and concerns about Iran. And I should emphasize it’s not just the concerns of the United States. It is the concerns of the international community. Iran is not in compliance with its NPT, IAEA, or UN obligations. And so we have offered through Javier Solana to have Iran join the P-5+1 in discussions about, in particular, our nuclear issues, but we have other issues of concern in terms of Iran’s role and behavior in the region, its support of terrorism over many, many years. We would like to see Iran choose a different path. So there are a number of ways in which we have offered to and remain willing to engage Iran --

QUESTION: You said it’s not really responsive to our greatest concern, which is --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the – I think in --

QUESTION: So what does that mean? That they’re not --

MR. CROWLEY: -- in the package yesterday, Iran reiterated its view that, as far as it is concerned, its nuclear file is closed. And as Ambassador Glyn Davies said very clearly yesterday, that is certainly not the case. There are many outstanding issues. Iran has failed to meet its obligations, has failed to cooperate sufficiently with the IAEA. So we remain open to direct dialogue with Iran. If we can get to that point, we would expect to engage on the full range of issues, including our concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

And we – as Ambassador Davies reiterated yesterday, Iran has an opportunity here, and we hope that it will seize the opportunity, answer the questions that the international community has on its nuclear program, and move assertively to become a nation in good standing once again with the IAEA. And then there is room to explore how Iran can exercise the rights that it feels it has under the NPT. But as we emphasized yesterday and again, with rights comes responsibilities, and Iran is failing to live up to its responsibilities. But we would expect that should Iran indicate that it is, in fact, willing to engage the United States, other countries, that we would obviously want to talk about the nuclear issue among many others.

QUESTION: The Russian foreign minister said today there was something that – he looked at the paper that the Iranians submitted and said there was something in there that they could work with. So it sounds like you disagree with that statement.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think that that’s why we’re going to have a close consultation with all of our P-5+1 partners, including Russia. We expect that follow-on call to happen tomorrow. And then from there, we would think that we’d have a common approach on how to respond to the Iranian proposal. And I think we remain willing to engage Iran, if it chooses to do so.

QUESTION: So yesterday’s teleconference --

QUESTION: What is the U.S. position on events in Lebanon, where the prime minister-designate has failed --

MR. CROWLEY: Any other issues on Iran or --

QUESTION: I was just going to follow up on the --

MR. CROWLEY: Okay. I’ll come back to you in a second.

QUESTION: So didn’t yesterday’s teleconference happen?

MR. CROWLEY: There was a teleconference yesterday, and the next one will occur tomorrow.

QUESTION: Do you have a readout? Any readout from that you can give us?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think we were touching base and – but we will – we obviously – we have a consistent position with our P-5+1 partners and want to make sure that we have a common strategy going forward. And we hope to kind of craft that common approach beginning tomorrow, and then I would think that we’ll have a – find a way to respond formally to the Iranian proposal.

Lebanon.

QUESTION: Yes.

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, obviously, Lebanon is in the process of carrying out, in accordance with their political process, putting together a new government. That process continues, and we continue to look forward to working with the next Lebanese Government and hope it will stay on a path towards building a sovereign and stable Lebanon that is committed to peace, including full implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions. And we hope that both sides will resolve the impasse quickly and respect the process that’s outlined in the Lebanese constitution, put together a government that will serve the interests of its people.

QUESTION: Are you concerned about stability in the country because of this delay in forming a government?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, obviously, our hope is that this will continue according to the processes laid out in the Lebanese constitution. We would like to see a government put in place sooner rather than later. I don’t think we have any immediate concerns, but we certainly hope that all the parties in Lebanon will engage peacefully and appropriately, and because it’s important that they put a government in place and that government take action in the interests of its people.

QUESTION: P.J.?

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah.

QUESTION: A former employee of ArmorGroup North America says that he alerted the State Department back in 2007 that some of the guards at the Embassy in Kabul were not only visiting brothels during work hours, but may have also been involved in sex trafficking. Did the State Department ever seriously look into these allegations?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, first of all, let me – I have a caution that because this is now an ongoing legal matter, I’ve got to be very careful and I cannot comment on any issue that might be subject to a lawsuit that has been filed. Just to start out, I’m sure you’ll have several questions in this area, I mean, the State Department continues to fully investigate allegations regarding ArmorGroup. We continue interviews. I think we’ve had more than 150 over the past week.

Just to bring you up to date, a total of eight guards have been removed from the contract and have departed Afghanistan, four additional guards resigned of their own accord and have also left the country; additionally, two managers were removed from the contract, two others resigned; one has departed Afghanistan, two others will depart tomorrow. So a total of personnel who are no longer part of the ArmorGroup contact – contract is 16.

This is a contract that is in its third year, initial year plus for option years, so it’s – we have had concerns about this contract over time, both related to performance and conduct. And we have aggressively overseen this contract, beginning in day one back in July of 2007. In a number of cases, because of improper behavior by contract personnel, we have asked the – that they be removed, and that has happened.

I’m not going to talk about specific allegations. Some of that may be the subject of this lawsuit. But in our view, it’s important that we have aggressively overseen this contract since it was let in March of 2007 and went into force in July of 2007. Part of that aggressiveness is that over time, to use a technical term, cure notices which – where we identify specific deficiencies in the contractor’s performance, we’ve issued nine of them over the past two years. In each time – in each case, the contractor has come back with a corrective action plan that we found satisfactory, and, in fact, that was subsequently implemented.

But it’s important that at no time, in our view, was the security of the Embassy ever threatened or compromised.

QUESTION: But the sex trafficking brings us to a new level, at least the allegations. I mean, did the State Department ever look into that specific thing? And are there any criminal investigations dealing with people who are under contract from the U.S. Embassy?

MR. CROWLEY: I can only repeat what I just said. Where – over the course of the contract, where we have been aware of improper behavior by contract personnel, and we have had incidents where we have seen that and taken aggressive actions, those individuals were removed from the contract or removed from the country.

QUESTION: How many is that then, before this latest --

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t have a number. I’ll see if I can provide that to you.

QUESTION: Well, then how – if you don’t have a number, how do you know that they were removed?

QUESTION: That it’s been aggressive?

MR. CROWLEY: We know. I --

QUESTION: Wouldn’t that be the next logical question when one is putting together --

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t have --

QUESTION: -- one’s guidance for this? I mean --

MR. CROWLEY: I will ask the question, and if I can – if we can provide an answer, I will do so.

QUESTION: The other thing is that I’m not sure I understand why it is you can’t – you can’t comment. The State Department is not actually named in this lawsuit. You’re not – you’re not being sued.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, at the --

QUESTION: So I guess, just to repeat Michelle’s question, what about the –

MR. CROWLEY: At the --

QUESTION: -- have the sex trafficking allegations been looked at before? And is that --

MR. CROWLEY: At the advice of the appropriate authorities here within the Department of State, I’ve been cautioned not to comment on issues that may be directly relevant to the lawsuit that has been filed. That said, I will be happy to talk about the contract itself.

And we feel very strongly that our oversight has been aggressive. It began in the early stages of the contract. Why is that? It’s because we’ve set a high bar for this particular contract in this particular environment. The contract in Kabul, the static guard contract in Kabul, like the similar arrangement in Baghdad, these are unique circumstances. We have standing guards, local hires, guarding all of our facilities around the world, but in this particular case, the unique situations where our facilities are in the middle of conflict zones, and we have taken aggressive actions simply because we understood the threat to our personnel and our facilities in Kabul.

Much of the – of what has come to light in terms of the contractor performance is because we are the ones who identified those deficiencies, provided the notice to the contractor, and insisted on corrective action. So – and it was based on that performance, not perfect, but certainly, we felt, and continue to feel, that the Embassy has been adequately protected and our people have been safe.

QUESTION: So you’d describe ArmorGroup’s performance as not perfect?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, clearly, it’s not perfect. But --

QUESTION: Well, clearly – I mean --

MR. CROWLEY: We have issued nine --

QUESTION: -- one could say that it’s a lot less than not perfect.

MR. CROWLEY: Over the course of two years, we’ve issued nine cure notices for a variety of issues, ranging from the number of people at a particular guard station to the language proficiency of particular guards in critical places. As we’ve described, I think before, there are places where language proficiency is more important than others. All of the guards who were hired under this contract were expected, under the terms of the contract, to have adequate English skills.

QUESTION: Well, what about the sex trafficking allegation, which is what Michele asked about?

MR. CROWLEY: Okay. I’m not going to talk about specific issues from --

QUESTION: But you just talked about the specific issue of the language training.

MR. CROWLEY: I just said --

QUESTION: That’s in the lawsuit as well.

MR. CROWLEY: I will – I make the general point where we have identified and been aware of misconduct by contractor personnel, we have taken aggressive action. That is the case in this most recent incident, and that was the case in other instances as well.

QUESTION: In --

MR. CROWLEY: We expect a high standard of performance and personal responsibility in the people who are working on these posts on behalf of the United States Government. And we feel we have taken aggressive action where we have seen problems evolve, and people have, in fact, been removed from the contract.

If I can get greater detail on that for you, I will. But I’m somewhat constrained because of the fact that this is now part of the lawsuit.

QUESTION: Yesterday, I asked Ian about the response that POGO got from the State Department to their 10-page letter to the Secretary. He said he was not – he hadn’t seen it. But I’m wondering if you have and whether you think that a – that referring this group to a web link for the daily press briefing from September 1st is an appropriate response to a detailed letter.

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t think it was an appropriate response.

QUESTION: And so has there been an --

MR. CROWLEY: I am not aware that we have yet responded formally to the POGO letter.

QUESTION: Should they expect to get a more substantive response?

MR. CROWLEY: If and when we do respond substantively, I’ll let you know.

QUESTION: And can you just go – tell me broadly what are the rules for State Department contractors when it comes to visiting brothels?

MR. CROWLEY: We expect a high standard in terms of those who are working on behalf of the United States Government. And where we think that those standards have been compromised – and we have in the past seen and taken action in specific areas – those people have been removed from the contract.

QUESTION: You mentioned that George Mitchell is going back to the Middle East?

MR. CROWLEY: Will tomorrow. He’ll leave tomorrow – in Israel and the Palestinian Authorities on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday.

QUESTION: Any more details on who he’ll be meeting? And you mentioned he’d be going to some other foreign country.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think that – the who he will be meeting with and what order, that is still kind of being worked out. But we would expect meetings to begin probably on Sunday, but certainly on Monday and Tuesday. I certainly think he will meet with the usual high-level leaders, as he has in the past. He’ll make other stops in the region after that. They’re still – the order of those are still being worked out.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:48 p.m.)



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