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Middle East Digest - January 8, 2010


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Washington, DC
January 8, 2010

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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 January 8, 2010


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MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, we are – quite simply, we are --
QUESTION: The judge’s decision was last year.
MR. CROWLEY: It was several days ago.
QUESTION: Last year.
MR. CROWLEY: Hmm?
QUESTION: It was last year.
MR. CROWLEY: Several days ago.
QUESTION: It was more than a week ago.
MR. CROWLEY: Fair enough.
QUESTION: Last year. And you didn’t feel the need to put some – to say something before then – before now?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, it was the holiday season. We obviously --
QUESTION: It wasn’t a holiday season in Iraq, and they were quite upset about this decision.
MR. CROWLEY: Matt, I understand that. We have the statement. It remains something that we continue to consult closely within the government, particularly with the Department of Justice. As it says, we are assessing our options, but as we assess our options, we felt it was important to communicate our feelings to the Iraqi people.
QUESTION: Well, I mean, is there something new? Is there a development today or yesterday that makes it – that makes it – that would make it appropriate to put this statement out today?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we communicate with various countries in various regions all the time. Understanding that the judge’s reaction has had a significant effect within the – within Iraq, we felt it was important to help them understand that the process, in our view, is not finished. There’s action that we believe – we will continue on the – on both the criminal front and the civil front. There are cases here in the United States that are proceeding in terms of civil suits. So – but we remain committed to try to do everything in our power to see justice done in this case.

QUESTION: P.J., a follow-up on that. The ruling walked through pretty conclusively that despite the State Department’s best efforts to try to hold these five defendants accountable that there seemed to be a willful intent to disregard the Garrity ruling, which basically tells people we can’t use your words against you if there’s a criminal case. How concerned are you that if you try to revisit this case that it’s going to be really difficult, one, to work with Justice Department attorneys, and how concerned are you beyond that that there’s not going to be another District Court judge who’s not going to be suspicious of this case when it finally is brought back?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think in terms of – as we say in the statement, we are still evaluating the ruling and assessing future steps that the Department of Justice will take. I’m not a lawyer, so I will defer to my colleagues at the Department of Justice to characterize the judge’s ruling and the implications. We obviously respect the rule of law, we promote the rule of law around the world, but obviously, there are potential options available to the Department of Justice moving forward. Our lawyers here at the Department of State will continue to work closely with them.

QUESTION: In general about the presence of contractors for the U.S. in Iraq, in the summer I think the DOD numbers were that there were 120,000 military contractors in Iraq, and 130,000 – 132,000 troops. With that number, according to the DOD, expected to increase, what does that say about Iraq’s sovereignty with such a large number of both foreign troops and military contractors in their country?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t have – I can’t verify those numbers. I think there have been some GAO numbers more recently, I think, that puts your numbers well below. I mean, contractors play an important role in any significant operation anywhere in the world, whether it’s a military operation, whether it’s a humanitarian operation. And it is something that we are going to see in the future. The real issue is – is what are they doing, how are they doing it, how are they integrating. In the case of Iraq, how well are the operations of the contractors integrated within military operations. In other cases, how well are they integrated within the institutions within specific countries.

Obviously, as you heard here yesterday, Richard Holbrooke, in a different context, in Afghanistan, was talking about how we hope to change the delivery of vital services and use our support, the involvement of governmental officials, nongovernmental officials, in certain cases contractors, but do it in a way that it increases the capacity of the host nation to ultimately take on these challenges directly.

There are some very specific instances in Iraq, for example, where you have police training, building up a vitally important institution that will be critical to stabilize the situation there, helping the Iraqi Government move forward in the future.

So it’s not to say that you make blanket statements. A lot of this is situational dependent. A lot of it is based on timing. If you have to move somewhere rapidly, chances are contractors may well play a significant role over time. But we are looking here at the State Department at the role of contractors. You’ve heard the Secretary talk about this issue on a regular basis – she did so in her speech two days ago – so that we understand fully and make sure that, first of all, we have the capabilities resident within the United States Government to do what we need to do. She talked yesterday about a commitment to rebuild internally the capabilities of USAID so we do not have to rely in all cases on contractors.

But nonetheless, I think it’s safe to say that in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in other places, contractors will have a role to play and a valuable role to play. But we are looking to make sure that not only their role is appropriate but that where they are there, they have effective oversight, they’re fulfilling the terms of their contract, and they’re held accountable when things go wrong.

QUESTION: Do you see the role in Iraq, for example, of contractors – do you see the role as extending beyond the role of troops? In a sense, I’m trying to ask as the U.S. tries to withdraw personnel, armed forces, from Iraq, will contractors be following them home or will they be staying in Iraq?

MR. CROWLEY: It could be a little bit of both. I mean, you have a transition here where, in fact, once we get through the election in early March in Iraq, we will – working closely with the Government of Iraq and following the strategic agreement that we have with Iraq, we’ll begin to transform our relationship. Military forces will withdraw over time. That will have some impact on contractors who are there to primarily support our military presence in Iraq. More of the effort will shift from the military component to the civilian component. We may well have contractors at the State Department, for example, who will continue to function in Iraq to help Iraq itself build institutions of government. But over time, more of this activity will shift from being a U.S. responsibility to being an Iraqi responsibility.

Jill.

QUESTION: P.J., just one more on that, and I may not have seen this during the holiday season. But have there been any official communications, demarches, criticism coming from the Iraqi Government, specifically to the State Department, criticizing this judge’s decision? Have you had any direct conversations with them explaining this is the American justice system?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware, Jill, of any specific demarches here in Washington. I have confidence that our Embassy in Baghdad has been communicating with the Government of Iraq through our able Ambassador Chris Hill to make sure that they understand what this case means, where it is in the legal process.

QUESTION: Philip, today you have both, as you said earlier, Jordanian and Egyptian leaders and ministers here. Now, we’re coming up on the first anniversary of the Israeli Gaza-Hamas confrontation. Yet in other areas, such as in the West Bank, there’s a new entrepreneurial center, who have both Israelis and Palestinians actively, daily working together to build a science center and other economic pursuits, yet this isn’t occurring with Gaza. And it appears that both Hamas and Fatah are just both philosophically as well as politically at odds. What new attempts will the Egyptians and Jordanians, as well as Secretary Clinton, bring to the table to lessen those animosities?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, let me take half of that question. And certainly, you heard some passionate statements a little while ago from Secretary Clinton, from Foreign Minister Judeh, about the critical importance of the – of Middle East peace, the urgency that we all feel, the need to make progress as soon as possible. We will be meeting with the Egyptians this afternoon. The Egyptians have been working over several months on the reconciliation process. We certainly support the formation of a unity government in Palestine, one that, of course, adheres to the Quartet principles.

So we look forward to the discussion this afternoon, but clearly, the situation in Gaza is difficult. It is – it’s dire for the people of Gaza. We continue to work with the Egyptians, with the Israelis to see what kind of humanitarian assistance can be provided there. But we’re also looking to see how we can create a new dynamic not only to meet the respective interests of Israel, the Palestinians, also the region, but certainly a reconciliation is part of this process, but it’s very difficult.

Late last year, the Palestinians were forced to postpone their election plans simply because the current conditions do not lend themselves to an electoral process that would hopefully try to divide – to resolve the current divide that they’re experiencing. We – this is one of the reasons why we’ve been committed to this over the past year, and why we continue to see the sense of urgency to try to do everything in our power to move forward.

As the Secretary said a short time ago, a critical step in that is getting the parties into formal negotiations where we can address all of the critical issues that we face – final status issues, but also improving the situation on the ground. It’s one of the reasons why we continue working with countries in the region to support the efforts of Prime Minister Fayyad as he builds the institutions of government within the West Bank so that – and you’re seeing that divergence. You’re absolutely right that there is growth, measurable growth that is being achieved in the West Bank. And we would like to see the situation expand so that more of the people of the Palestinian territories can enjoy these opportunities.

Jill.

QUESTION: P.J., on another subject, this terror report, I just want to make sure – we did get some information yesterday, but just to make sure we all get it, is it correct that after that spelling mistake was corrected within a couple of days, that basically no one went back to check on whether he had a visa? And if that is correct – until, of course, they found out on December 25th – and if that is correct, at what level did that happen? We don’t need names, but – I mean, who – where did that happen in the process?

MR. CROWLEY: It is something that we’re still trying to reconstruct. And just to put this in perspective, obviously, as the President said yesterday, as Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan said yesterday, mistakes were made. This was a system failure. We are part of that system, and as the report details, there were human errors that were made on our part.

The misspelling in the initial VISAS VIPER report was corrected by – within the NCTC within a couple of days. The TIDE entry that was opened up on this particular individual had his correct spelling. As to whether or not any individual through this process checked from that point forward to see if there was an active visa, we’re still trying to sort that out. I can’t say that we know that anybody did, in fact, from the point that the TIDE database was opened on him, whether that was a factor.

So this is, in fact, something that we – this is a critical lesson learned. The steps that we’ve put in the process beginning immediately after December 25 will, in fact, make sure that future reports do have visa information in them, so that this is more – this is inserted into the process right from the outset. So it’s one thing to say that the databases that we have that have visa information in it, all of those databases are available to all of the relevant agencies that are involved in this process. But we obviously have recognized that it is important to put this issue front and center as part of this process moving forward.

We’re also taking steps so that in the future, some adjustments within the databases can be made to account for variations in the name, whether – in this particular case, it was because of a misspelling, but also in the – particularly in this part of the world, you have a lot of different variations in terms of spelling. We want to make sure that the system can properly account for that. And then finally, we’re also focused on making sure that any kind of visa action, whether it’s an initial action to grant a visa, it’s an action to revoke a visa, we are looking to make sure that whatever reporting goes out from the State Department to the relevant agencies is done as rapidly as possible.

So we’re looking at the system from start to finish. We’ll be – we have already given some revised guidance to posts around the world in terms of – to make sure that seeing some of the errors of commission and omission – that we improve the system in line with the President’s direction.

QUESTION: But under the regulations at that point – let’s say, you know, before December 25th, was somebody supposed to – after the father, let’s say, had given that information and you’re writing up the VISAS VIPER cable, was somebody supposed to, under those rules and regulations, check on visa status?

MR. CROWLEY: It was not required. The way the process has worked up to this point, there is an assessment of risk, and then based on that assessment of risk, specific actions are available to the agencies that, in our case, adjudicate visas; in the case of other agencies, manage who gets on an airplane, who gets across a border. As we have described before, this is in the context of combating terrorism, an integrated process.

As I would describe it here, we had the father come to see the Embassy in Nigeria, reported his concerns to all of the relevant agencies. And from that point forward, what we were basically saying to the interagency was we have this information; is it of consequence to you, what other information might you have that we can marry up with this information so we make a proper assessment as to the risk that this individual poses to the United States and to our interests around the world. And then from that, there are recommendations that flow in terms of the appropriate action that not only the State Department could take, but other agencies of government could take.

In this particular case, we don’t think that the misspelling by itself influenced the risk assessment process. That was stipulated in the report that the White House released yesterday. But we certainly understand in light of – that this system failure – as the President clearly stated, that there are things that we can do better, do more affirmatively, push the visa information into the process more assertively so that it is evaluated as – along with other relative information so that not only is there a proper risk assessment of individuals that we think are linked in some way to terrorism but there’s a stronger process of making sure that, from that risk assessment, appropriate action is taken.

QUESTION: That was the longest answer to a short question I think I’ve ever heard. Can I ask you one thing?

MR. CROWLEY: Sure.

QUESTION: You – this misspelling –

MR. CROWLEY: I’ll try to make it shorter.

QUESTION: This misspelling, did it affect – I mean, presumably if the guy’s name was misspelled, it didn’t matter what database you put his name into; it wasn’t going to come up with anything. Is there any concern that the misspelling might have prevented the intel people from realizing that this was a guy who should have been put on one of the lists, or was it only the visa?

MR. CROWLEY: The misspelling was our fault, based on our initial report, but within a couple of days our report was combined with other information that was within the intelligence community. The TIDE database that was opened up on this individual had his correct spelling. So it probably did affect the recognition within the system that there was a valid visa, that this individual had a valid visa. It does not appear, as the White House reports said yesterday, that this affected the risk assessment itself.

QUESTION: Right. And then the other thing you said was that – you mentioned something about variations in names in this part of the world, right?

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah. I mean, for example –

QUESTION: He’s Nigerian. They speak English.

MR. CROWLEY: No, no, no, no, no.

QUESTION: And write with a Roman alphabet.

MR. CROWLEY: But, no – no, but I’m –

QUESTION: It’s not Arabic.

MR. CROWLEY: – looking at this more broadly. There are people who spell al-Qaida one way, another way, another way, so this – to the extent that, in a different case, you might have had an appropriate spelling, but it might have not necessarily represented what was on a document or a piece of information. So we are trying to make sure that – in this particular case, quite honestly, the NCTC corrected the initial error that was in the State Department VISAS VIPER report. So we don’t think in this particular case it had a specific impact on judgments that were made after the error was discovered. That said, we recognize that this could happen at any time, not based on a mistake but certainly based on just variations in spelling that people have.

So we’re trying to make sure that we have a system that is nimble, that is adaptive, and can account for when you do a data search of a particular individual, it will bring all of the relevant information that we think might be resident in the system, whether it’s based on al-Qaida with an a-e or al-Qaida with an a-i or any –

QUESTION: Are you suggesting that before December 25th, the system was so rigid that if something that he was a threat?

MR. CROWLEY: No – I’m not suggesting that at all.

QUESTION: – came up and said Mister X is a member of al-Qaida and spelled it with a-i, it wasn’t going to show up –
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not suggesting that at all. What I’m saying is to the extent that people are focused on the issue of a misspelling, in this particular case we believe that was corrected fairly promptly and it didn’t have a broader impact on judgments made. But it does bring up an issue that I think is very relevant, and we are going back and making sure that as we – in terms of how we do data searches to make sure that, in line with what the President has said, when we’re focused on an individual who might be associated with terrorism, we want to make sure that the system, if it queries various databases to find – to bring all of the relevant information together so a proper risk assessment can be made –

QUESTION: Yeah, but –

MR. CROWLEY: – that we’re taking into account that there might be variations of – there might be variations in terms of spelling of names whether that’s because of human error or that’s just because of different ways that different individuals –

QUESTION: But it just seems to me if you’re starting with the wrong name in the first place, there’s no way to – I mean, whoever types up the report needs to be a little bit more careful, no? I mean, if you’re starting with the wrong name, with the wrong data input from the beginning, you’re never going to get success.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, actually, in this particular case, that – we started with a misspelling and the system corrected it within a very short period of time.

QUESTION: But just to be precise, I thought yesterday we were told that the person who did this checked on a relatively limited database which did not have the ability to query variant spellings of names, that actually you do have the system, unless it’s not correct, that can – other databases that can actually ping around and –

MR. CROWLEY: Correct.

QUESTION: – get different – is that –

MR. CROWLEY: Correct. And that – all of that is true. So – which is why I mentioned what I mentioned, which is we want to be sure that as we strengthen this system, we strengthen the ability of the system to be able to successfully pull in relevant information and take into account variations in spellings. So – but your basic point is right, that the initial search to determine if there was a visa did not – one did not show, expressly because of this misspelling.

QUESTION: Can I go back to –

MR. CROWLEY: Michel.

QUESTION: There was a clash before yesterday between Muslims and the Christians in Egypt and seven Coptics Christians got killed. Do you have any reaction to that, and would Secretary Clinton discuss this issue with Mr. Aboul Gheit?
MR. CROWLEY: Let’s have the meeting with the – which is happening in about 20 minutes. Let’s have that meeting and then we’ll let you know if this issue came up.

QUESTION: And no reaction on the clash?

MR. CROWLEY: I’ll take the question. I don’t have anything in my book.

MR. CROWLEY: As the Secretary talked about in her media avail a short time ago, we obviously are always concerned about the dynamic on the ground in the region and the impact that that can have at any particular time on our efforts to get a negotiation started and move aggressively towards peace in the Middle East. So yes, absolutely, any violence in the region has the potential, as it has in the past, to derail the process. That’s why George Mitchell is going out first to consult in Europe but then in the region, and why we have the kinds of meetings here at the State Department we have today to try to assess where the parties are, refine our ideas, evaluate steps that we can take and others can take to move the parties towards a formal negotiation. That remains our core objective.

QUESTION: Staying on the Middle East, first question: Is some sort of reunification between Fatah and Hamas necessary for the peace process to go forward?

MR. CROWLEY: I think we recognize the value of a unity government, but we want to see a negotiation begin as soon as possible. So is a unity government a prerequisite to the start of negotiations? It is not.

QUESTION: So does that imply that any talks, say if they were to start tomorrow, would be ostensibly with those who represent Fatah and not Hamas?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we are focused on working with President Abbas and recognize his leadership, his historic interest in pursuing Middle East peace, his acceptance of the fundamental principles which includes Israel’s right to exist, its right to security, as well as the rights of the Palestinians to have a state of their own. As we have always said, anyone who commits to these basic principles can play a role in these negotiations. But that is a fundamental element, and President Abbas has accepted those principles and Hamas has not.

QUESTION: The foreign minister also used the word, when he talked about the creation of a separate Palestinian state, one that is contiguous. I noticed the Secretary did not use that word. Where is the – what is the U.S.’s position on contiguous in terms of somehow uniting the West Bank and Gaza?

MR. CROWLEY: This is a – this is the fundamental challenge of a negotiation, which is to determine the borders of a state. We recognize that any state that would be formed for the Palestinians has to be viable and it has to be based on agreed upon borders. So the foreign minister at his formulation, the Secretary at her formulation – what we really want to do is get the parties back into a negotiation where you can actually put these questions before them.

The United States will continue to play a role. At various times, we may offer our own insights as to how to resolve these very kinds of questions. But let’s get to that negotiation. That’s why we’re continuing to push as hard as we can to get this started as quickly as possible.



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