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 April 5, 2011
QUESTION: The Treasury Department yesterday decided to lift the economic sanctions against Musa Kusa. Is that kind of the deal that if those closest to Qadhafi defect, then the U.S. will lift sanctions, will unfreeze their assets, regardless of how that money was obtained?
MR. TONER: Well, again, this is really – it’s really a Treasury issue. But my understanding is that those sanctions were implemented him – sorry, were leveled against him, rather, when he was foreign minister. And now that he’s disassociated himself from that regime, then we would then lift them. It’s common. They were specifically targeted against him in his role as foreign minister for the Libyan regime.
QUESTION: So was there no attention paid to where that money came from, how it was obtained, if it was stolen from the people of Libya? That doesn’t matter?
MR. TONER: I think that’s probably an additional matter. And again, I would refer you to Department of Treasury on how they might look at that money more closely in the longer term and now that he’s no longer – the specific sanctions that were against him were due to his role as part of the Libyan regime. There may be additional examinations of that money. I’m not sure, frankly.
QUESTION: And secondly, is Chris Stevens in Benghazi?
MR. TONER: He is. Our representative has arrived in Benghazi and he’s meeting with members of the Transitional National Council. So he did arrive. Sorry, I meant to confirm that earlier.
QUESTION: Any movement on recognition?
MR. TONER: And --
QUESTION: Any movement on recognition?
MR. TONER: No movement on recognition.
QUESTION: And what’s he going to talk to members of the opposition about?
MR. TONER: A number of issues, humanitarian assistance. We’ll also talk with the Transitional National Council about their democratic aspirations, their commitment to universal human rights. It’s partly he’s trying to get to know the leadership of the TNC, talk about both what kind of society – civil society and political structures they want to create, and also talk about what kind of practical assistance, non-lethal assistance, we can provide them.
QUESTION: How about how they finance themselves, since they don’t really have a revenue stream?
MR. TONER: We are going to look at some ways to enable them to meet some of their financial needs and how we can help to do that through the international community given the challenge of sanctions. But we also need – we do recognize they need funds to exist.
QUESTION: When you say through the international community, just so we’re clear, are you talking about the possibility of U.S. Government funds being appropriated, designated to help fund their operations and that you might give it to some international organization that would then give it to the opposition, or are you talking about something else and you’re not envisaging U.S. Government funds being used to help run their operations.
MR. TONER: I would say we’re looking at a range of options. I wouldn’t necessarily limit it to either one or the other.
QUESTION: Mark, can you –
QUESTION: Does that include funding other opposition groups? I mean, there’s this other group that’s formed with one of the military leaders, that’s broken ties now with the National Transitional Council.
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: So who do you decide you would fund?
MR. TONER: Look, again, he’s on the ground, he’s trying to assess the situation and what makes sense going forward. I mean, that’s part of the reason we wanted to get somebody there in Benghazi, to really assess the situation.
QUESTION: Mark, on Musa Kusa, has the U.S. had an opportunity to talk with him yet?
MR. TONER: We’ve not. My understanding is that he’s still talking to the Brits, and I’m not sure whether we’ve been sharing information or not. We have a close –
QUESTION: Do we have any idea of what –
MR. TONER: -- close intelligence-sharing agreements with them, so --
QUESTION: So they’re giving you information?
MR. TONER: I don’t know for sure. I can seek to confirm that, but I know he’s talking to the Brits.
QUESTION: And then also, just on the question about his – lifting the sanctions against him, I presume that doesn’t mean that other things such as human rights violations –
MR. TONER: No.
QUESTION: -- allegations of –
MR. TONER: No, that’s –
QUESTION: Those would continue.
MR. TONER: Thanks for clarifying that, actually. No, he’s – the United Kingdom and Foreign Secretary Hague have been clear that he’s been offered no immunity, and that human rights violations were referred via UN Security Council Resolution 1970 to the ICC, to the International Criminal Court.
QUESTION: There are some people who feel that it is somewhat unseemly to have removed the asset freeze against him, particularly given his long service as head of Libya’s external security organization, basically their foreign intelligence service, which is suspected of complicity in Lockerbie and the UTA-772 bombing. How do you answer those people who say why would you rush to remove an asset freeze from somebody with such a checkered past?
MR. TONER: Again, I would just try to wed the two concepts here and go back to Jill’s question. No one’s saying he’s off the hook. What we’re saying is that those sanctions were removed as part of a message to send to the other members of Qadhafi’s regime that they should seek an exit, but also that he was – when he was part of the regime, he was subject to these sanctions. Now that he is no longer part of that regime, he is no longer subject to those specific sanctions. But to your broader point, nobody said he won’t be held accountable for other actions he might have taken. And specifically to Lockerbie, it’s really a Department of Justice issue, but I understand that they are looking into it.
QUESTION: I thought Mr. Cohen’s blog did suggest that this might be an example that might help persuade others to –
MR. TONER: He did. I thought I just – did I not –
QUESTION: I’m sorry. I thought you – (laughter) – I thought you said that that wasn’t the case.
MR. TONER: No, no. Absolutely. I apologize if it was misconstrued.
QUESTION: Okay. I made the mistake.
MR. TONER: No, absolutely, we believe it does send a signal.
QUESTION: So he’s not off the hook, but he is able to access millions of dollars in his bank accounts and live – lead a life of luxury, pending his being brought to justice for whatever horrible crimes he might have committed.
MR. TONER: He had sanctions leveled against him as a member of the Qadhafi government. He is no longer a member.
MR. TONER: Those specific sanctions no longer apply.
QUESTION: So recognizing that this is semi-hypothetical, does this – do the developments on Ivory Coast mean that – if what Arshad said is true, does that mean the sanctions against Gbagbo and his family will also be lifted?
MR. TONER: That’s a Treasury question. I don’t know, specifically.
QUESTION: All right. And then just back on Stevens for one second. How long do you expect him to stay in Benghazi?
MR. TONER: I think he’s there – I asked that question – unspecified period of time. I don’t have a date certain.
QUESTION: I assume (inaudible) a security escort?
MR. TONER: I believe he does have security there.
QUESTION: Just on the Musa Kusa bit, do you have any insight into whether he was aware of the fact that his – the sanctions might be lifted before he left Libya?
MR. TONER: It’s a fair question. I don’t have any idea.
QUESTION: Was that brought –
MR. TONER: I don’t know if that was communicated to him or not or whether he’d asked about that. I just don’t know. I could try to find out, but I don’t know.
QUESTION: But Mark, doesn’t this kind of smack of – well, I don’t even know how to describe it. I mean, it doesn’t feel that it’s based on law and a straight ahead legal approach to things. It seems very personal. It’s a direct attempt to put the squeeze on people who are around Qadhafi. Does the U.S. open itself up to this kind of manipulative approach?
MR. TONER: Well, I actually – what you just said is not entirely inaccurate in terms of sanctions. They are a powerful tool to apply pressure against individuals to influence their decision-making calculus. That’s precisely what these specific sanctions were trying to do and trying to accomplish. But again, when you speak to the larger issue of whether he’ll be held accountable for possible human rights abuses, for possible implications in the Lockerbie bombing, all of that remains on the table. No one’s taken that away.
QUESTION: Just one more on Stevens. Has he set up an office in Benghazi, or is – what’s he – is he, like, just hanging out in a hotel or a tent or something.
MR. TONER: (Laughter.) I can imagine there’s a certain fluidity to his situation. He just arrived today. It’s a fair question. We’ll try to find out more information for you. I’m not sure – I mean, obviously, he’ll base himself somewhere and have some sort of lodging, but I don’t know for sure. I’ll try to find out more.
QUESTION: Because I guess the point is that he’s longer – that he’s going to be there longer than a day or two.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Also on Libya, there is this theory that one of the sons, Saif, could become – could take over for his father. What does the U.S. think of the idea of passing the baton to his sons?
MR. TONER: We’ve seen multiple possible peace plans floating around in various forms the last few days, including this one.
Our red line, if you will, or our bottom line has been that we no longer consider Colonel Qadhafi to be a legitimate leader of Libya and he needs to step aside. He and his regime need to be held accountable for human rights – alleged human rights abuses. And ultimately, beyond that it’s really a decision for the opposition and for the Libyan people to decide how that democratic transition takes place.
QUESTION: So you have no view on whether he should – whether that’s a good idea --
MR. TONER: I don’t necessarily --
QUESTION: -- a bad idea?
MR. TONER: Again, I don’t necessarily think it’s for us to say beyond what I’ve just said that – how this should go forward.
QUESTION: You didn’t exclude his sons there about them becoming --
MR. TONER: Well, I mean, he’s a member of the regime so he would need to be held accountable for his actions. I mean, that’s --
QUESTION: But you didn’t say he wouldn’t be a replacement leader.
MR. TONER: Look, again, there’s a lot of plans being bandied about. What’s clear is that it’s really up to the Libyan people and the Libyan opposition to decide how this looks. We’ve said all along that Qadhafi is no longer legitimate and needs to step down; there needs to be a democratic transition and a process in place that meets the aspirations of the Libyan people. How that looks is really for them – for the opposition to decide. They’ve called for a ceasefire as well and we’ve called for a ceasefire. But again, these are all – it’s not necessarily, again, for us to impose our will here. It’s for the Libyan people to decide what they want --
QUESTION: So if the people oppose a son taking over the reins --
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- so that’s --
MR. TONER: I think it’s for them to dictate or decide how that looks.
QUESTION: Can I go back to the asset freeze for a moment? Yesterday --
MR. TONER: You’re back there today.
MR. TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: Ali Aujali said yesterday that because people in various communities in the eastern half of Libya voted for members of the Transitional Council – the TNC, let’s just call it that – he said that assuming that they are successful in their needs – in their attempts to get rid of Qadhafi that they are entitled to shepherd the money that the U.S. and other countries have now frozen, and he stressed that the money is needed very urgently in order for them to try to set up a new government. What’s the holdup?
MR. TONER: Well, again, those were – you’re talking about the 32 billion that was seized by the Treasury Department?
QUESTION: Right, right, right.
MR. TONER: I mean, I’d refer you to the Treasury Department for specifics. But we are – we are well aware that there’s an urgency that the Transnational National Council does need funding if it’s to survive, and we’re looking at ways to assist them. I don’t have anything to announce and I don’t know what the status is of that 32 billion, but --
QUESTION: But it really --
MR. TONER: It is being safeguarded. I think we’ve said that. And we’re looking at how to get that, but I don’t know the timeline for that.
QUESTION: Well, it’s probably a little less than 32 billion now, correct, now that Musa Kusa’s accounts are unfrozen? (Laughter.) Right?
MR. TONER: I would – I’m not sure how it’s affected the overall total.
QUESTION: Mark, to go back to the question of different opposition groups, if – the Popular Front for the Liberation of Libya says it will go to the Arab League soon to seek recognition. If they receive recognition from the Arab League and other countries like France have recognized the Transitional Council, what kind of position does that put the U.S. in?
MR. TONER: Well, I think it puts us in a position where we’ve been proceeding cautiously but working to establish contacts not only with the TNC but with a number of opposition leaders as it evolves, as this opposition government evolves in Libya. And we’re going to look at ways to assist them. But again, no decisions have been made in terms of recognition, so we’re still trying to assess how this is all coming together.
QUESTION: There were some reports about training of the opposition. Do you know who’s training the opposition at this point, any efforts?
MR. TONER: What kind of training are you --
QUESTION: Military training.
MR. TONER: I don’t have any details on that. I can try to find out more. I’m not sure – in terms of the United States training opposition?
QUESTION: Well, it would be interesting if they were.
MR. TONER: I’m not aware of that.
QUESTION: But I don’t think so. But any other groups that you’re aware of --
MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of. I can look into it. I don’t have any details.
QUESTION: Okay. On Yemen, one of the fears, of course, was that al-Qaida would try to take advantage of the situation. Does the U.S. now have any indication that they actually are? And has Yemen halted counterterrorism efforts as a fight for their lives now?
MR. TONER: Well, I do think our – we continue to cooperate with Yemen on counterterrorism. We continue to monitor al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula and believe it to be a major threat both to U.S. homeland as well as Yemen stability. We do believe that they’ve taken advantage of the insecurity and poor governance in some regions of Yemen. And we continue with our two-pronged approach which is helping the Yemeni Government tackle its security concerns in the near term, but also trying to assist them in addressing some of the economic and governance issues that frankly are all part of the current turmoil there.
QUESTION: But just to make sure –
QUESTION: Just to make sure, you are not saying – you are not confirming that Yemen is ceasing or halting its counterterrorism efforts?
MR. TONER: No. No, I’m not.
QUESTION: When you say – you said you do believe that they have taken advantage of the instability in some parts of Yemen?
MR. TONER: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: In other words, you mean since the – clashes between – you’re not talking about historically, at the –
MR. TONER: I’m talking about historically, but also what I’m talking about –
QUESTION: Since the protests erupted this year?
MR. TONER: That’s hard for us to assess at this point, but they have certainly done that. That’s part of their pattern.
QUESTION: In the past?
MR. TONER: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Because the – I mean, The New York Times reports – well –
MR. TONER: I know the – I’m aware of the report.
QUESTION: Yeah, all right.
QUESTION: Was the Yemeni ambassador meeting with anyone from State today, the Yemeni ambassador?
MR. TONER: He did, I believe. I think he was meeting with Dan Fried – Ambassador Fried.
QUESTION: Do you know what was –
QUESTION: Is there any indication that other fighters – al-Qaida fighters are going to Yemen to join the fight?
MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of, no. That al-Qaida fighters are going to Yemen to –
QUESTION: From other countries coming into Yemen?
MR. TONER: I mean – no – I don’t have any information on that.
QUESTION: Has the U.S. ambassador talked with the Yemenis about – Saleh’s people about his departure?
MR. TONER: About –
QUESTION: About his eventual departure?
MR. TONER: -- Saleh’s departure? We remain in very close contact with the Yemeni Government, but I’m not going to obviously detail our private conversations. But we do have a regular engagement between Ambassador Feierstein and Saleh – President Saleh. But I’m not going to discuss what they discuss.
QUESTION: And as a general rule, how quickly should the transition occur? I think the White House said yesterday that the transition – there should be a timetable. But how urgent should this be?
MR. TONER: Again, that should be dictated in part by the Yemeni people, the opposition.
QUESTION: You’re not doing like you did with Mubarak in saying his transition should begin now or yesterday?
MR. TONER: Well, I think we’re saying – I think we do believe it should be done quickly. Obviously, there’s ongoing concerns by the protestors and they need to be addressed.
QUESTION: The Yemeni ambassador to the U.S. met with Dan Fried today?
MR. TONER: He did.
QUESTION: So are we to presume – assume from that that despite all that’s going on in Yemen right now and the instability there, that you’re still looking to get Guantanamo detainees put back – taken back to Yemen?
MR. TONER: Well, I think I just said that we continue to consult with them on counterterrorism issues as well as Guantanamo Bay issues, but – detainee issues, rather. But I’ll try to get a better readout for you of that meeting. I think it was a regular meeting. I don’t –
QUESTION: So it wasn’t necessarily Guantanamo?
MR. TONER: I believe it did talk about Guantanamo detainees, but I think it was a regular meeting.
QUESTION: I thought that had been ruled out --
QUESTION: Can I ask you about the possibility of the government shutdown and what the State Department is doing to put together its plans on how it will deal with that?
MR. TONER: It’s a fair question. I think we’re always looking at contingencies and prudent planning. But we remain hard at work and with the expectation that we’ll continue to be hard at work.
QUESTION: You may not have the details. If you do, I’d love to hear them. But if you could put something together for us, maybe for tomorrow’s --
MR. TONER: Sure. I can try to do that. Yeah.
QUESTION: -- on what the plan would be --
MR. TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: -- if that goes in. Thanks.
QUESTION: What happened in ’95? How many people were told to stay home and how many people were called essential?
MR. TONER: I don't have the precise breakdown, but what happened in 1995 won’t necessarily be what we – the plan this time around. I think we’re just kind of assessing our current needs. A lot has changed between – since 1995 and now. And we always contingency plan, and we’re contingency planning in this case, but we’re also confident that we’ll be able to continue our vital work.
QUESTION: Was there any direct impact on services in other countries where ambassador --
MR. TONER: There’s always an impact. There’s always an impact when you’re reducing personnel and – absolutely.
QUESTION: But did you actually have any embassies or consulates actually say, “Don’t bother showing up because we won’t be here”?
MR. TONER: That’s a good question. I don't believe so. I think we always kept American citizen services operational.
QUESTION: Even if you are not being paid?
MR. TONER: I will not. No. (Laughter.) Yes, I do it for the love of briefing. (Laughter.)
Anyway, is that it? Oh, go ahead.
QUESTION: So it’s not about the money?
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Peres. With Peres here today, is the U.S. hoping that with Peres here it’s going to result in a renewed talks between Israel and the Palestinians?
MR. TONER: I think we’re always hopeful that the both sides can get back to the negotiating table. I know that Secretary Clinton and President Peres did discuss the U.S.-Israeli partnership and developments in the region, and they also did discuss the path forward on Arab-Israeli peace. And obviously, he’s over at the White House today, so --
QUESTION: But – sorry.
MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: But is the upheaval in Egypt and Libya and Yemen and all these other Arab states – does it mean that this Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to Mideast stability now, or is it back on the backburner?
MR. TONER: It’s always central to Mideast stability.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) a clearer answer to Michel’s question from yesterday about the report on the Lebanese – the military assistance?
MR. TONER: Yes. Our assistance hasn’t stopped, and our training on the ground continues, and no decisions have been made. I mean, we’re – to your specific point about a review, we are reviewing our assistance program, but no decisions have been made.
QUESTION: So the story that appeared is just flat-out wrong? It said that the U.S. had quietly stopped shipments to – quietly stopped its military assistance, including shipments of items to --
MR. TONER: Again, I can’t speak to the – any possible delays in shipments. What I can tell you is that there’s been no decision to stop our assistance program.
QUESTION: Back to Arab-Israeli, there was reports, I guess, that their upcoming Quartet meeting with their – would be a proposal from the British to put forward a plan based on the 1967 alliance. Does the U.S., as a participant in the Quartet, have any position on that?
MR. TONER: Eli, I’ll have to check, but I think we’re welcoming – we’re open to any possible plans to break the deadlock. But I’ll have to look into that plan. I don't have specific details in front me.
QUESTION: Hasn’t it been the U.S. position --
MR. TONER: It’s always been – I mean, yeah.
QUESTION: -- that the border would be based on --
MR. TONER: That an eventual --
QUESTION: -- the ’67 borders with swaps?
MR. TONER: With swaps. Yes. With agreed swaps.
QUESTION: When was – and that’s been policy for how --
MR. TONER: Many, many years.
QUESTION: All right. Thank you.
QUESTION: Any reaction to the Israeli decision to build 942 new houses in East Jerusalem?
MR. TONER: 942, 950, but we’re deeply concerned about the announcement of the approval for these units. As we’ve said, we believe that through good faith, direct negotiations, the parties should mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties, and ultimately, a lack of resolution to this conflict harms Israel, harms the Palestinians, and harms the interest of the United States and the international community.
QUESTION: Can you say whether or not that came up at the meeting with President Peres yesterday?
MR. TONER: I cannot. It was a – they – it was a – there were no outsiders.
QUESTION: There were a lot of people in there.
MR. TONER: It was a 1+1 as we say.
QUESTION: There were a lot of people in that room. I think they met – at least the beginning
MR. TONER: No, they met one on one.