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 May 26, 2011
MR. TONER: Good afternoon. There was a bet in the Press Office I wouldn't get out here before 2 o'clock, so I get to split the winnings, I guess. Welcome to the State Department. Happy Thursday.
I just wanted to open up by briefly drawing from the Secretary’s statement on the arrest of Ratko Mladic. The United States welcomes the arrest of Ratko Mladic by Serbian security services earlier today. We commend President Tadic, the Government of Serbia, and security services and all those who have labored for years to bring Mladic to justice. We look forward to his early as possible transfer to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague so that justice may finally be served. This is a great day for justice in the international system. Mladic’s arrest serves as a statement to those around the world who would break the law and target innocent civilians. International justice works; if you commit crime, you won’t escape judgment and you will not go free.
Also before taking your questions, I did want to give an update --
QUESTION: Isn’t that from the Baretta theme song? (Laughter.)
MR. TONER: Which is a great theme song, by the way, that I will not sing. (Laughter.)
Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell is hosting senior officials from the 10 ASEAN member countries and the ASEAN Secretariat – and for those of you who – just to spell out, that’s the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – for the 24th ASEAN-U.S. Dialogue and the Lower Mekong Initiative. Senior officials are meeting at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington today, and as well as yesterday I think those meetings began.
Yesterday, those senior officials met with Department of Defense Under Secretary Michele Flournoy and Department of Treasury Under Secretary Brainard. They also met with leaders from the Hill as well as U.S.-ASEAN Business Council and representatives from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Today, those senior officials will also meet with folks from the National Security Staff, and this dialogue provides a regular opportunity to review policy topics of mutual interest as well as progress for areas of – on areas for cooperation, to include political and security issues, economic cooperation, and socio-cultural development. The dialogue is a reflection of our sustained and important relationship with ASEAN.
With that, I will take your questions.
QUESTION: Can you update us on the situation in Yemen, more specifically in Sanaa, and the status of the Embassy there?
MR. TONER: Well, as you know, the Embassy has moved to ordered departure status, which means that the Department of State has taken the step to order all Embassy nonemergency personnel to depart Yemen. Obviously, our paramount concern in any situation like this is the security and personnel of all U.S. citizens, and we share the – with Embassy staff the responsibility for ensuring the security of members of the entire official U.S. community in Yemen.
Obviously, it’s a very fluid situation. The Secretary talked a little bit about it earlier. There’s ongoing clashes in Sanaa. There’s also fighting in and around the airport, but our understanding is that the airport does remain open and international flights do remain available. So our message to American citizens in Yemen is to seek a way out via the airport. There are flights available. And for those planning to travel to Yemen, we’d ask them to defer travel.
QUESTION: Do you know how many Americans are registered or are believed to – presumably, some of them would have left a while ago.
MR. TONER: I’ve been trying to get a hard figure for you. It’s very hard to give you a solid estimate. It’s partly hard because people don’t register at the Embassy. As you know, that’s often a challenge in trying to guesstimate how many American citizens may actually reside in a given country. My understanding is obviously in the thousands, but beyond that --
QUESTION: It’s in the thousands? You don’t have any idea how many people are actually registered, whether they are currently there or not?
MR. TONER: I don’t have a solid figure on that. I don’t think it’s even an accurate assessment of how many would be in the country.
QUESTION: Well, all right. Because, I mean, aside from the people – the American citizens who work at the Embassy --
MR. TONER: I’ll see if I can get that figure for you who actually registered.
QUESTION: We’re aware of one --
MR. TONER: But I hate to – but this often becomes --
QUESTION: -- specific American who is --
MR. TONER: I hate to put out a figure that’s inaccurate and then be chasing that figure in the days to come, so --
QUESTION: Do you expect Mr. al-Awklaki to take your travel advice?
MR. TONER: Yeah. We have a special flight for him.
QUESTION: Are you discussing with any allies or is the U.S. discussing what might be done to prevent a humanitarian crisis there? I mean, it looks like it’s very, very close to a civil war there now.
MR. TONER: Well, you’re right, Kim; it’s a very serious situation. All this, we feel, could be resolved by President Saleh simply signing the agreement that the GCC put in front of him, the very agreement that he pledged that he would sign. It really charts a way forward out of this violence towards a democratic transition there, so we would urge him to do that. But of course, we’re looking at all possible scenarios.
QUESTION: Are you closer to taking any steps that would encourage him to leave?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to really discuss what options we may be looking at. Right now, our focus is on trying to convince him to live up to the pledges he’s made.
QUESTION: Can you explain two things about the actual notice, the warning that went out? One, it said – the first thing it said was certain nonessential or nonemergency. What does that mean?
MR. TONER: Certain – I’m sorry? Repeat the --
QUESTION: If you read the warning, the first – it says that certain nonemergency personnel have been ordered to leave.
MR. TONER: Well, again, I – my best guesstimate of what that would be about would be to say that they’re talking about personnel – it’s every decision – it’s a decision of every mission to decide which personnel are necessary and which personnel are not necessary, so that gives them some leeway to decide which are essential, so-called essential personnel, and which aren’t.
QUESTION: All right. And the other thing is the timing of this. At 9 o'clock at night, which would have been about 4 o'clock in the morning? Was this released to have the least impact possible from either place?
MR. TONER: Not at all. Not at all. This is an announcement that works its way through the system and through the bureaucracy to make sure that everything is prepared and ready for the announcement. And that’s what – certainly, the urgency of the situation is what dictates the pace to some extent, but it’s also a matter of making sure that the travel order – that the travel warning and everything is ready to be put out.
Go ahead. I apologize. Actually, CNN and then --
QUESTION: Apart from the call that John Brennan --
MR. TONER: I forgot.
QUESTION: No problem. Apart from the calls that John Brennan had with President Saleh on Sunday and the statement the President made yesterday, are there daily contacts with President Saleh through the auspices of the U.S. Government on the ground there?
MR. TONER: Right. I’m not sure about today, but I know that Ambassador Feierstein was – has been in frequent contact with the president. Obviously, he was with the president on Sunday when the incident at the UAE ambassador’s residence took place. And so we’re very much involved in this process, although it’s been, frankly, a Gulf Cooperation Council lead on this, and we believe and have been supportive of their lead role in this. But we remain in contact with them. I don’t know – I can’t speak to whether he’s talked to Saleh or – President Saleh or any of his close associates today, though.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Mark, new subject. Mark, so much has been said and written about Usama bin Ladin’s death and aftermath and all that with Pakistan’s hand and all that hiding him there, now including the Defense of – Defense Secretary at the American Enterprise Institute and also yesterday Admiral Mullen was speaking at the Wilson Center. And now, General Musharraf is blasting the United States in a CNN interview. And my question is: Do you take him seriously now? What’s different then and now?
MR. TONER: Look, I haven’t, frankly, seen the interview. No disrespect to CNN, but I haven’t seen the transcript so I have no idea, in fact, what he said.
QUESTION: But --
MR. TONER: I mean, we have been through a period of challenges with our – in our relationship with Pakistan, but everyone from the President on down in this government has been adamant that this is a strategic relationship that is – that works, that has had success, that is in both ours and Pakistan’s interest. And so we’re going to work through these challenges and move forward.
QUESTION: And related, just one more – do you have any comments about this Headley and Rana trial going on in Chicago?
MR. TONER: I really don’t. I don't have any comment on it because it’s an ongoing legal trials – or it’s an ongoing trial --
QUESTION: But, Mark --
MR. TONER: -- so I can’t speak to any of the --
QUESTION: But Mark, so far, what Headley has said is that ISI – he’s blaming --
MR. TONER: I’m aware of a lot of the testimony that’s come out in the press on this, but again, I’m limited to what I can say up here regarding testimony.
QUESTION: Are you getting – finally – any phone calls from the Indian side or Pakistani side in this connection or as – from the Indian Government or Pakistan Government or (inaudible)?
MR. TONER: I mean, we’ve been closely cooperating with the Indians on counterterrorism, certainly involving Mumbai and the Mumbai attacks, but more on a broader level, too. And those counterterrorism – that counterterrorism cooperation is extremely beneficial.
Go ahead, Tejinder.
QUESTION: Two serious questions on Pakistan. First one is U.S. --
MR. TONER: I don't want any facetious questions on Pakistan. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: U.S. military presence in Pakistan is being scaled down at the behest of Pakistan military. What is the latest --
MR. TONER: Sure. I’ve seen those reports. As you know, our security assistance is provided in coordination with and at the request of the Pakistani Government and the Pakistani military. And the size of that presence is, in part, a function of the amount and type of training and equipping required to meet the Pakistani military’s requests and requirements. My understanding – and this is – I believe the Pentagon has addressed this, but that there are more than 200, close to 300, military personnel that had been in Pakistan for this training and equipping program. We’ve been recently notified that the Pakistani Government would like to reduce that footprint, and our understanding is that those – that that footprint has been reduced to about 200. But again, a lot of that is – these numbers fluctuate between that 200 and 300 number, so – but our understanding is that the Pakistani Government has said they’d like to reduce the footprint and certainly --
QUESTION: But how much of it was --
MR. TONER: -- because, as I said previously, because they’re there at the invitation of the Pakistani Government and are certainly -- will do their best to accommodate their wishes.
QUESTION: Is it due to the – after the Usama bin Ladin --
MR. TONER: I honestly don’t know. I wouldn’t make, necessarily, that relation.
QUESTION: There’s also been some suggestion that the Pakistanis are also looking to reduce the number of civilian visas who are issued to aid contractors or whatever. And can you confirm that? I know that there was some visa disputes in the past.
MR. TONER: I can’t confirm that. I’ll certainly ask, but – I mean, in my discussions, my understanding, that we’ve not received any formal request to reduce those numbers.
QUESTION: And the second question is --
MR. TONER: That’s different (inaudible) --
QUESTION: May I just follow --
QUESTION: Pakistan --
MR. TONER: Let Tejinder finish and --
QUESTION: Just --
QUESTION: Pakistan grants CIA permission to search bin Ladin compound – can you confirm that?
MR. TONER: No.
QUESTION: I just wanted to follow an earlier question on U.S., Pakistan military. Also WikiLeaks, if you have seen reports in the last few days, they are saying that whatever money you’ve been spending on bringing Pakistani journalists to train in the U.S, they’ve been preaching, actually, to the officials back home in Pakistan anti-U.S.
MR. TONER: I’m not going to comment on the substance of those cables. Our exchange programs are above board and are reputable and are a wonderful opportunity for us to expose, for example, these journalists but other professions to the American system and how, for example in this case, journalism works. But I’m not going to speak to the contents of a Wiki cable.
QUESTION: Are you aware of this alleged outreach – I guess it’s not alleged – by the Libyan prime minister?
MR. TONER: Oh, yeah.
QUESTION: He’s called for a ceasefire. Does this change anything?
MR. TONER: Well, to answer your last question first, it really doesn’t change anything. We’ve seen press reports that other foreign governments have received this supposed letter from the Qadhafi regime. We, however, have not received any letter. And the bottom line, as I just alluded to, is that our core principles haven’t changed. Qadhafi needs to step down from power. He’s lost legitimacy as a leader, and he needs to step aside so that a peaceful democratic transition can take place.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: What is the U.S. take on the safety of Pakistani nuclear arsenal, because NATO secretary general has expressed his fears? And last week, Senator McCain told me in an interview that he’s sure that they are safe, but he’s clarified that his information is based on unclassified documents, so he’s not very sure.
MR. TONER: Well, I certainly wouldn’t speak to any classified documents from here. And I would just say that our understanding is that they’re – they are safeguarded.
QUESTION: No. On what basis you are saying that they are safe?
MR. TONER: Again, I’m just not going to get into any possible classified material. But we’re – we work closely with the Pakistani Government to – and we’re confident that they’re safe.
QUESTION: No. But looking at this – the series of attacks on the military sites of Pakistan, and there is elements of inside element work. So is it not a case of --
MR. TONER: No, Tejinder. Of course, the safeguard and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are of concern. But it’s an issue that we discuss with the Pakistani Government and we’re sure that they’re under safeguard.
QUESTION: May I have one on Cambodia, please? Are Cambodian people ever going to get justice? Over two million Cambodians were killed under the dictatorship of Khmer Rouge. And yesterday, Asia Society had a documentary, “Enemies of the People,” and the people are still waiting and asking the United States and international community to bring him to justice.
MR. TONER: To bring Pol Pot? Who are you talking about?
QUESTION: Khmer Rouge.
MR. TONER: Who? No, the Khmer Rouge. I thought you said him.
QUESTION: No, no.
MR. TONER: Oh, sorry, you’ve stumped me. I’m not aware – I’m not up to speed on where those efforts may be.
QUESTION: Well, the trial is going inside Cambodia, but it’s not moving anywhere without --
MR. TONER: I’ll see what I can find, Goyal, okay?
QUESTION: -- U.S. help. Thank you.
QUESTION: Do you have any thoughts at all on the Tunisian electoral commission’s desire to push back elections? They were supposed to be held in July.
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: And they’re saying now that they want to have them in October, a three-month delay. Do you have any concerns or problem with that?
MR. TONER: I mean, I think we’re sympathetic with the challenges that they face trying to move towards democratic elections in such a short period after such a long time of autocratic rule. That said, too long a delay would be of concern. But I think we’re, again, supportive and sympathetic to the realities that they face.
QUESTION: But three months, is that too long? What would be too long a delay?
MR. TONER: I don’t want to put a timeline on it, but I think that our feeling is that if they need more time to ensure free and fair and transparent elections that that’s okay.
QUESTION: Yeah. To Afghanistan, the Guardian has an article today quoting former British ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles who criticized General Petraeus and said that he should be ashamed of himself for boasting about a high number of insurgent commanders killed and says that violence is actually up and it’s – and Petraeus’s strategy is making it harder for a political settlement. Pretty – very strong comments from a former ambassador.
MR. TONER: I’m not going to speak to his comments directly. I just would say that it’s been common understanding and doctrine, frankly, for many years that there’s no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. It’s certainly – we’re going to take the fight to the Taliban, but at the same time, we need to extend the governance in Pak – in Afghanistan rather – and provide more security so that economic stability – or political stability and economic promise or prosperity can take root. That’s the real thrust of our engagement there.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I just want to follow up one more on Yemen. The longer Saleh stays there and in power, is there any talk of in the future going for some sort of resolution at the United Nations or sanctions regime to apply more pressure to get him to sign the GCC agreement?
MR. TONER: I mean, I think it’s a fair question. I don't want to get out ahead of the process right now. I mean, I think our focus right now is that the Gulf Cooperation Council has come up with an agreement, it’s a good one, it provides – it charts a way forward. The opposition has signed on to it, Saleh said he did – he would. He balked. We need to get him to reconsider that and to live up to his commitments.
QUESTION: Any updates on Ambassador Lyman’s trip to Sudan? Do you know if he’s met anybody out there?
MR. TONER: Yeah. I don't believe he’s left yet. I think he’s --
QUESTION: Oh, really?
MR. TONER: My understanding is that he leaves Saturday for Doha for the Darfur peace talks, and then he’ll go on to Khartoum and Juba.
MR. TONER: But we’ll have more on that, I think, tomorrow, on his trip.
QUESTION: Okay. Do you know if there’s been any communication from anyone in this building, like Johnnie Carson or anybody else, with senior people in South Sudan or Khartoum?
MR. TONER: I don’t. I’ll have to check on that.
QUESTION: Thank you.