1:23 p.m. EDT
MR. TONER: Good afternoon everyone. Welcome to the Department of State. Just a couple of things for you at the top and then we’ll take your questions. As you know, Secretary met earlier this morning with Jordanian Foreign Minister Judeh.
And then this afternoon, about an hour and a half, Secretary Clinton and the Angolan Minister of External Relations Asuncao Afonso dos Anjos will inaugurate the U.S.-Angola Strategic Partnership Dialogue. And this is a collaborative forum to build partnerships for tangible and measurable progress on issues critical to our shared future. The signing of this agreement solidifies the commitment of both countries to not only further strengthen our bilateral relationship, but also our willingness to broaden the scope.
Just a brief update on the travel of Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon; he’s in Brussels today and he’s participating in the U.S.-EU political directors meeting. This is a semi-annual dialogue between the U.S. and the EU. We expect a wide-ranging discussion on a host of issues of shared mutual concern including Iran, Middle East peace, and Afghanistan.
And tomorrow, Dr. Rajiv Shah, the Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development will travel to Port au Prince, Haiti with Haiti Task Team Coordinator Paul Weisenfeld to see relief and recovery projects, speak with civil society members, and review the progress on USAID’s efforts in Haiti. Dr. Shah and Mr. Weisenfeld -- excuse me – will conduct meetings with U.S. Government, Haitian, UN, and NGO leaders. That’s all I have. I’ll take your questions.
QUESTION: Well, I guess this is as good a time as any to have you start referring stuff to the Justice Department. So -- (laughter) -- I’ll do that now. What is the State Department’s role in the spy swap?
MR. TONER: Well, it’s an ongoing legal matter and really the Department of Justice has the lead on this. So I would have to refer you to anything dealing with the case to the Department of Justice.
QUESTION: I’m asking what the State Department’s role is.
MR. TONER: Well, if you’re asking the broader question of our relations with Russia, I can answer that. The diplomatic relations with Russia remain on a positive track and we’re in close consultation. We’ve reset on many issues and a very constructive basis working together as evidenced by President Medvedev’s visit here. But in terms of – in what concerns the spy case, I just have to refer you to the Justice Department.
QUESTION: The State Department hasn’t been involved in any kind of negotiation with the Russians over this?
MR. TONER: I have nothing for you.
QUESTION: Can you talk about yesterday’s meeting between Under Secretary Burns and the Russian Ambassador here and whether they discussed the spies?
MR. TONER: They discussed the spy case. I think I said that yesterday. I think it did come up. But the meeting was a regular meeting and it really was focused on follow-up from President Medvedev’s visit here two weeks ago.
QUESTION: Why was Phil Gordon subbed in for Burns in the P-5+1 meeting? I mean, it sounds -- it looks from the outside as though Burns was recalled specifically to talk to the Ambassador about this issue.
MR. TONER: Right, that was a confusion over scheduling. Under Secretary Burns had always intended to be back here in Washington, DC and not stay on in Europe.
QUESTION: Do we know how many people are being held in Russia on charges of spying for the United States?
MR. TONER: On charges of spying? I do not have that figure, Jill. I can –
QUESTION: Is that something you could get?
MR. TONER: I can take that question, yeah.
QUESTION: All right. Thank you. And also –
MR. TONER: Go ahead. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: -- just on Matt’s question, in previous cases, because there have been spy swaps for years, what has been the role of the State Department in any type of spy swaps?
MR. TONER: Well, it’s a good question. I don’t – I didn’t do an historical perspective on it. I would just say that we continue to work on a diplomatic level. I don’t want to talk too much about intelligence matters. But certainly, it’s a matter of discussion with the Russians. We’ve said that as much that we have talked to them about the spy case. But I’m not going to get into any details about an alleged prisoner swap. And I’ll just refer you to the Justice Department.
QUESTION: Just one more on this.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Some of the people – the alleged Russian spies have children. And presumably, these are American citizens, these children, if they were born here. How are they handled, let’s say theoretically, if they were going to be released back to the – the spies released back to Russia? What would happen legally to children in that case? Because that is a State Department –
MR. TONER: I mean, right. You are right. I’m not sure whether they’re American – well, they are American citizens. They were born here. If they were born here, they’re American citizens. What happens to them right now? I imagine they’re being handled by local authorities. Beyond that, I don’t want to speculate.
QUESTION: Mark, has Igor Sutyagin reached Vienna?
MR. TONER: Nothing for you on that.
QUESTION: Okay, but I mean, presumably, if he has, he’s – the State Department is sort of working with his transfer here. So I mean, there’s been so many reports, it would just be nice to sort of set the record straight and not have all these rumors swirling around on –
MR. TONER: I understand there’s been a lot of rumors. I just have nothing for you. I’ll have to refer you to the Justice Department.
QUESTION: But they wouldn’t be the ones dealing with the guy in Vienna, right?
MR. TONER: I have nothing for you on his travel to Vienna or elsewhere.
QUESTION: And is the idea that he would be swapped for Chapman or he would be swapped for all ten of these guys?
MR. TONER: Again, I have nothing for you on that. So I have to refer you to what is an ongoing legal process to the Department of Justice.
QUESTION: One more. Are there any Americans held in Russia on espionage charges?
MR. TONER: Good question. We can take it.
QUESTION: Any info on consular access for the accused? Have they been granted access? Do you know when?
MR. TONER: I think I addressed this the other day.
QUESTION: Because it was just a (inaudible).
MR. TONER: Yeah, but that’s okay. I think we said something along the lines that they had been– those who had asked for it had been granted access. I don’t have it in front of me right now.
MR. TONER: I think Matt asked a cogent question about whether they were naturalized and whether they actually – consular access applied to them. But I believe some of them had been granted consular access.
QUESTION: But you don’t know –
MR. TONER: You’re talking about the alleged –
QUESTION: I’m sorry, yeah.
MR. TONER: You’re talking about the alleged spies, yeah.
QUESTION: But you don’t know exactly when.
MR. TONER: I’ll – I can check with that – check on that.
QUESTION: Would you take the question in terms of the children, those who were born here?
MR. TONER: I – well, what’s the question?
QUESTION: Well, the following question, whether or not the State Department has any role and, if so, what it is in how they are treated vis-à-vis adults who are Russian citizens.
MR. TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: If they’re born here and American citizens, do they go with the parents? Do they have a choice?
MR. TONER: If they go with the parents is speculative –
QUESTION: I’m saying if they’re minor children, what is the legal situation irrespective of the specifics of this case? What would be the legal –
MR. TONER: I can take the question on what their legal status is and what our role is in dealing with them. That’s fair.
QUESTION: I need –
MR. TONER: Yeah, Matt.
QUESTION: I just need something clarified here. You’re saying that this is an ongoing legal matter. Everything has to be referred to the Department of Justice. But what is the – can you explain what the legal implications are of this guy who’s allegedly in Vienna? How does that relate to an ongoing legal matter? Because if it does relate to an ongoing legal matter and you refer us to the Department of Justice, then you’re, in essence, confirming the fact that there is a spy swap going on.
MR. TONER: No, I’m not. And, I mean --
QUESTION: Well, then –
MR. TONER: -- you can try the Russian authorities. He’s under --
QUESTION: Your Embassy in Vienna has something to do with – does the Embassy in Vienna have something to do with –
MR. TONER: I have nothing for you on that. I mean, if you have questions about his whereabouts, check with the Russian authorities.
QUESTION: Well, you understand, though, that if you refer us to the Department of Justice because it’s an ongoing legal matter, then – when it involves this Russian guy who is allegedly now in Vienna –
MR. TONER: That’s your inference, not mine. I mean --
QUESTION: Well --
QUESTION: Mark, does –
MR. TONER: Lalit -- I’m sorry, Mary Beth --
QUESTION: Either you’re making a link between him and the case.
MR. TONER: I don’t think I am.
QUESTION: I mean, does the U.S. consider this Igor Sutyagin a spy for the U.S. or does the U.S. deny that he was a spy?
MR. TONER: We deny that he’s a spy.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
MR. TONER: Lalit.
QUESTION: On Sri Lanka. A Sri Lankan minister today went on an indefinite hunger strike outside the UN office, and the Secretary General has also recalled his UN resident coordinator from Sri Lanka for consultations. What do you make of the situation there?
MR. TONER: Is this all in relation to the UN --
MR. TONER: -- group?
MR. TONER: Well, look, I’ve stated our policy on this many times. We feel like it’s in Sri Lanka’s best interest to accept these people and their expert advice and that’s offered in good faith. So, I mean, there’s a specific – what’s going on in Sri Lanka right now, I can’t really speak to that. But in terms of the UN group, we support their involvement.
QUESTION: Isn’t Sri Lanka and the UN heading towards confrontation in view of the series of protests that’s going on in Sri Lanka against the UN and the Secretary General recalling his –
MR. TONER: I mean, that’s a matter for the UN and Sri Lanka. But for the U.S. part, we think that it’s an opportunity for Sri Lanka to hold an accountable process and to take advantage again of this experts group.
Okay, go ahead.
QUESTION: On a different topic, on Cuba.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: The Secretary spoke about this a bit earlier but a couple of follow ups. Would this be an incident that would start leading the United States to reconsider the embargo, to start considering a lifting of the embargo?
MR. TONER: Well, I think the Secretary welcomed it as a positive or a constructive sign. Really, at the point we’re at now, is we’ve got the announcement by the Catholic Archbishop of Havana, and that’s pertaining to five political prisoners that will be released shortly and that others will be released in the coming months. But we’re working to confirm right now whether any prisoners have actually been released. So I don’t want to get out ahead of where we’re at.
MR. TONER: I think it’s – again, I don’t want to speculate on what it might lead to, but I think we view it – as the Secretary said as much, as a welcome and positive sign.
QUESTION: And in terms of their --
MR. TONER: Their development.
QUESTION: In terms of the the actual prisoners, once they’re released, Spain is offering to take them. Could the U.S. consider taking some of them?
MR. TONER: Well, we think that those released should be free to decide whether to remain in Cuba and those who do leave should be able to return to their country. But we support efforts to secure the release of prisoners of conscience from Cuban jails and provide asylum for those who seek it and are eligible. So, I think we would welcome --
QUESTION: So they would be welcome in the U.S.?
MR. TONER: Absolutely.
QUESTION: Now, this has been negotiated by the Cardinal Ortega and by the – some Spanish diplomats. Was the United States aware of these negotiations at the time or just was surprised as everyone else yesterday?
MR. TONER: We were aware.
QUESTION: You were aware. Did you participate in those negotiations at all?
MR. TONER: I’m not sure what level of participation we had. We were aware of the progress. And again, we welcome --
QUESTION: Did you seek –
MR. TONER: Once we actually have the prisoners transferred.
MR. TONER: It’s a good question. That specific question, I can check on for you. I mean, obviously, we remain very focused on the welfare of Alan Gross. We last visited him on June 29th. And we’re going to continue using every diplomatic channel available to remind them this is a matter of grave importance to us, and we continue to call on his immediate release. I don’t know that --
QUESTION: So you don’t know if –
MR. TONER: I don’t know if the --
QUESTION: -- Spanish foreign minister would be a diplomatic channel that you could be using in this case?
MR. TONER: Yeah, I’ll take the question. It’s a legitimate question.
QUESTION: How is Mr. Gross’s health?
MR. TONER: Don’t know – if we have a Privacy Act waiver, I can answer that. If we can, I’ll get an answer for you.
QUESTION: On the same issue of Alan Gross, can – the way you answered the previous questions, I’m led to believe, at least, it’s not been raised. Was that incorrect? Did I draw the wrong –
MR. TONER: It’s not been raised in the context of --
QUESTION: Within the context of this deal?
MR. TONER: Again, I totally need to check.
QUESTION: Well, okay.
MR. TONER: I imagine we would, because we seek every diplomatic channel and every opportunity, but I’ll check on it.
QUESTION: On a different –
MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Sure. Go ahead.
MR. TONER: (Inaudible) Cuba, yeah.
QUESTION: On Cuba, yeah. I just want to make sure I understand where you’re getting the information. In other words, are you getting it from the church, from Spain, from Cuba directly? Because you’re indicating five will be released shortly, but you’re working on confirming whether they’re actually released. Is that the case?
MR. TONER: Right. Well, we have our Interests Section there. I think we would – I mean, obviously, this is being spearheaded by the Catholic archbishop of Havana. They’re the ones who issued the statement. We’re looking to them as well as the Cuban Government. And I know that the Secretary spoke with Moratinos last night, and so I would say all three. But we’re just looking to confirm it. I mean, right now, we’ve got no confirmation.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan, today ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan held their sixth round of talks on the transit trade agreement, but they haven’t reached any agreement so far. You know the (inaudible) Secretary of State Clinton, the MOU was signed last year that they would conclude this agreement by December 2009, but it hasn’t been concluded. What’s the U.S. role in it? And aren’t you having an influence on these two countries to finalize the --
MR. TONER: This is – I’m sorry, what agreement is it?
QUESTION: Transit trade agreement –
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which was (inaudible) to be signed before December 2009, but it hasn’t been signed yet.
MR. TONER: I mean, I’m not aware of what any roadblocks exist. Obviously, it’s a positive thing whenever Afghanistan and Pakistan work together constructively on any kind of agreement. We obviously support that process, and also any agreement that would bring increased trade and economic benefit to both countries, so – is really a win-win. I don’t know what impediments remain, though. I can’t give you a timeline on when it might be reached.
QUESTION: And also, there was a report in Afghanistan today which said that corruption in Afghanistan has doubled since 2007.
MR. TONER: I’m sorry, report in Pakistan that said corruption in Afghanistan --
QUESTION: No, report in Afghanistan --
MR. TONER: Sorry, okay.
QUESTION: -- which says that corruption in Afghanistan has doubled since 2007. Is it an issue of concern to you? Do you think the Government of Afghanistan is working on this?
MR. TONER: Yes, corruption is an issue of concern for us in Afghanistan. President Karzai’s spoken to it. We remain focused on it as well and are going to continue to work with the Afghan Government to ensure that processes are transparent and accountable.
Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: I know this issue’s been addressed previously, but Amnesty International is saying that the stoning execution in Iran is imminent, that it will imminently take place. Have there been any developments on this from the U.S. front? Has the U.S. made any appeals? Obviously, there are no diplomatic relations, but has the U.S. – does the U.S. have anything more to say on this case?
MR. TONER: Well, we’re deeply troubled by press reports of the planned execution by Iranian authorities of Ms. Ashitiani by stoning. Stoning, as a means of execution, is tantamount to torture. It’s barbaric and an abhorrent act. The recent United States General – United Nations General Assembly resolution on the situation of human rights in Iran called specifically on Iranian authorities to end the practice of stoning. We call on the Iranian authorities to live up to their due process commitments under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. And we condemn in the strongest terms of the use of the practice of stoning anywhere it occurs as a form of legalized death by torture.
Go ahead, Courtney.
QUESTION: Actually mine is the same question. But the British foreign minister has been – was a little bit stronger than that in his condemnation of this and beyond just the idea that it would be an execution by stoning, but the fact that this woman is being held at all for adultery. I mean, is there – has the U.S. made any kind of – I know there’s not strong diplomatic ties between Iran, but has the U.S. made any kind of more assertive effort to stop this or work through intermediaries to --
MR. TONER: Well, again, I mean, I think the language I just used was pretty strong in condemning the practice of stoning. I probably would need to get back to you on what, if any, diplomatic channels we’ve been pursuing. But obviously, we’re taking a strong public stance against it as a barbaric practice.
Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: New topic.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Israeli officials were saying yesterday that they’ve come to an agreement with the U.S. on nuclear energy. I was wondering if you could give us a few details about that. What exactly have they agreed to do?
MR. TONER: There’s no agreement between the United States and Israel to pursue a nuclear cooperation agreement. There was no discussion of this issue between the President and prime minister.
QUESTION: Just – that – so, what –
MR. TONER: I mean, it’s such a –
QUESTION: It’s fiction?
MR. TONER: Well, you’ll have to ask the Israelis. All technical exchanges between the U.S. and Israel in the nuclear field are limited to non-proliferation, basic energy sciences. And that’s – that’s got cooperation permitted under U.S. law and policy. So –
Sorry, Sean in the back.
QUESTION: Do you have anything new on the U.S. geologist in China?
MR. TONER: Beyond what we said the other day, I don’t have any updates on it.
QUESTION: Back to Iran. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator apparently has sent a letter to Catherine Ashton suggesting that talks could resume in September if the Western powers agree to take up certain issues, including committed to the rationale of dialogue and also to discussing what they’re calling Israel’s nuclear program. First thing, are you aware that they’ve received this letter in response to hers – to Iran? And secondly, does the U.S. have any position on whether these conditions or any conditions can be attached to restarting talks?
MR. TONER: Were you here Tuesday? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Did I miss that day?
MR. TONER: (Laughter.) That’s okay.
QUESTION: I thought you asked the question. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Not about the letter. (Laughter.)
MR. TONER: I think we’re still evaluating the letter. We remain committed to engaging Iran. It’s part of the two-track policy, but we’re going to study the letter in detail before responding.
QUESTION: Another question, but you may have to take this. Bobby Fisher –
MR. TONER: I do that a lot.
QUESTION: Yeah, I know –
QUESTION: Still dead.
QUESTION: Still dead. But the question is – was he a U.S. citizen at his death and –
MR. TONER: You got me. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: -- let me see what else. This is not my question. When was his U.S. citizenship officially revoked?
MR. TONER: When was his U.S. citizenship officially --
QUESTION: Do you have – is it something you could take --
MR. TONER: I’ll take it, sure.
QUESTION: -- on that?
MR. TONER: I can look at the –
QUESTION: (Inaudible) privacy issue act.
MR. TONER: No, you’re right. Well noted.
QUESTION: Is Under Secretary Burns in town today? Is he holding any more meetings or telephone –
MR. TONER: He is in town. I’m not aware that he’s holding any meetings with the Russians.
QUESTION: -- conversations with the Russians?
MR. TONER: But he is here.
QUESTION: Any phone calls? I mean, normally, you –
MR. TONER: He took part in that. Well, I took part in the Secretary’s meeting with the Jordanian Foreign Minister, but I don’t know that he’s making – refer – I think you’re referring to contacts with the Russians. No, not that I’m aware of.
QUESTION: It might be a dumb question, but is it a special case for Cuba or U.S as a policy is taking the statements from the church leaders as official statements --
MR. TONER: No, I think we said – I think I said we tentatively view it as a positive development, and I don’t want to get out – too out in front. We actually want to see the prisoners released.
QUESTION: I’m talking about the statement from a church leader on which the U.S. reacts. So, there is --
MR. TONER: I’m sorry. You’re referring to the archbishop of Havana --
MR. TONER: -- about the political prisoners?
MR. TONER: And you’re – the question --
QUESTION: The question is –
MR. TONER: Is whether we would –
QUESTION: In the absence of a diplomatic statement, you are taking a church statement.
MR. TONER: Well, the – I mean, the Catholic Church is a diplomatic entity. So –
QUESTION: Okay. And another one on North Korea. Do you have any updates on the change of leadership? Because yesterday night I got some information about that.
MR. TONER: Leadership in North Korea?
QUESTION: In North Korea. The transition that is going on.
MR. TONER: I have nothing for you.
QUESTION: One (inaudible). Sorry.
MR. TONER: That’s okay.
QUESTION: The Israeli military, they released some footage – what they said is Hezbollah stock piling weapons in the south of Lebanon in villages and the like. Is the U.S. aware of these – is it aware of this footage? Are there concerns about Hezbollah in light of this?
MR. TONER: First I’ve heard of it.
MR. TONER: Can look into it.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:44 p.m.)
DPB # 110
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