1:37 p.m. EDT
MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon and welcome to the Department of State. To begin our briefing, we thought we would just bring back the briefing team of Mark Ward, the Acting Director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, and Dan Feldman, our Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. We obviously are closely monitoring what is an unfolding and ongoing disaster in Pakistan. The weather is again troublesome and the situation there is going to get worse before it gets better. And we are going to announce an additional $20 million in assistance to Pakistan.
With the details on that, we’ll turn it over to Mark and then both he and Dan will – can briefly answer any additional questions you have about the current situation on the ground.
MR. WARD: P.J., thanks very much. Good afternoon, everyone. As P.J. said, today, we’re announcing an additional $20 million in humanitarian assistance from the United States for the flood affected citizens of Pakistan, bringing our contribution to date, in monetary terms, to $55 million.
It’s important to note that because this disaster is so vast and we’re seeing how vast more everyday as we get access to areas and as the flood spreads, our contribution may well grow as we get better insight, as I said, into the scope. The weather has been the big problem in terms of getting out and getting a sense of how big a challenge we have ahead of us – we and the Pakistani Government and the rest of the international community.
Today was actually a good day. Our helicopters were able to fly today. They moved about 100,000 pounds worth of humanitarian commodities and transported more than 700 Pakistanis out of some of the remote areas that were cut off to areas where they can get some medical attention that they need.
Last week when we met with you, we told you that the beginning of USAID’s efforts was focused on NGOs that had already been in the Swat Valley and the Malakand Valley because of the IDP crisis last year, and what we were doing to add resources to those organizations so that they expand their – could expand their efforts to take on the flood.
What we’re going to be doing with this additional money, is just as the flood is moving south, we are going to move south. We are going to expand those activities with new organizations and existing organizations that we’ve been supporting so that they can move their activities as the flood goes south so they will be following it. We will be using, again, members of the international humanitarian community through mechanisms that USAID and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance have in place just for disasters like this so that we can move quickly.
We are also going to be using Pakistani NGOs that have particular access to parts of the country where we have not been active before, and we are reaching out to them now so that they can join our response effort. The Disaster Assistance Response Team that USAID mobilized at our Embassy in Islamabad is growing. We’re sending more humanitarian experts almost every day. The size of the team now will be up to 11 by the end of the week.
And then finally, let me just say in terms of giving – contributions from the American public –
let me just remind you what Secretary Clinton talked about last week, when she pulled out her cell phone and demonstrated how you can text message to give $10 to the UNHCR effort. We also encourage the American public to go to USAID’s website and click on the flood response and you will see there links to the websites for the major NGOs that are working there, all of whom would gladly receive private contributions at this point to add to the effort.
Thanks very much. Dan.
MR. FELDMAN: Thanks very much, Mark. I just wanted to amplify as well from Ambassador Holbrooke’s office how dire the situation is, and the fact that this additional $20 million, thereby bringing the U.S. financial commitment up to $55 million at this point, in addition to all the military assistance that’s currently being provided with lift, with food supplies, with other deliveries, is a sign of our continuing commitment as this drama continues to unfold.
And I think it’s very important to note that it’s not just an immediate humanitarian crisis – it is that. And you’ve heard from Ambassador Holbrooke and Secretary Clinton and Administrator Shaw, 14 million people are already affected, millions could be homeless. And so the immediate repercussions are dramatic, and yet almost more importantly is the fact that this is very much a medium to longer-term issue with food security, with the economic infrastructure, and with needs that will be ongoing for many months, if not years.
We’ve seen reports of food prices quadrupling at this point, hundreds of roads and bridges washed out, the current agricultural crop being destroyed without the ability to plant for next year, and the situation has not yet crested, both literally and figuratively. It – we will have to see as the waters come south whether the infrastructure holds the dams and other aspects of roadwork. We’ll have to see how it affects the Sindh province and others with the Indus swelling. And this could still get very worse in the immediate short term, and then we are left with a very, very dramatic long-term problem. And the international community is starting to come together. We expect to see a UN plan very shortly which the international community can start feeding into. But we are doing everything we can with the Government of Pakistan to make sure that the U.S. response is as robust and aggressive and proactive as possible.
You’ve seen on our consolidated press statements and fact sheets every day. Yesterday’s ended with how Americans can give, including some specific websites which through that, through the text Swat campaign, through other mechanisms, we are hoping to continue to raise as much money from Americans as possible, and we’re particularly targeting the business community that may have investments and involvement in Pakistan, the Pakistan diaspora community, the Pakistan-American diaspora community, local and international NGOs. And this campaign is still at its very beginning stages, but this additional $20 million shows the degree of U.S. commitment there.
MR. CROWLEY: Questions?
QUESTION: Two things real – if you – well, one, do you have a figure on how many – how much money has been donated via the texting? And then secondly, when Secretary Clinton was out in Islamabad – when was that, two weeks ago – she unveiled some new projects, at least some hydroelectric projects. Have any of the U.S. projects, longer – non-flood projects that were already in the works, have any of those been affected thus far by the flooding?
MR. WARD: You want to do the texting?
MR. FELDMAN: Yeah. On the texting piece, I think we’re still in the early days. We’re just starting to really launch that. So it’s – the total amount collected, the most recent figures I saw were not far into five figures, but we hope that as we continue to publicize it, we’ll get far more – much more of a response. We’re actually doing calls every other day or so with the NGO think tank diaspora community. We’re doing another one today with the business community and that’s one of the central features that we’re hawking. So hopefully, we’ll get much more on that.
On the commitments, particularly under Kerry-Lugar-Berman, those were still at its – in its pre-nascent stages, but Mark, you can answer it better.
MR. WARD: Well, not much more than that. The Secretary announced them, then the floods came. So I think it’s something that we will have to consider as we move forward on what are bound to be long-term, multiyear infrastructure projects, particularly in the energy sector. Those are still very important needs in Pakistan. So we will have to take these additional needs raised by the floods into account and see at – how this affects the planning and the beginning of the implementation of the other projects as well. They are no less important, but there are some other now very critical needs on the table.
QUESTION: Can I ask about the branding of U.S. aid, particularly some of the halal meals and that kind of thing? What are the flags on it? Can you give us a sense of what that looks like, especially in terms – in the context of combating some of the extremist groups who may be providing aid as well? I know some of it goes through the Pakistani Government, which is why I’m sort of curious what gets branded as U.S. aid.
MR. WARD: We have a policy to try to brand as much as possible. Certainly, the U.S. military’s assets in Pakistan showed a flag. And I don’t know about the halal meals. I haven’t seen one. I don’t remember if they have anything on them.
We do, however, consider exceptions to the branding where it could have an impact on the safety of our aid workers in the field. And from time to time in Pakistan, we take that into account and we waive the branding requirement. But in this crisis, in the face of this disaster, we very much want the Pakistani people to know that the people of the United States are behind them, are helping. And so we are very much going to push that policy as much as possible so that the Pakistani people know the United States is with you again in a very, very trying time.
QUESTION: Do you have any specifics you could offer on any particular in-kind assistance that is branded? Can you give us any sense of –
MR. WARD: Well, for example, when we send in plastic sheeting – when USAID sends in plastic sheeting, it is branded with – from the American people. It was very interesting to hear last week that one of our officers at USAID in Islamabad had just returned from checking on some of the construction work that was done after the earthquake. And he said “We still see the plastic sheeting being used by the people up in Kashmir that were affected by the earthquake. They may not be using it for shelter anymore. They may be using it for other things; for example, holding livestock.” But that branding was still working in that part of the country.
So plastic sheeting, certainly; military assets, the big ones, yes; our personnel are usually very well-identified, so we try very hard. If tents become an issue, they will be branded. There was a request for tents, you might be interested to know. Unfortunately, the tent-making industry in Pakistan was maxed out and there were no tents available. But I can assure you they are working 24/7 now to catch up.
MR. FELDMAN: I’ll just say one – I’ll point it out, if we could – on the plastic sheeting issue, there was a Boeing 747 that this evening delivered 1,100 rolls of plastic sheeting and 17,000 blankets which arrived in Islamabad, benefitting roughly 65,000 people or so, so – well, we can get clarity on the branding of the MREs in particular, but again, that’s, I think, over 500,000 halal meals have been provided at an in-kind cost of over $3 million. So it is a significant amount; I’m just not sure what may actually be on the front of them.
Obviously, the most important branding, I think, is the fact that we’ve got these six helicopters that are continuing to make rescue flights and are U.S. military assets.
QUESTION: Maybe both of you can speak to this or just Dan, I don’t know, but I’m going to talk more about the security situation as it relates to the floods and the fact that even the kind of extremist problem aside and what the government is battling aside, we know that these kind of natural disasters can lead to instability in a country. And given the situation in Pakistan, that’s even more so, and I was just wondering if you could speak about the fact that beyond the natural disaster, this presents a security challenge because angry people, people that need aid get even angrier, could get further disenfranchised. If you could speak to that a little bit and how you’re trying to deal with that?
MR. WARD: I think that’s a very good question for Dan. (Laughter.)
MR. FELDMAN: I was just going to say it was a good question for Mark. Security is always a prime concern in situations like this, and we are working closely with the Pakistani military and government to ensure that it’s provided. Yes, there are – there have been reports of large crowds gathering, of protests, of things like this. We haven’t yet seen, I think, more dramatic incidents of violence, but it’s certainly something we all have to be aware of as people get increasingly desperate, if there’s a lack of food and shelter. So it’s something that our Embassy is working very closely on with the government.
I do think it’s worth noting on the extremist point that we think that that is an aspect that has been quite overblown. We’ve got a number of extremely credible, significant international NGOs and domestic NGOs, including UN agencies. I think there are 17 international NGOs and agencies along with key Pakistani NGOs, particularly the Pakistani Red Crescent, which have operated for a very long time, have very, very credible reputations, are already doing very good work. And we have only seen kind of episodic reports of the Islamic, more extremist charities.
And so it’s something that that post has not been as concerned about and we will continue doing everything we can to channel funding through these credible organizations.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up. I was just trying to make the point that – do you see, like, an inherent, kind of even greater urgency in making sure that the needs are met so that these people don’t fall to the way of extremist recruiting? I wasn’t necessarily talking about the Islamic charities, but especially in Pakistan, if people’s needs aren’t met, they could become further disenfranchised, so to speak.
MR. FELDMAN: I think it’s a concern that you always have to have in a humanitarian crisis like this. But we are as focused as possible just on meeting the needs that we see and not creating those types of opportunities. But I think the possibilities of those opportunities and the capacity, perhaps, for them is – has been overplayed a little bit.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: I just wanted a clarification on the number of NGOs that you cited. How many?
MR. FELDMAN: The – what I heard from post was 17 –
MR. WARD: Today, the U.S. Government has grants with 13 NGOs and four international organizations. That number will grow as we expand the network that we’re working with to include some Pakistani organizations as well and I’m sure additional international NGOs. But at last count, it was 17 organizations.
QUESTION: And none of these fall under the classification of Islamic charities or extremist Islamic charities?
MR. WARD: There is one grant to an organization that has sub-grants with Pakistani organizations and that will be growing. Whether any of the sub-grantees are – would fit the definition of an Islamic charity, I don’t know. But I can assure you that we vet very carefully, and that any Islamic charity that is a sub-grantee receiving those funds has been carefully vetted.
QUESTION: Hoping you could just talk a little bit more about the long-term food security outlook. You’ve talked about this not being just an immediate problem, but one that’s going to stretch forward. How much longer – I mean, is this a question of years that Pakistan is going to be relying on emergency food aid? And what is going to be the U.S. sort of long-term commitment when it comes to keeping people fed and helping them rebuild their own agricultural?
MR. WARD: I think right now – it’s a very good question. I think right now what we’re waiting for is the views of the World Food Program. We need to get their assessment, their appeal, and see what the immediate needs are so we can fill that gap today. Long term, absolutely. It’s something that we have to think about in terms of how much damage was done to the agricultural base in the country and what we can do to jumpstart that for the next planting season. The timing of this was terrible. But the facts are the facts. And absolutely that has to be part of our planning for the future. But our immediate concern right now is filling the food gap that’s there. We actually have – we’re doing very well there. WFP estimates with a lot of the funding coming from the United States is that we, the United States is filling half of the food gap right now. That’s very good given how early this is in the crisis and the fact that we have not had access because of the weather to much of the country. We give a lot of credit to WFP for moving a lot of food even on the days when we couldn’t get the helos in the air. They’ve been using four-wheel-drive trucks and they’ve been using mules, real ones.
QUESTION: Pardon if this has been clarified. Where is this aid money coming from exactly? How is it being financed? Do you have any updates on how many people are out there? And also in terms of donations, do you have any more specific numbers? I heard something about five figures, but if you have anything more specific, that would be great.
MR. WARD: Well, I can tell you that in terms of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and our presence on the ground, we have in place what’s called a DART, a disaster assistance response team, led by a gentleman who also led the DART after the earthquake. So he’s the perfect gentleman for the job. We have about – we will have 11 people on that team by the end of the week. Where is the money coming from? The additional 20 million that we’re announcing today comes out of resources of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.
MR. FELDMAN: So there’s the $35 million of USG funding that had been announced before this additional $20 million. The five figures that I was talking about was just the text Swat. So I think it’s past the $10,000 threshold in terms of what it’s raised. But I’m not sure how much more beyond that. But separately, we have begun a very robust engagement with the private sector and are doing everything we can there. I know the Pakistani-American Foundation just made an additional pledge this morning to raise another $200,000. We’ve got initial pledges in from Proctor & Gamble which has donated $455,000 of in kind contributions including water purification tablets. Abbott Labs has committed $83,000 in cash and in kind. We’re looking at additional donations from Boeing, from Coca-Cola, from others. And we will continue to grow that effort as well as that with the Pakistani-American community.
MR. CROWLEY: (Inaudible) we’ll make – we’ll probably take two more.
QUESTION: You mentioned the vetting of Islamic charities. What’s the vetting process?
MR. WARD: We don’t vet Islamic charities. We vet all charities.
QUESTION: Okay, so what – just what – can you walk us through like how you –
MR. WARD: It’s pretty simple. We look at who’s on the board. We look at the source of the funds. We look at their bank accounts. We go visit their offices. And that’s pretty much the extent of it. Obviously, if there’s any red flags that come up in that, we go a little bit further. But as Dan mentioned, and this is important to remember about Pakistan, this is a country with a very, very strong civil society. And there are NGOs working in the country, particularly in the provinces the United States has worked with for decades. And we’re going to put them to work now in response to the flood, because they are uniquely placed in these provinces to get access to communities that nobody else can really get access to.
QUESTION: Are you urging European governments – other governments to contribute to this relief effort? And which ones have you contacted?
MR. FELDMAN: Absolutely. We’ve had a – again, a very aggressive outreach effort to the international community. Early last week as this was just beginning, we held a conference call with all the other SRAP countries, the other countries that have special representatives like Ambassador Holbrooke, now over 40 – or about 40. We’ve had follow-up conference calls with them. We sent out an ALDAC cable to all posts encouraging them to approach their governments. And we are starting to see real dividends from them.
The most recent data I have from this morning is that we’ve got roughly $115 million in pledges from outside the USG. Again, I think this will go up much higher as soon as we have some sort of UN appeal or flood plan. So whenever that is announced, that will provide another key conduit for the international community to donate. We have seen, as I had mentioned in the last press conference, both from the OIC Muslim-majority nation community, leadership from UAE, from Saudi Arabia, from Kuwait, but also very much so from the UK, from the EC, Australia just gave, I think, $5 million. So we’ve got a whole breakdown at this point of where things stand. But I know many countries are considering it. And then we’re also looking to some specific countries for help with lift, with helicopters. The Government of Afghanistan has actually provided, I think, four helicopters at this point.
MR. WARD: They’ve arrived.
MR. FELDMAN: They’ve arrived.
QUESTION: Are you guys coordinating that or is it done through the Government of Pakistan?
MR. WARD: We are working together with the Government of Pakistan. So the official requests are sent by the Government of Pakistan. The Government of the UAE, the Emirates, is also trying to provide helicopters right now. There’s a chance that Japan may, although that’s still being worked on. So – and then there will be a formal request into NATO for specific technical assistance they can provide. So all this is being worked out right now. But it’s a very aggressive international push.
MR. FELDMAN: Oh, yes. One story which we just saw this morning was that Afghanistan – there are 23 Afghan doctors which are now – did they go to Peshawar or –
MR. CROWLEY: With tons of assistance.
MR. FELDMAN: And with tons of medical assistance. So I think, as we have seen this growing relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is so critical for everything we’re involved in politically, manifesting itself in these offers of assistance, which is very important.
MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.
MR. WARD: Thank you.
MR. FELDMAN: Thanks.
MR. CROWLEY: Just a couple of things to mention before taking your questions. Obviously, the rains in the region do not just affect Pakistan; they have affected India as well. We are tracking the situation there. Roughly a hundred Americans have been affected by the floods in India. Thus far, we have no reported deaths or injuries at this time. We’re working closely with Indian authorities to ensure the safety and well-being of our citizens across the region who are affected by this. A team of officers from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi have been dispatched to Leh – L-e-h – to provide assistance to U.S. citizens in the area who have been mostly affected by this.
QUESTION: How many?
MR. CROWLEY: Officers?
QUESTION: Yeah. And are they all in Leh?
MR. CROWLEY: I don’t have a number of – the team number. I’ll get that for you.
QUESTION: And all the --
MR. CROWLEY: They’re all in Leh, yes.
QUESTION: All the hundred Americans?
MR. CROWLEY: Yes, most of them, not all of them. But of the roughly hundred, the majority are in – well, let me put it this way, the largest – a significant concentration of Americans is in Leh. They have been affected by this. I think there was a town hall meeting yesterday, roughly 200 people showed up, and – but we are tracking American citizens in that vicinity who may have been affected by this.
QUESTION: Right. Wait, just – and I’m sorry, but I have some familiarity with this area. Were they in, actually, the city, the town of Leh, or were they out trekking around in the mountains?
MR. CROWLEY: I think it’s both.
QUESTION: But they’ve all been accounted for?
MR. CROWLEY: There are some citizens --
QUESTION: Everyone that you know that is –that was in the area has been accounted for and is safe?
MR. CROWLEY: I think we’re still looking. I don’t think we have – all American citizens that we’re aware of in that area have not yet been accounted for.
Also, in China, flooding in China has been occurring for a couple of months. And within the authorities existing at the embassy, the ambassador has approved an additional $50,000 contribution to the Red Cross Society of China. That brings our total to $200,000 thus far that we have provided to the Red Cross Society of China in support of ongoing relief operations there. And likewise, in Russia, the ambassador has released $50,000 to assist populations affected by the fires. We do have – as we announced yesterday, the OFDA team remains on the ground. They have experts from the U.S. Forest Disaster Assistance Support Program. They’re working – continuing to consult with the Russian Government about how we can be helpful.
We mentioned yesterday that we were evaluating an authorized departure of non-essential emergency staff – of non-essential staff and dependents. We’ve approved that authorized departure and expect that roughly 100 people at the embassy in Moscow will have the opportunity to depart if they choose, and that departure is for 30 days.
And likewise, we have updated our Travel Warning for Russia given the state of emergency that’s been declared by the Russian Federation. We highlight that people should take that into account as they determine their travel plans in Europe.
QUESTION: So where do they go from Moscow? Do they have a choice? Can they come back here or do they have to go somewhere in Europe?
MR. CROWLEY: They can voluntarily return to the United States.
And anticipating your questions, obviously, George Mitchell met today with President Abbas and he will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu now tomorrow, not today. I think George Mitchell characterized his meeting with President Abbas as serious and positive, but indicated that we will continue our efforts in the coming days to push the parties towards direct negotiations. I think we are getting closer. But since George Mitchell is a baseball fan, as he would say, we have not yet reached home plate.
And can’t say anything bad about New Jersey today. We have in the back of the room some interns from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Office of Senator Menendez of New Jersey. Welcome to the daily press briefing.
QUESTION: You’re going to put in a plug for Matt Bryza here, since you have half his staff?
George Mitchell --
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- serious and positive, why was the meeting with Netanyahu put back till tomorrow?
MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know. I asked that very question and did not get an answer before I came to the podium.
QUESTION: Okay. And when you say you’re getting closer, does that mean you’re getting – what exactly is that? You’re getting closer to direct negotiations? Is that what you think?
MR. CROWLEY: We are pushing the parties to agree to direct negotiations. And we think after today’s meeting, we are closer to reaching that point than we were yesterday.
QUESTION: So is Mr. Mitchell coming back tomorrow or --
MR. CROWLEY: My understanding is he still plans to come back to the United States after he meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu tomorrow.
QUESTION: Are we likely to hear some sort of announcement on direct negotiations before he leaves?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, he’s had one meeting. He needs to have a second meeting and let’s see where we are after tomorrow.
QUESTION: So we should look forward to a statement right after he finishes his meeting with Mr. Netanyahu?
MR. CROWLEY: I wouldn’t – I’m not here to predict that there’ll be a statement tomorrow.
QUESTION: President Abbas is saying that he wants the Quartet to reaffirm its March 19th statement on asking Israel to halt construction of the settlements. Is that something that the Quartet is willing to do? Are we going to see a reaffirmation or a new statement from them?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, in recent days, the Secretary has talked to Secretary General Ban. He’s talked to the Quartet Special Representative Tony Blair. This was a subject that came up during her conversation on Friday with Foreign Minister Lavrov. So we are consulting within the Quartet and looking to see how we can encourage the parties to begin direct negotiations. So, the Quartet – we are contemplating how we can be supportive.
QUESTION: In other words, there could be a Quartet statement later today or tomorrow?
MR. CROWLEY: I don’t think there will be one today.
MR. CROWLEY: Let’s get through tomorrow.
QUESTION: Well, let’s get through today. (Inaudible) about tomorrow.
MR. CROWLEY: If a Quartet statement can be helpful in encouraging the parties to move forward, obviously, I think that’s something that we, the United States, support.
QUESTION: Can you address the issue of – I don’t want to say putting expectations on – but President Abbas has talked about wanting some sort of clearer sense of what the focus of the discussions will be, afraid that the Israelis would run out the clock. Does the U.S. have a position on sort of a statement of what the talks should be about, parameters of the talks, to use an old peace process word?
MR. CROWLEY: I think today George Mitchell referred to a defined timeline and agenda. These are things that we are continuing to talk to the parties about. Obviously, we think we’ve spent a lot of time in proximity talks laying a foundation for negotiations, but I’ll leave it there.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that? In terms of agenda, you don’t want to say what the agenda would be? Refugees, Jerusalem –
MR. CROWLEY: Well, wait. The ingredients of a final solution are well-known to everyone –
Jerusalem, refugees, borders, and security. So, we do know to use a well-worn Middle East phrase. We do know the parameters. There are a lot of issues associated with that, but we remain firm in our position that the only way to successfully address the core issues is to get into that direct negotiation. That’s why we continue to encourage the parties to do so as soon as possible.
QUESTION: So to clarify at this point, the Palestinians and in fact, the meeting – their meeting in Cairo last week – and someone requested that terms of preference, timetable, and all these things, they sort of agreed to by the U.S. Administration to launch the direct talks. So are you saying that these are issues that are now being discussed with both Israelis and the Palestinians?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I’m not going to get into specifics of what we are discussing with both parties. We want to see them get into direct negotiations as quickly as possible. As we’ve said throughout the past few months, we don’t think that it’s appropriate to set conditions for the direct negotiations. There’s a lot of work that’s been done to help pave the way for this point, and all we’ll say is that the sooner we get into direct negotiations the better.
QUESTION: If there is some sort of an agreement or let’s say consensus among Israelis, Americans, and Palestinians that these issues ought to be discussed, will that take place in a trilateral meeting preceding the discussions – the direct talks?
MR. CROWLEY: As to – put it this way. If and when the leaders say yes, we would expect the United States to be a part of the direct negotiations.
QUESTION: Change of subject.
MR. CROWLEY: Sure.
QUESTION: Can we stay on the region?
MR. CROWLEY: Sure.
QUESTION: Middle East. Are you still on the Middle East?
QUESTION: No. Lebanon. There seems to be growing concern on the Hill about the military assistance to the Lebanese army, and it came out yesterday. You have now – you have two people on your team, i.e. the Democrat – two Democrats who are holding up this assistance and others from the other side of the aisle who are joining in the expressions of concern. What do you make of this? And are you concerned at all that the program to support the Lebanese army, and by extension the Lebanese Government, in exerting its sovereignty will be damaged?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, first of all, we continue to believe that supporting the Lebanese Government and the Lebanese army or military is in our national interest to contribute to stability in the region. That said, we obviously expressed our concerns about the incident last week. We still have an ongoing dialogue ourselves with Lebanese officials including discussions with the Lebanese military to try to fully understand what happened and how it can be prevented in the future.
We do understand the questions that the incident has raised about the nature of our assistance to Lebanon, and whether any of our assistance was in some way implicated in this incident. As we have stressed, we have no indications that our training programs were in any way implicated in what happened, and we will continue to discuss our assistance, our programs, with Lebanon with congressional leaders.
QUESTION: Do you think that the action of holding up that future military aid is in any way detrimental to the situation between the U.S.-Lebanon relations? And apparently Iran’s ambassador is saying that Tehran is ready to step into the breach; if the U.S. isn’t going to help, the Iranians are ready to help the Lebanese army. Is that a serious proposition or in any way a danger?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we think that activities, directly or indirectly, by Iran actually compromise Lebanese sovereignty. That’s one of the reasons that we’ve worked hard to build an effective relationship with the Lebanese Government and to help expand the capabilities of the government and thereby improve its sovereignty over its territory. So I think that the statements by Iran are expressly the reason why we believe that continuing support to the Lebanese Government and the Lebanese military is in our interest. Nonetheless, we understand that this incident has raised very legitimate questions on the Hill, and we will continue to engage leaders on both sides of the aisle to try to help assuage any concerns that exist.
QUESTION: P.J., (inaudible) money and the pipeline are ready and – the aid that is in the pipeline are ready. And now, it is said that members of the appropriation committee is holding up that money. What is your recourse to see that the money --
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as you say, there is aid already in the pipeline, so I can’t say that a hold today necessarily has an immediate impact. We will address the concerns that congressional leaders have rightfully raised about what happened recently and what its potential implications are, but nonetheless, we continue to support our assistance programs to Lebanon.
QUESTION: Can you say how long you have until the hold would affect?
MR. CROWLEY: I can’t say. I don’t –
QUESTION: I mean is it weeks? Months?
MR. CROWLEY: It’s hard to calculate.
QUESTION: So Chairman Berman has raised the issue more generally of potential collaboration between the Lebanese army and Hezbollah. So, are you concerned that there might be overlap now with Hezbollah involvement in the Lebanese army? And just in terms of working with Congress to alleviate their concerns, what are you doing? What kinds of information are you providing, et cetera?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think our concerns about Hezbollah are very well-known. One of the tests of sovereignty is the exclusive monopoly on the use of force. And we recognize in recent years you have key examples of where a sub element within Lebanese society has drawn that country into conflict. That’s expressly why we think that the solution for Lebanon in terms of dealing with an armed element like Hezbollah is, in fact, to improve its own capabilities and professionalize its military so that it can extend its writ to areas that might not be fully under government control. So –
QUESTION: Right. But he’s –
MR. CROWLEY: -- we think that’s a direct reason – it’s not a reason to be concerned; it’s a reason actually to work constructively with the Lebanese Government to try to reduce the impact that a group like Hezbollah can have.
QUESTION: And on the army itself though, I mean, are you worried about Hezbollah corrupting the very army that you’re looking to, to be countering Hezbollah?
MR. CROWLEY: I can’t cite anything specific, but obviously, Hezbollah is a fact within Lebanese society and part of our effort in turn – much of our effort in dealing with and supporting the Lebanese military is, in fact, the very professionalization that we think helps mitigate that risk.
QUESTION: Would you make, like, vetting the process to ensure that there are no infiltration by Hezbollah in the sense of the army? Would you make that – the aid conditional to that point?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, in fact, any security assistance that we provide comes with the regular reviews to make sure that our assistance is being constructively utilized.
QUESTION: P.J. --
QUESTION: Can I --
MR. CROWLEY: Wait, hold on.
QUESTION: On Lebanon, Hezbollah has accused yesterday Israel of Hariri assassination, and the Hezbollah secretary general has presented evidence and indication – indications, as he said, that open new horizons for the investigation. Do you have any reaction to what he presented as evidences?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we would reject any attempt to try to politicize the work of the tribunal. We think it has been methodical, professional, and is ultimately in the long-term interest of Lebanon. As Secretary Clinton has said, the tribunal should not be viewed as a bargaining chip, and it is something that’s important for the Lebanese people, the Lebanese Government, and the United States to end the era of impunity regarding political assassinations that are unfortunately part of Lebanon’s history.
QUESTION: What do you think about the area reconnaissance footage that Hezbollah has presented yesterday?
MR. CROWLEY: Look, let’s wait for the results of the tribunal investigation and any particular findings that they announce, and then we will have more to say.
QUESTION: On WikiLeaks, can you talk about reports that you’re pressuring Britain and other allies to launch their own criminal investigations about WikiLeak and to block the site? We had talked about this a little bit over a week ago, but there are more reports surfacing that you’re putting pressure on allies to do something about that.
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah. Let me take that question. I’m not aware of any specific conversations that we’ve had with some of the countries mentioned. Obviously, there’s something that’s cropped up in different conversations that we’ve had; citing one, in the Secretary’s call last week with President Karzai, they did talk about WikiLeaks and she asked the president what his perspective on it was. So I’ll take the question as to whether we’ve had conversations along those lines and are encouraging others to consider their own potential prosecutions.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: On Latin America, tomorrow, there is a bilateral between the United States and Argentina. Hector Timerman, foreign minister, will meet with the Secretary. Can you advance some of the topics, some of the things that will be included in the conversation?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as you know well, the Secretary has herself traveled to Argentina. And it will be an opportunity for her to follow up both on bilateral and regional issues with Argentina and her counterpart on – and obviously, one of the things we’ll be taking note of is not only the current situation with respect to the promotion of democracy in the region, situation with respect to Honduras, but also I’m sure that they’ll be taking note of a discussion going on today between President Chavez and President Santos of Colombia.
QUESTION: You don’t expect Iran to come up at all?
MR. CROWLEY: Iran could very well come up in the conversation, yes.
QUESTION: On the issue of the Imam from the Ground Zero Mosque – there was some discussion yesterday – do you have any update on that, the ground rules of the trip, the relationship to fund-raising which some have raised, and anything on the places he’s going?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, first of all, Imam Feisal will be traveling to Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE on a U.S. Government-sponsored trip to the Middle East. He will discuss Muslim life in America and religious tolerance. This is part of a program – and yesterday, I actually was in error. I attributed it to our ECA Bureau, Education and Cultural Affairs. It’s actually our International Information Programs – IIP, our office that handles this particular program.
We have about 1,200 of these kinds of programs every year, sending experts on all fields overseas. Last year, we had 52 trips that were specifically focused on religious – promoting religious tolerance. We will expect to have roughly the same number of programs this year. For Imam Feisal, this will be his third trip under this program. In 2007, he visited Bahrain, Morocco, the UAE and Qatar. And earlier this year in January, he also visited Egypt. So we have a long-term relationship with him. His work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it’s like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States. And our discussions with him about taking this trip preceded the current debate in New York over the center.
QUESTION: And the fundraising issue?
MR. CROWLEY: It is something that we have talked to him about and we have informed him about our prohibition against fundraising while on a speaking tour. We do not expect him to fundraise.
QUESTION: Wait, you said that his first trip under this program was in 2007?
MR. CROWLEY: That is my understanding.
QUESTION: Who was President then? Can you remind me?
MR. CROWLEY: I believe it was George W. Bush.
QUESTION: Thanks. The other thing is has the – has this Administration, the Obama Administration, taken a position on this mosque at all, the proposal, the Ground Zero proposal?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, it’s not normal that the federal government would get involved in what is a – I think a zoning issue in New York City.
QUESTION: Can you – right, okay. So can you explain why --
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, we are obviously supportive of religious tolerance not only around the world, but in the United States, and – but this is a particular decision for the city of New York. And we do note the fact that Mayor Bloomberg made a very eloquent appeal for freedom of religion and religious tolerance recently in the city.
QUESTION: Right, and you noted it so much that you decided – or it was posted –
MR. CROWLEY: We posted it on the IIP – on America.gov. We did, yes.
QUESTION: Why was that not posted on the regular State Department website?
MR. CROWLEY: I think Smith-Mundt probably has as much to do with that as anything.
QUESTION: Can you explain to me how you’re –
MR. CROWLEY: I mean, this is the first time that this has come up in a domestic context here at this podium.
QUESTION: But why would Smith-Mundt prohibit this?
MR. CROWLEY: It doesn’t. But again, part of our efforts to help people understand a vigorous debate that is going on within New York and around the country, we posted Mayor Bloomberg’s remarks on America.gov, which is our website that is geared primarily to helping people overseas understand views on important issues here in the country. We did not think that it was necessary for us to make sure that American citizens are aware of Mayor Bloomberg’s remarks. Obviously, through your colleagues in New York City –
QUESTION: Okay, but –
MR. CROWLEY: -- there’s been ample reporting of that. So we posted it because we thought it was useful for people overseas to understand what –
QUESTION: But in those remarks –
MR. CROWLEY: -- the perspectives on this issue.
QUESTION: In those remarks, he made a quite impassioned defense of the rights of the people of Imam Feisal and others to build their mosque wherever they want. So doesn’t – don’t you, by posting this, imply that you’re supportive of the project?
MR. CROWLEY: Again, we – the Obama Administration nor the United States Government have taken a position on this project. The decision is up to the people of New York. We simply posted the mayor’s comments –
QUESTION: All right.
MR. CROWLEY: -- as being – as we do frequently, helping people understand. We certainly support what the mayor was underscoring which is the history of religious diversity and religious tolerance in his city.
QUESTION: Okay, just – let me just finish.
MR. CROWLEY: Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. All right.
QUESTION: Let me just – yeah, I got one more on Smith-Mundt. Do you want to ask about Smith-Mundt?
QUESTION: No, I want to ask about the Imam Feisal.
QUESTION: Okay so – all right, well, on Smith-Mundt, right? The reason that that was passed in the 40s was to prevent the State Department or the U.S. Government in general from spreading propaganda to citizens of the United States in the United States.
MR. CROWLEY: That’s true.
QUESTION: Does the fact that you put this on the – on a website that was basically created because of Smith-Mundt and not on the regular website imply that you think that Bloomberg’s comments were propaganda?
MR. CROWLEY: No, it is to whom we were directing those comments. We were directing them to audiences overseas and we did that on one and not the other expressly because of the obligations that we have under Smith-Mundt. And this becomes a very complicated issue, because we know that on State.gov, our State Department website that is primarily geared towards audiences here in the United States, we do have people overseas who do tap into State.gov and we have American citizens who also tap into America.gov. In fact, we are constantly trying to evaluate the relevance of Smith-Mundt given the internet age and the fact that information now cannot be really – information that’s channeled overseas can have the ability to return instantly to the United States.
QUESTION: You’re convinced that you’re okay to be talking about America.gov from this podium.
MR. CROWLEY: I, from my position, can talk about both.
QUESTION: Got it.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. CROWLEY: All right. Hold on.
QUESTION: Can we just talk about religious tolerance? There doesn’t seem to be much of that in Iran. They just sentenced seven Baha’i leaders to 20 years in prison each yesterday. Any comments on that and then I have a follow-up, please.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we obviously have concerns – long-standing concerns about the persecution of minorities inside Iran. It is not a tolerant society. And we are concerned about that particular verdict, but also about other actions that Iran has taken.
QUESTION: You just mentioned that it has taken other actions. Human rights issues is a major issue there. With the second P-5+1 meeting with Iran possibly coming up soon, would human rights be on the agenda aside from the nuclear issue?
MR. CROWLEY: We have – the short answer is yes. In our encounters with Iranian officials, we have not hesitated to raise the full range of issues. We know that if you go back 30 years, we have a fairly long list of concerns about Iran. We recognize that Iran has its own list of concerns about the United States. We are prepared to have a broad-based dialogue with Iran going forward, but obviously, right now, the nuclear issue remains at the top of our list.
QUESTION: One question. Fidel Castro – the weekend Fidel Castro mentioned that he sent, for the first time, a letter to President Obama. He’s worried about a nuclear war. The question is, did you receive the letter? And are you going to respond to that letter?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, if you’re indicating that he sent the letter to President Obama, I’ll defer that to – whether the letter has been received to the White House. We took note of his speech. It was short.
QUESTION: Yesterday, I think you mentioned that (inaudible) briefing on the Blackberry RIM issue. Do you have any readout on that? And did they share with you any details on this compromise that they’ve (inaudible)?
MR. CROWLEY: There was a meeting with RIM officials yesterday afternoon. And I was part of that for a portion of the meeting. We thought it was very helpful for RIM officials to help us understand their global perspective. They indicated that their services are offered in almost every country in the world. There might be a handful that they do not have a presence. So they were giving us that kind of global perspective on the issues that have been raised in negotiations with multiple countries. They did not go into any specific – details of any specific negotiation. It was very useful for us and I think at the end of the meeting, their perspective was that they believe that there are, again broadly speaking, solutions available that on a country-by-country-by-country basis can satisfactorily address and balance the regulatory security and access issues that are at stake.
QUESTION: Did their – some of these possible approaches that they have, did any of them include providing foreign governments with the codes to individual Blackberrys? Were they – did they suggest that this was something that they could do?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, that’s the kind of question that is better directed towards RIM than the United States Government. I mean, we recognize as they do that there are a range of interests and it is important to try to find solutions that balance out these competing interests.
MR. CROWLEY: No.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:32 p.m.)
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