1:05 p.m. EST (via teleconference)
OPERATOR: Welcome, and thank you for standing by. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode until the question-and-answer period. If you’d like to ask a question at that time, please press * then 1. I’d now like to turn over the meeting to Mark Toner. You may begin.
MR. TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. I hope you all had a good, peaceful, restful holiday weekend. I just wanted to touch base with you all today. I know it’s been a long weekend. It’s been since, I believe, last Wednesday since P.J. briefed, so I just wanted to check in and see if we could answer any questions and do it in a way that allowed people who were off to phone in and connect, as well as people who are here at the State Department today.
P.J. is, I believe, snowbound in Boston, so it’s just me this week, but happy to answer any of your questions. I think most of you saw we put out a statement earlier this morning on the verdict of the Khodorkovsky-Lebedev case that we basically – from the Secretary saying that the conviction on the second trial of Mikhail Khordorkovsky and Platon Lebedev on charges of embezzlement and money laundering raises serious questions about selective prosecution and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations. This and similar cases have a negative impact on Russia’s reputation for fulfilling its international human rights obligations and improving its investment climate.
While we welcome President Medvedev’s modernization plans, their fulfillment requires the development of a climate where due process and judicial independence are respected. And of course, we’ll monitor the appeals process.
Also just a brief update. As many of you know, there was a bus crash in Egypt yesterday which – in which eight U.S. citizens were killed. That took place in Aswan in southern Egypt. We have identified the victims of the crash and contacted their next of kin, and we are, of course, deeply saddened by this tragic accident and our sympathy goes out to the victims’ families. I can say that approximately 20 other U.S. citizens were injured in that accident and all have been provided appropriate medical attention.
That’s all I have and I’ll take your questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We will now begin the question-and-answer session. If you’d like to ask a question, please press *1. Please un-mute your phone and record your name. Your name is required to introduce your question. To withdraw your question, please press *2. Once again, to ask a question, please press *1. One moment, please, for the first question.
The first question comes from Jill Dougherty.
QUESTION: Thank you. Hey, Mark, thank you very much. I just wanted to ask you on both of those subjects, in terms of the crash first, is there anything else in addition to the usual stuff that the Embassy would do for the Americans who are injured? Are they – I don’t know – being helped to communicate, or can you give us a little more specificity on that?
And then also on Khodorkovsky, how is this going to affect the relations with the U.S.? Because the Secretary herself said negative effect on the reputation and also improving its investment climate. I mean, is the U.S. thinking of taking any action, or just talking about this?
MR. TONER: Sure. Thanks, Jill. On the bus crash, as I said, 20 U.S. citizens are being treated in Egypt. We’re obviously working quite closely with their healthcare providers and providing them, of course, with any assistance they may need. And that would include, obviously, helping them communicate with their families and loved ones. We expect they’ll remain there until they’re able to return to the U.S. I can’t, of course, give you an update on their medical condition, but I know our Embassy is at the ready and, in fact, is already assisting them in any way possible.
And of course, on Khodorkovsky, well, I mean, obviously, human rights is something we can raise with the Russians on every level and continue – and will continue to do so. The Russian – U.S.-Russia relations are complex. They’re very broad. While we cooperate constructively in many areas, and obviously, just prior to the holidays we had the Senate advice and consent on the START treaty, the New START Treaty, and that was a big victory. But there are cases concerning human rights where we continue to raise our concerns, and we’re going to continue to do that.
QUESTION: And, Mark, if I could just ask one more question on that. I mean, deliberately, it looks as if the Secretary singled out Mr. Medvedev and his modernization plans, but the person who seems to be driving this prosecution is Putin. So is this – I don’t know – calling Medvedev’s bluff and saying if he wants modernization, then do it and do it with some type of due process and judicial independence? How strong – it appears to be quite a weak statement when you compare it to the statements of other countries in Europe especially.
MR. TONER: I wouldn’t characterize it as weak at all, Jill. What I would say is that we are simply calling the Russian Government’s attention to the fact that modernization plans are all well and good but that you need, frankly, a climate in which there is judicial independence, which – and transparency and due process. Those are all elements of an effective democratic judicial system. Obviously, it does raise questions. We are obviously concerned about it, and we’re going to continue to raise that with the Russians.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yep.
No other questions?
QUESTION: Yes. Can you hear me?
MR. TONER: Yes, I can. I’m sorry, yes.
QUESTION: Hi, Mark. It’s Indira from Bloomberg. How are you?
MR. TONER: Hi, Indira. Hi, how are you?
QUESTION: Hope you had a good holiday.
MR. TONER: Go ahead. I’m sorry. I had no idea you were on the line.
QUESTION: That’s all right. So what I wanted to ask was, first of all, an update on Venezuela. Has any decision been taken on whether to take any retaliatory action regarding the fracas over the ambassador?
And also, I wanted to find out on Ivory Coast, apparently, the presidents of Benin, Sierra Leone, and Cape Verde are supposed to meet with Gbagbo tomorrow to try to persuade him to step down. And where has the U.S. efforts to try to build a larger coalition for increased troops, either through ECOWAS or the UN peacekeeping mission, gone since P.J. last talked about it?
MR. TONER: Thanks, Indira. In answer to your first question on Venezuela, I don’t have any update. I really can’t speak to where we’re at on that. Obviously, we are disappointed about Ambassador-designate Palmer’s situation, but we haven’t taken any concrete steps.
QUESTION: Is that a question you can take and just check whether, behind the scenes, any decision has been made?
MR. TONER: I can do that.
MR. TONER: Yep.
MR. TONER: Yeah, sure. On Ivory Coast, obviously, we support the efforts of – I believe it’s the presidents of Sierra Leone, Benin, and Cape Verde, who are headed there, I believe, tomorrow. We continue to work with the international community in trying to bring about a peaceful resolution, and urge President Gbagbo to recognize the will of the people and step down. Your specific question was regarding troop commitments?
QUESTION: Yeah. It was – P.J. had talked last week about the U.S. talking to its partners, particularly African states, including Nigeria, about increasing troop commitments to the peacekeepers or whether there would be some new mandate, but having forces there to try to --
MR. TONER: Right. No, I’m familiar with that. Indira, I don’t have an update on that. What I can say is, obviously, we continue to support ECOWAS’s efforts and the African Union’s efforts on the ground and, obviously, the role of peacekeepers. And countries like Nigeria are obviously deeply appreciated, and we are going to try to work with them to try to augment their presence.
But obviously, this is something we remain very concerned about. You’ve got the visit tomorrow. You’ve got, obviously, the international community continuing to call on President Gbagbo to step down, to recognize the will of the Ivoirian people. And we’re going to, obviously, remain – or rather, keep up the pressure on Gbagbo in order for him to step down.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR. TONER: Thanks, Indira.
MODERATOR: Next question comes from Arshad Mohammed.
MR. TONER: Yeah, Arshad, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hey, Mark. Were there any U.S. Government officials who were killed or injured in the bus crash in southern Egypt?
MR. TONER: No, none. They were all tourists.
QUESTION: Yep. That was it for me. Thanks.
MR. TONER: Thanks.
MODERATOR: Question comes from Tejinder Singh.
QUESTION: Hey, Mark. Happy Christmas.
MR. TONER: Hey, thank you.
QUESTION: You had a good Christmas, and it was a peaceful Christmas for us also.
MR. TONER: Thank you.
QUESTION: I have just a couple of questions.
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: I was wondering if the U.S. State Department can intervene about this dilemma faced by American Indians – Indian Americans, like the people from India but who are American citizens. They are facing a lot of trouble with the visa applications for India and they are being asked their passports and it’s – they have arranged some hunger strikes at the four consulates. And being American citizens, is it something that the State Department can do?
MR. TONER: Tejinder, just to clarify, you’re talking about Indian Americans who are trying to get visas to go back to India?
MR. TONER: Okay. And then they’re having some kind of difficulty in obtaining visas to go to India; is that correct?
QUESTION: There’s 75,000 and one organization backlog of visas and they are being harassed and they had some in Houston and in Chicago, New York, San Francisco. They have done hunger strikes. They are – but they are American citizens. So as American citizens, do they have and does the State Department has some say to talk to Indian Government to make life easier for them?
MR. TONER: Well, of course, on an issue like this, as you’ve mentioned, these are American citizens. They have clear avenues to communicate their frustrations or their concerns either through Congress or directly to the State Department. I don’t know the specifics on this case, but I can certainly look into it. But certainly, this is something that, were it to prove credible, were we to look into the story, that we would – we could certainly raise with the Indian Government. We obviously take the needs and concerns and situation of American citizens very seriously.
QUESTION: Another question about the statement from Secretary Clinton about the Russian case. How far do you weigh the statement – will we have a statement today and then it will go on and forgotten, or what is the follow-up going to be like?
MR. TONER: Sure, Tejinder. Look, we’re obviously concerned about what this case says about the judicial process in Russia. We obviously have a very complex relationship with Russia on many different levels. We cooperate constructively. However, in areas regarding human rights, we need to be – and we certainly are not afraid or hesitant to raise our concerns with the Russian Government. I believe we’ve done that many times during the process of this trial and will continue to do so.
QUESTION: Well, thank you very much for now.
MR. TONER: Thanks, Tejinder.
OPERATOR: The next question comes from Joe Shaw.
QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Thanks. South Korean President Lee in his latest radio address called for his citizens to stand unified against North Korean aggression, taking a more aggressive posture. How concerned are you about that, or do you feel that South Korea needs to be more aggressive to keep North Korea in check?
MR. TONER: I’m not aware of the remarks. But obviously, we stand by our partner, South Korea, and recognize its need to defend itself. I would just also say that we remain, obviously, in close consultation not only with South Korea, but China and the other Six-Party members, in order to address the situation and to consider the situation regarding North Korea.
In so many of these comments we’re asked how we – what we feel about South Korea and its posture. But really, the onus in all of these is on North Korea and the fact that it is North Korea’s belligerent behavior that has raised tensions in the region. So I would just flip the question around or simply respond by saying it’s North Korea that has raised tensions and put South Korea in the situation that it finds itself in, and we obviously support South Korea’s sovereign right to defend itself.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yep.
OPERATOR: The next question comes from Matthew Lee.
MR. TONER: Hey, Matt.
QUESTION: Hey, Mark. I’d like to know how any self-respecting city in the northeast can cancel a football game because of five inches of snow. (Laughter.)
MR. TONER: I’d like to strike that from the record. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Do you have an answer for that? Can you explain to me how Philadelphia still deserves an NFL franchise? (Laughter.)
Listen, one thing, do you have – by any chance have any reaction to the death of the former Venezuelan president Perez? He died in Miami just the day after Christmas.
MR. TONER: Yeah, Matt, actually I did follow up before and we’ll get something to you shortly on that.
QUESTION: All right. And then –
MR. TONER: Happy to share that with everyone else if people are interested.
QUESTION: And secondly, your answer to the question before, are you volunteering the U.S. Government to step in if U.S. citizens have problems getting visas to other countries? I mean, I’m having a problem getting a visa to – let’s see, where – India. Are you going to talk to the Indian Government and tell them that they should let me in?
MR. TONER: Matt, what I would just say is there are obviously, as I said, avenues open to American citizens who feel they are being hampered --
QUESTION: And they involve the State Department?
MR. TONER: No, I think I specifically mentioned Congress. But obviously, were those concerns to be brought to the State Department, we would consider looking into them and seeing if they’re legitimate and, if so, raising them. But in this particular instance, I would have to obviously investigate.
QUESTION: Well, are you suggesting that the U.S. can decide for another country who it gives –
MR. TONER: Oh, not at all, Matt. Not suggesting that at all. It might be something we consider raising were they legitimate.
QUESTION: What does that mean? It might be something you can – anyway, is this something that’s only for Indian Americans or can Chinese Americans ask for this kind of privilege to visit China?
MR. TONER: Thank you, Matt.
OPERATOR: The next question comes from Mr. Schmidt, Christopher Schmidt.
QUESTION: Hello, Mark. I have a question on Cote d'Ivoire. The interior minister from Laurent Gbagbo there has claimed that 10 German mercenaries funded by the United States has been sent to the country possibly to try and kill Mr. Gbagbo. So I wonder whether you have a comment on that.
MR. TONER: Boy, it’s a good thing this is by phone so you can’t see me laughing. I would just say that’s absurd. We continue to call on President Gbagbo to respect the will of the Ivoirian people and to step down and let President-elect Ouattara assume the reins of power there. But to suggest that he has some nefarious plot is ridiculous. That said, we are continuing to work with the international community, our international partners, to impose broad-scale sanctions both individually and in concert on Gbagbo and his supporters if he continues to cling to power.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yep, thank you.
OPERATOR: The next question comes from Courtney Kube.
QUESTION: Hello. Thanks, Mark.
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: I have two questions that I’m going to apologize in advance for. The first one is there have been growing reports, particularly in blogs and on the internet, that Governor Richardson will be the person most likely to replace Secretary Clinton as Secretary of State. Do you guys have any reaction to that?
MR. TONER: Well, I accept your apology in advance – (laughter) – but no reaction and nothing to say about Governor Richardson’s future plans, so --
QUESTION: And the second one is a little bit more serious. Have there been any – are there any – are you considering any changes, security changes specifically, to embassies in light of several package bombs in Italy recently at embassies?
MR. TONER: Thanks, Courtney. That is actually a serious question and a fair one. I can check on it. I asked for an update this morning – have not yet received it. But obviously, in a situation like that, every embassy would review its security procedures and its posture, frankly. We obviously have a Travel Alert out that remains in effect for Europe and a heightened risk of terrorist incidents. I would imagine that all our embassies in the region, and frankly, throughout the world, are reviewing their procedures in light of those attacks. But I’ll try to find out if there’s any specific actions.
QUESTION: Okay. Cool, thank you.
MR. TONER: Sure.
OPERATOR: Next question comes from Aya Wati.
MR. TONER: Hi.
QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Thanks for doing this. I have a question on North Korea, and I apologize if someone else has asked this already, but there have been some press reports that the U.S. and China agrees that the next step should be a dialogue between North Korea and South Korea. Can you confirm that?
MR. TONER: I really can’t confirm it. You’re – I’m sorry. You’re saying a dialogue between --
QUESTION: Between North Korea and South Korea should be the first step, in terms of North Korea situation, rather than having Six-Party Talks.
MR. TONER: No. I’m unaware of any kind of plan of that nature or any suggestion of that nature.
QUESTION: What’s the understanding between the U.S. and China on this, the North Korea --
MR. TONER: The understanding between – well, I mean, obviously China is an important partner in maintaining regional diplomacy, if you will, as well as stability, and obviously it has a unique relationship with North Korea, and we’re going to continue to work with China to urge North Korea to live up to its commitments, refrain from provocative actions, and to act responsibly.
QUESTION: Just one more follow-up. Do you think that China played a role in convincing North Korea not to retaliate against South Korea during the drill?
MR. TONER: It’s a fair question, one you’re really going to have to ask China. Just to answer your last question too, obviously – or in response to your previous question, obviously Deputy Secretary Steinberg and Special Representative Bosworth were just in Beijing, and those are, obviously, concrete signs of our continuing close consultation with China. So we recognize China’s unique role, and we’re going to continue working with China to try to calm tensions in the region. That’s obviously an avenue we’re going to keep working.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yep.
OPERATOR: Next question comes from Samir Nader.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Hi, Mark.
MR. TONER: Hey, Samir.
QUESTION: The Israeli foreign minister was quoted saying that the agreement peace deal with the Palestinians is impossible and the Palestinian Authority is not legitimate because they postponed elections, and Abbas term expires next month, and there’s no date for a new election. And the prime minister is avoiding any comment on these statements. So do you have any reaction to this?
MR. TONER: I don’t, Samir. I’ve seen the remarks. It doesn’t change our posture or our policy one bit. We continue to work to bring both parties back into direct negotiations and to achieve a comprehensive settlement. And frankly, responding to various comments by various officials or government officials is not an effective way to do that. We’re trying to maintain close consultations with both parties, and again, in an effort that will lead to direct negotiations and ultimately a comprehensive settlement.
QUESTION: One more. Many countries in South America are recognizing a Palestinian state now in a unilateral way. Are you giving an orange light to these countries, or are you going to take any actions against them?
MR. TONER: I’m not sure what an orange light is.
QUESTION: I mean, are you letting them go ahead?
MR. TONER: I know a yellow light, a red light, and a green light. I don’t --
QUESTION: I mean, yellow light, yellow.
MR. TONER: That’s okay, Samir. We’ve been very, very clear about our concerns regarding unilateral actions by either party that would in any way jeopardize what remains our ultimate goal, which is to return to direct negotiations and to reach a final – or a comprehensive settlement, a peace settlement. So – and we’ve said on the record many times that we would believe that Palestinian efforts for unilateral independence would fall into that category.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yep.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Charley Keyes.
MR. TONER: Hi, Charley.
QUESTION: Hey, Mark, thanks for doing this. Just more on embassy security. I was wondering whether you’re familiar with those reports out of London that the terror suspects arrested last week apparently are indicating that the U.S. Embassy was on the target list.
MR. TONER: I am aware and, obviously, our folks in London are aware of this, are working quite closely with British authorities, and appreciate the high level of cooperation that we have with them and are obviously taking suitable security precautions.
QUESTION: And so you’re not – you’re saying that you are receiving this firsthand information from official London authorities?
MR. TONER: I think you asked me if we were aware that we were on the targeting list.
MR. TONER: And I confirmed that.
QUESTION: Okay, great. Thanks so much.
OPERATOR: Next question comes from Tejinder Singh.
MR. TONER: Hi, Tejinder.
QUESTION: Hello, Mark. Sorry for coming back again, but I was just being quite frustrated with the no news coming out of Governor Richardson’s office much about his trip, and P.J. had tweeted that the Governor has already briefed the State Department. So will it be possible to give us some kind of summary of what he was up to there and what did he achieve and what kind of support or confirmation he has now for his plans from the State Department?
MR. TONER: Tejinder, you’re absolutely right; P.J. did tweet that Governor Richardson had called Deputy Secretary Steinberg on --
MR. TONER: -- on December 23rd. Beyond basically what P.J. said that the governor provided his perspective on his visit to North Korea, I really don’t have anything to add. It’s not for us to put into – put the Governor’s – what am I trying to say here? It’s not for us to try to articulate what the Governor’s trip was about and what his goals were and what he accomplished there or found out there. That’s really for the Governor to do.
QUESTION: But the final fallout will be on the U.S.-Korean relations or Korean relations with the rest of the world, not with New Mexico, the state of New Mexico.
MR. TONER: I understand that, but his visit was a private visit.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
MR. TONER: Thank you, Tejinder.
OPERATOR: Next question comes from Matt Negrin.
QUESTION: Hi. Governor Richardson said in a TV interview on Thursday that the Administration signed off on his trip to North Korea. Did that happen?
MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of.
QUESTION: Do you know why he would say that or what would give him that indication?
MR. TONER: Well, I do not. It was a private visit. I think we said that it was a private visit all along. I’m not – frankly, I don’t know if there were – what level or how many contacts there were prior to the December 23rd phone call. Obviously, in the past, there has been communications when he’s undertaken these kinds of trips, but this was a private visit and I frankly just can’t confirm either way whether it was – whether – or what would make him say that.
QUESTION: All right. I think his office said that officials at the State Department, per the Administration, told him as long as he said it’s a private mission or a private trip, then to kind of go ahead. So was there kind of like a tacit approval that as long as he gave it that label he was free to go?
MR. TONER: Again, U.S. citizens are free to travel to North Korea in a private capacity, so I can’t really speak to it. It’s not for us to give approval. Governor Richardson was kind enough to call Deputy Secretary Steinberg and offer his perspective on the trip and what he found out there. Obviously, he brings a great deal of knowledge, and we value his perspective, but I’m not going to comment beyond that.
QUESTION: Okay, sure. And one more question. What were you seeking from him in his report back to you? What did you want to hear?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I think I just said it. Governor Richardson is an individual with a deep knowledge of North Korea and has made trips there in the past, and so, obviously, we value his perspective and his insights. Our policy remains the same, but obviously, we welcome the input of individuals, private American citizens with his level of expertise and knowledge.
QUESTION: Great, thanks.
MR. TONER: Yep.
OPERATOR: Next question comes from Joe Shaw.
MR. TONER: Yes. I don't have the chapter and verse in front of me, but I believe that’s the – with legitimate swaps. I’d have to check the wording, so I’m hesitant to say on the record because I don't have the wording in front of me. But we’ve said it many times on the record, and I just would refer you to previous statements by Senator Mitchell.
OPERATOR: Okay. We have no further questions.
MR. TONER: Great. Well, thanks, everyone. Again, as events or news dictates, we’ll try to do a couple more of these this week. I appreciate it, and have a good Monday and stay warm.
OPERATOR: This concludes today’s conference. Please disconnect at this time.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:37 p.m.)
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