2:03 p.m. EDT
MR. TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. A couple of things at the top, and then I’ll take your questions.
We condemn the attack on innocent civilians in southern Israel in the strongest possible terms, as well as ongoing rocket fire from Gaza. As we have reiterated many times, there’s no justification for the targeting of innocent civilians, and those responsible for these terrorist acts should be held accountable. We are particularly concerned about reports that indicate the use of an advanced anti-tank weapon in an attack against civilians and reiterate that all countries have obligations under relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions to prevent illicit trafficking in arms and ammunition.
Also just a brief statement --
QUESTION: Can we stay on that just for one second?
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead, Matt.
QUESTION: Apparently, the target of that was a school bus. Does that add to your outrage?
MR. TONER: Well, any attack on innocent civilians is abhorrent, but certainly the nature of the attack is particularly so.
Just a quick statement about the travel of Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson. He’ll be heading to Nigeria from April 8th to 11th to observe the country’s national assembly elections scheduled for Saturday, April 9th. The Independent National Election Commission postponed the national assembly elections that were due to be held on April 2nd due to delays in the delivery of voting materials to polling stations throughout the country.
As Secretary Carson commented yesterday, we share the disappointment of the electoral commission and the Nigerian people that this important electoral event had to be postponed, and we renew our call for credible and transparent elections in this critically important country. We believe Nigeria has an historic opportunity to allow the Nigerian people to elect their local, state, and national representatives in a climate free of violence and intimidation, and we hope that opportunity won’t be lost.
MR. TONER: Well, Assistant Secretary Valenzuela called in Ambassador Gallegos at 10:30 this morning and informed him of our decision to declare him persona non grata. I believe he’s required to depart the United States as soon as possible.
QUESTION: Okay. And what was the reason given?
MR. TONER: Well, the unjustified action of the Ecuadorian Government in declaring Ambassador Hodges persona non grata left us no other option than this reciprocal action. And I believe we said when I announced Ambassador Hodges – that she was declared persona non grata, I said we were considering actions, and this is one of those.
QUESTION: Does this – this is one of them? There was also --
MR. TONER: Well, we also suspended the --
MR. TONER: Sorry.
QUESTION: No. Continue. Go ahead.
MR. TONER: We’re also suspending the bilateral dialogue which had been scheduled, I think, for June.
QUESTION: Right. And is that it? Does – the case is closed now?
MR. TONER: Well --
QUESTION: Or are there other actions that could happen as well?
MR. TONER: I have nothing, obviously, to announce other than what we’ve just talked about. We’re interested in a positive relationship with Ecuador, but the regrettable and unwarranted decision to declare Ambassador Hodges persona non grata is going to be taken into account as we move forward in the relationship.
QUESTION: Right. Well, but do you expect any further action to be taken as a result of her being PNG’d?
MR. TONER: I don’t have any – nothing to announce right now.
QUESTION: By suspending the bilateral dialogue, does that mean trade ties will be affected, economic relations? Could you give us the practical effect of that?
MR. TONER: Well, again, these are high-level consultations. I believe they were announced when the Secretary was in Ecuador a year ago. As far as practical impact, it does impede the progress that we were hoping to make in these talks on a wide variety of issues, including trade and economic issues.
Yeah. Go ahead.
MR. TONER: Are we ready to go to Pakistan?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: A spokesperson of the Pakistan foreign ministry today said that Pakistan doesn't agree with the Administration assessment – the report that White House had sent to the Congress on the fight against terrorism and most of the comments were unwarranted. Do you have any comments on that?
MR. TONER: Well, it’s a White House report so I’d refer you to the White House. We obviously remain engaged with Pakistan in the struggle against counterterrorism – or the struggle against terrorism and extremism. And our counterterrorism efforts are critical to that progress. We’re also trying to help work with Pakistan to build their institutions and strengthen their democracy in order to create a better, more prosperous future for the Pakistani people.
We’ve talked about some of the challenges that they face, but for more detail on the report I’d refer you to the White House.
QUESTION: Pakistan says the U.S. is unduly criticize – is unduly critical of the activities against terrorism.
MR. TONER: Of --
QUESTION: Unduly critical of Pakistan’s actions against terrorism and they are doing a lot but U.S. is not satisfied (inaudible).
MR. TONER: Again, for particular details on the report itself, which I believe was congressionally mandated, I refer you to the White House. But obviously, we’ve talked a lot from this podium and elsewhere about the challenges in – that Pakistan faces, indeed the existential threats from terrorism that Pakistan faces, and the need to confront those threats. And we’re trying to work with them in a cooperative fashion to tackle those challenges.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Libya.
QUESTION: Mark, what can you tell us about this – these four journalists apparently who have been taken by the forces loyal to Qadhafi?
MR. TONER: I don’t have a lot of detail. I’m well aware of the case. I believe it is four journalists. Since we don’t have a diplomatic presence there, we’re trying to work through a variety of contacts to try and obtain information on them and to provide any possible assistance.
As you know, since February 24th, we have warned U.S. citizens against travel to Libya, and in fact, we reiterated that when the – that warning when we began operations to install a no-fly zone over Libya. We recommend that any U.S. citizens in Libya depart immediately, and we remind U.S. citizens that all embassy operations were suspended on February 25th given the ongoing violence and deteriorating security situation.
So it’s unclear. We’re trying to get more information about their whereabouts, and again, we’re trying to use contacts that we may still have there and try to get information on them.
QUESTION: And also, just – the situation right now is looking pretty bleak for the opposition, the rebels pulling out of Ajdabiyah, concern – we’ve heard from the military that this is turning into just a standoff. What’s the perspective from here?
MR. TONER: Well, again, it’s a very fluid situation. I think the Secretary spoke very eloquently about some of the challenges that the opposition forces are facing, that these are not soldiers, that they’re doctors, lawyers, professors. They lack military training. Our Envoy Chris Stevens is on the ground in Benghazi. He’s going to stay there for several more days, at least. He’s working with the opposition members to try to get a good sense of what kind of assistance we can – practical assistance we can provide them, what are their needs and how we can help them moving forward. But you’re absolutely right; there is a sense of urgency here.
QUESTION: And then also, in terms of recognizing that – and that’s always a subtext here – but would that really change things? I mean, what would happen if the U.S. recognized them? What could the U.S. do for them that it can’t do now?
MR. TONER: Well, it’s a good point, Jill, and that has become a frequently asked question. And what’s – what I think is important is that we try to provide the kind of assistance that they need on the ground, and recognition certainly carries with it some international cache. But really, what’s important for them right now is targeted assistance, both humanitarian assistance, other non-lethal forms of assistance that can help them both in their struggle against Qadhafi’s forces, but also in establishing themselves as a political entity.
QUESTION: Mark, you said that – when you were asked about the journalists, you said that you’re trying to find out information through a variety of contacts. What would those contacts be? The Turks? Are you – have you somewhat tried to get in touch with --
MR. TONER: That would be – that would be --
QUESTION: -- Weldon, who --
MR. TONER: I’m not – Matt, that’s actually a good question. I’m not aware that we’ve raised it with Representative Weldon. I’m not aware that we’ve had any contact with him since he told us he was traveling there, but certainly through the Turks.
QUESTION: Congressman Weldon, is he violating any U.S. law given that you have a lot of sanctions against Qadhafi?
MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of, there’s no violation in his traveling there, and we certainly don’t restrict the travel of any Americans anywhere in the world, as I talked about yesterday. But just, again, to reiterate what I said yesterday, he’s a private citizen and this is a private trip.
QUESTION: Can you say, on Chris Stevens, whether he’s come to any sort of interim assessment at this point --
MR. TONER: I don’t.
QUESTION: -- or come to a better understanding – can you say at least a better understanding of the opposition?
MR. TONER: Well, I think he is certainly getting a better assessment of who they are and what they need on the ground, and also he’s there, obviously, with – we talked about with the USAID – Agency for International Development – Disaster Assistance Response Team, DART team. And they’re, again, assessing kind of the humanitarian side of the situation in Benghazi and how we can bring assistance to bear in that regard too.
I will certainly try, coming down tomorrow, to – or tomorrow to get you a better readout. I’m not aware that he’s given us one yet, or a midterm assessment, if you will.
QUESTION: Do you know if he has any plans to leave Benghazi and go anywhere else inside Libya?
MR. TONER: I do not.
QUESTION: Is that you don’t know or that he does not?
MR. TONER: I don't know.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.
QUESTION: And Mark, just getting back to the recognition part, you’ve outlined some of the things. I mean, they have to talk – say the right things about democracy, human rights, et cetera. But are there other concrete things that you could list for us that the United States is looking at, triggers or --
MR. TONER: Well, again, as I said, Chris Stevens is there. We sent somebody in to get that kind of on-the-ground assessment of their identity, of their leadership structure, to talk with them firsthand, and to see what direction we think they’re moving in. We’ve seen some positive signals. Ambassador Cretz has been in close contact with them. We’ve been encouraged by many of the public statements they’ve made as well as what they’ve said in private in terms of respecting human rights and also in terms of trying to create a democratic transition that’s inclusive.
So we’ve seen the right things. It’s – there’s not necessarily a checklist or a laundry list, but we believe it’s moving in the right direction. And I would just add that we’re well aware that there is an urgency here and we’re trying to move as quickly but as prudently as possible.
Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Mark, tomorrow, if – or even today, if you could tell us in a little detail who he’s been meeting with?
MR. TONER: I will try to get that. I mean, we’ve been – we’ve tried not to get down to that level of detail, but I can see what I can get for you.
QUESTION: Okay. And separately, at the control group meeting on Libya coming up in Qatar --
MR. TONER: Contact group.
QUESTION: Contact group.
MR. TONER: That’s okay.
MR. TONER: CG.
QUESTION: CG. Who are you guys sending?
MR. TONER: We haven’t determined who’s going to represent us at that meeting.
MR. TONER: Still – once we have something to announce, we’ll let you know.
QUESTION: Different topic?
MR. TONER: Yeah, but can I go --
QUESTION: Just one more?
MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: I always love to --
MR. TONER: That’s okay. Close it up.
QUESTION: -- confirm – yeah, but there’s still a few things out there. The U.S. is not – on Libya, the U.S. still is not to the point where they are – where they’re saying, "Let’s arm the rebels," right? That decision has not been made?
MR. TONER: That decision has not been made.
QUESTION: Okay. So at this point, it’s humanitarian aid?
MR. TONER: Other nonlethal aid that we’ve talked about. Certainly, humanitarian assistance is one of them, but also other kind of financial assistance that – to help them basically keep functioning as an entity.
QUESTION: That’s being provided?
MR. TONER: No, it’s being considered right now.
QUESTION: Being considered, okay.
QUESTION: Could you define nonlethal aid? Could it be boots, uniforms, military uniforms, or vehicles that are not armed?
MR. TONER: That’s a good question. I’ll try to get more specifics on that. But other things that have been discussed are training – again, also we’re trying to help them establish themselves as a political entity too, and certainly we’ve been encouraged by their efforts but we’re trying to help them strengthen themselves. And they – again, they will need financial wherewithal to continue as well. So those are all kind of things on the table and – but I’ll try to get a better list for you.
QUESTION: Legally, is – if you do not recognize them, are you stopped from providing certain things? Does recognition bring with it the ability, the legal possibility, of doing other things, giving them money, giving them anything?
MR. TONER: Well, I think it would certainly add a different dimension to it, but I think we can still – there are still a lot of things we can do for them without – short of recognition. But certainly, recognition is something on the table. I don’t want to preclude that. Just that we’re not there yet.
Go ahead, David.
QUESTION: Different subject. A group in Washington, apparently that represents the MEK, the Iranian outfit, said that it has turned over to the U.S. some information about a new nuclear facility in Iran. Have you received that? Do you have any – are you grateful to get it?
MR. TONER: We’ve not. I’m aware of the story you’re talking about and I believe –
QUESTION: We’ve not what?
MR. TONER: We’ve not received it. Sorry. We – I don’t believe it’s come to the Department of State. I would refer you to DNI for more information about that. But again, just to reiterate our longstanding position that we believe Iran continues to flaunt international sanctions against it and needs to address the international community’s very real concerns about its nuclear program, and that hasn’t changed.
QUESTION: So you –
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: So in other words, you’re not aware that anyone in this building has seen this new report?
MR. TONER: I’m not.
QUESTION: Do you have concerns about what the report says?
MR. TONER: We always have concerns about this kind of information.
Sean, and then – sorry, Sean.
QUESTION: Do you have an idea of what the Secretary and Ban Ki-moon will discuss this afternoon?
MR. TONER: Well, we can all probably guess. They’re going to discuss a range of issues, obviously. There’s so much on the multilateral plate at this point in time. There’ll be a – they’ll be discussing – obviously, first and foremost, they’ll be discussing Libya, but also almost of equal weight is the situation in Cote d’Ivoire. Beyond international crises, they’ll talk about ongoing efforts to see the UN reform itself as well as improve some of its management practices. I can say that we’re going to get a – try to get you guys a more fulsome readout once they meet later in the day.
QUESTION: Well, wait a second. The meeting’s at 4:45. What time is this readout going to be?
MR. TONER: Do you have a deadline or –
QUESTION: Well, it’s just such a nice day outside – (laughter) – not to be stuck here.
MR. TONER: I thought the Associated Press never slept.
QUESTION: No, we don’t. But I’d like to get out of here at a relatively decent hour. (Laughter.) No?
MR. TONER: Your point is well taken. It is a beautiful day.
QUESTION: I mean, how long do you expect that meeting to go on?
MR. TONER: I don’t – we will – I will broach it with all due sense of urgency.
QUESTION: Boy, it’s too bad the deadline wasn’t last night. On that point, what are the latest plans for the shutdown, possible shutdown?
MR. TONER: Oh, I see where you are. I’m sorry, just to finish, did you have another question about Ban Ki-moon?
QUESTION: I had a shutdown question --
MR. TONER: Shutdown question, then.
QUESTION: -- about passports and visas.
MR. TONER: I don’t have a lot more information than what I said yesterday, but we obviously – in terms of American citizen services, we’re going to continue to provide services that are vital to the national security of the United States. And so emergency consular services to U.S. citizens in need certainly fall into that category. Let me just say before diving into some of this stuff that we’re still very much hopeful that Congress was going to come to a resolution. We believe that that would be in the best interests of our country and allow us, the State Department, to continue our mission around the world.
In terms of passport services, the Department will provide limited emergency passport services only. The specifics of that planning are still evolving. But if a shutdown occurs, we’ll certainly communicate all of this to you, and in fact, we’ll do it – we’ll try to do it in advance of a shutdown since the deadline, as Matt clarified yesterday, is late on a Friday evening and people have appointments on Monday morning. So all of that is certainly taken under consideration.
QUESTION: Some people have appointments on Sunday morning.
MR. TONER: Indeed.
QUESTION: So I’m –
MR. TONER: We’re – I’m well aware of the fact that this is happening –
QUESTION: But what – but – so can you talk about the visa –
MR. TONER: Sure. The visa –
QUESTION: Foreigners who are applying for visas, are they –
MR. TONER: They’ll provide – sorry. Just lastly on visa services, in the event of a shutdown, the Department will provide limited emergency visas only. And in the event that we should have to cancel visa appointments, we’ll make every effort to notify visa applicants as soon as possible. We would also advise visa applicants to check our website, travel.state.gov, before their scheduled interviews. And certainly at the local level, embassies will be provided that kind of information.
QUESTION: What rises to the level of an emergency?
MR. TONER: Emergency visas?
QUESTION: You said emergency cases for passports and visas. What rises to that level?
MR. TONER: For example, someone who has a loved one who is critically or terminally ill, I can imagine, or an emergency – a family emergency that requires them to travel would be such a case, or someone who is in some way injured or needs to get home immediately. Again, these are all cases that seasoned consular officers overseas can evaluate and adjudicate.
QUESTION: And the White House today during their briefing said that the embassies would be functioning in a limited capacity. Can you explain what functions will be working at the Embassy beyond consular and what will not be?
MR. TONER: Again, I think the best way to characterize it is that those functions that we believe are in the interest – in our national security interest and leave it there for now. We’ll get more details as we approach the deadline, but obviously consular services, American citizen services fall under that rubric. But other vital missions within the Embassy, we’re going to retain those functions clearly. We’re not going to shirk our responsibilities.
QUESTION: And can you speak more broadly about the practical effect of a shutdown, given everything that’s going on in the world, how it would affect your ability to operate?
MR. TONER: Well, it’s a good question, Kirit. I mean, obviously we remain hopeful that all of this can be avoided, and we can remain – our diplomats around the world can remain hard at work carrying out the mission of the State Department and carrying out the national security of the United States. But obviously, anything that affects our personnel overseas, our staffing overseas is going to have an impact, and as I said yesterday, it’s a different world than it was in the mid-90s, and so there’s different technological capabilities that are required.
All of this is going to come to bear. We’re still coming up with a list of essential personnel, and we will have more information on that. But this is still evolving. But there’s going to be an impact. There’s a lot going on in the world, indeed, with crises in Libya, in Japan, obviously, coming – still reeling from the earthquake, tsunami, and the nuclear situation there. And I believe that we will retain, as I said, those core functions that allow us to safeguard the national security.
QUESTION: I guess that sort of answers my question. I was trying to figure out how – just how concerned you are about how affected your operations will be, especially given all the things you just mentioned.
MR. TONER: I’m not going to say we’re not concerned. I mean, obviously it’s going to have an effect. But I think what’s important is that we take our mission very seriously. We’re a national security agency, and we’re going to do our upmost to ensure that we’re able to carry out that mission.
QUESTION: I just want to double-check on the passports and the visas and how that works. Essentially, nothing, except if you have some emergency, will happen. So if you’ve already been and had your interview and you’re just waiting for the passport, which you thought might come this week or next, it’s – no one’s going to be mailing it out.
MR. TONER: I don’t have that level of detail. There’s – for people who have already paid money or have appointments, I think that some of that may be affected, indeed, but in – only in the sense that they’ll be delayed, obviously. They’re not going to be canceled. We will, obviously, assess the situation going forward. We hope that any shutdown would be short in duration and we’ll be able to respond to those people as soon as we can.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
MR. TONER: Sure.
MR. TONER: I don’t. I can try to get something more for you on his trip. I mean, I think he’s left Beijing now. I believe he’s on his way home. We talked a little bit in previewing his trip about some of the goals. But – and I believe in China he was talking about the upcoming meetings there, but I’ll try to get more detail for you.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
QUESTION: Can you confirm that Secretary is planning to visit Japan next week?
MR. TONER: I cannot confirm. As soon as we have something to announce, we’ll let you know.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) earlier today that Chinese activist Ai Weiwei is now being investigated for suspected economic hate crimes. Do you have a comment on that?
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve been pretty clear where we stand on this issue and believe – in fact, Ambassador Huntsman gave a speech yesterday in which he raised some of these concerns – I guess it was a couple days ago in Shanghai – and mentioned this case and others. And we certainly remained concerned by this trend that’s taking place right now.
Yeah. In the back.
QUESTION: Mark, the North Korean Chief Nuclear Envoy Kim Kye Gwan traveled to Beijing yesterday to coincide with Assistant Secretary Campbell’s visit there. So do you have any comment on that?
MR. TONER: About his travel to Beijing? And what was the second part?
QUESTION: To coincide with Campbell’s visit there.
MR. TONER: I’m not aware that there was any attempt to – certainly, there was no attempt on our side to have the visits coincide.
QUESTION: Meeting there between the --
MR. TONER: They did not meet.
QUESTION: Yeah. One of the Japanese news services reported that Secretary Clinton is going to go to Japan. Last night, they were saying they couldn’t confirm it and no announcement yet. Anything new, though, now?
MR. TONER: Nothing today. We – they just said that, but –
QUESTION: Rewind. Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:28 p.m.)