12:48 p.m. EDT
MR. TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. Nothing for you at the top.
Matt, you look puzzled.
QUESTION: No, not puzzled.
MR. TONER: Okay.
MR. TONER: Nothing to announce yet.
QUESTION: No, that’s not what I meant. I mean in terms of your reaction to what’s happening on the ground. Things seem to be getting worse.
MR. TONER: Well, I can say that Ambassador Ford is wrapping up his consultations and he’ll be headed back later this afternoon. Obviously, it’s very important for him to get back on the ground, where he can go back to his vital work to outreach to the Syrian opposition as well as continue to press our concerns with the Syrian Government.
As for the situation on the ground today, I’ve seen some news reporting. We’re obviously still concerned by the level of violence that’s being carried out on the people of Hama. And as you saw yesterday, the UN Security Council came out with a strong statement condemning that violence. It was important that they speak with one voice, and we achieved that goal, so --
QUESTION: Did the Administration give any thought to not sending Ambassador Ford back?
MR. TONER: We have always believed and continue to believe that his presence there in Syria is in our national interest.
QUESTION: So that means no, there was no consideration given despite the calls from the Hill?
MR. TONER: Again, all I can do is – I thought I answered it pretty directly, saying we continue to believe his presence in Syria is in our national security interest.
QUESTION: You expect him to be back there – what, tonight, tomorrow?
MR. TONER: I don’t know how long a plane flight it is, off the top of my head. Probably tomorrow.
QUESTION: Will he stay in Damascus or will he travel around again?
MR. TONER: I spoke to him. I don’t know that he has any immediate travel plans.
QUESTION: Did you hear about the statement made by Asad about approving the law – election law and multiparty system law and so on that becomes --
MR. TONER: Which rings hollow while he’s – while his forces continue to carry out attacks on the city of Hama.
QUESTION: So you don’t take that seriously?
MR. TONER: Again, we’ve seen so much empty rhetoric from him that it’s hard to take any of it seriously.
QUESTION: That’s what I wanted to ask you about. I mean, there’s reports of over a hundred dead in Hama in just the past 24 hours. I mean, has your Embassy been able to – have the – have you guys been hearing the same thing in terms of death toll? And do you have anything to say, other than that you’re concerned about it?
MR. TONER: Right, Kirit. Which is one of the reasons I referred to news reports just now. I mean, they’re trying to get clear information on the ground, but obviously, given the lack of access and the lack of media, it’s very difficult to get hard, certain figures about what’s going on there.
QUESTION: Could I have a quick follow-up?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: When Matt asked you, you said not yet, as of any action and so on. Does that mean something is imminent --
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve said that – I mean, the Secretary has said as much in her statement, that we’re looking at next steps to put pressure on Asad.
QUESTION: What are these steps likely to include?
MR. TONER: What?
QUESTION: What are they likely to include?
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve talked about a number of actions. I think generally, what I can say is that we’re looking at ways to increase both political and financial pressure on Asad, and look at ways to put a squeeze on them – on his regime, if you will, so that they – the – to constrain their revenue and to make it harder for them to carry out these kind of assaults.
QUESTION: The EU announced their sanctions this morning and they did not include anything on the oil and gas industry, which the activists and many others say is the one thing that could squeeze Asad and his company. What does the U.S. think about these sorts of sanctions which are not – which don’t go after one of the main moneymakers for the regime?
MR. TONER: I think it’s all important because, as I said, it’s not so much a one-off sanction, if you will, a one-off action. What’s important is that we continue to build the pressure. Again, we’re looking at sanctions, additional sanctions and measures we can take in the days coming, and we’re going to continue to look at additional measures we can take that apply that pressure.
Anything else on Syria? Anything else?
MR. TONER: Okay. Thought I was out very easily today. Okay.
QUESTION: U.S. is still in the process of evaluation of North Korean food situation on the humanitarian basis. Do you think North Korea is qualified for food aid?
MR. TONER: Well, again, as you know, we sent our food assessment teams, I guess a little over a month or so ago, to North Korea. They’ve returned; we’ve been analyzing what they found. And again, I think we’re trying to assess whether we can provide food assistance in a way that’s consistent with our policy. That’s completely divorced and unrelated to our concerns about – other concerns, if you will, about human rights and – as well as about North Korea’s nuclear program. It’s basically centered on our ability to provide food aid and to monitor its distribution. And until we’re certain of that, we’re not going to, certainly, move forward with any decisions.
MR. TONER: I apologize; you said food aid?
QUESTION: Flood aid.
MR. TONER: Flood aid, all right. I thought so.
QUESTION: Yeah. Sorry. And given the fact the United States also sent flood aid last year to North Korea, I was wondering if the State Department is aware of or assessing the situation in North Korea regarding the flood aid.
MR. TONER: Regarding specific aid assistance for their flooding?
QUESTION: This – the damages from floods.
MR. TONER: I’m not aware that we’re looking at it. I’ll take the question.
QUESTION: And has North Korea asked United States for any flood aid so far?
MR. TONER: I’ll take both questions.
MR. TONER: Iraq.
QUESTION: A North Korean follow-up?
MR. TONER: North Korea and then Iraq. Sorry, Said.
QUESTION: The North Korea delegation, they flew to China right after the meeting in the U.S., and they are likely to meet President Hu in Beijing. Do you think this kind of dialogue will reinforce the dialogue that – the outcome in – between the North Korea and the U.S.? And do you think it’s any step closer to the Six-Party Talks?
MR. TONER: Well, sure. I mean, China is a vital Six-Party Talks partner. And certainly, they play a unique role in terms of their – in terms of influence with North Korea. So we believe this kind of dialogue can be useful. We have continually consulted with China about how it can use its influence with North Korea. And as I said, they’re a partner in the Six-Party Talks, and we believe they’ll deliver a coherent message on the part of our other partners in the Six-Party process to North Korea.
QUESTION: Next week, South Korean delegations (inaudible) will visit here Washington, D.C.
MR. TONER: Will be here in Washington, right.
QUESTION: Then you also discussion about that.
MR. TONER: And I don’t – yeah, and I’m sure certainly we’ll consult about next steps, but I don’t have any details of the visit, who they’ll meet with. I’ll try to get that for you next week.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yeah. And now Iraq.
QUESTION: Yes, sir. Last week, the inspector general for Iraq issued an abysmal report on the spark of violence, that it’s much worse today than it was a year ago. One, how does this impact your operations in Iraq? And second, how does this factor into the request for increased presence beyond the 31st of December for the U.S. military?
MR. TONER: For the U.S. military – well, in answer to your second question first, we intend to fulfill our obligations under the security agreement signed in 2008 which calls for U.S. forces to withdraw by the end of the year. That said, we also said all along that we would certainly listen to an Iraqi request for additional support in the area of security. And the Iraqis say they would like to discuss training support – you saw the other day – I think it was yesterday or the day before – in support – or training support in the context of the Strategic Framework Agreement. And we certainly stand ready to talk to them about the request.
In terms of the report that came out over the weekend, there certainly may be an uptick in violence, but I think the overall trend lines that we’re still seeing in Iraq over the last four to five years have certainly showed a sharp decrease in violence. And those statistics point to a steady decrease on the part of attacks on both innocent Iraqis as well as U.S. forces. So the general trend line is positive. That said, we have also been clear-eyed about our assessment that some of these extremist elements that still exist in Iraq are going to try to take advantage of this transition period, and they’re doing so. They’re trying to carry out attacks. They’re trying to disrupt the order and are carrying out these senseless attacks in an effort to sow chaos and create disorder. That’s what they do.
However, we continue to believe that Iraqi security forces are strong enough and have the capability to provide security. That said, again, we are also fully aware of the increased security needs that are going to be put on our Embassy, our mission, our personnel as the U.S. military withdraws, and we’re taking steps to address those.
QUESTION: The fact that you believe that Iraqi security generally – in a general tend is improving, upon fulfilling your agreement, the SOFA agreement signed back three, four years ago and leaving, do you fear that these groups will fill a vacuum, like the Naqshbandi movement, like the Jaish al-Mahdi, and all – the Mahdi Army and all these things, they will take advantage?
MR. TONER: Well, I think they’ll attempt to. I mean, I think they’ll attempt to ratchet up the violence. That’s their MO, if you will. And we just need to be aware of that and to take measures and to work with Iraqi partners in providing security certainly for our personnel. And overall Iraqi security forces, we believe, do have the capacity and the capability and the will to provide security for the Iraqi people.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Andy.
MR. TONER: You’re right; she will meet with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird in just a couple of hours. Overall, they’ll talk about U.S.-Canadian cooperation on security, economic, and environmental issues that are critical to both our nations. They’ll also likely discuss Libya and Syria as well as events in the broader Middle East. And certainly, they’ll probably talk about Western Hemisphere issues writ large, both security and other bilateral initiatives.
In terms of whether they’ll specifically raise the issue of Keystone, I can’t preclude that it won’t come up. I mean, they’re talking about bilateral issues, but I don’t have specifics.
MR. TONER: You’re talking about the presidential directive on --
QUESTION: Yeah, this Atrocities Prevention Board. I realize it came out of the White House, but I wanted a couple things from the State Department. You are familiar with it, yes?
MR. TONER: I am familiar with it, yes.
QUESTION: Familiar enough to answer some questions about it?
MR. TONER: I’ll try my best, Matt. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Okay. I mean, I don’t think anyone is going to come out – anyone is going to suggest that it’s a bad idea to keep people like this out of the country.
MR. TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: But I wasn’t aware that the U.S. had become a repository for these kinds of – this kind of person. I mean, from the State Department’s point of view, are you routinely approving visas for serial human rights abusers and traffickers in persons?
MR. TONER: Well, certainly not. But these are individuals who may try to seek access to the United States.
QUESTION: They’re denied already, aren’t they?
MR. TONER: Again, this – I think this is trying to apply a systematic approach to these kinds of individuals and trying to create a mechanism that prevents these individuals. You’re right in that already – and we talked a little bit about the program last week in terms of Russia – that there’s already a database where individuals are – individuals we believe are guilty of human rights abuses are added to that system and would be denied a visa or possibly – I mean, I – we always say we adjudicate on the spot, but these are individuals that would be put into our networks so that --
QUESTION: I guess I --
MR. TONER: -- a consular officer adjudicating a visa from one of these people would be aware of their status.
QUESTION: Fair enough, but I – if it’s not a problem now, why is it – why is a new layer of bureaucracy being added to --
MR. TONER: Well, again --
QUESTION: -- to deal with something that isn’t a problem?
MR. TONER: -- I wouldn’t view it as a new layer of bureaucracy. I would view it as a way to --
QUESTION: Well, it’s another interagency board that brings – that sucks up time and money, and just – I don’t – has someone identified that there is a problem, that there are --
MR. TONER: Not at all, and I think that --
QUESTION: -- major numbers of these people coming into the country?
MR. TONER: It’s not just about – by the way, about preventing these individuals from getting visas. It’s beyond that. It’s going to drive – this board that you mentioned, it’s going to drive the development of prevention strategies, it’s going to ensure that any red flags or dissent within the government are raised with the appropriate decision makers about situations abroad. And it talks about an interagency review to make recommendations on how to avoid or prevent atrocities. So there’s a broader policy (inaudible).
QUESTION: I don’t understand. That hasn’t been happening already?
MR. TONER: This has, but this is an effort, I think, to --
QUESTION: It’s an effort to look good. I know.
MR. TONER: It’s an effort to create a mechanism --
QUESTION: I can understand that bit.
MR. TONER: -- that brings in all the elements of government and brings them to bear on this issue.
QUESTION: Why weren’t all of the elements of government already doing this?
MR. TONER: They are, but it’s trying to focus those efforts.
QUESTION: The other thing that it talks about is this deterrent idea, whereby people who are running around committing genocide, or close to it or ethnic cleansing or that kind of thing, can be warned that they will not be allowed to come to the United States if they keep up or if they don’t stop their activities. I just don’t understand the logic behind that.
Does the United – does the Administration really believe that people like Foday Sankoh or his General Butt Naked really care whether they’re going to get – ever get a U.S. visa? I mean, it seems to me that the Administration and past administrations have already put into place these visa denial programs for officials and also lower-level people, but it hasn’t ever worked. They haven’t stopped. Look at Syria today, look at – you can go back on the list of countries that I mentioned yesterday. But I just don’t understand why. I mean --
MR. TONER: I just think, Matt, that it --
QUESTION: -- can’t you warn these people already that they’re not going to come in --
MR. TONER: I think it’s an important --
QUESTION: -- that they’re not going to get in?
MR. TONER: It’s an important additional tool in an effort to strengthen our ability to prevent these kinds of mass human rights atrocities. It’s another way for us to put pressure on individuals in these countries, to say that you’ll never come to the United States either to seek refuge or to visit family or whatever, that your actions – you’ll be held accountable for your actions. And I wouldn’t try to frame it broader beyond that; I just would say that this is another mechanism and tool that’ll help us hone our response and ability to prevent these kinds of atrocities and, where they are happening, apply the appropriate pressure.
QUESTION: Well, are you aware if someone had identified this as a problem, that the U.S. Government lacked an atrocities prevention board?
MR. TONER: Well, I think some of the lessons learned out of Rwanda, for instance. But again, I’ll – I have to get back to you with specific details, but I think that that was among some of the driving factors behind this.
MR. TONER: Sure, Libya.
QUESTION: Now that the decision is made to reopen the embassy, is the embassy reopen now and functioning?
MR. TONER: I don’t know. I mean, as – there’s – we did sign off on the order, if you will, to reopen the embassy, but I don’t know. There’s – again, there’s some other legal matters that need to be handled, but – in our view, that we’ve given the go-ahead for them – the green light for them to reopen.
QUESTION: Would there be anything to stop Mr. Aujali from being accredited as a full-fledged diplomat and ambassador to Libya?
MR. TONER: I don’t believe so. That’s a matter for the TNC and – to nominate him as ambassador.
MR. TONER: Good question. I’ll take it.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) several days ago?
MR. TONER: Yes, I did.
QUESTION: What day?
MR. TONER: Well – but I don’t know if they’ve actually reopened.
QUESTION: Yeah, but what day? It was Monday or Tuesday, wasn’t it?
MR. TONER: Tuesday.
QUESTION: A little bit more on Libya, that – there are – Qadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam gave that interview to the Times where he’s talking about --
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- the Qadhafi government aligning itself with Islamists and the rest of the country, and this will be a powerful force. Does the U.S. have any reason to believe this is a credible threat?
MR. TONER: No. We have no way to confirm the reports. We’ve seen him make these kind of comments before in an apparent attempt to splinter the Libyan opposition. Given the history of repression against Islamic groups by the Qadhafi regime, it’s probably more empty rhetoric, but we have no way to confirm it.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. have any information that would indicate that Islamist factions or groups in any part of the country are working against U.S. interests or against the TNC?
MR. TONER: Well, against U.S. interests, but – I can’t answer that, but I can say that the TNC is working – I think Chris spoke to this – Chris Stevens the other day to – with all of these various militias, whether they be Islamist or otherwise, and as he said, trying to wrap their arms around the issue in an effort to create better cohesion. It’s a challenge, but they’re addressing it.
QUESTION: I mean, there were originally – in the early days, there were concerns raised that Islamists – would sort of take advantage of this situation and this was a potential problem with the rebel movement. To date, however, the U.S. hasn’t seen any evidence of that?
MR. TONER: And I think it’s fair to say that the Transitional National Council is aware of that potential problem and working – but at this point, there’s unity towards the ultimate goal, which is ousting Qadhafi.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) process?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Anything you know on the statement allegedly made by Mr. Netanyahu?
MR. TONER: No. I’m sorry. I don’t. Just to refer you to Netanyahu’s – Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office.
QUESTION: Okay. Now Palestinian sources also that you are exerting a great deal of pressure on them to withdraw their effort toward the United Nations. Could you confirm or deny that?
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:09 p.m.)
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