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Background Briefing: Senior Administration Officials on Camp Ashraf


Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
June 18, 2012

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MODERATOR: Thank you for joining us this morning. This morning we have a call on background. Joining us today are [Senior Administration Official One] and [Senior Administration Official Two]. Because this call is on background, from here on out we’ll refer to our speakers as Senior Administration Official One and Senior Administration Official Two.

So having said that, I will go ahead and turn it over to Senior Administration Official Number One. Go ahead, sir.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Good morning. Thanks for joining us. The State Department just issued a statement about Camp Ashraf expressing concern about the situation there. The statement urges the residents of Ashraf to resume full cooperation with the UN and the Iraqi Government. The statement also urges the Iraqi Government to intensify its efforts to fulfill its commitments to provide for the safety, security, and humanitarian treatment of the residents.

The reason for issuing the statement is that after a period of successful convoys moving from Camp Ashraf to Camp Liberty, where almost two-thirds of the residents of Camp Ashraf have been moved on conditions of safety, this process has slowed down. The last convoy was May 5th. There has been no convoy since.

Since that time, the MEK has curtailed its contacts both with the Iraqi Government but even with the UN, refusing to meet with Ambassador Martin Kobler, the head of the UN mission in Iraq. The Iraqi Government has made clear that it wants Ashraf to be closed by Ramadan, which is July 20th. And we wanted – we, the United States wanted to make clear that we continue to support a peaceful and humane resolution of this – of the problem of Camp Ashraf, and we wanted to put both sides on notice that we are concerned by the prolonged stalemate.

Ambassador Kobler of the UN issued a statement about a week ago expressing his concern and pointing out that we have avoided violence until now (inaudible) since there has been no major violence since April of 2011, and it’s important to continue the relocation process to avoid violence altogether.

We cannot speak with certainty about the reasons for the MEK’s slowdown in its cooperation, but there are two issues that have occurred to us. One, the MEK may have over-interpreted Iraqi politics and the possibility of a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Maliki. That vote appears to be receding. A second reason is it may be an MEK over-interpretation and misunderstanding of the recent D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling with respect to delisting. And my colleague, Senior Administration Number Two, will address that issue.

But we want – in the beginning of this process when the United States backed the UN-Iraqi Memorandum of Understanding to relocate the residents of Camp Ashraf, I promised and [Senior Administration Official Two] promised to keep you all informed, and we are doing so.

A final bit of information: The Iraqi – an Iraqi senior delegation of people directly involved in the movement of residents from Ashraf to Liberty is traveling to Europe this week to explain what they are doing and to urge European countries to accept residents of Camp Liberty as refugees. The United States supports this delegation. We support the governments considering people for refugee or otherwise bringing them in. Now, the United States is prepared to do its part. We take this obligation seriously.

Now, let me stop there and turn it over to my colleague for additional comments.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: All right. Well, thanks for joining us this morning. I really just have one issue to address in this context, which Senior Official One alluded to, and that is the possibility that the MEK has over-interpreted the action of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Specifically, the court did not order the Secretary of State to revoke the MEK designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. It appears that MEK leaders believe that the Secretary has no choice now but to delist them and that is, quite plainly, wrong.

As the Secretary has made clear, the MEK’s cooperation in the successful and peaceful closure of Camp Ashraf will be a key factor in her decision regarding the MEK’s FTO status. She retains complete discretion on this matter. The court has told her to deliver a decision one way or the other. They have not told her to delist.

So it is time for the MEK to recognize that Ashraf is not going to remain an MEK base in Iraq. The Iraqi Government is committed to closing it, and any plan to wait out the government in the hope that something will change it – change its mind – is really quite dangerous. So it is time that the MEK got with the plan here and continued the move from Ashraf to Camp Hurriya. We support that orientation. We think it’s essential, and the MEK should recognize where its interests lie in this regard.

And now I guess we’ll take your questions.

MODERATOR: Operator, if we can go ahead and get our first question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And for those listening on the phone at this time, if you would like to ask an audio question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone and please record your name and media affiliation clearly when prompted. Once again, *1 on your touchtone phone and please record your name and media affiliation clearly when prompted. One moment as we wait for our first questions.

And our first question comes from the line of Jo Bidell with AFP. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Good morning. Thank you for taking my question. I understand the court of district appeals gave Secretary Clinton four months in which to make her decision. Could you just tell us on the timing of that visit, does that take us to the back end of July? And do you think that the Secretary will comply with this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: No. It takes us to October 1st.

QUESTION: Oh, to the (inaudible).

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And the Secretary has made clear that she will obey the court’s order in this regard.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Guy Taylor with The Washington Times. Your line is open, sir.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. Regarding the senior Iraqi delegation that is going to Europe to urge European countries to accept residents of Camp Liberty as refugees and the U.S. obligation to facilitate that or play a role in it, I’m wondering if these individuals are part of a group that remains on the terrorist designation list, how they could be accepted as refugees in European countries. Could you please explain that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: The U.S. maintains the MEK on its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. European countries do not, and the European countries have made clear that our designation is not a legal barrier for them. Whether or not it is a political barrier or an optical barrier is something you’ll have to ask them, but it is not a legal barrier. Moreover, the United States has already made it clear that, for our own part, we are prepared within our law to look at referrals from the UNHCR, the High Commissioner for Refugees, of individuals who may be eligible to bring into the United States one way or another; that is, despite the fact of the listing. This is a legal option, and we are also pursuing it. In other words, we’re not asking Europeans to do something we are in principle unwilling to do ourselves.

OPERATOR: And once again for those on the phone, if you would like to ask an audio question at this time, please press *1 on your touchtone phone and please record your name and affiliation clearly when prompted.

Our next question comes from the line of Joby Warrick with The Washington Post. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Do you have a sense at this point about how many people are still in Ashraf that remain to be brought over? And then how many are – have already made the move? And also if there’s any – if you’re monitoring complaints they have on the ground about conditions – any specific problems that are causing concern for the MEK?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: There are just under 2,000 former Camp Ashraf residents in Camp Hurriya. That is somewhat under two-thirds – we’re not sure of the exact number of people that Camp Ashraf, but it is within the 1,200 to 1,400 range. So somewhere well over half – somewhat shy of two-thirds of the people have already moved.

We follow conditions at Camp Liberty in detail. We receive daily reports from the United Nations. We have an exact notion of the daily water supply. We know that it is – that each resident now receives about 200 liters per person per day of water. We follow the issues – we follow issues of electricity generation, problems with air conditioners, problems with sewage, that sort of thing. Medical treatment is available. The residents who need it are escorted to Baghdad hospitals. They’re allowed back. They’re given treatment. We follow this in great detail.

That said, it is our view that the Iraqi Government could do even more to address some of these issues. In recent weeks, there has been some progress in getting the Government of Iraq and the residents to agree on a way forward to improve humanitarian conditions. We think that if the MEK – if the residents engaged – reengaged fully with Ambassador Kobler, this process would continue – would be – would go faster and easier.

But do follow this – we do follow conditions at Camp Liberty in great detail.

OPERATOR: And once again, if you would like to ask an audio question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone and please record your name and affiliation clearly when prompted. One moment as we wait for our next questions. And we do have another joining. One moment. We do have two – three joining now. One moment.

And our next question comes from the line of James Kitfield with the National Journal. Your line is open, sir.

QUESTION: Thank you, guys, for doing this. Could you give me an idea of what you sense the MEK’s strategy is here? You talked about them maybe over-interpreting the no-confidence vote in Maliki. Say Maliki was – did face a no-confidence vote. Are they allied with the Kurds or with the Sunnis in some way that they think that they would be allowed under some conditions to remain at Ashraf and sort of keep the status quo?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I don’t want to speak authoritatively about MEK thinking, because we simply don’t – we’re not sure we understand it. But there is some evidence, and we – I would say that as an informed speculation, we believe the MEK may indeed calculate that a change of government in Iraq could rebound to their advantage, and they may be able – and they might be able to stay.

They do have some support among the Sunni politicians, but we believe that they are gravely mistaken to think that any Iraq – conceivable Iraqi government would, in fact, allow them to remain as a paramilitary organization in Iraq. We think that their time in Iraq is over. And we – instead of arguing over conditions of convoys, we ought to be putting our full efforts behind getting them out of Iraq and safely resettled, which is why we welcome the Iraqi delegation going to Europe. That’s where our focus should be.

But this is – we can speculate as to their thinking, but we're not sure we understand it. We think it is – we think, though, if they are overconfident, they are making a serious, serious mistake.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Rosalind Jordan with Al Jazeera English Television.

Your line is open, ma’am.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for the call. I had a similar question to that of James Kitfield. What’s their endgame? Why are they doing this? Does it hurt their credibility to be doing something such as this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, it certainly does nothing to help their credibility. European governments are considering taking residents of Camp Liberty as refugees, and some non-European governments as well. And we have argued till we’re blue in the face to the MEK leadership that their interests and their safety would be – would increase if they were seen as fully cooperating. We do not understand why, for example, they consider it in their interest to refuse contact with Martin Kobler, the head of the UN mission in Iraq, who, more than any other person, has – is responsible for the relative success of these relocations so far.

They seem to be concerned with their organizational integrity, and we think they need to concentrate on getting out of Iraq safely. But again, we’re not – I’m not speaking with authority about their motives. All we can do is try to figure out what they’re thinking, judging by their actions and their rhetoric.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I would just add to that that with regard to the court case, they seem to believe that they have won a decisive victory and have failed to read the actual decision, and it appears that they think that delisting is now imminent. And we continue to try to impress upon them that there is no such automaticity, and that we would like to see them continue to move to Hurriya and to dissolve this remaining singular paramilitary camp in Iraq.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: On February 29th, Secretary Clinton said before Congress that leaving – cooperating in the closure of Camp Ashraf would be a key factor in her eventual decision about the FTO status. So as Senior Administration Official Number Two said, that is what we look for.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: And once again, if you'd like to ask an audio question, please press *1 and please record your media affiliation clearly when prompted. Our next question comes from the line of Jo Biddle with the AFP.

Your line is open again, ma’am.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for taking a follow-up question. I note that the UN Envoy Martin Kobler said earlier this month – last week, in fact – that he’s concerned about violence breaking out if the relocation doesn’t go ahead as planned. Could you talk to that, please? Is this a fear that the United States has? And also, could you give us a sense of what the breakdown is among those refugees? Are there men and women among them as well? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: There is a history of violence in relations between the Government of Iraq and the MEK. There was a terrible incident in April of 2011 in which a number of residents of Ashraf were killed. Violence in Iraq is something that happens. So Ambassador Kobler was absolutely right to express his concern about what happens if this process does not move forward. The process is like a bicycle. It moves – if it moves, it is more stable; if it does not move, it is less so.

With respect to refugees, well, about one-third of the residents of Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty are women. The UNHCR has teams on the ground and is devoting great energy to processing people for refugee status. They have processed many hundreds of people, and it – their progress gives us the basis to work with our international partners to see which governments can accept these people who are coming out of the UNHCR process with refugee status.

So there is – has been significant progress made. If you go back to December and think about the fears expressed at that time about mass violence, horrific incidents of people disappearing, none of that is taking place. The convoys have all been secure and safe. We need to continue this process, get Camp Ashraf closed, and focus on relocating people.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Guy Taylor with The Washington Times. Sir, your line is open again.

QUESTION: No. Hi. Thank you. With regard to the Treasury Department’s subpoenaing of records pertaining to speaking fees paid to former senior U.S. officials who have spoken out on behalf of the MEK, among them James Woolsey, the former CIA director, along with a long list of others, do you have any information about whether those individuals are considered to be providing material support to a group designated as a terrorist organization?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Absolutely no comment on this business.

QUESTION: Well, in other words, I mean, in your opinion, is it illegal to, say, accept money for speaking out on behalf of a group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. We’re not making any – expressing any legal opinion, any legal judgments, or in any way commenting on this matter, not at all. Sorry.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Christina Wilkie with The Huffington Post. Your line is open, ma’am.

QUESTION: Thank you. If – I know part of the legal decision was that the Secretary would make a decision within four months, and if not, that the – then the U.S. Court – that the Washington court would be – would have some kind of a legal authority, it appeared, to delist the MEK themselves. Would you mind talking about – I understand that the Secretary doesn’t plan this – for this to be an outcome, but if it were to for any reason, what – I don’t understand the legal authority that the court would have to delist a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I think we’re going to have to refer you to the Justice Department or our own lawyers on that, because this is terra incognita for us. There has never been a case of a court ordering a delisting. We don’t expect it to happen in this case either. But as a legal matter, the – I assume courts have the right to do that. But again, I’m not a – I’m not the legal advisor, and I think Harold Koh might have something to say about that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: The Department has said that the United States will respect the decision of the court; that is, that the Secretary will make a decision within four months of the court ruling. That’s what we anticipate will happen. As to the authority under which the court did this and the legal way to describe the mandamus petition, I – both Administration – both Senior Administration Officials are not qualified to give legal opinions, and the last thing we want to do is mislead or misinterpret something.

OPERATOR: And at this time, we have no other questions in the queue.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, all right, then. That’s good. Look, thanks, everybody, much appreciate the time and interest, and this is in the nature of an interim update. We are concerned about the situation, but it can – we can still have a decent outcome if the parties involved do what they need to do.

MODERATOR: Thank you all, and have a good day.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you all. Bye.



PRN: 2012/1003



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