Mark C. Toner
Department Press Briefing
March 15, 2017
Today’s briefing was held off-camera, so no video is available.
2:07 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Hey, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. Just one thing at the top and then I’ll take your questions.
The U.S. Department of State mourns the loss of Richard H. Solomon, a distinguished diplomat, peacemaker, and scholar who devoted his life to building bridges between the United States and East Asia. His public service career included positions as senior staff member on the National Security Council, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and the U.S. Institute of Peace’s third president. While at State, he helped negotiate the 1991 Paris Peace Accords that brought an end to the 14-year war between Cambodia and Vietnam. He also served as a U.S. ambassador to the Philippines. And worth noting, he’s also the father of Jay Solomon of The Wall Street Journal, and we extend our condolences to Jay and to his entire family.
With that, over to you.
QUESTION: Great. Thanks, Mark.
MR TONER: Sure thing.
QUESTION: Just one housekeeping thing that I know is on a number of people’s minds.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: When we all last spoke yesterday, you said that the reason for the limitations on reporters accompanying the Secretary was a lack of space on the airplane. Is that argument still operative? And if so, can you explain why, once a seat was identified on that plane that was available, the decision was made rather than to allow the press to send a pooler who would share information and actually allow us to work around not being there personally, the decision instead was made to handpick a conservative outlet to accompany the Secretary and not to share that information?
MR TONER: Sure. Starting with the plane, so it was a 737 and I believe that’s the same plane that went to Mexico. My understanding, though, is that space was a constraint given the longer trip. I know we did accommodate I think at least one or two members of the press in Mexico. Again, I wasn’t on that trip so I don’t remember exactly. But given the length of the trip, which also affects staffing needs, corresponding staffing needs including crew, then there were a significantly reduced number of seats available not only to – for the press but also for staff to support the Secretary.
With respect to the press seat that was made available on the plane, I did speak to the fact that this – there might be a seat available the last couple of days. It was determined – and many of you know – last night – found out that the one seat that was available, it was decided to take a journalist who was not – or from an outlet that doesn’t normally travel with the Secretary as part of an effort to include a broader representation of U.S. media.
I do want to note, though, that there’s 23 reporters who are on the ground in Tokyo right now. I think 20 – or 17 of them are U.S. press and six local press, which means based in Tokyo – correspondents. All of them are going to have access to Secretary Tillerson’s media availabilities, press sprays; I think he’s going to do a press avail as well. So we are making every effort to accommodate the press who want to cover this trip.
QUESTION: Will those reporters have the access to all of the same information as the reporter that was selected to travel on the plane?
MR TONER: Well, again, I can’t exclude – and again, I’m not on the trip so I can’t speak to what additional access may be provided to this reporter. I just can’t – I don’t – can’t confirm that.
QUESTION: Can I —
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: Okay. You said that this is part of a broader effort to include a – an effort to include a broader participation of U.S. media.
MR TONER: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: But by doing that, if there was – first the State Department said that there was no press. Then it was because of budget constraints and time constraints and space constraints. Then there was a seat made available, and as Josh said, it wasn’t made available to U.S. pool. And now you say this is part of an effort to include a broader participation of U.S. media.
So does that mean that in your effort to include a broader participation of U.S. media, that the foreign policy journalists and diplomatic press corps that have traveled with the secretary for ages and are steeped in the issues of foreign policy and that are at this podium questioning about U.S. policy and the various developments every day are being kind of excluded?
MR TONER: No, in answer to your last question first, and then I’ll unpack the rest of it. So, certainly not, and I would never want to imply in any way, shape or form that we don’t respect and acknowledge —
QUESTION: Well, I think the implication of this move is that’s what it is.
MR TONER: — let me keep going, let me – give me a chance to answer – we respect and acknowledge the level of expertise, the commitment of the individuals in this room, and you know nobody does that more than I. So – but unpacking the rest of your question, I guess all of the above applied in this case, so we did take – the Secretary did decide to take a smaller plane on his trip to Asia. That did result in space constraints for the trip. It did also result in – sorry, let me just – and then you can come back to me, I know.
It also resulted in significant cost savings. I don’t have those numbers in front of me, but I can get them for you or DOD can get them for you because they ultimately control the costs aboard that plane. And I know that press pay for their fair share, their ticket, but overall, it does have a broader effect, if I could put it that way, on the cost of the trip. That said, there was a decision made late in the game to carry – to take this journalist on board, recognizing —
QUESTION: How late was it in the game?
MR TONER: I’m not aware of when that decision was made.
QUESTION: I thought you had said that they were offered it last week.
MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, so, as I said, I wasn’t —
QUESTION: Wait —
MR TONER: Sorry, can we just – we can unpack this, guys. Sorry. So I wasn’t a part of that decision-making because I wasn’t on this plane – on this trip. You know how that works as well. When you’re on the trip, and the press or media representative on the trip, you’re involved in the trip planning. So I wasn’t involved or steeped in the trip planning, but that decision was made. It doesn’t necessarily reflect in any way, shape, or form on the opinion that we have of the press corps that follows and covers the Secretary of State.
QUESTION: Well, I didn’t say it – I didn’t say it —
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: — reflects your personal opinion, Mark —
MR TONER: But —
QUESTION: — but the new State Department leadership, I mean, I don’t understand why – I mean, I just think – we’d like a little bit more rationale. I mean, I think it’s – I also would like to know if you think it’s very unfortunate that at this important juncture of U.S. foreign policy, on a critical, serious foreign policy crisis such as North Korea, that we are sitting here asking questions about why the State Department is excluding the diplomatic press corps —
MR TONER: I would agree with that.
QUESTION: — from traveling with the Secretary and offering a seat to a unilateral —
MR TONER: I would agree with that and —
QUESTION: — and that we’re not talking about the serious issues about North Korea?
MR TONER: So I would agree with that and that’s why I’m up here at the podium trying to answer your questions specific to the policy priorities of this trip and the issues that are going to be discussed. I’d much rather have this conversation offline. But that said, I’m willing to answer your questions because I do it every day. I try to stand up here and answer your questions to the best of my ability.
QUESTION: And we appreciate that.
MR TONER: No, I get that. But with respect to this decision, I wouldn’t extrapolate that there’s some intent to ostracize the media in this room.
QUESTION: Well, if there is —
MR TONER: And I can say going forward – sorry, let me finish – and I can say going forward that – and I’ve said this – that every effort will be made to accommodate a press contingent on board the plane. But in this specific trip and instance, it was decided to take – to make an outside-the-box, if I could put it that way, decision to bring somebody in who doesn’t necessarily cover the State Department, a media outlet that doesn’t – isn’t steeped in foreign policy and give it a new, fresh perspective.
QUESTION: Well, I mean, is this how Secretary Tillerson wants to kind of debut his important diplomatic mission on a foreign policy crisis and —
MR TONER: But —
QUESTION: — let me – let me finish —
MR TONER: Okay. Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: — and issues such as what’s going on with North Korea and China? He’s setting the table for the President Xi’s visit next month —
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: — to the White House and all of these kind of important diplomatic initiatives that he’s got on, yet you took the opportunity, as you said, to go out of the box and take a reporter from an outlet that is not at the briefing every day – or ever, as far as I can tell – and does not know anything about these foreign policy issues. So, I mean, could you explain that a little bit more?
MR TONER: Again, I don’t know that I need to explain it beyond what I’ve said, is that this was an effort to include a broader representation of U.S. media. You can agree with that or not, but that was the decision behind – or that was the rationale behind the decision. But I also beg to differ on the presumption that somehow other U.S. media are going to be excluded from this trip. I mean, we’ve all seen, or I at least saw Andrea Mitchell was broadcasting live from Tokyo where she was covering the Secretary’s visit. I know that, as I said, there’s at least 17 or possibly more U.S. media on the ground. They’re all going to have access to the press avails and —
QUESTION: Equal access?
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: May I ask a —
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: — couple of just —
QUESTION: Who made the decision to take a reporter, and this particular reporter?
MR TONER: I don’t know that I need to answer that question.
QUESTION: But you’ve used a passive construction three times.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: “It was decided,” “it was decided,” “it was decided.” Was this the Secretary’s decision?
MR TONER: Well, often – so, often – so – no – often, Arshad – so the Secretary was obviously aware of the decision, but as you probably know, he doesn’t necessarily make that level of decisions, frankly. But the reason I put it in the passive voice is simply to say that these are decisions that are made often by groups of people, and that goes into any kind of logistics planning for the Secretary’s trip. So —
QUESTION: So who made it? I mean, what is the problem with saying who – what is the group of people that made that decision?
MR TONER: It’s the staff that does – senior staff that come together when any trip is being planned and make those decisions at the seventh-floor level.
QUESTION: Who is paying for the journalist’s trip? Is the State Department picking up the tab, or —
MR TONER: No, I believe the organization – the media outlet is.
QUESTION: Okay. Third, what benefit does the State Department believe it confers on the reporting of U.S. foreign policy to establish what has hitherto not been the practice, which is to say, to establish a pick-and-choose system whereby you select individual reporters or news organizations, rather than going with what had previously been the practice, which is to include a wide array of news organizations, and at a minimum, a wire service reporter who would share the information with all the other regulars and whose news organizations have very wide dissemination of their reports? What is the advantage that this confers in the department, the Secretary, or the group of people who made this decision’s view?
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: What is the diplomatic or other advantage you get?
MR TONER: It’s a – not a – I understand there’s a lot of questions around this issue. I’ll do my best to answer a couple more, and then I’d like to move on if that’s possible.
With respect to your question, what was the advantage or what was the – I’m sorry, one more time, what was the —
QUESTION: What is the advantage to this?
MR TONER: I think —
QUESTION: There has been a practice of having a wide group of people —
MR TONER: No, I understand. Yeah.
QUESTION: — and at a minimum of having a wire reporter —
QUESTION: Or a newspaper.
QUESTION: — or a newspaper, but historically it’s more often been wires, but yes, or a news paper —
MR TONER: No, no, no. I feel —
QUESTION: — to share the information with everybody and it goes out everywhere.
MR TONER: I acknowledge and understand and appreciate —
QUESTION: What’s the advantage?
MR TONER: — the concept behind pool reporting.
QUESTION: So what’s your – what’s the advantage here? What is your advantage here?
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: What is the benefit?
MR TONER: Again, I think this is just an attempt to reach beyond the usual suspects. And I’m not trying to say that in a demeaning way at all, but it’s just to say —
QUESTION: “Usual suspects” is not demeaning?
MR TONER: I’m using a term of art, a cultural term of art, or everyone knows what that means. What I’m saying is this is a chance, or an opportunity, at the beginning of a new administration, to look at outside the box – if I can say that – approaches to how we cover or how we handle coverage of the Secretary. It isn’t to say this is going to be the status quo or the new order going forward. This is a – just particular to this trip. I don’t know at this point. But it’s an effort, as I said, to reach beyond the normal procedures, and rightly – or that’s exactly what you pointed out, Arshad. I just, again, want to stress the point that there’s going to be broad access to the Secretary on this trip, and we’re doing best – we’re doing our best to accommodate through our embassies in Beijing, in Tokyo, and Seoul to accommodate reporters, as we always do
QUESTION: But to choose a reporter —
QUESTION: The last – I’m sorry, the last one from me, if I may. Last one from me.
MR TONER: Last one, and then Michele, and then that’s – I’m sorry, we’re going to move on to —
QUESTION: Last one from me. What is – I get you say that you’re trying to think outside the box. What I don’t get is what advantage it confers to the department to look outside the box in this way. What does it get – what does it get you to have a reporter on there —
MR TONER: New perspectives, new —
QUESTION: — that is not filing to the rest of the press corps and that does not appear to have longstanding knowledge of these issues? What is – what advantage is there?
MR TONER: New audiences, new perspectives.
QUESTION: Conservative audiences? This is a conservative outlet.
MR TONER: Again —
QUESTION: A friendly audience?
MR TONER: Again, I’m not going to speak to – I mean, it’s – I mean, look, we can dissect the cross-section of U.S. media and we can spend the rest of the briefing doing that. This was a choice that was made to do something differently that’s been done for many, many years, as we all know. I can’t say that it’s going to be the policy going forward. I just can’t speak to that. But at the same time that we’re doing this, we’re experimenting, if you will, taking it in a different direction. We’re also meeting our obligations to provide access to reporters who want to cover the trip.
Michele, go ahead.
QUESTION: Did the department feel like – I mean, because something has been done for many, many years, there’s obviously a reason that it evolved to be that. So this indicates that the department feels that there was something wrong with that setup, which got the message to —
MR TONER: Not at all. I don’t think so. I think it’s – again, just because you try something new and different, it doesn’t mean necessarily that you’re saying what we’ve been doing is wrong. There’s – look, we all know that there’s a very time-honored system for how we cover secretary of state trips. I understand that. All of you understand that in this room. This is a little bit different way of doing it. Again, I’m not saying this is going to be the norm going forward. We’re also, at the same time we’re doing this, allowing us – we’re also providing support for – can we move beyond this?
QUESTION: Was the White House —
QUESTION: Hold on a second.
QUESTION: Was the White House involved in this decision?
QUESTION: Mark —
MR TONER: No.
QUESTION: Can – wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait —
QUESTION: Mark, can we —
QUESTION: I just want to ask a quick question —
MR TONER: Barbara.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: So it’s been reported that Secretary of State sent a letter to nine nonprofit organizations saying that there need to be reform or the U.S. might withdraw. And his words quoted in the article are, “The Human Rights Council requires considerable reform in order for us to continue to participate.” So what’s the process here? Is there, like, a kind of probation period and then after which the U.S. might withdraw from the council? And I have a follow-up after that.
MR TONER: Sure. So I don’t want to speak to the contents of what was a letter by Secretary Tillerson and these NGOs, but I think speaking to the broader question, a couple of points to make. One is that our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms is stronger than ever. Our delegation is now at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council. It’s actively engaged. But the United States also continues to believe that only UN member-states with strong records of promoting and protecting human rights should be elected to the Human Rights Council. And I think our future engagements with the council will consider the council’s actions with an eye towards reform to more fully achieve the council’s mission to protect and promote human rights.
So I think this is an eye towards greater accountability and greater transparency with respect to human rights. I’m not predicting we’re going to walk away from the council. What I will say is that we’re going to hold the council and its members more accountable and urge greater accountability and transparency.
QUESTION: So what do you mean by “future engagements?” Future engagements will consider the council’s actions —
MR TONER: With the council, working with the council and the members of the council.
QUESTION: So you might decide not to work with it but not walk away, like —
MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to predict what our – that we’re going to walk away from it. I think what we’re – at this stage now, we want to try to urge greater accountability and greater transparency on the part of the council.
QUESTION: And speaking of accountability and transparency, is there a reason why we moved away from the subject that we were on so quickly? I mean, I wasn’t even finished.
MR TONER: I feel like we’ve exhausted it, frankly. I mean, I’m —
QUESTION: Do others feel that way? I mean —
QUESTION: Isn’t – well, isn’t it that people should ask their questions? I mean, if Michele has another question, I think she should be able to ask it.
MR TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: — if you don’t mind.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: For the White House, or whoever made this decision, to choose an organization that is not part of the pool and is an obviously conservative website or whatever you want to call it, doesn’t that narrow the message and not broaden it? And what message does this send to the American public and the rest of the world?
MR TONER: I think it sends a message that we’re willing to look at new paradigms with our approach to the media, again, while at the same time ensuring that traditional media has full access, and non-traditional media for that matter.
QUESTION: What – you were asked: Is this person on the plane going to have more access and/or going to have some kind of additional opportunities? And your answer was you didn’t know. And that’s another question that I have: If you are the press spokesperson, why do you not know?
MR TONER: But no, Michele – Michele, but why should I – I mean, the fact of the matter is I’m not managing this trip – I’ve been very clear about that – in the sense of press access. There’s somebody with the Secretary who’s dealing with that.
QUESTION: But you’re the press spokesperson.
MR TONER: So with respect – I understand that. I understand that.
QUESTION: So shouldn’t you know who’s going on a trip two hours before the plane takes off? And shouldn’t you know what kind of access or not that person’s going to have related to the pool?
MR TONER: So first of all, Michele, not necessarily going to lay out what access this individual might have or might not have. Frankly, that’s between the State Department and this individual. Secondly, I wasn’t in a position to confirm this individual’s participation or involvement with the trip until shortly before the trip, and I think I spelled it out, or if I didn’t, I apologize. But I spelled it out as after the briefing ended yesterday, I tried to confirm that this individual was on board, but they were already wheels up and, frankly, they were in the air until almost midnight, so I didn’t have comms with the plane – communications with the plane. Once we did, we confirmed, and I think we put out something this morning.
QUESTION: Can we move on?
MR TONER: I’d love to.
QUESTION: I understand it’s a big issue, but —
MR TONER: I’d love to. I feel like – and guys, I’m not trying to move – sorry – I’m not trying to move quickly away. I think I’ve answered now somewhere in the vicinity of 10 or 15 questions about this. Let me finish. But guys, we can talk about this offline. This is an exercise in discussing the issues and discussing policies. Respectfully, can’t we move on?
QUESTION: This is an – I’m sorry —
QUESTION: These briefings are really (inaudible).
QUESTION: This is an exercise in transparency.
MR TONER: It is, and I’ve been transparent.
QUESTION: No, this is not against —
MR TONER: But do you really want to spend the next hour – because I don’t have all day to answer your questions about policy issues, and yet —
QUESTION: Especially when you only have four briefings a week.
QUESTION: Mark – yeah, please.
MR TONER: Do we want to answer questions about the Middle East?
QUESTION: We have only —
MR TONER: Yemen? I’d love to answer a question about Yemen.
QUESTION: I’d love to go —
MR TONER: Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: I was driving for —
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: First of all, today marks the sixth anniversary of the beginning of the Syria war. Today – do you have any comment, where you are with the Syria war? What is your involvement? What is the effort forward? What is going on?
MR TONER: Sure. As you note, six years ago this week, tens of thousands of Syrians did take to the streets to claim the right to express themselves freely, call for reforms, and demand justice. And as we all know, President Assad reacted to these peaceful protests with guns, with bullets, and with brutality. And I think it’s important to note on this day and to recognize the sacrifice of the brave men and women from across Syria’s diverse society who risked so much to build a better future for themselves and their children. We also remember the countless civilians, including many, many children, who have lost their lives from torture, from starvation, and from attacks by the regime and its backers.
The United States does remain committed to finding a peaceful diplomatic resolution to the Syrian conflict. All of us know how hard that is. We can only look at the talks in Astana and to see how they’re struggling to reach a durable ceasefire. But that has to be the next step, and we support those talks. We support them even though we’re only there in observer status.
QUESTION: We are – we’re a little bit confused as to what the United States is doing, which groups it is supporting, and so on. I mean, of course you condemn the regime and so on, but there has been a great many terror acts in Damascus, in and around Damascus.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: You have not condemned that. I mean, there was one today.
MR TONER: We’re aware of the one today.
QUESTION: There was one two days ago and so on. So we have not seen a statement, so what is your position on these Qaida-affiliated groups that claim to have your support, claim to have weapons that were supplied by the United States?
MR TONER: Sure. Well, a couple points to make. One is you know where we stand with respect to al-Nusrah, who rebranded themselves but remain an affiliate of al-Qaida. I’m aware of the attack – or today’s attack in Damascus. I think we’re still trying to collect all the details of that to figure out what exactly happened. Said, you know as well as I do we don’t have the best eyes and ears on the ground in Damascus, so whenever we are looking at any event like this, tragic as it appears, we want to obviously collect all the details before we make an educated guess as to who was behind that. But we condemn any act of violence, any act of terrorism.
QUESTION: And you still believe that Assad should not have a role to play in the future of Syria?
MR TONER: We still believe Assad —
QUESTION: The president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
MR TONER: How would we view him? We view him as a brutal – no, we view him as a brutal man who has led his country into this morass. That said, it’s up for the Syrian people – that means opposition, moderate opposition – working with, obviously, the – some representation on the part of the regime to try to forge a political transition. We believe that will be a transition away from Assad, because we don’t believe he can ever be an acceptable leader to all of the Syrian people.
QUESTION: Mark, on Astana talks.
MR TONER: Michel. Let’s stay on Syria.
QUESTION: On Astana talks.
MR TONER: Stay on Syria, then I’ll go to Iraq.
QUESTION: Russia has proposed yesterday a project to set up a constitutional commission to deal with the drafting the constitution. How do you view this step, and does it contradict with the Geneva process?
MR TONER: Michel, I’ve seen that. I’m not sure; I haven’t had a chance to look at that very closely. I’m aware – I mean, obviously, drafting a new constitution was part of the overall process leading towards a political transition, so I’m not quite sure where this new proposal would fit into that process, as you say, or whether it’s in accord with or in contradiction to the Geneva process. So let me look into that and get back to you.
QUESTION: And the U.S. ambassador in Kazakhstan has met with the Russian delegation there.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you have any readout for this meeting?
MR TONER: I don’t. He’s there —
QUESTION: Any coordination between the two countries?
MR TONER: Sure. It’s our ambassador to Kazakhstan. He’s there, obviously, in an observer role. I haven’t gotten the readout of his participation yet.
MR TONER: Iraq? Let’s do Assyria, sure. Assyria and then Syria. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: The Hill reported last week that Senator McCain is very concerned that the U.S. alignment with the YPG in Syria is going to lead to a quote, “train wreck,” because the U.S. fails to comprehend the extent of Turkish opposition to the YPG. What would be your response to Senator McCain’s concerns?
MR TONER: Well, we certainly respect Senator McCain’s opinion. Obviously, he’s a very – an experienced senator and he has broad knowledge of global affairs, including Syria. I think we’ve been clear in acknowledging that it’s a very complex battle space in northern Syria. We have chosen to work with the YPG as a part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include Syrian Kurds, Syrian Turks – Syria Turkmen, rather – and Syrian Arabs; so a diverse group of ethnicities in order to go after, destroy ISIS. This – so we’re in common cause in going after ISIS, as is Turkey. Turkey also realizes the threat they face from ISIS.
But we also recognize that – we recognize, rather, Turkey’s concerns with respect to the YPG, and that’s why we’ve set out very clear ground rules about YPG’s role. And we’ve conveyed that both to Turkey and both to the YPG forces who are fighting on the ground. And we would urge and continue to urge all parties operating in that space to work and maintain pressure on ISIS. That’s the goal here. Everyone agrees in that group that ISIS needs to be destroyed and dismantled and can never again reestablish itself. So that’s – we need to keep our focus on that goal. But we also do that mindful of the fact that – mindful of the fact of Turkey’s concerns with respect to the YPG, and we’re working with Turkey. Those are discussions that are ongoing.
QUESTION: The Wall Street Journal also reported that there is a debate within the new administration, new people, new ideas, about the wisdom of supporting the YPG or finding some alternative more acceptable to Turkey. That debate is going on within the administration. Is that debate going on in this building as well?
MR TONER: I’m not going to discuss internal deliberations.
QUESTION: Can I ask a question about Yemen (inaudible)?
MR TONER: You had a – okay, sure.
MR TONER: One on Syria and then I —
MR TONER: Sorry, sorry, one more time. Just break it down. So Syria, Iraq, and then I promise you, Michele, okay?
QUESTION: And Asia?
MR TONER: And then – we – I promise, we’ll get to Asia too.
QUESTION: So Syria, is it still – you noted that this is the 6th anniversary of the start of —
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: — Syria’s civil war. Only a few months after the war began in August of 2011, former President Obama said that Assad had lost the legitimacy to lead. Is it still the position of the U.S. Government that Assad has lost the legitimacy to lead Syria?
MR TONER: Yes, but I’ll caveat it by saying what I just said to Michel, which is it’s our decision that he’s not a credible leader of the Syrian people. It’s our – not decision, it’s our opinion, given what he’s wrought, the devastation he’s wrought on his own people. But it needs to be a decision by the Syrian people, and that includes moderate Syrian opposition as well as regime forces, on how to transition to a new government. We think one that doesn’t include Assad, obviously, but that’s where we’re at on this. So it’s up to the Syrian people to decide. Our opinion is that he’s not a credible leader.
MR TONER: Yeah, Iraq and then back to Michele, and then I’ll work my way around, I promise.
QUESTION: Yeah. Reuters quoted an Iraqi politician, Khamis Khanjar, who said at least 3,500 civilians have been killed in Mosul within the past month. He also said that the mounting casualties came mainly from airstrikes and indiscriminate shelling of heavily crowded neighborhoods. As I understand, neither the Iraqi Government nor the coalition had officially acknowledged any civilian casualties in this operation. Does it mean that they didn’t happen? What information do you have?
MR TONER: I’m sorry, can you just repeat the top part of your question? Who – who has made these claims?
QUESTION: Sure, sure, sure. So Khamis Khanjar, who is an Iraqi politician, he said that at least 3,500 civilians had been killed in Mosul within the past month. He also said the mounting casualties came mainly from airstrikes and indiscriminate shelling of heavily crowded neighborhoods. As I understand —
MR TONER: Sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: — the Iraqi Government – neither the Iraqi Government nor the coalition had officially acknowledged any civilian casualties in this operation. Does it mean that they didn’t happen? What information do you have?
MR TONER: No. I mean, as I’ve said many times, if there’s credible allegations of civilian casualties as a result of Iraqi Security Forces’ actions or, frankly, of the coalition’s actions, then they should be investigated. I just don’t have any kind of visibility on these precise – or these exact allegations. I can only say that we stand by what we said before, which is we take every effort in carrying out our own airstrikes, but also in sharing information with Iraqi Security Forces, to – obviously, to avoid civilian casualties. I just don’t have any sense of whether these are credible numbers or not. I just can’t answer – I can’t speak to it.
QUESTION: About —
QUESTION: About visibility, I remember on Aleppo, the State Department cited monitoring groups and credible organizations, like John Kirby would say, to talk about civilian suffering in Aleppo. What information do you have from monitoring groups and credible organizations about civilians in Mosul and what they’re going through?
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Can you cite any reports?
MR TONER: I think there’s UN organizations on the ground, obviously, dealing with refugees fleeing the city. I’d have to get back to you on what are the monitoring groups. And again, it’s not that there aren’t them – there aren’t some there, I just – I don’t have precise details. But obviously, we’re working very closely and the Iraqi Government’s been very clear about wanting to avoid civilian casualties.
QUESTION: Yeah. Last year, after bombing of a funeral home in Yemen, the Obama administration put some weapons sales on hold to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis seem to think that that’s changed now, that the U.S. has given a green light. I want to know what the status is —
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: — of their request for those sales and if you’ve seen any change in Saudi behavior that would allow you to resume those sales.
MR TONER: Yeah. Well, we can’t comment or confirm any – we can’t comment, rather, or confirm or deny arms transfers until they’re formally notified to Congress. That’s a longstanding rule. But I can say in answer to your other question that we do continue to work with the Saudi-led coalition to take steps to mitigate against future civilian casualties. We have over many times expressed our concerns to the Saudi-led coalition and urged them, as we’ve urged all sides, to work towards reaching a sustainable cessation of hostilities.
I would also say that any defense sale to Saudi Arabia or anywhere else would be carefully assessed under the U.S. Government’s conventional arms transfer policy to examine issues that include human rights, regional security, nonproliferation concerns, but also whether a given transfer is in the foreign policy interests of the United States. And again, as I said, we’ve made very clear that review and monitoring are an important part of any follow-up that we do with any arms sale. Again, that’s not just exclusive to any arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But with respect to Saudi Arabia, we’re still working with the Saudi Government, Saudi security forces, to urge greater restraint with respect to civilian casualties.
QUESTION: More on Yemen.
QUESTION: And was —
QUESTION: So your own Human Rights Reports acknowledge countless reports of attacks on schools and hospitals and infrastructure and whatnot, and when the White House put a hold on that weapons transfer, an official anonymously told Reuters, quote, “It’s not a matter of how smart or dumb the bombs are, it’s that they’re not picking the right targets.” Do you have concerns, given your own Human Rights Reports, that they’re not picking the right targets?
MR TONER: Again, I think that’s something we’ve addressed previously, is that we’re working to help Saudi Arabia improve its – how it goes about targeting, when it does decide to target, that it’s targeting the right places and not indiscriminately hitting civilian targets.
QUESTION: Right, but your own reports acknowledge countless atrocities, so is it your position that these are all accidents or that some of them are on purpose?
MR TONER: Again, I think we’ve been through this before and we’ve raised our concerns with Saudi – the Saudi authorities and Saudi Government that we need to see greater restraint shown with – in respect to the targeting choices that are made.
QUESTION: And one more, one more, one more.
QUESTION: A clarification on the same topic.
MR TONER: And then I have just a couple more questions after this and I have some Asia questions too. Go ahead, sir.
QUESTION: Just —
MR TONER: One more.
QUESTION: Yeah, sorry, one more, one more.
MR TONER: Yeah, please, that’s good.
QUESTION: Are you investigating any Saudi military units for human rights violations, as is your legal obligation?
MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, I’m not aware and I don’t know that I would actually speak to that, but any kind of assistance that we give to certain groups is under, obviously, Leahy —
QUESTION: On China?
MR TONER: — vetting jurisdiction or law, but I can’t – I don’t know if I can even speak to that.
QUESTION: Same topic.
QUESTION: Mark, I just wanted to ask you to clarify, was there an approved sale by State on the PGMs, the precision-guided missiles, last week? Were there any approve sales?
MR TONER: I don’t – again, I don’t know if I could speak to that if it hasn’t been —
QUESTION: State – I think State signed to it. You don’t —
MR TONER: Again, I don’t know if I can speak to it if it hasn’t been notified to Congress.
QUESTION: Just separate from the precision-guided ones, did the ban on cluster bomb sales to Saudi Arabia get lifted?
MR TONER: I’m not sure about that, John.
QUESTION: On China —
QUESTION: The State Department has announced that you guys are going to be offering $5 million for information regarding the murder of U.S. citizen Joel Shrum.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: That was claimed – the murder was claimed by al-Qaida. Can you explain a little bit about why the State Department is offering this money now five or almost five years after the murder and if it’s part of a larger anti-ISIS campaign on behalf of the U.S. Government?
MR TONER: Sure. So this is, for the broader audience here, the Rewards for Justice Program – many of you know it – which offers rewards for information leading to the arrest or conviction of any country or any individual that commits or conspires to commit or aided or abetted to commit – commission of a crime or terrorist attack. In this case, the murder of U.S. citizen Joel Shrum.
With respect to your question, Kylie, about why now: So this reward offer was cleared by the Rewards for Justice Interagency Rewards Committee and approved by the U.S. Secretary of State, so we’re moving forward with our announcement and the placement of the rewards offers on the RFJ website. Unfortunately, this is a normal process, and why I say “unfortunately” is it does take some time for advertising these kinds of reward offers. But we do think that there’s still a possibility that we can follow leads and hopefully solve this case.
I do want to just note, because it’s worth noting, about the victim for whom this Rewards for Justice is offered, and that’s Joel Shrum, and he was shot and killed on March 18th, 2012 while on his way to work in Taiz, Yemen, by a gunman riding on the back of a motorcycle who had pulled up alongside the vehicle. At the time of his death, Mr. Shrum was an administrator and English teacher at the International Training and Development Center, which is one of the longest-standing international development organizations in Yemen. And a few days after the attack, it was terrorist organization al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, that claimed responsibility for the murder.
And I think part of the reason with – in spite of the delay, we never forget the victims of terrorist attacks and we’re going to pursue them to justice.
QUESTION: So this is normal timing?
MR TONER: It’s – it does take some time to process these and to get them posted, but we’re still confident we can bring the killers to justice.
MR TONER: I cannot at this point. I don’t have any information on that. I’d – when we have something to announce, obviously, we will, or might refer you to the White House.
QUESTION: Iraq. Iraq.
MR TONER: In the back. Do we want to move to Asia and —
QUESTION: Yeah, Asia.
MR TONER: Asia.
MR TONER: North Korea.
QUESTION: — is there any information on the release of a U.S. college student detained in North Korea? Do you have anything on the release information?
MR TONER: You’re talking about Otto Warmbier, I believe.
MR TONER: No update on him. I spoke a little bit about this yesterday. I mean, obviously, it’s still a great concern to the United States any time there’s an American citizen who’s held overseas, cut off from his family, we believe unjustly held in this case, and we call on the North Korean authorities to release him. We believe that the time or the sentence for his alleged crimes – and I emphasize “alleged” – is excessive. We believe he should be, as I said, sent home; allowed to be – go home to his family and friends.
And again, I always do this, but I have to do it. I feel obliged as a parent to advise anyone, young or old, considering a trip to North Korea, an American citizen considering a trip to North Korea, to think twice about that.
QUESTION: So now, U.S. and South Korea have a military exercise ongoing. So what action will be taken to ensure immediate release this student?
MR TONER: To ensure?
QUESTION: To ensure to an immediate release this student.
MR TONER: Well, again, these are – these kinds of defensive exercises are part of our longstanding commitment to our ally, South Korea, Republic of Korea, and we’re committed to the defense of our ally and partners in the region.
Just a few more questions, guys.
QUESTION: On North Korea and the Secretary’s visit there.
MR TONER: Yeah, I did promise you, I’m sorry.
QUESTION: It’s all right. Does the Secretary expect firm commitments on moving forward against North Korea while he’s there?
MR TONER: No, I wouldn’t predict that there’s going to be concrete action out of his trip. I think this is a chance for him to have a lot of substantive, hard discussions with our allies and partners in the region about possible next steps – again, recognizing that the threat of North Korea, frankly, is only growing stronger.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: — what message does that send to Japan?
MR TONER: Well, again, I think the focus and the focus that we’re certainly going to convey in our conversations with Japan is that we want to pursue trade, we believe in trade. Trade is good for American workers, it’s good for American companies, but we want to do that on a bilateral basis, and we want to ensure the best possible trading platform. We want to ensure a level playing field for U.S. workers and U.S. companies, and we’re happy to have those discussions. I mean, trade with Japan is a vital stimulus to the U.S. economy.
QUESTION: On North Korea.
MR TONER: One more question.
MR TONER: You, sir, and then I got to get out of here.
QUESTION: Yeah, on Iraq. Just recent developments in Sinjar yesterday —
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: I just wanted to update you. I don’t know if you have seen the reports. There was a demonstration by civilians in Sinjar area, and there was a shooting by the Kurdish air forces that – belonging to KRG. As a result of that, one civilian was killed, which was – she was a sex slave survival from ISIS. She was a teenager. And then 15 people were injured as a result of the clash between the KRG-affiliated forces and the civilian in Sinjar.
The reason I bring this to your attention is that it’s really miles away from the – your trainers and soldiers on the battleground embedded with the Iraqi forces. And also these Kurdish forces, some of them have been trained by you and also they are in possess of the U.S. weapons. Are you concerned that these weapons are being used against Yezidis themselves that you claim to support?
MR TONER: Well, we’re concerned in general about the situation around Sinjar, around western Nineveh. There’s discussions ongoing between the Government of Iraq and the KRG generally about building stability in those areas and those regions that hug the Syrian border that have been liberated from ISIS. And that’s – those discussions are ongoing. We’re also having those discussions with those two groups because we recognize there’s tensions in the area. And again, we’ve said this many times, part of the success is once we’ve liberated an area from ISIS is how do we establish control, how do we establish local governance, how do we establish stability back in these regions? And that’s certainly something we’re focused on.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:52 p.m.)