MODERATOR: Okay. Let’s get started on this one, because I’ve got to run. So we have – this is background, please. We’ll have some opening remarks in a joint briefing with a State and USAID official with us here. We saw, like, just a lot of flare-ups on Twitter and stuff, and I thought with just things going on in Iraq that were mostly wildly inaccurate. I thought it would be good to do a quick joint briefing for you guys to clear up some of the wild rumors on the internet, which now counts as reporting.
So we’ve got [Senior State Department Official], and we have [Senior USAID Official]. Okay, go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, good afternoon, everybody, and thank you, [Moderator], for having us here to correct what you accurately called “wildly inaccurate” stories out there about Iraq staffing. The story is that there is no story here. We adjust our staffing levels all around the world all the time, depending on circumstances, and it’s no secret that we’ve been concerned about the security situation in Iraq for some time, especially threats from our friends the Iranians and their proxies in Iraq. So —
QUESTION: (Inaudible) that was sarcastic. (Laughter.)
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: — the real story here is that we continue to do our work, Ambassador Tueller does – and his team are doing a great job in Iraq engaging across the panoply of political actors, civil society, ethnic groups, sectarian groups, you name it. They’re doing a fantastic job, and they’re going to continue to do so because they have the staffing that they need to do it.
SENIOR USAID OFFICIAL: Yeah, let me just add to that. For USAID, we think the current staffing levels are sufficient for the administration of our programs. And if they prove not to be, then we can consider augmenting our staff in-country with TDY support or through requesting new permanent positions. There’s – no staffing level is in stone, and so we’ll be considering them as we move forward. None of our programs have suspended or ceased over the last few months; on the contrary, they continue at pace, and we’re doing a wide range of activities throughout the country. We’re working to strengthen Iraqi governance, civil society, the economy, supporting the recovery of religious and ethnic minorities in the north that were targeted for genocide by ISIS, and we’re well positioned to respond to the needs of a changing political environment in Iraq.
We focus on decentralization and accountability of the state to its citizens for service provision and the election administration. And we support the development of civil society that strengthen engagements between government authorities and Iraqi citizens.
To date, the U.S. Government has programmed over $400 million focused on assisting religious and ethnic minorities, of which USAID had programmed 354 million. And we have obligated over 217 million in FY2018 funds for that end. And I’ll just leave it at that for now.
QUESTION: Okay. So I missed this – these – whatever it is that you guys are trying to clarify.
QUESTION: Foreign Policy.
MODERATOR: Foreign Policy, is that what you said?
QUESTION: I didn’t see it, so I don’t know exactly what it said.
MODERATOR: Oh, you mean Robbie.
QUESTION: But it’s no secret, though, that as the administration contemplates troop drawdowns and things like that, that – both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the staffing levels of the embassies have gone down, right, or are you saying that that’s not true? Because it seems to me, just having been in both places and having seen what they were like when they were stood up in the Bush – both of them stood up in the Bush administration with the idea that Iraq was going to be the biggest embassy in the world. I mean, it’s nothing. It’s a shadow.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Of what?
QUESTION: The physical – the physical – the idea —
QUESTION: Of what it was and what it (inaudible).
QUESTION: The ambition to have it be the big – the biggest and the most staffed embassy in the world. I mean —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It is still the largest embassy in the Middle East, just in terms of U.S. direct hires alone, and that’s what the story was focused on. I’ll let you read the story itself, but as I said, the real story here is that we are making sure that we have got the right staff to do the work in front of them at the time. It’s not 2004, it’s not 2008. If it looked like 2008, this would be a very different staffing discussion right now. But Iraq in 2019 is very different. We had a different set of staff in 2008 compared to what we had in 2013. 2014, we cut right down to the bone as ISIS was 60 miles from the gates of Baghdad. Understandably, we had a different set of staff, again, in 2016 as ISIS was largely beaten back. And now we’ve got a different set of staff to face the challenges that we’ve got in front of us now. But it has nothing to do with military levels – and I’ll defer to DOD for the exact numbers there, but they’re not going down. Their partnership with the Iraqis is just as robust as ever. And so – and we are there, actually, largely in support of their activities as well as USAID’s activities and the things that the State Department is doing.
QUESTION: Well, so, can you give – recognizing, though, all these other circumstances, from its high point of staffing, how – what’s the decrease in the number of staff to now?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I actually don’t have that number for what it was historically at some point in the past, but what I can say now is that all the sections and agencies believe that this is what they need to get the mission done, no more, no less. And as [Senior USAID Official] said, if they do feel that they need more for particular changing circumstances, they go to the ambassador and they ask for TDY support, or if it looks like it’s going to be more long-term, more – filling more permanent positions, because no staffing level, as [Senior USAID Official] said, is set in stone anywhere in the world.
I think the difference here is that this is the first time a staffing change has been done that required a notification to Congress, because that’s a new requirement as of —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: — last year?
MODERATOR: Yeah, very recent.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So that’s what you’re reading in the Foreign Policy story.
QUESTION: Well, how do you respond to —
MODERATOR: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. That’s not how we do things here. Michel, I said you could go next.
QUESTION: Yeah. To be clear, have you made any changes on the ground in Iraq regarding decreasing the number of diplomats, first? And second, now you are facing Iran, who’s trying and pushing hard to form a new government. Qasem Soleimani is in Baghdad and they are fighting and they are oppressing the demonstrations in Iraq.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We have made adjustments. The team that we have now is smaller. It is – the adjustments we’re making largely are based on the high level of security threats from individuals like Qasem Soleimani. We want to make sure that we’ve got the smallest target offered to them as possible, but one that – a team that is still capable of getting the mission done. And that mission is very much protecting and defending and trying to build Iraqi sovereignty so that people like Soleimani don’t have the run of the town that they currently have. And the ambassador and his team are out there making hundreds of moves off the compound every month doing that, meeting with Iraqis from across the spectrum, as I said, and traveling around the country.
QUESTION: One more: Don’t you think that this move will send a wrong signal to the Iranians, to the Iraqis, and to the region at this time?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Absolutely not. The protesters are telling us something very clearly. The (inaudible) are telling us something very clearly. They don’t want foreign interference in their selection of their leadership and how their government runs. They want a positive partnership from us, and that’s what we’re offering through all these USAID programs we discussed, through assistance from the Treasury Department in building out their banking system, to the security assistance that I talked about a couple of minutes ago. This is what they want. They don’t want us meddling in their affairs, so we hope that they believe that the staff that we’ve got is exactly what we need to build that positive partnership with them. Excuse me.
MODERATOR: Abbie, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks. I know that the document was published in some of these stories, but I just want to make sure. So it is accurate that there’s a 28 percent reduction by May of 2020? Was that a – the way that you’re looking to do the reduction? And also, I know that there has been consideration of reduction for a long time. I understand what you’re saying about things fluctuating and making those decisions, but I wondered what was the recent event that led to the formalization of notifying Congress and making that decision.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It came in early May when the Secretary came out and made it very clear that we saw very credible, serious, and new threats to our security, and that we were going – if anything happened to U.S. personnel or our facilities, we were going to hold the Iranians accountable for it.
MODERATOR: And we – we – just last week, maybe, we issued a similar statement.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s right.
MODERATOR: The week before? Things start to run together.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s true. The Secretary reiterated that because those threats continue. And so we made the very difficult decision at the time to request ordered departure, which is the official way, as you all know, of asking Washington if we can send away nonessential staff. That brings you down to a level that is not sustainable. It’s not meant to be sustainable. It’s meant to be just enough to keep the lights on and things going while you wait for the threat to subside or to make other decisions. During that time, we undertook this staffing review to decide, well, just what is our mission in front of us right now in this changing environment; what’s the threat level, which is not likely to go down; and then how can we get those goals accomplished with the smallest number of staff that we can. So that’s the number that we came up with. I’m not going to talk about it here. We shouldn’t be talking about it in public because those are sensitive. We don’t want to give the enemy more capability to figure out where we are and who’s doing what and in what numbers.
MODERATOR: Also, in May after we got back, [Senior State Department Official] did a background briefing to the bullpen that – and he – and we can pull that if anybody needs to reference it. I don’t know – at that point we might not have been putting everything on the website, but if anybody needs it, we can. But I – but you might want to go back to that, because [Senior State Department Official] went into detail just explaining what’s it like to be an ambassador on the ground and how you ask for an ordered departure, so that might be helpful.
QUESTION: Well, I was just wondering, are you disputing the IG report that came out and said that the staffing levels was hurting the mission’s ability to create its mission – to execute its mission? And then it also made reference to having a shortage of USAID officials on the ground for $1.16 billion of aid – about six expatriates. It’s my understanding that there’s maybe been a couple more since then, but that – that was a critical assessment, and it now seems like there’s even fewer following that critical assessment.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not disputing the report. I’m disputing everybody’s understanding of the report and the lack of context in it. That statement is correct for ordered departure. Ordered departure is not meant to be enough people. It’s not meant to be enough people because you’re only at totally non-essential staff. You’re only at emergency staffing levels. So I would have appreciated it if they had said, “During this temporary ordered departure, of course there are fewer staff than what we need,” but the people who really know how many people are needed to oversee USAID programs is USAID. And even we back here aren’t the experts; it’s the people in the field. So we look to them and we always did from the beginning: “You tell us exactly what you need, and we will do our best to try to make sure that that’s what you’ve got.”
MODERATOR: Do you have anything else to add to that?
SENIOR USAID OFFICIAL: Yeah, I mean, I’d just add that USAID works in hard places around the world and in the region, right, and that’s including places where you can’t have all the people you want on the ground. And look at Libya or look at Yemen, and those are places where USAID is capable of working very, very confidently in very challenging circumstances. Iraq is one of those places, and so we’re confident that we can do what we need to do there with the staffing that we’ve put forward.
QUESTION: Yeah. I’d just say that you mentioned that was the case under ordered departure, but under this plan that’s beyond ordered departure, it’s still actually fewer numbers —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Fewer than ordered departure?
QUESTION: — of personnel than ordered departure.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s not true. That’s not true.
QUESTION: Doesn’t it go from 256 down?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s just not true. I’m not going to talk about the numbers, but it’s not true. It is not below ordered departure at all.
QUESTION: Yeah, I’m wondering if you can talk about if there’s any plans with the closed U.S. consulate in Basra. Is there any discussions or plans about potentially reopening that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I can’t get into internal deliberations, but all I can do is confirm that it remains under suspended operations.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Thank you, sir. I have a quick question. You mentioned the protesters. Are they as individuals or as groups or maybe leaders of civil society reaching out to the embassy? Are you liaising with them in any capacity?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We have contacts with a broad range of civil society, and we do feel confident that we have sufficient communication with the sentiments on the street. They have been very careful, the protesters in the street, to not be painted with an American brush and not to be seen as working for the agenda of any foreign country, so we have to keep that in mind as well.
QUESTION: Are you able – can I just follow – a quick follow-up.
MODERATOR: Sure, and then Carol will be last.
QUESTION: Are you able to establish who’s targeting the protesters? Because they have been targeted, apparently by some shadowy group.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, third party. There’s a third – shadowy third party.
QUESTION: I understand. I’m just saying, are you —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s the Iranians, Said. You know that.
QUESTION: Okay. Yeah.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And it’s their proxies in Iraq. That’s who’s targeting them.
MODERATOR: Carol, go ahead.
QUESTION: I just have a quick question on the $400 million in aid to religious minorities. Could you give us a breakdown, like how much for, say, Yezidis, how much for Christians, how much for any other groups? Could you slice and dice that a little bit for us, please?
SENIOR USAID OFFICIAL: Sure. I don’t have a full and accurate picture I can give you right here. I’d refer you to our website, and I can follow up with you as well directly with specific options. But it’s split between Yezidis, Christians, other religious and ethnic minorities (inaudible).
QUESTION: Can you just give us a general sense, though? Have you been doing more with Christians? Because that was a big push for this administration.
SENIOR USAID OFFICIAL: I’d have a hard time saying whether it’s more for one religious minority or another, and we’re not targeting specific people by religion. We’re targeting geographies.
QUESTION: So there isn’t a percentage allocated to each religion?
SENIOR USAID OFFICIAL: No, no, no, no. No, no, no, absolutely not.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, it’s geographical, if I may add, because I’ve seen a lot of these projects. And so if you’re looking in Bartella and Karemlesh and areas southwest of Erbil, you can’t say, “Well, sorry, this water can only be drunk by Christians or Yezidis and not Shabaks or anyone else.” I mean —
QUESTION: Well, why not? We used to do that here.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Because we’re doing a lot of stabilization activities.
MODERATOR: Oh, Jesus. All right. That’s the end. Thank you.