Briefing on Europe Travel Alert Via Teleconference
Under Secretary for Management
OPERATOR: Thank you for standing by. At this time, all participants are going to be in a listen-only mode. During the question-and-answer session, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. Today’s conference call is being recorded. If you have any objections, you may disconnect at this time.
I now would like to turn the conference call over to Mr. Mark Toner. And sir, you may begin.
MR. TONER: Thank you very much, and thanks to everyone for joining us on a fairly nice Sunday afternoon. We’re very fortunate to have Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy with us who is going to walk us through a little bit of the Travel Alert that was issued earlier today. This is an on-the-record call, and I just ask that when we do move to the question-and-answer period that you just identify yourselves and give your media affiliation.
So without further ado, I’ll hand it over to Pat. Thank you.
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Good morning. By now, I’m sure you’ve all seen the Travel Alert that the State Department issued this morning, and I thought I’d open just with a couple of brief remarks to give you a little context. One of the most important State Department missions, one that is parallel to our diplomatic one, is our consular mission, and an important element of that is trying to assist Americans traveling, who work from abroad to be as safe and secure as is possible. And in that regard, we have and have had for a number of years what we call a Consular Information Program to inform American citizens about potential threats to their safety abroad.
One of the elements of that is a Travel Alert, and a Travel Alert’s purpose is to disseminate information about relatively short-term conditions that pose potential serious risk to the security of American citizens traveling in a country or in a region. That could be because of terrorist – potential terrorist attacks, anniversaries, potential election-related violence, demonstrations that we are aware of coming up related to an international event, and down to Travel Alerts, for example, that we have out now about the current hurricane season in the Atlantic and the typhoon season in the Pacific. So the purpose of our activities is to make sure that American citizens, when they work or travel abroad, have the information necessary to make informed decisions about circumstances that can affect their lives.
And with that, I’d be pleased to take any questions that you might have.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now --
MR. TONER: Operator, we’ll go ahead, yes.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now begin the question-and-answer session. If you would like to ask a question, please press *1. Please unmute your phone and record your name clearly when prompted. To withdraw your question, press *2, and one moment, please, for the first question.
Elise Labott, your line is open. You may ask your question.
QUESTION: Hi, Pat. Thanks for doing this. Could you talk about how rare it is to send out a travel alert about threat information for Europe? I mean, I know that, like you said, you do country-specific ones for events or unrest --
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Yes.
QUESTION: -- in a (inaudible) country, but I think what struck everybody is the fact that because so many Americans travel to Europe – you kind of have a running one going for the Middle East – but this seems to be kind of rare. And can you, in your memory, remember the last time you did something like this for Europe?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Well, a Travel Alert – we have issued Travel Alerts for a variety of reasons, including weather conditions. I believe there was one back during the ash crisis. You remember the Icelandic volcano.
QUESTION: Right. I think I mean more about threats.
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: No, I do not remember recently one on that situation. But one has to understand how I guess we get to a Travel Alert. It is a cumulative process. The State Department, every day, has personnel who monitor the world, looking at conditions that might have an impact on American citizens, and as information comes on, there could be a eureka moment where there is information that comes to our attention that – bingo, that’s it, we issue the – an alert immediately.
Other situations are cumulative. Bits and pieces of information come together; the State Department is in constant contact with colleagues in the other elements of the United States Government, the intelligence and law enforcement communities, and with allies and friends throughout the world. And as information comes in, it can reach the point where the cumulative effect says: Now is the time to issue a Travel Alert, and the situation, I think, can be really summed up by what Secretary Clinton said as – a couple of days ago, I mean, the – which is that we all know that al-Qaida and its networks of terrorists wish to attack both European and American targets.
We continue to work closely with our European allies and the global terrorist threat, including the role that al-Qaida continues to play. And we routinely share information between the United States and our key partners, obviously including those in Europe, to disrupt terrorist plotting and to identify and take actions. And therefore, when information (inaudible) as such that it is appropriate to warn American citizens, we act.
OPERATOR: Matthew Lee, your line is open. You may ask your question.
QUESTION: Hi, Pat. Can you hear me?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. Just following up on Elise’s question, do you remember if there was one country-specific or even continent-specific alert like this after either the London or Madrid bombings?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Let’s see, I am trying to remember back that far and I’m not sure if there was one after either London or Madrid. Let me flip through my notes here and I promise to announce that in a couple of seconds.
QUESTION: Okay. If there’s just – if there’s a way that someone could check, because on the website, you can’t really find the archive of the --
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Right.
QUESTION: The new ones supersede the old ones and so it’s hard to tell --
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Yes.
QUESTION: -- from the website if there was one. If someone – it doesn’t have to be you. If someone could just check and --
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Certainly, absolutely.
MR. TONER: Mark here. We can do that. We can check and get back to you on that.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.
OPERATOR: Shiobhan Gorman, your line is open. You may ask your question.
QUESTION: Great. Thanks so much. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about two sort of related things. The first thing, what this means specifically for U.S. travelers, what they should do when they’re traveling in Europe that would be different now. I mean, just be watchful (inaudible) the Eiffel Tower or just sort of how Americans interpret it.
And then the second question was if you could take us through a little bit the decision-making process for this particular alert, sort of when you started considering it and how that evolved?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Okay. Well, first of all, just to be very clear, and I know you didn’t set it, but – say it, but let me just reinforce it: We are not, repeat not, advising Americans not to go to Europe. That is not – this is an alert, and we put out an alert, as you said – as I’ve said, and I think you’ve noted, to ensure that American citizens are aware of the possible incidents.
Now, we tell them that – basically, to use common sense if they see unattended packages or they hear loud noises or they see something beginning to happen that they should quickly move away from them. These are common sense precautions that people ought to take – don’t have lots of baggage tags on your luggage that directly identify you as an American, know how to use the pay telephone, know how to contact the American embassy if you need help.
And very importantly, as it says in the Travel Alert that we put out today, register – and you can do that online and the website tells you how to do it – register with the American embassy or consulate in the location you’re visiting so that if you need help, we might be able to find you, and if anyone inquires about your welfare and whereabouts, should there be, tragically, an incident, we would know how to reach out to you.
QUESTION: Thanks. And if you could just take us through the decision-making process a little bit?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Right. Well, the decision-making process is a – both a simple one and a complex one.
As I mentioned before, every day, the State Department has professionals across the Department who monitor events that are going on worldwide. They monitor current events, they monitor future events – for example, an election that might be coming up which has a potential for violence or a -- notices that might lead to a general strike in a country, down to the weather. And then the third category, just broad and generally, is information that comes in from American embassies overseas reporting on security conditions in the country. And then we add into the mix information that comes to us from our partners in the U.S. Government, in the intelligence and law enforcement community, and as well as information that comes to us from foreign governments.
This is constantly monitored. Sometimes, as I said earlier, there can be a eureka moment, and (inaudible) this, there is great specific potential here. We are acting today, I think more often than not, as – just for if facts come to our attention and are assembled, the – a picture begins to form and that picture reaches a point where it is inappropriate for us to issue a Travel Alert based upon the collectivity, the cumulative impact of the information that’s available. And at that point, we put out, as we did this morning, a Travel Alert.
QUESTION: When did you first start considering this particular alert?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: I can’t go into those kind of details because if – that implies when we may have had a first piece of intelligence. But I think it’s safe to say that this – we have been monitoring this carefully for at least several weeks.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Mark Drajem, your line is open. You may ask your question.
QUESTION: Thank you. And could you just – Mark Toner, could you send me anything you come up with in terms of the – kind of what this dates back to in Europe in the past, whether there have been --
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- previous cases like this? And the question I had is: One, is there something you guys know that we don’t that prompted this? Is this based on something that – I think a lot of people are wondering, is – does the government know something that we don’t or is this based on the fact that the Eiffel Tower has been evacuated a couple times and stuff like that. And secondly, are you asking airlines to do something in particular?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Well, first, we don’t – we never discuss intelligence information that has come to our attention. I mean, you can certainly understand that. We certainly don’t want to tip our hand. I again refer to the fact that when we take these steps, which we take very seriously because of the importance of our assisting American citizens, it is a cumulative effect of all types of information that comes to our attention. And so I can’t comment upon any specific piece of intelligence. That would be inappropriate.
On your – and your second question was?
QUESTION: Just are you asking airlines or study abroad programs or anything to do something in particular?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: No. We are not asking Americans or even – we’re not –we’re not recommending, that American citizens of any kind – business, tourism, study abroad – we are not – we are not, not, not saying that they should defer travel to Europe at this time, absolutely not.
Questions about airlines, I would ask that you consult with my colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security on the kind of instructions that they are – they may be putting out. As you can imagine, we constantly in this – we, the United States Government, and with DHS and the FBI in the lead, they constantly monitor the range of threats, including those to the American homeland.
But the information that led to this particular travel alert was focused on Europe. We know that al-Qaida and its affiliates continue to plot against the U.S., but this Travel Alert relates to Europe. And questions about law enforcement or other matters that are taking place in the United States, I ask that you consult with DHS.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Tom Frank, your line is open. You may ask your question.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. Question is: What sort of discussions did the State Department have with Europe about issuing this Travel Alert?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Okay. Well, I think, as Secretary Clinton has said, that we routinely share information between the United States and our key partners, particularly in Europe, in order to disrupt terrorist activities and to take action against them. So there have been discussions with the European friends and allies, and I’m not going to go into the particular nature, obviously, of those discussions.
QUESTION: What I meant by that is not so much what information was exchanged, but what discussions did the U.S. have about issuing the advisory? Did you tell the Europeans before the advisory was issued – I’m sorry, before the alert was issued that it was going to be issued?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Absolutely, yes. We are – we engage in close cooperation, as I mentioned, and we work with them on these matters. And there were – and they – we’ve had intensive discussions in the past few weeks about the nature of the ongoing threat with these key allies through various channels, including at the head of state, head of government level. And these discussions included the Travel Alert.
MR. TONER: Operator, are we --
OPERATOR: Karen Bowen, thank you.
OPERATOR: Karen Bowen, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this call. My question is: You’ve been emphasizing that you are not recommending that Americans defer travel or not travel at all, and I’m wondering why you decided against this more severe warning. And also, could you comment on the reports that people are worried about something that could compare to the Mumbai attacks?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Okay. Well, on your question about why we issued a Travel Alert rather than a Travel Warning, as I said at the beginning, there is, in effect, a hierarchy of activities. We can issue country-specific information – we have Travel Alerts, we have Travel Warnings. The decision about whether to issue a Travel Alert or a Travel Warning is based upon the information and the analysis across the United States Government, informed by diplomatic intelligence, law enforcement, and consultations and information provided by – to us by our friends and allies.
And so when you take this, it becomes an analytical process and then you weigh the material that you have available to you, and then you make the decision: Does this warrant us saying to American citizens, “Be aware, be alert during this period of time?” Or does the – is the information of such gravity that we would recommend that American citizens defer travel?
And so the material that we have available to us, fully analyzed, fully reviewed, and the weight of the material is such that a Travel Alert is the appropriate answer.
QUESTION: And then on a second question, are officials in the U.S. worried that there could be Mumbai-style attacks, something of that scale?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: They basically – I don’t think it’s appropriate to comment on that particular question. We don’t comment on specific intelligence. And this is – we don’t – we’re not going to say that this warning relates to press reports of a Mumbai attack. To comment on any kind of specific intelligence essentially undermines our intelligence operations which are so critical to protecting U.S. citizens and our allies.
QUESTION: Thank you. Could you also add my name to the list of people that you’re going to get back to about the history of these alerts?
MR. TONER: Sure, we’ll – actually, what I think we may just do is we’ll just do a taken question and then we’ll issue that, and it will go up on our website shortly. And that way, it’ll avoid having to get back to each and every one. We’ll just issue it out from the State Department once we get the information. Okay?
OPERATOR: The next question is from Courtney Kube. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks very much. I just want to go at this one more time, the difference between an alert and a warning. You said several times that much of the information in this alert is common sense and you’re essentially telling Americans to use common sense when they’re traveling abroad. Why did you feel it necessary to put out an alert that obviously has gained a lot of media attention, to warn them to use common sense?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Because there are times when we – the United States Government comes into possession of information where we prudently feel that it is necessary to say to the American traveling public and the American citizens who live and work abroad that there is a heightened need for them to take appropriate security measures to protect themselves. There is in effect (inaudible) routine day-to-day activities –obviously where we all need to practice common sense in our daily lives, but there can be heightened situations where prudence says that you say to the American people, you need to take -- to make sure that you follow appropriate security measures.
QUESTION: And would you be willing to talk a little bit more about – you mentioned also twice a ‘eureka moment’ that sometimes happens in gathering? Would you say that this was one of those situations where there was a--
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: No, this was a question of the cumulative effect of pieces of information that came to us and were reviewed and worked over by the State Department in consultation with other U.S. Government agencies, and the cumulative effect of this information was now we should issue a Travel Alert.
QUESTION: Thanks very much.
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: My statement of a ‘eureka moment’ was essentially a new piece of information arrives, you know, out of the blue, about something that had not come to our attention before and, bingo, we need to take action. But as I mentioned a little earlier, we have had intensive discussions in the past few weeks with our key European allies about the nature of the ongoing threat, and these have been discussed in various channels, including at the leader level, and so this case is an example of a cumulative effect.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Naomi Choy Smith. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Wondering if you might be able to speak a little bit, perhaps not about specific places for Americans to avoid, but perhaps the kinds of places that you would suggest that they avoid or take specific precautions if they’re visiting?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Well, we’re not saying don’t travel to Europe. We’re not saying don’t visit tourist -- major tourist attractions or historic sites or monuments. In the State Department website we offer some very practical situations. Make sure that you’ve registered with the American embassy. If you -- avoid public demonstrations, avoid civil disturbances. Don’t discuss your travel plans or where you’re going with others or where others may overhear them. Know what you’re doing, be aware of your circumstances around you. If you see something that looks untoward, move away from it and inform law enforcement personnel. If you see unattended packages, or such, move away from them and inform law enforcement.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: And at this time I’m showing no further questions.
MR. TONER: Okay. Thank you very much for taking time out of your Sunday, Pat. And also thank you to the journalists for joining us. And as I said, I think we’ll take Matt’s question on board, if that’s okay. Rather than trying to get back to everyone individually, we’ll go ahead and post that as a taken question.
Again, thank you to everyone for joining us and have a good Sunday.