Daily Press Briefing - March 17

Index for Today's Briefing:

    • Bus Crash / Consular Affairs Assistance
    • Situation on Ground / U.S. Assistance / Location of Former President
    • Invitations to March 31st Meeting in The Hague
    • Food Assistance / Status of NGOs
    • Textbooks for ISA Academy in Virginia
    • Department of State Meetings with Omar Suleiman
  • IRAN
    • Status of Roxana Saberi / Reports from Swiss
    • Consular Information Sheet on Greece / Safety
    • START Treaty / Secretary Clinton's Meetings with Foreign Minister Lavrov
  • IRAN
    • P5+1 Meeting
    • Reconciliation / Ambassador Holbrooke's Travels / Status of John Solecki
    • GAO Report on Passport Fraud
    • Administration Officials Travel to Turkey
    • Referendum on Constitutional Changes
Robert Wood
Acting Department Spokesman
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 17, 2009


MR. WOOD: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the briefing.

I’d just like to start out with this bus crash in Mexico. Our heartfelt condolences go out to the families of those killed and to those injured in this tragedy. Consular staff and the U.S. Consulate General in Monterrey and the U.S. Consular Agency in Reynosa worked long into the night to learn identities of the crash victims and provide assistance to them and to their families. Consular officials have visited Americans injured in the crash and are providing the full range of consular services.

Thus far, local officials have confirmed that eight American citizens were killed in the crash, with 11 American citizens believed to be injured and hospitalized. Local officials have confirmed the identifies of four of the American citizens killed, and we are working to confirm the identities of the other four killed in the same incident. Pending confirmation of the identities of the deceased and notification of next of kin, and out of respect for the families’ privacies, we will not release the names of the deceased.

Consular affairs has a number for family and friends of the victims to call for more information. That number is 1-888-407-4747. I’ll repeat, 1-888-407-4747.

And that’s all I have.

QUESTION: What is the full range of consular services?

MR. WOOD: Well, Matt, certainly trying to find --

QUESTION: I mean, I’m sorry. I don’t – I mean, what can they – how can they help?

MR. WOOD: Well, they try to help – they look at some of the families’ requests for information. It could be for identification documents. There are all sorts of services that our consular officials try to provide. I don’t have a list of them for you here. We can always – we can get you that. But you can imagine in circumstances like this, that there are a number of requests from the families with regard to the remains, with regard where the person was – person or persons was staying, and trying to get information, belongings, a whole list of things. So our consular folks try to provide assistance where they can.

QUESTION: Robert, where did that happen exactly?

MR. WOOD: I believe this was in Monterrey.


QUESTION: Do you have any further details on – I see that Gordon put out – or there was a statement on the U.S. Embassy in Antananarivo.

MR. WOOD: Antananarivo.

QUESTION: Thank you. (Laughter.) It helps, thanks. Has there been anything further on this? Have you received any requests in the last half hour or so for the former president or asked the president to --

MR. WOOD: What I can tell you is that there’ve been a few requests for information on this. The president is not in the U.S. Embassy. I want to make that clear. Let me give you a bit of an idea of what’s been going on the ground as we know it.

Well, first (inaudible), let me just say that all of the parties to this conflict need to exercise restraint and resume dialogue. I also want to make clear that any extra-constitutional resolution will result in a cutoff of U.S. assistance.

QUESTION: Sorry, any what?

MR. WOOD: Any extra-constitutional resolution will result in a cutoff of U.S. assistance. All sides need to search for a resolution consistent with the democratic process and the constitution. The situation on the ground, of course, is fluid. We’re following it very closely. And that’s all I have right now for you, and we’ll try to provide more details as they become available.

QUESTION: So how much assistance does the U.S. currently provide? I thought it had been cut off the last time anyway. Has it been resumed?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have that number. Sue, we can certainly try and get that for you.

QUESTION: Okay. Is that MCC money, do you know, or is it --

MR. WOOD: I’ll have to --


MR. WOOD: -- get that breakdown for you.

QUESTION: When you say extra-constitutional --

MR. WOOD: Outside of the constitutional process.

QUESTION: Would a military government be extra-constitutional?

MR. WOOD: Well, any results or coming to power of a group or individuals outside of the constitutional framework is extra-constitutional. And so that in itself would automatically cut off U.S. assistance to that authority that’s ruling the country.

QUESTION: But you don’t mean that delegation of power to the military would be extra-constitutional?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m just giving you what our definition is in terms of what we would do if indeed there is some sort of extra-constitutional resolution and --

QUESTION: So the resignation and handing over power is not necessarily extra-constitutional?

MR. WOOD: Look, I’m just giving you the definition. The situation on the ground is fluid. Let’s see how things shape up before I can be more definitive about what we will declare and what we won’t declare.

QUESTION: Is it possible to find out how much, if it is determined that whatever happens is extra-constitutional, what the aid is and --

MR. WOOD: Absolutely, we can find out what that aid number is for you.

QUESTION: And did you already ask that?


MR. WOOD: Yeah, it was already asked, but that’s okay.

QUESTION: Including the MCC?

MR. WOOD: Absolutely, yeah.

QUESTION: That’s what I asked.

MR. WOOD: It’s okay. You should hang around briefings a bit longer. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: A different topic?

QUESTION: Well, actually, just to follow up on the now former president. Do you know where he is? If he hasn’t applied for sanctuary in the U.S. Embassy, do you have any indication where he may have --

MR. WOOD: I believe he’s in one of the palaces. That’s all I know at this point. I mean, as I said, the situation is fluid. That may have changed from the report I received a bit earlier. But that was the last information that I received.

QUESTION: And that’s the report you’re referring to, this is something from your own embassy?

MR. WOOD: This is reporting--

QUESTION: Your people?

MR. WOOD: From my people, yes. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yeah, okay.

MR. WOOD: Sir?

QUESTION: Iranian officials today said that they don’t have any information regarding the aircraft – unmanned aircraft that was shot down by U.S. Army in Iraq today. The Iranian foreign minister actually said that. I was wondering, has U.S. provided in (inaudible) its details of the incident?

MR. WOOD: That’s not an issue I’m going to discuss from here at the podium.

QUESTION: On Iran, just one.

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: The Iranians say that they still have not yet gotten an invitation for this conference that’s coming up in the Netherlands, and I realize we went on at length yesterday about who actually does the inviting. But has anyone – have you been invited yet? Has the U.S. been invited? Have any invitations gone out that you’re aware of?

MR. WOOD: Well, I would refer you to the host of the conference, the UN, but yes, we have been invited. I can’t speak to the Iranian issue yet.

QUESTION: Was it engraved?

MR. WOOD: You can expect that we’ll be there.

QUESTION: Was it on a nice, engraved invitation? Or is it just that – no, I’m – there’s a serious point to this. I mean, are – do you – you’ve been invited by whom?


QUESTION: Okay. And that was not just because the Secretary proposed this and you just assumed that you’re being invited. The UN has been --

MR. WOOD: The UN is the host, and as I mentioned before, the Government of the Netherlands and the Government of Afghanistan are the co-hosts, so --

QUESTION: Do you under – do you know if the invitations are still being processed or --

MR. WOOD: I don’t know, but I would refer you to the host.


QUESTION: On Iran, illegal – U.S. charged Iranian businessman, I guess, on Monday with illegal export of helicopter engine to Iran. I was wondering who are the recipients of this.

MR. WOOD: Don’t know anything about the issue, sir. Sorry.


QUESTION: Do you have anything to say or to confirm about North Korea cutting off or saying it does not want U.S. food aid --

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- and kicking out U.S. NGOs over an accelerated timeline?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, yeah. North Korea has informed the United States that it does not wish to receive additional U.S. food assistance at this time. And we will work with U.S. NGOs and their North Korean counterparts to ensure that food that’s already been delivered – excuse me, food that’s already in North Korea is distributed to the intended recipients. And one of the things I also want to mention is that we have aimed to implement the U.S.-DPRK food aid program according to the terms agreed to by the United States and the North Korean Government in May 2008.

And I will give you just a breakdown in terms of the amount of food aid that we have provided. The U.S. has delivered 169,000 metric tons of U.S. food to North Korea in 2008 and 2009. The last shipment of U.S. food aid, which was nearly 5,000 metric tons of vegetable oil and soy blend, arrived in North Korea in late January and is being distributed by U.S. NGOs.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) of that?

MR. WOOD: Of which one, the 5,000 metric tons? Yeah, I am sorry. I don’t have any – any value here. We can try and get that to you in the Press Office.

QUESTION: Could you say when you were notified of this and how you were notified?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know, but it was obviously communicated to us by the North Koreans. I don’t know how that was done, whether it was done through the New York channel or some --

QUESTION: (Inaudible)?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I just – I don’t know.

QUESTION: Last week maybe?

QUESTION: Just a clarification?

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: You said it’s being distributed by U.S. NGOs or UN NGOs?



QUESTION: Of the (inaudible) metric tons, what is it of? Is it grain? Is it – what is it?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’ll have to get the specifics on it, but I refer to our last shipment of U.S. food, which was, you know --

QUESTION: Oil and soy blend.

MR. WOOD: That’s right. I don’t have that breakdown. We can certainly try and get that for you, Sue.


QUESTION: (Inaudible), are you disappointed in this?

MR. WOOD: Of course. Absolutely. I mean, this was a program intended to try to help get food to needy North Koreans, and we’re obviously disappointed in that. This, you know, does not help us implement this agreement that we reached with the North back in 2008, so --

QUESTION: Well, not only does it not help you implement it, it kind of – I mean, are they abrogating the agreement?

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t have the actual text of the agreement, so I can’t say with absolute specificity that they’re in violation of it. But we have an agreement to try to deliver, you know, this food assistance, and now the North is saying they do not want to receive any more assistance. So you know, we’re concerned about it.

But the food that is there right now in North Korea, we’re going to work with U.S. NGOs, with their North Korean counterparts, to make sure that this assistance gets to the people who --

QUESTION: Can you be a little bit more explicit about why you’re concerned about it, why you’re disappointed?

MR. WOOD: Well, I mean, clearly this is food assistance that the North Korean people need. That’s why we’re concerned. You know, this humanitarian assistance that we provide to the North has nothing to do with the Six-Party Talks. This is about our true humanitarian concern for these people. And as you know, the food situation in North Korea is not a good one, and so we’re very concerned about it.

QUESTION: Did they give you any explanation why they won’t – they didn’t want any more?

MR. WOOD: They have just said that they do not want to receive any additional food assistance at this time. That’s about as far as they went.

QUESTION: But no reason was provided at all? Just a one-sentence note you got?

MR. WOOD: I mean, it’s – I don’t know if it was one sentence that was given to us, but you know, that was the bottom line. And that’s the most important part of this.

QUESTION: And when did they inform you?

MR. WOOD: It was, I think, over the last couple of days, I believe.

Yes, Kirit.

QUESTION: Robert, do you know what the accelerated timeline for the withdrawal of the NGOs will be?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know.

QUESTION: It was supposed to be the end of May.

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I don’t know. Again, probably the best folks to address that are the North Koreans.


QUESTION: Different topic?

MR. WOOD: Sure. Still on this subject?

QUESTION: Yes, same subject.

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: What about the description about the Korean speaker – Korean-speaking workers for the delivery, that the description --

MR. WOOD: I know that that was still an issue that was trying to be worked out. Whether or not that is the reason, the real reason that the North decided to do what it’s doing, I don’t know. I’d have to refer you to them.


QUESTION: The ISA Academy in Virginia, the Saudi Academy, say they’ve revised their textbooks again. Has this been officially sanctioned by the State Department? Have they now met the deadlines that you set and they’ve been reviewed?

MR. WOOD: I’m not aware, Nina. I can take that question and see if we can get you --

QUESTION: Could you check?

MR. WOOD: Absolutely.

QUESTION: Because about, I think last June, they were in the news because the books were still under review here. And I’m not sure when their actual deadline was, but they’re saying that the books have been --

MR. WOOD: We’ll take a look at it and see if we can get you an answer on that.


MR. WOOD: Jill.

QUESTION: Robert, another subject about the --

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: This Camp Ashraf -- do you have any more information on these allegations of beatings and appeals to the U.S.?

MR. WOOD: No. Again, the Iraqi authorities assured us that they would, you know, treat these people humanely and that they would treat them in accordance with Iraq – the Iraqi constitution and laws. And I have no reason to doubt that that’s – that the Iraqis are fulfilling their pledge to us. I don’t have anything more on some of these reports, but certainly that’s what the Iraqis committed that they would do. We’re obviously very interested in making sure that they do fulfill those commitments, but I have no reason to doubt that they are undertaking those commitments.

QUESTION: So has the U.S. actually gone to look at this and, you know, investigate and find out why they seem to think that --

MR. WOOD: Well, certainly our Embassy in Baghdad will be taking a look at the issue, if the Embassy hasn’t already done so. But as I said, the Iraqis have assured us that they will treat these people humanely and that the treatment will be in accordance with Iraqi laws and the Iraqi constitution.


QUESTION: Do you have anything on the – apparently, the head of the Egyptian intelligence is in town for meetings with the Administration about a new national union government for the Palestinians. Do you have anything on that? Did he meet anybody in the – in this building?

MR. WOOD: Well, I know that Omar Suleiman, the head of Egyptian intelligence, is going to be meeting today and tomorrow with senior officials of the Department to talk about, you know, a range of issues. But I don’t have anything beyond that at this point, Sylvie.

QUESTION: Who’s he going to meet?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know. I just know that senior officials will be meeting with him from the Department. I don’t know who they are. I imagine it will be some representatives from the Near East Bureau, but I don’t have anything beyond that.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Feltman?

MR. WOOD: Hmm?

QUESTION: Feltman?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know, but it wouldn't surprise me. Assuming Jeff is here, I assume he would be meeting with them, but I don’t know. I don’t have any further breakdown in terms of who will be attending.


QUESTION: Going back to Iran for a second, you expressed the hope yesterday you might have an update on Roxana Saberi. Do you have one? And if not, is any consideration being given to an alternative tack?

MR. WOOD: You know, I know that the Swiss have submitted a request, the Swiss being our protecting power – a request on March 8th for consular access to Ms. Saberi. And I know that the Swiss ambassador in Tehran has raised the issue with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And I do know that Ms. Saberi has had access to legal counsel. We want to see her get access to consular officials. And as the Secretary mentioned, she wants to make sure that we do everything in our power to see Ms. Saberi returned. And that is the most recent update I have for you.

QUESTION: Wait, okay. The most recent update is from March 8th?

MR. WOOD: March 8th, yeah.

QUESTION: Today is the 17th.

MR. WOOD: Okay. I’m just giving you what I have.

QUESTION: Well, I know, but I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been any – you haven’t – the Swiss haven’t heard anything back for nine days?

MR. WOOD: Well, that’s the information I have, Matt. I’m sure if they’ve heard something back, I would have had something to report on it. That’s all I have.

Mr. Lambros.

QUESTION: On Greece. Mr. Wood, the U.S. Embassy in Athens, under Ambassador Daniel Speckhard, released the Consular Information Sheet describing Greece as a terrorist country. May we know the reason of this detrimental statement against Greece?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know what you’re referring to, Mr. Lambros, but I can assure you we are not mentioning that Greece is a terrorist state. Greece is not a terrorist state.

QUESTION: I can quote you --

MR. WOOD: You can quote me on that.

QUESTION: It says, quote, “The U.S. Government remains deeply concerned about the hiding threat of terrorist attack against U.S. citizens and interests abroad,” unquote. How do you explain this?

MR. WOOD: That’s different than what you first said. Obviously, there are concerns not just in Greece but other parts of the world where there may be a heightened concern about the possibility of terrorist attacks. That’s just the nature of the world in which we live. But you gave the impression that, you know, we were calling Greece a terrorist state, which was not the case.

QUESTION: Do you consider Greece as a safe country?

MR. WOOD: Greece is a safe country, yes.

QUESTION: President Medvedev today ordered large-scale Russian rearmaments. At the same time as, frankly, he promised to discuss disarmament with U.S. and reopen the START negotiations. Do you see a contradiction in that, or do you think it’s normal? It’s they will do --

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t know the substance of what President Medvedev spoke about, but we look forward to engaging the Russians on a follow-on to the START treaty. And you know, the Secretary had a very good meeting in Geneva with Foreign Minister Lavrov. They’re going to be working on a whole host of issues, including moving forward, as I said, on START. So I think we’re going to – we’re looking forward to a very productive relationship with Russia on a whole host of issues. Our joint cooperation is needed to deal with a number of problems in the international community. And you know, the Secretary as well as Secretary Gates, they both look forward to working with their counterparts on a whole host of issues.

QUESTION: So the rearmament or modernization of the Russian army is not a source of concern?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know the substance of that. You might want to get in touch with the Pentagon. They might be able to give you a better assessment of what that entails.


QUESTION: (Inaudible) have you appointed any negotiators for START and for the other – the missile defense? Because there was a big hole in that --

MR. WOOD: I think we’re still in the process of trying to get our team aligned right now. And the Secretary is hoping to have that team in place as soon as possible, but we’re not there yet.

QUESTION: Because you can’t really start on the negotiations until you have, you know, your people in place.

MR. WOOD: Well, you need to have your people in place so that you can conduct those negotiations. No question.


MR. WOOD: Yes, Matt.

QUESTION: Can I just go back to Iran for a second?

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: Do you know when – has anything been set for the next P-5+1?

MR. WOOD: I checked with Under Secretary Burns – I think it was just late last week – and there was nothing at this point scheduled. I mean, there may be phone conversations that take place --

QUESTION: No, no, I know. But an actual --

MR. WOOD: Actual meeting – not that I’m aware of.


QUESTION: Yesterday you said the decisions taken by the Pakistan Government were the first step towards political reconciliation and they need to do more. Can you explain a little bit more what else – what further steps do you expect Pakistan Government to take or the political leaders to take?

MR. WOOD: Well, you know, as I mentioned yesterday, there is a long road ahead before Pakistan has gotten to full reconciliation. There are clearly a lot of tensions within – between the parties and among the parties. And this is something that’s going to need to be worked out in accordance with Pakistan’s constitution, its laws. You know, you certainly understand and know Pakistan well. It’s a complex country. It’s got a major problem that it’s dealing with, and that’s called terrorism.

And with regard to what Pakistanis need to do to better reconcile, they will know better than I, but it’s clear that there are tensions. And as I mentioned yesterday, the Secretary, Ambassador Holbrooke, Ambassador Patterson were doing what they could to try to help reduce tensions. But in the end, it was the Pakistanis who took the right decisions and have, you know, put a very positive step forward. And as I said, they need to continue to – toward – down the path of true reconciliation.

Look, I’m not in a position to really define that very clearly for you. I think the Pakistanis can do a better job of it than I can.

QUESTION: And is Ambassador Holbrooke planning to go to the region again?

MR. WOOD: At some point he will be, but I haven’t been told that he’s planning to go anytime soon.

QUESTION: Not this month, or this month?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know. I haven’t heard. We’ll get you an update on his travel, you know, once we have it. But I don’t have anything at this point.

QUESTION: One more on Pakistan.

MR. WOOD: Jill, on Pakistan?


MR. WOOD: Okay, let me – yeah.

QUESTION: Anything to say about U.S. citizen John Solecki, whom the life expected another 48 hours on the condition of 1,100 prisoners should be released.

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t have any update on his situation, Mr. Lambros, other than what I said yesterday or the other day.

Jill, it’s your --

QUESTION: Yeah. Apparently, there’s a GAO report – I think it came out at the end of last week – about scams to get passports. And the State Department at that point was saying they hadn’t seen the report. Have you seen it? Do you have a comment on the inherent ability to do this --

MR. WOOD: Yeah, we certainly have seen the report, and clearly there were some errors made with regard to these particular four passports. We’re going to make sure that this type of thing doesn’t happen again, which will mean putting in place a process – better processes for ensuring that, you know, that passports are provided – that are accurate, up-to-date, and you know – yeah.

QUESTION: But you’re just saying those four. I mean, is there a broader issue here of compromising other passports?

MR. WOOD: Not that I’m aware of. This was just – I believe the report was focused on – I think it was four individuals who were kind of operating under – for the GAO who were able to obtain passports with faulty information. And what I’m saying is that the Department is working on trying to put in place procedures to make sure that that type of thing does not happen again.

Let me go here.

QUESTION: Thank you. Secretary of State recently traveled to Turkey, and President Obama is planning to have a trip to Turkey very soon. And the question is has Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed Armenian-Turkish relations with Turkish authorities (inaudible) for the genocide program? If yes, what was outcome? And if you have some draft information from White House concerning President Obama’s trip to Turkey, are these situations the same topics on agenda of his trip?

MR. WOOD: Well, you know, I would refer you to the White House for, you know, for details on the President’s future trip to Turkey. But of course, that subject with regard to Turkey has come up. I don’t have any details from – about conversations that the Secretary had with the Turkish leaders beyond what I’ve said. So I’d just leave it at that.


QUESTION: Robert, Azerbaijan has a referendum this week on constitutional changes that would drop presidential term limits and otherwise strengthen the presidency. And there’s been some criticism that this is being rushed to the ballot and that sort of thing. I just wonder if you had any reflection on it.

MR. WOOD: I don’t, Dave. We can – you can check with the Press Office. We may have people to get you something on that.

Okay, thank you all. Happy St. Patty’s Day.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:30 p.m.)