Daily Press Briefing - March 19

Index for Today's Briefing:

    • Journalists Detained in North Korea / Discussions with North Koreans
    • Possible Launch of Missile by North Korea / U.S.-South Korean Military Exercises
    • Troops on Indo-Pakistan Border
    • Undemocratic Transfer of Power / Status of Aid
    • Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Moon will Attend Shanghai Cooperation Organization Conference on Afghanistan
    • Hamas Remains Main Problem in Region / U.S. has Not Seen Any Indication Hamas Plans to Change
    • Secretary Clinton's Meetings with Omar Suleiman
    • Sanctions / U.S. Concerned about Plight of People of Zimbabwe
    • Increase in Number of Civilians Going to Afghanistan
Robert Wood
Acting Department Spokesman
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 19, 2009


11:35 a.m. EDT

MR. WOOD: Okay. Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the briefing. I don’t have anything for you, so go right to questions.

QUESTION: Can you give us an update on what your understanding is of these two journalists who have been detained by the North Koreans?

MR. WOOD: Well, Matt, let me just say we’re trying to ascertain all of the facts. We do know that these two Americans were taken into custody. As I said, we’re trying to ascertain the facts. I really don’t have any real definitive information for you, no real independent information other than what we’ve seen in the reports. And we’re busily trying to gather more details and we’ll certainly be happy to share them with you once we have them. But at this point, I really don’t have very much that I can give you.

QUESTION: Well, do you have your own – do you have your own confirmation that they have been taken into custody?

MR. WOOD: My understanding is that they have been taken into custody, but I just really don’t have much more in the way of details that we can confirm.

QUESTION: Can you tell us how exactly it is that you’re trying to ascertain what --

MR. WOOD: Well, we’re talking to a number of parties. I don’t really want to go into the discussions on --

QUESTION: I’m not asking you to get into the discussions. I’m asking who you’re discussing it with.

MR. WOOD: Well, look, we’re going to talk to the North Koreans through the Swedish Embassy, and they are a protective power, of course. But I’m not going to go beyond that at this moment, because again, the facts are not quite clear. We want to make sure that we have a better understanding of what actually happened. And then, as I said, we’ll be happy to share that with you.

QUESTION: And your understanding is that they are still in custody?

MR. WOOD: That’s my understanding.

QUESTION: And you said --

QUESTION: Do you know which side of the border they were on, and --

MR. WOOD: Nothing I can confirm. That’s why we’re trying to ascertain the facts. And it’s important to have the facts before we start talking about --

QUESTION: The Chinese must be very helpful on this, surely.

MR. WOOD: Well, obviously, we would be talking to the Chinese as well on this subject, but I’m not going to really go beyond that at this point.

QUESTION: Just to check one --

QUESTION: Robert, could you just state, have the North Koreans actually confirmed to the United States either indirectly or directly that they are holding --

MR. WOOD: As I said, Jill, we’re trying to ascertain the facts. We’re talking to various parties, as I said, and once we have some more detailed information, we’ll be happy to provide it. But at this point, I really just don’t have more than what I’ve given.

QUESTION: And just – Robert, one other thing.

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: You said “We’re going to be talking to the North Koreans through the Swedish Embassy.”

MR. WOOD: That’s right.

QUESTION: Have you not already done so? I thought you would have had contacts with the North.

MR. WOOD: Well, as I said, I don’t know – to be very frank, I don’t know if those conversations have started. That’s why I said we will be talking. We may have already, you know, started those contacts. I don’t know. But the important point here, Arshad, is that we just don’t have all of the facts yet. And before we can – I can stand up here and give you much more detail, we need to ascertain those facts.

QUESTION: Of course. And last thing from me on this: Are you trying through the – it would seem like it would be a logical thing to also raise through the New York channel since it’s the same time zone and there are North Korean officials, you know, 150 miles from here. Have you done that?

MR. WOOD: Well, let me just say that we are pursuing a number of avenues in terms of trying to gather information and communicate information, and I just prefer just to leave it there if I may.

QUESTION: Just on what side of the border they were on, the earlier statements out of the Press Office seemed to say that they had been, in fact, picked up on the Chinese side and then were brought back over. Are you walking back from that or --

MR. WOOD: No, I’m not walking back. What we’re trying to do right now is – because there’s a lot of contradictory information – we want to make sure we have the facts so that we can talk to you intelligently about what we know. And the bottom line here is that we just really don’t have all of the facts, and I’d like to be able to provide those to you. But at this point, we just don’t have them.

QUESTION: Can you give us your best ticktock on when they were picked up, when you first found out about it and (inaudible) contacts?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have that information, to be very honest at this point, nothing that I can give you definitively. And I’d prefer to give you something definitive and accurate instead of just giving you something that may not be accurate in the end.

QUESTION: When did it take place, it was – exactly? When? The --

MR. WOOD: I just said I don’t have those details. I want to get the facts. I’ll be happy to give them to you once we have them.

QUESTION: So when the U.S. Government became aware of this happening? Was it before the Korean media reporting or was --

MR. WOOD: Let me just say that we are aware of this issue. We’re looking into it. As I’ve said over and again, we’re trying to ascertain the facts. And once we have all of that, we’ll be happy to provide you with a ticktock and all of the other information that we’re able to gather.


QUESTION: You mentioned concern for the two of them. Is your concern heightened because of the tension that exists right now and that they could even be taken as hostages or bargaining chips?

MR. WOOD: Well, we just don’t know, but it’s our concern when you have, you know, two American citizens who are being held against their will, you want to try to find out all the facts and try to gain – you know, gain their release. But right now, what’s – the priority for us is trying to find out exactly what happened and go from there. That’s about the best I can give you on this at this point. I know it’s not a lot of information, of course, but we want to make sure we give you, you know, accurate information, because there have been a lot of conflicting reports.

QUESTION: Well, then just – I’m just going to ask that if you – this is almost the exact same thing – I was just going to say, you know, there’s another American journalist detained by another country with which you don’t have diplomatic relations. Is there anything new on that?

MR. WOOD: I checked this morning. There’s nothing new on Ms. Saberi.

QUESTION: Is there any reason to think that protecting powers whose countries begin with S-W are not – or Sweden, Swiss are not particularly useful to you at this moment? I mean, are you satisfied with the cooperation you’re getting from your protecting powers?

MR. WOOD: Absolutely. I don’t share your characterization.

QUESTION: On Cyprus?

MR. WOOD: Same subject?

QUESTION: Just one more.

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: Robert, you know, the last time you talked about this, I think you were reluctant to describe what the U.S. would do if the North launches a missile. Now there have been more recent comments coming out, I believe, from the Defense Department saying that it’s likely that the U.S. would shoot that down.

MR. WOOD: I haven’t seen those reports. I’m certainly not going to get ahead of the situation. First of all, the launch hasn’t taken place, and I would think we want to examine all of our options, certainly, before declaring what we may or may not do. And I just want to reiterate we remain concerned about any possible launch of a missile by the North. And as I’ve said before, we would view it as a provocative act. And we encourage the North to get away from the idea of launching missiles and to start focusing on denuclearization.

The gentleman here, please.

QUESTION: On -- has the United States asked or advised India to pull back its troops from the Indo-Pakistan border?

MR. WOOD: I’m not aware that there have been any conversations recently about that.

QUESTION: Was this issue brought up during the meeting when the foreign secretary was here in this building?

MR. WOOD: I was in the meeting. I don’t recall that issue being raised.

QUESTION: Has there been any such request from the Pakistani side?

MR. WOOD: Not that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MR. WOOD: You’re welcome, sir.


QUESTION: Has the Department reached a determination on the constitutionality of events in Madagascar and what to do about it?

MR. WOOD: Yeah. We’ve taken a close look at this. And we believe recent political developments in Madagascar constitute an undemocratic transfer of power. And we’re currently evaluating what impact this transfer is going to have on all elements of our relationship with the Government of Madagascar. So we’re continuing to look at this. But I don’t have anything further with regard to what we may or may not do.

QUESTION: Did you find out, after the questions about this the other day, what is the value of U.S. aid to Madagascar?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I think we – I don’t have it with me right here. But I think if you check with the Press Office, they’ll be happy to provide you with that. I believe we do have that, yeah.

QUESTION: But the other day you said that if you decide it’s unconstitutional, you will suspend the aid to Madagascar. So why don’t you say today that we are going to suspend it?

MR. WOOD: Well, because, again, we are evaluating the full breadth of our relationship with the Government of Madagascar as a result of this undemocratic transfer of power. And we’ll have more to say about what we plan to do, once we’ve made a final determination.

QUESTION: But can we understand that you are reevaluating your aid program to Madagascar?

MR. WOOD: We’re looking at a wide range of options. Let me just leave it at that.

QUESTION: But you say undemocratic, but that’s not the language in the law for suspension, I don’t believe. And in fact, it’s even more specific. It talks about – I think the law refers to extra-constitutional or unconstitutional changes in an elected government. And as you probably recall, there were some questions about the former president’s election in the first place. Are you – when you used the word “undemocratic,” transfer of power, are you saying that you think that that could meet the standard for a suspension of all non-humanitarian aid?

MR. WOOD: I’m just saying that we view this as an undemocratic transfer of power and we are going to –

QUESTION: And it’s –

MR. WOOD: – and we are going to take a look and evaluate and see what this transfer – what kind of an impact it’s going to have on our programs and activities with that government. I just don’t want to get beyond that, Matt, because we’re still evaluating the impact of this.


QUESTION: Can you discuss the apparent decision by the United States to attend the Shanghai group meeting, and whether Patrick Moon is actually going to meet with an Iranian there?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, my understanding is that Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Patrick Moon is planning to attend this Shanghai Cooperation Organization conference in Moscow on the 27th of March. It’s a conference about Afghanistan and its neighbors. And as you know, we’re not a member or – nor do we send observers to this conference. But it’s an important one. We were invited. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Moon is going to go, and we look forward to attending.

QUESTION: This group was sort of cast as a grouping that was set up originally, I think, to kind of counter U.S. influence in that region. Is that over now?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, the reason why we think it’s important to go to this conference is that it’s about Afghanistan and how, you know, the international community can try to better the situation on the ground, better coordinate our activities, see what types of things we can do together to help, you know, make things better for the people of Afghanistan. So we view it as important. Even though we’re not a member, we’re not an observer, we think it’s important, we’re glad we were invited, and we look forward to attending and, hopefully, we can get something constructive out of this conference.

QUESTION: Robert, it is my understanding that the Russians actually invited – I mean, they invited members – all NATO members, all members of the G-8, members of the OSCE who are non-member – who are non-members, non-observers to the Shanghai group. Do you know if the U.S. was invited? The U.S. is a member of all three of those – the G-8, OSCE, and NATO. Do you have any idea if the invitation to the U.S. was extended on – through its membership in one of those groups or was it extended separately?

MR. WOOD: It could very well have been. I don’t know. I just know that we received that invitation from the SCO. I just – I don’t know, to be honest.

We’ll get to you. Did you want to stay on this?


MR. WOOD: Please.

QUESTION: What sort of plans are there at that conference for any contact with Iran?

MR. WOOD: Well, there are no plans for any substantive meetings with Iran. You know, it’s not unusual for U.S. and Iranian officials to, you know, cross paths during a multilateral meeting, so I’m not going to rule anything in or rule anything out. It is a conference about Afghanistan and its neighbors. Iran is certainly a neighbor of Afghanistan, and so we’ll see. But as I said, there are no planned substantive meetings with the Iranians.

Okay, Mr. Lambros.

QUESTION: On Cyprus, Mr. Wood, for 36 – seven years, Turkey has occupied illegally the Republic of Cyprus using – using ammunition and weapon, but I cannot understand why Mrs. Clinton has given her consent to receive here officially the Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat without seeing first the president of the republic or the foreign minister? It’s confirmed. I would like to know what is going to happen. It’s --

MR. WOOD: I don’t know.

QUESTION: It’s done.

MR. WOOD: Mr. Lambros, I can’t answer that question for you. I’ll see if I can get you an answer on that.

QUESTION: And can you take this question? It’s very important.

MR. WOOD: I said I would.


QUESTION: Middle East?

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: Israel today arrested a number of Hamas representatives in the West Bank, including some of the members of the parliament, the Palestinian parliament. Do you have any reaction to that?

MR. WOOD: No, I don’t. I think I may have seen a report this morning about it. You know, as I said the other day, Sylvie, Hamas remains the principal problem in the region. And you know, we want to see Hamas change its stripes. We have not yet seen any indication that Hamas is interested in doing so. But beyond that, I don’t have anything more to say on it.

QUESTION: President Abbas said that this action by Israel was going to torpedo its effort for forming a union government with Hamas. Do you think it’s --

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not able to make that kind of an assessment because I don’t have all of the facts with regard to what was said. But you know, as we have said over and again, Sylvie, this is a difficult process. We want to try to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians back to the table so that we can move forward on the two-state solution, and we’re under no illusions as to how difficult this is going to be. But we’re going to continue to push forward because we don’t believe there’s any other choice. And we would love to see Hamas be a positive force and contribute to the peace process. As I’ve said, so far it’s been unwilling to do so.

QUESTION: Did Mr. Suleiman convince Secretary Clinton to accept the union – the national union government in the Palestinian territories?

MR. WOOD: I’m not going to get into the substance of the conversation that the Secretary had with, you know, Omar Suleiman, but to say that they did have a good conversation and it touched on a number of issues with regard to the Middle East, including Gaza. But I’ll just leave it at that.

QUESTION: But the --

QUESTION: Did they speak about this union government?

MR. WOOD: I’m not going to get into specifics.

QUESTION: Has the U.S. Government changed its view that it does not wish to see Hamas members in any government unless Hamas changes its policies?

MR. WOOD: I was very clear yesterday, Arshad, about where we stand. The three elements – the three core elements that Hamas needs to do before we will deal with them, they remain the same.

QUESTION: But that’s different from – “before we will deal with them” is different from being in a unity government?

MR. WOOD: Well, we’re speculating here, and I don’t want to speculate.

QUESTION: Well, we’re not speculating on what your policy is, though, right? I mean, your policy, I thought --

MR. WOOD: The policy is very clear.

QUESTION: -- that you won’t deal with them. But your policy is not that you don’t want to see them in a unity government unless they have abandoned those things?

MR. WOOD: Look, if Hamas wants to be a part of a unity government, if it wants to play a positive role, it knows what it needs to do. I’m not going to get involved in the political dynamics within these unity discussions that are going on except to say that Israel wants to have a partner for peace. And President Abbas has been that partner. There are certainly tensions within the Palestinian community. But what we are trying to achieve is that two-state solution. And we’re going to continue to push for it, as I said, because there is no other option. We need to move forward toward peace.

Here, please.

QUESTION: Back to Afghanistan. There are some media reports out that – of a possible surge in civilians going – of U.S. civilians going into Afghanistan. And I wondered if you could – if you could talk a little bit about that – about more private contractors going to Afghanistan, what their role might be, and would they be security contractors or --

MR. WOOD: Well, you know, as President Obama has said, we need to ramp up our engagement in Afghanistan.

And one of the things that we’re looking at, at this moment, is trying to increase the number of civilians. We’re looking at, as part of the review, the possibility of deploying an additional 51 civilians, some of which would be part of what we call the 3161 – I think a number of you are familiar with that. It’s – basically, these positions are one-year, temporary, non-career positions. And we would also – we’ll be looking to increase the number of Foreign Service officers. These people would be deployed to Kabul and to the PRTs that we have around the country. And so no final decision has been made on numbers, but this is what we’re considering doing.

QUESTION: Can you say what the 51 would be doing?

MR. WOOD: Well, it would be a wide range of activities. I don’t want to – we don’t want to get beyond that because we’re in the process, as I said, of discussing numbers, and then that obviously will impact categories of personnel. But again, we’re considering the deployment of these 51 civilians. And once we have some more information on that, we’ll be happy to provide it.

QUESTION: But just a --

MR. WOOD: Charlie, mm-hmm, sure.

QUESTION: -- categorical clarity. Fifty-one civilians is one thing. A number, which you have stated, of additional Foreign Service officers is another category that you would add to the people on --

MR. WOOD: Yeah, and that’s something that we’re looking at as well. We’re, again, not there with regard to numbers, but the 51 that I described are basically these 3161 positions that are one-year temporary positions.

On this subject?

QUESTION: Yes. Would those people be hired new? And if they haven’t had the security background checks, et cetera, when could they possibly show up there?

MR. WOOD: Well, I can’t give you, you know, dates on when people will show up. But these are temporary employees. They will be federal government employees. They will have to undergo various security background checks. But I don’t have any other, you know, information beyond that, Jill.

QUESTION: And the State Department people, where would they come from?

MR. WOOD: When you say State Department people --

QUESTION: The, you know, permanent staff of the State Department who would be going – Foreign Service officers who would be --

MR. WOOD: Well, there would be Foreign Service officers and I would not – there would likely be some civil servants who might be – who may be going. It’s just hard for me to say at this point because we’re still looking at that element of staffing.

QUESTION: Are you saying --

QUESTION: Just for clarity, are they existing Foreign Service personnel or are they – would they also be --

MR. WOOD: No, what I’m talking about here, the 51, 3161s, these are not Foreign Service employees.


MR. WOOD: Right. Now --

QUESTION: Are they federal government employees that are from outside the system?

MR. WOOD: They can be – that’s right, from outside the system. Let me see if I’ve got any other information on this. Let me clarify this. It’s saying here individuals hired under this are federal government employees, so --

QUESTION: But are they currently?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, see, that – let me get an answer to that for you.

QUESTION: Because there is a --

MR. WOOD: I want to make sure.

QUESTION: Because there is thought also of, you know, bringing people from Justice and Interior and --

MR. WOOD: Well, those people will certainly --

QUESTION: -- Agriculture and --

MR. WOOD: Well, there will be people from various U.S. Government agencies that will be deployed.

QUESTION: On top of the 51?

MR. WOOD: Oh yeah, I mean, from other agencies that will be going. There’s no question about that. We don’t have final numbers. And as I said earlier, we don’t have categories. I don’t have specific categories for you at this point.

Mr. Lambros.

QUESTION: On Albania, Mr. Wood --

MR. WOOD: Hang on. On this subject?

QUESTION: Excuse me?

MR. WOOD: I’m going to stay on this subject for a moment.

QUESTION: So you don’t have a number – an estimate of the number of Foreign Service officers?

MR. WOOD: Not yet, no.

QUESTION: What can you say about the timeline for the decision to be made? I mean, it’s part of the review, but it’s --

MR. WOOD: It’s part of the review; soon, coming soon to a theater near you.

QUESTION: A theater?

MR. WOOD: Hmm?

QUESTION: A theater? Is that a war joke?

MR. WOOD: It wasn’t a war joke. Kirit, I thought you had a better sense of humor than that.

On this subject?

QUESTION: New subject, yes.

MR. WOOD: No, no.

QUESTION: New subject?

MR. WOOD: Same subject here.

QUESTION: So the 51 is not quite a surge of civilians, but if that – a surge would be from other departments as well?

MR. WOOD: That’s right. I’m just talking about this particular – our Department, and there will be an increase in personnel from around the U.S. Government who will be deployed to the country.

QUESTION: On Northern Epirus, Mr. Wood, mayor of Himara Vasilis Bolanos in Northern Epirus is under constant attack by the Albanian Government of Sali Berisha. Without any excuse, Mrs. – Mr. Bolanos is going to prison for clearly political reasons. I know that Secretary Hillary Clinton has different opinions in respect of the Albanian courts. Once again, I’ll ask the government – U.S. Government right now in order to stop this unpopular Albanian political plan?

MR. WOOD: I’m not aware of this issue, Mr. Lambros. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: But can you take this question? Because it’s important.

MR. WOOD: I’m not sure it’s – what’s the question?

QUESTION: The question is that the mayor of Himara is going to prison for political reasons. I would like you to get involved to stop this movement.

MR. WOOD: I’m not going to take this. This is not a question you’re asking. You’re making a request. And I’m –

QUESTION: No, the question is that he’s going to prison for political reasons already.

MR. WOOD: Are you asking or telling me? I’m not quite sure here.

QUESTION: The question is he’s going to prison for political reasons. It is being done by a court. And I would like you to get involved.

MR. WOOD: Next question, please.

QUESTION: Back to Israel. The Israeli military said they’re going to conduct an inquiry into Palestinian civilian deaths and destruction of property during the war on Gaza. And I wondered if you’re going to look at their rules of engagement. Does the U.S. think that the Israeli rules of engagement were appropriate during that war?

MR. WOOD: I’m not able to give you that kind of a characterization. I think it’s – the Israeli Government feels it needs to do that, and it’s going to do so. And so I’m not going to give a characterization of what Israel has decided to do. We’ll have to see how that process goes, and then we’ll take a look at it.

QUESTION: During the war, you did express to the Israelis – to urge them to limit civilian casualties.

MR. WOOD: That’s right.

QUESTION: So from that point of view, wouldn’t you want to follow up on it?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, we said to all sides that, you know, please take care to minimize any kind of harm to civilians. That’s something we say not just with regard to that conflict, but any other conflict. And we’re obviously very concerned about what happens to civilians, so that hasn’t changed.

QUESTION: Do you have any private estimate, independent estimate about how many civilians were killed?

MR. WOOD: I don’t. Unfortunately, I don’t.


QUESTION: Different subject?

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: Any response to Robert Mugabe’s request for more foreign aid, and his characterization of sanctions as cruel and inhumane and his request to have those removed, as well?

MR. WOOD: Well, from our standpoint, we have not yet seen sufficient evidence from the Government of Zimbabwe that they are firmly and irrevocably on a path to inclusive and effective governance, and as well as respect for human rights and the rule of law. So that government has a long way to go before we will consider, you know, easing sanctions with that government. I want to be clear, we’re not in any kind of discussion with the Government of Zimbabwe on removing our targeted sanctions. We remain very concerned about the plight of the Zimbabwean people who have been under such terrible suffering. And we’re going to continue to try to help the people of Zimbabwe. But as I said, with regard to the Government, it’s got a long way to go before we will look at removing any targeted sanctions.

QUESTION: How about the aid? Would you consider – he’s requesting more aid. Would you consider that?

MR. WOOD: Well, we’re trying to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe. That’s our number one priority. But this government has to show more before we will consider, as I said, removing any targeted sanctions or for putting together, you know, an aid package.

Last question here?

QUESTION: Yes, just one more on North Korea. Secretary Clinton said earlier this month that there are a range of options that the U.S. could take should North Korea launch a missile. I’m just wondering if one of those options under consideration is additional bilateral sanctions?

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t want to lay out what we may or may not do should the North launch this missile. But let me just say, there are a number of options, as the Secretary said, that we would look at. I’m not going to spell it out it. But if indeed a launch takes place, we will certainly let you know what our reaction is going to be to it.


QUESTION: Robert, just one more on North Korea.

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: Sorry, to close the loop here. The North Koreans say that these war games or war – military exercises are actually threatening them and that they should be stopped, and this is one reason they are so nervous about the situation. Could you comment on that?

MR. WOOD: You know, Jill, I’ve commented many times from here about that. These annual exercises are no threat to the North Korean regime – absolutely no threat. The North knows what it needs to do, and we want to see it change its behavior, focus on denuclearization, stop all of the bellicose rhetoric, and live up to the commitments that it pledged it would. So again, these types of comments from the North are not helpful. It knows very well what these exercises are about. And so, as I said, the North knows what it needs to do. Okay.

Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:02 p.m.)