Daily Press Briefing - December 6, 2011

Index for Today's Briefing:

    • Open Skies Agreement with Montenegro
    • Ambassador Ford returns to Syria / Expect Syria to Abide by Vienna Convention Obligations / Security Considerations / Role of Turkey / Arab League
    • Secretary's Meeting with Syrian National Council / Respond to the Needs of the Syrian People / Work with Syrian People for Peace Peaceful Transition
    • Asad's Interview on U.S. Television
    • Elections / Criticism from Russian Government / OSCE / Reports of Fraud / Incumbent on Democratic Government to Look into Allegations
    • Condemn Suicide Bombing at Worshippers
    • Afghan Security Forces / Transition
    • Travel Alert / Update on Map from Web site
    • Posture at Border Posts / Referred to Government and Military of Pakistan
    • Better Communication / Complex Relationship
    • Stronger Military Ties Desired / Greater Transparency
    • Judgment from International Court of Justice / Urge Political Parties to Use as Opportunity to Reenergize Efforts / Continue to Support UN Effort
  • IRAQ
    • Diplomatic Activities / Transition on Track / Security Personnel
    • Elections / Travel of Embassy Staff / Urge Peaceful Process
  • IRAN
    • Drone
    • Operations Disrupting Money Laundering Networks / Collaboration with Mexican Government / Referred to Drug Enforcement Agency and Department of Justice
Mark C. Toner
Deputy Assistant Secretary
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 6, 2011


1:08 p.m. EST

MR. TONER: Welcome to the State Department. Just very briefly at the top, I do want to note that on November 28th in Podgorica and on December 5th in Washington, representatives of the Government of Montenegro and the Government of the United States, respectively, initialed an open skies agreement – air services agreement – that will liberalize our bilateral aviation relationship. The open skies agreements, as you know, are pro-consumer, pro-competition, and pro-growth accords. They represent market-oriented approaches to aviation relations. Airlines, not governments, will be able to decide which cities to serve, the frequency of flights, and the equipment used and the prices charged. And this agreement, we believe, will strengthen and expand our strong trade and tourism links to Montenegro, benefitting U.S. and Montenegran businesses and travelers by expanding opportunities for air services. And I think this makes now 105 open skies agreements.

And with that, I will go to your --

QUESTION: And do you have any idea how many direct flights there are between the U.S. and Montenegro?

MR. TONER: I knew you would ask me. I don’t believe there are any direct flights at this time.

QUESTION: And will there be as a result of this?

MR. TONER: Well, Matt, it’s – certainly, the design of this kind of agreement is to --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: I’ll take the first one.

MR. TONER: That’s right. Wonderful beaches, I understand, there.

QUESTION: As long as you give me – as long as you buy the ticket. I’ll be there.

MR. TONER: (Laughter.) That’s right. That’s your --

QUESTION: Is that it?

MR. TONER: Yeah, that’s it.

QUESTION: You’re done?


QUESTION: So Ambassador Ford is due back in Damascus very shortly, or – if he’s not already there. Can you --

MR. TONER: It’s a somewhat – I mean, it’s a somewhat long trip. My understanding is that he’ll be back – he’ll arrive evening, our time.


MR. TONER: Today, right. That’s correct.

QUESTION: And what – does he have any specific – does he have his marching orders changed at all from when he was originally sent out there now?

MR. TONER: I mean, I would say his marching orders haven’t really changed. First of all, he sets his own marching orders, and has done so in the many months he’s been there, but especially in response to the events of the last few months there. He is returning to Damascus. He’s going to continue the same kind of work he did previously, which is delivering our message of support for the Syrian people, and trying to provide reliable reporting on the situation on the ground, and engaging as best he can, given the limitations, with the full spectrum of Syrian society, on how to both end the bloodshed and begin a democratic transition.

QUESTION: Did you get any guarantees from the Syrian Government regarding his safety?

MR. TONER: Well, we have – excuse me. We have been very clear in what we’re expecting from the Syrian Government. We have notified the ministry of foreign affairs, obviously, of his return. I don’t have any more details to provide, except that we certainly expect Syria to live up to its Vienna Convention obligations.

QUESTION: What was the thinking behind having him return now?

MR. TONER: Well, again I – you mean today, December 6th?

QUESTION: Well, given that we’ve been asking for the past several weeks and it was, “We’re still reviewing, we’re still looking at,” what were the factors that made people in this building feel comfortable – “Okay, we can go ahead and have the ambassador return”?

MR. TONER: Well, I think there was quite a few things at play. Certainly, security and the security situation on the ground was an important consideration. We did want to make sure that he would be safe. We – one of the concerns and one of the reasons that he came back for consultations was these attacks on his person.

Secondly, we felt that there was a sense of urgency to get him back on the ground. We’ve long said that we feel he is fulfilling a very essential role, along with, I might add, ambassadors from other countries like Germany and the UK and France as witnesses to what’s going on there, as interlocutors with the Syrian opposition, and as a steady and persistent voice of outrage against the Syrian Government.


QUESTION: The French ambassador has returned to Damascus yesterday.

MR. TONER: That’s right.

QUESTION: Was it a coordinated stunt with the --

MR. TONER: We were in close contact, as we’ve been throughout with – as I said, with the French, as well as Germany and the UK.

QUESTION: And Turkey?

MR. TONER: And Turkey, always Turkey. No, seriously, I mean, we’ve obviously worked closely with Turkey. Turkey’s been a leading voice against the violence of the Asad regime and has really played a leading – leadership role in the region, and in really coalescing, we believe, the reaction of Syria’s neighbors, as well as within the Arab League against what’s going on there.

QUESTION: Was it a coincidence that the Ambassador is returning to Damascus as the Secretary is meeting with members of the Syrian National Council?

MR. TONER: Certainly, the Secretary’s meeting today was in part because she was in Europe, and in Geneva. I wouldn’t necessarily – it wasn’t coordinated in that fashion. These things are kind of difficult to coordinate, certainly. I believe Ambassador Ford was supposed to return a few days earlier, but for flight reasons, had to delay his departure, so – but --

QUESTION: So it’s more accurate to call it a coincidence, not coordinated?

MR. TONER: Again, I think that what you can say is his return, the Secretary’s meeting today, is all part of this consistent drum beat, and the message is that we care about the Syrian people, we are working with the Syrian opposition to find ways that they can be more responsive to the Syrian people, as well as find ways to lead this democratic transition and also that we’re putting Ambassador Ford back because we play – think he plays an effective role in calling the world’s attention to what’s going on there.


QUESTION: Just when he was brought back to Washington, the State Department said that there are credible threats against him. I mean, is that still the case? Are there still credible threats against him (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: Again, what we have asked and demanded, frankly, that the Syrian Government abide by its Vienna obligations, Vienna Convention obligations. We’re going to, obviously, keep a close eye on some of the things that we saw that we believe were threatening to him – newspaper articles, inciteful language, et cetera.

QUESTION: What has really changed today that he’s going --

MR. TONER: Well, again, I – what we’ve said all along that our intention was that he would return to Syria. So in that sense, you’re absolutely right; this is not earth shattering news. We’ve said he’s going to go back as soon as we felt that it was okay, safe for him to go back, but also that it was appropriate for him to go back, and we’re just following through with that. I think Toria talked about pre-Thanksgiving. That didn’t work out, but he’s now back with his – with the mission there, and I’m sure they’re grateful to have his leadership.

QUESTION: Have you been in contact with the Arab League as far as (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: Absolutely. We’ve been briefed – many of the Arab League countries as well as, as I said, the UK, Germany, and France, and other key players in this, Turkey.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: You were asking the Arab states to put more pressure on Asad regime and to withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus, and today you’re sending your ambassador to Syria.

MR. TONER: True. We’ve talked about this before. Arab Leagues – or the Arab nations withdrawing their ambassadors, we think, signals a clear break with – between the Arab world and the Asad regime. It’s a powerful message. It’s a sovereign decision, certainly, that they’ve made, but obviously sends a very clear message to Syria, to Asad. Equally, we feel like the presence of Ambassador Ford sends a message that we’re not going to turn away, we’re going to keep him there, we’re going to keep pushing for monitors on the ground, for that democratic transition that we’ve called for. We’re going to keep our contacts with the Syrian opposition. We’re going to continue to show our support in a way we believe is very real and tangible.

QUESTION: Do you encourage the Arab states to return their ambassadors to Syria?

MR. TONER: Not at all. That’s their sovereign decision. Again, I think both gestures, in a sense, send a very clear and unmistakable message to Asad, and they’re consistent messages. I don’t see a disconnect there. The Arab world is saying, “We’ve had enough. You’ve gone too far.” We’re sending a message that we’re going to continue to push for a peaceful transition. We’re going to continue to show our support for the Syrian people.

Yeah, (inaudible). Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: The fact that there was the meeting with the SNC, that’s not any sort of official imprimatur from the U.S. about this group’s activities and mission, is it?

MR. TONER: Well, again, we’ve said that we believe the Syrian National Council is a leading and legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition, of those Syrians who are seeking this kind of peaceful democratic transition, and we’re going to continue our outreach to them as well as to other opposition figures.

Yeah. Andy.

QUESTION: New subject.

QUESTION: I actually have another one as well.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: Yesterday, Barbara Walters interviewed President al-Asad, and he said, basically, that he was not in charge of the military. If I could read you some quotes here, he says, “I don’t own them. I’m president. I don’t own the country, so they’re not my forces.” In another line, he says, “There’s a difference between having a policy to crack down and between having some mistakes committed by some officials. There is a big difference.” Do you find President Asad’s comments, that he’s not in charge of the military in Syria, credible?

MR. TONER: I find it ludicrous that he is attempting to hide behind some sort of shell game but also some sort of claim that he doesn’t exercise authority in his own country. He has had opportunities in the past to end the violence. We can go through the litany. First, it was the Arab League, Turkey, other countries, other organizations, the UN have called on him to stop the violence, have offered him plans to end the violence. He’s rejected all of them, usually through a long, convoluted process where he plays for time. There’s just no indication that he’s doing anything other than cracking down in the most brutal fashion on a peaceful opposition movement.


MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure, Andy.

QUESTION: New subject?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: Russia. The Russian foreign ministry this morning had a statement out saying that the criticism leveled from this podium and the White House at their election was unacceptable. I’m wondering, have you heard anything formally from them? Have they lodged any kind of official complaint?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Andy, that’s a good question. I have not personally. I’ll have to check and see whether anything’s been conveyed in Moscow. But again, this was an OSCE mission and OSCE report. I believe the final report is still some weeks from being published, but these initial findings that we cited yesterday were from OSCE observers as well as other international observers who were there on the ground.

QUESTION: But they’re taking issue with the statements that the U.S. had serious concerns over the election. I mean, they’re actually saying that the U.S. was out of line in making this – such strong statements. Do you have any reaction to that?

MR. TONER: These are – and the Secretary certainly said that – raised concerns yesterday. There were credible instances of fraud and intimidation cited by international observers who were on the ground to provide objective reporting on the elections and the conduct of the elections. We think it’s incumbent on any government, any democratic government, to look into these allegations.


QUESTION: Another subject?

MR. TONER: Lalit and then --

QUESTION: Afghanistan?

MR. TONER: Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Do you have anything to say on the suicide attack today in Afghanistan, which killed more than 60 people?

MR. TONER: I do. I mean, I – first of all, I think we’ll have more to say later on this. I did just want to strongly condemn the suicide bombing today that did kill more than 50 people and wounded more than 150 people outside the Abul Fazal al-Abbas shrine in Kabul, as well as another apparent simultaneous attack that killed, I believe, four individuals in Mazar-e-Sharif. These attacks apparently directed at worshippers are absolutely heinous, deplorable. We condemn them in – to the fullest extent.

QUESTION: So under those circumstances, how can you say the situation – the security situation improving there and we’re – you’re withdrawing troops from Afghanistan?

MR. TONER: This is a terrible tragedy. As we’ve seen elsewhere, in some senses, it’s going to be very, very difficult to prevent individuals from carrying out these kinds of horrible terrorist attacks no matter what the level of security is. So I don’t know how much it speaks to the overall level of security. We think it’s improving. We think the capacity of Afghan security forces are improving to deal with these security threats, but lone individuals or coordinated attacks among several individuals are very difficult to stop.

Yeah. Go ahead, Tejinder.

QUESTION: The State Department has cancelled the Travel Warning to Nepal today. Do you have any updates on the Travel Warning still in effect for India?

MR. TONER: For India, I do not. I’m not aware that there’s any changes to that. I don’t think there’s a Travel Warning in effect for India. I think it was probably a Travel Alert or a Travel Advisory. A Travel Warning is --

QUESTION: Yeah, the words – but do you have anything that – a threat or something to justify that?

MR. TONER: Again, I have to go through my consular lexicon here, but – and I’m not sure what is actually in place right now, but often Travel Alerts are for localized or temporary threats, whereas a Travel Warning is for a longer-term situation. And I’m not aware there’s been any change in India.

Yeah, David.

QUESTION: Mark, Pakistan withdrew some liaison officers from the Afghan border, I think nominally, so they could go back and be better trained in how to coordinate with NATO forces. Do you have any reaction to that?

MR. TONER: Well, I’d refer you, obviously, to the Pakistani military and Pakistani Government to confirm any change in its posture on border posts. We do believe that – more broadly speaking – that it’s important for Afghanistan, Pakistan, ISAF to work better to coordinate their activities on the border so we can obviously address and avoid the kind of incidents that happened on November 26th.

Yeah, Lalit.

QUESTION: Last piece on Pakistan?

MR. TONER: We’ll stay on Pakistan, sure.

QUESTION: Over the last few days, there have been very high-level contacts between Pakistan and U.S. leaders. President Obama called, Secretary Clinton called prime minister of Pakistan and foreign minister. After these talks, are you confident that you are getting the kind of cooperation you need from Pakistan, or it’s not?

MR. TONER: Well, we’ve talked since November 26th about trying to overcome this latest challenge, this latest setback in the relationship. It’s hard. Our leadership, as you cited, has been very forthcoming in saying that – expressing condolences, sympathies, pledging to a full investigation and really trying to address Pakistan’s concerns about what happened. I think we need to do that. We also need to say, longer-term, that there are what continue to be these challenges – security challenges, threats, and it’s absolutely essential that Pakistan and Afghanistan and the U.S., other international partners work through this and beyond. It’s in all our interests.

QUESTION: Yesterday, two senators, Senator McCain and – have issued a press statement saying that the reaction by Pakistan after this NATO strike is very troubling, and they want the U.S. to review its relationship with Pakistan. Have they communicated with you, or do you agree with the assessment of this --

MR. TONER: You’re talking about – yeah, I’ve seen news reports about that statement. This is a very complex relationship. The Secretary and others have said that. There was an incident on November 26th, as we’ve talked about, that was difficult for the Pakistani people, for the Pakistani Government. They have reacted in a way that shows how important and how significant that this tragedy was for them. I don’t think that that necessarily speaks to where we were before in the relationship and in what direction we’re moving. So we believe our assistance to Pakistan still continues to provide dividends for the American people in trying to grow and strengthen Pakistan’s democratic institutions, boost its economy. In the long term, those are the kinds of things we’re seeking to achieve.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Any updates on the opening of the routes for NATO supplies?

MR. TONER: I don’t have any updates for you, no.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: On the (inaudible), a different topic.

MR. TONER: Okay.

QUESTION: Hu Jintao, the president of China, he made a statement today where – talking about the Navy modernizations, saying that the Navy should be prepared for combat. Is that – does the U.S. have a reaction to those remarks? Is it seen as in response to the --

MR. TONER: I haven’t seen the remarks. You’re saying that he made a comment about the Chinese Navy or the --

QUESTION: The Chinese Navy, right.

MR. TONER: Okay. I don’t, Sean, beyond saying what we’ve often said, which is that we want to see stronger military ties with China and we want to see greater transparency. That helps answer questions we might have about Chinese intentions.

Yeah, David --

QUESTION: Yeah, the World Court --

MR. TONER: -- and then Charley.

QUESTION: The World Court yesterday ruled against Greece in a case involving Macedonia that Greece wrongly blocked Macedonia’s entry into NATO a couple years ago.

MR. TONER: Any comment? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Do you have anything to say about it? I mean, any (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: Sure, I actually do.


MR. TONER: We can say that we did see, obviously, that the International Court of Justice issued, as you noted, a judgment on December 5th on the case between Macedonia and Greece. As we often do with legal texts, we take some time to review them. But fundamentally, I think we just would urge the political leadership of both countries to use this judgment as an opportunity to reengage on their efforts, reenergize their efforts on the name issue, and exercise leadership with a goal of finding a solution to this that benefits both countries. And of course, we obviously support, continue to support, the UN effort that’s led by Matt Nimetz.

QUESTION: New topic?

MR. TONER: New topic, but Charley had his hand up first.

QUESTION: Oh, sure. Sorry, Charley.

QUESTION: Also a new topic. Please, on Iraq, the security situation, particularly as the drawdown of U.S. military forces continues and the buildup of the contractor force for the State Department, have diplomatic activities been curtailed amidst concerns over security? And can you just bring us up to date where we are in that security transfer?

MR. TONER: Sure. I wouldn’t say that our diplomatic activities have been curtailed in any way. I do know there was a Warden Message. I know that’s not what they’re called anymore – Alert to Americans talking about a kidnapping, so that may be where some of that reporting came from – a kidnapping threat, rather – kidnapping threat. Thank you, Matt – that – where some of those reports came from. Those things obviously are very common there, and we issue warnings, or alerts, rather, as we get them. I mean, speaking more broadly --

QUESTION: Just before you go on --

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- the date of that was December 2nd, right?

MR. TONER: Correct. I think, though, that’s right. Anyway, to get back to your question about the transition in general, we’re looking at – I mean, this is a very broad-based transition. In terms of personnel and numbers, I think our overall diplomatic presence in 2012 will be about 15- to 16,000 people. And that’s going to include, obviously diplomats, business and development experts, security assistance staff, law enforcement officers, commercial, financial, agricultural professionals from a number of U.S. agencies. And that’s on track. So the size of our core mission is about the size of – that you’d – of other large country missions. But obviously in Iraq, there are security concerns, and that’s going to mean an expansion of security personnel. And again, we’re – some of these contractors are in place. Some of them are going to be expanded. I don't have any real hard numbers to give you with regard to extra security personnel at this time.

QUESTION: But not divulging any operational details --

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- but is it possible to say those 5- or 6- or 7,000 security contractors are in place or will be in place by New Year’s Eve?

MR. TONER: I think we can confidently say that there’ll be a sufficient security presence as provided by contractors in place for the transition.


MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Travel Warning put out today, raising the specter of violence as the election results are announced in the presidential campaign. And what --

MR. TONER: Right. And I think we’re still waiting for those to be announced, right?

QUESTION: Yeah. Right, right. And I noted in the Warning that Embassy staff had basically been told you can’t travel. How dangerous is the situation, based on the reports you’re getting out of there?

MR. TONER: Well, we have been concerned about episodes of violence in the pre-election campaign – leading up to elections, rather. And we continue to urge all parties to refrain from violence. Certainly we believe the potential is there, but what we’ve seen also is that there was broad participation of observers and they comprise the international community as well as Congolese civil society and other election officials. So that was, indeed, welcome. This is really an important moment for the Democratic Republic of Congo, and we would just urge both the government and all the political parties to make sure that it’s a peaceful transition moving forward.


MR. TONER: I – sorry. Just to answer your question more directly, I think we’re concerned about the possibility or the potential, but we’re also hopeful that this can also come about in a –this – that these results and this election can be a very peaceful outcome as well.

QUESTION: Who poses more of a risk in terms of causing violence? Are you worried about the president’s people, or are you worried about various opposition groups?

MR. TONER: I’m not going to game it out. I just would say that we think it’s vital that everyone involved in this election keep things peaceful.

QUESTION: Have there been any third-party or indirect communications between the United States and Iran about the missing drone?

MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of, no.

QUESTION: Mark, yesterday --

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- you were asked a question about Mexico and money laundering.


QUESTION: Your answer was less than satisfactory. But I understand that today you might actually have a more satisfactory answer. Is that correct? I don’t want to the answer. I just want to know if that’s correct. (Laughter.)

MR. TONER: Indeed, Matt, I do have a more full response for you. I can say that in response – you’re talking about the – I think it was a couple days ago the story that appeared, I think, on Sunday that talked about money laundering allegations. And I would just say that we’ve been working collaboratively with the Mexican Government to fight money laundering for years. As part of that collaboration, the Drug Enforcement Agency – Administration, rather – works with Mexican authorities to gather and use information about these criminal organizations to counter threats that they pose to both our countries. These operations are fully coordinated with Mexico, and the DEA has well-established mechanisms for coordinating and approving these activities associated with the fight against money laundering. And indeed, as our partners in Mexico have stated, these joint investigations to detect and dismantle money laundering networks have led to important advances and detentions within each country. So --

QUESTION: Which – well, the question was about – the story was about the U.S. agents laundering money. Is that happening?

MR. TONER: Again, these are – these types of operations are aimed at disrupting these money laundering networks, and they’re fully vetted and fully coordinated with Mexican authorities.

QUESTION: Well, okay. So --

MR. TONER: But I would --

QUESTION: In other words, the answer is yes.

MR. TONER: But you’re getting into a level of detail, I think, that is probably better addressed by the DEA and the Department of Justice.


MR. TONER: What I’m trying to say is that --

QUESTION: Well, I understand that, but what I think that if a question is posed, are U.S. agents engaged in money laundering, if the answer was going to be a flat-out no, you wouldn’t have a long, extended explanation for it, for what it is (inaudible).

MR. TONER: Well, again, I think what I – what I’m trying to say is that there are operations aimed at disrupting these kinds of money laundering networks.

QUESTION: Do those operations include U.S. agents laundering money?

MR. TONER: Again, that’s something for the Drug Enforcement Administration to answer.

Yeah. Lalit.

QUESTION: The map of India and Pakistan is still --

MR. TONER: It’s still --

QUESTION: Is it because of differences you are having with India and Pakistan, what kind of map it should be?

MR. TONER: I don’t believe so. I think it remains a technical glitch.

QUESTION: Is it some technical --

MR. TONER: Could we note that and follow up on it? Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.


(The briefing was concluded at 1:36 p.m.)

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