Daily Press Briefing - December 12, 2011

Index for Today's Briefing:

  • IRAN
    • Drone
    • Secretary Clinton's Consultations with UK Foreign Secretary Hague
    • Violence in Homs
    • International Monitors
    • Sanctions
    • Turkey
    • Kimberly Process / OFAC
    • Attack Against French Peacekeepers
    • Elections
    • Update on Foreign Investment
    • Ambassador Bryza's Nomination
  • IRAN
    • Univision Report / U.S. Takes Iranian Activity in the Hemisphere Seriously
  • IRAQ
    • Transition
    • Consultations with Prime Minister al-Maliki
Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 12, 2011


Today's briefing was held off-camera, so no video is available.

1:18 p.m. EST

MR. TONER: I don’t have anything for the top, so we’ll go right to your questions. Any questions?

QUESTION: Do you want to say anything about what the President talked about --

QUESTION: The President --

QUESTION: -- requesting the drone to be returned?

MR. TONER: I think the President –

QUESTION: When and how it’s going to happen?

MR. TONER: I don’t have anything to add to what the President already said.

QUESTION: Well, how was the request communicated, through the Swiss ambassador?

MR. TONER: I don’t have any more details to provide you.

QUESTION: Well, why not?

MR. TONER: I don’t.

QUESTION: Well, you said you asked the Iranians for the drone back, and there are only limited contacts with the Iranians, so I mean, I think it’s a fair question to ask how that request was administered.

MR. TONER: It’s a fair question, but I’m not going to get into intelligence matters. And we also don’t talk --

QUESTION: It’s not about intelligence matters.

MR. TONER: And we also don’t talk about the substance of our diplomatic exchanges.

QUESTION: You’re not – we’re not talking about the substance. We’re talking about the process.

MR. TONER: Agreed.

QUESTION: Which is a perfectly legitimate question.

MR. TONER: At this point --

QUESTION: And it’s not about – it has nothing to do with intelligence matters whatsoever.

MR. TONER: I understand, Elise. I understand that. But I’m just staying I’m not going to get into the substance beyond what I’ve already said, what the President said; he’s not going to get into the substance of this. The President spoke very clearly, said we’ve asked for it back. I don’t have any more details to provide at this time.

QUESTION: Why do you think Iran should give it back?

MR. TONER: I don’t have any more details. I’m not going to say anything more about it.

QUESTION: Well, do you consider it stolen?

MR. TONER: Again, we’ve asked for it back. We’ll see how they respond.

QUESTION: And what – but what’s the rationale for asking for it back? It’s not a – isn’t it the international law of finders keepers? (Laughter.)

MR. TONER: I’ve said all I can say on this. Anything else?

QUESTION: Yeah. What’s the purpose of the visit of the British foreign minister today? Is it Tehran?

MR. TONER: Well, I think it’s – again, the Secretary will obviously speak to this and give you a full readout of their meeting. But obviously, it’s a chance for us to consult on a number of issues with our close partner, Britain. They’re obviously going to talk about a full range of security issues, obviously talk about the Middle East, Arab Spring, talk about developments around the world. But I’ll leave it for them to give a more precise readout once they meet.


MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I have one more question?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Wait, wait, wait. Hold on. They’re not going to talk about the European financial crisis?

MR. TONER: I’m sure they will. I just said I’m not trying to rule anything out. I’m just saying it’s going to be a full-spectrum discussion.

QUESTION: When was the meeting scheduled?

MR. TONER: For – with Hague?


MR. TONER: I don’t know. I believe last week, but I don’t know the details of when it was --

QUESTION: After the Embassy?

MR. TONER: Oh, in Iran?


MR. TONER: I mean, I don’t actually know when it was scheduled.


QUESTION: A member of the Iran parliament – parliament’s national security council, Hossein Ebrahimi, again threatened Turkey; if it’s attacked, they are going to first attack NATO radar system in southeastern of Turkey. This is second threat comes from Iran within two weeks. Do you have any reaction to that?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry? You’re saying – you’re talking about Iran – Iranian threats that if they are attacked by --

QUESTION: Israel or U.S., they’ll attack as a first target. It will be another --

MR. TONER: I really don’t have any comment on it. They shouldn’t be issuing threats like that.

Anything else, guys? This quick?

QUESTION: Yeah. A – well, the Kimberly Process – do you have any new guidance on that? It looks like a month ago, they authorized some purchases of Zimbabwean diamonds, but the Treasury Department today said basically the U.S. isn’t buying that. Do you have any additional --

MR. TONER: I don’t. I looked into it. I saw you’ve raised it, and I was told that OFAC would be the right person to – or people to talk to you about that.

QUESTION: Do you have anything to say about the increased violence in Homs?

MR. TONER: Well, you saw that there was regime pledges or threats, if you will, to launch a full-scale offensive on Homs. Obviously, we want to see an end to the violence. We’re deeply disturbed by this kind of – these kinds of statements and would just advise that the international community is watching and, as best we can, clearly, because we’re limited – we don’t have monitors on the ground – but that whatever the Syrian Government does do, it’ll be held accountable.

QUESTION: Mark, there’s a story that there are Turkish troops in Syria. Do you have any knowledge about any --

MR. TONER: I do not.


QUESTION: The French foreign minister --

QUESTION: -- just a follow-up on the Homs question?

MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: Is this kind of like a Benghazi moment for you guys when you hear this kind of talk coming from the Syrian Government?

MR. TONER: Well, Kirit, I mean, it speaks to several things, but – one of which is that what we’ve been pushing for, which is working through the Arab League to get monitors on the ground – we believe that would go a long way towards addressing our concerns. We don’t have eyes and ears on the ground in Syria, and so it’s difficult to say what’s happening, except that we get – through our own contacts, we hear credible reports of continued violence, ongoing violence, deaths in and around Homs.

QUESTION: Deaths of children?

MR. TONER: Deaths of children and just truly ghastly stuff, but it’s deeply concerning. We are – we’re going to continue to push for monitors on the ground, we’re going to continue to push for greater sanctions, and to continue to choke off the regime.


QUESTION: I guess what I’m trying to find out is this – when – in the case of Benghazi, you had similar reports of military columns advancing towards the city and then threatening to take – or pledging to take out any opposition. In that case, you felt a need to seek authorization for the use of force and some intervention, and I’m curious why you don’t see that need in this case.

MR. TONER: Well, again, we don’t – it’s not an easy thing to do to compare the situation in Libya and the situation in Syria. We are pursuing a strategy regarding Syria that we believe is having an effect. We don’t believe in further militarizing the situation in Syria. We don’t want to see more violence. We want to see an end to violence. We believe that putting monitors on the ground would help provide the eyes and ears that would allow the international community to put pressure – more pressure, additional pressure – on the Syrian Government to end its crackdown.

QUESTION: Mark, you say if --

QUESTION: If I can follow up on this, when you say you don’t have monitors on the ground, you didn’t have monitors on the ground in Libya either.

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: You say the pressure that you are putting on Syria is having an effect. We’re I don’t know how many months into this, and it’s not getting any better, so exactly what kind of effect is it having?


MR. TONER: Well, again, this is a slower process. You’re absolutely right. We’ve talked about this all along. This is a slower process to provide economic pressure, bring it to bear on Asad, but we believe we have seen progress in terms of the Arab League --

QUESTION: There are people dying every day.

MR. TONER: -- now suspending Syria, Asad’s neighbors turning their backs on him.


MR. TONER: Well, again, the President just spoke to this, but this is a more difficult road we’re pursuing. We believe we’ve been on the right side of history here. It’s going to take time. We’re working with the opposition on the ground. You’re right; the violence has gone on too far, and that responsibility for that violence rests with Asad.

QUESTION: The French foreign minister has accused Syria and Hezbollah of being behind the attack against French peacekeepers in southern Lebanon. Do you agree with his assessment?

MR. TONER: We don’t have any more information. We would just call on the Government of Lebanon to investigate it fully.

QUESTION: Just getting back to the whole thing of monitors --

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- what difference do you think they will make? Am I --

QUESTION: Can you --

MR. TONER: I’m sorry.

QUESTION: I can’t – I’m not sure I understand. You would feel more comfortable if all this slaughter and massacre was going on and people were there to watch it?

QUESTION: People actually saw it?

MR. TONER: We actually think that – we --

QUESTION: You want monitors there so they can watch the Syrian troops come into Homs?

MR. TONER: Well, we --

QUESTION: What difference does that make?

MR. TONER: -- believe that monitors would provide the kind of witnesses that would, we hope, give the Syrian regime pause.

QUESTION: Well, but they haven’t --


QUESTION: -- shown any sign of --

MR. TONER: But right now, they’re --

QUESTION: Would these be armed monitors?

MR. TONER: There’s a – again, there’s – they’re – right now, they’re acting with impunity. They have nobody on the ground watching --

QUESTION: But how would monitors --

QUESTION: If you had monitors –

QUESTION: Does that mean that you don’t trust the Syrian opposition on the ground that is sending very detailed eyewitness accounts?

MR. TONER: Absolutely, and that’s how we get much of our information.

QUESTION: But that doesn’t give the Syrians pause either, so why – I mean, why would international monitors make a difference?

MR. TONER: It’s an additional way to apply pressure on Asad and apply pressure on his regime, but I agree with you in that this is a government and an individual that has thus far shown no inclination or no desire to play ball in any way, shape, or form, either with his own people or acknowledge the international community’s concerns, so --

QUESTION: But you say --

MR. TONER: It is difficult.

QUESTION: So why would international monitors give him pause?

MR. TONER: Well, again --

QUESTION: Or like – or why would he have – why doesn’t having impunity with monitors not on the ground, that he wouldn’t have impunity with monitors on the ground if they’re not actually going to be able to do anything --

MR. TONER: Well --

QUESTION: -- to stop the violence? Where’s the impunity factor?

MR. TONER: Well, there is an importance to having witnesses to what’s going on there, so –

QUESTION: You do --

QUESTION: But there are --

MR. TONER: -- that just international witnesses, international pressure on Asad that can bear witness to his regime’s actions and to hold them accountable. But I agree. We’re talking about additional measures and steps we’re trying to take, but it’s a long process.

QUESTION: Somehow it’s different if the witness is from outside the country than if from inside the country?

MR. TONER: Not at all. We’re just talking about a way to bring more international pressure to bear on Asad by providing these outside witnesses and outside monitors.

QUESTION: The UN came out with a report --

MR. TONER: I agree. Yeah, and it’s a scathing report, and it’s actually being – there’s a meeting in New York right now.

QUESTION: Right. And Asad says basically it’s bull.

MR. TONER: He’s in denial, yes.

QUESTION: Well, but – so what possible good would more monitors, or any monitors, do?

MR. TONER: Again --

QUESTION: Isn’t it a little bit past time for monitors?

MR. TONER: Well, again, we’ve – what we’re trying to do is provide more witnesses to what his regime is carrying out. That’s the objective here.

QUESTION: What about Turkey’s idea of creating buffer zones to protect the people there?

MR. TONER: Well, again, we believe an effective monitoring system could help that along.

QUESTION: Well, also, Mark, I mean, you’re --

QUESTION: Mark, one thing I’m not (inaudible) any of this, you seem to be – in none of these comments you’re offering – you’re offering no suggestion on how to stop the violence. You’re just – I mean, you’re offering suggestions on how to watch it and shame them into not doing it, but I mean, there’s nothing to actually stop them from doing anything. And I’m curious – I mean, I know you don’t want to make comparisons to Libya, but that was a case in which you and your allies felt the need to actually do something to stop it. I’m just curious why you don’t --

QUESTION: Well, and Asad’s – just to follow on that –

QUESTION: Elise, please, can he just answer this question?

MR. TONER: Again, different situations, different countries demand different approaches. We’ve been at the forefront of international efforts both to call attention to what Asad’s been doing and then work to find practical ways to stop it. That involves the process of building sanctions up against him. We have very hard-hitting sanctions now against the Syrian regime that have been matched and even exceeded by the EU, which has a much closer relationship, economically, to Asad, his regime, and – or rather, sorry, to the oil exports market there. And this is bringing pressure to bear on him. But it is a longer process, it’s a difficult process. We’re appalled by the violence. We’re speaking out against it. We’re seeking action –

QUESTION: I’m just trying to understand what --

MR. TONER: -- through the UN and other aid --

QUESTION: -- what potential --

MR. TONER: -- organizations --

QUESTION: -- what potential slaughter is more concerning to you than another. I’m curious why one potential slaughter deserves one response and the other one doesn’t. I mean, that’s what I don’t understand. There’s kind of a disconnect.

MR. TONER: You’re talking about – I’m sorry – one potential slaughter, meaning --

QUESTION: Benghazi.

QUESTION: In Benghazi, you stepped in to avoid a slaughter, a potential slaughter there, and here you’re unwilling to do so. I just don’t – I have a hard time understanding --

QUESTION: Is it that you don’t have --

QUESTION: -- why they’re so different, why one is --

QUESTION: Is it that you’ve been unable to convince others to stand with you the way you were able to do with Libya? I mean, this is what it’s about. You don’t have the Russians and you don’t have the Chinese, and therefore your hands are tied.

MR. TONER: Well, again, we are working to lead international efforts to find ways to squeeze Asad and to choke him off financially. That’s the process that we’re pursuing. We believe we’ve made progress. It has been a slow process. We’re appalled by the violence. But this is Asad – this is his responsibility. He will be held accountable.

QUESTION: But Mark, he’s doing in Syria what Qadhafi only threatened to do in Libya. I mean, you took an action in Libya preemptively to stop thousands of deaths, where thousands of deaths are – continue to take place in Syria. I mean, it’s actually – your worst fears of Libya are actually being realized in Syria.

MR. TONER: It is – it’s appalling the violence that’s being carried out on a daily basis against the Syrian people. We are applying pressure the best way we know how to end it. We’re trying to --

QUESTION: But what will --

MR. TONER: We’re trying to --

QUESTION: What is the pressure --

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: I mean, you say like you’re trying to choke him off financially, but what relation does that – he’s just going to be completely choked off financially and one day say, “I’m penniless. I’m going to stop the violence now”?

MR. TONER: Well, again, yes. I mean, if they can – if we can choke off their security forces and so they don’t have the weapons to use against their own citizens. I mean, there is – there is an effect to these kinds of economic sanctions, absolutely.

QUESTION: About the humanitarian corridors that you touched a little bit, you said about ten days ago you were going to get some details from French, the original --

MR. TONER: We haven’t heard further details from the French Government.

QUESTION: You’re waiting for details?

QUESTION: Do you believe that to build a buffer zone in the region is the right of Turkey in these conditions?

MR. TONER: Turkey is going to make its own sovereign decisions. Turkey’s been a leader in speaking out about the abuses in Syria and has accepted thousands of Syrian refugees, but it’s going to make its own decisions in its own best interests.

QUESTION: So you see that it is a right of Turkey to --

MR. TONER: I’m saying Turkey is going to make its own sovereign decisions based on its own security concerns.

QUESTION: Do you believe that it will increase the pressure on the Syrian regime, this kind of buffer zone?

MR. TONER: Again, I don't think anybody’s – I’m not aware that a buffer zone is being seriously considered at this point. But I do think continued sanctions, the public outrage from all of Syria’s neighbors, is making it clear to Asad that he has no friends left in the neighborhood, except for Iran.

QUESTION: New topic?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Tunisia elected a new president. Do you have any reaction to this step?

MR. TONER: It’s another positive step for Tunisia and its democratic transition, and we stand ready to support them as they move forward.

QUESTION: I’m wondering if you’ve got anything further --

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: -- on the Indian decision on the market opening.

MR. TONER: You’re talking about the investment, foreign investment?

QUESTION: Yeah. About the –

MR. TONER: I don’t --

QUESTION: You still don’t have anything you can say about that?

MR. TONER: I don't have any update. I mean, I don't have any update. We said last week that we felt like it was a deal that was in the best interests of both the United States and the Indian people and businesses and would obviously be a boom to both our economies. We want to see it eventually move forward. But this is a --

QUESTION: Are you not ready to say you’re disappointed that it’s not moving forward?

MR. TONER: It’s a decision for the Indian Government to work out.


QUESTION: Will you join the group, I mean, that Secretary Panetta will be heading to Turkey next – in the next couple of days? You will be in the delegation?

MR. TONER: I didn’t hear what you said.

QUESTION: That Secretary Panetta will be – will go to Turkey.

MR. TONER: Secretary Panetta?

QUESTION: Panetta. Yes. And will you be --

MR. TONER: Nothing to announce.

QUESTION: -- part of the --


QUESTION: Have you given up on Matt Bryza’s nomination? I think he has to be withdrawn at the end of this month.

MR. TONER: I checked on it. We’re just saying now that the Senate’s still, I think, considering his nomination, so haven’t given up yet.

QUESTION: Mark, are you aware of the allegations against the Venezuelan consul general in Miami? She was allegedly involved when she was a diplomat in Mexico with attempted cyber attacks against U.S. (inaudible) installations. There are a number of people on the Hill – more than just a few, more than just the usual suspects, although the usual suspects are among them – who are --

MR. TONER: Is this based on a Univision report?

QUESTION: Yeah. Who are calling on you guys to expel her.

MR. TONER: And this is talking about Iranian --

QUESTION: No. It has – yes.

MR. TONER: Okay. Okay. Well, I just would say that we, obviously, take Iranian activity in the hemisphere seriously. We monitor its activities closely. And the – we constantly monitor for possible connections between terrorists and transnational criminals. We did see, obviously, as I mentioned, the Univision report and are cognizant of the allegations it made and – very disturbing. We don’t have any information to – at this point, to corroborate it.

QUESTION: Wait. Which allegations?

MR. TONER: About the --

QUESTION: About this woman?

MR. TONER: About this woman.

QUESTION: Are you looking into it?

MR. TONER: And we’re looking into it. Yeah.

QUESTION: It’s being investigated?

MR. TONER: Yeah. And continue to assess what additional actions we might take.

QUESTION: And is expelling her or PNGing her among the options?

MR. TONER: There’s a number of different options on the table.

QUESTION: Which are?

MR. TONER: Well --

QUESTION: Can you rule out the military option?

MR. TONER: (Laughter.) Yes.

QUESTION: You can?

MR. TONER: Well, look, I just would say that we’re looking into it at this point. We’re trying to get more details. We’re trying to corroborate the report. And at that point, we’ll assess what possible actions we might take.

QUESTION: Mark, do you have anything in that book about the number of contractors you’ll be having in Iraq?

MR. TONER: In Iraq? It’s – yeah. I think the number we’ve been using --

QUESTION: You said 5,000.

MR. TONER: -- is about – yeah. It’s – hold on one second. It’s – I talked about this last week, but we talked about 5,000.

QUESTION: Do you have an estimate of how much this is going to cost yearly to run the Embassy and the two consulates?

MR. TONER: Sorry. Let me just dial that back. We talk about there’s – overall there’s about 16,000 personnel, 2,000 of which will be kind of core mission, and then roughly – the rest will be, roughly, contractors.

QUESTION: But 5,000 of those will be security contractors?

QUESTION: How many of those contractors will be security?

MR. TONER: That’s more or less the figure.

QUESTION: Do you have that – sorry. Do you have a dollar – estimated dollar figure on how much it’s going to cost to run the Embassy?

MR. TONER: I don’t. I can try to get it for you.

QUESTION: Can you try to get that?

MR. TONER: I mean, I don’t have it in here.


QUESTION: (Inaudible)

QUESTION: Prime Minister al-Maliki’s visit to here and meeting with Secretary Clinton – have you had a chance to ask or --

MR. TONER: She sat in on the President’s meeting and then she’s having Zebari over again.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. TONER: And right – that’s true.

QUESTION: What’s exactly the position of why the Iraqi Government is being – appears like supporting the Syrian regime right now?

MR. TONER: I would just refer you to – I mean, it was the first question the President and Prime Minister Maliki got, and they answered it in great detail. So I would just refer you to their transcript.

QUESTION: And Prime Minister Maliki also gave an interview Wall Street Journal and said that Turkey’s meddling with Iraq’s domestic affairs. Do you --

MR. TONER: I’m not sure what – you’ll have to elaborate on what he meant by that. I’m not sure what that means. What he meant by, I mean, in terms of going after the PKK, or in terms of --

QUESTION: Not the PKK, just supporting some blocs or certain people is the quote he said. I’m wondering if Turkey is – was part of discussions here.

MR. TONER: I’m not aware. No.

QUESTION: But on the PKK – you just touched on it – did you have a conversation on the PKK?

MR. TONER: Again, I haven’t gotten a readout. We do talk about our counterterrorism cooperation vis-à-vis the PKK, but I don’t know that it came up in those meetings.

That it? Thanks guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:41 p.m.)

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