Daily Press Briefing - December 22, 2011

Index for Today's Briefing:

  • IRAN
    • Iranian Naval Exercises
    • Pentagon Report on November 26 Incident / Contacts with Pakistani Officials
    • Support Democratic Process in Pakistan
    • Land Supply Routes
    • Travel Warning for Syria
    • Visit of Arab League Officials
    • Contacts with Allies and Partners
  • IRAQ
    • Attacks in Baghdad
    • Vice President al-Hashimi
    • French Parliamentary Debate on Armenian Genocide
    • U.S. Supports Normalization of Relations between Turkey and Armenia
    • Arrests of Journalists
Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 22, 2011


1:25 p.m. EST

MR. TONER: All right. I don't have anything at the top, so I can get right into your questions.

QUESTION: I don't have anything, except the request to keep this short and sweet so we can get out of here.

QUESTION: Can I ask about Iraq?

QUESTION: How about Pakistan?

QUESTION: I got a very small one.

QUESTION: I was going to go to Pakistan.

MR. TONER: You want to do Pakistan first? That okay?

QUESTION: Pakistan first.

MR. TONER: All right. What’s your small question?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. TONER: Okay.

QUESTION: Okay. So Iran plans to start naval exercises on --


QUESTION: -- Sunday, I think it is. It’s a 10-day drill, Velayat 90, starts on Saturday.

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: Any comment on this?

MR. TONER: We’ve seen these reports, and I’m not going to comment in great detail on Iranian military exercises, proposed exercises. I would refer you to the Iranian Government. We remain, for our part, very comfortable with our presence and posture in the Gulf, which we believe engenders security and stability in the region. I mean, Iran has – as every maritime nation does – a right to exercise its navy, and we’re certainly going to do that with ours.

Yeah. Go ahead, Kirit.

QUESTION: Pakistan?

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: The Pentagon’s put out its report on the cross-border attack today. Has there been any interaction with the – with Pakistani officials, to your knowledge, to convey to them the report, or have they issued any demarches or complaints to you?

MR. TONER: Here’s what I know so far in terms of kind of process. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey, notified General Kayani that the investigation is complete. He did that by phone on December 21st. General Mattis spoke with General Kayani as well and briefed him on the investigation. And General Dempsey offered to – has offered to send a briefing team to also brief on the investigation findings with General Kayani. And I know Ambassador Munter has met with Foreign Minister Khar. And in Kabul, General Allen and Ambassador Cunningham have met with President Karzai also on this. And we also understand that NATO allies, as well as the secretary general, have been briefed.

QUESTION: These are not --

QUESTION: The Secretary hasn’t had – decided to step in on this one at all?

MR. TONER: She has not made any calls to date. And as you know, she’s en route to Prague.


MR. TONER: I thought she was. I may be wrong.

QUESTION: Is she wheels-up?

MR. TONER: I will check, Matt. I’ll check. I – if not --

QUESTION: I could have sworn I asked that question to someone about three hours ago.

MR. TONER: (Laughter.) I don’t know who that could be.



QUESTION: What’s the opportunity presented by the investigation to smooth relations with Pakistan here?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. The first part of your question – what’s the --

QUESTION: What – is there an opportunity now to smooth out the relationship now that the report is --

MR. TONER: Well, I think, given the seriousness of this incident, that it was incumbent on us and on ISAF to conduct this kind of investigation, to look at what happened, to try to figure out what transpired, how it transpired, in an effort to give a full accounting as well as to find out how we can avoid these kinds of miscommunications and errors in the future so that this doesn’t happen again.

QUESTION: I’m assuming that the Administration would like to begin patching up its relations with Pakistan, correct, following this incident?

MR. TONER: Well, of course.

QUESTION: So it’s a right assumption?

MR. TONER: I mean, look. We – right. Okay.

QUESTION: The reason I ask this, from this podium, now that there – this report has found some culpability on the part of the American troops, would you, from this podium, like to offer any apology to the Pakistani Government?

MR. TONER: Well, I would just say – and we have said – we’ve expressed our deep regret for the loss of life and for the lack of proper coordination between the U.S. and Pakistani forces that contributed to these losses, and we do accept responsibility for the mistakes that we made. I think what the investigation found is that there was a lack of proper coordination between the U.S. and Pakistan during the incident and that, for example – and again, this was briefed in much greater detail at the Pentagon earlier today by General Clark – but the investigating officer found the U.S. forces, given the information that they had available to them at the time, acted in self-defense and with appropriate force after having been fired upon and that there was no deliberate or intentional effort here to target persons or places within Pakistan known to be – rather – sorry – there was no deliberate or intentional attempt to target members or places that belong to the Pakistani military.

QUESTION: But Mark --

QUESTION: Is that – was that the reason you don’t want to offer an apology, because it wasn’t deliberate? Is that the only – I mean --

MR. TONER: There’s – I think there’s a shared responsibility in this incident, and we’ve said very clearly that we accept responsibility for the mistakes that we made.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: But he also pointed out –

QUESTION: No, no – as far as – I want to --

MR. TONER: Yeah, yeah. Go ahead. Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: I just – I don’t understand why you don’t want to apologize. I mean, there were 24 Pakistani troops who were killed in this incident. I mean, there’s – you don’t want to say you’re sorry about that? I mean, that’s --

MR. TONER: And – well, I mean, we’ve – expressing deep regret.

QUESTION: Kind of “Oh well,” or --

MR. TONER: It’s not – that’s not “Oh well,” Kirit.

QUESTION: What’s the diplomatic distinction between saying we regret and saying we’re sorry? What’s the distinction there?

MR. TONER: I think our regret speaks to --

QUESTION: No, no. What’s the difference between --

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- we regret and we’re sorry? Why won’t you say we’re sorry, or we apologize? And why will you stick only with regret? What’s the difference?

MR. TONER: Well, again --

QUESTION: No. Not again. What’s the difference?

MR. TONER: What’s the difference is that we have accepted responsibility for mistakes – no, listen to me, Matt – that we made. But as the report makes clear, there were miscommunications on both sides. There was misinformation that led to the results of that day. It’s a great tragedy. We’ve expressed our regret.

QUESTION: So there is a distinction between we regret and we’re sorry?

MR. TONER: I just would say that we believe that --

QUESTION: Yes or no?

MR. TONER: -- expressing our deep regret –

QUESTION: Yes or no?

QUESTION: Mark, the reason I ask you --

MR. TONER: I’m not going to parse it out.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: The reason I have asked you a couple times about it is because the Pakistani Government themselves have said that that would be a gesture that they would accept as something that would help them move beyond this. And I’m curious why, if that’s what it would take to help move beyond that, this government isn’t willing to do that?

MR. TONER: Kirit, I think we just have to look at the investigation that was conducted and what it tells us about the incident. And again, I think we’ve – I just said that there were mistakes made on both sides, errors that led to this tragic incident. It’s terrible, it’s regrettable, and we own up to the responsibility that mistakes were made on our side. I don’t know how I could state it more clearly than that.


QUESTION: The report also indicates that one of the reasons this happened, one of the big problems here, was a lack of trust, that the U.S. doesn’t trust Pakistan enough to announce the coordinates of where this operation was taking place. I mean, really, what does that say to the Pakistanis, in now seeing this report, about how the U.S. views them?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I think this – the report has uncovered some serious obstacles in the way of smooth operating procedures across the border. And those obstacles, including, as you said, the lack of trust that was cited, did lead to this tragic incident. So I think it’s a wakeup call in the sense that we need to work to overcome some of these challenges as we move forward.

QUESTION: And Mark –

MR. TONER: And I think it’s actually a very candid assessment of some of these challenges that remain, and again, speaks, I think, to the transparency of the report.


MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead. And then I’ll get back to you guys. Sorry.

QUESTION: New York Times reported that the decision not to use – issue an actual apology came from the White House over the State Department’s objections and over the objections of Ambassador Munter, and it quoted a senior U.S. official saying that that decision was made on a political basis because an apology would be a political liability for the President in an election year. Is that accurate?

MR. TONER: I’m not going to speak to the accuracy. I’ve given you what we’re saying about it, and I’m not going to go any further.

QUESTION: What else can you do, apart from expressing deep regrets to the families of the victims, to push forward this relationship since you, from this podium, and other officials have described it as being critical to the outcome of (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: You’re saying how would we explain ourselves or what additionally can we do to the families of the individuals who were affected? Well, again, I think our deepest sympathies and condolences go out to those families. This was a tragic, tragic incident. I think, in one sense, this report endeavors to change how we operate along the border, and if we can prevent future incidents like this, then that will help avoid future tragedies and soldiers – innocent soldiers losing their lives.

I think going forward, in a larger context, we – the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan – need to find a way to work beyond this, because these soldiers were defending their country, defending Pakistan. Pakistan faces real and existential threats from terrorism, and that’s a common enemy here. So we need to figure out ways that we can move beyond this tragedy in an effort to work more effectively against the true enemy here.

QUESTION: Are you talking about anything like compensation and other moves to –

MR. TONER: I’d refer you to the Department of Defense for more information. My understanding, though, is that we are prepared to offer some payments in recognition of the loss incurred by the family.

QUESTION: But again, that defies – that since you see it as such an incredibly important relationship, the apology would have done a lot of – it would have helped relations forward. What is stopping you from issuing that apology?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I think we conducted this report – this investigation, rather – in a very transparent manner. We found culpability on both sides, miscommunications, errors, as Cami pointed out, a lack of trust that led to this incident, and we have expressed our deepest regret, but we’ve also accepted responsibility for the mistakes that were ours. And I think that kind of – we’re owning responsibility in that regard. So that speaks volumes about our desire to move beyond this and to squarely, I think, tackle some of these issues that prevent a smoother coordination across the border.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Mark, you’re taking responsibility, but will somebody be held accountable for this as well?

MR. TONER: Again, that’s – I mean, that’s – I really would refer you to the Department of Defense on accountability via their chain of command. They have a very, obviously, unique and distinct way of determining accountability through the chain of command.

QUESTION: And General Clark said that the ISAF forces responded to gunfire, but I don’t think he ever said that this gunfire was from the Pakistani troops. And moreover, he said that wrong coordinates were given to Pakistan when they called ISAF forces, and they were told that, no, this is so many miles away from the location that you are giving us.

MR. TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: So that, in a way, justifies the Pakistani viewpoint when they first came out and said that when we informed the U.S. authorities, they still continued with their attack that resulted in the loss of life of 24 soldiers. So you still think that you don’t owe an apology to Pakistan?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I think you’ve encapsulated some of the mistakes, errors, miscommunications that occurred on both sides during this unfortunate incident. And again, for our part, we recognize that mistakes were made. But I think you also – just to make clear, the U.S. forces that acted or returned fire were reacting to incoming fire. We believe that they acted with appropriate force after being fired upon. But you’re absolutely right in identifying these challenges that remain in good cross-border communication. It is an ongoing problem, and we need to address it.

Yeah. Go ahead, Goyal.

QUESTION: Mark, after talking with the Pakistani officials, do you think this report will reach to the people of Pakistan’s satisfaction, or what was the reaction from the Pakistani Government that you think now the sore relationship between U.S. and Pakistan will put behind because of this report? Because most Pakistanis were, of course, sleeping by the time the report came out.

MR. TONER: Goyal, I can only say I hope so. It’s impossible for me to give you a good or a comprehensive answer. I don’t think we know yet. I think it’s going to probably take some more time. For our part, I can just say that we’re committed to working through this and while addressing the challenges and the errors and the – that were made and trying to work through them so that they don’t happen in the future. We also want to work productively, constructively with Pakistan on the larger level.

QUESTION: Finally, one more quickly.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Just to telling the laymen people in Pakistan saying sorry, or saying that we are responsible, and we made mistakes and all that, do you think you can tell them this same thing for a layman?

MR. TONER: Oh, I’m sorry. You’re saying the how –

QUESTION: Yeah. The way you’re saying, listen, we made the mistakes and we are responsible –

MR. TONER: I think a layman will appreciate that we are saying that mistakes were made for our part and that we accept responsibility. I think that that’s an appropriate response.

QUESTION: Are laymen very appreciative of the passive construction in accepting responsibility? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: In fact, I think Arshad’s absolutely right. I don’t think the Pakistani layman is going to understand that mistakes were made at all. And I would like to get, for the record, just in general, what the State Department views the diplomatic distinction is between “we regret” and “we’re sorry.”

MR. TONER: If it’s more active, I can say we accept responsibility for the mistakes we made.

QUESTION: Okay. That seems –

MR. TONER: That’s a more active voice.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: That’s very nice. Now, can I – can you take the question and maybe send it up to your linguistics and come back with an answer on what the --

MR. TONER: Matt, you’re just trying to (inaudible) what the –

QUESTION: – diplomatic distinction is just in general –

MR. TONER: – difference between deeply regret and –

QUESTION: No. Between we’re sorry and we regret, just in general, because we’ve gone through this before. We went through it with the EP-3 spy plane in China. We’ve gone through it all the time where you guys express regret, but you refuse to actually apologize. And I want to know –

MR. TONER: So you’re asking –

QUESTION: Well, you seem – you said before that you wouldn’t – you didn’t want to parse it. So in general, I want to know what you think the difference is between – the diplomatic distinction is between “we’re sorry” and “we regret.”

MR. TONER: I think we regret speaks to a sense of sympathy with the Pakistani people, I mean, in this case, but more broadly with the people affected by any incident or tragedy, and speaks to the fact that we’re accepting responsibility for any of our actions that may have contributed to it. I don’t know an apology – you can figure that out for your own. I can only say what we’re trying to express through this investigation –

QUESTION: It’s pretty clear from this entire conversation that you’re –

MR. TONER: – and through the conclusion of this investigation –

QUESTION: – under orders not to use the words “sorry” or “apologize,” even though you just did use the word “apologize.” It’s pretty clear that there has been an edict down that no U.S. official is supposed to say “we apologize” or “we are sorry for this incident.” And I want to know what the diplomatic distinction is – just in general, not specifically in this case – between the two phrases. I don’t expect you to have the answer right now, but I would be – appreciate it – it would be appreciated if one could be provided. Thank you.

MR. TONER: Okay. Next question?

QUESTION: I’ve got another question on Pakistan, related – a different one. According to Reuters and other reports, one, what do you think the future or political future in Pakistan now because since President Zardari is back from his ill or whatever he was going through in (inaudible)? And according to Reuters that military – Pakistan military wants him out. Have any report on that or what is the future?

MR. TONER: I mean, I don’t. I mean, you’re talking about the internal situation, political dynamic within Pakistan. I mean, I don’t have any comment except to say that, as we’ve always said, that we support the democratic process in Pakistan.


QUESTION: What’s the diplomatic latest please on the –

MR. TONER: Did I say “diplomatic” or “democratic”? Democratic process. You said “diplomatic.” Got it. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I’d like – on the diplomatic front, what’s the latest on the talks with Pakistan about reopening the land supply routes?

MR. TONER: Right. My understanding is that the ground routes through Pakistan are still closed. We hope that they’ll be reopened soon. As we’ve said before, we certainly appreciate Pakistani assistance in moving these supplies. We’ll continue to discuss this issue with them, but as you know, we have multiple routes to bring supplies into theater.

QUESTION: But if they’re ongoing conversations --

MR. TONER: They’re ongoing conversations.

QUESTION: Will the --

MR. TONER: And these ground routes are still closed is the status.

Anything else?


MR. TONER: Syria.

QUESTION: Can you explain a little bit – yesterday there was a travel alert again related to Syria. How does this communication (inaudible) before alerts? Or do you think there is Americans living in this moment in Syria, and you are telling immediately to get away from Syria? What’s the purpose?

MR. TONER: Well, again, we’ve – we do believe there’s Americans still living in Syria. And as we’ve expressed very clearly, we believe it’s in their best interest to leave Syria, given the current climate there. The travel warnings are periodic assessments of the security situation. They’re not particularly tied to policy, but certainly they reflect the overall political situation in the country.

QUESTION: Do you have anything to say about the arrival of the advance team from the Arab League.

MR. TONER: Just that we expect that – I’m sorry, rather. We’ve seen reports that the advanced team of seven Arab League officials are currently on the ground in Syria, and our understanding is that these people are going to lay the groundwork for more observers to begin work in the near future – should grow to about 30 to 50, not including administration – administrative support and that kind of staff.

But – and I would just add that we’re all aware of the outbreak of violence in Syria over the last couple of days since they’ve signed the protocol on Arab League observers. And again, it just speaks to fact that this regime – actions speak for themselves. We’ve seen, to date, no real attempt on the part of the regime to end its campaign of violence, incitement, and intimidation.

QUESTION: On Iraq, the bombing in Iraq. Any --

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on this Arab League mission?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Have you got a chance to see who is the head of the mission, Mr. Dabi who has been (inaudible) in the Sudan work with the – al-Bashir for decades. What’s your understanding, whether his profile fits into the --

MR. TONER: Well, we are aware of the individual, that he was appointed by Bashir as an advisor on Darfur. Certainly, Sudanese armed forces and national intelligence and security service have a disturbing human rights record over the last 20 years of Bashir’s rule. I’m not aware of those – of individual allegations against him or his actions. I think our concern right now is getting this monitor mission up and running on the ground in Syria in the hopes that it can help stem this recent violence. I mean, it’s ongoing violence, but the recent uptick in violence that has really grown to atrocious proportions over the last several days.

We’ve got a seven-member team on the ground from the Arab League now; we just hope they can get more monitors in and get set up. As I said, and our hope is that they will end the violence and that will a – will be able to stop the killing.

QUESTION: Again on Syria. Is there a plan for to create international contact group like you did in the Libyan case? A few weeks ago, Mr. Feltman at the – on the Hill mentioned something like this is floating around. I’m just wondering whether --

MR. TONER: Yeah. I mean, it’s a fair question. We’ve had such frequent contacts, obviously, with the Arab League, with Turkey, with our other likeminded partners in the EU. So I don’t know that there’s a real need. We’ve already got good communications, frequent communications; we’re trying to coordinate as best as possible. Whether going forward that might be an idea we’ll entertain to kind of improve coordination remains to be seen.

QUESTION: The Iraq bombing?

MR. TONER: Iraq bombing. Sorry. Well, we did see the – as you saw, the attacks across Baghdad this morning – desperate attempts by terrorist groups to undermine Iraq at this vulnerable juncture in the Iraqi political process. And these events, we believe, highlight just how critical it is that Iraq’s leaders act quickly to resolve their differences and move forward as a united and inclusive government in accordance with the Iraqi constitutions and laws. So --

QUESTION: Do you regard this violence as linked in any way to the sectarian strife, or at least political discord that has erupted since the government issued the arrest warrant for Mr. Hashimi?

MR. TONER: I think we see it as linked clearly to this vulnerable period after U.S. forces have withdrawn, and the government is finding its feet and moving forward.

It’s impossible to say in terms of coordination and planning – and this appeared to have been a coordinated attack – how many weeks or months this may have been planned in advance. But clearly it was timed for this point in time.

QUESTION: What I’m trying to get at --

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- and forgive me if I wasn’t clear, but I think that what is interesting is to try to understand if you think that some faction within the Iraqi polity is trying to use violence now because they are angry at what has happened in the last week, particularly the targeting of Mr. Hashimi.

MR. TONER: Right. And I don’t – again, just – forgive me if I wasn’t being clear. The coordinated nature of this attack appears, to us at least at first blush, to have been something that was coordinated over a period of time and not necessarily tied to the events of the past week.

QUESTION: This week. Got it.

MR. TONER: That said, this is a vulnerable point or juncture in Iraq’s history, so there’s going to be groups that are trying to take advantage of it. But we don’t know; there’s been no claim of responsibility that I’m aware of, so we don’t know at this point.

QUESTION: Vice President Hashimi, today, told Washington Times, that, quote, Iran definitely involved in move to arrest him. Do you have any evidence to support that?

MR. TONER: We do not. We continue to call on any legal or judicial process that goes forward with respects to Vice President Hashimi to be done in full accordance with the rule of law and full transparency. And we do note that Prime Minister Maliki did speak about the need to observe rule of law in judicial proceedings, and also that he’s called for a meeting of the various political blocs. That’s exactly what we want to see happen. We want to see all of the political blocs get together in an effort to – through dialogue to resolve their difference.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Just one more question.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Has this had any impact – the violence – on U.S. Embassy operations? And was this uptick in violence a scenario anticipated by U.S. (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: No and yes.

QUESTION: I have one more question. On --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. TONER: I think we – I think we’ve talked before, and I think – I mean, President Obama said that there’s going to be difficult days ahead. I think we saw this, again, as a vulnerable point in time, and that there’s going to be groups that are going to try to take advantage of that.

QUESTION: Post-withdrawal of U.S. forces?

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Today in France --

MR. TONER: Yes, sorry.

QUESTION: Today in France, lower house passed this – make illegal to recognize --

MR. TONER: This is the genocide bill?

QUESTION: Genocide bill. Yeah.

MR. TONER: Just very quickly. Yeah. Our views on this issue have been expressed before. They haven’t changed. We continue to support normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia.

QUESTION: And one more. Within this week there are scores of Turkish intellectuals – and about 40 of them journalists – being arrested. It has been few days. I just want to ask if you --

MR. TONER: Right. We are aware of these arrests. I think up to 38 people were arrested, many of whom are prominent academics, journalists, intellectuals, political activists. We’re certainly monitoring the case very closely, and we would urge that any investigations and prosecutions proceed in a very transparent manner given the sensitivity.

QUESTION: Have you been able to talk to Turkish Government?

MR. TONER: I’ll find out if we have.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: I would assume so.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:52 p.m.)