Daily Press Briefing - December 23, 2011

Index for Today's Briefing:

    • Pentagon Report on November 26 Incident
    • Political Situation in Pakistan
    • U.S.-Pakistan Relationship
    • Al-Megrahi / Discussions with Government of Libya
    • Violence in Syria
    • Arab League Mission / Monitoring Team
    • Travel Warning for Syria
  • IRAQ
    • Political Situation / Violence
    • Unity Government
    • Secretary Clinton's Travel to the Czech Republic
Mark C. Toner
Acting Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 23, 2011


12:03 p.m. EST

MR. TONER: Hey, everybody. Happy holidays to all. Happy to be here. I do have to say at the top that we are likely to have an on-background conference call today with a senior State Department official to discuss some of the outcomes related to the Seventh Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention Review Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, and we’re going to work to do that as early as possible, probably 1 o’clock, and just – so all of you can get out of here.

QUESTION: Why does it have to be on background? (Laughter.) Why can’t you talk about this on the record if they really want to talk about it?

MR. TONER: I’ll address that as well. I’m sympathetic to your viewpoint.

QUESTION: Maybe we won’t do it if it’s not on the record.

MR. TONER: We’ll see. We’ll try to address that.

QUESTION: Some news organizations, like the AP, have fairly strict rules about what they can and can’t use on background, so it may be that they won’t write anything about it.

MR. TONER: Fair enough, Arshad. I’ll raise that with the interlocutors.

With that, I’ll take your questions. Oh, actually, I do want to note, since I’m not sure when people are leaving, but I’m aware that we are losing some folks in the bullpen, and so I do want to just briefly note that that Christophe, I know you’re leaving next week. Is that right?


MR. TONER: So joyeux Noel.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

MR. TONER: And bon voyage. We’re going to miss you.

And David, when are you leaving?

QUESTION: End of next week.

MR. TONER: Geez. Okay. And David as well. Really, it’s been a great honor and pleasure for me to work with both of you. I know Toria feels the same. You guys have been a great addition around here, and we’re going to miss you.

And with that, I’ll take your questions.

QUESTION: On Pakistan?

MR. TONER: Pakistan. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Did you get any response from Pakistan? What’s the feedback? What’s the reaction to the report that that they sent today? Have they (inaudible) report?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I think this is going to take some time for them to look at the report, study it. You’ve seen some initial comments, public comments from the – from some government officials. And I know that Ambassador Munter, I believe, met additionally – I said he’s – he met with Foreign Minister Khar, but he also met with, I believe, the interior minister yesterday as well. And again, we’re going to continue to offer briefings to senior Pakistani officials. There was the – obviously, the report will be published, at some point go public. And we’ve been very forthright in discussing its contents. We’re going to continue to engage with them as we go forward.

QUESTION: But do you think that they are in a mood to listen? Because as there reports General Mattis was supposed to go down there to brief them and he has (inaudible) refused.

MR. TONER: Well, again, I wouldn’t exactly agree with your characterization. My understanding is that they simply – the timing wasn’t right; they decided to postpone it. As you well know, there are some internal political dynamics right now in Pakistan, so they felt it was best to postpone it to a later date.

QUESTION: So what’s the new date for that?

MR. TONER: I don’t have one yet.

QUESTION: And has anybody --

MR. TONER: But I mean that has not been cancelled, is my understanding.

QUESTION: Has anybody in this building spoken to anybody in Pakistan or plans to speak to them?

MR. TONER: I’m not sure about Ambassador Grossman. I know that the Secretary has obviously been traveling to Prague, so she has not spoken to anyone.

QUESTION: Has there been any discussion with officials at the Embassy here? I saw the army attaché yesterday. Was there any outreach with him?

MR. TONER: I’ll take the question.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Can I change the subject?

QUESTION: Actually, staying on Pakistan?

MR. TONER: Okay.

QUESTION: Just talking about the political turmoil in Pakistan. Do you have any comment on, as you know we had a report yesterday that you got asked about quoting military sources as saying that they would like to see Zardari go, but that they didn’t want to have a coup. And today, the Pakistani military has issued a statement saying – an army statement quoting General Kayani as telling the troops that the military would continue to support democracy in Pakistan and that any talk that the army was planning to take over was, quote, “speculation.” Would you rather not see this kind of speculation that military officers quoted as saying that they want to see him go?

QUESTION: Can you speak for the transcript?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry, guys. Yes. Just speaking to your question, we – as I said yesterday, we believe – or we support the democratic process in Pakistan, we support the constitution and the rule of law, as well as the will of the Pakistani people. We want to – we believe, rather, that this is a matter for the Pakistani people to resolve within their own political process.

QUESTION: And Mark, Ray Davis happened in January and now is December, and the year ends with a conflict on this attack and report. Do you think it is fair to say that this was probably the most troubled year in the relationship?

MR. TONER: I never like to deal in absolutes or generalizations. We’ve been, I think, pretty candid in saying that there have been some significant obstacles throughout this year in the relationship. But at each juncture, we’ve tried to address those challenges and we have recommitted ourselves to working with Pakistan. And we’re going to continue to do that because we believe we need to work with Pakistan. It’s too important. The issues that we face, the challenges we face, are too important.

QUESTION: Can I change the subject?

QUESTION: On the 24 Pakistani soldiers who were killed, are you offering any kind of special payments to them?

MR. TONER: I believe we are. I would just refer you to the Department of Defense for the details.

QUESTION: So that will be done through DOD and not through State?

MR. TONER: Yes. Yeah. I think it would be done through Department of Defense, and they have more details on the timing and as well as the amount.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) as you said, you have committed yourself to the relationship and have expressed the hope that it will be better off with a (inaudible) that is more transparent, exactly that. So how confident are you that 2012 will be better than 2011?

MR. TONER: Well, it’s hard to say what’s going to happen over the next year. All I can do is speak on behalf of the U.S., and that is that we desire a closer, more productive relationship with Pakistan both militarily and as well as politically. And we’re constantly working to build that closer cooperation. As I said, we’ve been very forthright in acknowledging that this is a relationship that needs to work.


MR. TONER: Yep. Go ahead. Yeah, sure. Libya. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can you talk about the kind of formalization of this program to buy up some of the weapons? I mean we knew that was in the works and that was one of the ideas that you were working on, but it seems like it’s coalescing.

MR. TONER: It is. But I’m – I can’t get into detail and what is, in fact, a classified program. What I can say is that --

QUESTION: Well, if they’re – if you’re buying their weapons on – with taxpayer money, I don’t understand why it would be a classified program.

MR. TONER: Well, again, I can’t get into specifics. What I can say is that we have been working, as you know, with the Libyan authorities for some time on this. We support the Libyan Government as it works on this – what they call the DDR plan, which is to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate the militias. It’s clearly a high priority for them. And every situation – as we work with governments around the world to address some of these challenges, every situation is different, and we’re tailoring our support to the Libyan Government to meet the specific needs of the – of their government as well as the Libyan people. But I can’t get into much detail about the actual program.

QUESTION: But you’re not denying its existence?

MR. TONER: Again, I just would say that as we deal with the challenge of destroying MANPADS, we are looking at a variety of methods.

QUESTION: Can I ask you a question --

MR. TONER: I’m sorry, I’ve got to move closer, guys. Apologize.

QUESTION: Just one more on MANPADS.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Your concern, I think, was that the shoulder-fired rockets would fall into the wrong hands. So why is it a good idea to pay people who you regard as the wrong hands? I mean, presumably, they can just go out and buy more, buy more weapons or whatever. So why pay people who you think are dubious or suspect for these weapons?

MR. TONER: I don’t know that – again, I don’t know that I would call our efforts – or I would characterize them in that way. What I think we’re trying to do is, obviously, there’s a situation in Libya right now where there’s a lot of different groups or militias. Clearly, the Libyan interim government is working hard to coalesce these groups and bring them under some kind of centralized command. There’s a lot of weapons floating around. It’s difficult, in fact, to say how many MANPADS there are because a lot of the – (a) the Qadhafi regime wasn’t exactly transparent in talking about their weapons inventories, and then also that some of these sites where these weapons were held were a major target of NATO air strikes. So many of them were – may have been destroyed via these air strikes. And then, as you said, some of – a lot of these weapons floated down to the militias during the actual fighting and were used by them against the regime.

So we’re in the process of trying to evaluate how many of those are still in existence and how we can best get these weapons and destroy them so that they’re not – they don’t fall into the wrong hands, because as you said, they do pose a threat to civil aviation as – among other things. So it’s – I think we’ve destroyed – or accounted for, rather, approximately 5,000 MANPADS so far. We’ve got a dozen technical specialists on the ground. We’ve got a State Department expert who’s on the ground coordinating with the Libyan Government. And we’re going to continue to attack this problem through a variety of different programs with a variety of different methods.

But to speak to your specific question, we’re trying to assess how many are out there. Just because they’re being held by these militias doesn’t mean they’re in the wrong hands necessarily, but we’re trying to figure out the productive --

QUESTION: So it’s a good thing for militias – it’s a good thing?

MR. TONER: No, I’m not saying that at all.

QUESTION: What is it --

MR. TONER: But I’m saying – but what I’m saying is the fact that these militias have these weapons doesn’t speak to their intent to use them in a bad way. It’s just the fact that there was a very fluid situation and a lot of these weapons were – or some of these weapons may have been dispersed. And so we’re trying to figure out what is the most productive and efficient way to collect these weapons.

QUESTION: One question on Libya, too?

MR. TONER: Sure. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Al-Megrahi, the guy who was accused of the bombing Pan Am, he gave an interview. He said it would be the last before he dies, and he is –

MR. TONER: That’s a story we’ve heard before.

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. He’s confirming his innocence. What’s the update on your talks with the authorities in Libya about the bombing of Pan Am?

MR. TONER: I don’t have an update for you. I know we have raised it multiple times with the interim government. They pledged to cooperate. I think we’ve said before that they say they have a number of different priorities before they can tackle this problem. For us, clearly, this is a very high priority. And so we’re going to continue to talk and engage with them. I’ll try to see if I can get an update on where those discussions stand.

QUESTION: But you don’t take his words serious, like he’s saying he’s innocent?

MR. TONER: I don’t. But we certainly welcome additional – an additional investigation into if there is more evidence on this. But he should be back in jail in Scotland. He never should have been released.


QUESTION: Mark, do you see – can I change it to Syria?

MR. TONER: He said Syria.


MR. TONER: Syria?

QUESTION: Do you see what happened today as some kind of a qualitative change, perhaps for the worst, in the situation there?

QUESTION: Or do you believe that this was the work of outsiders?

MR. TONER: Honestly, we don’t have all the details yet. We obviously condemn this kind of violence – these kinds of violent acts wherever they occur and by whomever. It was – these kinds of violence – these kind of violent acts are never justifiable. But we’re still, obviously, trying to collect the details on what occurred.

QUESTION: Isn’t it curious that just as some of the Arab League observers show up that two of the most fortified installations of the regime happen to be the ones that are targeted? Isn’t that a curious situation?

MR. TONER: I think it’s – it just underscores the fact that despite today’s violence, the Arab League mission needs to continue. It’s really the best method right now for providing a way to document and deter the ongoing human rights abuses. So we feel it’s very important that the mission proceed, that it – that we get monitors on the ground in as many places as possible as soon as possible.

QUESTION: What have Ambassador Ford and his staff been able to learn about this attack, if anything? Are they able to even go near the scene to get a look for themselves and not just rely on state television?

MR. TONER: That’s a fair question. I don’t want to get into too great a detail about their movements. I know that they’re obviously talking to their contacts. They’re also talking to other embassies and exchanging information, trying to get as detailed a picture as we can.

QUESTION: Have you had any indications from the Arab League that this attack might hinder the monitoring?

MR. TONER: None. No.

QUESTION: So they haven’t come back to – and do you have any view on the reported makeup of the monitoring team? There have been some concerns expressed that the head of it is a Sudanese general and may not be the –

MR. TONER: Right. I spoke a little bit about this yesterday. We are aware this individual. There are, obviously, very credible allegations about Sudanese military or armed forces and the national intelligence and security services over the past 20 years of – I’ve lost my train now. Sorry. We’re – we certainly have credible allegations of a disturbing human rights record by the Sudanese armed forces and national intelligence and security services over the past 20 years. Specifically about this individual, there’s no allegations against his conduct that I’m aware of. Our focus, quite frankly, is trying to get this monitoring mission up and running so that we can, hopefully, end the violence against civilians.

QUESTION: But I mean, that’s – but if you have human rights organizations which are questioning his bona fides, does that worry you that the results of whatever monitoring situation may eventually be implemented will be undercut or --

MR. TONER: But again, it’s not – he’s not – there are more monitors than just this individual. And so we just would urge this mission to move forward. We want to get monitors on the ground. With the violence that’s taking place on a daily basis there, the sooner these people are in place, we hope, the sooner the violence can end.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. getting any sort of readout from the Arab League as this monitoring mission goes forward, or are you at the top of the list?

MR. TONER: Yeah. We’re – well, I mean, we’re in regular consultation with them as we’ve been going forward. And obviously, the Arab League, all along in this process, has made their own decisions, but we’ve been consulting closely with them.

QUESTION: Ambassador – what’s the update on Ambassador Ford’s activities? Are you planning to call him back?

MR. TONER: No, absolutely not. He’s going to remain in Syria.

QUESTION: And maybe you answered this earlier in the week, but in the latest Travel Warning that went out for Syria, it was noted that the number of personnel at the Embassy was being reduced. Is that administrative or was this just a function of holidays? What’s going on with the staffing?

MR. TONER: No. It speaks to – it’s due to the security situation, and we are going to reduce further our American staff there. And obviously that’s going to result in a reduction of our ability to service American citizens in Syria. But obviously since April, we’ve been advising American citizens to depart from Syria.

QUESTION: Now, are the people that are --

MR. TONER: But we’re going to continue operating with this reduced staff.

QUESTION: Now, are the people who are there, were they considered essential personnel before now?

MR. TONER: Yes. I believe that’s correct.

QUESTION: So this is – isn’t this another significant movement?

MR. TONER: So they’re going to operate, continue to – well, they’re going to continue to carry out operations. We’re just – we’re constantly reevaluating our security posture, as we do in many places around the world. But it shouldn’t have too great an impact on Embassy operations, other than American citizen services. But again, we’ve been advising American citizens that they need to leave Syria.


QUESTION: Just any updates on – out of our North Korean sagas?


QUESTION: Nothing?

MR. TONER: No. No updates from what Toria said the other day.

QUESTION: No further contacts through New York or anywhere else?

MR. TONER: No, no.

QUESTION: Do you have any updates on Iraq?

MR. TONER: I mean, not a – not really beyond the state of play as it stood yesterday. We don’t have much of an update. Obviously, we’re urging all sides to work through this current impasse. We remain concerned about the violence yesterday. We remain concerned about the political situation, and we would urge dialogue.

QUESTION: Mark, Secretary Clinton on the visit (inaudible). Was Pakistan (inaudible) that this was not the right thing or --


QUESTION: -- has the U.S. decided that --

MR. TONER: Yes. No, no. It was Pakistan, I believe.

QUESTION: So more formally, the report hasn’t been delivered to Pakistanis (inaudible) --

MR. TONER: I believe it’s been briefed. I have to check whether it’s actually been formally delivered or whether they’ve been provided a full copy.

QUESTION: Abbas and the Hamas leader agreed to form a unity government by the end of next month. Do you have anything on this?

MR. TONER: Nothing beyond what we normally say about this, which is that we’ve been very clear, and you know the Quartet principles that we believe would have to be abided by for any Hamas government to play a role in the peace process.

QUESTION: Can you let us know, Mark, when the Secretary’s back in the United States?

MR. TONER: I will. She is wheels-up from Prague, so she’s (inaudible).

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Again, merry Christmas and happy New Year and all that stuff.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:23 p.m.)