Daily Press Briefing - December 10, 2015

John Kirby
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 10, 2015


2:40 p.m. EST

MR KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody. Just a couple things at the top, and then we’ll get started. I apologize for the late start today.

You should have seen – or hopefully will see soon – a statement that the Secretary just put out, but if you’d bear with me I’d like to go ahead and restate it for you, because it just recently got sent. And this is from the Secretary: “We welcome the positive outcome of the gathering of the Syrian opposition in Riyadh today, including reaching a consensus on principles for a pluralistic and democratic Syria and on how to advance a political settlement to end the conflict in Syria.

As I conveyed to Foreign Minister al-Jubeir today, we appreciate Saudi Arabia’s leadership in convening this broad and representative group of 116 participants, who agreed today on the structure of their negotiating body to represent them in the political process. We appreciate that this extremely diverse group of Syrians put aside differences in the interest of building a new Syria.

With the progress made both in Vienna and now in Riyadh, the International Syria Support Group continues to build a foundation for constructive negotiations in January under UN auspices, regarding a political transition in accordance with the Geneva communique of 2012. While this important step forward brings us closer to starting negotiations between the Syrian parties, we recognize the difficult work ahead, and remain determined to continue toward a political settlement that brings an end to the conflict.”

QUESTION: The written version came out – was in your name, but --

MR KIRBY: Yeah, we made a correction on that.

QUESTION: Okay. Great.

MR KIRBY: It is in the Secretary’s name and that’s how I read it to be, to quote the Secretary.

Also on the Secretary’s schedule, I want to let you all know that he will travel to Rome, Italy on the 13th of December, where he will co-chair with Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni a ministerial on Libya. The ministerial will demonstrate the commitment of the international community to helping Libyans move forward rapidly to form a unified Libya government, a government of national accord. This meeting comes after more than a year of discussions among Libyans to chart a better future for their country through the UN-facilitated political dialogue.

The Secretary’s very much looking forward to this important ministerial and has been staying involved in preparations this week while in Paris for the Global Climate Conference. In just the past couple of days, he has spoken to Italian Foreign Minister Gentiloni, of course, about it, as well as UN Special Representative Kobler and Special Envoy for Libya – our special envoy for Libya – Jonathan Winer as well as other counterparts, to include the Qatari foreign minister and the Algerian foreign minister. So he’s been very much engaged in the preparations and the planning for this ministerial in Rome and looks forward to going.

Finally, I’d like to note, on behalf of everybody here at the State Department – not just the Spokesman’s Office, but everybody – we were sad to learn today of the death of former Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Barry Schweid. He was a longtime fixture here at the State Department and for many years served as the dean of the State Department Correspondents Association. Barry was an institution here, well respected by his peers as well as throughout the diplomatic community. And as many of my predecessors from – at this podium would attest, Barry wasn’t afraid to ask the tough questions and challenge us each and every day. He’s going to be fondly remembered as a great journalist and an even better friend to so many. And our thoughts are today with his family and with his friends.

With that, we’ll open it up to Brad.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, also for the kind words on behalf of Barry, who set a model for all of us who kind of followed him.

I wanted to follow up on what you said about the Saudi meeting of the Syrian opposition.


QUESTION: You indicated that there were 116 participants who were brought in and they agreed on a set of principles. Is it your understanding that everyone who was at that meeting agreed on these sets of principles? Because we have reporting that one of the major opposition groups, Ahrar al-Sham, walked out and disagrees with it entirely.

MR KIRBY: Yeah. As I – it is my understanding that the participants did agree in a consensus way on these principles. And that’s why I said it the way I said at the top – or actually the Secretary has it in his statement that way. What I also said was, towards the end there, that we know there’s still more difficult work to do and not every issue going forward has all been resolved. For instance, one of the things they’ve got to do now is they’ve got to pick a negotiating team that’s actually going to sit down and conduct these political negotiations with the Assad regime. So there’s a lot of work left to do.

And I think the reading I got out of the day was that there were lots of frank, very candid discussions. And you would expect that that many participants, all of whom have not in the past typically agreed on everything about the political future in Syria, would have differences to express. But again, we’re gratified to know that they were able to reach a consensus view going forward and to agree on a framework – as I said, a framework, a structure for a negotiating body going forward.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, it’s one thing to agree on a consensus, but if the consensus doesn’t include a big part of the actual fighting force, which Ahrar al-Sham constitutes, that certainly weakens – so what does it mean if a group that actually has gotten a lot of its support from Saudi Arabia itself isn’t going to take part in this?

MR KIRBY: Well, they did take part. Ahrar al-Sham --

QUESTION: What? Okay.

MR KIRBY: -- sorry, they were actually – they did participate today. I’ll let that group and the Saudis speak to more particulars about the day today. But they were there and they did participate in the discussions. And again, they can characterize for themselves, I think, their views at the end of it. But as I said – I’m keeping this at a high level today – we know that there was a consensus view of what – going forward, the kind of pluralistic Syria that people – that they want to see in the – and the structure for a negotiating body.

QUESTION: Another thing they said was that the negotiating team and the consensus too much reflects opposition that is friendly or amenable to Assad. Do you see a dynamic emerging where it’s going to be Assad negotiating with kind of Assad-friendly opposition? That was – that’s what – how they assessed it, not how I’m assessing it.

MR KIRBY: Well, again, I’ll let – I think it’s important for – I can’t speak for other groups and what they saw coming out of today and their view going forward, and I won’t speak, certainly, for the Saudis, whose leadership convened this conference. I can only go back to what we said before, that we’re grateful that it got – that the meeting was held, and that a consensus view was arrived at at the end of the day. And that’s important. And that there may be differences between groups going forward I think would be expected, given the diversity of the opposition inside Syria. And we’ve talked about this for a long time.

But we ought not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. It’s incredibly important and noteworthy that 116 participants were able to gather together and to arrive at some of these common principles. That’s not insignificant. Nobody’s saying – and as I said at the top – that there isn’t going to be hard work going forward and that there may still be differences of opinion to go – to move ahead.

With respect to the negotiations with Assad, they’re – the negotiating team is – I don’t know if it’s the next step, but it’s certainly a step to be taken very soon here, in choosing who’s going to be on that team and some of the more specific negotiating positions that that team will need to stake out as they sit across the table from the Assad regime. All that work still has to be done. So I think it’s premature now to say with any certainty or specificity that there – that the group sitting across the table are going to be friendly to Assad or unfriendly to Assad or that they’re going to have any particular views. That – all that work is still ahead of us, or ahead of them.

QUESTION: John, can we – I don’t understand something here. I mean, we have Ahrar al-Sham saying that they pulled out of the meeting. We then have some reports saying that they went back into the meeting. Can you tell us if, to your understanding, Ahrar al-Sham is among the 116 representatives that you say achieved consensus on this?

MR KIRBY: They were at the conference today.

QUESTION: I know that.

MR KIRBY: I’m not in a position to speak specifically to their views coming in or out of this. And to the reports I’ve seen, as you have, that they walked out and came back – I mean, I’ve seen all that. I can’t confirm that for you. What I can tell you is that the Secretary spoke to Foreign Minister al-Jubeir just within the last half an hour or so. It was a good discussion and Foreign Minister al-Jubeir walked him through the progress, what had been decided on the day – today, and the – what sort of the next steps are going to be going forward.

Again, I think everybody has a very clear-eyed notion here of the work ahead. And I don’t want to characterize one group’s view of that process going forward, or even their view of today’s events. What I can tell you is they were there, they participated, that they may have had some different views on things. I certainly can’t rule that out. It wouldn’t be a surprise that they or other groups might have – have had or expressed countering views to various arguments going forward. But they were there, they did participate, and I’ll let them speak and the Saudis speak for the end result at the end of the day.

QUESTION: So you can’t say – it’s just a simple question: Were they part of the consensus or not?

MR KIRBY: What I can tell you is that the 116 participants reached a consensus.

QUESTION: Do you count them as one of those 116?

MR KIRBY: They were a participant. They were a participant. So we would very much view them as being part of this consensus agreement.


MR KIRBY: But again, I won’t speak for their individual views, and I certainly won’t speak for the Saudis, who, as I understand it, will be characterizing the day in more detail later on.

QUESTION: And then on next steps, are you able to now say that the meeting on the 18th will definitely go forward and that the Russians will participate?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have any additional details to provide today on a meeting in New York by the end of next week. I can tell you that the Secretary still very much wants to see that occur, but again, there’s still some spade work that needs to be done to nail it down. So I just don’t have anything conclusive and final to give you on that.

QUESTION: If the Secretary wants this meeting to happen, the 18 December meeting in New York, why did he write in his statement that the next step will be the foundation for constructive negotiations in January under UN auspices? Is it possible that this New York conference will be off and be postponed to January?

MR KIRBY: No, no, no. What he was referring to in his statement was that in – that the next step for the opposition groups – the next big step. I mean, there’s – as I told Brad, there’s lots of things they still have to get done here, but that this was an important milestone in getting to a place where in early January they can actually begin to have political negotiations with the regime. This was a critical first step in getting there.

There is still more work to do between now, the conclusion of today’s meeting, and sometime in early January, when we hope these political negotiations can continue. For instance, one big thing is to pick a negotiating team. So there is still work to be done. The Secretary’s statement was alluding to that, to that – the next stop – the next step, excuse me, in the political negotiation process. It doesn’t change at all his desire that the ISSG try to meet again before the holidays. I just don’t have additional detail on that for you today. And as we get closer to it and I have more, I’ll certainly give it to you.

QUESTION: Okay. And as far as I understand, the opposition stated in Riyadh that President Bashar al-Assad had to – would have to step down at the very start of the political transition. Is it something the U.S. agrees on?

MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen a specific readout of every one of the principles. The meeting really just wrapped up. That’s one of the reasons why I was late coming out here. And I – as I said earlier, I think I’d let the Saudis who convened this do a more detailed readout of the outcomes today. It was important that the opposition begin to get together around some unifying principles, and they were able to do much of that work today, which is important. And I’ll think – we need to let them speak for what those principles are.

Nothing has changed about our view that Assad can’t be the future of Syria. He can’t be involved in – or I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say involved in. He cannot be the leader of Syria going forward into the future. There has to be a transition to a government away from him and towards one that’s more inclusive and responsive and representative of the people of Syria. That’s what we’re after. And as we’ve said for many months now, his role in effecting that transition is something that still needs to be worked out. It needs to be worked out among the opposition groups and with the regime, and frankly, it’s going to continue to be discussed in the framework of the ISSG.

QUESTION: What has been said for years now is Assad must go, and that’s no longer what’s being said in the simplest terms. It seems like that strategy, that position, has taken a serious shift.

MR KIRBY: No, I absolutely, fundamentally disagree with what you said, Justin.

QUESTION: Well then why don’t you just say it again?

MR KIRBY: We have long said that he cannot be a part of Syria’s future.

QUESTION: But now you’re saying he could be involved.

MR KIRBY: No, Justin, what I said was --

QUESTION: Well, you corrected yourself, and you said, “Well, I can’t say he won’t be involved.”

MR KIRBY: I really don’t think that I need to have an argument with you about the future of Assad.

QUESTION: It’s not an argument. It’s just an observation.

MR KIRBY: He cannot be a part of Syria’s future. We have said that repeatedly. He still must go. It’s the process of how you get to that end that we still have to work out internationally inside the ISSG and between the opposition group and the regime. And that all work is still ahead of us. But it’s very clear that and there’s a common view that he cannot be a part of Syria’s long-term future. And how that works its way out, well, we’ll see.


QUESTION: John, how is the mechanism going to work to narrow that group of 116 opposition groups down to a representative body when you do get to the stage of talks with the Syrian Government?

MR KIRBY: Well, I don’t to speak for the opposition groups. But as I understand it, one of the things they agreed to today was a framework for a negotiating body, in other words, for lack of a better word, sort of an oversight committee that would then choose the negotiators. So it’s going to be up to them and this negotiating – the framework – under this framework of a negotiating body for them to figure out who’s going to be on this negotiating team. I couldn’t possibly begin to tell you who that’s going to be right now or how they’re going to go about selecting those negotiators. That is really for them to do. But what was important about today was that they agreed on some basic principles and agreed on a process to get to those kinds of decisions, to be able to give them a framework to make those selections and to make those decisions. And that’s – again, that’s not insignificant.


QUESTION: John, two questions.


QUESTION: And the first one is a follow-up to what Nicholas raised. I know you said you had not seen everything that came out of the Saudi meeting, but if the opposition positions – position is that Assad must step down at the start of a transition period, doesn’t that, in essence, make this a nonstarter without any kind of consensus of this type from the Assad regime?

MR KIRBY: You’re asking me to answer a question about something I don’t know is even true. Again, we need to let – the meeting just concluded. We need to let the Saudis speak for the outcomes specifically and let the opposition groups speak for what they decided. I just don’t – I can’t verify that that was one of the outcomes. We just have to let them speak for this.

QUESTION: Also, what about the second process that’s being led by Jordan to identify the moderate Syrian opposition, as opposed to those who are terrorists? If it turns out that some members of the group from today are on the terror side with the – when the Jordan process is finalized, how will that impact the talks going forward?

MR KIRBY: Well, I think it’s too soon to tell, because the work that the Jordanians are doing is still ongoing. That is – as you said, it’s a separate process. They’re still working their way through that. The Secretary has had conversations with Foreign Minister Judeh about this and their progress. He’s comfortable that they are working apace on this. And I don’t want to get ahead of any conclusions they may have drawn.

QUESTION: Can I ask – do you know if among the principles they agreed to a secular Syria?

MR KIRBY: I just don’t have the list of principles in front of me, Brad. I don’t know.

QUESTION: Is it important that they accept all the principles of the Vienna communique, or can they pick and choose?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have in front of me what they’ve decided, so I don’t know. But as I said – as the Secretary --

QUESTION: I’m just asking on principle. Do they have the right to choose what they want, or do they – are they supposed to take the principles espoused by the Vienna communique – what was it – a month ago?

MR KIRBY: Well, as the Secretary said in his statement, that with the progress now made there continues to have – there’s momentum now and a foundation for constructive negotiations in January under UN auspices regarding the transition, which is in accordance with the Geneva communique of 2012.

QUESTION: What about the Vienna communique that you were talking about yesterday? Now we’re back to the Geneva communique.

MR KIRBY: Isn’t that what you asked about?

QUESTION: No, I was talking about the Vienna document that was agreed to last month.

MR KIRBY: Yeah, I mean, that – that communique --


MR KIRBY: -- set in motion the ability for us to have – for them to have the meeting in Riyadh today. I mean, that was --

QUESTION: So why did --

MR KIRBY: The Vienna work built the foundation and came to a consensus that allowed us to get to this meeting in Riyadh. And the foundations of the two communiques out of Vienna as well as the 2012 Geneva communique are all still valid and is – are the governing principles for the international community moving forward. And --

QUESTION: So why didn’t they just agree to the principle – the same principles that the international group agreed to last month?

MR KIRBY: This wasn’t – the purpose of today’s meeting wasn’t about reaffirming what was decided in Vienna or Geneva. The purpose today was to get them to unify around some core principles about the future of Syria – we talked about this – for a pluralistic and democratic Syria, and then to develop a framework for a negotiating body, and that’s what they did. There is still a lot of work left to do, but it’s the international community’s expectation that this process of developing negotiating principles, developing a negotiating team, sitting down with the Assad regime in early January to begin to work out what this political transition will look like and eventually lead to the drafting of a constitution – all of that – all of that effort comes up underneath the decisions that were made in Vienna.

QUESTION: I’m just confused because in Vienna you set a series of principles. Here you’re setting a series – or the opposition is setting a series of principles which --

MR KIRBY: These are negotiating principles. These are not – nothing changes about what was decided in Vienna. All that is valid --

QUESTION: But they haven’t --

MR KIRBY: -- and all of that is governing the process that happened in Riyadh. What – the purpose in Riyadh was not to reaffirm Vienna. That’s already done.

QUESTION: Well, they can’t reaffirm because they never affirmed them in the first place.

MR KIRBY: Look, Vienna’s still – the Vienna communiques still are governing this process, but you’re comparing apples to oranges. What was decided in --

QUESTION: Well, that – I’m trying not --

MR KIRBY: What was decided in Riyadh was for them to build a framework for a negotiating body so that they can begin to select a team and better clarify their principles so that they can be ready in early January to sit down with the Assad regime.

QUESTION: So they’re negotiating principles that their negotiating team will be democratic and – I’m just – I don’t quite get it. The negotiating team has to be democratic and pluralistic, not the future of Syria?

MR KIRBY: What they agreed to today was to a pluralistic and democratic Syria and to a structure for their negotiating body going forward to begin to have – to be able to be in a position by early January to begin negotiations. That’s what was agreed to today. The communiques --

QUESTION: I’m sorry, I just don’t see how that – I don’t see the difference between – you set a series of principles that talked about the future of Syria. You just said they agreed to a series of principles that included a democratic and pluralistic Syria. That seems to be apples and apples, not apples and oranges. And if those sets of principles are different, I can see that being confusing in terms of what’s actually being negotiated.

MR KIRBY: Brad – Brad, the – I’ll try to do this again.

QUESTION: You can forgive us for being skeptical that some of these groups --

MR KIRBY: I’ll try to do this again.

QUESTION: -- don’t share the same principles as you.

MR KIRBY: I’ve said that all along, Brad. But what I’m saying is the meeting in Riyadh and the decisions they made today are a subset of the larger Vienna principles that the international community has signed up to and agreed to. In fact, it was those principles and those communiques which led to the Riyadh meeting being held. The purpose for the Riyadh meeting was not to have the opposition groups check off the laundry list of everything that was decided in Vienna. That – those principles are not in dispute. The purpose of the Riyadh meeting was to get them together to try to help unify them around some very core principles of their own – negotiating principles of their own – and to help build a framework so they have a negotiating body going forward.

QUESTION: You say those principles are not in dispute, but most of the opposition has never accepted that Assad would have a two-year timeline or there would be free and fair elections in 18 months from the point of the start of the constitution drafting process. I mean, those aren’t in dispute because they’re not even – they are totally in dispute as far as I understand. Assad’s never accepted them, nor has much of the opposition.

MR KIRBY: They are the same – those principles are in place going forward as decided by the ISSG. There’s no change to that. And it was under the rubric of that structure that these opposition groups were brought together in the first place. So those milestones and principles are still valid and are still in place. It was – and it was under – it was under the very – the clear understanding that that was going to be the process moving forward that this whole meeting in Riyadh was established and set up to begin with.

But what needed to happen, what hadn’t happened, and what the international community, which you guys have constantly reminded me of here – what the international community couldn’t do, shouldn’t do, was legislate to the opposition groups what their negotiating principles – their specific negotiating principles with Assad were going to look like. That was something that would – you can’t force that on them. They have to do that and they got a start today. Again, I’ll let the Saudis read out more specifically what the results were.


QUESTION: Was the --


QUESTION: Are they going to extend the meeting in Saudi Arabia, or they finished?

MR KIRBY: The meeting has concluded, so – again, I --

QUESTION: And how are they going to finalize the remaining issues?

MR KIRBY: Again, I’m not going to – I don’t have – the meeting just ended. I’m going to let the Saudis speak for characterizing the outcome of it. I don’t know about plans to have or convene other meetings going forward. I think, obviously, there’s still a lot of work to do. One of the – but one of the key factors coming out of this was this – a framework for a negotiating body so that that body can do much of that work. But again, I’ll let the groups speak for themselves and I’ll let the Saudis speak for themselves on that.

QUESTION: Different issue?


MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: North Korea.

MR KIRBY: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: On North Korea human rights issues, China and Russia oppose the discussion of human rights issues in North Korea today up in the UN Security Council. What is the United States position, and will U.S. support to UNSCR discussion of human rights issues?

MR KIRBY: I’m not aware that we were involved in those discussions, but our position on human rights in North Korea obviously hasn’t changed one bit. But I don’t have – I mean, you’re saying this was a meeting between Russia and China on North Korean human rights. I don’t have anything to read out specifically, and we weren’t involved in that.

QUESTION: What if China and Russia continue to oppose these discussions, and then what happens next? Can you guessing?

MR KIRBY: Those are two very great hypothetical questions that I don’t like to answer. What – look, without getting into what may happen between Russia and China in discussing this issue, obviously, what we believe needs to happen is the leadership in the North needs to do what – the right things to de-escalate tensions and to help us get to a much more stable, secure situation on the peninsula, and they can start by feeding their own people and quit the provocative rhetoric and quit the provocative actions.

But I won’t speak for what Russia and China may decide to do with respect to this. If Russia and China are going to pay more attention to human rights in North Korea and want to continue to urge and push the same outcomes that we would like to encourage and see happen in the North, then that’s all to the good. But I don’t have anything additional to say on that.


QUESTION: A follow-up on North Korea?

QUESTION: Can I follow up?


QUESTION: Do you have any reaction to North Korean claims that they now have a hydrogen bomb?

MR KIRBY: What I can tell you is that we’ve seen the Korean – North Korean state media reports on those claims. I cannot and will not comment on intelligence matters, other than to say we continue to call on North Korea to comply with its international commitments and obligations. North Korea must abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner and cease all related activities immediately.


QUESTION: Do you get a sense of urgency that – I mean, do you have to restart talks, that this is an urgent matter that requires some action from the U.S. side?

MR KIRBY: Nothing’s changed about the fact that we would like to have the Six-Party Talks resume, and the onus is on the North to be – to show a willingness to do that, which they have not yet done.


QUESTION: Change of topic. Can we go back a little bit and follow up on the conversation from yesterday about the K-1 visa vetting process? I was wondering if you had any more specifics that you can offer about that, and specifically whether there’s a procedure in place for gauging whether an applicant might have radical sympathies of any kind.

MR KIRBY: What do you mean by an update on process? What do you mean?

QUESTION: Well, no, in terms of just the specifics of what the process entails, if you could say anything additional beyond that it involves an interview and DHS collaboration, anything in terms of what is done in this process to gauge whether an applicant has radical sympathies.

MR KIRBY: Okay. There’s a lot there. As I said yesterday, the process is handled collaboratively between DHS and the State Department. Obviously, the State Department’s role is primarily overseas with the fiance(e) that is applying for the K-1 visa program. And as I said before, we’ve – and I know we’ve said in other venues it’s a very rigorous, thorough screening process. It is also case-by-case; it’s individual. And the consular office that is examining each application – certainly there are certain things like fingerprinting and an interview and some biometrics that have to be done, but also they are – they have the freedom and flexibility to do additional work in examining an individual’s – the bona fides of the relationship, particularly examine their commitment to the bona fides of a relationship. So there’s a lot of work that is done there.

Obviously, on the questionnaire, there are specific security-related questions, such as “Do you seek to engage in terrorist activity while in the United States,” or, “Have you ever engaged in terrorist activity,” “Have you ever or do you intend to provide financial assistance or other support to terrorists or terrorist organizations,” and “Are you a member or a representative of a terrorist organization.” It would be obviously imprudent for us not to ask these questions, but we’re not foolish enough to also realize that even those who might actually have these proclivities would answer no to those questions.


QUESTION: Has anyone ever answered yes to those questions? (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: I’m not – I’m not --

QUESTION: Are those questions really a way to --

MR KIRBY: I don’t know.

QUESTION: -- expel people afterwards for having lied on their applications rather than a genuine effort to find out if they do harbor terrorist intentions?

MR KIRBY: Yeah. I mean, I think you certainly could. You certainly could. But, look, every visa case is unique and the interview questions are tailored to the circumstances of every applicant. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all process, and we use the information provided in the application as well as information provided during the course of the interview to devise a line of questioning. So each line of questioning between the interviewer and the interviewee is unique to that individual and to the relationship that that individual claims he or she is in.

There is – and we can get you more background. I don’t want to read this all to you, but there’s an extensive amount of backgrounding that’s done: the fingerprints, facial recognition; there’s various databases that are checked. So, I mean, there’s a lot --

QUESTION: But if somebody isn’t on any kind of watch list – I mean, what kinds of questions can a consular officer really ask in an interview that’s going to bring out if somebody has these kind of hidden motives?

MR KIRBY: Again, each case is different, and I couldn’t begin to go through all the possible questions that could be asked. Each consular office does this in good faith and the best they can. The idea is to establish – the main thing is the security risk, and then also the bona fides of the relationship, the validity of the relationship that they’re claiming. But if hypothetically – I mean, if somebody had malintent going into that and they had no prior record that would lead anybody in law enforcement or a security establishment to question their motives, you could easily see where somebody could dupe the system. I mean, that’s – that could happen. I’m not saying that that happened in this case; I won’t speak about this particular case because it is under investigation and we want to cooperate with investigators.

But one thing I will say is that we are doing a review of this program to examine all aspects of it, and if we find areas where the program itself can be improved to limit this risk going forward, we’re not going to wait for the review to be over. We’re going to make the changes. If we get something wrong, we’re going to want to fix it.

QUESTION: But in terms of ascertaining, then, the validity of the marriage in question, is there anything that’s done in the process to kind of determine whether that marriage might have been arranged by a third party or if some group might have been involved in setting two people up?

MR KIRBY: I – there’s a – the short answer is it’s as thorough an interview process as we can make it, and of course one of the things that – I mean, aside from terrorist activity – certainly, one of the things you look at is whether a marriage is valid or not, if these two people are really in love and really have an intent to spend their lives together. Now, that’s a very difficult thing to be able to predict.

QUESTION: Terrorists can be in love too, right?

MR KIRBY: Yeah. I mean, I --

QUESTION: I mean, they could have a real relationship but also be bad people.

MR KIRBY: It’s possible. So we do the best work we can to try to evaluate the validity of a relationship, but as you know – I’m assuming you’ve been in relationships before – that’s a very difficult thing to do. When --

QUESTION: I’d like to keep reporters’ relationships out of the briefing if possible. (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: I’m just saying certainly nobody would have predicted that I’d been married as long as I have been when I first started out. These are difficult things to know, and I’m not making light of it, but it’s a very thorough process. And just as importantly, it’s very individual. It’s not – we don’t – while there are certain steps which have to be done – the fingerprinting, the interview, the background checks – it’s not cookie cutter. Because if we did just apply a cookie-cutter approach, that would be irresponsible.

But we’re all mindful of what happened in San Bernardino, and I can tell you nobody here at the State Department is happy to see what happened, and we’re going to vigorously work through this review process. And as I said, if we find something about the process that needs to be fixed, we’ll fix it. If, in the course of the investigation into this shooting, it’s uncovered that there were mistakes made or things that the State Department didn’t do we should have done, we’ll own up to that and we’ll hold ourselves to account for that. But we need to let that work continue so that we can get better answers.

QUESTION: Can I jump in? There’s – it seems to be two different things when you talk about the legitimacy of the relationship versus the terrorism threat. And you can prove that you – this couple had a child. They were married. So that wouldn’t tell you anything, necessarily, about --

MR KIRBY: Right.

QUESTION: -- whether they’re going to commit an act of mass murder.

MR KIRBY: That’s correct.

QUESTION: So what I want to know is: Do your interviewers, that you say the questions are all tailored to the individual cases – I mean, do they have training in counterterrorism? Do they know how to root out terrorist sympathies in questioning, or are they just going at this on the fly?

MR KIRBY: They are well trained and prepared to conduct these interviews. And a component of the interview is not just the validity of the relationship; it is about the security threat. And they’re very professional.

QUESTION: Where do they get counterterrorism training?

MR KIRBY: I don’t know, Brad. I’ll have to find out for you. I’m not saying that they are fully – that they’re – when you say counterterrorism training, there’s all kinds of different counterterrorism training.

QUESTION: To conduct an interrogation that might yield terrorist ideas or intentions.

MR KIRBY: I’ll try to get you a cleaner answer on the kind of --

QUESTION: I mean --

MR KIRBY: -- training they go through. I don’t know that, Brad. But --

QUESTION: Because these things aren’t usually asked. Is that correct?

MR KIRBY: They are – the – a part of the interview process is to look at the security aspects of the individuals.

QUESTION: And John, does --

MR KIRBY: Otherwise, why would we fingerprint them?

QUESTION: In all --

MR KIRBY: Why would we do background checks if we weren’t also concerned, in approving a K-1 visa, about a security threat? So the security is --

QUESTION: Right, but --

MR KIRBY: Security is a piece of it.

QUESTION: Well, it’s not necessarily a piece of the interview; it’s a piece of the entire --

MR KIRBY: It can be a piece of the interview.

QUESTION: It can be, right, but it’s not always is what you’re saying.

MR KIRBY: As I said, it’s a case-by-case, and not every case leads us to have suspicions. But we still do the proper security checks.

QUESTION: Right. My question was: Do the people have the training and the capacity to conduct an interrogation that might yield information – or an interview, maybe a better word – that would yield information about terrorism? Or if they have no training in how to do that, then what’s the value of having that interview for security purposes?

MR KIRBY: They are fully trained to conduct these interviews, and they know – and they’re professionals – that as they do them they are also doing them for security purposes. Now, I don’t have with me a list of the specific counterterrorism things that they are trained to look for. But obviously, security’s a part of this. And they’re fully trained and fully professional and they know how to do this. And I would just remind that the vast majority of K-1 visas that are approved are for people that are now in this country living productive lives as spouses of productive spouses.

I am not at all diminishing what happened here. We understand and we certainly appreciate the anxiety that what happened in San Bernardino has caused. The Secretary takes it very seriously, which is why we’re going to participate vigorously in this review. But it is important to keep some perspective on the program. I mean, the program has a purpose, and the – by far the vast majority, the thousands and thousands of – that are approved are approved for very good, solid reasons and represent happy married couples today that are living in this country and contributing to our society and to our country’s economy in many, many ways.

QUESTION: John, isn’t inevitable that no system is going to catch – I mean, you yourself just said that it’s conceivable that somebody, if they harbored ill intent, could dupe the system. Isn’t it inevitable that no system is going to catch every single person who might harbor ill intent, or who might, for example, lie about having participated in the Holocaust? You don’t expect this system to be – however good it is and whatever improvements you may make to it, do you expect it to be 100 percent effective?

MR KIRBY: Sadly, no such system can ever be 100 percent effective. That said, we have to strive to make it so. And when there is – when there are things that we find that we need to do to make it better and stronger and more rigorous, we need to do it. And we will do that. As I said, we’re not going to wait for the review to be complete if we find things we can do perfectly. But 100-percent security is very difficult to achieve 100 percent of the time.


QUESTION: Turkey. Thank you. Does the U.S. approve of Turkey’s development of forces in Iraq without the permission of the Iraqi Government?

MR KIRBY: I think we’ve dealt with this, haven’t we?

QUESTION: Do you approve of it? Does the United States approve of it?

MR KIRBY: I’ve talked about this several times this week. I’d refer you to the transcripts of the last two or three days. But what I can tell you just in short is that we want all counter-ISIL efforts inside Iraq to be done with the full coordination and permission of the Iraqi Government – let me finish.

QUESTION: In this case --

MR KIRBY: Let me finish.

QUESTION: Sure, sorry.

MR KIRBY: With the cooperation and the approval of the Iraqi Government, as our military operations have been inside Iraq. And we understand that Turkey and Iraq are in a dialogue about this issue, and that we’re encouraged by that. And we think that that’s the right venue for this is for the two countries to work this out bilaterally.

QUESTION: Well, in this case, it hasn’t been done with Iraq’s permission, so does this mean that you disapprove of what Turkey did?

MR KIRBY: I’m not going to take a position one way or the other on approving or disapproving. I’ve already said what our position is on counter-ISIL efforts in Iraq. We want all of those efforts by any country to be done in full coordination and with the permission of, the approval of, the sovereign Government of Iraq. And we understand that this particular deployment, this particular presence, is something that the two governments are talking about, and by golly, that’s the right way that this should be worked out. And so we’re glad to see that.

QUESTION: Well, the Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi asked NATO to put pressure on Turkey to pull out the troops. Has the U.S. intervened in any way, and in what way?

MR KIRBY: The prime minister is the prime minister of a sovereign country. And I haven’t seen that particular decision, but certainly, if that’s how he has decided he wants to pursue this, then those are his decisions to make.

QUESTION: Well, you’re not offering any assessment of what Turkey did. You are saying words, but essentially, the U.S. is silent on what Turkey did. Is the reason for the silence the fact that the U.S. is using the Incirlik base in Turkey and doesn’t want to lose access to it?

MR KIRBY: Oh, so here we go. This is what you’re really getting at. Look, nobody is being silent about this. If you’d been at the briefing the last several days, you would have seen, or if you looked at the transcript, you would have seen --

QUESTION: But you’re saying – you’re not offering an assessment.

MR KIRBY: I’m going to do it one more time with you, one more round here, and then we’re going to go to somebody else. You would have seen that I’ve been nothing but open and candid about our views about this particular troop issue between Turkey and Iraq. The United States has not been silent. We’ve not been silent one whit about it.

And we believe – and I’ll say it again – that this needs to be worked out bilaterally between the two countries. And our stance on that is because that’s what we really believe. I don’t know how many times I’ve stood up here this week and talked about bilateral relations between two different countries, and the expectation that the United States ought to intervene in every issue between every two countries, I think is just completely ridiculous. So we want them to work this out directly, and they are, and we’re encouraged by that. And it has nothing to do with the cooperation and the assistance that we enjoy from – the coalition enjoys from Turkey, whether it’s Incirlik or the other cooperative efforts that Turkey is employing against ISIL.


QUESTION: But you’re saying --

MR KIRBY: I think I’ve dealt with your questions quite enough.

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: It’s a different question. It’s a different question.

QUESTION: I want to ask about Yemen.

MR KIRBY: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: The peace talks in Switzerland. Is there going to be a U.S. presence or observing presence at the talks? And if so, who?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have – so this is – hang on a second, I’ll get there. Yemen’s here somewhere. There it is. Yeah. So as I said the other day, we welcome the announcement by the UN special envoy for Yemen that all-party peace talks will begin on the 15th in Switzerland. As I said before, we urge all parties to avoid any further delays and to attend the talks in good faith and without preconditions. I don’t have anything specific with respect to our participation. I’ll have to take that and get back to you.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: I have one more question on Turkey, please.

MR KIRBY: Okay, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Well, you were saying that it’s up to Turkey and Iraq to figure out the situation with the uninvited Turkish troops. But the U.S. does take upon itself to invite forces from other countries into Iraq and in Syria. Ash Carter was telling Congress yesterday that he personally reached out to 40 countries asking them to commit special ops for the fight and other support. The Iraqi parliament is concerned that their country is becoming this ground where different countries do what they want. The Iraqi parliament’s Security and Defense Committee is calling for the review or cancelation of the U.S. security agreement with Iraq. What does the U.S. do to address their concerns?

MR KIRBY: Address whose concerns?

QUESTION: The Iraqi parliament’s Security and Defense Committee that is now calling to review or cancel the agreement with the U.S.

MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen those reports, ma’am. We continue to work with the Iraqi Government. The troops that Secretary Carter referred to, that decision was done in full coordination and cooperation with the Iraqi Government. If you’re trying to suggest that somehow U.S. military assistance against ISIL is untoward or being done without full coordination with the Iraq Government, it’s just a completely baseless charge. And I don’t think it’s worth having any more discussions about it.

QUESTION: But you’re saying – are you saying that you’re not aware of the Iraqi parliament’s – this Security and Defense Committee’s initiative that they want to --

MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen that, no. I haven’t seen that.

QUESTION: Okay. What – the situation where the U.S. invites forces --

MR KIRBY: I’m going to give you just one more, honestly, and then that’s it. Okay?


MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: The situation where the U.S. invites forces to Iraq and the U.S. is leading this coalition, but when something goes wrong, the U.S. says it’s none of our business, like with the Turkish troops. Let – you have to figure it out between yourselves. Should it be of no concern to Iraq?

MR KIRBY: Should what be of no concern? I love these questions that are 10 minutes long then I’m supposed to get the grain of it out of there. Should what be of no concern?

QUESTION: The fact that when something – you have this cooperation, you have this agreement, but when something goes wrong, the U.S. says it’s none of our business, like with what’s happening with the Turkish troops.

MR KIRBY: Oh, come on. Again, another ridiculous question. When have we ever said it’s none of our business?

QUESTION: You are saying that about the Turkish troops.

MR KIRBY: What I’m – no. No, I’m not. I’m saying that – I’ll say it again, okay? We want this to be worked out bilaterally between Turkey and Iraq. And the way you’re trying to twist all of this around to make it look like we’re doing something nefarious or that we’re – we’ve got some sort of inappropriate relationships here, I mean, it’s just so silly. And I can’t believe --

QUESTION: Well, am I really twisting it? You – have you --

MR KIRBY: I can’t believe, honestly, that you aren’t embarrassed to ask these questions. You have to be looking at these questions and almost laughing to yourself, don’t you? I mean, they’re absolutely crazy.


MR KIRBY: So we are working very closely with the Abadi government, right. We are working inside a coalition of 65 nations – 65 nations that have signed up to go after ISIL in Iraq and in Syria – let me finish. You’ve had your moment. Sixty-five nations. And what we have said from the very beginning – I said it when I was at the Pentagon in uniform – is that we want any action against ISIL inside Iraq, specifically, to be done with full cooperation and coordination with the Iraqi Government and with their sovereign permission. That hasn’t changed one whit. Now there’s this dispute between Turkey and Iraq over the presence of a small number of troops, okay?

QUESTION: Should --

MR KIRBY: And we – I’ve said – I said it over the last several days and I’ll say it again: Nothing’s changed about our position about the sovereign nature of Iraq and the fact that troops operating against ISIL inside Iraq needs to be done with the Iraqi Government’s permission. And we’ve stated that publicly, we’ve stated that privately, to every member of the coalition. Nothing’s changed about that.


MR KIRBY: And we want Turkey and Iraq to work this out, and they are. You are trying to find a way to make this some big divisive issue, and even the Turks and the Iraqis know that it’s not and they’re working their way through it. So let’s let them work their way through it and let the rest of everybody keep focusing on ISIL, which is what we should do, and which, by the way, the Russians aren’t doing.

QUESTION: If I may – if I may – if I may --

QUESTION: Is it – I’m sorry, should I not – should I not ask --

QUESTION: If I may – if I may --

QUESTION: Should I not be asking what the U.S. assessment of Turkey’s actions is?

MR KIRBY: You – ma’am – I’m going take this one, Arshad, then I’m going to come to you. You can – you can --

QUESTION: Should I not be asking that question? Exactly which question should I be embarrassed about, sir?

MR KIRBY: You can ask me whatever you want. I’m just stunned that you’re not embarrassed by some of the questions you ask. And I notice that --

QUESTION: Exactly which question?

MR KIRBY: I notice that RT very rarely asks any tough questions of their own government. So you can ask whatever you want. That’s the beauty of this setting, right, here at the State Department. You can come in here and ask me whatever you want, and you can be as – just as challenging as you want to be and accusatory in your questions – some of those today, absolutely ridiculous. You can do that here in the United States, but I don’t see you --

QUESTION: Which question was ridiculous, sir?

MR KIRBY: I don’t see you asking those same questions of your own government about ISIL in Syria.

QUESTION: Which of my questions was ridiculous?

MR KIRBY: And I would love to see those questions get asked.


QUESTION: I’d like to switch to just saying one quick word about Barry Schweid. Barry was very kind to me personally in explaining stuff when I was new on the beat. You’re right that he asked extremely good and tough questions. I’d like to share one anecdote about him which I think speaks volumes, which was many years ago former Secretary Kissinger gave a speech and then he did Q&A, and Barry grabbed the mic to ask a question. And before Barry could open his mouth, former Secretary Kissinger said out loud to everyone, “Can fate have been so cruel to me?” (Laughter.) And I thought it was a sign of his respect and affection and perhaps even fear of Barry, so I didn’t want the briefing to end without a comment from somebody not from the AP of my regard and affection for Barry and my condolences to Nina and his family.

MR KIRBY: I don’t think we can end on any better note. With that, have a great day.

QUESTION: I have one more, if you may.


QUESTION: Just – and you may not have a response, but there’s this ongoing anti-terror operation in Geneva and near Geneva, and the reports are that the Swiss are acting upon U.S. information. Do you have any comment on that?

MR KIRBY: I’m afraid I don’t, Brad. We’ll have to – it sounds like this is an evolving situation, so I just don’t have anything new on that.

QUESTION: Is there any indication that this could in any way be a threat to U.S. interests or citizens, and do you have any message for U.S. citizens in Geneva now?

MR KIRBY: What Brad’s – what Brad – I honestly just don’t have the information on that. You’re going to have to let us look at this and get back to you.

Thanks, everybody. Have a great day.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:34 p.m.)