Daily Press Briefing - March 10, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:14 p.m. EST
MR TONER: Hey guys, welcome to the State Department. You’re already here, most of you, but still, welcome. Just a few things at the top. Actually, two to be precise.
First of all, just a shout-out at the fact that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has arrived in the United States yesterday for an official visit and state dinner, the first official visit by a Canadian prime minister in nearly 20 years. And President Obama obviously met with him earlier today at the White House, held a joint press conference, and will host the prime minister and his wife for a state dinner later this evening. And the Secretary, as you know, is hosting a luncheon for the prime minister today as well. That’s ongoing. This visit is an opportunity for the United States and Canada to deepen our bilateral relationship, one of the closest and most integrated in the world.
And then just a brief note about Secretary Kerry’s upcoming travel to Saudi Arabia and to France. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel March 11th – that’s – is that today? Today. Sorry, I’m on it – to Hafr al Batin --
QUESTION: Today is the 10th.
QUESTION: Well, today is the 10th.
MR TONER: Sorry. Yes, I apologize. March 10th, today. So tomorrow, but actually leaving tonight, later tonight, to Hafr al Batin, Saudi Arabia to meet with senior government officials to discuss a variety of topics, including efforts to resolve the crises in Syria and Yemen, as well as other regional security issues. On March 12th and 13th, Secretary Kerry will travel to Paris, where he will meet with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault as well as UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni and EU High Representative Federica Mogherini to discuss ongoing cooperation on a wide range of bilateral, regional, and global issues.
That’s all I got. Matt, over to you.
QUESTION: Okay. On the trip, is there any particular reason why he is not going to Riyadh, why he’s going to this rather, for a secretary of state official visit, unusual destination in Saudi Arabia right near the Kuwaiti border?
MR TONER: Sure. Yeah, my understanding is that there’s – so anyway, the bottom line is that’s where he was invited to come to meet with senior Saudi officials. I’d refer you to them to discuss why they’re there. I believe it’s an ongoing or just concluding military exercise that’s taking place near the border. But he’ll obviously be there for meetings and not be part of that.
QUESTION: He’s leaving tonight. So he’s cutting out of the dinner early?
MR TONER: He is not. He is leaving after the dinner.
QUESTION: Is he?
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: On Hafr al Batin, so he was there basically – he’s going there because the exercises, the military exercises, just concluded, correct?
MR TONER: It’s where --
QUESTION: I mean --
MR TONER: It’s where he was invited to come by the Saudi officials he was meeting with.
QUESTION: And that would be the only reason really, right?
MR TONER: I mean, they’re there.
QUESTION: They’re there.
MR TONER: These Saudi officials are there in this location. My understanding – but I would ask you to confirm with the Saudis – is that those exercises will have concluded by the time we arrive.
QUESTION: I think they are concluding today, is my understanding.
MR TONER: That may well be the case.
QUESTION: But will he meet with the other members of that whatever coalition, military coalition that entails something like 20 countries? Is he going – or just the Saudis?
MR TONER: Not that I’m aware of. Again, I mean, I don’t have a full laydown of his schedule here, but I believe it’s just going to be with Saudi officials.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Because there doesn’t seem to be a lot new on that today, except for the fact that yesterday Kirby made reference to a communication between the Secretary and Foreign Minister Zarif about the missile launch. And he did not say it was a phone call, but I think we all assumed that it was. And then when asked about the call the Kerry-Zarif call, he didn’t say that it wasn’t a phone call. So I think the assumption was that it was a phone call.
The Iranians say there was no phone call. Who’s right?
MR TONER: Well, you’re absolutely right in your wording, which is that there was a communication between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif. And the primary purpose of that was to raise Secretary Kerry’s concerns about the reported missile launches. So there was no intention to mislead anyone, just that it wasn’t a phone call.
QUESTION: What does – well, what does “communication” mean? Is that – I mean, that could be anything. That could be smoke signals. It could be a carrier pigeon. It could be --
MR TONER: Indeed, it could be – it could be anything. And I’m going to refrain from saying exactly what it was. But we have a variety of means --
QUESTION: Does he go up on the roof and yell really loudly in the direction of Iran?
MR TONER: No, clearly that wouldn’t work, Matt. But there are a variety – no, in all seriousness --
MR TONER: -- there are a variety --
QUESTION: How do you know that he – how do you guys know that the foreign minister even got this communication if you don’t know – if you can’t say what it was?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, again, the Secretary was looking to convey his concerns, our concerns, the U.S. Government’s concerns about these ballistic missile or reported missile launches. He has a variety of means to reach Foreign Minister Zarif. He exercised one of those means, and we’re confident that the message got across.
QUESTION: You are.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Does that mean that you got a response?
MR TONER: I can’t – I don’t know, frankly, if he received a specific response from Zarif. I assume so.
QUESTION: How do you know that they got the message if he did not receive a response?
MR TONER: I just don’t – Arshad, I will check on that. I just don’t know categorically that he received a response. I don’t know.
QUESTION: Well, but an email or a text --
MR TONER: I understand.
QUESTION: -- can go astray.
MR TONER: Perhaps it got a read? I don’t know. I don’t know. I just don’t have the details.
QUESTION: What, did he direct message him on Twitter or something? Come on, why is this such a --
MR TONER: I don’t have --
QUESTION: Why is this such a secret?
QUESTION: We want to know how he communicated to him. Yeah.
QUESTION: Black smoke or white smoke.
QUESTION: I mean, it’s not like with the North Koreans you guys have always been secretive about the so-called New York channel, which everybody in this room knows. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: Because it adds to the allure of our diplomatic work if we keep an air of mystery about it.
QUESTION: I mean, you guys – you went out of your way when talking about the speed with which he was able to reach --
MR TONER: Understood.
QUESTION: By phone.
QUESTION: -- Foreign Minister Zarif by phone right out of a meeting. Why the mystery? Why is this so – why do you need to keep this secret? What is the national purpose to keeping this secret? It seems ludicrous.
MR TONER: I’m just not at liberty to discuss all the ways. Clearly, the majority or the primary way that the Secretary speaks to Foreign Minister Zarif is by phone. Obviously, we read those calls out. We acknowledge those calls. This was another form of communication that he had with Foreign Minister Zarif. I’m not at liberty to discuss what that form of communication was.
QUESTION: So this is --
MR TONER: But you can drag me into the weeds about it.
QUESTION: Are they Facebook friends? (Laughter.) So maybe you can talk about a phone call --
MR TONER: You’re completely justified to make me feel as awkward as possible about this. (Laughter.) But go ahead.
QUESTION: But maybe you can talk about the “communication” --
MR TONER: Yes. Yep.
QUESTION: -- that the Secretary had with Foreign Minister Lavrov today, the Russians say. Presumably you’re under no such constraints about that, speaking of phone calls.
MR TONER: It was a phone call. It was a phone call. It was – I don’t have a deep-dive readout on it. I understand it was kind of a – I mean, obviously they talked about Syria, talked about a number of other regional issues. I know the Secretary did raise concerns about Nadia Savchenko and her condition, as well as her ongoing plight. That’s about it.
QUESTION: Can we go back to Iran?
MR TONER: We can go back to Iran. I don’t think we left – oh, we did, briefly. Sorry.
QUESTION: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Corker says that the missile launches have spurred a bipartisan move to renew and increase sanctions on Iran. A couple of questions. First of all, in light of Iran’s recent behavior, would the State Department now support renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act?
MR TONER: Well, first of all, with regards to the first part of your question which was Congress’s call for specific legislation, obviously, when Congress puts forward legislation, we’ll look at it closely, we’ll work with them; if we have concerns, we’ll make those concerns known; and with the ultimate goal of continuing to work productively or constructively with Congress to ensure that we have the tools in place to address our concerns with Iran.
That said, as John and others have made clear over the last couple of days, we’re quite confident that both unilaterally and through the UN we still have measures in place or avenues in place to apply pressure to Iran if it carries out actions that are inconsistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2231.
Right now we’re still at the stage where we’re looking at these reports, gathering the facts, trying to determine if indeed – I mean, with the obvious understanding that something happened. I mean, some in Iran were out touting these tests. We’re trying to do a very fact-based investigation into it. And if we believe that these were indeed ballistic missile launches, we’re going to raise those concerns with the UN.
Sorry, you had a question.
QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up on that? If the sanctions act remained in place, either as it is now or with --
MR TONER: You’re talking about the ISA, the ISA?
QUESTION: -- yes --
MR TONER: Right, okay.
QUESTION: -- or with some sort of enhancements, wouldn’t that give the U.S. stronger footing in terms of snapback on the nuclear-related sanctions, if the need to snap back those sanctions did arise?
MR TONER: Sure. Pamela, I would first of all refer you to the Secretary’s testimony when he was up on the Hill, I believe at the House Foreign Affairs Committee a couple of weeks ago, where he addressed this. Look, we remain confident that we have all the tools necessary to apply pressure as needed on Iran, including snapback, and all those elements are still there. The Secretary was very clear in his response to questions on this very issue that we don’t feel necessarily an urgency for ISA to be renewed. We feel very comfortable that we’ve got the necessary tools here to respond to Iran if there are, in fact – if they are, in fact, taking actions that are inconsistent with the UN Security Council resolution.
QUESTION: Mark, on the snapback --
MR TONER: Yes, sir. Sorry, I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: I mean, that’s part of the Iran deal, right? I mean, there --
MR TONER: Yes, that is. Right. We retain that right to do that. That was --
QUESTION: Okay. To the best of my understanding, ballistic missiles are not included in the Iran deal. They’re not part of that. They’re part of the UN sanctions but not of that particular deal, right?
MR TONER: I mean, you are correct in the sense that the JCPOA specifically addressed shutting off the avenues for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. This is slightly different. Is it cause for concern? Certainly. Do we retain the authority and the right to act if we do have these concerns or these concerns are legitimate? Certainly. So that’s where we’re at.
QUESTION: Yeah. Just – sorry – a couple things --
MR TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: -- going back on Iran.
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: One is that Iran’s student news agency, ISNA, says that Secretary Kerry had sent emails to Foreign Minister Zarif asking for a phone call to discuss issues, including Iran’s missile tests. Are they wrong that it was an email communication?
MR TONER: Arshad, I don’t know. I mean, I just don’t have the clarity or specificity on how they communicated. I know they do use a variety of means to communicate with each other. In this particular case, I know it wasn’t a phone call.
QUESTION: Okay. And are you absolutely certain that the message was received?
MR TONER: We believe it was. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have gone out and said yesterday, as Kirby did, that he conveyed his concerns.
QUESTION: And the senior IRGC general today is quoted as saying that the missile activities are going to continue regardless of what you guys say. Do you have any comment on that?
MR TONER: I mean, it’s – I mean – look, I mean, we obviously condemn these kinds of actions, certainly the ones yesterday, the – with the overt references or threats to Israel in particular. I’ll just say that we’re not under any illusions that just because we have the JCPOA in place that Iran is going to suddenly stop some of the other disruptive or destabilizing activities that they’ve continued to carry out for years in the region. All I can say is that we – the United States, but also through the UN Security Council – will continue to hold them accountable for these actions once we can prove that, in fact, they took place.
QUESTION: Well, you said --
QUESTION: You said – wait a minute. You said --
MR TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: -- we obviously condemn these kinds of actions like those yesterday.
MR TONER: I’m talking about the – specifically some of the videos yesterday --
QUESTION: The missile tests?
MR TONER: -- with some of the anti-Israel --
QUESTION: Okay. But yesterday you told us you were stilling trying to – you referred to them as reported missile tests. Have you now confirmed that they are indeed – were indeed ballistic missile tests?
MR TONER: Well, you know that – and you know Vice President Biden also spoke when he was in Israel about some of these slogans that were on some of the videos and on the missiles.
QUESTION: But have you confirmed (a) that these were indeed ballistic missile tests and (b) that there was indeed a message?
MR TONER: I don’t know if we’ve – no. We have not categorically confirmed that these were ballistic missile tests, yeah.
QUESTION: And have you categorically confirmed that the messages – and yeah, I saw those remarks, but that the messages that were posted were bona fide, that this wasn’t somehow photoshopped onto the images?
MR TONER: I don’t have an answer for you on that.
QUESTION: Well, one, does it really matter?
MR TONER: True.
QUESTION: Because whether they were emblazoned on these missiles or not, they are still presenting them as such --
MR TONER: And we’ve also seen this pattern before.
QUESTION: -- and I’m not sure if that would have made --
MR TONER: I mean, look --
QUESTION: I’m not sure that would make a difference in terms of whether or not it was a violation of the Security Council resolution. But that’s not my – my question is --
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: -- how is it that you have not yet determined that this – whatever it was – was a violation of the missile provisions of 2231? It would seem to be blatantly obvious.
MR TONER: Again, we’ve obviously seen the reports; we’ve seen the videos; we’ve seen all this stuff. But we’re still assessing what exactly took place and we haven’t made a final determination. Once we have – and this has to be – like a lot of these things – I mean, we – certainly we can make a rash judgment or a rash conclusion about what happened, or a – but it behooves us, frankly, to figure out what exactly happened.
QUESTION: Well, in the – like in the case of North Korea --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- it was pretty damn quick.
MR TONER: All I’m saying is --
QUESTION: Just because you don’t have a nuclear deal with the North Koreans --
MR TONER: No, that’s not --
QUESTION: -- that’s why you were able to make a snap judgment there but not on --
MR TONER: Not at all, and let me vigorously push back on the notion that we’re somehow going to give Iran a free pass on ballistic missile tests just because we have a JCPOA in place.
QUESTION: I just want to follow up very quickly. Now, if there is a violation – if this is proven and you can confirm it, it – whatever sanctions that may be applied will be new sanctions, right? They will not be the same sanctions that Iran was able to get rid of under the deal – it would be something that you have to arrive at together with the other members of the Security Council, correct?
MR TONER: So a couple of thoughts about that or a couple of points about that. One is – I mean, you’re talking about two processes. One would be through the UN.
MR TONER: And the UN would look at exactly what – how we would respond, how the UN Security Council would respond, whether it’s through additional sanctions, which I believe would be new or perhaps reinforcing some of the existing sanctions, which have not all gone away, as my understanding, just because of the JCPOA. Certain sanctions have, obviously with respect to their nuclear program, but not to their ballistic missile testing. And so – and then unilaterally we’ve got still a full set of sanctions that could be strengthened.
QUESTION: Okay. But you don’t expect that whatever legislative action or the statements by Senator Corker and others and so on or whatever – something that they can pass together with the Democrats in Congress – you don’t expect that to undermine the deal that is already concluded, do you? I mean, could it be --
MR TONER: Not at all.
QUESTION: Is this used as a – maybe sort of a back way into sort of undoing the deal, if that’s possible?
MR TONER: I mean, no, because we – look, I mean, broadening or widening a lens here a little bit, the JCPOA is focused solely on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We believe it shuts down effectively all the avenues that Iran has to obtaining a nuclear weapon. And in that case, as you’ve heard us say a million times from this podium and elsewhere, we believe we have achieved that goal, that we have effectively shut them down or shut that threat down for the region and for the world. That never – it’s never been a part of the broader concerns about Iran’s behavior in the region, whether it’s support for Hizballah or other terrorist activities in the region, whether it’s ballistic missile testing. All of that we remain confident that we’ve got the tools in place as needed to push back or to react to these violations.
QUESTION: Can I --
MR TONER: Please. Yeah.
QUESTION: Can I just – one more --
MR TONER: One more. Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: -- question on Iran.
MR TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: Yesterday there were all kinds of statements that shows that, let’s say, the extremists in Iran, in the parliament and so on – first it was a big win to the moderates, the parliamentary elections, they’re saying. And now they’re saying that Khamenei is trying to really sort of restrict whatever leverage or whatever latitude Rouhani gained and the moderates gained in this election, perhaps by doing something like the ballistic missile. Is there anything that the United States could, let’s say, offer the moderates to strengthen their position?
MR TONER: Well, it’s a good question, and I think a valid one, Said, because you’re right to put it into the broader political context or climate in Iran right now and the fact that – and we’ve talked about this in the past as well – is that there are those who are obviously against moderating influences in Iran, an Iran that’s more engaged with the rest of the world. And those forces are in play. Some of the rhetoric that we’ve seen throughout the JCPOA process hasn’t gone away, hasn’t faded. Some of the anti-Western or anti-Israel or anti-American rhetoric hasn’t gone away. We don’t expect it necessarily to turn around overnight.
Are we – is that going to mean that we’re not going to engage where we can constructively with Iran? No. Does it mean we’re not going to keep a very close eye on Iran’s behavior apart from its nuclear program and its JCPOA commitments? Not at all. So it’s a complex situation. And frankly, it’s a situation that Iran is undergoing internally, as you said, with the recent elections. I think we have to just wait and see what emerges.
QUESTION: Last one on Iran?
MR TONER: Iran. Yeah. Please. Go ahead. I’m sorry. And then I’ll get to Turkey. I promise.
MR TONER: No, no worries. It’s how we do – we finish out a subject --
QUESTION: So yesterday Iran was ordered by a New York judge to pay more than $10.5 billion in damages to families of people killed in the September 11th terrorist attacks and to a group of insurers as well. Iran never took part in any court hearings related to these events. Can you share any details on the investigation or this case?
MR TONER: I can’t. This is a – was this a civil lawsuit or this was a – I’m sorry, I missed this.
QUESTION: No, it was – well, it was by a New York judge – a district court.
MR TONER: New York judge, district judge? I’m just not – I don’t have the facts in front of me, so I don’t – I wouldn’t comment other than I know that there’s ongoing litigation about some of the events. You’re talking about related to 9 --
QUESTION: Yeah, 9/11.
MR TONER: 9/11. Well, that I’m not aware of, so I can take the question and see if we have any comment.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mark. Today there was a interview on Atlantic by President Obama, and in part of the interview President Obama is talking about Turkey and Mr. Erdogan. And he is saying, apparently, that President Obama now considers him failure and authoritarian, one who refuses to use his enormous army to bring stability to Syria. Is there any way you can talk about it? Was this the expectation, for Turkey to use its army within the Syria or – some context on this?
MR TONER: Sure. First of all, I’m aware of the, frankly, very wide-ranging interview that you’re talking about that touched on a broad range of issues, but notably Syria and the situation there and our work with our partners and allies in the region to address some of the challenges posed by Syria. I’m not going to speak to what the President said or didn’t say in that other than to say that we have been very clear that we will continue to work closely with Turkey on how to address the situation in Syria, both the civil that we now have a cessation of hostilities in but also the counter-Daesh effort. That is a complex – difficult, sometimes – discussion that we have with Turkey where we differ on various pieces of the strategy. That said, Turkey’s done a number of – or taken a number of steps, including providing refuge to over a million Syrian refugees, also providing the use of its – of the air force base in Incirlik for close-in air support for the coalition forces to bring to those groups fighting Daesh in northern Syria.
So I’m not going to speak to the specific quotes other than to say that we remain committed to working closely with Turkey on this issue and on any other issue. NATO is – Turkey is a close partner, NATO ally, it’s a democracy. We want to see that democracy continue to be strengthened, and we’re going to work closely with Turkey going forward.
QUESTION: One final question on same quote.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Apparently, President Obama also calls Erdogan authoritarian. Lately, Washington Post editorial was calling Erdogan despot, despotic behavior. Do you consider – as a government, do you consider President Erdogan now more of a authoritarian leader rather than democratic leader? Does he still qualify as a democratic leader right now?
MR TONER: (Coughing.) Excuse me. So I think we’ve been pretty clear in our assessment or our concern and expressing our concern about some of the steps not necessarily by President Erdogan, but that the Turkish Government, Turkish authorities have taken against, for example, the media, but other groups that we believe runs counter to Turkey’s own democratic constitution and democratic standards and norms. And so as a close partner, as an ally, we are ready to have those conversations with Turkey about how to strengthen its democratic processes, its democratic institutions. We believe strongly in Turkey as a vibrant democracy and that extends to its leadership as well.
QUESTION: Staying on the Atlantic thing --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- and I realize you’re going to be loath to talk about the White House or the President, but one of the key moments that that piece highlights is the decision back in 2013 to back down from or to not go ahead with the airstrikes that had been foreshadowed, more than hinted at, to respond to the chemical weapon attacks in Syria. The story – The Atlantic quotes the President as saying he is proud of that decision. At the time, this building and the White House portrayed the President’s decision to first go to Congress and seek their approval and then not do it at all – the airstrikes – as courageous. And that line was met with a lot of skepticism, including from me, because I didn’t understand how it was courageous.
But does – do you – does this building in general – and more specifically the Secretary – to your knowledge, are they proud of this moment in the Administration when the President did not move ahead and respond to the crossing of a redline in the way that he said he would?
MR TONER: Well, as – again, and the – as this all unfolded, we did it – we were able to get – working through the OPCW, with the regime’s compliance, we were able to get all of its declared stock of chemical weapons safely out of Syria. So I think, yes, the Secretary does believe that it was, through diplomacy, a way to achieve the same goal without military – the use of military force.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, the reason I ask --
MR TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: -- is because that – it is that moment in time --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- that is identified in this story and by a whole bunch of, admittedly, critics of the Administration – people who are not fans of the President or his foreign policy. But it’s that moment that is identified by these people as being a point where the Administration essentially lost credibility with not only its Arab friends and allies, but with much of the rest of the world and it showed a sign of weakness to people like Putin and others. Why are they wrong?
MR TONER: Again – and I am loathe to re-litigate even recent history, but --
QUESTION: Well, then – well, let me --
MR TONER: Wait, wait --
QUESTION: Let me –
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: -- I don’t – you’re proud --
MR TONER: But --
QUESTION: You say – the President says he’s proud --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- and you say that the Secretary’s proud and this building is proud. I’m just --
MR TONER: But you’re asking whether it affected --
QUESTION: But this is the --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: You’re proud – you’re saying that you’re proud of a point in time at which a lot of people think was this – was the moment when the Administration lost credibility.
MR TONER: And I would argue that --
QUESTION: I don’t – I’m trying to understand that.
MR TONER: -- as time has passed, again, we were able to accomplish, perhaps more effectively, removing Syria’s declared stock of chemical weapons via diplomatic, peaceful channels than military strikes would have. And the article – again, I don’t want to re-litigate this, but the article does speak about how the President weighed some of the very real risks of carrying out those airstrikes against Syria.
QUESTION: Do you believe that – you said that this department is proud of this moment in time?
MR TONER: What I said was I think the Secretary is --
QUESTION: You said the Secretary believes that you achieved through diplomacy --
MR TONER: “Believes that,” yeah. Thank you for --
QUESTION: -- some – the same goal, right?
MR TONER: Yeah. Exactly.
QUESTION: You didn’t say that you were proud of it.
MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to – yeah, I – and I know the Secretary – and you guys have heard the Secretary speak about this, as he believes that that was a moment of achievement. We were able to deal with Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons – declared chemical weapons.
QUESTION: And in the article --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- which I realize you don’t want to re-litigate, but there is a moment where the Secretary is quoted as vividly expressing dismay – I’m not going to read the quote --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- at the President’s decision to choose to go to Congress for congressional approval. To your knowledge, is that an accurate depiction of how he responded --
MR TONER: I honestly don’t --
QUESTION: -- with dismay?
MR TONER: I – because I wasn’t there, because I wasn’t present, I can’t speak to whether that’s accurate or not.
QUESTION: Wait. Mark, let me just follow up on another point in the article. The President says that Libya was a mistake in the same article. He says that Libya was a mistake. He also says that Saudi Arabia must share the region with Iran.
MR TONER: So again --
QUESTION: There are two major points.
MR TONER: Lots of --
QUESTION: Was Libya a mistake? Is that the thinking of this building --
MR TONER: I think that we’ve talked about this --
QUESTION: -- and that that will prevent you from going --
MR TONER: Again, we’ve talked about this. I think that there’s a recognition that in the aftermath of Libya – first of all – and we’ve talked about this before – the rationale for the NATO operation that was carried out on behalf of the many Libyans that were, let’s remember, overtly threatened by Qadhafi – I think he said he was going to go from house to house and hunt them down like dogs or something – I’m paraphrasing --
QUESTION: Like rats.
MR TONER: Rats, thank you. Thanks. That there was, we believed, an urgency to act. Now I think where we all recognize that there was a need to, I think, provide a fuller response or a more comprehensive response was in the immediate aftermath of the war. And so what we’ve seen in Libya is a country that’s struggled to come up with a unity government. We’re still there. We’re still not across the finish line. We’re close with this unity government that’s been approved, and we want to see that in place in Tripoli, but I think this – so I think the aftermath of the conflict has been a real area of concern by all who are parties to the operations that removed Qadhafi from power. It’s – and I think that whenever you have that kind of lawless space, you see things like ISIL try to establish a foothold there and other groups, terrorist groups, try to take advantage of that. So I think that that’s the concern, is that there was this kind of immediate period in the aftermath of the – Qadhafi’s downfall.
QUESTION: Mark, can I go back to your answer to Arshad?
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: You described – going back to the Iran – I mean Syria and the airstrikes that didn’t happen, you described that as a moment of achievement? Is that right? What exactly did you achieve, that was achieved?
MR TONER: What I’m – no, no, no, Matt. I’m talking about – so --
QUESTION: Or am I – did I misunderstand?
MR TONER: No, no, no. I’m talking about what was a moment of achievement was our work with other allies and partners through the OPCW to remove the regime’s declared stockpile of chemical weapons.
QUESTION: Okay. But you do allow that there have been chemical weapons attacks post that agreement and post the removal of those declared stocks?
MR TONER: We have obviously seen those reports and have looked into them and have expressed our concerns about those. That’s why I said “declared stockpile.”
QUESTION: Okay. Do you just flat-out reject the notion that this moment of – that the President says he is proud of is a moment at which the U.S. lost credibility? You just don’t agree with that at all, correct, right?
MR TONER: No, I just – no, I just – look, I mean, it is – in the article that I read traces the – again, the – all the factors that went into the President’s and others’ decision, his cabinet’s decision-making processes.
QUESTION: Right. Well --
MR TONER: It’s not – so I’m sorry. So and one of the factors, one of the concerns was that, as you said, that there would be a loss of credibility in the world. I’m not sure, as you look at it in retrospect now, that that really took place, but I have no concrete measurement to judge that by other than that, again, we have been able to remove its declared stockpile. We have been able to get a process in place that’s led to a cessation of hostilities and a political process. We hope it will gather steam in Geneva. But I’m not – you’re asking me whether it was a --
QUESTION: Well, I don’t know. You don’t think that North Korea firing off missiles and blowing up nuclear bombs and the Iranians doing ballistic missile tests in violation of UN sanctions --
MR TONER: I don’t believe --
QUESTION: -- the Chinese continuing --
MR TONER: No, I don’t – so if that’s your question – if that’s your --
QUESTION: -- let me finish – continuing to do what they’re doing in the South China Sea, any number of the Russians still not doing what you want them to in Ukraine or really for that matter in Syria – you don’t think that that’s a metric to determine whether or not --
MR TONER: So the broader – so okay, now I’m getting the --
QUESTION: -- there was some credibility to the complaints?
MR TONER: Now I’m absorbing the full --
MR TONER: The full thrust, thank you, of your – well put – of your question.
QUESTION: I mean, just there’s some point you can reject it, but --
MR TONER: So Matt, I mean, again, this is --
QUESTION: -- the evidence shows the contrary.
MR TONER: No. But I mean, are there an array of complex security challenges in the world whereby different countries are trying to put pressure and apply pressure to see what they can get away with? Absolutely. That’s in the calculus of many countries as they plot moves for strategic gain or whatever on the world stage. That doesn’t mean that you need to react in every case with military force. That’s always – remains an option, and I do believe that there are – that we believe that – the U.S. Government believes that there are redlines but --
QUESTION: All right. But let me just --
MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: -- point out that, I mean, it was you guys that raised the idea of the military option in the first place. It wasn’t – I mean, that – you put it on the table --
MR TONER: I understand that, Matt. And that was --
QUESTION: -- and then took it off. So I’m not saying that every solution – every --
MR TONER: And that was part of the --
QUESTION: -- the answer to everything is a military response.
MR TONER: And – no, no, no, I understand that.
QUESTION: But that was what the Administration was considering.
MR TONER: I understand; it was. You’re right. And it was – and there’s times when you convey that to a government or a regime or a terrorist group or whatever in order to achieve a certain goal.
Guys, I have to – I literally have to run in, like, the next two minutes. I apologize.
QUESTION: Can I ask a quick one? This may --
MR TONER: I’ll get to you, Abby, I promise, then I’ll get to --
QUESTION: Yeah. This may have come out while you were – while you’ve been on the podium, but there are reports that the United States plans to attribute to Iran a cyber attack on a New York dam in 2013. Do you – and that the United States Government plans to file suit against them regarding this. Do you have any comment on it?
MR TONER: You’re right that it – sorry, you’re right that it did just come out as I was walking out. Did talk to my colleagues over at Department of Justice, they said please refer any specifics – any questions about the specifics of this 2013 incident to them. I would say broadly that we obviously take all – seriously all such malicious activity in cyberspace. We’re going to continue to use all the tools at our disposal to deter, detect, counter, and mitigate that kind of activity.
QUESTION: Can you take a quick one on China?
MR TONER: Sure, but Abby first.
MR TONER: I mean, it’s just – it’s – I haven’t seen the reports of additional missile launches today. I know that there were some reports yesterday of missile launches. However, Abigail, it’s just continued signs of North Korea’s bad behavior, unwillingness to really address the international community’s very legitimate concerns about its nuclear aspirations. And it’s all the more reason why we need a robust sanctions regime. And we have that now, and now we need to implement it.
QUESTION: May I follow up on that?
MR TONER: Okay. And then Pam --
QUESTION: Very quickly.
MR TONER: -- and then the last question. I know --
QUESTION: Do you see --
MR TONER: Okay, wait. So, one, two, three. Got it.
QUESTION: Okay. Do you see North Korea’s actions as becoming increasingly dangerous or increasingly unstable? And does that – is that going to be --
MR TONER: I mean, there’s – so, impossible for me to say whether – because we don’t have visibility on the regime’s actions or motivations, I guess, it does seem like that they have taken – with the various tests that they’ve launched; “satellites,” quote-unquote, that they’ve launched; other actions that they’ve taken in recent months, that there has been an uptick. Hard for me to say what’s behind that. I think what’s incumbent on us, the United States, and the international community and the other members of the Six-Party Talks, is to assess those actions and take appropriate actions, which we believe we’re doing.
QUESTION: Do you think that requires further action in addition to the sanctions already passed?
MR TONER: I’m not going to project about that.
QUESTION: A U.S.-led report in the UN on China’s human rights record has produced a sharp response from China with China saying that the U.S. is guilty of crimes including prisoner abuse at Gitmo, gun violence, and racism. Is there a concern that – U.S. concern that this back-and-forth between the U.S. and China could spill over to other areas in which the two countries have enjoyed cooperation, such as the recent sanctions against North Korea?
MR TONER: No. I mean, I think – because this isn’t the first time that we’ve had disagreements about human rights, that’s a dialogue that’s a piece of our overarching bilateral and multilateral relationship that we’re going to continue to have. And with regards to your – China’s allegations or accusations or whatever about human rights in the United States, look, I mean, we are by no means perfect. That said, we do take human rights very seriously. It’s an ongoing process in the United States just like it is in many countries around the world. But that said, it remains an important part of our foreign policy agenda and something we’re going to continue to pursue not just with China, but with a number of countries.
QUESTION: Sky News earlier today reported that it was in possession of a trove of some 22,000 documents on ISIS individuals, of which were apparently Americans. German authorities confirmed it, that they were in possession of the documents and went so far as to confirm their authenticity. Are the – is the United States in possession of documents?
MR TONER: Not in a position at this point to confirm the authenticity of these documents. I don’t believe we’re in possession of them. I’ve seen the reports, though.
Last question, you.
MR TONER: Yeah, Nike.
QUESTION: Venezuela --
MR TONER: Venezuela, okay.
QUESTION: -- yes, is recalling the top diplomat --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- in the United States over protest – to protest a decree that imposed sanctions on top officials and calling Venezuela a security threat. What’s your stand on that? Is that an indication of the tensions between these two country?
MR TONER: So our understanding is that this was – I guess President Maduro announced his plans to recall the charge d’affaires during an address that he gave to the Venezuelan people on March 9th. Up – or I mean, it’s only a day later, but still we have not received yet any kind of official notification from the Venezuelan Government that this is, in fact, the case. So we continue to have diplomatic relations with Venezuela. We remain willing to engage with all sectors of Venezuela, including the executive branch.
These – just speaking more specifically to the allegations about sanctions, this is a targeted sanctions program. It’s focused precisely on individuals, quote/unquote “bad actors” who we believe are undermining Venezuela’s democracy, violating and abusing human rights, and diverting much-needed economic resources from – for personal gain. So they’re not at all aimed at the Venezuelan people or the Venezuelan economy.
And I’ve got to end there, guys.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: I appreciate it.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:58 p.m.)
DPB # 40